Fieldnotes: Social media microcelebrity and affective labour

I sit in a dessert cafe in the heart of Singapore with 19-year-old Ivy, a full-time commercial lifestyle blogger. Although this is the first time we are meeting in the flesh, she warms up to me quickly and we chat like old friends. We discuss her social media content, which I have been observing for months, in a bid to understand the unseen work that constitutes her online persona. I am pleasantly surprised by the degree of intimacy she is exhibiting to me through the private stories of her personal life ‘behind-the-scenes’ since she is somewhat of a microcelebrity on social media; after all, she boasts 26,000 followers on Instagram alone.

Our conversation segues into the correspondence she regularly receives from fans, some from readers who “see her on the streets” and recognize her. Many of these are private emails in the likes of Aunt Agony columns, where she painstakingly crafts personalized responses to readers who seek her advice on academics or relationship issues. Ivy is no expert in the area, but she tries to be patient and respond as “personalized” as possible. Fans aside, Ivy tells me she also copes with her fair share of ‘hate’ comments publicly posted on her social media platforms. “Some people just want to hate, want to find fault with you… there’s not much you can do,” she laments, shrugging her shoulders.

I ask if she knows of fellow bloggers who deal with similar issues, which sparks off a long discussion about how she manages her relations with these competitors. It seems there are the friends, the friends-with-privileges, the frenemies, and lastly, the outright rivals. “You don’t want to step that blogger’s tail, you know? She has a lot of clout,” she tells me. I recall a photograph on Ivy’s Instagram in which she appears friendly and intimate with some bloggers, whom she now tells me she “is actually not very familiar with”. Female sociality in the commercial blogging world sure is complicated.

Ivy offers me a quick expository on her “skincare and makeup regime” in preparation for the high resolution photographs she publishes on her social media. She tilts her head and closes her eyes to show me her fake eyelashes, gifted to her by a beauty sponsor in exchange for brief advertising on Ivy’s Instagram feed. While she claims that her “15 minute to one hour” process is “therapeutic”, I later find out that Ivy sometimes avoids leaving the house unnecessarily because she is “lazy” to handle the “dressing up and making up”. After all, Singapore is a small place and Ivy laments being caught “bareface in public” by a reader again. When she’s all dressed up, she relies on her partner to photograph her outfit of the day at various backdrops. “He used to mind, but he doesn’t complain any more,” she adds.

Ivy’s phone has been buzzing non-stop since we met. The constant rattling from the vibration of her cellphone against our wooden table has not fazed her, until now. She abruptly truncates our conversation despite a good momentum: “You can continue talking, I just want to check my phone.” I sneak a glance at my voice recorder. It is the 51:16 mark of our interview. I am secretly impressed Ivy has lasted this long without fidgeting with her phone. In fact, at six months into the second leg of my fieldwork at this point, it occurs to me that Ivy might be the only blogger thus far not to have multi-tasked on a cellphone throughout our whole interview. “You really need to be in it to keep up,” she says of her meandering Twitter feed, “I don’t know how people who follow so many other people keep up.” The hour passes quickly, and I formally thank Ivy for her time before switching the voice recorder off. We hug, and go our own ways before I see her again at a bloggers roadshow in a couple of weeks.

– snippets from my fieldnotes, April 2013

Fieldnotes: Body labour and selfies

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“In the flesh, these microcelebrities seem to have mastered the practice of displaying their camera ready face – head slightly tilted to emphasize oneʼs chin and elongate the face; eyebrows slightly raised and eyelids lifted to give the illusion of larger, rounder eyes; pursed lips and a tightening of the cheek muscles to accentuate oneʼs cheekbones; shoulders slightly raised so that oneʼs collarbones are given more prominence; tummies sucked in with a hand pinched to one side of the waist to highlight a slim but hour-glass figure; one foot shifted slightly to the front with heels off the floor and a slight tiptoe, so the body leads forward to lengthen oneʼs frame – all this intricate transitory bodily emotion work in a matter of a couple of seconds, in a bid to convey intimacy with their fans while conscientiously curating their self-presentation.”

– snippets from my fieldnotes, June 2013

Commerce on Instagram

photo-1 This is the third and final installment of a series on Instagram. Part one on The Great Instagram Purge and part two on Authenticity on Instagram now concludes with Commerce on Instagram. In the previous installment, I explained (using case studies based in Singapore) how microcelebrity Instagrammers were using the microblogging site as a repository of taste, a burgeoning market place, and a war of eyeballs. I also detailed some of their publishing practises that maximized user visibility and ‘likability’. This post expands on their commercial activity, and suggests a continuum of commercial captures that showcase how different Instagrammers disclose their paid practices. [Note: Image heavy]

