Social Media Famous Children

In light of recent discussions around the rights of social media famous children, where various journalists and scholars are calling for more accountability from influencer parents, social media platforms, and everyday audiences, my collaborator A/Prof Tama Leaver and I would like to share some snippets from our paper-in-progress regarding the networked trajectories of child virality for which another stakeholder – TV networks – must be held accountable.

The piece of research, ‘From YouTube to TV, and Back Again: Viral Video Child Stars and Media Flows in the Era of Social Media’, was last presented in October 2018 at the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) 2018 conference in Montreal.

YouTube and TV

While talk shows and reality TV are often considered launching pads for ordinary people seeking to become celebrities, we argue that when children are concerned, especially when those children have had viral success on YouTube or other platforms, their subsequent appearance(s) on television highlight far more complex media flows.

At the very least, these flows are increasingly symbiotic, where television networks harness preexisting viral interest online to bolster ratings. However, the networks might also be considered parasitic, exploiting viral children for ratings in a fashion they and their carers may not have been prepared for.

In tracing the trajectory of Sophia Grace and Rosie from viral success to The Ellen Show we highlight these complexities, whilst simultaneously raising concerns about the long-term impact of these trajectories on the children being made increasingly and inescapably visible across a range of networks and platforms.

We draw on an extended data set largely comprising screengrabs, archived comments, press coverage, and volumes of field notes tracking historical events that unfolded in public trajectory of young children who go viral on the internet and on the media, but also utilise data derived from an ethnographically informed content analysis of young internet celebrities and a data-driven cultural studies analysis of childhood in the age of tracking devices.

Sophia Grace and Rosie

This research takes as its primary case study the trajectory and progress of cousins Sophia Grace Brownlee (b. 2003) and Rosie McClelland (b. 2006), who went viral on YouTube in 2011 at the ages of 8 and 5 for covering Nicki Minaj’s Super Bass and were subsequently groomed by The Ellen DeGeneres Show into multi-platform celebrity.

Sophia Grace Brownlee (b. 2003) and Rosie McClelland (b. 2006) are a pair of cousins from Essex, England. Better known on the internet as “Sophia Grace and Rosie”, the duo went viral on YouTube at ages 8 and 5 when Sophia Grace’s mother uploaded a video of the girls singing Nicki Minaj’s Super Bass in September 2011 (Sophia Grace 2011a). The viral video was the debut post on the YouTube channel “Sophia Grace”, and has accumulated over 52 million views as of August 2017. A month later in October 2011, the girls were invited on The Ellen DeGeneres Show to be interviewed by show host Ellen and to reenact their viral performance. In a later segment, Nicki Minaj sprang a surprise on the girls where she appeared on stage at a last minute request to chat and sing with them. Both videos have recorded over 32 million and 122 million views respectively.

So well received were the girls on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and its YouTube channel that shortly after, behind-the-scenes footage of Sophia Grace & Rosie were released on the Show’s YouTube Channel, in a bid to capitalize upon their virality and extend the length of their appeal to the show’s audience. Subsequently, the girls were subsumed into the programming of The Ellen DeGeneres Show as they represented the show at various red carpet and starred in branded content in the YouTube content vernacular of a vlog, promoting various brands and events. Sophia Grace & Rosie eventually became a bona fide staple on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, hosting their own segment known as “‘Tea Time’ with Sophia Grace & Rosie”, with eight episodes between September 2012 and May 2013. It appears that The Ellen DeGeneres Show spotted talent and viral uptake of the girls early on, inviting them to celebrate their 100 millionth view on YouTube. Over subsequent years, the girls would frequently be featured talking about their personal lives, the experience of Britons regularly visiting America, their family lives, and the impact of their YouTube success, all of which both appeared on The Ellen Show and the Show’s YouTube channel.

