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. 

*

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.

*

image8

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. 

*

img_0998

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.

*

img_0999

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”.

*

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.

*

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.

image-1

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

01

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.

*

1) Trump as attention fodder

02

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

03

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.

*

2) Trump as subversive frivolity

image2

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.

04

We mock his signature hairdo.

05

We pun his name.

06

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.

*

3) Trump as the new normal

07

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.

08

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.

09

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.

*

4) Trump as popular culture

10

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.

11

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.

image23

*

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.

12

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.

13

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.

image3

*

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.

md

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

FullSizeRender

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.

kitty cat

Last month, Instagram decided to introduce “Stories“. Admittedly a copy of Snapchat’s Stories, Instagram writes:

With Instagram Stories, you don’t have to worry about overposting. Instead, you can share as much as you want throughout the day — with as much creativity as you want. […]

Instagram has always been a place to share the moments you want to remember. Now you can share your highlights and everything in between, too.

This signals two things to me:

1) The curation rhetoric of Instagram as a regulated repository with optimum posting times and frequencies to maximize viewer perception is being acknowledged. Instagram wants us to break out of this normative practice popularized by its top Influencer Instagrammers so that more content will be shared more frequently.

2) The curation rhetoric of Instagram as a highlight reel for only one’s “best images” is being acknowledged. Instagram wants us to contentdump on its platform instead of cross-platforming (over to Snapchat!) to post our mass of “non-Insta worthy” frivolous content.

I have some thoughts.

From Archive Culture to Streaming Culture

We’re moving from a culture of pristine archiving to one of haphazard streaming. While tasteful, luxurious feeds (Bourdieu 1979Veblen 1899) peaked on “repository format” social media such as blogs and Instagram, the aesthetic of spontaneous snippets on-the-go or unfiltered continuous webcasting has taken over on “transient format” social media such as Snapchat, Periscope, and Twitch.

This is largely motivated by followers’ cultivation of perpetual FOMO, or the fear of missing out. The attention economy (Goldhaber 1997) is a system in which content is in abundance but consumers’ attention spans are limited. In other words, attention becomes a scarce resource for which to be competed in a “war of eyeballs” (Abidin 2014).

While repository social media is more permanent and allow followers to return to the material at their own pace and time, transient social media is ephemeral and demand that followers assign it full attention in the narrow window during which it is available for view. Thus, the attention invested by followers is increasingly “voluntary”, “front-of-mind” and “attractive” as opposed to “captive”, “back-of-mind”, and “aversive” (Davenport & Beck 2011)

From Tasteful Consumption to Amateur Aesthetic

In the wake of conscientiously maintained luxury feeds, the accessibility once promised by the rise of microcelebrities is being eroded as their practice and persona appear more unattainable due to barriers of entry such as cost, social capital, or cultural capital.

The live moving image affordance of Periscope and Twitch that allow for little modification and “photoshopping”, or the basic editing affordance of Snapchat that restricts modification to pre-set filters, stickers, and scribbles (pre-Stories) has privileged an “amateur aesthetic” over the previous peak of “tasteful consumption”.

In a paper currently under review, I coin “calibrated amateurism” to describe “a practice and aesthetic in which an attention economy focuses specifically on crafting contrived authenticity that portrays the raw aesthetic of an amateur, by relying on the performance ecology of appropriate platforms, affordances, tools, cultural vernacular, and social capital. When orchestrated conscientiously, calibrated amateurism may give the impression of spontaneity and unfilteredness despite the contrary reality”.

The aesthetic of calibrated amateurism has a leveling effect because Influencers appear less constructed, less filtered, more spontaneous, and more raw. This fosters feelings of “relatability”, and specifically notions of “authenticity”. I’d previously described the “relatability” framework here and made mentions of it in an articlehere. In brief, among other mechanisms of assessment, “authenticity” is gauged by “how genuine an Influencer’s actual lifestyle and sentiment is”. The amateur aesthetic thus gives the impression that followers are able to enter the “backstage” (Goffman 1956), behind contrived performances (MacCannell 1973), to evaluate Influencers for themselves.

From Platform Microcelebrity to Cross-platform Influencer

Microcelebrities used to dominate on specific platforms, whether they started out on blogs (most often OpenDiary, LiveJournal, and Blogger), Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, or Vine. As various social media peak and trough in various economies, most microcelebrities ended up maintaining several digital estates in which each social media may be curated for specific content and reasons.