Cross-platform traffic

Microcelebrity Instagrammers use the platform in a handful of novel ways. For instance, many users adopt Instagram-stylized hashtags to redirect traffic from their Instagram feeds to their blogs. Some popular hashtags are: #ontheblog #blogged #blogupdated #newblogpost This redirection of web traffic is especially important to sustain social media microcelebrities’ incomes. While they debut around 2005, Singaporean social media microcelebrities began facing a decrease in blog readership by mid-2013, when Instagram became the most popular social media app in the country. This was detrimental as blogs are more effective than Instagram in terms of selling power, because they allow space for lengthy, detailed advertorials. Many microcelebrities are focused on improving their Instagram posts in order to “lure readers back” to their blog. These self-promotion hashtags, while appearing like creative wordplay, are in fact deliberate efforts to steer readership towards avenues that are more profitable for bloggers. Some Instagrammers, such as @yankaykay, may choose to omit hashtags and announce their new blogpost in their Instagram captions: IMG_7573

Instablogging

In acknowledgement of the decline of blog viewership and the rising popularity of Instagram use, microcelebrity @xiaxue coined ‘Instablogging’ where short text-based pictorial posts are primed to replace blogging. While her first mention of ‘Instablogging’ was made in June 2013, the microcelebrity has since stopped this practice and returned to aesthetically stylized selfies and photographs of her toddler.

Behind-the-scenes: Intimacy and relatability

Some microcelebrities use Instagram to maintain intimacy with their followers through revelations into the backend process of their stylized Instagram shots. Here, @euniceannabel is pictured behind-the-scenes at the photoshoots she is usually engaged in. 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

Advertorials

More commonly, Instagram has simply been used as an advertising platform in the form of ‘advertorials’. A pastiche of ‘advertisement’ and ‘editorial’, advertorials are personalized opinion-editorials with the main aim of marketing a service or product to viewers. Advertorials are thought to be more effective than dispassionate and clinical advertisements since they usually incorporate the microcelebrities’ honest perspectives from having experienced the service and product firsthand themselves. Instagram advertorials may be sold as a single slot, as in the case of @xiaxue, or as a campaign (see ‘multi-influencer campaign’, and ‘lifestyle showcase’ later in this post).

Social clout

Many microcelebrity Instagrammers often go on to achieve clout, influence, and commercial success off the web. In Singapore, these predominantly young women have moved into radio, television, and cinema, and fashion, for instance. They also frequently make the news for their relative youth and monetary earnings (or for the various controversies they orchestrate or are hauled into.) In Singapore, @melissackoh, @naomineo_, and @ohsofickle are some microcelebrities who frequently appear in the mainstream news.

Imposters

These microcelebrities have accumulated so much fame and clout on Instagram that managing identity theft and weeding out impostors are regular affairs. While many Instagrammers do not take action against these frauds apart from reporting the accounts for abuse, @euniceannabel is one of the Instagrammers who alerts her followers to these fake accounts. Signposting these frauds is important as they may have the propensity to tarnish the web reputation and social currency of popular Instagrammers, especially among new followers who are not aware of the actual Instagrammer’s handle.

Down time panic

So reliant on Instagram are these microcelebrities (as are many regular everyday users, I presume) that little commotions break out whenever the platform crashes or is down for maintenance.

Instagram takeovers

Popular Instagrammers are some times invited to ‘take over’ official accounts of brands as part of advertising campaigns. In these ‘take overs’, the microcelebrity Instagrammer posts from the brand’s official Instagram account for a specified period of time. This strategy expands the reach of the brand to the Instagrammer’s (usually larger) following, thus riding on the microcelebrity’s social currency in order for viewership to circulate across Instagram accounts. Engaged microcelebrities usually channel their personal Instagram aesthetic while marketing the brand in the style of advertorials. In @xiaxue‘s collaboration with @8daysmagazine, the microcelebrity adopts a ‘day in the life’ approach to share the behind-the-scenes of her day.

Activism

Commercial gains aside, some Instagrammers have mobilized their followers for charitable causes. Some microcelebrities have promoted charities and not-for-profit events pro bono, despite being able to fetch up to thousands for dollars for their Instagram advertorials. On Twitter, these microcelebrities often RT (and urge followers to RT) public notices on missing persons, pets, and property. One microcelebrity, @yankaykay, has relied on the goodwill of their followers to search for a missing dog. In the comments section, her followers are seen tagging other users who live in the vicinity of where the dog was last seen.

The dog was found within the day thanks to crowd-sourcing. In her follow-up ‘thank you’ post, she tells followers that a man who had found the dog contacted her via his girlfriend, who follows @yankaykay and had seen the missing notice. The Instagrammer also thanks a string of fellow microcelebrities for reposting the missing notice on their accounts in order to tap into their own followers’ networks.

