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Mapping Internet Celebrity on TikTok

It’s my first day back in the office after five weeks of annual leave and wfh, and I am really happy to share my first article of the year, mapping internet celebrity, attention economies, and visibility labours on TikTok.

Abidin, Crystal. 2021. “Mapping Internet Celebrity on TikTok: Exploring Attention Economies and Visibility Labour.” Cultural Science Journal 12(1); 77-103. DOI: 10.5334/csci.140 <Open Access>

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The article opens with how internet celebrity is situated on TikTok considering the platform’s features, affordances, and norms; namely:

  1. Post-based virality is privileged over persona-based fame
    “On a space like TikTok, the nature of fame and virality has shifted, and tends to be based on the performance of users’ individual posts […] TikTok users and internet celebrity aspirants do not always conscientiously maintain a single singular coherent persona or style, but instead are actively and very quickly adapting from the latest trends and viral practices on TikTok, to attempt varieties of styles” (p79-80)

  2. Audio memes are the driving template and organizing principle
    “TikTok privileges sounds over images […] background audios have been central to viral trends on TikTok, and are perhaps the most novel feature on the app […] Audio memes are not limited to an actual snippet of a song or spoken dialogue, but can include variants based on remix and delivery styles as well as ownership of the template. Audio memes are an organizing principle for how content is catalogued into repositories on TikTok, and how users navigate the platform to seek new trends and contents.” (p80)

  3. TikTok transitions are a marker of technical expertise
    “[…] clever editing work that TikTokers employ to drive the visual narrative of their post. On TikTok, these edits and cuts are known as ‘transitions’, and TikTokers who display this technical expertise are often lauded and celebrated on the app […] This has sparked off a now-established routine of virality on TikTok, where every time a new video transition (and accompanying audio meme) is introduced and popularized on the app, some TikTokers would swiftly follow up and make ‘tutorial’ versions of the transition to teach others how to replicate them, and in turn attain high visibility and virality for their posts.” (p80)

  4. Traceable histories of use foster competitive ranking
    “[…] sort posts into streams. These lists are roughly ranked by the number of ‘engagements’ on the post […] However, there are often contestations over the ownership of audio memes, and each stream is at best one account of an audio meme’s authoritative origin and often exclude spin-offs […] Further, there are often competitive ranking sprees known as ‘chart jacking’ wherein TikTokers encourage others to engage with specific posts to get them to ‘climb’ the ranks on a stream, to overshadow posts that they want to suppress, or to negotiate the ‘mainstream’ use of a specific audio meme or filter.” (p80-81)

  5. TikTok’s anticipated features adopt from Douyin’s established features
    ” many of TikTok’s newly introduced and updated features and affordances mimic after its predecessor sister-app Douyin […] it has been observed that several of the new features recently added to TikTok […] were features carried over from the original sister app Douyin.” (p81)

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We then consider some of the key attention economies on TikTok, considering cross-platform and industry-wide contexts, and platform norms:

  1. Rivalry with Instagram
    “In the wake of TikTok’s massive growth, rival apps soon launched competitor features, including Instagram’s Reels and YouTube’s Shorts, the former of which explicitly began roping in prominent TikTokers to seed content on and popularize the use of Reels among their followers. This quickly eventuated in serial crossposting and duplication across apps […]” (p82-83)

  2. Seismic shifts in the Influencer industry (accelerated by COVID-19)
    “In light of curtailed international and localized travel during COVID-19, the decline of in-person Influencer events, and overall budget cuts on Influencer marketing spending (Abidin et al. 2020), Influencers found themselves strapped for resources and needing to creatively pivot or adapt to home-based activities to generate content.” (p83)

  3. Social justice on TikTok
    “[…] TikTok has allowed young people to become politically engaged in a format that is entertaining, educational, and palatable among their peers […] this takes on the guise of meme-making, trend-setting, virality-seeking, or public-shaming […] This has lowered the barriers of entry and expanded the repertoire of what it means to be ‘politically active’, placed value on creative social media skillsets that young people feel confident in, and normalized the idea that being politically involved is not a niche but can be an everyday staple in one’s social media diet. ” (p84)

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The main section of the paper concentrates on visibility labours on TikTok. Here, I rely on long-term digital ethnography, triangulated against empirical data from personal interviews and anthropological fieldwork, to introduce some strategies attempted by TikTokers to optimize their experience of the algorithm. The various strategies fall into four broad categories:

  1. Ownership practices
    “users’ engagements in assertive behaviour to stake their authorship and attribution claims, or desires for acknowledgement and credit, when others borrow, reuse, adapt from, or remix a piece of content that they originated.” (p85)

  2. Algorithmic practices
    “users’ engagements in patterned and routine behaviour in the belief that their repeated actions will persuade and trigger the platform’s algorithm to work in their favour, and is informed by a collective ‘algorithmic imaginary’ (Bucher 2017).” (p88)

  3. Interactive practices
    “users’ engagements in parasocial behaviour to appeal to others, manifest displays of support or disavowal towards specific users and issues, foster and maintain allegiances within trends and silos, and maintain feelings of connection and enjoyment among each other.” (p90)

  4. Legacy practices
    “users’ engagements in established microcelebrity and Influencer behaviours that originated and flourished outside of TikTok, by extrapolating, contextualizing, and updating these visibility practices and Influencer logics, in order that they may maintain some brand coherence and sustain some attention outflow to their existing digital media estates.” (p92)

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The article closes with a segue to my current and forthcoming research, closely studying the TikTok Creator Fund and its impact on vernacular cultures on TikTok and the Influencer industry at large.

Thank you to Cultural Science Journal and CCAT at Curtin for allowing this article and the entire Special Collection ‘Open Literacy: Games, Social Responsibility and Social Innovation‘ to be published Open Access, and for allowing me the intellectual and creative freedom to publish a scoping paper to map this new field, and to include many useful illustrations and a TikTok playlist in the Appendix. I also thank Tencent Research for providing funding to support a portion of the fieldwork towards this paper.

I also want to acknowledge and thank the journal editor Samantha Owen and the issue editors John Hartley, Katie Ellis, and Tama Leaver for guiding and trusting me in the long process to get this paper ready, since I first started on this project in June 2019.

/C

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