Social Media Influencers as Conduits of Knowledge in Australia and Asia



New updates & announcements

09 April 2020: From March-July 2020, my East Asia-based fieldwork on Influencer Cultures in East Asia and Australia has been postponed due to COVID-19. Instead, I will be focused on digital fieldwork and writing, especially the impacts of COVID-19 on the Influencer industry, social media use and anti-Asian racism/xenophobia, meme factories and public service announcements, and misinformation on WhatsApp.

01 April 2020: In the last few weeks, I have been focused on how Influencers, agencies, and clients in the Influencer industry are coping and strategising post-COVID19. I am focused on Australia, China, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. This research aims to contribute to the recovery of social media business in the time of and post-COVID19. In light of recent interstate & international travel restrictions, I have been interviewing informants on the phone or online (Email, Hangouts, KakaoTalk, LINE, Skype, Telegram, WeChat, WhatsApp, Zoom). If you work in the industry and are keen to chat, please get in touch with me. Shares appreciated (copy+paste this URL or RT Tweet). Thank you.



The researcher

Dr Crystal Abidin is Senior Research Fellow/ARC DECRA Fellow in Internet Studies at Curtin University, Research Fellow with 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 40 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). 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 partner with Influencers to amplify information.



Supplementary/Feeder projects

This project comprises a network of smaller supplementary projects that feed into the overall research study. They include:

[4] The impact of COVID-19 on the Influencer industry in East Asia and beyond

This is a time-sensitive side project to archive the survival of Influencer-related social media businesses in the time of COVID-19. The study investigates on 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 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.

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[3] COVID-19 Anti-Asian Racism and Discursive Activism on Subtle Asian Traits

This is a time-sensitive collaborative project with Jing Zeng (University of Zurich) to understand how (diaspora) Asian are coping online 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 paper 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. Prolific members include actors/musicians of Asian descent who praise SAT for championing Asian representation. SAT is a leader and advocate for organizing meet-ups with members, partnering with tech companies to discuss race issues, collaborating with Asian microcelebrities to generate content, and fundraising for calamities like the Australian bushfires. 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. Drawing on digital ethnography and informed by our long-term immersion in the group as early members, we selected 25 conversational threads posted in January-March 2020 that focus on COVID-19-instigated xenophobia. Specifically, 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?

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[2] Short Video Apps in China

This feeder project is an individual small research grant hosted by the MCASI Research and Creative Production Committee, under the School of Media, Creative Arts & Social Inquiry at Curtin University, October 2019–March 2020.

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.

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[1] 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.



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)



Writing

[in preparation] A review of the history of Influencers in Australia, Australian media representations of Influencers, and the impact of social media Influencers on print media.

[in preparation] 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.

[in preparation] 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.

[conf paper under review] ‘Subtle Asian Traits’: Platformed race on Facebook – with Jing Zeng (University of Zurich)

[4] Abidin, Crystal. 2020. “Hanging Out At Home As A Lifestyle (in the time of COVID-19).” wishcrys.com, 2 April. <Link>

[3] Moon, Jung, and Crystal Abidin. (forthcoming, 2020). “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 | pdf | Book>

[2] Abidin, Crystal. 2020. “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 | pdf | Book | Book>

[1] Abidin, Crystal. 2019. “K-pop Social Media, (Anti-)fan Labour, and Networks of Misinformation.” wishcrys.com, 11 April. <Link>



Press

[8] “Influencers and Covid-19 – with Dr. Crystal Abidin.” TheSwedishLad, 5 April 2020. <Video>

[7] “The Perma-Viral World of the At-Home Nose Job.” Wired, 26 February 2020. <Article>

[6] “Tiktok Activism: Teen Uses TikTok App To Shine A Light On Persecution of Uighurs In China.” The Organization for World Peace, 19 December 2019. <Article>

[5] “Der Aufstand der Mädchen auf TikTok.” Austrian Broadcasting Corporation27 November 2019 <Article>

[4] “China’s ‘Mini-Me’ Culture is Perfect for Luxury Brands.” Jing Daily, 3 November 2019. <Article>

[3] “Students are fighting climate change, one TikTok video at a time.” ABC Online, 19 September 2019. <Audio>

[2] “Students are fighting climate change, one TikTok video at a time.” ABC News, 19 September 2019. <Article>

[1] “Brodie ‘Youngbloods’ Moss quit his job as an electrician to become a full-time YouTuber.” ABC Kimberly, 17 August 2019. <Article>



Talks

[4] Abidin, Crystal. (forthcoming, 2020). “#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.

[3] Abidin, Crystal. 2019. “K-pop on Instagram between South Korea and North America.” Korean Studies Association of Australasia (KSAA) 2019 Biennial Conference, Perth. 4-6 December 2019. <Link | Link>

[2] Abidin, Crystal. 2019. “Disappearing data: Monetizing and astroturfing vernaculars on tumblr pre- and post-NSFW ban.” AoIR2019, Brisbane. October 2-5, 2019.

[1] *Abidin, Crystal. 2019. “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. <Link | Link | Link>



Research team

[1] I am hiring a 2-year Postdoctoral Research Fellow to work with me on this project. Applications close on 03 February 2020.



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. Alternatively, please feel free to pass on this information to interested parties.


This page was last updated on 09 April 2020.

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