Advertisers have also contributed to the rise of cross-platforming in a bid to capture a larger audience via digital media more generally. Social media companies who manage Influencers and pitch them to clients have also been marketing “packages” in which one campaign is marketed across various platforms to “cross-traffic” and for higher audience circulation. (See how this is done on Instagram here). Generally, advertisers still prefer to be able to track metrics from archivable content in repository social media, but understand the need to capture audiences emerging on transient social media. As a result, cross-platforming Influencers are becoming a norm, requiring Influencers to manage the distinct platform affordances and the cultural norms of each space, their respective dominant Influencers, and their mass of followers.

In a paper on commercial selfies, I described how Influencers curated and published different types of selfies for various social media. For instance, Instagram selfies are the most tasteful and carefully curated to represent one’s ideal persona and “best face”; Twitter selfies are other carefully curated shots that did not make the cut for Instagram; while Snapchat selfies are intentionally ugly faces, posed outtakes, and humorous captures to interact more casually with followers and to give the impression of fun. In other words, followers who loyally track Influencers across platforms will be able to consume three versions of one selfie, which hopefully paint three corroborative facets of an Influencer’s relatable persona for consumption (Abidin 2016).

From Attention Economy to Affection Economy

When Twitter turned its “stars” into “hearts” and “favs” into “likes”, I wanted to pen two posts:

1) Semiotics, symbolism, and sanity: Why seeing the heart emoji next to particular Twitter handles when they like my Tweets is ruining me.

2) Assemblage, affect, and anxiety: Why reading freakouts on Twitter over said heart emoji brings comfort because camaraderie.

Well those didn’t eventuate because of reasons, but some of the ideas from then are still stuck with me. In its formal announcement, Twitter writes:

“The heart, in contrast, is a universal symbol that resonates across languages, cultures, and time zones. The heart is more expressive, enabling you to convey a range of emotions and easily connect with people. And in our tests, we found that people loved it.”

Just as Twitter attempted the Stars -> Hearts, Favs -> Likes, I feel the Influencer industry is changing from an Attention Economy to an Affection Economy. Mainstream, traditional (Hollywood?) celebrities are meant to personify a product endorsement (when I think of George Clooney, I think of Nespresso, and vice versa. You too, right? Right?! How successful has this been? Well, do not steal!). For Influencers, advertised products are malleable and packaged to personify their microcelebrity persona (i.e. I love this Influencer and will buy all the things she markets). In other words, the personal brand of the Influencer takes precedence over the corporate brands of the products and services they sell. This is crucial.

Unlike traditional celebrity with their occasional million-dollar endorsements, Influencers depend on a constant stream of smaller sponsored posts, appearances, and endorsements for income. Unlike traditional celebrity who have the capital to commit to just one brand in their lifetime, Influencers have to be savvy and malleable enough to take on several brands consecutively, after they have waited out their “competitor ban” time period (most brands will contractually not allow Influencers to advertise for competitors for a 6-12 month window).

As a result, it pays to cultivate the self as brand and market products through the lens of one’s persona, rather than promote products via a corporation’s philosophy.(Kevin Roberts, CEO of the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, has written about endearing to corporation brands as “Lovemarks“). This is why it is important that clients allow Influencers to personalize and write their own advertorials in their own voice. This is also why such forms of advertorials are especially successful among Influencers in the lifestyle genre, for whom their everyday activities and practices form the backbone of their published content. In other words, it is their lifestyles that are out there on display, for sale, and for emulation. What Influencers are peddling, then, is an economy of affect alongside one of attention.

From Transparent Metrics to Mystified Impact

Finally, with the obscurity of user metrics on Snapchat, I reckon we will shift from transparent metrics to mystified impact. Pre-Snapchat and pre-analytics fromGoogle, Twitter, and Instagram, Influencers’ metrics were self-reported and difficult to verify, apart from one’s follower/following measure displayed on a public profile.

When platform analytics were made freely available, these numbers could be verified privately on the back-end and presented to clients during pitches. As Influencers saturated the industry and clients experienced choice paralysis, Influencers and their managers began to publicize these back-end metrics on their social media profiles or databases.

However, with the obscurity of Snapchat metrics (some third party toolsnotwithstanding), Influencers now seem to be grappling with quantifiable impact again. Many Influencers on Snapchat have taken to posting screengrabs of how many times each of their stories has been viewed or screenshot. This is a laborious endeavour considering that stories and their attached metrics are only available for 24 hours, and that Influencers publish multiple stories, several times a day, around the clock. This could be an effort to visibilize their impact and quantify their standing on a platform that is still relatively new for advertisers.

