Social Media Influencers as Conduits of Knowledge in Australia and Asia

Social Media Influencers as Conduits of Knowledge in Australia and Asia



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The researcher

Dr Crystal Abidin is Associate Professor & ARC DECRA Fellow in Internet Studies at Curtin University, the Programme Lead of Social Media Pop Cultures at the Centre for Culture and Technology at Curtin University, and Affiliate Researcher with the Media Management and Transformation Centre at Jönköping University. She is a digital anthropologist and ethnographer of vernacular internet cultures, and researches young people’s relationships with internet celebrity, self-curation, and vulnerability. Crystal has been studying the Influencer industry in Southeast Asia, Australia, and the Nordic since the late-2000s. She has authored over 50 refereed articles and chapters on various aspects of internet culture, and her books include Internet Celebrity: Understanding Fame Online (2018), Microcelebrity Around the Globe: Approaches to Cultures to Cultures of Internet Fame (2018, co-edited with Megan Lindsay Brown), Instagram: Visual Social Media Cultures (2020, with Tama Leaver and Tim Highfield, Polity Press), and Mediated Interfaces: The Body on Social Media (2020, co-edited with Katie Warfield and Carolina Cambre). Crystal is listed on Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia (2018) and Pacific Standard 30 Top Thinkers Under 30 (2016), and was awarded the ABC Top 5 Media Residency (2020) and ICA Pop Comm Early Career Prize (2020). Reach her at wishcrys.com.



The project

This project is an individual grant hosted at Curtin University, and is funded by the Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) (Australia), July 2019–June 2022 (DE190100789). The project is also supplemented and extended with support and funding by Curtin University, July 2019–June 2024. Ethics Office approval number HRE2019-0806.

The project aims to evaluate how social media Influencers can become conduits to communicate information among young people between Australia and East Asia. As icons on the internet who are experts in holding attention and amplifying content, Influencers have expanded from being mere commercial enterprises to being conduits of public service information by reaching wide, diverse, and sometimes marginalized youth audiences with important socio-cultural messages. This study will glean lessons from leading Influencer ecologies in East Asia (China, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan), to understand how we can use internet-native communication formats to improve inter-cultural knowledge and relations in Australia.

This study will offer a framework for examining the Influencer industry in Australia based on expert economies in East Asia. Its analysis of young people’s internet cultures will generate new knowledge on how information circulates and is received in innovative communication formats between young Australians and young East Asians. The study informs how young people in Australia can improve their inter-cultural communication skills, how community groups can improve inter-cultural integration, and how businesses and policy makers can partner with Influencers to amplify information. Recent outputs are below.

Social Media Influencers as Conduits of Knowledge in Australia and Asia

  • (forthcoming, 2020) “From ‘networked publics’ to ‘refracted publics’: A companion framework for researching ‘below the radar’ studies.” Social Media + Society. DOI: TBA <Journal article>
  •  “Ep 2: Cashing In On Cuteness.” Beyond the Viral Video, Channel News Asia, 28 November 2020. <Documentary>
  • “When Influencers fight – with Crystal Abidin.” 2SER 107.3, 1 August 2020. <Radio>
  • “Shaming Influencers: Should We Cancel ‘Cancel Culture’?” Frankly, My Dear, 26 July 2020. <Podcast>
  • “Online Ajumma: Self-presentations of contemporary elderly women via digital media in Korea.” Pp. tbd in Mediated Interfaces: The Body on Social Media, edited by Katie Warfield, Crystal Abidin, and Carolina Cambre. London: Bloomsbury Academic. <Chapter | Book>
  • “The future of Internet Fame.” The Future Of, 03 February 2020. <Spotify | Simplecast | Webpage | YouTube>
  • “Hanging out at home as a lifestyle: YouTube home tour vlogs in East Asia.” Pp. 122-131 in The Routledge Companion to Media and Class, edited by Erika Polson, Lynn Schofield Clark, and Radhika Gajjala. London and New York: Routledge. DOI: 10.4324/9781351027342-11 <Chapter | Book>
  • “Disappearing data: Monetizing and astroturfing vernaculars on tumblr pre- and post-NSFW ban.” AoIR2019, Brisbane. October 2-5, 2019. <Conference>

