This year, I have lectured and spoken to students in 16 cities across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US. I often begin with a prompt asking these (mostly young) people to name me the first few local and international ‘internet celebrities’ off the top of their heads. Their responses would almost unanimously comprise entirely of names of ‘social media influencers’ — the type of ‘internet-famous’ persons who generally produce social media content full-time as a living, using and repackaging material from their everyday lives as lived, modeling their lifestyles into a canvas onto which sponsored messages (be they products, services, or ideologies) can be interwoven and embedded.

These self-branded influencers are the epitome of ‘internet celebrities’ in that their fame is usually derived from positive self-branding, that followers consume their content aspirationally, that their public visibility is sustained and stable, and that the income they accumulate is lucrative enough to pursue influencer commerce as a full-time career. But we often forget that influencers are just one form of ‘internet celebrities’, or categorically conflate both concepts.

In the first of three short posts, I provide a primer for thinking about internet celebrity through definition frameworks. The forthcoming second post will be a primer for conceptualising the relationship between internet celebrity, visibility, and virality; and the forthcoming third post will be a primer of rethinking the progression from internet celebrity to influencer.

In my recently published book, Internet Celebrity: Understanding Fame OnlineI take a step back from the institution of influencers to historicize the phenomenon of internet celebrity more generally, and to discuss how they arise and why the public is so fascinated with them.

Besides the oft-quoted social media influencers, the spectrum of internet celebrities is so wide and varied that it can include persons, animals, and products that become iconised as memes, such as those used in the context of student problem memes; anonymous and usually unseen users who produce highly circulated text or image posts, such as pseudonymous Tumblr users whose funny posts are reblogged into the high hundreds of thousands; overnight online sensations whose fame may only be short-lived, such as viral eyewitness viral stars.

Conceptually, internet celebrities are generally media formats — anything that can be conveyable via text or images, in pixels on digital screens — that attain prominence and popularity native to the internet; however, originating on the internet does not preclude them from having spillover effects across digital/analogue formats, and across new/traditional media industries. A niche category of elderly influencers in East Asia have been populating magazines and newspapers in a region where the print media industry is still going strong, and still others are effecting change in law and economics, as well as cultural and social issues.

Operationally, internet celebrities are mainly defined by their ability to hold high visibility; but unlike conventional social media influencers, this high visibility can be attributed to fame or infamy, positive or negative attention, talent and skill or otherwise, and can be either sustained or transient, intentional or by happenstance, monetized or not. Often when a new viral sensation or internet controversy suddenly emerges, throngs of internet celebrities and influencers flock to produce content related to the trend in a bid to capture a slice of the attention pie before the lifecycle of virality dies out.

Theoretically, internet celebrities are a media format that are able to cut through the noise and static of our already-saturated digital landscape, and exploit or game platform algorithms and filters to reach an already-sated online audience. Some examples, like Dr. Pimple Popper and mukbang YouTuber Kinoshita Yuka utilize aesthetics of the grotesque to lure in viewers.

Practically, internet celebrities have to be received, consumed, and acknowledged by an audience through some form of social media metrics (i.e. ‘views’, ‘likes’, ‘reacts’, ‘comments’, ‘subscribers’, etc), and this means that their high visibility will vary depending on the affordances and norms of a media platform, and the cultural ideologies and tastes of their audience. Many internet celebrity-aspirants have been found to bandwagon on trending hashtags related to mass grieving on Instagram to garner attention for their posts and accounts, but often their efforts at using ‘public(ity) grieving‘ for visibility falls on deaf ears.

In the next post, we will walk through a mini-postmortem of some recent viral internet celebrities, and interrogate the afterlives of viral internet celebrity as a way of understanding the relationship between visibility and virality online.

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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 the author of Internet Celebrity: Understanding Fame Online (Emerald Publishing, 2018) and co-editor of Microcelebrity Around the Globe: Approaches to Cultures of Internet Fame (Emerald Publishing, 2018). Reach her at wishcrys.com or @wishcrys.

At the confluence of being chronic meme aficionados, internet research scholars, and educators to cohorts of young people, in 2017 my colleague Kristine Ask and I began a project to consider seriously the types of memes students share online.

Memes have been established as objects that bear meaning beyond mere internet frivolity. Studies in vernacular cultures have framed memes as “the propagation of content items such as jokes, rumours, videos, or websites from one person to others“, and as a form of “pop polyvocality” or “a pop cultural tongue that facilitate[s] the diverse engagement of many voices“. Other studies from media and communications have found that memes are a “shared social phenomenon“, and still others from the socio-cultural perspective have asserted them as a “common instrument for establishing normativity“.

Specifically, we studied the popular Facebook page “Student Problems” on which over 7 million subscribers participate in producing, circulating, gatekeeping, and consuming memes focused on mental health issues, student debt, racism, sexism, and other struggles associated with student life. Aside from the humour proliferate on the Facebook page, the Student Problem brand’s flagship website also dishes out tips via (moderately sincere) Student Guides and an online shop of blatantly self-ironic merchandise, such as a “Cry Cushion” with the inscription “place head and cry”.

Evidently, self-deprecating relatability is the order of the day, in which condescending, pessimistic, and vulnerable displays of student struggles have arisen in opposition to the rise of pristine, prestigious, and celebratory content propagated by social media Influencers and everyday humblebraggers. As vehicles of emotive visual display, Student Problem memes allowed users to build a sense of community, camaraderie, and commiseration, albeit clouded in the language of humour and wit. Although our study also considered findings from a workshop with undergraduate students in two batches, and a media watch of press coverage on student issues over several months across the world, in this post we focus on the content analysis of just the Facebook page and briefly discuss three themes from our sample of 179 memes collected between March and May 2017.

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Student Problem memes characterise the average student as one who is overwhelmed, stressed, and ashamed. In these narratives, the primary directive is to display and highlight one’s agony to solicit acknowledgement and publicity rather than to seek practical solutions. This is especially because the tone of the memes frame student problems as ubiquitous, impossible to change, and an inescapable experience of student life, to the extent that the only option is to endure the agony. This pain spills over to outside of the classroom, impacting the quality of a young person’s life in general, and their ability to juggle other responsibilities such as their part-time jobs, family duties, and friendship circles. As a placeholder for the non-student aspects of a young person’s life, the memes often reference a leisurely pursuit – such as watching Netflix – as so guilt-ridden a recreational aspiration that students no longer have the allowance to enjoy downtime without being overwhelmed by the omnipresence of stress and anxiety. Yet, alongside this perpetual undercurrent of stress, students also feel that their suffering is to be confined to self-management or silence, out of fear of shaming oneself in front of fellow peers, authoritative educators, or oblivious family members. As such, despite the structural and institutional nature of student problems, students generally internalize their pain as individual battles.

Apart from communicating student pain, the overtone of successful student problem memes that register high circulation and reaction from users tend to convey self-deprecating humour. Meme producers use self-deprecating humour to craft a flexible repertoire of potential interpretations to amplify their meme’s resonance with a potential audience. For the more casual users who may only glean the surface of a meme for humour – unaware of the subtext and code-switching in which structural and generational problems of student life are embedded – student problem memes may come across as mere humour. But for users who are “in the know” and able to identify more deeply with a meme’s interpretive depth, collective effervescence from laughing-and-crying together allows for depressed students to share in a networked collective identity through self-selection and declaration into the “in group”. Further, self-deprecating humour is usually employed in tandem with the rhetorical device of exaggeration as silliness, enabling students to comment on the severity of their problems from a more emotionally-distant and consequentially-safe space. As such, while Student Problem memes are keyed in emotional tones of humour and entertaining irony, they also solicit empathy as a statement of commiseration.

Finally, between the self-exposed vulnerability of student struggles and the self-celebratory irony of competitive memeing, students demonstrate a meta-commentary of powerlessness and loss-of-control by using internet media and lexicon to communicate that memes are all they have to convey and cope with their pain. Student Problem memes tend to highlight a semblance of self-awareness that procrastination is a casual root and also a subsequent amplifier of student problems. The narrative structure of these memes describe a gradual decent from safe leisure to feared future, in which students identify relatable moments of delaying work, proceeding to feelings of helplessness as procrastination extends, culminating in insurmountable consequences from prolonged procrastination that has grown too overwhelming to repair. Yet, these initial roots of procrastination are fuelled by deep-seeded feelings of guilt and shame or structural problems such as poverty and discrimination, all of which cannot be easily or swiftly addressed. In the vein of internalizing self-blame, students then condition themselves to identify all non-study time as procrastination, even if these were necessary downtimes for recuperation or recreation. As such, Student Problem memes are regarded as an illusionary if transient safe haven from the realities of student life, in which cyclical struggles are refocused as humorous helplessness and ironic celebrations of a life out-of-control.

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To learn more about our findings on how Student Problem memes are an important communicative vehicle, read our journal article “My life is a mess: Self-deprecating relatability and collective identities in the memification of student issues” in full from Information, Communication & Society here.

Dr Crystal Abidin is a socio-cultural anthropologist of vernacular internet cultures, particularly young people’s relationships with internet celebrity, self-curation, and vulnerability. Her forthcoming book, Internet Celebrity: Understanding Fame Online (Emerald Publishing, 2018) critically analyses the contemporary histories and impacts of internet-native celebrity today. Reach her at wishcrys.com or @wishcrys.

These days, Influencers are starting off younger and older.

As the earliest cohorts of Influencers progress in their life course and begin families, it is no surprise that many of them are starting to write about their young children, grooming them into micro-microcelebrities. Many Influencer mothers have also been known to debut dedicated digital estates for their incoming babies straight from the womb via sonograms. Influencer culture that has predominantly been youth- and self-centric is growing to accommodate different social units, such as young couples and families. In fact, entire families are now beginning to debut as family Influencers, documenting and publicizing the domestic happenings of their daily lives for a watchful audience, although not without controversy. But now it seems grandparents are joining in too.