Continuum of commercial captures

While popular Instagrammers are often engaged in advertorials and sponsorships, their paid ads are not always clearly signposted or disclosed on Instagram. It is a tricky balance: On the one hand, the microcelebrity has the responsibility to differentiate between ‘sponsored posts’ and ‘personal posts’. Understandably, like many other modes of advertising, most sponsored posts would hardly contain any criticism of the product or service being advertised. Earmarking an advertorial thus signals to followers the need to take the Instagram post with a pinch of salt, and to take in the information with their own discretion. On the other hand, microcelebrities whose streams are overtly lined up with ads come off as being too ‘hard-sell’. Those whose Instagram streams become overtly commercial run the risk of losing followers who are more partial to personal posts, since the latter usually reveal some aspect of the microcelebrity’s ‘inside life’, ‘behind-the-scenes’, or persona ‘off-the-web’. This segment documents seven ways in which microcelebrity Instagrammers in Singapore disclose their paid practices. I align these along a continuum of commercial captures, from the most overt signposting to the most covert signposting. As an academic who has been researching this field since 2010, and who has been archiving commercial social media in Singapore since 2007, my stake in this is not to critique these practices as deceitful or unethical. Rather, I am more interested in how some microcelebrities are more commercially successful and socially influential than others. In this case, I am focused on systematically documenting microcelebrity Instagrammers’ innovative practices in the curation of sponsored ads on Instagram. Some of this sponsorship may involve monetary transactions while others may involve an exchange of goods and services. My early analysis reveals that the most effective, believable, and relatable of these are Instagram posts that tend towards covert signposting, the apex of which seamlessly melds into the ‘Instagram aesthetic’. –

1) Promos

The most obvious of Instagram advertorials are when microcelebrities publish overt promotional material. This is the least preferred by Instagrammers, since the captions are usually long and blatantly commercial, but are likely the most preferred by clients, since the vital information is displayed most evidently to followers. Some Instagrammers, such as @rchlwngxx, announce discounts codes, IMG_7544 others like @behindthebasics tells followers that she “collaborated” with a sponsor, IMG_7530 while another group of Instagrammers like @belluspuera announce contests and giveaways.

Another popular trope is to capture oneself at a sponsored event and include the location on Instagram’s geolocation tag, as in the case of @beatricesays.

While Instagrammers like @ohsofickle redirect her followers to brick-and-mortar stores,

others like @lucindazhou may redirect followers to other URLs or the sponsor’s social media platforms.

The most naturalized of these noticeable promos would be when microcelebrities are photographed using the product, especially if it is in the aesthetic of a ‘how to’ tutorial, such as in the case of @ongxavier and @marxmae.

2) Small markers

Small markers placed within the Instagram caption may be more discreet than obvious promos. @rchlwngxx uses ‘{AD}’ to start off her captions,

@yankaykay ends her paid posts with ‘-sp’, which is an abbreviation for ‘sponsored post’,

@xiaxue hashtags ‘#sponsoredpost’ to earmark her ads,

whereas @sophiewillocq says in the caption that the products featured are ‘c/o’ a company, which is short for ‘courtesy of’.

3) Multi-influencer campaigns

Multi-influencer campaigns are when a select group of microcelebrities from a company are tasked to promote a brand or product on their individual Instagram streams within a designated period of time. Nuffnang microcelebrities @sophiewillocq and @bongqiuqiu are seen here advertising for a company, ‘@covermybagel’.

There are two advantages to this approach. Firstly, each microcelebrity is given the artistic freedom to design and personalize their Instagram ad in the aesthetic that would most appeal to their followers. Here, microcelebrities from Gushcloud are seen promoting various products from Samsung. This collage features @lucindazhou, @jolenezhou, @junyingdiva, @tippytoes, and @joannalhs.

In this case, each microcelebrity only has to post one Instagram ad and include a campaign hashtag. The campaign hashtag in turn redirects their followers to variations of the same ad published by other microcelebrities on Instagram. Samsung’s #SAMSUNGS5LTE marketed by the Instagrammers above reveal a hashtag stream as such:

Secondly, the ad campaign is likely to remain in the imaginary of Instagram followers for a longer period of time. Since followers of microcelebrity Instagrammers are likely to follow personalities within the same genre, social group, or clique, these Instagram ads have the propensity to show up on the followers’ feeds insidiously over the designated campaign period, unlike one-off advertorials. This strategy is also known as a ‘campaign blast’. This collage features microcelebrities involved in the #someonelikeme campaign promoting safe sex practices. Pictured are @ongxavier, @outrageouseric, @joannalhs, @ohvola, and @naomineo_.