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COVID-19 and the Influencer industry 

This is a time-sensitive project to archive the role of Influencers during the pandemic, and the survival of Influencer-related social media businesses in the time of COVID-19. The study investigates how Influencers, agencies, and clients in the Influencer industry are coping with growing restrictions and pressures, operating ad hoc contingency plans, and strategising for recovery and growth post-COVID19. The study is focused on Australia, China, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan, and aims to contribute to the recovery of social media business in the time of and post-COVID19.

  • (forthcoming). “Singaporean Influencers and COVID-19 on Instagram Stories.” Celebrity Studies. DOI: TBA <Journal article>
  • Influencers, Brands, and Pivots in the Time of COVID-19: A Look at Australian, Japanese, and Korean Issues.” M/C Journal 23(6). DOI: 10.5204/mcj.2729 <Journal article>
  • “Influencers and COVID-19: Reviewing key issues in press coverage across Australia, China, Japan, and South Korea.” Media International Australia (Online first). DOI: 10.1177/1329878X20959838 <Journal article>
  • “Apa kabar industri influencer marketing di tengah pandemi COVID-19 (News about the influencer marketing industry amidst the COVID-19 pandemic)” Gushcloud Indonesia, 11 August 2020. <Industry panel
  • The New Normal: How COVID-19 has changed the fundamentals of influencer marketing in Southeast Asia.” Gushcloud International, July 2020. <Industry whitepaper>
  • “Singaporean influencers and COVID-19 on Instagram Stories.” Asian Celebrity and the Pandemic, Virtual webinar, The Asian Media and Cultural Studies Network, 18 June 2020. <Panel | Event>
  • “Will culture change post COVID-19?” Magnum & Co, May 2020. <Industry report>
  • “Messaging COVID-19.” Pathos Labs, April 2020. <Industry playbook>
  • “Slow living and the art of home maintenance: East Asian vloggers celebrate the domestic space.” The Conversation, 16 April. <Commentary>
  • “Influencer and Social Media Industries Adapting to COVID-19.” wishcrys.com, 11 April. <Commentary>
  • “Influencers and Covid-19 – with Dr. Crystal Abidin.” TheSwedishLad, 5 April 2020. <Video interview>
  • “Hanging Out At Home As A Lifestyle (in the time of COVID-19).” wishcrys.com, 2 April. <Commentary>

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COVID-19, Anti-Asian Racism, and Discursive Activism 

This is a time-sensitive collaborative project with Jing Zeng (University of Zurich) to understand how (diaspora) Asians are coping with racism and xenophobia in the time of COVID-19. 

From the onset of COVID-19, incidents of racism and xenophobia began occurring globally, especially towards people of East Asian appearance and descent. In response, this project investigates how an online Asian community has utilized social media to engage in cathartic expressions, mutual care, and discursive activism amidst the rise of anti-Asian racism and xenophobia during COVID-19. Specifically, we focus on the Facebook group ‘Subtle Asian Traits’ (SAT) that has been a congregational node for (diaspora) Asians since it was launched “as a joke” by 8 Asian-Australian teenagers in September 2018. SAT has rapidly amassed 1.7 million members and become the most successful Facebook group of its kind. In the time of COVID-19, the 1200 new posts it publishes daily have swiftly pivoted to the everyday lived experiences of (diaspora) Asians around the world. By conducting qualitative content analysis and employing grounded theory, we answer the research questions: What issues are (diaspora) Asians facing in light of the rise of anti-Asian racism and xenophobia during COVID-19? How are young (diaspora) Asians engaging in discursive activism on Facebook groups during COVID-19?