As the years past and the cousins approach teenhood, it became clear that the social media presence of Sophia Grace was more intentionally curated and branded for a career in the (internet) entertainment industry while Rosie faded into the background. Aside from the structural expansion of rebranding her YouTube channel to focus on Sophia Grace rather than the duo and starting a Facebook page as “Sophia Grace The Artist”. Sophia Grace’s digital estates also underwent content expansion has she began to produce her own music meet mainstream entertainment industry and collaborate with fellow internet celebrities. Since turning 13 in 2016, Sophia Grace formally launched her Influencer career by engaging in Influencer content vernacular and YouTube tropes including participating in internet viral trends unrelated to her music career such as making  and the Oreo challenge, engaging in the attention economy of clickbait such as Q&As addressing her budding romantic life and expanding her presence in other genres on YouTube such as makeup tutorials.

Networked Trajectories of Viral Child Celebrity

Following our fieldwork and content analysis of the social media presence and media coverage on Sophia Grace and Rosie, we offer the following model that details the steps and milestones through which children who first become viral on social media become systemically groomed into multi-media networked celebrities on both social and legacy media:

Complex Media Flows

To some extent, the rise and popularity of can be understood as part of what Graeme Turner calls ‘the demotic turn’, the increasing repositioning of everyday people into the media spotlight, creating a form of celebrity via reality TV, talk shows and so forth (Turner, 2013). This is reinforced by Sophia Grace (& Rosie)’s acknowledgement of The Ellen DeGeneres Show as the springboard for their expanded and extended fame post-virality in several of their public messages. However, we argue that the media flows relating to viral children as exemplified by Sophia Grace & Rosie is more complex. Rather than ‘creating’ the fame of these children The Ellen DeGeneres Show and similar TV talk show formats opportunistically capitalize upon the social capital of such viral video children by harnessing their fame and packaging it into more accessible, commercial, and deliberate consumption bytes. The girls were viral stars before they were on TV, but the networks channeled, amplified and significantly capitalized on their emergent (viral) fame. So successful is this model of viral kid celebrity factories that The Ellen DeGeneres Show has curated its own series of adorable kids in a playlist of over 200 videos with such viral children engaging in various (commercial) activities on The Show.

Emerging Conclusions

Viral fame online and more recognised televisual fame are increasingly blurring, with both symbiotic and parasitic relationships emerging as television networks seek to harness, and create, online attention. Viral children such as Sophia Grace and Rose exemplify this complexity, where the televisual and online flows are multiple and complex. At the heart of these flows, though, are an increasing number of children who amplified viral fame must be carefully position in commercial, social and care terms. As more and more children are featured online as proto-influencers and microcelebrities, often managed and produced by their parents, and sometimes being amplified and harnessed by more traditional media forms such as television, the rights of the children in these instances – to privacy, to self-determination and so forth (Livingstone & Third, 2017) – must be more robustly and transparently discussed. Historically, child stars have often not fared that well after bursts of fame in the media industries; viral kids need more successful and more carefully mapped trajectories.

Further Resources

While we are currently ushering our paper into publication, here are a few more links on the topic that might be useful:

Slides from our talk here.
Tweet summary of our key slides here.
Abstract in video form here.
Radio interview here.
Tama’s work on ‘Intimate Surveillance’ here.
Crystal’s work on ‘Family Influencers’ here.
Pop media version of our work here.
Twitter thread + reading list on the history of child influencers here.

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Dr Crystal Abidin is a socio-cultural anthropologist of vernacular internet cultures, particularly young people’s relationships with internet celebrity, self-curation, and vulnerability. She is Senior Research Fellow and ARC DECRA Fellow in Internet Studies at Curtin University. Her books include Internet Celebrity: Understanding Fame Online (Emerald Publishing, 2018), Microcelebrity Around the Globe: Approaches to Cultures of Internet Fame (co-edited with Megan Lindsay Brown, Emerald Publishing, 2018), and Instagram: Visual Social Media Cultures (with Tama Leaver and Tim Highfield, Polity Press, December 2019). Reach her at wishcrys.com or @wishcrys.

 Today I worked on three separate collaborations: feedback on a thesis draft, a paper revision with colleagues at other universities, and a grant proposal with mostly senior scholars. Each collaboration represents my integration with distinct project teams, on which my status varies. And along with my relative status, so too varies my relationship with the Track Changes editing tool.

