Essena O’Neill, Authenticity, and Vlog Wars.

Edit: Part two here – Digital detox, Media panics, and What’s next.

I wrote my PhD on Influencers’ culture and commerce.

Here are some thoughts triggered by the frenzy over Essena O’Neill’s announcement that she is quitting the industry. As of November 4th, 2015, 1200hrs GMT+8, her viral video has been taken down, and her current Instagram account, @letsbegamechangers, seems to be set to private.

Her new site, letsbegamechangers.com, features a forthcoming ‘Cool Products‘ tab. She is also crowd sourcing funding under ‘Support Me‘, which ends with this note:

Sponsored Disclaimer: I will never do paid posts or advertisement for ANY brands on this site or in any of my videos ever again. Everything I mention, I mention because I use it and love the product. There is NO money associated.

As an anthropologist, I focused on Influencers in Singapore in my PhD. If you’re interested, the abstract to my thesis, Please Subscribe! Influencers, Social Media, and the Commodification of Everyday Life is here. If you’re not a fan of words, a watered-down very early version exists as a 3MT speech here.

BACKSTAGE

I’ve written much about how Influencers negotiate commerce on social media.

The Great Instagram Purge: Chaos, Currency, and Commerciality
Authenticity on Instagram
Commerce on Instagram

What I want to reiterate is that some Influencers intentionally use Instagram to reveal their reflexivity on the frontstage/backstage (my notes on Goffman’s theories on this here). That is, intentionally revealing the ‘less than perfect’ life and the labour that goes into picture perfect poses is not new.

For instance, here Singaporean Influencer @euniceannabel is pictured behind-the-scenes at the photoshoots in which she is usually engaged. She also frequently shares snippets of her journey as a rising star in the television and cinema industry.

These are a stark contrast to the more aesthetic #OOTD (Outfit Of The Day) shots that she usually posts, and serve to underscore her accessibility to followers who model after her gendered and classed scripts.

ea ootd

With the increasing commercialism of Instagram posts, it appears that personal posts that feature products that are not sponsored deserve their own earmark.

@yankaykay, for instance, occasionally publishes posts on her social media feeds and blog about genuine experiences she has had with retail staff. She has Instagrammed good products from jewelry lines and food & beverage outlets, and blogged about great customer service from an electronics store.

This unsolicited publicity is given as a measure of gratitude for the service she has received. In these posts, she explicitly tells followers that her intent is “not sponsored”, and that she is merely sharing the information out of goodwill.

In another photo, she clearly acknowledges the commerce of her Instagram feed, but clarifies that this post is not sponsored, albeit appearing as a favour to a friend:

“I’m trained as a model/blogger to pose/post for ads and I know what this looks like but this isn’t an ad. Val is a friend and she treated me to my first Jolly Bee and now the entire house adores it. Really super love this. I’ve had one with every meal since my first order.”

In the grand scheme of things, these non-sponsored posts featuring flattering compliments seem to be perceived as more authentic than sponsored posts since the Influencer has little to gain for ‘working’ pro bono.

Some Influencers are also candidly upfront about the staging and labour that goes on behind their seemingly effortless and aesthetically tasteful shots. In this example, @naomineo_ publishes a photo of her hair apparently waving in the wind. Her humorous caption acknowledges the backstage as such:

“It wasn’t the wind. I had to flip my hair a zillion times to get it right lol”

IMG_7232

Similarly, @euniceannabel signposts the labour involved in curating a congruent social media persona on her Instagram feed by jokingly juxtaposing her ‘Instagram’ frames and her ‘off-Instagram’ actions. Amidst her feed of high resolution fashion photos, she interjects with a candid image ‘on the go’ of a bowl of chips.

IMG_6181

Her caption reads:

“Oh the irony… blogging about skincare and how we should cut down on junk food to prevent acne. And here I am chopping away on fried delights.”

She ends the caption with her signature ‘#euniceannabeldiet’, which is a hashtag stream that catalogues her eat-outs and cafe hopping adventures. She also includes a more humorous hashtag, “ImReallyGettingFat” as a self-reflexive commentary on her eating habits.

