Social Media Famous Children

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

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

YouTube and TV

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

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

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

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

Sophia Grace and Rosie

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

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

So well received were the girls on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and its YouTube channel that shortly after, behind-the-scenes footage of Sophia Grace & Rosie were released on the Show’s YouTube Channel, in a bid to capitalize upon their virality and extend the length of their appeal to the show’s audience. Subsequently, the girls were subsumed into the programming of The Ellen DeGeneres Show as they represented the show at various red carpet and starred in branded content in the YouTube content vernacular of a vlog, promoting various brands and events. Sophia Grace & Rosie eventually became a bona fide staple on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, hosting their own segment known as “‘Tea Time’ with Sophia Grace & Rosie”, with eight episodes between September 2012 and May 2013. It appears that The Ellen DeGeneres Show spotted talent and viral uptake of the girls early on, inviting them to celebrate their 100 millionth view on YouTube. Over subsequent years, the girls would frequently be featured talking about their personal lives, the experience of Britons regularly visiting America, their family lives, and the impact of their YouTube success, all of which both appeared on The Ellen Show and the Show’s YouTube channel. So you’ve decided to start a YouTube channel for your brand, and you have been posting high quality videos with unique messages about your business. YouTube is a fantastic tool that can be used by businesses to reach audience members in a distinctive and meaningful way.  In fact, more than 63% of businesses have created YouTube channels, and that number continues to grow each day. One of the reasons YouTube is so valuable to organizations, is the sheer number of active users on the platform. More than 1.8 billion people are active on YouTube each month, and according to Omnicare, over 30 million people use YouTube every single day. With some many individuals actively posting, liking, and commenting on videos, it is no wonder why businesses are choosing to position their brand on the popular platform. Another surprising statistic about the trendy video-sharing site, is that over 400,000 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube each and every day. With such a large amount of content constantly being added to the site, it is important to make sure your videos stand out. A lot of factors go into what makes a video popular, including likes, views, shares, and number of comments. Many businesses and organizations are electing to buy Real YouTube comments for their videos, and are significantly increasing their social presence in the process.

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

Networked Trajectories of Viral Child Celebrity

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

Complex Media Flows

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

Emerging Conclusions

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

Further Resources

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


1) Battle of the fandoms

Upon the breaking news of Seungri’s alleged scandal, many fans immediately dissociated themselves from the artiste and expressed their disgust. But fans also emerged to share good testimonials about him and show their support:

Naturally, other (anti-)fans responded with more bad testimonials and went on sprees to block fellow Twitter users who expressed support towards Seungri:

And supportive fans began to speak out about the abuse they were experiencing from anti-fans:


In the midst of this schadenfreude, competing fandoms began to rejoice in Seungri and Bigbang’s downfall by using images and .gifs of their idols as memes:

Other fans criticised each other for capitalising upon other idols’ scandals to plug their own favourites:


2) Guilt by association

Fans began to celebrate other idols and artistes whom they claimed were unfollowing Seungri on Instagram and Twitter – an action that fans variously interpreted as other artistes verifying Seungri’s guilt, showing support to the victims, or wanting to avoid the drama altogether:

In response, other fans took the initiative to verify these claims by manually filtering through various social media following lists. They also called out the former group for exploiting the image of idols to generate RTs and likes on social media, and for tapping into the affective networks of other fandoms to generate publicity for their favourite idols:

One idol who shared the same name as Seungri was also rumoured to have changed her name to dissociate herself from the incident, although competing reports state otherwise:

And the other members of Seungri’s band Bigbang were also thrust into the spotlight and scrutinised by the media and fans alike:


3) Fake news

As news reports kept streaming in from various legacy and popular media outlets, some fans took to pointing out that fake news was being circulated as well:

Some of these malpractices were thought to be acts of mistranslation, and fans with native language skills or local knowledge offered to verify information and sources for other users:

Some news outlets were called out for using the wrong image and wrong name for the idols whom they were reporting on, casting even more doubt on the veracity of the wealth of “news” being circulated despite speedy updates on social media:


4) Law vs. Media persecution

In the days following the scandal, the police regularly issued updates that contradicted with the claims circulated by various online media that were already taken to be factual. Fans thus pointed out that media outlets were also capitalising upon the scandal for generate traffic and viewership for their content, and pointed out that Seungri was first persecuted by the media before the law:


5) Amplifying and burying information

Fans felt that the overwhelming attention and focus on Seungri was a deliberate attempt to amplifying some information over others, in the hopes that a celebrity scandal will smokescreen or overshadow other more complicated issues involving a complex web of state officials, the police, and highly ranked corporate executives:

