Digital detox, Media panics, and What’s next.

This continues from my earlier post on Essena O’Neill, Authenticity, and Vlog Wars.

Here are more thoughts triggered by the frenzy over Essena O’Neill’s announcement that she is quitting the industry.

I will look specifically at how the mainstream and popular press have reacted to O’Neill’s video, and the surrounding discourse of moral panics.

I wrote my PhD on Influencers’ culture and commerce. I am an anthropologist who focused on Influencers in Singapore in my PhD. If you’re interested, the abstract to my thesis, Please Subscribe! Influencers, Social Media, and the Commodification of Everyday Life is here. If you’re not a fan of words, a watered-down very early version exists as a 3MT speech here. My other posts on Influencer culture are here.

INFLUENCERS

Influencers, their social media savvy, and their commodification of everyday life are of especially topical significance given their international prominence recently.

Many accounts celebrated the overwhelming success of young Influencers.

For instance, 21-year-old Australian YouTuber Troye Sivan, whose Internet fame has propelled him to star in Hollywood movies, Broadway plays, and clinch a recording contract with music label EMI Australia, was named by Time Magazine to be among the worldʼs 25 most influential teenagers of 2014.

However, other damaging reports revealed the pitfalls and shortcomings of this relatively new industry:

In December 2014, 25-year-old British YouTuber Zoe Sugg, who broke records for being the fastest-selling debut novelist, selling over 78,000 copies in a week, was exposed for having used a ghost-writer. (She wrote book two herself).

Later in April 2015, 23-year-old Australian health blogger Belle Gibson (digital estates since removed), who built a career on claims that she overcame terminal brain cancer through the wholesome food recipes and alternative therapies she was promoting, admitted that she never had the disease.

18-year-old Essena O’Neill’s story leans towards the apparently ‘dark side’ of social media and Influencer commerce, and her desire to ‘leave it all behind’. Some commentators have branded this the ‘digital detox’.

Once again, although at the peak of prominence now, this is not new.

DIGITAL DETOX

In my ethnographic work with Influencers in Singapore, many young people have experienced similar tensions. But they’ve found savvy ways to cope with these stresses and exercise their agency everyday whether or not they choose to stay or leave.

In a display of self-reflexivity and self-parody, many of them also produce entertaining narratives as such:

One prominent Influencer who recently left the industry is ohsofickle (blog, Twitter, Instagram, store).

Now a 25-year-old, she started in the Influencer industry at age 15, before deciding to leave after becoming a mother last year. Unlike O’Neill’s sudden announcement, ohsofickle’s exit and her announcement of departure seemed more measured and careful.

In March 2015, ohsofickle hinted that in “planning for the future” she may use social media more recreationally than proactively for her career. She mentioned that her life situation had changed since becoming a mother, and she wants to feel less pressure while continuing to use social media.

Six months later in September 2015, ohsofickle released ‘the big news‘ that she was leaving the Influencer industry (i.e. commercial social media, not social media per se) for her own and her family’s privacy. However, unlike O’Neill who claimed that her social media presence was “faked”, ohsofickle mentioned that she felt it would be difficult for her to continue her commerical social media presence while omitting/not blogging in depth about her “personal life”.

She implied that keeping her digital estates purely commercial/advertorial-oriented would make her blog “very different”, and “not really [her] style anymore”. Despite leaving the industry, she has left her digital estates in tact as an archive. In her amicable farewell, she expresses thanks to her followers, clients, and peers. She continues to use her social media as a regular user (additional private Instagram account here), post-microcelebrity.

Her thoughts on the O’Neill case are screengrabbed here:

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“I feel you girl~~~ social media was a huge part of my life and this year I finally managed to wake up and not be so into it anymore and it has been pretty nice so far – enjoying real life (and occasional updates here and there). :) i used to have to worry about not having enough pictures to post and i had to post one picture EVERY DAY. Actually there’s really nothing wrong with making lotsa money from being popular online (it is easy money and good money) but it is a big problem and you need to WAKE UP when you get so obsessed and into it you forget how to enjoy life for what it really is and you constantly need approval and likes to feel valued and happy.”

DISCOURSES

Before we jump onto the media panic bandwagon that social media/technology is a bad thing and that we need to “save the young people”, let’s be clear that the discourses on the O’Neill case are actually very different and ought to be disentangled:

i.e. attack on social media per se vs attack on selfies, beauty industry, Influencer industry, youth and fame, etc.

i.e. O’Neill is quitting social media altogether vs O’Neill is quitting the social media/Influencer industry.