Recently, I have taken interest in a new genre of Influencers emerging around the elderly. Many of these elderly Influencers are well into their 60s and 70s, and display their hobbies or quirks of daily living on various social media. Some create, publish, and curate their own content, while others are filmed by family members who manage the public images of these elderly Influencers. I am just beginning to conceptualize a new research project on these silver haired Influencers in East Asia, and will briefly share in this post some of the elderly Influencers I enjoy and emergent themes from news coverage on them.

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Fashion Instagrammers @bonpon511 from Japan are a couple who have been married for 37 years and are in their 60s. Since debuting in December 2016, the couple has amassed over 656,000 international followers on Instagram who enjoy the matching outfits they dress up in. Their daughter takes these photographs at their request, having shared more outings with her parents as they are approaching retirement. They regularly collaborate with fashion brands by featuring their latest apparel in sponsored posts, attend fashion events as special guests, and have even been ambassadors for brands. In their photos, the woman usually postures herself to appear smaller than her husband by standing two steps behind him, and convey dependence on him by holding on to this arm. Interestingly, such poses are a common trope among young Influencer couples, utilised to solicit care and likeability from audiences through the notion of agentic cuteness. Most recently, the couple launched a photography book that describes their sense of style and the labour behind mixing and matching pieces.

Popular media reports on the couple tend to express surprise that they are still having “fun” despite their long marriage, that they are “adorable” for being fashionable at their age, that they have a “keener eye” for fashion than young people, and that their sustained practice of matching requires “devotion“.

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Japanese photographer Kimiko Nishimoto is 90-years-old this year and has gone viral via several popular media outlets for her quirky self-portraits. After having been a housewife for several decades, she took up photography through a beginners’ class taught by her son and has been experimenting with the medium ever since. Although she has honed a keen eye for taking beautiful photography of nature and close-up objects on her blog, and has even published a photography book based on her works, Nishimoto is still best known for her staged self-portraits in which she exhibits artful photoshop skills to depict adventurous lives of the elderly. Last year, she launched a photography exhibition in Tokyo based on the theme of the elderly and play.

Popular media reports on Nishimoto have emphasised her “comical” subject matter, the “bizarre” nature of the scenes in which she photographs herself, her sense of “adventure” well into old age, and for being a “cool” icon for dealing with the weird and the wonderful in her art.

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Park Mak-rye, also known as Korea Grandma, is a 70-year-old vlogger from South Korea. Her granddaughter initiated the channel (planning, shooting, and editing the content) as a way to keep Park active and to combat dementia, which runs in the family. In her videos, Park’s content resembles that of the average lifestyle Influencer on Instagram, as she produces makeup tutorials, travelogues her holidays, shares cooking recipes, and documents behind-the-scenes footage from her media appearances. Her popularity has culminated in appearances in mainstream print magazines in South Korea’s highly competitive entertainment industry, and she recently received the Silver Play button from YouTube. However, she continues to run her diner as her primary business.

Popular media reports on Park have praised her for showing off her wrinkles and living elder life in the “raw“, commended her for expressing herself despite not being formally educated and writing “illegible” captions, and described her fame as “unique” given the high poverty rate among the elderly in South Korea.

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As I prepare to craft a research project around elderly Influencers, news reports on this small sample of users culminate in three themes:

Firstly, reports backstory the pre-internet celebrity lives of these elderly Influencers, asserting that their prior occupations did not command the skills that corroborate with that of content production for the internet; this emphasises that while digital literacies in the Influencer industry are relatively new and usually practised by the young, they can also be learned.

Secondly, reports trace the trajectory of technology proficiency acquired by elderly users on the internet; these variously toy with the (false) idea of the ‘digital native’, but ultimately pinpoint a younger person (usually a child or grandchild) who is more aware of the internet landscape, and who has facilitated the elderly Influencer’s creative skills required for content production and technical skills required for managing a public social media presence.

Finally, reports tend to paint elderly Influencers in celebratory but highly romanticized tones, demonstrating surprise that elderly people can lead adventurous and creative lifestyles; these seem to hint that elderly Influencers can give us insight into the social lives of elderly people via their innovative uses of digital media for self-expression.

At this stage, I am still exploring various forms of internet celebrity among elderly people across different platforms in East Asia, while scoping out concepts and relevant theory that I will have to sink my teeth into later. So far, I am curious to discover whether elderly Influencers have different motivations and strategies for producing content for followers, how they may relate to followers across age and cultural differences, and whether/why the ways we talk about elderly people who are proficient on the internet are clouded in exoticism and Orientalism. If you have any recommendations, please send them my way.

Some other elderly Influencers I have recently discovered and enjoy include 106-year-old Indian cook Mastanamma who is reportedly the oldest content creator on YouTube with her channel Country Foods, 89-year-old American fashion Instagrammer @baddiewinkle, and Facebook-famous American sisters Gramma and Ginga who are 104 and 99-years-old respectively. Do you know of any other elderly Influencers on the internet? Who do you follow and what do you think of them? I’d love to hear from you.

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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. Her forthcoming book, Internet Celebrity: Understanding Fame Online (Emerald Publishing, 2018) critically analyzes the contemporary histories and impacts of internet-native celebrity today. Reach her at wishcrys.com or @wishcrys.

The Instagram interface is changing so quickly and subtly all at once. For one, the app store on my iPhone constantly invites me to manually update my Instagram app in order to make those unsightly red notification bubbles go away. But the design tweaks and new features that are introduced each time come in small, user-friendly batches that I also learn to keep up and adapt.

In fact, although I was among the earliest adopters of Instagram in Singapore, where I have been conducting research on Influencers and internet celebrities since 2010, I don’t even recall what the original Instagram interface looked like. Do you? But perhaps the most logical explanation for the seamless uptake of each Instagram update is that the platform is merely institutionalizing into officialdom practices that have been creatively innovated and adapted by its users. The latest of these is Instagram’s multiple account prompt.

As someone who studies social media for a living, I have multiple accounts for different purposes on most dominant social media (if you’re really curious, that means 5 Instagram accounts including my pet project @thetravelingpingu). I used to manually log in and out of each account with its own specific email address and password, until February 2016 when Instagram enabled users to link two or more accounts under a single drop down menu.

I also used to painstakingly @reply brief thanks to each comment on every photo, but in December 2016 Instagram modeled after Twitter and Facebook and enabled a ‘heart icon’ as a new way of acknowledging comments on posts. The December 2016 also introduced a new feature allowing users to remove unwanted followers and delete comments, giving the impression of greater user autonomy and privacy.

In April 2017, the app introduced a new direct messaging update that now allows users to send “disappearing photos & videos along with texts & reshares” coherently in the Direct Message function. This encouraged dyadic and group messaging chats that further honed the illusion of seemingly private spaces in the otherwise public-facing, attention-grabbing, heart-hungry terrain of Instagram.

June 2017’s update gave users the opportunity to hide photos through the “archive feature”, reiterating the notion that privacy can be selectively assigned to content and exercised by users at their agency.

Last month, when I logged into my Instagram account, I noticed an intriguing in-app prompt. On my home page where I would usually scroll through my own pictures, a drop down banner read:

“Share a Different Side of Yourself
Create a private account to share photos and videos with a close group of followers”

As it turned out, Instagram’s latest project was to drive up their consumer base by encouraging users to create multiple accounts. And there are three main takeaways from this.

1) Instagram’s multiple account prompt borrows from the discourse of Finstagrams

By now encouraging multiple accounts through their new affordances and direction prompts, Instagram is bringing into officialdom the practice of Finstagramming. Finstagrams (Fake Instagrams, as opposed to Rinstagrams or Real instagrams) have long been proliferate among young users. Of the dozens of popular media articles reporting on Finstas, there are three emergent themes:

Firstly, Finstas allow young users to construct continuums of privacy by segregating their audiences. For instance, Finstas are where young people “hide their real lives from the prying eyes of parents and teachers”, or curate an “employable social media front”.

Secondly, Finstas allow users the freedom to curate several digital personae without the need for brand coherence. Young people may use Finstas to post “random streams of screenshots, memes and ugly selfies”, and dump content that is not congruent with their primary account so as to “protect [their] personal Instabrand”. In other words, this is “splintering as self-preservation”.

Thirdly, Finstas are a backlash against the picture-perfect pristine ecology of Instagram normativity, undoubtedly popularized by social media Influencers. Such separate, distinct, and unlinked accounts thus allows them to escape “the pressure to create a beautifully curated Instagram account”, rebel against the “overly stylized content shared by celebs and so-called influencers”, and expose the “artifice of normal social media”.

Multiple Instagram accounts are thus an overt signifier to young users that what once began as a subculture of subversive use has now moved into the mainstream, co-opted, promoted, and monetized by the platform itself.

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2) Instagram’s multiple account prompt contradicts its parent company Facebook’s single account policy and real name policy

Facebook asserts that it is “against the Facebook Community Standards to maintain more than one personal account” since the social network is “a community where people use their authentic identities”. Shared or joint accounts are not allowed so users will “always know who [they are] connecting with”. Facebook also has a “real name policy”, which initially fixated on the notion that all users had a singular official/legal identity and are to use their “birth names” to register on the social network.

But amidst the difficulty of verifying third party photo IDs, and the backlash from queer communities and other marginalized groups for whom digital pseudonymity is paramount for personal safety and self-actualization, the company responded to criticism and relaxed its policy to allow users to use “the name they go by in everyday life” to “keep our community safe”.

Where parent company Facebook is adamant and imposing about the singularity and coherence of its consumers’ the digital personae, it encourages its app Instagram to diverge and splinter at the opposite end of the singular-identity spectrum by encouraging users to play with self-presentation and selective audiencing. But why is this so? The singularity of Facebook profiles serves as self-documentation for the company’s database of users. A “real identity”, “real name”, “real life” policy ensures that Facebook is able to facilitate messages and ads from its clients efficiently and effectively to its targeted audience as appropriate.

On Instagram, however, the primary motivation for the network appears to be less the archival of membership and more the generation of digital content, no doubt stimulated by the free labour of its users. While Instagram does not legally own any content posted, its terms of use grants them the “non-exclusive, fully paid and royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide license to use the Content that you post on or through the Service”. Multiple Instagram accounts per user thus generate more free digital content for the network’s commercial use.