The hashtag stream also features everyday users (read: non-microcelebrity Instagrammers) who were invited to document their experience or thoughts on the campaign:

4) Shout outs and tags

Microcelebrity Instagrammers often receive freebies or exclusive services and experiences in exchange for ‘shout outs’. Monetary compensation may or may not be involved depending on the contract negotiated. Shout outs are public thanks and acknowledgements. For microcelebrity Instagrammers, these credits may come in the form of the sponsor’s Instagram handle, as evidenced with @bongqiuqiu and @melissackoh,

the campaign’s official hashtag, as seen in @beatricesays and @jaynetham,

or an Instagram user tag in the image, as used by @joannalhs to mention her various sponsors. This method of tagging is the most ‘clean’ or least ‘ad crowding’ of the three, since Instagram users have to tap on the image for the tags to be revealed.

The purpose of these tags is to subtly redirect follower traffic to the sponsors’ Instagram feeds. –

5) Relative others

Some Instagrammers attempt to naturalize their ads by composing their post as if recounting a family event. With reference to a child, parent, or partner, they may muse or quip about a product being used or an experience being shared. @bongqiuqiu often posts personal (non-sponsored) pictures of her niece (who has her own hashtag, #HeYurou, on Twitter and Instagram) engaging in daily shenanigans. However, this is at times interspersed with pictures of her nieces holding on to products. At first glance, this might seem like any other adorable toddler picture the microcelebrity often posts. However, reading the caption with sponsor hashtags, tags, and campaign information reveal these to be sponsored advertiser posts:

In a similar vein, @beatricesays usually gives followers little insights into her family life, such as their plans for festive occasions or events like birthdays and Mothers’ Day. Some of these include ‘girls’ day out’ recounts to spas, eateries, and retail boutiques with her mom. But some of these posts, while naturalized into diary-speak, are in fact sponsored posts as evidenced by the content of the caption. In order for these not to come off has being too hard-sell, this microcelebrity is seen spreading out her campaign posts across two months or so:

Both @belluspuera and @jaynetham are newly married microcelebrities whose relationships and weddings were catalogued on social media across several platforms. They have been known to muse about married life as young 20-something-year-old women. Both have also referenced their husbands in their ‘naturalized’ Instagram posts. @belluspuera‘s recount comes in the form of ‘recommendations’ to followers regarding home appliances, while @jaynetham appears to hashtag and promote the ‘christmas gift’ from her husband:

6) Lifestyle showcase

Some times, a single microcelebrity Instagrammer may be engaged for a long term campaign over a designated period. This approach requires more persona curation and thought from the microcelebrity since it is paramount that they maintain the congruence of their social media persona and the aesthetic of their Instagram feeds while weaving in advertorials and discreet sponsor hashtags. Three examples of this ‘lifestyle showcase’ are listed. The first collage is of @vaingloriousyou and the SK-II/Clozette campaign. This microcelebrity is known on Instagram for posting #OOTD (Outfit Of The Day) shots from her own online store #vygstore, and of her hair and make-up. While two of these posts make heavy references to the product, the other five posts engage followers with some of her personal thoughts or life mantras.

The second collage is of @beatricesays and #nespresso. This microcelebrity often posts pictures of her cafe-hopping adventures and features outfits from her online store, #Klarra. She diversifies her posts by featuring herself at the product’s event, capturing a ‘cafe hopping’ shot (discussed later in this post), and including the sponsored gadget in the narrative of setting up her business’ new workspace.

The third collage is of @collettemiles and various Samsung products. The microcelebrity used to post frequently about her travels and cooking, but has recently taken on the persona of posting more about health and fitness. More crucially, this microcelebrity has been known to publicize Instagram shots of her personal life ‘as is’, showing herself engaged in mundane everyday activities such as studying, cooking, or hanging out with friends from outside the industry. In these posts, she ‘naturalizes’ the advertised product by framing them in the Instagram genres of ‘a screen of a screen’, featuring her arm candy, organizing a ‘flatlay’ (discussed later in this post), a leisurely shot, a selfie, a product shot, and a ‘what’s in my bag’ shot.

7) The Instagram aesthetic

Posting advertorials in the likes of ‘The Instagram aesthetic’ affords the most naturalized and subtle forms of advertising. This is because it is often difficult to tell if the post is sponsored or merely in theme with the microcelebrity’s social media persona, unless one has a keen eye or is willing to conscientiously draw out patterns in the Instagrammer’s posting habits. (Thankfully for you, this is my job, so I’ve done some of this spotting for us!) There are several popular tropes in the Singaporean Instagram landscape. Selfies baring closeups of one’s makeup or lashes is one such example, along with professional photography ‘couple shoots’ of microcelebrity personalities and their partners. While these ‘couple shoots’ used to be in commemoration of weddings, engagements, or dating anniversaries, in recent years they have become commonplace with a rising number of microcelebrities receiving sponsored photoshoots from professional photographers. This segment investigates six other popular tropes of ‘The Instagram aesthetic’ in Singapore and how they are used to naturalize advertorials.