Yet, other Influencers have returned to mystifying their impact, shunning quantifiable data for qualitative anecdotes. Alongside Influencers removing quantified stats on their profiles, I have observed several Influencers posting screengrabs of conversations or feedback with their clients and managers. Some of these are as informal as WhatsApp text messages or Direct Messages on various platforms, while others are ad verbatim testimonials on reports churned out by Influencer management companies. We now seem to be reiterating “networked narratives” and “word-of-mouth” selling (Kozinets et al. 2010). Perhaps as the industry has saturated and professionalized so quickly since it first began in 2005 in Singapore, a group of Influencers is beginning to opt out of quantitative data cultures and reverting yardsticks to the informal testimonials that garnered them microcelebrity in the first place.

Any thoughts?

PS: I used the kitty cat as the header image because everyone knows the internet is made of cats. And because cute clickbait.

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

thoughtsandprayers

A terror attack takes place.
A large protest breaks out.
A natural disaster occurs.
A prominent public figure dies.

In the earliest minutes, while news networks are scrambling to give the event a name, vernacular users on Instagram offer a flurry of hashtagged tributes with text post prayers, stock photography, and artful homages.

Soon, a primary hashtag and emblem for the event emerges: The yellow umbrella for #OccupyCentral, the Monumen Nasional for #KamiTidakTakut, the Eiffel Tower for #PorteOuverte, silhouettes of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew for #PrayForLKY.

Yet, alongside these consolations are Instagram users who attempt to appropriate the attention current of these trending channels for self-publicity, flooding dedicated hashtags with scarcely relevant selfies, outfit of the day shots, wares for sale, and redirected links.

How do we make sense of this?

It’s been an agonising series of weeks after a string of grievous events in various parts of the world. I have been tracing vernacular responses to global grieving events on Instagram since 2014, and some of the case studies are archived here.

However, of late, global tributes on trending hashtags have been featuring a more prominent disdain for, rejection of, and critique on public grieving in memes and “thoughts & prayers” en masse.

In this post, I trace the various global grieving hashtags on Instagram and mull over the presentation of grief in public digital spaces.


A “grief aesthetic” on Instagram

 

In my on-going project tracking the earliest vernacular reactions to global grieving moments (i.e. #OccupyCentral, #CharlieHedbo, #PrayForLKY, #PorteOuverte, #KimaTidakTakut) on Instagram, I developed a register of visual tropes most viable for social media virality during social movements, or what I term a “grief aesthetic” on Instagram.

These “public grieving” elements comprise:

1) An iconic visual symbol with cultural significance to the grief event, such as a national landmark or an instrument signifying victims or perpetrators. These may be illustrations, photographs, or various art forms (i.e. the Eiffel Tower for #PorteOuverte, the pencil for #CharlieHedbo, silhouettes of Mr Lee Kuan Yew for #PrayForLKY, national flag for #KimaTidakTakut).

2) An iconic image/scene from “the ground” that captures the essence of the movement, such as a prominent victim or perpetrator photographed in action, or a group of actors performing a powerful gesture (i.e. hands raised in surrender for #OccupyCentral, snaking queues to pay last respects for #PrayForLKY).

3) Emblems borrowed from a lexicon of political statements and redesigned for the event (i.e. the yellow ribbon for #OccupyCentral, the peace symbol incorporating Monumen Nasional for #KimaTidakTakut).

4) #PrayForX typesetting in various artistic fonts and illustrations, usually printed on a plain coloured background or superimposed onto a background image of iconic landmarks, scenes, or scenery.

5) Keep Calm and X advice typesetting in various fonts and illustrations, usually appealing to the power (i.e. Keep Calm and Pray for Paris) of prayer, or an often risky and ill-timed comedic relief (i.e. Keep Calm and Eat Baguettes).

6) Emblems borrowed from popular culture and repurposed for the event (i.e. Where’s Charlie comic for #CharlieHedbo, Guy Fawks mask for #OccupyCentral).

7) Images of event-specific paraphernalia peddled to users (i.e. yellow ribbons for #OccupyCentral, silhouette artwork for #PrayForLKY).

8) Screengrabs of event-related news updates, usually cross-posted from other social media such as Twitter and Facebook, or mainstream television.


Grief hype-jacking

 

While the elements of “grief aesthetic” on Instagram have emerged as vernacular norms of acceptable “public grieving” visibility practices, some users tap into this global current of attention in less palatable ways.