  • (forthcoming, 2021). “Subtle Asian Traits and COVID-19: Congregating and Commiserating as East Asians in a Facebook Group.” First Monday. <Journal article>
  • “‘Subtle Asian Traits’: Platformed race on Facebook.” Association of Internet Researchers 2020, Virtual conference, 26-31 October 2020. <Conference paper>
  • “Feeling Asian Together: Coping with #COVIDRacism on Subtle Asian Traits.” Social Media+Society 6(3): 1-5. DOI: 10.1177/2056305120948223 <Journal article>

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K-pop Fandoms, Social Media Manipulation, and Activism

This is an ongoing project that aims to understand the role of K-pop fandoms in information dissemination and suppression, and activist and advocacy causes on social media.

  • “Kpop: Fandom, Politics, Digital influence.” Fan Studies Network North America 2020 Conference, 13-17 October 2020. <Plenary>
  • “The Civic Hijinks of K-pop’s Super Fans.” Points, Data & Society, 1 July 2020. <Commentary>
  • “K-pop Social Media, (Anti-)fan Labour, and Networks of Misinformation.” wishcrys.com, 11 April 219. <Commentary>
  • “K-pop on Instagram between South Korea and North America.” Korean Studies Association of Australasia (KSAA) 2019 Biennial Conference, Perth. 4-6 December 2019. <Conference>

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Knowledges on Douyin vs. TikTok: Platforms, Populism, and Performance

This feeder project is an individual research bursary hosted by the Centre for Culture and Technology (CCAT) at Curtin University, and is funded by Tencent (China/Australia), August–December 2019.

Since launching the short video app (短视频) Douyin (抖音) in the Chinese domestic market in September 2016, internet technology company ByteDance (字节跳动) subsequently launched an international version TikTok in September 2017. In November 2017, ByteDance bought over and integrated a predecessor competing short video app Musical.ly, which was first launched in April 2014, and continued to operate Douyin and TikTok as two different platforms for the domestic and international market respectively. Subsequently, Google Trends and international media coverage on Douyin and TikTok soared, as compilations of Douyin posts went viral on YouTube and Facebook, and the international userbase on TikTok grew. In response to public misrecognition and misconception around both apps, this pilot study is focused on reviewing the current pool of knowledge on Douyin and TikTok. Focused on the platforms, the study will employ the walkthrough method to understand the distinctions in features, functions, and user experience of both apps. Focused on populism, the study will conduct a content analysis of mainstream press and popular media articles providing reportage on both apps to understand the discourses pedalled about internet popular culture and ideogeographical politics. Focused on performance, the study will draw from digital ethnography and personal interviews to understand how users of both apps make decisions about the types of content they follow and consume. It is hoped that this pilot study will serve as the foundation for a more extensive survey of the short video app ecology (短视频经济) in East Asia.

  • “Mapping Internet Celebrity on TikTok: Exploring Attention Economies and Visibility Labours.” Cultural Science Journal 12(1): 77-103. DOI: 10.5334/csci.140 <Open Access>
  • “#WAsian (White-Asian) on TikTok and Activism through Entertainment.” in panel “Short-Form Parallel Universes: Affordances, Activity, and Culture of TikTok and Douyin” with Jing Zeng, Mike S. Schäfer, Wei Wang, Xu Chen, D. and Bondy Valdovinos Kaye. International Communication Conference 2020, Gold Coast. 21-25 May 2020. <Conference panel>
  • “Knowledges on Douyin vs. TikTok: Platforms, Populism, and Performance.” Open Literacy: Digital Games, Social Responsibility and Social Innovation, Curtin University, Perth. 30 September-01 October 2019. <Conference>
  • “Students are fighting climate change, one TikTok video at a time.” ABC Online, 19 September 2019. <Radio

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The Short Video App Industry in China

This feeder project is a small research grant supported by the MCASI Small Grants  Program 2019, School of Media, Creative Arts & Social Inquiry at Curtin University, October 2019–June 2021 (postponed & extended due to COVID-19). 