OOTD, or Outfit Of The Day The OOTD is when Instagrammers post snapshots of the ensemble they have put together. While the acronym suggests that these captures are taken daily to document one’s dressing, many microcelebrities have been known to organize photography sessions to document several different OOTDs at once before queueing the posts and selectively publishing them over the week or month. The convention for OOTDs is also to state the labels that one is wearing. Some OOTD fashionistas may also publish the price of the individual pieces of apparel for the convenience of followers who wish to make a similar purchase. @ongxavier is one microcelebrity who frequently publishes OOTDs. In some of these shots, a tap on the image reveals some of the sponsors he is wearing. As evidenced, not every piece of apparel is tagged with a brand name, suggesting that only the sponsored items are given publicity to his followers.

Flatlay The flatlay is a variation of the OOTD; instead of photographing the outfit when worn, the fashionista lays the pieces of their ensemble on a flat surface to be photographed. Similar to @ongxavier‘s OOTD tags, @beatricesays similarly only tags selected pieces of her ensemble – presumably only items that are sponsored and deserving publicity. Flatlays are slightly less cumbersome to prepare in that the Instagrammer does not actually have to put on the outfit and scout for a presentable background to be photographed at.

Fashion spotlight A fashion spotlight is when an Instagrammer usually features one fashion accessory they are fond of. For instance, some popular Instagrammers are known to showcase their impressive collection of luxury handbags, while others display jewelery, caps, or dresses. @jaynetham is an Instagrammer who regularly posts closeups of her fancy shoes. However, in many of these posts spread out over months, she is observed to be tagging the same shoe company, ‘@pvs_sg’. Read in tandem with sparsely flattering captions and the occasional post that redirects followers to the same company’s events and sales, this collage of posts are probably sponsored by the company tagged. Since the Instagrammer also posts (untagged) images of other shoes from her personal collection, it is not always obvious to her followers that some of these fashion spotlights are ads. In addition, unless the caption is earmarked with obvious discount codes or promotional material, it is often ambiguous if the Instagrammer is simply showing off the label of her apparel (similar to that of the OOTD and flatlay), or advertising for a brand. This approach is effective since followers are unlikely to notice to commercial activity and perceive her feed as being hard-sell.

Makeup Makeup shots are a variation of the spotlight, except that the focus is on one’s collection of cosmetics. Again, since only some of these labels are named, and even fewer are named via hashtag or an Instagram handle to redirect follower traffic to sponsors, it is difficult to determine personal ‘beauty’ posts from sponsored ones. At times, these ‘beauty’ posts may be presented in a flatlay, or as a DIY/’make up’ tutorial with instructions.

Parties Images of party-goers are also popular on Instagram. Be it behind-the-scenes of dressing up, pre-party drinks, party shenanigans, or post-party recounts, these shots are especially rampant during festive periods. In this collage, @naomineo_ is pictured (presumably) at four different parties, judging by her different outfits. In her captions, she makes little allusions to the sponsor or advertiser, save for a consistent hashtag ‘#GrantsWhiskeySG’. These photographs also do not reveal any overt sponsor logo or event in the background. In addition, these posts are spread out across a few weeks, and there are no specific products being featured. All these come together to constitute subtle advertising.

Cafe hopping Cafe hopping is yet another common Instagram trope. In Singapore, the rising popularity of cafe hopping photography came about when brunch grew to become a trendy weekend past-time among young adults. News outlets have reported over 200 new cafes in 2014 alone, with listicles and ‘best of’ countdowns being common blog fodder among social media microcelebrities. That cafe hopping is a middle-class privilege afforded to those with spending power (these eat-ins don’t come cheap!) alludes to the classed aesthetic and curation of taste among young adults on Instagram in Singapore. In this collage, @beatricesays mentions the local cafe, ‘Strangers’ Reunion’ in hashtags, Instagram account tags, and geolocation tags. Apart from the first image that overtly promotes the cafe, the other two images situate the brand more subtly. The second image captures the cafe as a mere transient ‘workspace’, while the third image focused on her brunch food includes a small table card featuring the brand. The Instagrammer spreads these posts out across two months or so, and integrates ‘mentions’ or ‘name drops’ of the brand into her usual Instagram routine, as opposed to placing it as the prime feature of her Instagram post. As such, the advertising intent is once again obscured and tailored to be more appealing to her Instagram followers.