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3) Instagram’s multiple account prompt verifies the rise of calibrated amateurism

In its drop down bar prompt, Instagram’s strategically worded key phrases “different side”, “private account” and “close group” suggest that users have long been practising strategies of self-presentation on digital media, in spite of its “authenticity rhetoric” on parent company and platform Facebook. It supports the need for scholarship on digital identity to go beyond simplistic dichotomies that the “online” is “fake” and the “offline” more “authentic”, given that all self-presentation in digital and physical spaces is curated.

In fact, in the age of picture-perfect, luxury-oriented, hyper-feminine Instagram Influencers who have dominated the Instagram economy thus far, authenticity has become less of a static quality and more of a performative ecology and parasocial strategy with its own bona fide genre and self-presentation elements. I have studied the rise of such performative authenticity as “calibrated amateurism”, which I define as a “practice and aesthetic in which actors in an attention economy labour specifically over crafting contrived authenticity that portrays the raw aesthetic of an amateur, whether or not they really are amateurs by status or practice, by relying on the performance ecology of appropriate platforms, affordances, tools, cultural vernacular, and social capital”.

Calibrated amateurism is a modern adaptation of Erving Goffman’s (1956) theory of scheduling and Dean MacCannell’s (1973) theory of staged authenticity.

Goffman argues that on stage as in everyday life, performers may engage in “scheduling” to segregate different audiences from each other. This is so that only one aspect of a persona is presented as required. Performers may also obscure the “routine character” of their act and stress its spontaneity so as to foster the impression that this act is unique and specially tailored to whoever is watching. In this space, there may be some “informalit[ies]” and “limitations” in “decorum,” which Goffman defines as “the way in which the performer comports himself while in visual or aural range of the audience but not necessarily engaged in talk with them”. However, this “backstage” is seldom as spontaneous as it postures to be but is instead a deliberate effort to manufacture a “back region.”

MacCannell studied tourist settings in similar back regions and describes tourists’ pursuit of authenticity as complicit in the actual manufacturing of a backstage that does not exist. He writes that “[j]ust having a back region generates the belief that there is something more than meets the eye; even where no secrets are actually kept, back regions are still the places where it is popularly believed the secrets are… An unexplored aspect of back regions is how their mere existence, and the possibility of their violation, functions to sustain the commonsense polarity of social life into what is taken to be intimate and ‘real’ and what is thought to be ‘show’”.

Combining these two classical theories for a contemporary digital phenomenon, internet users today also partake in deliberately curated and intentionally public forms of backchanneling through Finstas and multiple Instas. Multiple accounts encourage followers and viewers to engage in cross-platform hopping, watching, and matching. They imply that we all have backstages and hidden secrets on display on parallel platforms, if only our audience knows where to look and how to look for these easter eggs. Thus emerges a new game in the attention economy where the pursuit is no longer some semblance of authentic disclosure, but a competitive investigation into and comparison of the different strands of selfhood that a single user may put out on multiple platforms through multiple through multiple usernames promoting multiple personae.

In short, Instagram’s multiple account prompt is essentially the antithesis of Facebook, where digital identities are fragmented rather than singular, diffuse rather than collective, and playful rather than static. So how many Instagram accounts do you have?

Dr Crystal Abidin’s new research on “calibrated amateurism” is open access on Social Media + Society, which you can download in full here.

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Dr Crystal Abidin is an anthropologist and ethnographer who studies young people’s relationships with internet celebrity, self-curation, and vulnerability. Reach her at wishcrys.com and @wishcrys.

While updating my personal archive of news relating to the Influencer industry, I decided to highlight a few significant developments in Q1-Q2 of 2017 in this short round-up.

With its historical beginnings rooted in bedroom camming culture in the North American late-1990s and the online selling culture in the South East Asian early-2000s, the Influencer industry is its vernacular and institutionalised formats is more than a decade old today.

Yet, for all their progress and advancements across several industry verticals and areas of society, present-day news reports seem to be stuck in a backdated timeloop as they continually express surprise at the fact that Influencers can command sizable earning and brands want to work with them, assert that the Influencer industry is somehow mysterious and a secret weapon, and reiterate that the Influencer industry is simultaneously on the rise and on the decline. That’s quite the obsession over the financial aspect of Influencers. But is there much else?

Yes! In the first half of 2017 alone, the Influencer ecology worldwide has registered several controversial blows and innovative debuts in relation to legality, economics, culture, and social issues. 

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On the plane of legality:

Influencers around the world are being taken to court for not complying with national advertising regulations (e.g.)

American organizers of the Fyre Festival which capitalized on the visibility labour of Influencers are being sued for dishonest marketing (e.g.)

Singaporean teenage YouTuber Amos Yee appealed for political asylum in the US after being arrested for political persecution due to his controversial vlogs (e.g.)

Anchor Tomi Lahren from American talkshow The Blaze lost access to her prolific Facebook account after being fired from the company (e.g.)

American parent Influencers Daddy O Five were arrested on allegations of child abuse in their YouTube videos (e.g.)

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On the plane of economics:

Amazon launched its social media Influencer programme (e.g.)

A small Singaporean Influencer agency Gushcloud acquired the renowned US-based agency uFluencer (e.g.)

Vietnamese-American beauty YouTuber Michelle Phan relaunched her cosmetics brand after taking a gap year for mental health issues (e.g.)

Black American Peaches Monroee who coined the catchphrase “eyebrows on fleek” admitted that she has not received any compensation from the major corporations and celebrity Influencers who have profited from her cultural work (e.g.)

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On the plane of cultural issues:

Swedish YouTuber PewDiePie’s satire and black humour was accused of Nazism and racism (e.g.)

Filipina-Australian Influencer lilymaymac was called out for old tweets in which she expressed White fever and prejudiced Asian men (e.g.)

Singaporean YouTube giants Night Owl Cinematics experienced internet hate for casual racism in their videos (e.g.)

10-year-old Canadian vlogger Dylan known as “Sceneable” on YouTube went viral for preaching communism (e.g.)

Cambodian monks are going viral and amassing microcelebrity for livestreaming (e.g.)

Black American rapper Bow Wow was called out for faking an Instagram post resulting in the Bow Wow Challenge meme (e.g.)

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On the plane of social issues:

13-year-old American Danielle Bregoli of “Cash Me Ousside” fame has continued to be hyper-sexualized by the media and by followers (e.g.)

Children around the world are posting YouTube comments that their parents are dead to solicit likes and subscribers (e.g.)

Singaporean Influencer start-up Faves Asia came under fire for its consumerist and shallow campaign video on Influencers (e.g.)

Taiwanese-American KevJumba who was a pioneer vlogger on YouTube returned to vlogging after a long hiatus and life-threatening accident (e.g.)

Couple Influencers around the world are publicly vlogging their breakups to accumulate viewership (e.g.)

Chinese toddler Xiaoman became an internet sensation when her parents uploaded videos of her devouring meals (e.g.)

A group of Asian-American YouTubers led by Japanese-American vlogger Ryan Higa produced a satirical kpop MTV that ended up ranking in legitimate music charts in the entertainment industry (e.g.)

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Taken together, the Influencer industry presents great potential for us to understand several aspects of contemporary society, including digital labour on the internet, young people and entrepreneurship, new models of work life, cross-cultural literacies, the value of digital estates, networked social movements, and the uptake of vernacular practices on a global scale, among others.

Where we underestimate Influencers as merely frivolous, they may be enacting forms of “subversive frivolity“. Where we presume Influencers are staging fake impressions, they may be engaging in “calibrated amateurism“. As a long-time social science analyst of the field, I am really excited to see what else is in store for the Influencer industry in the rest of the year.

See also: My analysis of a few shifts in the Influencer industry one year ago.

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Dr Crystal Abidin is an anthropologist and ethnographer who studies young people’s relationships with internet celebrity, self-curation, and vulnerability. Reach her at wishcrys.com and @wishcrys.

This post was first published on wishcrys.com on 19 July 2017.

 

Last week, Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published an article and accompanying video accusing 27-year-old Swedish YouTube Influencer Felix Kjellberg, better known by his moniker PewDiePie, of publishing “anti-semitic posts”. In a media ecology saturated with Influencers, wannabes, and old/traditional/legacy media attempting to shift into digital spaces, this news is significant as PewDiePie is among the most watched, renown, and viable icons in the digital Influencer industry, being the most subscribed and highest paid YouTuber in 2016. In the wake of these accusations, PewDiePie’s network Maker Studios (recently bought over by Disney) and his platform partner YouTube Red dropped him from their stable, terminated his upcoming series, and removed him from their advertising programme.

I am an anthropologist who wrote my PhD on the Influencer industry, having observed the scene as early as in 2007 and investigated it professionally since 2010. I published extensive case studies and academic research on the culture of Influencers, including the shifts in trends and practices over the years. In this post, I extrapolate from the PewDiePie-WSJ scandal alongside reactions from prominent YouTubers to discuss Influencers on YouTube, their cultural vernacular and community norms, their relationship with legacy media, and their potential as new weaponized microcelebrity. 

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1) Influencers are expanding in reach and impact across various industries

 

Since they first debut in the early-2000s, Influencers have progressed from hobbyist home-based webcamming and desktop publishing to extremely lucrative full-time careers. So viable and attractive is their craft that the industry has grown rapidly, approaching saturation as wannabes attempt to mimic the footsteps of successful role models while businesses clamour to tap into the following of notable icons.

Naturally, a string of news articles have been speculating that Influencers are being paid too much for their craft (AdweekDigiday, PRcouture). Conveniently, many of these articles and op-eds are being published by advertising and PR firms who are the very actors being eliminated from middle-manning for clients, as Influencers can be approached directly for collaborations or via dedicated Influencer talent agencies. Influencers have impacted the advertising industry so significantly that new tax laws have been established around the world (e.g. Norway, Singapore), and industry guidelines on disclosures and disclaimers are being updated.