As of November 4th, 2015, 1200hrs GMT+8, her viral video has been taken down, and her updated Instagram account, @letsbegamechangers, seems to be set to private. However, O’Neill is now posting on her new Vimeo account.

Her new website, ‘letsbegamechangers.com‘, still features products and services on her ‘Game Changing Stuff’ tab. However, she says on the crowd sourcing funding page, ‘Support Me‘, on her new site:

Sponsored Disclaimer: I will never do paid posts or advertisement for ANY brands on this site or in any of my videos ever again. Everything I mention, I mention because I use it and love the product. There is NO money associated.

Shall we make this rabbit-hole a less painful exercise? Here’s a sheet for Social Media Moral Panic Bingo. Right click + Save. (And all the educators out there collectively sigh)

SMMP Bingo

MEDIA PANICS

I catalogued the top 40 Google News searches for “Essena O’Neill” on November 4th, 2015 at 1600hrs GMT+8. After omitting replicas, I handcoded 36 news headlines.

Here are the 12 main discourses in media coverage so far. I’m sure more will develop as thinkpieces and commentaries surface in the next cycle of this media panic.

1) O’Neill has quit social media.

2) O’Neill has quit social media and is now a role-model.

3) O’Neill has exposed social media for being ‘fake’.

4) O’Neill has exposed social media for being unhealthy.

5) Selfies are harmful.

Now, moralizing selfies is something I feel very strongly about. So in the interest of time and to save everyone from future clickbait,

Popular press: Selfies are bad.
Academic press: How about no.

End.

6) O’Neill has exposed the beauty industry.

7) O’Neill has exposed the Influencer industry.

8) O’Neill is overwhelmed by viewer support post-viral post.

9) O’Neill is struggling with new issues after quitting the Influencer industry.

10) O’Neill is actually still on social media.

Tech Insider 02

11) O’Neill’s actions are allegedly a hoax.

12) O’Neill responds to ‘hoax’ accusations.

WHERE TO FROM HERE?

O’Neill is likely going to be branded as the poster girl for social media/technology moral panics for some time.

Even though many of us feel that ‘this too will pass’ because Internet amnesia will kick in and drama gets old fast, we need to think about how we want to respond the next time a media panic as such is served to us.

I want to push back against the dominant discourses that social media/technology is inauthentic/unhealthy/frivolous etc.

Dwelling on the micro-public actions of one 18-year-old (without taking into account nuances like her demographic, context, backstory, motivations, etc) and casting a blanket statement that WE NEED TO SAVE YOUNG PEOPLE or that YOUNG PEOPLE ARE NARCISSISTIC is

1) shallow albeit clickbaity,

2) prescriptive and not descriptive, and

3) just not productive. What is the value of another article describing how O’Neill cried through her video?

And chances are this whole cycle of media panics is just going to rinse and repeat with the next O’Neill.

Remember when we collectively panicked over the wellbeing (even posthumously) of Marilyn Monroe? Britney Spears? Amy Winehouse? Miley CyrusLady Gaga? (Gasp! Why are all these women?! Now stop and think.)

If you’re an educator or someone who is interested in pushing back against media panic discourses, shall we brainstorm on some useful exercises?

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1) We could think about how news stories are classified. Just looking at the URL of the sites, we see how the slug for O’Neill is filed under categories such as news, health, trending, world, female, video etc. What does this mean? How have social media posts by everyday users come to be standard front-pagers of news outlets? What does this tell us about the circulation of vernacular knowledge and construction of hegemonic discourses?

2) We could think about the implications of press lexicon. Reading news headlines and articles, we could pick out descriptives/adjectives for the ‘young woman in distress’ trope or social media/technology moral panic tropes. See Bingo sheet above. We could do the same for the visuals and screenshots that accompany these articles. A minimini example I wrote earlier on the Chapel Hill Shooting is here.

3) We could think about intersectionality. Different people use the same tool in different ways depending on their demographic, their need, their intentions, etc. We cannot simply cast out all Influencers/vloggers/Instagrammers/young people for their social media activity.

All these actors probably see themselves as operating on different ladders. Influencers like O’Neill probably see their digital estates as money-making entities.

Others like the Trans vloggers/It Gets Better vloggers/self-injury bloggers probably see their digital estates as community clusters, personal diaries, self-actualization pursuits.

Unfortunately, the temptation is for us to see difference and want to assign distinction and discipline without acknowledging diversity of use and dialogue. (I realize I am on a roll with alliteration. I am a closet poet.)

Shall we not be complicit in the moral/media panic?

This Parenting Panel on ABC is how some of us feel about social media post-O’Neill. But here are other digital media scholars, Tama Leaver and Jean Burgess, encouraging us to think about empathy and agency.

