Over the weekend, academic and journalist Twitter registered a war of words regarding the definitions and gendered connotations of the terms “influencer” and “creator”. The article that sparked the debate was a piece published in Wired entitled “Why women are called ‘influencers’ and men ‘creators'” on 29 May 2019. In response, another journalist attempted to rebut these claims with an article in The Atlantic entitled “The real difference between creators and influencers” on 31 May 2019.
Having been interviewed at length for the original Wired piece only to have just a few snippets published, I posted an early response on the gendered constructions of industry expertise and journalistic observations before the Twitter debate. In summary:
1) emphasising gender when influencers are a minority group in a genre can be a branding asset;
2) the historical roots of the terms “influencer” and “creator” are already gendered; and
3) it is important to draw from a diverse pool of sources and expertise to avoid generalisations from a White, (male), middle-class perspective.
Given the nature of my research (and despite being inconvenienced by the tyranny of timezones), I followed the later Twitter discussions very closely. What ensued was a few dozen threads of debates between and among academics and journalists, in a bid to support or refute the claims in both the Wired and The Atlantic articles. Chiefly:
1) whether or not influencers/creators identified with and self-branded using either term;
2) whether or not the nature of and connotations associated with either term are gendered in any form; and
3) whether or not the uptake or rejection of these terms was a corporate or political issue.
In this piece, I present not a recap or summary of the events. Instead, here is an expansion on three issues that I feel were sidelined in the various discussions, previously summarised in a Twitter thread here.
Several of the discussions culminated in a posturing contest of sorts, in which both academics and journalists began to assert the legitimacy of their research and apparent strength of their claims. We stated the length of time we have studied a phenomenon, the number of interviews we have done, the types of output we have published, etc., in order to verify and validate our stance on the terms. I confess that I pulled a similar stunt in my opening Tweet, stating how I have been studying the phenomenon in South East and East Asia since 2007, albeit specifically to refute the universality of the proliferating claims from some American and British journalists and academics.
But debunking the work of other academics and journalists because they do not cohere with your interpretation of your findings from your sample in your research design is not good corroboration. They are after all different studies with different agendas with different observation nodes and informed by different epistemological stances. And this boils down to the practice of constructing observations as facts.
One of the central doctrines of anthropological and ethnographic works is to draw from Standpoint Theory. In short, all of us occupy different social positions in society and in our various social groups, and thus develop different social relations with systems and other actors; as such, our perspectives on issues will always be informed and constructed by our social experiences of our social milieu. Coupled with Kimberlé Crenshaw’s Theory of Intersectionality, which identifies how a person’s overlapping demographic categories may result in multiple marginality, we see the futility of a White middle-aged male journalist/academic refuting the claims of a young, woman, person of colour journalist/academic who perceives and experiences biases and disadvantages usually unseen by others.
In the midst of contestations, it is a great pity that one of the discourses offered by the original Wired article got buried: “Without knowing, I, a woman, was using female-coded language to ask questions about female-coded interests and it produced female results, and those women recommended I talk to other women. So in my stories about internet culture, I always ended up quoting more women than men, and now I finally know why. So do the experts. If only we knew what to do about it.”
As my collaborator Tama Leaver put it: “This desire by everyone to have a single history of everything internet doesn’t make any sense”. As surmised by fellow academic Marc Steinberg, “there’s still such a strong tendency to imagine a unitary internet history”, but this does not reflect the reality nor the ethnographic richness on the ground.
PS: My research that focuses on South East and East Asia tracks a series of key terms as they become proliferate in the industry. Since my next book manuscript is still in the pipeline, a short list is here. I usually use ‘internet celebrity’ as a larger spanning term, and a short 100-page book I wrote as an introduction for the general public is Internet Celebrity: Understanding Fame Online.
One of the pressing tensions in the debates was the authorial and authoritative claims between journalists and academics. Each are industries and institutions that produce writing based on research, although each has our own barometer for claim to expertise, depth of expertise, preciseness of the content, lead time for publishing a piece, and peer reviewed rigour. Further, the writings from journalists and academics often speak to different audiences. It felt fruitless to see folks from each industry challenge each others’ claims when the different pieces of writing works cannot be conflated.
More pressingly, both journalists and academics are complicit in amplifying the inequitable coverage and unfair representation in the industry. As I have surmised before, this operates in a feedback loop where Anglo- and Euro-centric journalist coverage becomes systematically inducted as facts and truths in academia and later the industry, due to their accessibility/convenience and the pressures of publishing:
1) journalists with pet topic areas predominantly write about Anglo- and Euro-centric influencers in the English language (due to expertise, access, networks, beat, etc.), but when they do look at other cultures exotically frame emically mundane and accepted practices in other cultures as marginal or spectacular. Many of these journalists go on to become celebritized on social media and heralded as experts of their beat and in society in general – especially since they write more accessibly than do their academic counterparts – and their works are translated into various languages and licensed on a longtail of non-English language news sites;
2) then academics who are pressured to publish or perish rely on these publicly-available articles as empirical data to do content analyses, as if they are representative of the state of affairs or public perception, and thus the pet interests of journalists become institutionalised as scientific truths of sorts; and
3) finally, industry folks who wish to validate their business models may sometimes draw from some of these academic studies, which further inflates the skewed construction of Anglo- and Euro-centric truths and facts, thus routinely blocking out diversity in demography, culture, and topics.
tl;dr, the richness and depth of the industry as a whole is routinely and systemically suppressed and overshadowed by populist Anglo- and Euro-centric perceptions.