Payscales aside, Influencers are beginning to cross-over into other industries, establishing themselves as bonafide ambassadors, content creators, opinion leaders, and participants in various economies. In television, fashion bloggers have been given their own reality TV series and YouTube opinionators have been invited to manage the social media of major talk shows. In cinema, Influencers are being recruited to guest star in or headline their own movies. In music, Influencers are producing albums, being contracted to major labels, and winning awards. In publishing, Influencers are authoring memoirs and fiction, and photo books. In fashion, Influencers are spearheading creative campaigns for luxury labels and producing their own lines. Influencers are also using their platforms to promote social causes pertaining to politics and LGBT advocacy.

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2) Despite being as prolific, Influencers do not have the same privileges and concessions ascribed to those in the more traditional media/celebrity economies

 

Influencers now constitute an alternative estate of the media. They are separate from

a) old/traditional/legacy media attempting to establish their presence on the internet;

Influencers are growing in their reach and impact, but their primary audience is still a specific demographic of young, technology-literate internet users who are likely middle-class and English-speaking. Their exposure to a larger demographic is contingent upon the extent to which they have successfully crossed-over and established themselves other industries, or brief instances of virality that are instigated or amplified by the mainstream press. This is unlike the websites and digital estates of legacy media that are able to draw on the long-standing familiarity and reputation of their brand to speak to “digital immigrants“. In this way, one headline from the online version of an established newspaper is likely to gain more traction and cause bigger ripple effects across a diverse readership than a series of social media posts from Influencers. Bad press from (online versions of) traditional media is more difficult to redress than Influencer faux pas.

b) aggregate online sites;

Influencers primarily draw in followers by performing and selling a persona. While many Influencers produce excellent content, they usually foster a loyal viewership through their charisma and (screen) personality, constructing and maintaining communicative intimacies with their followers. Influencers are essentially vehicles for messages, a la walking billboards. Whether these messages are disseminated through actual talent, entertainment value, or spectacular scandal such as sexbait, the crux is that Influencers use their persona to become key opinion leaders, nodes around which other networks of opinions and influencers cluster. This means that Influencers have to curate highly congruent personae across the lifetime of their careers, their various digital estates, and even when they present themselves in public in the flesh. This is unlike aggregate online sites who are content-oriented and draw in viewers per click or per article. They aim to maximise visibility and clickthroughs for individual URLs rather than focus on their overall branding. As a result, their articles are often contradictory and they are less accountable for the coherence of their stance and viewpoints, surrendering to the economies of trends and clickbaitism.

c) mainstream celebrities curating persona on social media;

Influencers are everyday-internet-users-turned-microcelebrities whose allure is premised on being relatable and accessible. The bulk of their content is self-managed and based on sharing the usually personal and private aspects of their lives. They literally commodify their personal privacy for a watchful audience. This is unlike mainstream celebrities who have access to backend managerial and PR mechanisms that are equipped to manage bad press and protect their privacy. Simply put, despite being (almost) as prolific as mainstream celebrities, Influencers do not have the same systemic safeguards and support. They have to independently manage their precarity and pitfalls either through trial-and-error or by modelling after predecessors. When an unprecedented situation or scandal breaks out, Influencers have to play by ear while (re-)establishing out-of-bound markers and (re-)negotiating community standards. 

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3) Influencers and followers maintain highly contextual community norms and cultural vernacular

 

After the WSJ’s accusations of anti-semitism, the subsequent amplification of the story by legacy media, and the corporate backlash from his partners, PewDiePie removed the offensive video and took to YouTube to address the public in a response video. The Influencer’s key points were:

1) the media has thus far only focused on his earnings and wealth, ignoring other aspects such as his charity work;

2) old school media fear the influence of YouTubers, they participate in clickbait, the reputable WSJ is slipping to tabloid standards, and they are attempting to discredit him and undermine his economic value;

3) WSJ took his jokes out of context and misrepresented his jokes as intentional hate posts (he subsequently explained the lifted jokes in the context of the original videos);

4) he cannot control the fact that hate groups are supporting him, and denounced them in a public statement;

5) he apologized for taking his joke too far, says he is learning from the lesson, and acknowledged that there are consequences for his actions;

6) he thanked fellow YouTubers for coming out in support of him.

However, legacy media retaliated with headlines such as “PewDiePie Says WSJ Took Anti-Semitic Content Out of Context“, “PewDiePie angrily accuses media of ‘out-of-context’ reports on antisemitic video“, and “PewDiePie’s Misguided War On The Media Sounds Familiar“.

Alongside PewDiePie’s response, I sample a group of eight videos from a network of YouTubers who commentated on the scandal. I collected these videos through snowball sampling, beginning with PewDiePie’s original response video and the linked recommended videos offered by YouTube’s algorithms at the end of each video. I watched the videos in full on 21 February 2017 and transcribed some key points that I quote later.

The videos sampled are:

Original: “My Response” (11:05) by PewDiePie

1) “RESPECT” (7:24) by Markiplier

2) “Pewdiepie Racist Anti Semitic Claims – My Response” (7:41) by CinnamonToastKen

3) “Is PewDiePie a Racist?” (8:15) by h3h3Productions

4) “Defending PewDiePie From JK Rowling, Even Though I Hate Him And Used To Like Her” (17:47) by The Amazing Atheist

5) “PewDiePie – A Character Assassination” (19:12) by Armoured Skeptic

6) “MSM Tried TO Destroy PewDiePie and OMG It Just Backfired! So ridiculous…” (9:21) by Philip DeFranco 

7) “PEWDIEPIE IS A RACIST?!” (7:16) by JaclynGlenn

8) “Response to PewDiePie” (10:19) by Pyrocynical

Each of these videos present cross-referential and cultural translation work volunteered by the YouTubers. They juxtapose the short snippets of PewDiePie’s videos that have been quoted by WSJ and other legacy media against the original videos. Collectively, these YouTubers seem to be speaking not to their fellow YouTubers and regular followers, but to passersby, curious strangers, and outsiders of the YouTuber community who require an orientation and foregrounding of the PewDiePie scandal. They demonstrate to (new) viewers how to situate the now-viral snippets in the entirety of their original videos, with context, as informed by the community norms of humour among YouTubers. 

Of the many illustrations, three were most prolific:

1) WSJ circulated a still of PewDiePie supposedly making the Nazi salute, when this was actually just him extending his arm and pointing off-screen; WSJ had conveniently renarrativized this gesture since PewDiePie’s hand and pointed fingers were not visible in the still and could be de- and re-contextualized.

2) WSJ lifted a clip of PewDiePie donning a uniform and watching Hitler videos, when this was actually the second half of a longer snippet in which PewDiePie first refuted earlier media accusations that he was a Nazi-supporter, and then jokingly don a British uniform while pretending to watch clips of Hitler’s speech to depict how he thinks the media views him.

3) WSJ reported that PewDiePie called for “Death to all jews”. Attempting to test limits of absurdity and what people would do for money on the freelance marketplace website Fiverr, PewDiePie hired two men to hold up banners with the offensive phrase, thinking that they wouldn’t do it. They eventually did, he expressed shock, and apologized for the prank in the video recounting this whole exchange. Although the YouTubers have been reminding viewers that this was merely a joke and not PewDiePie’s outright call to arms, this seems to be the least defensible of the accusations given that actual White supremacists have been capitalising on PewDiePie’s dark jokes to further their message in the wake of Trumpmerica, and that the racist jokes potentially caused distress to viewers.

These YouTubers were mostly outraged over WSJ’s intentional negation of the cultural context and vernacular implicit in these videos. Jewish YouTuber h3h3Productions notes: Context matters… As a Jewish person I’m not offended, and this is the problem with this manufactured outrage: People getting offended for people who are not offended. You don’t need to get outraged on my behalf ok”. YouTuber JaclynGlenn who has experienced similar de/re-contextualizing on a smaller scale notes: “Purposefully mischaracterizing someone in this kind of way just to generate more attention for yourself is pretty disgusting, and that’s exactly what they’re doing here… It’s a form of censorship and I really hate that”.

With this contextual topography, the YouTubers argue that claims of PewDiePie’s anti-semitism are highly exaggerated and decontextualized from what were simply narrative devices of ironic juxtaposition, self-deprecating humour, and pranks that went out of line.

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4) YouTubers are perceiving the PewDiePie-WSJ scandal as a struggle between Influencers and legacy media more generally

 

The general sentiment from these YouTubers is unanimously that legacy media is attacking YouTubers and Influencers, targeting PewDiePie as an exemplar. h3h3Productions calls this incident “a huge smear campaign… that is the biggest consequence of this… a global case of defamation”. CinnamonToastKen reminds viewers that PewDiePie’s cancelled series affects the livelihoods of several others who worked on it, and that these repercussions have not been discussed by the media: “No one cares about all the other people who were working on this project… we got the big guy, good job everyone, we got him, pat yourselves on the back”. However, a recent news article reports that these folks “will almost certainly be paid out in full“.

The YouTubers feel that legacy media is capitalizing on the digitally-native popularity of PewDiePie to reel in clicks on their articlesPhilip DeFranco reports: “Felix brings in the clicks. Outrage brings in the clicks. Get them in with a headline and whatever happens after happens… their intent was to take down and ruin Felix… We just need a good juicy headlines and we’ll make some points that, it’ll get across to 98% of the people that aren’t going to fact check or dive deeper on it”. The Amazing Atheist concurs: It’s old media attacking new media. It’s the lumbering dinosaur of irrelevance lashing out against the next phase of evolution. PewDiePie is basically their worst fucking nightmare. He’s one guy with no masters holding his leash, who is basically accountable only to himself. And he’s making boatloads of money by giving people content created solely by his own passion”.

The YouTubers feel that WSJ’s intention and incentive is primarily monetary rather than social justicePyrocynical reports: “The article is titled ‘Disney Severs Ties With YouTube Star PewDiePie After Anti-Semitic Posts’… ‘To read the full story, Subscribe or Sign-In… The world reacts. We analyze. One pound for two months’… Let’s make an insanely click-bait, possibly misleading article, and not even let people read the full story without paying, or giving us their email, so we can spam them with shitty newsletters”.