Any thoughts? Let’s chat!

News articles here:

AJ+
BBC
Buzzfeed
CBC News
CBS News
CNN
Daily Mail 01, Daily Mail 02, Daily Mail 03, Daily Mail 04
Elle
Forbes
Guardian 01, Guardian 02, Guardian 03
Huffington Post
Metro
Mirror
New York Times
News.com 01, News.com 02
People
Sunshine Coast Daily
Sydney Morning Herald 01, Sydney Morning Herald 02
Tech Insider 01, Tech Insider 02, Tech Insider 03
Telegraph
Teen Vogue
Time
Uproxx
Us Magazine
Yahoo, Yahoo UK
9news

Essena O’Neill, Authenticity, and Vlog Wars.

Edit: Part two here – Digital detox, Media panics, and What’s next.

I wrote my PhD on Influencers’ culture and commerce.

Here are some thoughts triggered by the frenzy over Essena O’Neill’s announcement that she is quitting the industry. As of November 4th, 2015, 1200hrs GMT+8, her viral video has been taken down, and her current Instagram account, @letsbegamechangers, seems to be set to private.

Her new site, letsbegamechangers.com, features a forthcoming ‘Cool Products‘ tab. She is also crowd sourcing funding under ‘Support Me‘, which ends with this note:

Sponsored Disclaimer: I will never do paid posts or advertisement for ANY brands on this site or in any of my videos ever again. Everything I mention, I mention because I use it and love the product. There is NO money associated.

As an anthropologist, I focused on Influencers in Singapore in my PhD. If you’re interested, the abstract to my thesis, Please Subscribe! Influencers, Social Media, and the Commodification of Everyday Life is here. If you’re not a fan of words, a watered-down very early version exists as a 3MT speech here.

BACKSTAGE

I’ve written much about how Influencers negotiate commerce on social media.

The Great Instagram Purge: Chaos, Currency, and Commerciality
Authenticity on Instagram
Commerce on Instagram

What I want to reiterate is that some Influencers intentionally use Instagram to reveal their reflexivity on the frontstage/backstage (my notes on Goffman’s theories on this here). That is, intentionally revealing the ‘less than perfect’ life and the labour that goes into picture perfect poses is not new.

For instance, here Singaporean Influencer @euniceannabel is pictured behind-the-scenes at the photoshoots in which she is usually engaged. She also frequently shares snippets of her journey as a rising star in the television and cinema industry.

These are a stark contrast to the more aesthetic #OOTD (Outfit Of The Day) shots that she usually posts, and serve to underscore her accessibility to followers who model after her gendered and classed scripts.

ea ootd

With the increasing commercialism of Instagram posts, it appears that personal posts that feature products that are not sponsored deserve their own earmark.

@yankaykay, for instance, occasionally publishes posts on her social media feeds and blog about genuine experiences she has had with retail staff. She has Instagrammed good products from jewelry lines and food & beverage outlets, and blogged about great customer service from an electronics store.

This unsolicited publicity is given as a measure of gratitude for the service she has received. In these posts, she explicitly tells followers that her intent is “not sponsored”, and that she is merely sharing the information out of goodwill.

In another photo, she clearly acknowledges the commerce of her Instagram feed, but clarifies that this post is not sponsored, albeit appearing as a favour to a friend:

“I’m trained as a model/blogger to pose/post for ads and I know what this looks like but this isn’t an ad. Val is a friend and she treated me to my first Jolly Bee and now the entire house adores it. Really super love this. I’ve had one with every meal since my first order.”

In the grand scheme of things, these non-sponsored posts featuring flattering compliments seem to be perceived as more authentic than sponsored posts since the Influencer has little to gain for ‘working’ pro bono.

Some Influencers are also candidly upfront about the staging and labour that goes on behind their seemingly effortless and aesthetically tasteful shots. In this example, @naomineo_ publishes a photo of her hair apparently waving in the wind. Her humorous caption acknowledges the backstage as such:

“It wasn’t the wind. I had to flip my hair a zillion times to get it right lol”

IMG_7232

Similarly, @euniceannabel signposts the labour involved in curating a congruent social media persona on her Instagram feed by jokingly juxtaposing her ‘Instagram’ frames and her ‘off-Instagram’ actions. Amidst her feed of high resolution fashion photos, she interjects with a candid image ‘on the go’ of a bowl of chips.

IMG_6181

Her caption reads:

“Oh the irony… blogging about skincare and how we should cut down on junk food to prevent acne. And here I am chopping away on fried delights.”