RELATABILITY

What I want to work out in my next piece of writing is the notion of “authenticity”. Is it intentional revelations to the backstage? Is it non-commerce? Is it commerce but with disclosure? A related paper on Influencer commerce, audience intimacy, and brand credibility is available here, but I would like to think through this a bit more.

Emically, Influencers in my ethnography often brand themselves as having “relatability”, or the ability to persuade their followers to identify with them.

However, this concept is largely unarticulated and inarticulable among Influencers (i.e. “so that readers can relate to you”; “to make my posts relatable”) and honed through “gut feeling” and “trial-and- error” (i.e. “it just feels right”; “the more you practice the more you will know”).

Based on my observations and interactions since 2011, I have come to understand that in the vernacular, relatability is comprised of the interrelated but distinct notions of

“accessibility” (how easy it is to approach an Influencer in digital and physical spaces),

“believability” (how convincing and realistic an Influencerʼs depicted lifestyle and sentiments are),

“authenticity” (how genuine an Influencerʼs actual lifestyle and sentiments are),

“emulatability” (how easy it is for followers to model themselves after an Influencerʼs lifestyle), and

“intimacy” (how familiar and close followers feel to an Influencer).

VLOGWARS?

In my earlier writing, I note how blogwars are a staple in the Influencer industry.

A controversial post like O’Neill’s video generates hype in the industry. This manufactured sense of disorder, in which the stasis of Influencer hierarchy is disrupted, is frequently capitalized by other Influencers who compete to capture the attention of passers-by.

For this reason, many (peripheral) Influencers attempt to produce side commentaries, personal editorials, or mini (sloppy) ‘exposé’s of their own promising “previously unseen” information from “behind the scenes” as “an insider”.

This creates publicity for themselves and intensifies the exposure for their social media platforms through redirected click-throughs. Despite the apparent frivolity of things, these topics have the ability to command attention and attract (good and bad) publicity, and serve the function of appropriating drama and controversy for net gain.

In response to O’Neill’s announcement, several Influencers (particularly North American and Australian vloggers) have come out to give their version of ‘behind-the-scenes’ and share their thoughts on the Influencer industry.

Some Influencers were still focused on O’Neill per se.

NinaAndRanda (15:31) are two sisters whom O’Neill stayed with when she visited Los Angeles. Among many things, they talk about O’Neill’s “actual” LA experience, including calling her out for claiming that she was “working in LA” when she was actually on vacation. They also reveal that O’Neill had just gotten out of a relationship with a person based in LA who was also involved in the Influencer circles.

More crucially, the Influencers point out that O’Neill cannot speak for all Influencers as a collective when she claims that they are “miserable”, “fake”, or “sad”, citing individual experiences. They also highlight the importance of personal friendships within the Influencer industry in providing material resources (travel, housing, food), industry networks, and emotional support.

Word From Willie (7:59) is the brother of the above two sisters. He shares most of their sentiments and suggests that O’Neill’s breakdown might have been triggered by “post-breakup stress disorder”.

Bonnyrebecca (9:13) appears to be a close friend of O’Neill. She says O’Neill genuinely did not enjoy the Influencer experience, was no longer happy, and experienced an awakening.

Plantriotic (8:11) feels O’Neill is “not quitting [social media] but redefining the way she is using it as an activist tool”. He also pulls the “fame too much too soon card” and suggests that O’Neill was overwhelmed from being famous at the age of 15/16.

Others moved on to meta-commentaries about their trade and the uses of social media.

High Carb Hannah (7:06) frames social media as a tool and instrument that can be used to positive/negative ends.

Henya Mania (11:15) encourages users to “stay on social media” and use it to “spread a message” because “the world is not going to change by itself”.

That Vegan Couple (7:13) remind viewers that “in order to change the game, you have to use social media as the tool”.

However, older videos from other Influencers seem to suggest that O’Neill’s public and subversive play with self-presentation has always been one of the tropes for which she is known.

POWSIMIAN (10:50) posted in October 2015 about O’Neill calling out fellow Influencers on their cause towards veganism.

durianrider (5:34) posted in July 2015 answering AMAs (Ask Me Anything videos) in which viewers were constantly asking about how O’Neill “is like in real life”.

This seems to suggest that said “digital detox” might have been a carefully crafted event.

My next post will look at how mainstream and popular press have reacted to O’Neill’s video.

Any thoughts? Beep me!

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