When giving feedback on my student’s thesis, I wrote over existing text with reckless abandon. I also left comments, moved paragraphs, and deleted at will. When working on my paper collaboration, I also edited freely, though was more likely to include comments justifying major alterations. When working on the research grant, for a project team on which I am the most junior member, I knew not to change any of the text directly. Instead, I made suggestions using the Comment function, sometimes with alternative text, always phrased and punctuated as a question. more...

Yusaku Maezawa

Well that was quick. Around 18 months after launching their ambitious “ZOZOSUIT” product, the Japanese clothing company has shut down all international operations and is no longer offering the custom-fit service. Quartzy, which seems to have an unhealthy obsession with ZOZO and its founder and CEO, Yusaku Maezawa, has covered the rise and fall of ZOZOSUIT pretty well, so I’ll let you catch up over there. But I wanted to post something with a few quick reactions to the demise of “Custom-Fit Clothing for a Size-Free World”.

My first reaction when I received the email letting me know they were shutting the service down was, “are they going to keep my data?” The answer, of course, is yes. More specifically, “All body data will be anonymized and rendered unidentifiable by July 31, 2019.” It’s an old story that anonymized data is everything but, so color me unimpressed. One assumes they will be using the data for a future custom-sizing related project, or, given their recent financial troubles, selling to an interested acquisition or merger partner. Remember how their Privacy Policy claims to “not sell your data to third parties, ever”? Now that it’s considered “anonymized” is it still “my data”?

Then I put on my scholar hat (to be honest, it’s just a red beanie that I ironed a DSA patch onto) and had a few broader questions. Right now, I’m working on a dissertation that looks at the history of those designs which we use to self-report pain to our doctors. You know, like the smiley face chart on the wall at the doctor. I’m exploring questions of who designed them, when, how, etc. I want to contextualize their prominence in the experience of someone actually experiencing pain. And so of course, I am considering a chapter on new ways to facilitate pain self-reporting—mobile sites and apps with body diagrams and color codes or EEG-based offerings that promise “true” readings of someone’s pain.

The problem is, what happens when the latest and greatest goes defunct? I dropped 1,500 words on ZOZOSUIT back in October and, while it was a great excuse to put on a spandex onesie and teach readers about Henry Dreyfuss Associates, did I jump the gun? I suppose that’s the luxury of writing for a blog like Cyborgology—we’re focused on what’s being promised next, not what’s guaranteed to stay. Still, I don’t see that post aging very well. I worry about the same thing when picking which apps or services to include in my PhD research.

It’s a struggle any scholar working on tech and culture has. Even the most exciting books I’ve read that came out in the last year document and analyze websites that are not longer active. When our collective attention (and venture capitalist’s funding) jumps from latest app to newest device, it’s tough to predict what really has staying power. So I suppose the best alternative we can hope for is that something we’ve documented has some sort of influence as a precedent, a critical step in the genealogy of something big to come. Who knows, maybe in 2040, when Cyborgology turns 30, an emerging scholar will need some sort of reference to understand where that multi-billion dollar digitally-fit clothing industry came from and they’ll stumble upon my post. 

If so, I hope our image archive has degraded by then…

The author in his ZOZO suit

Gabi Schaffzin is a PhD candidate in Art History, Theory, and Criticism, with a concentration in Art Practice, at UC San Diego. He’s glad to know that those jeans really didn’t fit…it wasn’t just him being super un-hip.

I am an anthropologist of young people’s internet cultures and have spent the past 13 months learning (from scratch!) about K-pop fan practices on social media through intensive reading of academic literature, thoroughly combing through popular media, and immersing myself in various K-pop communities through digital ethnography. While I am by no means (yet!) an expert, in the past few weeks, I began to catalogue instances of misinformation in some fan network. Specifically, I traced the forms and mechanics of fan labour involved in generating or refuting such content. This interest was generated against the backdrop of a “war on fake news” in South Korea and the trend of “absurd”/”untrue” fan spoofs of idols on “fact accounts“.

At this exploratory stage, I am not yet concerned with verifying the information in these social media posts per se, but rather am focused on how young K-pop fans are innovating with creating attention-generating clickbait, instigating other networks of fans to signal boost their content, and labouring to clear up misconceptions or educate their peers about literacies around misinformation. This follows from my previous work studying how social media influencers are effective disseminators and persuaders of information in saturated internet climate, including their role in generating “subversive frivolity” and their savvy in “visibility labour“.