Reflexivity

While these microcelebrity Instagrammers have been professionalizing their feeds and coming up with creative ways to integrate advertorials into their social media personae, one can hardly claim that the work they do is contrived or easy money. For one, the social media advertising industry is a multi-million dollar industry in Singapore with these microcelebrities managed by a large backend production crew. There are ‘influencer’ or ‘talent’ managers who are in charge of spotting new personalities to groom, maintaining the professional standards of publication, and looking after the welfare of their current stable of talents. There are also sales and marketing managers whose role is to liaise with advertisers who wish to engage their personalities for a myriad of arrangements. These range from brief in-house appearances and short guest lectures, to year-long ambassadorships or committed international travels. A slip-up by @xiaxue in mid-2014 also gave unaware followers a sneak peek into how the industry works. The microcelebrity had earlier uploaded an advertorial for ‘SkinnyMint’ but forgot to delete a brief from her manager that read as follows:

“Hello Wendy! Here’s your EDITED caption for skinny mint 2nd IG:”

Many Instagram followers reacted in disbelief and called her out for being “careless” and “lazy”. The original post was quickly removed and replaced with the shortened caption that omitted the backend exchange.

It is an industry standard for even short Instagram captions to be vetted by managers or approved by the sponsor before being published, as is similar with Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Blog ads. Many microcelebrities maintain that the purpose of this vetting is merely to ensure that their client’s requirements have been met, such as including a time-sensitive discount count or using a specific campaign hashtag. This is contrary to popular speculations that the entire caption of a sponsored post is crafted by a client, and simply copied and pasted by the Instagrammer. Many microcelebrities are adamant about writing their own captions in order to retain the congruence of their social media persona and personal voice to followers. As such, they refute accusations that this vetting dilutes the authenticity of their posts, and instead argue that managerial vetting allows them to retain their autonomy.

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 the third image, 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 microcelebrity has little to gain for ‘working’ pro bono. Some microcelebrity Instagrammers 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_6181Her 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 are eat-outs and cafe hopping adventures. She also includes a more humorous hashtag, “ImReallyGettingFat” as a self-reflexive commentary on her eating habits. –

Being a successful social media microcelebrity

The microcelebrity Instagrammers featured in this post have each mastered the listed commercial tropes to some degree. Many of them are full-time social media microcelebrities whose livelihoods depend on their ability to relate to readers and serve advertorials in a palatable manner. From the case studies discussed above, successful social media microcelebrities seem to be engaging in three measures of conscientious calibration.

Personal vs. Commercial

Firstly, social media microcelebrities calibrate the ‘personal’ and the ‘commercial’. Advertorials seldom read like hard-sell ads unless it is inevitable, and microcelebrities try their best to personalize the material in congruence with their social media persona to remain relatable to followers. Ad disclosures and the careful timing of personal and sponsored posts ensure that their Instagram feeds maintain a personal touch. There is also much emotional labour involved in fan engagement, with several of these microcelebrities taking the time to respond to private correspondence with followers asking for recommendations and advice.

Private vs. Public

Secondly, social media microcelebrities calibrate the ‘private’ and the ‘public’. Sneak peaks ‘behind-the-scenes’ of their usually glamorous ‘Insta-lives’ also retains their accessibility and ordinariness to followers, many of whom desire to emulate their lifestyles through the consumption (vicarious or otherwise) of the goods and services being hawked. Maintaining the congruence of their social media persona across several social media feeds also requires much emotional work, as does the IRL events in which followers interact with them in the flesh.

Mundane vs. Spectacle

Thirdly, social media microcelebrities calibrate the ‘mundane’ and the ‘spectacle’. While it may be tempting for microcelebrities to publish only the exceptionally spectacular snippets of their industry, this may quickly alienate followers who no longer find them intimate. Indeed, a handful of microcelebrities who have crossed over into mainstream television celebrity and who no longer conscientiously curate their social media feeds end up being perceived as celebrities ‘to be looked at’ from afar as opposed to microcelebrities ‘to be emulated’ via interaction. After all, the allure of social media microcelebrities is premised on the revelations of perpetual transition from the ‘ordinary’ to the ‘celebrity’, which requires a continual display of their lives ‘as is’ even as they are sharing the ‘highlights’ of their industry. The Insta-life may seem glamorous, but it certainly isn’t easy.

Thanks for hanging in there with this long post! Any thoughts? Beep me!

The first two installments of this Instagram series are available here
The Great Instagram Purge
Authenticity on Instagram

Author’s note:
This post and its first two installments (The Great Instagram Purge & Authenticity on Instagram) were written on 19 December 2014 as reactions to Instagram’s Purge and queued for publication. Shortly after, the Xiaxue-Gushcloud incident broke out in Singapore on 23 December 2014. As such, this post has been lightly edited to include more recent Instagram screengrabs. 
In short, a popular blogger made some allegations (claims here) against a regional social media advertising company (personal statement here and official response here) with regards to viewership, disclosure, and media ethics. In one of the claims specifically, a commercial blogger* was accused of masking her Instagram ad: linlovesall

These resulted in several thousand weigh-ins from other social media advertising companies, web microcelebrities, mainstream media influencers, and everyday users. The incident went viral rapidly, and has been occupying the national imaginary via coverage by mainstream print and digital media outlets for a week. In addition, citizen-run websites including contentious journalism, vigilante satire, and gossip forums have been providing extended coverage on the saga.  While the commotion continues to unfold, ethical, business, and legal guidelines for social media microcelebrities have been called into question. As a scholar of social media commerce and celebrity culture, my analysis of this episode is currently in the works. *In Singapore, the native nomenclature for commercial social media microcelebrities is ‘blogger’, regardless of the platform used. Historically, this is because bloggers were the first to monetize their platforms in the mid-2000s. Many have since branched out to several social media platforms including Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.