Some YouTubers acknowledge that their responses are in part constitutive of the self-referential, discursive networked, clickbaity culture of YouTube, in which the genre of “response” videos takes advantage of trending topics to gather views. Pyrocynical reflexively laments: “Everyone is looking at PewDiePie under a magnifying glass, because when you see YouTube, you see PewDiePie. He’s the biggest channel, so if someone can put ‘PewDiePie’ in a title, much like I have, then it’s easy views. And this carries from YouTube videos, as well to public journalism”.

Yet, the YouTubers also feel the genuine need to speak back against the over-saturation of legacy media coverage that is drowning out their voicesArmoured Skeptic argues: “When these kinds of social issues come up in the mainstream media, the media themselves beat their narrative into the ground. And honestly the only way to combat this is if we, the alternative media, beat our point into the ground. We’re essentially fighting a dog pile with a dog pile”.

YouTubers with more foresight are also perceiving the PewDiePie-WSJ scandal as an attack against their industry, as a chilling effect to reign other Influencers in and reassert legacy media’s presence in digital spacesJaclynGlenn contends: “What does this say about the future of YouTube or the future of social media in general?… Could this type of mentality ruin people’s careers?… only big companies and corporations are allowed to get away with this kind of thing”.

Still other YouTubers experienced this scandal personally, framing the media coverage as a personal attack that was unbecoming of basic humanity. In a highly emotive speech, Markiplier alludes to PewDiePie’s struggle and calls for viewers to return to basic human decency and respect: We as YouTubers are the exact same as you. We’re humans. We’re people wandering this world trying to figure out who we are, just the same as you… We are all equal and deserve to be treated with respect. We’re more than our labels. I don’t give a fuck what the colour of your skin is. I don’t care what religion you believe in. I don’t care where you’ve come from or where you are now. All I care about is who you are, and whether or not you’re free to be able to discover that”.

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In the larger scheme of media spectacles, PewDiePie has now been ascribed spectacle value and the social currency to mobilise camps of supporters and haters beyond the domains of the Influencer ecology. Outside of the Influencer community, his microcelebrity has been weaponized and borrowed upon to incite outrage for various causes, alongside other iconic media figures such as Trump, Milo, Assange, and Snowden.

Yet simultaneously within the Influencer community, millions of young followers for whom social media such as YouTube were primarily for entertainment value are now being seduced into joining camps and participating in global discursive debates in defence of/in opposition to Influencers. They are provoked to participate in a display of community loyalty, amateur activism, or politicised awakenings, as evidenced in the comments section of each of these videos and the discursive networks that continue across platforms on various social media.

As Influencers such as PewDiePie become iconised as enemies/heroes of the (alternative) media, they also become placeholders against whom people can align themselves to larger moral values and political allegiances. Even though YouTube Influencers have largely been framing the scandal as an attack by legacy media who are vying for a share of the attention economy in digital spaces, by islands of politicised spectators PewDiePie has been valorised as a symbol of the struggle for free speech, as a proponent against fake news, and another chess piece in the spillover effects of vulnerable global media ecologies in Trumpmerica. Perhaps this proclaims the irrefutable value and impact of the Influencer industry today – everyone wants a claim in it.

What do you feel about the PewDiePie-WSJ scandal? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Beep below.

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Dr Crystal Abidin is an anthropologist and ethnographer who studies young people’s relationships with internet celebrity, self-curation, and vulnerability. Reach her at wishcrys.com and @wishcrys.

This post was first published on wishcrys.com on 22 February 2017.

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When I was conference-hopping last month, I caught up with an academic friend who had unfollowed me on Twitter. While transiting from a proper academic conversation at the dinner table of a nice restaurant to a more intimate catch-up about our personal lives over drinks in a cosy bar, my friend admitted that they thought my use of Twitter was very “brave”. I didn’t understand. Specifically, they had unfollowed me because my Twitter stream was too “cluttered” and “spammy” and my tweeting habits were too frequent. It seemed “brave” was polite-speak for “homgh aren’t you afraid someone important might see your tweets”?

You see, my friend curates a rather professional persona on their Twitter account. They announce new publications, tweet links to other academic papers within their research interests, “heart” research announcements they want to archive from other academic tweeters, or live-tweet good soundbytes from conferences. Like many academics, I engage in all of these activities too. But alongside these mechanisms of socializing research, I also often tweet my favourite Pusheen gifs without context, muse about unimportant things in life, subtweet random interactions I witness throughout the day, whine about being awake at 0300hrs, and publicly declare my undying love for chicken nuggets – all under the same handle.

My Twitter bio reads: “my twitter is frivolous. navigating academia while whining about the weather.” in small caps (because, you know, that’s supposed to convey that I’m not 100% serious on Twitter all the time). I also tweet half-serious Public Service Announcements every time a new surge of tweeters follow me post-conference to forewarn them of the mixed-genre and frivolity of my content – this, because I understand that even among academics we use Twitter for various reasons to express various things to various audiences. Yet for all these worries, there are many tweeters like me just as there are many tweeters like my friend. Some of us code-switch between audiences, adopting different registers depending on circumstance. On the internet, such code-switching takes place both across platforms and within platforms, across handles/accounts and within handles/accounts. It’s not too dissimilar from how my friend and I progressed from serious adult academic conversation in a nice restaurant where the length of the table, brightness of the lights, and proximity to other patrons set the tone for our conversation; to personal intimate catch-ups in a cosy bar where the array of cushions on a comfy couch, soothing jazz music, dim lights, and overall decorum of friendly bar staff lubricated a different kind of sociality.

Code-switching and linguistic acrobatics influenced by internet-speak have permeated various demographies and parts of the world, albeit with different intensities of uptake and with a curious blend of glocal hybrids. On Tumblr and 9GAG where I, an anthropologist of internet culture, live, three great memes of 2016 address young people’s code-switching skills. In this post, I share some of the “bone apple tea”, “me, an intellectual”, and “increasingly verbose” memes I have been collecting in the past year and their implicit messages of youth savvy.

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Secret codes

(The Sun / Mirror / KDVR / CNN)

I got my first phone as a teenager 16 years ago. The oldest niece in my extended family is 16-years-old this year. I grew up in a time where my over-protective parents would occasionally go through the text messages in my phone if I left it charging and unattended some where in the house (I eventually learnt to sleep with my phone under my pillow). I watched my niece grow up in a time where her super cool mom (i.e. my super cool cousin) texts her like a friend using the full array of emoji, stickers, and flashing gifs. One time my cousin asked one of the 12-year-old nieces to explain a specific internet meme to her; they did so willingly and thought their mom, “a real adult”, was pretty cool. When I asked one of the 12-year-olds about an Instagram meme they were posting, they thought I, a “young adult”, was super uncool.

The point is, our uses, understandings, and comfort with technology change over generations and between cohorts. Yet some moral panics never die. A vast majority of reports from the press and popular media that focus on young people’s digital vocabularies are still fixated over sexting and acronyms – acronyms that are, to be honest, some times rather obscure and archaic from current practices and vocabularies in circulation. And when such public anxieties are manufactured over and over to resurrect prime time television numbers and reap easy clickbait-for-advertising profits, we lose the opportunity to appreciate the magic of watching young people’s savvy and wit in evolving internet vernacular.

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bone apple tea

bone apple tea is a deliberate misspelling of the French salutation bon appétit. In this meme, users attempt to string homophones loosely similar to bon appétit to caption their food pictures. Of the hundreds of variations, the few that have gained traction and become sub-memes of their own include “bone app the teeth” and “toe tap the fleas”. I enjoyed watching this meme progress on Tumblr (usually via screenshots of Tweet pics) as the homophones evolved beyond recognition. Soon, the game shifted from creative homophoning of “bon appétit” to guessing what the original food item of a deliberately bad homophoned phrase was. Some of my favourites were “a chick ham seizure sad lad” (a chicken caesar salad), “smack the pony and leave” (macaroni and cheese), and “hoe maid pete sir end ships” (homemade pizza and chips). Bless these creative citizens of the internet and their bemusing homophoning abilities.

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me, an intellectual

me, an intellectual is an unnecessary formal or literal synonymizing of a common catch-phrase. Many of the viral ones on Tumblr involve translating curse words or colloquial synonyms for the penis.

Given the cultural norm of Social Justice Warriorhood on Tumblr, over time this meme was used to convey one’s political identity and stance. For instance, when a certain Public Figure was calling then-Secretary Hillary Clinton names on public stages and in social media posts, Tumblr took to address Hillary Clinton in full as “Madame President Hillary Rodham Clinton” to convey their respect and support towards someone of her caliber. Tumblr is also one of the safe spaces on the internet for discussions relating to diverse family structures. What popular culture calls a “love triangle” filters through “me, an intellectual” to be acknowledged as a “healthy polyamorous relationship”. Most recently, in response to a circus of mainstream and popular media outlets rebranding and normalizing a certain Public Figure’s political ideology, Tumblr translated “Alt-right” as “Neo-nazi”. What started out as young people expressing unnecessary verbosity ended up becoming a translator for truths and political claims amidst competing hegemonies of discourse.

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increasingly verbose

increasingly verbose is a succession of degrading art work alongside increasingly complex captions. It is likely a combination of two memes. The text on the right is a extended variation of “me, an intellectual”, while the accompanying image on the left degrading in quality and skill is reminiscent of the “hyper realistic drawing” meme on 9GAG. On 9GAG, 9GAGgers with artistic talents were originally sharing very realistic drawings of everyday objects, and would include in the title the number of hours it took them to finish the project. In response to this, some users blessed with sarcasm and wit began hijacking the meme with “drawings” that were actually photographs, while others submitted intentionally bad and sloppy drawings with exaggerated “completion times”. I love this meme for 9GAG’s ironic celebration of mediocrity alongside a mockery of needless formality.

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trying to meet the word count

A Tumblr meme that corresponds beautifully to the above three are when users are bonding over the stress of meeting the minimum word count for essays. This speaks back to the “studyblr” demographic on Tumblr in which users share studying strategies and “study porn” by displaying their beautiful handwritten notes, colour-coded stacks of binders, or impossibly bling stationery. It is almost as if a whole cohort of homework procrastinators are bonding over the irony of mocking verbosity on the internet while actually having to rely on it to get through assignments in school.