In “public grieving”, users sincerely partake in a global expression, narrative, and dialogue of a grief event through the use of high visibility trending hashtags. In “publicity grieving”, users opportunistically harness the attention currency of high visibility trending hashtags to promote their brand and wares. I term this phenomenon of bandwagoning on public tributes and high visibility hashtags “grief hype-jacking”, as users wrestle to misappropriate highly public channels of collective grief for self-publicity.

Although many users who “grief hype-jack” are ordinary everyday Instagrammers, microcelebrity (Senft 2008) Influencers and celebrities tend to be the most prolific since their craft is premised on a firm command of the attention economy (Goldhaber 1997). Influencers are shapers of public opinion who persuade their audience through the conscientious calibration of personae on “digital” media such as social media, supported by “physical” space interactions with their followers in the flesh (Abidin 2015).

The attraction and mystique of Influencers is largely premised on their ordinary, mundane, everydayness. However, personal failures, grim self-reflections, and public performances of grief are often re-narrativised and hyper-visibilised alongside their highlight reel of self-branded achievements to a watchful, responsive audience as a self-conscious display of vulnerability. In other words, while Influencers may experience genuine sorrow and grief, many of them conscientiously curate the outward expression of such grief to fish for empathy, relatability (Abidin 2015), and publicity. More crucially, as Influencers and celebrities the wares being hawked are often the self-as-brand per se, chiefly represented by such users’ Instagram feeds.                     

Davenport & Beck (2001) developed three pairs of attention parameters: “voluntary” and “captive”, wherein one gives attention out of choice or not; “attractive” and “aversive”, wherein one gives attention for gains or to avoid loss; and “front-of-mind” and “back-of-mind”, wherein one gives attention explicitly and consciously or out of a familiar muscle memory. On a regular basis, Influencers command a passive form of voluntary, attractive, and back-of-mind attention from their stable stream of followers. However, Influencers may engage in spectacle-like practices to generate an active form of captive, aversive, and front-of-mind attention to recapture the foci of existing followers and attract new ones.


Publicity grieving

 

In recent times, Influencers and celebrities are practicing “grief hype-jacking” to different extents of success, in relation to public backlash from their followers or mainstream media. Having studied the Influencer industry since 2010 as an anthropologist, I observed some tropes of publicity grieving practices.

The elements of “publicity grieving” often mobilized in “grief hype-jacking” include:

1) Selfies and close-ups of dramatic crying or concentrated prayer in action, wherein the user is otherwise seemingly primed for the camera with carefully done hair and make-up. Followers have sarcastically called this out as “glamorous crying” or “fake crying”.

2) Outfit Of The Day or #OOTD images, in which the user poses for the camera in fashionable clothing awkwardly juxtaposed against an unrelated outpour of grief and consolation in their caption. Here, it is clear that the main feature is one’s outfit and self-as-brand, and the misalignment of image and caption has been called out by followers as “attention whoring”.

3) Photographs of the user at a landmark of scenic place relating to the grief event, usually from a past travel. Users often overstate a personal connection to the event or place by emphasizing just how recently they had visited (i.e. “it’s been two years but it feels just like yesterday”), how geographically close they had been to the site of grief (i.e. “I can’t believe we stayed just three blocks from this place”), the (arbitrary) emotional ties they feel to the place (i.e. “I have always enjoyed the country”), and how they share equal rights in the vulnerability of current victims and grievers (i.e. “if this happened when I was there, I could have died”). Followers have called out such practices as “riding a trend” and being “narcissistic”.

4) Photographs of the landmark or a scenic place relating to the grief event, usually copied and reposted from other sources unrelated to the user themselves. Users often have not personally visited the place, but re-gram photographs taken by (semi-)professional photographers on Flickr, Pinterest, or Instagram and insert captions of consolation and grief clouded in the rhetoric of authenticating practices. These authenticating practices serve to create and convey a user’s personal connection to the place, where there was previously none, through the admission of romanticizing grief (i.e. “everyone’s recent tributes from their travels made me wish I had visited before the incident”), aspirational travel plans (i.e. “I’ve always wanted to visit this place”), and superimposed empathy (i.e. “I can’t imagine if this happened to my own country”).

5) Overt advertisements of products and services on offer, usually accompanied by redirected URLs, user handles, or sponsored hashtags in the caption. These spam-like posts are the most cluttering of the “publicity grieving” practices, and are least used by Influencers and celebrities for whom the impression of being “hard sell” is fervently avoided (Abidin & Ots 2015).


