Please Subscribe! Influencers, Social Media, and the Commodification of Everyday Life
PhD Thesis, submitted August 2015, passed February 2016

Crystal Abidin

ABSTRACT

This dissertation is an analysis of how some everyday Internet users shape themselves into a popular form of social media microcelebrities increasingly being labeled “Influencers”. Influencers are shapers of public opinion who persuade their audience through the conscientious calibration of personae on “digital” media such as social media, supported by “physical” space interactions with their followers in the flesh to sustain their accessibility, authenticity, believability, emulatability, and intimacy. Emically, these five qualities are encapsulated in what Influencers refer to as “relatability”, or Influencersʼ ability to captivate their audience and evoke in them the desire to identify with the Influencer.

I investigate Influencers in the “lifestyle” genre, in which they accumulate a following on blogs and social media through the textual and visual narration of their personal, everyday lives and proceed to capitalize on their followers by inserting advertisements for products and services through the narrative device of an “advertorial”. Coming from an anthropological perspective, I am interested in the everyday practices of Influencers and their relationships to the larger industry. While the data presented in this thesis include some participant observation and interview snippets from “management firms” and “followers”, and while I pinpoint some of the ways these Influencers have reshaped the media structures in Singapore, my primary focus is on the lived experiences of the Influencers per se rather than a more macro-mapping of this media ecology.

Specifically, I analyze the process of how everyday Internet users fashion themselves into Influencers and argue that Influencers make a spectacle of the ordinary, the everyday, and the mundane through practices I analyze as organized by five key tenets: personae, femininities, taste, intimacies, and attention. More precisely, I argue that the success of an Influencer is premised on the conscientious calibration of extremes within each tenet: between the “privacy” and “publicness” with regards to personae (chapter 5); between “agency” and “vulnerability” with regards to femininities (chapter 6); between “aspiration” and “emulation” with regards to taste (chapter 7); between the “personal” and the “commercial” with regards to intimacies (chapter 8); and, finally, between the “mundane” and the “spectacular” with regards to attention (chapter 9). In other words, it is the Influencersʼ savvy negotiation of strategic interaction across multiple personae that constitute their impact and longevity in the industry. Although the ethnographic research was conducted in Singapore from the early to the middle years of the second decade of the 2000s, the analytical conceptualization can be mapped onto creative industries elsewhere.

CONTENTS

CHAPTER 1 INTRODUCTION
Please Subscribe!: Influencers, Followers, and the Commodification of Everyday Life

CHAPTER 2 CONTEXT
You Blogger?: Contextualizing the Influencer Industry in Singapore
Popular discourse
Cultural specificities of Singapore
Historicizing the Influencer industry
Structure of the Influencer industry
Conclusion

CHAPTER 3 METHODOLOGIES
CyaIRL: Negotiating Digital and Physical Fieldwork
Access
Communicative norms
Transitioning from the digital to the physical
Ethical considerations
Qualitative analysis
Conclusion

CHAPTER 4 THEORETICAL INSPIRATIONS
Situating Influencer Commerce
A brief history of (micro)celebrity
Blogs, social media, and commerce
Decorum and staging
Personae
Femininities
Taste
Intimacies
Attention
Conclusion

CHAPTER 5 PERSONAE
I Am Me: Numbers, Persona, and Privacy
Part I – A numbers game
Numbers and relationships
Numbers and value
Part II – Platform and personae congruence
Platform congruence
Personae congruence
Part III – Conceptualizing privacy and publicness
Lifecycle of commoditized privacy
Conclusion

CHAPTER 6 FEMININITIES
Heyyy Dearie: Cyber-femininities, Gender Repository, and Agentic Cute
Part I – Cyber-femininities: Performing femininities in digital spaces
Part II – Gender repository: Visibilizing the making of ideal femininities
Part III – Agentic cute: Appropriating cuteness as feminine agency
Conclusion

CHAPTER 7 TASTE
How To Look Expensive (but not so much): Taste Displays, Commerce Curation, and Instagram
Instagram
Perpetual transitional mobility
Part I – Curating taste on Instagram
Part II – Knockoffs and authentic replicas: Performing taste displays at a discount
Part III – Calibrating taste and advertorial disclosure on Instagram
Influencer managers as intermediaries of taste and relatability
Conclusion

CHAPTER 8 INTIMACIES
Technologies of Intimacy <333: Perceived Interconnectedness, Cyber-BFFs, and Labouring Sociality
Intimacy labor
Part I – Perceived Interconnectedness: Negotiating intimacies in the digital
Disclosure
Semiotic intimacy and value
From Parasocial Relations to Perceived Interconnectedness
Part II – Cyber-BFFs: Negotiating tensions in bridging digital and physical intimacies
Reacting to disorder
Part III – Labouring sociality: Negotiating intimacies in the physical
Practicing intimacy
Conclusion

CHAPTER 9 ATTENTION
Attention, Please!: Influencer Wars, Shamelebrity Rituals, and Productive Disorder
Attention events and rituals
Part I – Influencer wars: Disrupting competitors for self-publicity
Disorder and equilibrium
Part II – Shamelebrity rituals: Self-shaming as publicity strategy
Shaming practices
Shamelebrity
Shamelebrity Influencer case studies
Maintaining followers in tandem with shamelebrity practices
Limitations of commodified shaming
Part III – Productive disorder: Hating and web amnesia
Hating
Web amnesia
Conclusion

Chapter 10 CONCLUSION
But Wait, There’s More! The Expansion of Commodified Life
Summary
FAQ: Concerns and considerations
Recent developments in regulation and law
Budding developments in the Influencer industry
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BIBLIOGRAPHY

APPENDIX
Appendix A: Power-coupling
Appendix B: Micro-microcelebrity
Appendix C: Newspaper reports on blogshops and Influencers between Jan 2007 and Jun 2013
Appendix D: Glossary
Appendix E: Participant Information Form (PIF) & Participant Consent Form (PCF)