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stahp it

 

Whether you’re dabbling in suspicious homophones, using an intellect translator, flexing your illustrative mediocrity, or struggling to thesaurus your way through an overdue essay, the internet is a beautiful space for multiple Englishes and languages to converge and rub out sophisticated and equally mundane internet vernacular with increasingly obscure backstories and complex discursive politics. Young people aren’t just NIFOC while 99 for 53X. Long live internet speak. Long live Baby Kangaroo Tribbiani.

Dr Crystal Abidin is an anthropologist and ethnographer who studies young people’s relationships with technology and social media. Reach her at wishcrys.com and @wishcrys.

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The internet has been saturated with Trump memes. Some times they are hilarious, some times they are hurtful. Some times they bring relief, some times they are agonizing. This post is a product of my observations and archive of Trump memes and their evolving power from “subversive frivolity” to “normativity”. I demonstrate how Trump memes have transited along a continuum as: attention fodder, subversive frivolity, the new normal, and popular culture.

Screengrabs with the black header were archived from the mobile app version of 9gag on 8 November 2016, around 0001hrs, GMT+8 time. They include all the posts tagged “Trump”, with the earliest backdating to 14 weeks. There were 141 original memes in total but a handful have been omitted from this post. Screengrabs without the black header were archived from various news sites and social media throughout the Election season.

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1) Trump as attention fodder

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Trump is a one-man meme machine. The words that come out of his body are priceless attention fodder, and early screengrabs of his quotes on social media disseminated shock and disbelief. As a regular user of 9gag, new batches of posts each day seemed to compete for the “most shocking quote” as a means to garner up-votes and encourage high comment rates.

Although these memes circulated widely on social media, the circuit of Trump shock was supported, escalated, and institutionalized by mainstream media outlets that pursued string after string of sensational headlines and free publicity in the name of profits. Big profits

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Trump’s racist rhetoric spurned a meme ecology that increasingly distanced his hate speech from his celebrity persona, as humour and internerspeak cushioned viewers from the realities of his bigotry. 

As part of my research on internet celebrity, I closely follow dozens of Influencers on a daily basis, and hundreds more monthly. Leading up to voting day, many Influencers from around the world began to partake in Trump memes as content fodder. This was in a bid to “join in the fun” in mocking Trump, using current events to relate to followers and maintain their relevance amidst the displacement of internet attention towards the US Presidential Elections. It was clear from empty melodramatic prose that many Influencers had little to no clue about Trump’s disastrous ethic and damaging policies, instead focusing on airy-fairy vague Instagram quote posts, Twitter quips, and Facebook status updates calling for no hate and hippie peace and love and flowers. I recognize and acknowledge that a strong command of the attention economy and the ability to re-narrate and redirect current issues to one’s self-brand is a crucial and learned strategy in the Influencer industry, but these appropriations of the Trump narrative fostered accessibility, a sense of acceptance, and an artificial sense of distance between the internet frivolity of meme-makers and the lived realities of voters in a post-Trump USA.

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2) Trump as subversive frivolity

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In April this year, I published a paper on the ways in which Influencers use selfies as a form of “subversive frivolity”. In it, I demonstrated how the continuous disregard for selfies as merely frivolous objects not to be taken seriously enabled Influencers to use them as artifacts, tools, and weapons to improve their self-branding, dispel bad press, and increase their commercial value.

I defined subversive frivolity as the under-visibilized and under-estimated generative power of an object or practice arising from its (populist) discursive framing as marginal, inconsequential, and unproductive.

A similar process has occurred in our public discourse on Trump, in which our continuous production of and exposure to Trump memes has desensitized us from the real impact of his deadly proclamations and proposed policies. In other words, by boxing Trump and his harmful rhetoric into the usually whimsical vehicle of internet memes, the salience of his politic is diluted and parsed as mere frivolity to be traded and circulated as humour currency. It doesn’t help that we often Other him as a “crazy” person and undervalue his potential impact. It is our rehearsed internet meme literacies that have cultivated a blindspot to the insidious power of subversive frivolity lurking within Trump memes.

We caricature Trump with Photoshop skills or artistic sensibilities.

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We mock his signature hairdo.

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We pun his name.

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In the process of meme-ing Trump as The Face, The Hair, The Name, we water away the discourse of Trump the Presidential Candidate, and now President Elect. While I acknowledge the potential of memes as a discursive practice of resistance, agentic mode of aggressive humour, and penetrative weapon of vernacular discourse, the steady current of Trump memes has surely anesthetized at least some of us to his vile politic.

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3) Trump as the new normal

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So almost all the poll projections for the US Presidential Elections were wrong. Very very wrong. And the moment Trump became President Elect, media outlets made the natural, seamless, and unapologetic transition into profiling the “new first family“. There are many of such articles that are now converting the once sensational and vitriolic discourse around Trump into your everyday, regular, unassuming press news, baked fresh every morning; but I note that Trump’s older daughter, Ivanka Trump, is fast becoming the media darling who is softening her father’s image, using her charisma to better the Trump family’s public reception, and probably executing some of his policies in time to come.

For instance, see People Magazine gushing over 27 photos of her “way too cute” family, The Straits Times commending her 5yo daughter for “win[ning] hearts of Chinese netizens” by reciting Chinese poetry, and The Guardian applauding her “thoughtful, composed and savvy” public persona.

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Trump memes are also culprits of this normalizing discourse. Many “Hillary or Trump” memes imply a nonchalance and indifference between the two Presidential Candidates, as if both would have been equally “bad” outcomes.

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Trump’s contentious foreign policies has also birthed a new string of diplomacy meme humour. Several versions of such diplomacy memes compare Trump to controversial past and current world leaders, including Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Putin, and Kim. The aesthetic of these memes seem to welcome Trump to the Old Boys’ Club of dictators and fascists, as equal parts criticism and a badge of honour. In other words, Trump is lauded as “just another one of those bad boys” on the world stage. The cognizance of his new position as President Elect of one of the most, if not the most, influential countries in the world seems to be secondary.

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4) Trump as popular culture

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Prior to his foray into politics, Trump, the billionaire businessman and media mogul, made frequent appearances on television and cinema. Since running for the Candidacy, he has become a regular fixture in popular culture through internet memes, viral songs, merchandise, and art.

In fact, a quick search on community art commerce platform, society6.com, reveals streams and streams of unofficial Trump paraphernalia, juxtaposed against his official Election gear. I wonder how many folks are unironically buying Trump wear off artisanal commerce sites in the belief that they are resisting, rebelling, or revolting.

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On this site and others, a string of dedicated artists have started shops specifically hawking Trump wear. The ambiguous aesthetic makes it difficult to ascertain if these products and art are meant to signify parody consumption as a subversive statement, or just plain idol worship.

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So, judging by their incredible virality, Trump memes have been enjoyable internet fodder for many people. But for all the potential resistance work, intellectual critique, and activism that such viral memes hold, different genres of memes may compete and be counter-productive for different fragments of people. The memes slut-shaming Melania and Ivanka Trump are one example of misplaced anti-Trump sentiment. Misogyny is never excusable.

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Similarly, memes of lived realities of minority groups targeted under Trump’s proposed policies accumulated hundreds of thousands of upvotes and likes and retweets and reblogs. They may serve as commentary of reactions from the ground, but also have the potential to bring distress to targeted peoples who are still trying to make sense of their new precarity.

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What’s next in the Trump meme ecology? I see your Biden/Obama memes. I see them from BBC, BuzzfeedCNN, Harpers Bazaar, News.com.auObserver, The Sydney Morning HeraldThe Telegraph, The Washington Post, among others. And there is nothing wrong with such humour per se. In fact, scholars have studied such practices as “irony as protest“, “tactical frivolity“, and “pop polyvocality” among other current research on digital media. But remember that some of these very same news outlets were the ones who took you on their sensationalist-to-normative whirlpool of Trump discourse, and with the Biden/Obama memes, they are still making revenue off you, as you consume their bite sized meme humour as panacea to the President Elect Trump they aided to success.

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See also:
1) Singaporeans react to Donald Trump
2) Things a Singaporean appreciates about the US Presidential Elections
3) Global politics is micropolitics 
4) Parochial anxiety

Dr Crystal Abidin is an anthropologist and ethnographer who studies Influencers and internet celebrity. Reach her at wishcrys.com and @wishcrys.

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Some time ago, I spoke with a reporter regarding the Internet virality of Michelle Dobyne of “ain’t nobody got time for that” fame. They intended to run a ‘where are they now’ follow-up piece on Dobyne’s life post ’15 minutes of fame’. In the end, the TV clip and its companion article condensed our 8-minute interview into these anonymous soundbites:

“We asked a noted social media expert what makes a video viral worthy. She said catch phrases and exoticism, something that takes us away from our routine lives.”

“Our expert said what Dobyne and other viral video stars are able to do long term with their 15 minutes of fame is anyone’s guess.”

Since much of what I had to say about eyewitness virality, racism, and journalistic responsibility did not make the final cut, I later transcribed my conversation with the reporter and wrote it up.

Eyewitness virality

In January 2016, Michelle Dobyne gave an eyewitness account after her apartment complex caught fire. In the original interview, her catchphrase “Nuh-uh, we ain’t gon be in no fire. Not today.” and her overall decorum caught the attention of the television crew, who then put the clip up on Facebook. And well, you know the formula. The clip went viral. Dobyne became a meme. Romantic and commercial offers were rumoured. Semi-officious merchandise became available.

Three months later, the news network decided to run a follow-up piece on Dobyne. As it turns out, not much of her material circumstances have changed despite her transient internet fame. Rinse and repeat. The saving grace? Kind strangers started a gofundme page for Dobyne. The backlash? Her neighbours feel “overshadowed” by her fame and are still struggling post-fire.