#thoughtsandprayers

 

Evidently, there is a shift from “public grieving” to “publicity grieving” alongside the proliferation of “grief hype-jacking”. While the “grief aesthetic” elements on Instagram have emerged as vernacular norms of acceptable “public grieving” visibility practices, some users tap into this global current of attention in less palatable ways. Perhaps it is for this reason that the backlash against #PrayForX and #thoughtsandprayers memes has been growing.

How are ordinary users on Instagram responding to this?

To find out, I trace the #thoughtsandprayers hashtag on Instagram and the content posted for a ten-day period between 10 July 2016 and 19 July 2016.

Saturation fatigue regarding the newest onslaught of passive “internet solidarity” and satirical remixes of #thoughtsandprayers were displayed in brilliant comics.

At times, users adopted the persona of a higher power/presence to portray angry or humorous responses.

Some users adopted the #firstworldproblems approach to expose the casualness and frivolity at which people were jumping on the #thoughtsandprayers bandwagon.

Other users simply displayed their outright rejection of users sprouting #thoughtsandprayers on social media, alluding to a displaced sense of pseudo-activism, and inflated impression of aid, and a general ineffectiveness despite participation in a highly visible and populist activity that still promotes passive solidarity from a distance.

A handful of users mobilised #thoughtsandprayers as a meme to shed light on ineffective political governance and leadership, and the cyclic routine of public grieving.

Speaking of memes, users are also using #thoughtsandprayers in an ironic manner to display contempt for developments in politics, and in a humorous manner to express tongue-in-cheek suggestions to better the state of political participation.

 

 

How do you feel about public grieving and publicity grieving in response to global tragedy? Have you experienced saturation fatigue yourself? What other things have you noticed about the rampant use of thoughts&prayers?

Feel free to beep or write to me.


The concepts of “public grieving” and “publicity grieving” are based on my recent talks at the Asia Research Institute (ARI) and Tembusu College this March. (See event archives here:  Homo Sapiens, Mortality and the Internet in Contemporary AsiaTembusu STS Seminar: Reflections and Discussion.) These works have been commissioned for a forthcoming journal article and a book chapter.

Dr Crystal Abidin is an anthropologist and an ethnographer. Reach her at wishcrys.com and @wishcrys. A version of this paper will be presented at the AoIR 2016 in Berlin this October. A version of this post was first published on wishcrys.com.

grostesque

Pretty things are pretty to look at. They bring you comfort, inspire aspiration, or perhaps stimulate vicarious consumption. But have you ever stumbled upon something gross on the internet and yet could not look away?

Me too. (It’s no wonder Dr. Pimple Popper has over 700 million views on YouTube.)

“Picture perfect” Influencers have been thriving on social media ever since they burst into the scene in the early-to-mid 2000s. Having first begun on blogs such as LiveJournal, OpenDiary, and blogger, these self-made internet celebrities have since transited to monetising the presentation of their everyday lives on various social media including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Twitch, and Snapchat. Perhaps most representative in the popular imagination are “Instagram Influencers” most known for their conscientious poses in pristine locations, luxury-esque conspicuous consumption and savvy internet relatability in tow.

But this economy of the perfect, pristine, and picturesque is growing saturated and fast becoming boring.

Enter “grotesque microcelebrities”.


In a 7-minute video that has garnered over 20,000 likes, Japanese competitive eater Kinoshita Yuka devours 100 McDonald’s burgers in one sitting, accompanied by enthusiastic commentary in a chirpy voice.

In a Facebook clip (since taken down) that has been viewed over 28 million times, South Korean YouTuber Showry rubs raw octopus and fish all over her body, while clad in a mermaid costume and sitting in an empty fridge.

On his Facebook page with over 31,000 followers, self-employed artiste Steven Lim unabashedly videologues his quest to find the perfect “9.5 pointer” girlfriend with the minimum of a D-cup bra size.

Unlike their counterparts who dwell on the attention of affect, envy, and beauty, grotesque microcelebrities are trading in a new currency of grotesque allure, visceral camp, and carnivalesque commerce where shock value is highly viable. They master the nauseating allure of grotesque exhibitionism on representational media to engross, entice, and somehow enrapture viewers.

But how should we make sense of this? 


Are grotesque microcelebrity just another fad?

Culturally, grotesque microcelebrity is akin to microcelebrity. Coined and popularised by media scholar Theresa Senft, microcelebrity is a burgeoning online trend, wherein people attempt to gain popularity by employing digital media technologies, such as videos, blogs, and social media.

