Authenticity on Instagram

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Since its creation in 2010, Instagram has become an aesthetically stylized site for photosharing, microblogging, networking, and commercial exchange. Instagram’s philosophy is listed on its FAQ page:

What is Instagram?

Instagram is a fun and quirky way to share your life with friends through a series of pictures. Snap a photo with your mobile phone, then choose a filter to transform the image into a memory to keep around forever. We’re building Instagram to allow you to experience moments in your friends’ lives through pictures as they happen. We imagine a world more connected through photos.

Reappropriating Instagram

However, four of the platform’s suggested uses have been subverted by some of Instagram’s most popular users today, the microcelebrity Instagrammers:

1) Instagram presupposes a networked intimacy in its adoption of the term “friends” to refer to one’s followers and following.

However, microcelebrity Instagrammers usually have high follower-to-following ratios, that is, having a large number of (unknown) users subscribed to their account while themselves subscribing to only a small number of (known) users.

2) Instagram was intended to be a fuss-free “mobile phone” app that could be used on-the-go with a smartphone camera.

However, microcelebrity Instagrammers are known to use high-end digital cameras to capture high-resolution photographs before transferring them to their smartphones for posting.

3) Instagram was crafted as an collection of “moments” for “memory” keepsake.

However, microcelebrity Instagrammers are using the stream to disseminate and circulate information and imagery rather than as a personal nostalgic archive.

4) Instagram aims to capture life events spontaneously “as they happen”.

However, microcelebrity Instagrammers are labouring over purposefully staged images to portray a particular persona and lifestyle aesthetic.

Professionalizing Instagram photography

Photography on Instagram has been professionalizing rapidly. From weddings shot entirely on iPhones and processed only with Instagram filters, to personalized products bearing your Instagram prints, the market for this DIY tasteful aesthetic is fast expanding. Many Instagram photographers become acknowledged microcelebrities with cult followings.

One of the most iconic of these Instagram photographers is @muradosmann. His signature #followmeto shots capture his arm stretched out holding on to the hand of his partner, whose back is photographed against scenic backdrops from around the world. The couple have since been engaged in several commercial endorsements, mostly from the tourism and heritage industry.

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In journalism, Instagram photojournalists have been covering global crises and incidents such as the North Korea lock down, Arab Spring, and Hurricane Sandy. Mashable’s beautiful list of 14 Instagram photojournalists is here. In addition, TIME awarded ‘Instagram Photojournalist of the Year‘ to the AP’s David Guttenfelder last year.

Remarking authenticity

In response to the hyper-stylized Instagram aesthetic, several hashtags were birthed to re-mark the authentic, natural, and undoctored version of users’ photographic shots. Some of these are:

#natural
#noedit
#nofilter
#nomakeup
#nophotoshop

At the same time, popular users who began monetizing their Instagram streams marked their images with hashtags such as:

#instaads
#advertorial
#sponsoredpost

Others who aimed to pry away from this commerciality marked their posts with hashtags indicating the direct opposite:

#notsponsored
#personal

Memes on the contrived au naturel

In fact, there are still many everyday users who use Instagram less restrictively, more casually, and much more comically. Perhaps as a parody and commentary on the increasingly aestheticized take on Instagram and the rise of style-conscious Instagram celebrities, two popular memes have moved onto Instagram over the years. Both are critically humorous captures of users faking the au naturel:

In ‘bae caught me slippin‘, users are pictured sleeping, with the image framed in an aesthetic appearing to look like they were photographed by their romantic partner. The parody now involves users staging selfies of themselves sleeping, with strategic revelations into the ‘backstage’ of the selfie intentionally included in the frame. This backstage often includes a mirror in the background revealing the user having snapped the photo of themselves pretending to sleep, or the appearance of additional limbs to mock users who attempt to conceal their forearms when snapping the selfie.

Another meme, ‘i woke up like this‘, originally began with users snapping selfies of themselves fresh out of bed in the morning in various states of undress and unkemptness. The parody now involves users presenting an exaggeratedly messy ‘wake up’ state, or one that is exceptionally flawless in full-face make-up and proper dress.

Commerce on Instgram

In my last post on The Great Instagram Purge, I mused about the chaos that ensured among media outlets and users regarding #lostfollowers, the currency that vital statistics such as Follower counts, RTs, Likes, and Favourites hold in the affective and attention economy, and the commerciality of social media microcelebrities whose bread and butter depends on their web popularity and engagement.