I am going to call this phenomenon “eyewitness virality”: The proliferation of television news interviewees, many of whom are themselves victims of the unfortunate event being covered, who attain overnight but transient fame through the news networks who curate and disseminate their eyewitness accounts on social media as humour and clickbait.

But Dobyne is just the latest addition to a string of eyewitness viral stars:

July 2010: Antoine “hide yo kids” Dodson, who gave an eyewitness account after his home was invaded and his sister avoided an attempted rape. (Official Facebook page here, merchandise here, music here).

April 2012: Kimberly “ain’t nobody got time for that” Wilkins aka Sweet Brown, who gave an eyewitness account after her building complex caught fire. (Dental care advertorial here, movie cameo here).

May 2013: Charles “dead giveaway” Ramsey, who gave an eyewitness account after aiding in the rescue of the Ariel Castro kidnap victims. (Official Facebook page here, autobiography here).

June 2015: Courtney “like a tornado girl” Barnes, who gave an eyewitness account of a car crash.

These eyewitness viral stars are all Black. However, I also recall this eyewitness account from a Portland woman who went off tangent and told reporters a “vacuum cleaner guy” has “seen my tits”. Unfortunately, the original video has been taken down and I was unable to locate any news reports from official sources.

The reporter I spoke to asked about the ‘formula’ for internet virality.

“Tell me a bit about the whole viral video and social media.. what is it in a video that makes it go viral? What does society want to see that makes it get all these clicks?”

1) Unexpected responses. Viewers usually do not expect these eyewitness accounts to be so casual, light-hearted, humorous, or to some extent, flippant. Their body language, tone, and vocabulary may seem peculiar when juxtaposed against the severity of the situation, because viewers may not feel the interviewees are expressing grief in “normative” ways (i.e. crying). But this is not to say we should discount their grief.

2) Catchphrases. With eyewitness virality, catchphrases that gain traction and circulate as memes have been those based on stereotypes of how we perceive people who look a certain way to say certain things (i.e. race and parlance, class and street talk, sexuality and flamboyance).

3) Exoticism. Viewers tend to exercising a sense of distance from the eyewitnesses they see on screen. Perhaps we do not share in their plight, their poverty, their general precarity, or their demographic and associated identity markers (i.e. vocabulary, accents, posture). It is easy to meme the exotic when we project our partial understandings/misconceptions onto caricatures.

Racism

The follow-up clip/article for which I was interviewed seemed to pitch a feel-good tone that highlighted four things:

1) The reporters did not expect the clip to go viral.

2) Dobyne’s reactions in the original news clip were authentic.

3) Dobyne and her family have experienced positive (fun, merchandising, marriage proposals, potential career in comedy) and negative (failed managerial relationship) consequences as a result of her viral fame.

4) Nevertheless, Dobyne wishes to use her fame for positive ends (raise awareness for domestic violence and homelessness).

This is despite the racist overtones of such virality. A handful of op-eds have alluded to this:

The Guardian calls such incidents “lowbrow entertainment trenches” that “trade on stereotypes”, that cost some “dignity” in the vein of “Poor People Say the Darndest Things”.

The Huffington Post asks if viewers are laughing with Dobyne, or at Dobyne as “a separate, autonomous entity or as a stereotype — the archetypal loud, ratchet, uneducated black woman”.

This Blogher writer appeals to readers with her own demographic (she is a White woman married to a Black man) and tells them Dobyne “does not represent the Black people I know”. She also seems to think Dobyne was intentionally capitalizing on racial stereotypes for fame, and expresses her disdain.

Salon calls these formulaic routines the “memeification and autotuning of news interviews with poor and working-class people”, and denounces “society’s collective urge to gawk at the poor and working class”.

The reporter I spoke to asked about the ‘authenticity’ of Dobyne’s reactions.

“What do you think it was about Michelle exactly that caught so many peoples’ attention? A lot of people thought she was faking it, but I met her afterwards and she’s just got a personality like that. Within the first fifteen minutes it was already blowing up on our Facebook page.”

Dobyne was obviously responding to a moment of grief in a manner that was very lighthearted, but we also know that people tend to deal with grief in different ways. A lot of times, for the people who are steeped in poverty or who are used to living a life of precarity where unfortunate incidents happen often, humour is a coping mechanism to cope with their circumstances. We viewers who are safe behind the screens, who are not experiencing poverty or troubles firsthand, may not understand that. We may not understand humour as a coping mechanism or as daily parlance.

Worst still, some of us may mistake this humour as an intentional act to play up one’s ‘five seconds of fame’ on TV. I saw this a lot on the YouTube comments on several incarnations of Dobyne’s interview. Almost every video had dozens of people commenting to the effect of “She’s obviously copying from Sweet Brown”, “She’s following a trope”, “She’s playing up herself to gain some type of fandom or celebrity”. This is quite worrying. Just because we are familiar with one eyewitness viral star being memoralized in a particular light (i.e. Sweet Brown), we assess all other Black people or Black women who are in the same predicament, and make judgements on whether they can or cannot express themselves in a similar manner. And then we attach this to moral values of authenticity.

Journalistic responsibility

Dobyne’s interview clip was originally shared on Facebook by a reporter on 11 January 2016, with the caption (as of 5 April 2016):

“You never know who you will run into covering the news of the day. News On 6 photojournalist Ethan Pierce met a lady named Michelle Dobyne this morning. Her description of a fire at the Casa Linda Apartments…is incredible.”

The clip was than reposted on another reporter’s Facebook page on the same day, with the caption (as of 5 April 2016, emphasis mine):

“Everyone, meet Michelle Dobyne, who is my new favorite person in the entire world. She and her family have to find a place to live for the next few days after an apartment fire hit their complex, but she still found humor in the situation and she is SO FUNNY. Charlie Hannema News On 6 and I can’t stop laughing at her interview with News On 6 Photojournalist Ethan Pierce. Thanks Michelle, you are an awesome woman!”

I find these initial Facebook shares and captions to be a contradiction to the follow-up clip/article’s claim that the reporters did not expect the clip to go viral, since:

1) The caption clearly framed the clip as humour bait, and Dobyne as a larger-than-life personality.

2) The reporters decided to share the clip on Facebook because the newsroom found it funny.

3) Other news networks have previously pioneered such known formulaic curations of eyewitness virality.

The first reporter’s follow-up Facebook post on 12 January 2016 was perhaps the saving grace, informing viewers than Dobyne was “sleeping in her car” and calling for “cards, clothes for the kids or cash/checks” donations for Dobyne and her family. He ends off: “Hopefully, Michelle’s spirit during the struggles can be a message to people around the world.”

The reporter I spoke to asked about the backlash to such instant virality.

“Michelle says that this ‘fifteen minutes of fame’, if you will… some people came out of the woodwork good and bad. So what comes with this quick rise to fame for somebody who may not be ready for it or who may not expect it?”

The eyewitness viral stars themselves might have ideas about how they want to manage this sudden fame and commerce, and the opportunity to perhaps better their life standing. Many op-eds I’ve read suggest we are giving these viral stars a ‘lifeline’ by helping them to cash in on their fame.

But once the glitz and glamour wears out, once all these press interviews die down, once Dobyne stops being a meme, once she’s no longer the star of a viral news item, what’s there to make of her livelihood and state after this? We seldom know how such viral stars are doing once you’ve capitalized on their instant fame for clicks on your news articles or for internet laughs.

“Very interesting. Well anything else stood out to you about Michelle? She does say that she wants us to use it as a platform to talk about things she’s gone through, such as domestic violence and homelessness, but is there anything else the public should take away from this ‘becoming famous with just one Facebook post’ trend? What else do you want to say?”

I see a lot of commentary about how we have discomfort speaking about Dobyne and racism – is it alright to laugh at her, is it not? – but when I first saw her video I was immediately reminded of a clip in ‘Dude, Where’s My Car‘, where two hungover, high (?) White men were speaking to each other and repeatedly saying “Dude”, “Sweet”, “Dude”, “Sweet”. But when viewers see this caricature on cinema screens, we probably don’t believe there are actuallypeople ‘in real life’ who speak like this, like what my students would call ‘White girl trash talk’. We don’t see ‘real life examples’ of these folks on screen.

I was also concerned about how this video was made public. In the news interviews, it was stated that the TV crew themselves had a really good laugh and then decided to put the clip on the internet. Here, we need to consider journalistic responsibility. These eyewitness viral stars, they don’t become memes all by themselves. A lot of the gatekeeping happens in your press room, and I think the journalists have the responsibility to help such viral stars negotiate their instant visibility and celebrity, and manage things such as consent.

“Huh, good point.”

Dr Crystal Abidin is an anthropologist and an ethnographer. Reach her at wishcrys.com and @wishcrys. This post was first published here

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This is the Pen Pineapple Apple Pen (PPAP) song that started amassing virality around 25 September 2016, despite being published on YouTube a month earlier on 25 August 2016. This is the tutorial from its original artist, published on 26 September 2016 in response to volumes of covers, remixes, and parodies being produced as the song approaches the climax of viral fame.

The ‘official’ backstory, according to the wisdom of throngs of popular media articles churned out this week, is that the artist in the video is Piko-Taro, a fictional character played by entertainer DJ Kosaka Daimaou, whose is actually a 51-year-old Mr Kazuhiko Kosaka. His character Piko-Taro first began life as a stand-up comedian at live shows. (For those of you who are in-tune with YouTube or Influencer culture, think Miranda Sings as the fictional character played by microcelebrity Colleen Ballinger who goes by the handle ‘PsychoSoprano’ on the internet. See also here.)

Piko-Taro started his YouTube channel on 23 August 2016, posting short songs while dressed in his now-signature gaudy fashion and wig, with flamboyance in tow. The virality of his debut PPAP video was facilitated by digital user-generated humour platform 9GAG on its Facebook page. In the wake of his recent virality, Piko-Taro has been retweeting and responding to some followers in a smattering of English on his Twitter, which was created just months prior in June 2016. He is on Facebook here.

In this post, I discuss the circulation of PPAP, the value judgments made about it, its characteristics and predecessors, and the potential future of Piko-Taro.