She ends the caption with her signature ‘#euniceannabeldiet’, which is a hashtag stream that catalogues her eat-outs and cafe hopping adventures. She also includes a more humorous hashtag, “ImReallyGettingFat” as a self-reflexive commentary on her eating habits.

RELATABILITY

What I want to work out in my next piece of writing is the notion of “authenticity”. Is it intentional revelations to the backstage? Is it non-commerce? Is it commerce but with disclosure? A related paper on Influencer commerce, audience intimacy, and brand credibility is available here, but I would like to think through this a bit more.

Emically, Influencers in my ethnography often brand themselves as having “relatability”, or the ability to persuade their followers to identify with them.

However, this concept is largely unarticulated and inarticulable among Influencers (i.e. “so that readers can relate to you”; “to make my posts relatable”) and honed through “gut feeling” and “trial-and- error” (i.e. “it just feels right”; “the more you practice the more you will know”).

Based on my observations and interactions since 2011, I have come to understand that in the vernacular, relatability is comprised of the interrelated but distinct notions of

“accessibility” (how easy it is to approach an Influencer in digital and physical spaces),

“believability” (how convincing and realistic an Influencerʼs depicted lifestyle and sentiments are),

“authenticity” (how genuine an Influencerʼs actual lifestyle and sentiments are),

“emulatability” (how easy it is for followers to model themselves after an Influencerʼs lifestyle), and

“intimacy” (how familiar and close followers feel to an Influencer).

VLOGWARS?

In my earlier writing, I note how blogwars are a staple in the Influencer industry.

A controversial post like O’Neill’s video generates hype in the industry. This manufactured sense of disorder, in which the stasis of Influencer hierarchy is disrupted, is frequently capitalized by other Influencers who compete to capture the attention of passers-by.

For this reason, many (peripheral) Influencers attempt to produce side commentaries, personal editorials, or mini (sloppy) ‘exposé’s of their own promising “previously unseen” information from “behind the scenes” as “an insider”.

This creates publicity for themselves and intensifies the exposure for their social media platforms through redirected click-throughs. Despite the apparent frivolity of things, these topics have the ability to command attention and attract (good and bad) publicity, and serve the function of appropriating drama and controversy for net gain.

In response to O’Neill’s announcement, several Influencers (particularly North American and Australian vloggers) have come out to give their version of ‘behind-the-scenes’ and share their thoughts on the Influencer industry.

Some Influencers were still focused on O’Neill per se.

NinaAndRanda (15:31) are two sisters whom O’Neill stayed with when she visited Los Angeles. Among many things, they talk about O’Neill’s “actual” LA experience, including calling her out for claiming that she was “working in LA” when she was actually on vacation. They also reveal that O’Neill had just gotten out of a relationship with a person based in LA who was also involved in the Influencer circles.

More crucially, the Influencers point out that O’Neill cannot speak for all Influencers as a collective when she claims that they are “miserable”, “fake”, or “sad”, citing individual experiences. They also highlight the importance of personal friendships within the Influencer industry in providing material resources (travel, housing, food), industry networks, and emotional support.

Word From Willie (7:59) is the brother of the above two sisters. He shares most of their sentiments and suggests that O’Neill’s breakdown might have been triggered by “post-breakup stress disorder”.

Bonnyrebecca (9:13) appears to be a close friend of O’Neill. She says O’Neill genuinely did not enjoy the Influencer experience, was no longer happy, and experienced an awakening.

Plantriotic (8:11) feels O’Neill is “not quitting [social media] but redefining the way she is using it as an activist tool”. He also pulls the “fame too much too soon card” and suggests that O’Neill was overwhelmed from being famous at the age of 15/16.

Others moved on to meta-commentaries about their trade and the uses of social media.

High Carb Hannah (7:06) frames social media as a tool and instrument that can be used to positive/negative ends.

Henya Mania (11:15) encourages users to “stay on social media” and use it to “spread a message” because “the world is not going to change by itself”.

That Vegan Couple (7:13) remind viewers that “in order to change the game, you have to use social media as the tool”.

However, older videos from other Influencers seem to suggest that O’Neill’s public and subversive play with self-presentation has always been one of the tropes for which she is known.

POWSIMIAN (10:50) posted in October 2015 about O’Neill calling out fellow Influencers on their cause towards veganism.

durianrider (5:34) posted in July 2015 answering AMAs (Ask Me Anything videos) in which viewers were constantly asking about how O’Neill “is like in real life”.

This seems to suggest that said “digital detox” might have been a carefully crafted event.

My next post will look at how mainstream and popular press have reacted to O’Neill’s video.

Any thoughts? Beep me!