In this post, I present a brief overview of some of my observations focused on the fan-generated folklore, rumour, and potential misinformation pertaining to two incidents: 1) Bigbang member and soloist Seungri’s alleged involvement in a “major sex-video scandal” and “spycams” known as “molka” (parts 1 to 7), and 2) girl group Blackpink’s release of their YouTube record-breaking song Kill This Love, pertaining to platform politics and a Twitter hoax involving Starbucks (parts 8 to 10).

Screengrabs from the Seungri case study were taken from the “#Seungri” hashtag stream on Twitter on 22 March 2019. Screengrabs from the Blackpink case study were taken from the comments section of the Kill This Love YouTube video on 05 April 2019 and 08 April 2019, the “#KillThisLoveStarbucks” hashtag stream on Twitter on 06 April 2019, and the “#Blackpink” hashtag stream on Twitter on 10 April 2019.

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Stories of data breaches and privacy violations dot the news landscape on a near daily basis. This week, security vendor Carbon Black published their Australian Threat Report based on 250 interviews with tech executives across multiple business sectors. 89% Of those interviewed reported some form of data breach in their companies. That’s almost everyone. These breaches represent both a business problem and a social problem. Privacy violations threaten institutional and organizational trust and also, expose individuals to surveillance and potential harm.

But “breaches” are not the only way that data exposure and privacy violations take shape. Often, widespread surveillance and exposure are integral to technological design. In such cases, exposure isn’t leveled at powerful organizations, but enacted by them.  Legacy services like Facebook and Google trade in data. They provide information and social connection, and users provide copious information about themselves. These services are not common goods, but businesses that operate through a data extraction economy.

 I’ve been thinking a lot about the cost-benefit dynamics of data economies and in particular, how to grapple with the fact that for most individuals, including myself, the data exchange feels relatively inconsequential or even mildly beneficial. Yet at a societal level, the breadth and depth of normative surveillance is devastating. Resolving this tension isn’t just an intellectual exercise, but a way of answering the persistent and nagging question: “why should I care if Facebook knows where I ate brunch?” This is often wrapped in a broader “nothing to hide” narrative, in which data exposure is a problem only for deviant actors.

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Noah (aka Neyech) and Israel Oberman

Every year at our Passover seder, my father, the consummate emcee, tells us about his Uncle Neyech, a long lost Finnish relative. I have no idea why he would bring Uncle Neyech up, nor during what part of the seder he would do so. But every year, we would laugh at the idea that the Schaffzins of Ashkenazi descent had a relative in Scandinavia, not particularly known as the epicenter of European Jewery. I always figured this was a joke; his seder is filled with these sorts of bits—falsified anecdotes meant to keep us at attention during an otherwise rote evening. And then, one day earlier this year, he forwarded us—me, my three siblings, and my mother—an email he received from a woman in Baltimore claiming to be a distant relative from, wouldn’t you know, Finland.

I, for one, was in utter disbelief. Turns out my father was telling the truth all these years (it didn’t help that his default tone is “satire”). The story, as most in my family do, includes escaping from an oppressive regime (in this case, the Czar) and dispersing around the globe: Philadelphia, Palestine, and…Finland. For all intents and purposes, this story is, for me, nothing more than an anecdote with which I will annoy my seder guests one day. But what inspired my Finnish relative (turns out we’re second cousins once removed) to track down her father’s mother’s father’s brother’s grandfather’s grandson? And why should I care about her at all?

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Less than a week ago Byron Román made the above Facebook post challenging “bored teens” to pick up trash and post before and after photos on social media. Reddit user Baxxo24 (Baxxo24 looks to be Swedish while Byron lives in Arizona) took a screenshot and posted it to r/wholesomememes where it went viral. Now #trashtag (“hashtag trashtag?”) is the subject of a dozen or so feel-good human interest stories. It is unclear who the guy in the photo is (It looks like it came from a Guatemalan Travel Agency), but CNN, Washington Post, and CBS News have reported that “trashtag” is a long-dormant social media campaign for UCO Gear, a Seattle-based camping equipment company.