Authenticity on Instagram

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Since its creation in 2010, Instagram has become an aesthetically stylized site for photosharing, microblogging, networking, and commercial exchange. Instagram’s philosophy is listed on its FAQ page:

What is Instagram?

Instagram is a fun and quirky way to share your life with friends through a series of pictures. Snap a photo with your mobile phone, then choose a filter to transform the image into a memory to keep around forever. We’re building Instagram to allow you to experience moments in your friends’ lives through pictures as they happen. We imagine a world more connected through photos.

Reappropriating Instagram

However, four of the platform’s suggested uses have been subverted by some of Instagram’s most popular users today, the microcelebrity Instagrammers:

1) Instagram presupposes a networked intimacy in its adoption of the term “friends” to refer to one’s followers and following.

However, microcelebrity Instagrammers usually have high follower-to-following ratios, that is, having a large number of (unknown) users subscribed to their account while themselves subscribing to only a small number of (known) users.

2) Instagram was intended to be a fuss-free “mobile phone” app that could be used on-the-go with a smartphone camera.

However, microcelebrity Instagrammers are known to use high-end digital cameras to capture high-resolution photographs before transferring them to their smartphones for posting.

3) Instagram was crafted as an collection of “moments” for “memory” keepsake.

However, microcelebrity Instagrammers are using the stream to disseminate and circulate information and imagery rather than as a personal nostalgic archive.

4) Instagram aims to capture life events spontaneously “as they happen”.

However, microcelebrity Instagrammers are labouring over purposefully staged images to portray a particular persona and lifestyle aesthetic.

Professionalizing Instagram photography

Photography on Instagram has been professionalizing rapidly. From weddings shot entirely on iPhones and processed only with Instagram filters, to personalized products bearing your Instagram prints, the market for this DIY tasteful aesthetic is fast expanding. Many Instagram photographers become acknowledged microcelebrities with cult followings.

One of the most iconic of these Instagram photographers is @muradosmann. His signature #followmeto shots capture his arm stretched out holding on to the hand of his partner, whose back is photographed against scenic backdrops from around the world. The couple have since been engaged in several commercial endorsements, mostly from the tourism and heritage industry.

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In journalism, Instagram photojournalists have been covering global crises and incidents such as the North Korea lock down, Arab Spring, and Hurricane Sandy. Mashable’s beautiful list of 14 Instagram photojournalists is here. In addition, TIME awarded ‘Instagram Photojournalist of the Year‘ to the AP’s David Guttenfelder last year.

Remarking authenticity

In response to the hyper-stylized Instagram aesthetic, several hashtags were birthed to re-mark the authentic, natural, and undoctored version of users’ photographic shots. Some of these are:

#natural
#noedit
#nofilter
#nomakeup
#nophotoshop

At the same time, popular users who began monetizing their Instagram streams marked their images with hashtags such as:

#instaads
#advertorial
#sponsoredpost

Others who aimed to pry away from this commerciality marked their posts with hashtags indicating the direct opposite:

#notsponsored
#personal

Memes on the contrived au naturel

In fact, there are still many everyday users who use Instagram less restrictively, more casually, and much more comically. Perhaps as a parody and commentary on the increasingly aestheticized take on Instagram and the rise of style-conscious Instagram celebrities, two popular memes have moved onto Instagram over the years. Both are critically humorous captures of users faking the au naturel:

In ‘bae caught me slippin‘, users are pictured sleeping, with the image framed in an aesthetic appearing to look like they were photographed by their romantic partner. The parody now involves users staging selfies of themselves sleeping, with strategic revelations into the ‘backstage’ of the selfie intentionally included in the frame. This backstage often includes a mirror in the background revealing the user having snapped the photo of themselves pretending to sleep, or the appearance of additional limbs to mock users who attempt to conceal their forearms when snapping the selfie.

Another meme, ‘i woke up like this‘, originally began with users snapping selfies of themselves fresh out of bed in the morning in various states of undress and unkemptness. The parody now involves users presenting an exaggeratedly messy ‘wake up’ state, or one that is exceptionally flawless in full-face make-up and proper dress.

Commerce on Instgram

In my last post on The Great Instagram Purge, I mused about the chaos that ensured among media outlets and users regarding #lostfollowers, the currency that vital statistics such as Follower counts, RTs, Likes, and Favourites hold in the affective and attention economy, and the commerciality of social media microcelebrities whose bread and butter depends on their web popularity and engagement.