In relation to the purging of spam, bot, and inactive accounts, one of Instagram Community Guidelines reads:

“When you engage in self-promotional behavior of any kind on Instagram it makes people who have shared that moment with you feel sad inside. This guideline includes repetitive comments, as well as service manipulation in order to self-promote, and extends to commercial spam comments, such as discount codes or URLs to websites. We ask that you keep your interactions on Instagram meaningful and genuine.”

I’ve wondered if these “meaningful and genuine” interactions extend to microcelebrity Instagrammers. Unlike spam/bots who continually hijack photographs with overtly promotional (and highly suspicious) links, microcelebrity Instagram accounts are run by actual users who have acquired a degree of fame and clout, most often for their Instagram aesthetic and fan engagement. More crucially, these microcelebrity Instagrammers appear to be renegotiating definitions of the ‘authentic’ with various extents of staging, stylizing, and aestheticizing involved in their commercial work.

Based off fieldwork I did IRL, a book chapter I recently published details how Instagram is being used commercially among social media microcelebrity in Singapore:

1) Instagram as a repository of taste (Like me!)

The Instagram aesthetic relies on a pecuniary taste in which expensive (-looking) objects and exclusive experiences are perceived to be more desirable and beautiful because people increasingly value wealth (cf. Veblen). Posts are calculated based on what is “Instagram worthy” and the number of “projected likes”, much of which is dependent on the microcelebrity Instagrammer’s photo taking/editing skills. It is crucial for microcelebrity Instagrammers to maintain the tone and persona of their overall Instagram feed. Thus, what is left un-Instagrammed is just as important as what is posted.

2) Instagram as a burgeoning market place (Buy me!)

In order to maintain their credibility as ordinary, accessible, and believable laymen who are easier to emulate than mainstream celebrities, microcelebrity Instagrammers balance their commercial and personal posts by spacing out advertorials and naturalizing ads into an Instagram aesthetic and speak (coming up in the next post on Commerce on Instagram!). Many microcelebrity Instagrammers curate a neat schedule to time their personal and/or sponsored posts across the week or month.

3) Instagram as a war of eyeballs (Watch me!)

To maximize visibility and ‘likability’, microcelebrity Instagrammers calculatedly schedule their posts for maximum traffic. For instance, in Singapore 0800-1000hrs and 1900-2100hrs coincides with peak hour traffic where commuters on public transport are mostly likely to leisurely scroll through Instagram to kill time. Those with international followings may also post Instagram shots to coincide with peak traffic belts in other timezones. Microcelebrity Instagrammers rely on a constantly charged phone (i.e. possession of numerous power banks) and continuous Internet access (i.e. turn down sponsored holidays to destinations without 3G coverage). In addition, hashtag wars frequently occur, in which users piggyback on popular hashtags or hijack other microcelebrities’ personal hashtag streams. As a result, hashtag mutation occurs often.

The chapter chiefly documents how microcelebrity bloggers creatively strategize to portray a desirable upper-middle-class lifestyle and channel hegemonic ideals of beauty. This attracts viewers to vicariously experience their lives by ‘following’ their Instagram accounts, thus contributing to their ‘follower count’ and advertising revenue.

How do commercial Instagrammers negotiate authenticity and disclosure?

My next post will look into the commercial activity of microcelebrity Instagrammers. I will present a continuum of commercial captures that details how different Instagrammers disclose their paid practices.

Author’s note: This post and its third parter (Commerce on Instagram) were written on 19 December 2014 as sequels to The Great Instagram Purge and queued for publication. Shortly after, the Xiaxue-Gushcloud incident broke out in Singapore on 23 December 2014.

In short, a popular blogger made some allegations (claims here) against a regional social media advertising company (personal statement here and official response here) with regards to viewership, disclosure, and media ethics. In one of the claims specifically, a commercial blogger* was accused of masking her Instagram ad:

linlovesall

These resulted in several thousand weigh-ins from other social media advertising companies, web microcelebrities, mainstream media influencers, and everyday users. The incident went viral rapidly, and has been occupying the national imaginary via coverage by mainstream print and digital media outlets for a week. In addition, citizen-run websites including contentious journalism, vigilante satire, and gossip forums have been providing extended coverage on the saga. 

While the commotion continues to unfold, ethical, business, and legal guidelines for social media microcelebrities have been called into question. As a scholar of social media commerce and celebrity culture, my analysis of this episode is currently in the works.

*In Singapore, the native nomenclature for commercial social media microcelebrities is ‘blogger’, regardless of the platform used. Historically, this is because bloggers were the first to monetize their platforms in the mid-2000s. Many have since branched out to several social media platforms including Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.

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