Influencers between algorithmic systems and call-out cultures

Returning to the rich history of Influencer commerce over two decades and contextualizing recent controversies, this paper demonstrates how a cultural amateur practice of ‘relatability’ and ‘community’ has evolved into a systemic algorithmic hegemony of ‘virality’ and ‘discoverability’. In this paper, I untangle the notions of virality, memes, microcelebrity, Influencers, and celebrities with prolific social media presences, and consider how these categories play out conceptually and practically to reaffirm or subvert algorithmic hegemony alongside the rise of call-out culture on the internet.

Picture perfect Influencers have been thriving on social media ever since they burst into the scene in the mid-2000s, although they can be historicized to webcam cultures of the late 1990s. Perhaps most prominent in the popular imagination are “Instagram Influencers” known for their luxury-esque conspicuous consumption, conscientious poses in gorgeous locations, and savvy fostering of internet affects. Although this economy of the perfect, pristine, and picturesque is now the norm, the Influencer industry hasn’t always been like this. Moreover, press fascination over this specific genre of the industry – which has been overtly feminine, middle-class, and White – obscures the diversity and depth of the Influencer ecology on the whole, and the undercurrent of vernacular strategies Influencers partake in to game, subvert, or abandon algorithmic anxieties.

But the culture of Influencer commerce is changing. Recently, the Influencer ecology has experienced shifts across various platforms, including from archive culture to streaming culture, from tasteful consumption to the amateur aesthetic (Abidin 2017), from platform microcelebrity to cross-platform Influencer, from the attention economy (Goldhaber 1997) to the affection economy, and from transparent metrics to mystified impact. Drawing on eight years of ethnographic fieldwork in the Influencer industry, I briefly introduce how Influencers formulate cultural strategies to work with or around systemic algorithmic culture, including: intimacy labour, imposter culture, clickbait, content chains, hype-jacking, anti-follow culture, and bots. I then discuss what recent viral case studies – such as accusations of child abuse against American vloggers DaddyOFive; the exploitation of Black American Peaches Monroee who coined the catchphrase “eyebrows on fleek”; Swedish YouTuber PewDiePie’s discredibility wars with legacy media; and 13-year-old American Danielle Bregoli of “Cash Me Ousside” fame who has continued to be hyper-sexualized by the media and by followers. I tell us about the state of the Influencer ecology today, and how these digital media personalities constitute a fifth estate that is in tension with internet journalism  and the notion of internet social justice that values and rewards call-out culture.

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For the conference paper: Abidin, Crystal. 2017. “Influencers between algorithmic systems and call-out cultures.” Australian and New Zealand Communication Association (ANZCA) Conference, Sydney. July 5-7, 2017.