In relation to the purging of spam, bot, and inactive accounts, one of Instagram Community Guidelines reads:

“When you engage in self-promotional behavior of any kind on Instagram it makes people who have shared that moment with you feel sad inside. This guideline includes repetitive comments, as well as service manipulation in order to self-promote, and extends to commercial spam comments, such as discount codes or URLs to websites. We ask that you keep your interactions on Instagram meaningful and genuine.”

I’ve wondered if these “meaningful and genuine” interactions extend to microcelebrity Instagrammers. Unlike spam/bots who continually hijack photographs with overtly promotional (and highly suspicious) links, microcelebrity Instagram accounts are run by actual users who have acquired a degree of fame and clout, most often for their Instagram aesthetic and fan engagement. More crucially, these microcelebrity Instagrammers appear to be renegotiating definitions of the ‘authentic’ with various extents of staging, stylizing, and aestheticizing involved in their commercial work.

Based off fieldwork I did IRL, a book chapter I recently published details how Instagram is being used commercially among social media microcelebrity in Singapore:

1) Instagram as a repository of taste (Like me!)

The Instagram aesthetic relies on a pecuniary taste in which expensive (-looking) objects and exclusive experiences are perceived to be more desirable and beautiful because people increasingly value wealth (cf. Veblen). Posts are calculated based on what is “Instagram worthy” and the number of “projected likes”, much of which is dependent on the microcelebrity Instagrammer’s photo taking/editing skills. It is crucial for microcelebrity Instagrammers to maintain the tone and persona of their overall Instagram feed. Thus, what is left un-Instagrammed is just as important as what is posted.

2) Instagram as a burgeoning market place (Buy me!)

In order to maintain their credibility as ordinary, accessible, and believable laymen who are easier to emulate than mainstream celebrities, microcelebrity Instagrammers balance their commercial and personal posts by spacing out advertorials and naturalizing ads into an Instagram aesthetic and speak (coming up in the next post on Commerce on Instagram!). Many microcelebrity Instagrammers curate a neat schedule to time their personal and/or sponsored posts across the week or month.

3) Instagram as a war of eyeballs (Watch me!)

To maximize visibility and ‘likability’, microcelebrity Instagrammers calculatedly schedule their posts for maximum traffic. For instance, in Singapore 0800-1000hrs and 1900-2100hrs coincides with peak hour traffic where commuters on public transport are mostly likely to leisurely scroll through Instagram to kill time. Those with international followings may also post Instagram shots to coincide with peak traffic belts in other timezones. Microcelebrity Instagrammers rely on a constantly charged phone (i.e. possession of numerous power banks) and continuous Internet access (i.e. turn down sponsored holidays to destinations without 3G coverage). In addition, hashtag wars frequently occur, in which users piggyback on popular hashtags or hijack other microcelebrities’ personal hashtag streams. As a result, hashtag mutation occurs often.

The chapter chiefly documents how microcelebrity bloggers creatively strategize to portray a desirable upper-middle-class lifestyle and channel hegemonic ideals of beauty. This attracts viewers to vicariously experience their lives by ‘following’ their Instagram accounts, thus contributing to their ‘follower count’ and advertising revenue.

How do commercial Instagrammers negotiate authenticity and disclosure?

My next post will look into the commercial activity of microcelebrity Instagrammers. I will present a continuum of commercial captures that details how different Instagrammers disclose their paid practices.

Author’s note: This post and its third parter (Commerce on Instagram) were written on 19 December 2014 as sequels to The Great Instagram Purge and queued for publication. Shortly after, the Xiaxue-Gushcloud incident broke out in Singapore on 23 December 2014.

In short, a popular blogger made some allegations (claims here) against a regional social media advertising company (personal statement here and official response here) with regards to viewership, disclosure, and media ethics. In one of the claims specifically, a commercial blogger* was accused of masking her Instagram ad:

linlovesall

These resulted in several thousand weigh-ins from other social media advertising companies, web microcelebrities, mainstream media influencers, and everyday users. The incident went viral rapidly, and has been occupying the national imaginary via coverage by mainstream print and digital media outlets for a week. In addition, citizen-run websites including contentious journalism, vigilante satire, and gossip forums have been providing extended coverage on the saga. 

While the commotion continues to unfold, ethical, business, and legal guidelines for social media microcelebrities have been called into question. As a scholar of social media commerce and celebrity culture, my analysis of this episode is currently in the works.

*In Singapore, the native nomenclature for commercial social media microcelebrities is ‘blogger’, regardless of the platform used. Historically, this is because bloggers were the first to monetize their platforms in the mid-2000s. Many have since branched out to several social media platforms including Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.