To make sense of grotesque microcelebrity, I borrow from cultural studies scholar Graeme Turner who approaches celebrity as a “cultural shift” towards the “momentary”, “visual”, and “sensational”; a “gift” of “extraordinary” individuals; and a commodification of identity.

Drawing inspiration from this framework, grotesque microcelebrity emerge as:

A symptom of our move from representational media to presentational media, where users have the increasing ability to negotiate and control their public personae online with “tools with which to become famous” such as social media;

A quality of everyday ordinariness situated at the intersection of the attention economy and the “demotic turn”, where “lived experience of ʻthe ordinaryʼ” appear to be authentic and dedicated representations of everyday life “as lived” despite actually being calculated productions of entertainment in the guise of democratic access; and

A product of “a wedding of consumer culture with democratic aspirations” through mechanisms such as product endorsements and sponsorships.

Yet, conceptually, grotesque microcelebrity are unique from microcelebrity. Significant works have studied microcelebrity as actors who are responsive and conversational, aspirational, aesthetically pleasing, and relatable. Emergent forms of Vine and Snapchat microcelebrity that have been popularized in the last two years have also largely relied on positive emotions such as humour, parody, and wit.

However, grotesque microcelebrity rely on negative emotions and solicits visceral reactions of revulsion, repulsion, and distancing to captivate followers. They objectify the self on display with little dialogue, being anti-aspirational, performing a hyper-aesthetic that counters normative beauty, and inducing shock. 


How do grotesque microcelebrities look like?

Let’s turn to Japanese competitive eater, or “mukbang” Kinoshita Yuka as a case study.

Yuka has headlined global news for her viral binge eating videos. She stands out in the climate of Japanese microcelebrity culture where family Influencers document the upbringing of their adorable children, Cosplayers display their DIY creativity and dedication, and attractive lifestyle vloggers share fashion and makeup tips.

At the start of each video, Yuka lays out the copious amounts of food of which she is about to partake in a flatlay. If she makes the meal from scratch, Yuka holds up ingredients to the camera while recording the cooking process – boiling, simmering, frying, stirring – highlighting heavy foods such as meat and carbohydrates enveloped in oil bubbles and steam. The sheer amount of raw ingredients she uses is often shock inducing as viewers get a clearer grasp of the amount of calories she is actually consuming.

If she purchases readymade food from eateries, Yuka preserves the original food packaging for her opening flatlay, laying one food item at a time on her table in a sped-up, fast-forwarded video sequence. With household famous brand logos such as McDonalds and Pizza Hut on display, viewers are able to identify with the everydayness of the foods Yuka binge eats. This awareness solicits a sense of relatability in viewers, inviting them to compare their ordinary capacity of consumption with that of Yuka’s grotesque intake, as they stare and squirm over stretching the limits of the human body.

Yuka draws viewers in with her chirpy commentary addressed to viewers in first person, while she holds the gaze of the camera/viewers and polishes the foods in one sitting with no hint of discomfort. This is made all the more spectacular as Yuka is skinny, small-built, and fair-skinned, appears to be in her twenties, and gives the impression of frailty through her usual wardrobe of layered tops and cardigans to protect her from the cold – in short, the antithesis of the tropic binge eater whom one imagines to be male, brawny, and hardy.


What makes grotesque microcelebrity tick?

Comments on YouTube, Facebook, and Reddit where Yuka’s videos often attain virality reveal viewers expressing shock (“I can’t even”), curiosity (“Gotta wonder how much she poops”), and disgust (“This makes me wanna puke”) at her superhuman feats.

Clearly, grotesque microcelebrity are a hit among viewers. But how? Allow the digital anthropologist in me to offer a mini-framework of “grotesque allure”, “visceral camp”, and “carnivalesque commerce”:

Grotesque allure is the strategic use of transgressive and nauseating images and imagery, pushing viewers to adopt a voyeuristic “clinical gaze” that is judgemental, moralizing, and distancing;

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;

Carnivalesque commerce is the state of frenzied opportunity in the attention economy, wherein an event suspends the hierarchy of hegemonic microcelebrity, and redistributes attention such that normatively marginal actors may wrestle opportunities to partake in the market.

Despite the apparent discomfort, it is difficult to look away as grotesque microcelebrity grabs viewers in a fixation that is alluring, visceral, and carnivalesque.


Dr Crystal Abidin is an anthropologist and an ethnographer. Reach her at wishcrys.com and @wishcrys. A version of this paper will be presented at the AoIR 2016 in Berlin this October. 

Featured image screengrabbed here on 25 August 2016, 0045hrs, GMT +8.