When I started seeing Byron Román’s #trashtag trending on my usual platforms I did what any well-adjusted person would do: I assumed it was as scam and Facebook stalked him until I was convinced otherwise. According to his Facebook profile, Román works in the non-profit home loan industry, mostly in marketing. His latest job helps veterans apply for and receive cheap mortgages. Nothing too dubious there, but it got me thinking about the long and dismal history of littering campaigns’ role in playing cover for corporate interests. more...

Image By Al Ibrahim

I want all of your mind
People turn the TV on, it looks just like a window…

Digital witnesses
What’s the point of even sleeping?

— St. Vincent, “Digital Witness” (2014)

 

Each day seemingly brings new revelations as to the extent of our Faustian bargain with the purveyors of the digital world in which we find ourselves. Our movements, moods, and monies are tracked with relentless precision, yielding the ability to not only predict future behaviors but to actively direct them. Permissions are sometimes given with pro forma consent, while other times they’re simply baked into the baseline of the shiniest and newest hardware and software alike. Back doors, data breaches, cookies and trackers, smart everything, always-on devices, and so much more — to compare Big Tech to Big Brother is trite by now, even as we might soon look back on the latter as a quaint form of social control.

While data breaches and privacy incursions are very serious and have tangible consequences, debates over user rights and platform regulation barely scratch the surface. Deeper questions about power, autonomy, and what it means to be human still loom, largely uncovered.  And when these concerns are even voiced at all they can often seem retrogressive, as if they represent mere longings for a bygone (pre-internet) time when children played outside, politics was honorable, and everyone was a great conversationalist. Despite ostensible consternation when something goes egregiously wrong (like influencing an election, let’s say), the public and political conversation around mass data collection and its commercialization never goes far enough: why do so many seemingly reasonable and critical people accept a surveillance-for-profit economy (with all of us as the primary commodity) as tolerable at all? more...

What is the one thing that stands between you and all your dreams? CAPITALISM. "Yourself" - the answer is obviously you. I'm pretty sure it's CAPITALISM.

In January I started a new job (woo me!), but I still don’t feel like I’ve gotten over the one I left yet, nor the job application process it took to get here. Below are some reflections on that experience, which I share mainly to process them.

On my last day working at the university as an office support assistant (four years almost to the day), I published one more issue of the biweekly program newsletter one last time. In a short goodbye to readers, I found myself recalling another assistant who published her department’s newsletter—my mom. “She delighted in the visual design aspects, adding new flourishes and sections,” I wrote, remembering her face lighting up in the car on the drive home from high school when she’d find the perfect clipart or goofy pun to slip into the margins. Even after leaving the university herself, she likes crafting cards and mom memes in Publisher 2007, her visual design program of choice. more...

Poster spotted in the Geoengineering and Geosciences department
at the University of Quebec at Abitibi and Temiscamingue. However, the author believes the future is not just about robots. (Image: Maya Ganesh, 2017)

It seems like there is a flowering of interest in speculating about the future. Of course SF writers, the RAND Group, and Trekkies, have been doing this for much longer. (An interesting side note: SF writers are now enjoying new income streams by working with multinational corporations to imagine the future.)

It is possible that as consumer technologies began to appear as if from ‘the future’, as presented to us in dystopian movies such as Bladerunner and Minority Report,  speculating about the future increasingly became a topic of interest. As the phrase ‘surveillance capitalism’ has gained visibility thanks to devices just as the Echo. And maybe things started to appear ‘Orwellian’ after the Snowden revelations. I would like to think that Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports generate concern about the future; but the continued rising temperature of the planet suggests that this is not the case. Possibly for people in the US, the election of Donald Trump, for Brazilians of Jair Bolsonaro, The Future has become a thing to be worried about (‘now more than ever’).

I spent last weekend at a workshop called Designing Tomorrow organised by the great folks behind the Utopia Film Festival in Tel Aviv, and re:publica in Berlin. The workshop was about testing various methodologies to actually speculate about the future; and they drew heavily from Peter Frase’s Four Futures. It got me thinking about the different narratives to thinking about the future. Here is a quick overview of some of these that I’ve encountered through recent arts and culture projects, and in the tech news (These do not necessarily line up as perfectly nested Russian dolls, however.)

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