Journalists could also do better by breaking out of their citation circles and informants of convenience by diversifying the expertise from whom they draw their claims. I am aware of a handful of citation rings where sometimes journalists cite each other to backup their claims, rather than corroborating across academic, industry, and folk perspectives. While I also acknowledge that academic writing and publishing may not always be accessible and are costly, many scholars are now learning to socialize our work and put out ‘generic public-friendly’ versions of our works. In Australia, a beta version of Expert Connect serves as a searchable repository of academic expertise, including a function that signal boosts the profiles of women scholars. A kind scholar via Twitter also pointed me to Science Media Center, which is an equivalent in Germany.
Regardless, journalists and academics alike should acknowledge our own positionalities in our research, considering our habitus and being reflexive about how we are writing ourselves into our works.
In a chapter of our edited collection Microcelebrity Around the Globe, I took the opportunity to reflect on a ten-year history of my research on microcelebrities by penning “Origin Stories: An Ethnographic Account of Researching Microcelebrity” (accessible here). Specifically, I crafted a methodological biography and traced how my exposure to different disciplines and their canon resulted in research and publications that adopted different methodologies which yielded different findings. Eventually, this led me to question the hegemony of theoretical canon and the globality of empirical data, signposting the greater need to account for cultural relativism and a transparency of our research design.
I previously compiled a short list of my go-to texts that are great Readings on the Politics of Knowledge Production, each galvanising scholars to rethink our praxis. Other reading recommendations are welcome.
(PS: For a related and more meta-take, see this piece on the “Three Opposing Barometers Between the Digital News Media and Influencers” and this short clip on how journalists are becoming more like influencers).
Although the journalist of The Atlantic article originally staked claims against the Wired article, in the midst of the debates and academics chiming in with their input, they belatedly clarified that their piece was “solely about American youtuber and influencer culture”.
This section is in response to a Tweet from a journalist that there are not many/too few academics specialising on internet celebrities. As my tiny contribution to decolonize the conversations and public knowledge about influencers, creators, and the assorted terms for internet celebrity at large, I offer here a humble and non-exhaustive list of resources.
1) Our edited collection Microcelebrity Around the Globe: Approaches to Cultures of Internet Fame comprises a collection of chapters from junior scholars around the world. Half our authors come from or work with populations in the Global South, and almost all our authors are Early Career Researchers (<5years post-PhD) or soon-to-be PhD graduates. Several of us worked really hard on translating content and analyses into English.
Although the early conversations of microcelebrity centered on Anglocentric theories and context despite the varied backgrounds and cultural context of microcelebrity, this compilation of chapters seeks to assess and reframe the applications and uptake of microcelebrity around the world. Each of the chapters in this anthology contribute to expand the theoretical concept and contextualize the history and cultural affairs of those who are famous online. The case studies provide examples of how a microcelebrity emerges to fame because of their exposure and interaction within a group of niche users, a specific online community, or a specific cultural and geographical context through the social networks that emerge online. Academic scholarship on microcelebrity has crossed methodologies, disciplines and platforms demonstrating the wide appeal as the influence of these figures are on the rise. As preparation for the reader, this chapter offers a brief history of current scholarship, with an emphasis on shifting knowledge production away from an Anglo and Global North perspective. The introduction chapter serves as a road map for the reader breaking down each of the three sections of the book – norms, labors, and activism. Lastly, the coeditors have outlined different ways to read the text group chapters according to reader interest.
The book is a ten-year anniversary update to Theresa Senft’s discipline-defining work on the theory of microcelebrity Camgirls: Celebrity and Community in the Age of Social Networks.
Our publisher Emerald Publishing has very kindly made our Introduction chapter Open Access here. In it, my co-editor Megan Lindsay Brown and I map the state of microcelebrity studies (up till mid-2018) pertaining to methodologies, disciplines, platforms, geographical cultures, units of analysis, conceptual standpoints, cultures of practice, commerce and industry, and knowledge production.
Here are a few chapters from the book that study different microcelebrities from outside Anglo-centric spaces. Tweet version here.
In Thailand: net idols, pretties, and beauty bloggers
In China: wangluo hongren from BBS
In India: Facebook and YouTube political comedy groups
In Pakistan: broadcast celebrity
In Brazil: tabloid/scandal-based small time celebrities
In Turkey: teen girls on musical.ly
The reference list may also be helpful – while not exhaustive, and no doubt influenced by my expertise and prior work in Asian and Scandinavian cities, I hope they will be a useful start to a larger snowball of readings.
2) This list of Open Access MA and PhD theses on cultures of internet celebrity, by postgraduates around the world. Tweet version here.
If any of the above links are paywalled/inaccessible for you, you’re welcome to DM on Twitter for copies.
One of my forthcoming books Please Subscribe! Influencers, Social Media, and the Commodification of Everyday Life presents an in-depth almost-ten-year-study on influencer cultures in Singapore. If you’re keen to dip into some of that work, a list of my published academic and popular media works is here. If you are a human who prefers moving images and sound over text, some multimedia versions of my various works are here.