Circulation & Virality

Most viral artifacts on the internet go through a standard script as they circulate. As a viral YouTube song, PPAP has achieved these milestones of virality on YouTube and across other digital estates:

1) Covers – by YouTubers Chad Wild Clay and Davison Video, by traditional celebrityU10Seconds

2) Remixesmetal, Hoaprox

3) Parodies – with cultural-specific innuendos by microcelebrities Bie The Ska and Happy Pola, with national inside jokes by digital platform SGAG

4) Loops1hr loop10hr loop

5) Challenges – among Japanese teens, among YouTubers

6) Compilations – Kênh Hài Hước

7) ‘How to’ tutorials – from Piko-Taro, on keyboard, on guitar 

8) ReactionsSnow ReactsYouGotKnockedOut

9) RantsToma Puck

10) Forum discussionsReddit

11) Institutionalized by internet gatekeepersKnow Your Meme, Wikipedia

12) Adult versionsTheGan32d

13) Celebrity endorsementsJustin Bieber declared he was a fan via Twitter

14) Merchandise – t-shirts on Amazon 

Value judgments

As popular commentary on PPAP proliferate and the viral song approaches its plateau, several value judgements have been cast on the song, Japanese culture, and internet virality more generally. To survey the landscape of such sentiment, I coded themes through key descriptors in the first ten reports for the Google search phrase “pen pineapple apple pen”. Articles were collected on 29 September 16, at 1600hrs, GMT+8.

The first ten reports were:

  1. bbc.com – “How a ‘Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen’ earworm took over the internet”
  2. thestar.com – “Is ‘Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen’ the next ‘Gangnam Style?’”
  3. bgr.com – “The internet is obsessed with the next ‘Gangnam Style’, and it’s about fruit”
  4. goodyfeed.com – “The Only 10 Facts You Need to Know About Pen Pineapple Apple Pen”
  5. straitstimes.com – “Viral Japanese song Pen-Apple-Pineapple-Pen touted as ‘next Gangnam Style’”
  6. mashable.com – “What’s the deal with that wild Pen Pineapple Apple Pen video?”
  7. spoon-tamago.com – “Pen Pineapple Apple Pen (PPAP) by Piko-Taro”
  8. telegraph.co.uk – “Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen: wildly popular viral video will take over the world whether you like it or not”
  9. time.com – “This Bizarrely Hilarious Song About Pineapples and Pens May Be the Next Viral Hit”
  10. abc.net.au – “Why do songs get stuck in your head? Pen Pineapple Apple Pen and other ‘earworms’”

The first nine articles from various popular media and news sites regurgitated content from each other, while the tenth article at abc.net.au was the only one that consulted expert commentary, music psychologist Dr Tim Byron, to explain the phenomenon of viral songs.

Here are the main themes I observed and the key phrases from the articles:

1) PPAP is viral

“viral”, “viral craze”, “viral hit”, “wildly popular viral video”, “monster hit”, “catchy”, “catchy song”, “catchy number”, “infectiously-catchy”, “infectiously addictive”, “inane infectiousness”, “incredibly addictive”, “earworm”, “stuck in your head”

2) PPAP is viral because of its beat, lyrics, and dance

“addictive beat”, “upbeat”, “repetition of rhythms and beats”, “simple but catchy track”, “silly lyrics”, “lyrics are nonsensical”, “nonsensical lyrics”, “simpler dance routine”, “rhythmic dance moves”, “hilariously simple dance routine”, “quirky dance moves”

3) PPAP is funny

“silly song”, “hilarious”, “bizarrely hilarious”, “utterly hilarious”

4) PPAP is strange

“bizarre”, “wild”, “fascinating”, “nonsensical”, “makes no sense whatsoever”, “wrong side of Youtube”, “makes no sense”

5) PPAP is annoying

“annoying”, “drives them nuts”, “stupid thing”

6) PPAP is clever

“wild genius”, “mad genius”, “magical”, “greatest thing on the internet right now”, “successful viral videos”

7) PPAP is global

“not particularly trended on Japanese social media”, “make inroads into Western internet circles”, “internet is obsessed”, “take over the world”

8) PPAP replaces a previous viral hit

“the next Gangnam Style”, “the next Psy”, “the next Harlem Shake”, “reminiscent of recent hits like Singapore actor Chen Tianwen’s ‘Unbelievable’”

Folklore and conspiracy theories regarding the “true meaning” of the song have also begun to emerge, such as how it has a “hidden sexual message” (thebitbag.com) because of “innuendo[s]” (idigitaltimes.com).

Characteristics & Predecessors

While I am chiefly an academic, I also do consulting on the side for companies who wish to develop their social media presence and estates. Clients often ask if I can make something “go viral”, or whether I can give them “the formula” to achieve virality. The truth is, there are no perfect rules. Some internet researchers have studied virality in various forms (and you can read examples here, here, here, and here). In response to my thematic codes of popular press articles above, in this section I wish to think through a few qualities specific to PPAP’s virality.

1) Visceral camp

In my study of ‘grotesque microecelebrity‘, I borrow from American writer Susan Sontag‘s notion of ‘camp‘ to understand ‘visceral camp’. Visceral camp is the aesthetic of playful, anti-serious visual displays and theatrics that are exaggerated and outlandish, carefully curated to convey atypical taste and overwhelming to the point of ridicule and primitive gawking. In Singapore, recent viral hits of such excess include television network Mediacorp Channel 5’sUnbelievable (2015) and and musician ShiGGa Shay’s Wussapa (2015).

2) Blank canvas

Piko-Taro and PPAP are camp performances; they present a gaudy aesthetic that is a melange of bad fashion sense, flamboyance, internet weird, and internet ugly. Yet at the same time, PPAP means nothing, it is nonsensical and void of distinct meaning. This thus presents PPAP as a template, a blank canvas onto which viewers can project meaning, and into which viewers can invest creatively. Predecessors as such include the Harlem Shake (2013) and What Does the Fox Say (2013).

3) Translation & transposition 

As earlier noted, PPAP is also replicable because its tune, beat, lyrics, and dance moves are simple to emulate. It also has a memorable gestural sequence and iconic catchphrase. The Macarena (1993) and  Gwiyomi (2013) are similar viral hits that were easy to translate across cultures, and easy to transpose across mediums as they were straightforward to copy.

4) Exoticism

The one thing that really stood out to me was how ‘the internet’ compared PPAP to Gangnam Style (2012). This was probably because Gangnam Style still holds the record for being the most viewed video on YouTube, but more likely because this song was the last “Asian” artifact to go viral globally.

PPAP has been described as a “Jpop meme” or “another pop meme imported from Asia” that has “finally made its way to the American internet” (dailydot.com) and “ma[de] inroads into Western internet circles” (mashable.com). In other words, in the cultural hegemony of the internet and its repertoire of virality, PPAP is the exotic Other, the underdog, and the oriental “magical” (mashable.com) thing that has managed to successfully infiltrate the ‘normal’ internet. This exoticism also applies in other non-hegemonic “Western” contexts, such as when Trololo (2009) from the Soviet era gain virality.

Of course, the lyrical simplicity and Japanese-accented English in PPAP also taps into the popular humour of Japlish or Engrish, which sometimes results in legendary internet gold such as “All Your Base Are Belong to Us“.

5) Cultural flows

In media scholar Koichi Iwabuchi’s work on Japanese popular culture (2002) and anthropologist Christine Yano’s study on Hello Kitty (2013), they discuss “recentering globalization” and “decentering globalization” respectively with regards to how popular culture trends emerge and circulate. Global trends usually originate at a ‘core’ before flowing across national, geo-political, and socio-cultural boundaries to the ‘periphery’ where they are then taken up.

In the past, the core was usually the USA from which trends would spread to the rest of the world. However, with the proliferation of Jpop and the recent emergence of Kpop, these global cultural flows have been changing and shifting, such that the core is situated outside of the USA and in places such as Japan (i.e. Jpop, PPAP) or Korea (i.e. Kpop) for example. PPAP and Gangnam Styles are great case studies for how such cultural flows are “recentered” or “decentered”

Where to from here?

What DJ Kosaka Daimaou/Mr Kazuhiko Kosaka will do with Piko-Taro’s new internet virality is any one’s guess, although given his background in the entertainment industry, Piko-Taro is likely to evolve from a viral artifact of transience to a celebrity  icon with longevity. However, making the leap from virality to micro/celebrity is not an easy task. Even though Piko-Taro is now an internet-household name, his digital estates have not been clocking the views and traffic he has accumulated – after all, his fame was largely catapulted by 9GAG who reposted a video from a user that did not link back to Piko-Taro’s original YouTube video. Even now, much of the traffic is redirected to various copies and reposts rather than his original video.

Digital estates aside, Piko-Taro seems to have a memorable brand on track, with his formulaic and trademark fashion (gaudy gold), setting (all videos on YouTube show the same white back ground), lyrics (nonsense, humour, Japanese/English), and dance moves (i can’t even).

In the lifecycle of his virality, and as with most predecessors, I anticipate that Piko-Taro will soon produce his own official merchandize (as opposed to random Amazon users profiting off the hype with homemade goods), appear and perform on a prime time slot in the USA (such as the Ellen show), and be approached to endorse brands (Apple, obviously?). But here is where it gets tricky, because commerce and over-exposure is where virality starts to plateau and memes begin to die. As a scholar of internet culture, I’d be excited to watch the Piko-Taro hype unfold in the next few weeks. For now, PEN PINEAPPLE APPLE PEN.

If you’re interested in viral internet songs, I catalogued how soundbites become remixed into viral songs in Singapore here, and how eyewitness accounts become (racist) viral songs here.

PS: Remember the Badger Song (2008)? The Duck Song (2009)? Nyan Cat (2011)? The internet is truly a wonderful blackhole.

PPS: I wrote this blogpost while listening to a 10-hour loop of PPAP on YouTube. I take my craft very seriously. (But I also gave up at the 1hr 55min 14sec mark to retain my sanity).

Dr Crystal Abidin is an anthropologist and an ethnographer. Reach her at wishcrys.com and @wishcrys. This post was first published on wishcrys.com.