Short video apps are the latest digital media format to proliferate on the internet. The format allows users to communicate their message via video, sound, and layover text, emoji, and stickers in clips that are only 15-60 seconds long. This has given rise to innovation around how young people, brands, businesses, and even news networks design their content in order to reach their target audience in a saturated digital media environment. To understand the landscape, ecology, and economy of short video apps, my fieldwork will focus on the biggest international markets in China housed in Beijing and Hangzhou. I will be conducting personal interviews with the tech companies who fund and back these apps, the short video app platforms themselves, influencer incubators and agencies who are experts in grooming and commercializing talent on these apps, and aspiring and current short video app creators. This fieldwork to collect primary data is especially crucial as the short video app ecology is under studied despite the phenomenon having taken off globally since 2016. There are less than a dozen academic and conference papers on major platforms such as TikTok/Douyin, and most of the public knowledge on such apps is limited to popular media coverage and personal opinion blogposts. As such, this research will contribute to foundational peer reviewed research on the phenomenon.

  • “‘Audio templates’ as Identity and Intimacy on TikTok.” Digital Intimacies 2020: Connection in Crisis, University of Technology Sydney. 7-9 December 2020. <Conference>
  • TikTok Cultures Research Network.” Academic network, launched 7 December 2020. <Network>
  • Cultures of TikTok in the Asia Pacific.” Symposium, Curtin University. 7 December 2020. <Event>
  • “TikTok: The Platform, The Public, The Politics.” ANU Policy Forum & Learning Communities, 22 September 2020. <Panel | Podcast>
  • “Influencer cultures on TikTok.” ACAT, CCAT, Curtin University. 3 September 2020. <Seminar video>

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Ongoing research

  • A review of the history of Influencers in Australia, Australian media representations of Influencers, and the impact of social media Influencers on print media.
  • A survey of the culture of Influencer agencies in East Asia, practices of Influencer communications in the Asia Pacific, and the role of East Asian Influencers in building community among East Asian migrants in Australia.
  • A study of inter-cultural communication between East Asians and Australians, working towards a theory of Asia Pacific Influencers, inter-cultural learning, and the generation of attention on the internet.
  • Book on East Asian YouTubers:
    –Slow living at home as a lifestyle
    –Morning/night routines and domestic temporalities
    –Home cafes and ASMR aesthetics
    –Minimalism and consumption-based mindfulness
    –Homemaking and the commodification of coupledom
    –Zakka and performances of taste curation
    –Rurality and telescopic exoticism
    –COVID-19 and repackaging trendability
    –Intercultural language learning and humour
    –Home remaking and youth anomie
    –Elderly influencers and geriatric cuteness
    –Childrearing on cam and broadcast ethos


Fieldwork dates
(continuously updated)

  • July 2019: Hong Kong
  • August 2019: Shanghai, Sydney
  • September 2019: Canberra
  • November 2019: Singapore
  • December 2019: Seoul, Tokyo
  • January 2020: Singapore 
  • February 2020: Beijing, Hangzhou, Shenzhen (COVID19 postponement)
  • March 2020: Milan, Singapore (COVID19 cancellation)
  • Q2 2020: Hong Kong, Melbourne, Shanghai, Sydney, Taipei (COVID19 postponement)
  • Q3 2020: Busan, Osaka, Seoul, Tokyo (COVID19 postponement)


Research team

  • [application closed] We are hiring a 3-3.5yr PhD Candidate to work with Katie Ellis and I on Influencers and social justice cultures. Applications close on 01 September 2020.
  • [application closed] We are hiring a 3-3.5yr PhD Candidate to work with Tama Leaver and I on virtual Influencers. Applications close on 01 September 2020.
  • [application closed] I am hiring a 2-year Postdoctoral Research Fellow to work with me on this project. Applications close on 03 February 2020.
  • [application closed] I am hiring 1 English-Japanese and 1 English-Korean translator for assistance during my fieldwork in Tokyo and Seoul in November-December 2019. Applications close in early-November 2019.


Further information

Curtin University press release here.
Curtin University profile here.
Academic publications here.
Press mentions here.
Industry work here.



Contact

If you would like to get in touch, please reach Crystal at wishcrys.com, crystalabidin@gmail.com, or @wishcrys


This page was last updated on 21 January 2021.