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Fieldnotes: Social media microcelebrity and affective labour

I sit in a dessert cafe in the heart of Singapore with 19-year-old Ivy, a full-time commercial lifestyle blogger. Although this is the first time we are meeting in the flesh, she warms up to me quickly and we chat like old friends. We discuss her social media content, which I have been observing for months, in a bid to understand the unseen work that constitutes her online persona. I am pleasantly surprised by the degree of intimacy she is exhibiting to me through the private stories of her personal life ‘behind-the-scenes’ since she is somewhat of a microcelebrity on social media; after all, she boasts 26,000 followers on Instagram alone.

Our conversation segues into the correspondence she regularly receives from fans, some from readers who “see her on the streets” and recognize her. Many of these are private emails in the likes of Aunt Agony columns, where she painstakingly crafts personalized responses to readers who seek her advice on academics or relationship issues. Ivy is no expert in the area, but she tries to be patient and respond as “personalized” as possible. Fans aside, Ivy tells me she also copes with her fair share of ‘hate’ comments publicly posted on her social media platforms. “Some people just want to hate, want to find fault with you… there’s not much you can do,” she laments, shrugging her shoulders.

I ask if she knows of fellow bloggers who deal with similar issues, which sparks off a long discussion about how she manages her relations with these competitors. It seems there are the friends, the friends-with-privileges, the frenemies, and lastly, the outright rivals. “You don’t want to step that blogger’s tail, you know? She has a lot of clout,” she tells me. I recall a photograph on Ivy’s Instagram in which she appears friendly and intimate with some bloggers, whom she now tells me she “is actually not very familiar with”. Female sociality in the commercial blogging world sure is complicated.

Ivy offers me a quick expository on her “skincare and makeup regime” in preparation for the high resolution photographs she publishes on her social media. She tilts her head and closes her eyes to show me her fake eyelashes, gifted to her by a beauty sponsor in exchange for brief advertising on Ivy’s Instagram feed. While she claims that her “15 minute to one hour” process is “therapeutic”, I later find out that Ivy sometimes avoids leaving the house unnecessarily because she is “lazy” to handle the “dressing up and making up”. After all, Singapore is a small place and Ivy laments being caught “bareface in public” by a reader again. When she’s all dressed up, she relies on her partner to photograph her outfit of the day at various backdrops. “He used to mind, but he doesn’t complain any more,” she adds.

Ivy’s phone has been buzzing non-stop since we met. The constant rattling from the vibration of her cellphone against our wooden table has not fazed her, until now. She abruptly truncates our conversation despite a good momentum: “You can continue talking, I just want to check my phone.” I sneak a glance at my voice recorder. It is the 51:16 mark of our interview. I am secretly impressed Ivy has lasted this long without fidgeting with her phone. In fact, at six months into the second leg of my fieldwork at this point, it occurs to me that Ivy might be the only blogger thus far not to have multi-tasked on a cellphone throughout our whole interview. “You really need to be in it to keep up,” she says of her meandering Twitter feed, “I don’t know how people who follow so many other people keep up.” The hour passes quickly, and I formally thank Ivy for her time before switching the voice recorder off. We hug, and go our own ways before I see her again at a bloggers roadshow in a couple of weeks.

– snippets from my fieldnotes, April 2013

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