Some fans were promoting various attention generating trends:

While others pointed out these mechanisms of amplification and wanted to alter the narrative:


6) Spillover consequences

Some fans seemed concerned with the longer term consequences of the scandal, pointing out potential defamation suits, the en masse pre-mature assigning of blame, the larger impact on the K-pop economy, and emergent censorship across platforms and the media:

And others highlighted the potential impact of the scandal on the wellbeing of the artistes as persons, considering the culture of depression (and suicide) in the K-pop industry:


7) Para-entertainment

Alongside the severity of the scandal and the serious labour of fans and anti-fans, much of the content also carried a para-entertainment character where fans took the opportunity to insert their own content into streams of virality to generate visibility through memes, spoofs, and slash fiction:


8) Platform politics

The remaining part of this post will turn to the Blackpink string of incidents with their recently viral and record-breaking song Kill This Love that debut on 04 April 2019.

Following the release of the song, a small group of fans cautioned each other about imposter YouTube accounts that were siphoning Blackpink’s streams and views. In the following comparison, Blackpink’s official YouTube account is on the left while one such imposter account is on the left. Both accounts closely resemble each other if not for subtle verifying details: a) The official account’s subscriber count listed right next to the subscriber button (top left), but this is missing on the imposter account (top right). Instead, the imposter account attempts to replicate these verification markers by manually posting a subscriber count into the description box in another tab (bottom right). b) The official accounts About page lists their total number of views and the date the account was started coincides with Blankpink’s debut (bottom left), whereas the imposter account was started a year ago and has accumulated much fewer views (bottom right).

As the video ascended into virality, fans who were closely monitoring the video’s metrics were angered by the inaccuracy of the counters:

Other fans felt that the source of the ‘freeze’ was “sabotage” from anti-fans:


Allegedly, it is widely believed by fans that commenting with the words “view” or “stream” or even using emoji while commenting on a YouTube video would cause the YouTube views and likes meters to freeze:

Thus fans began to ‘spread the word’ by replying to numerous comment threads, pleading with commenters to use l33t speak to evade platform censorship:

Alongside such peer-to-peer networked ‘education’, fans continued to double down on their efforts and strategised over more efficient ways to stream the video:

As Blackpink’s video broke music records, other conversation threads began to emerge on Twitter, accusing YouTube of falsifying the viewing history of its users. Some fans reportedly found Blackpink’s video in the ‘History’ tab of their YouTube account despite not having watched the video. Various discussions suspected platform fraud rather than a glitch. Fans who were familiar with YouTube’s various features claimed that the red bars superimposed onto the thumbnail of videos would indicate how much of a video was watched. Various comment threads thus noted the absence of said red bar on the Blackpink video that was showing up in their History:


But still other fans disputed the ‘red bar’ theory, claiming to have watched the video (several times) but not registered that marker in their History:


9) Chainmail hoax

On 06 April 2019, a chainmail hoax broke out on Twitter claiming that streaming a Blackpink song would earn listeners a free drink from Starbucks. Rumour had it that users were to screengrab an image of themselves streaming Blackpink’s Kill This Love, post the screengrab on Twitter with the “#KillThisLoveStarbucks” hashtag, receive a voucher from a Starbucks social media account via direct message, and flash this voucher at any Starbucks outlet to redeem a drink:

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Several fans then posted ‘evidence’ of their free drinks:

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But many more fans who followed the instructions had not succeeded and were @mentioning Starbucks repeatedly, citing poor customer service or requesting for clarifications. Starbucks’ social media thus responded to the throngs of users with a template message that this was not a valid offer, and that they were investigating the incident:

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And having personally worked in customer service, I give serious kudos to the various Starbucks social media staff for their labour in politely clearing up the misunderstanding with dozens and dozens of users:

Fans had various responses to Starbucks; while many realised this was a hoax (and acknowledged the genius of this strategy for increasing viewership on Blackpink’s video), still others called out Starbucks for bad customer service and threatened to boycott them:

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Eventually, fans came to grips with the fact that the hoax was another strategy for signal boosting Blackpink’s video, as other Twitter users pointed out the spillover effects and stress placed onto Starbucks:

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On reflection, many fans anti-fans felt that the stunt was “desperate”, “dumb”, and “problematic” (even if it may have succeeded):


10) Internationality

Across the various strategies listed above, a final observation I made was the range of international languages that fans were communicating in. I screengrabbed just a very small sample of such instances on Twitter, and continue to be convinced that the impact of K-pop fans, their fan labours, and their vernacular attention generating strategies and potential networks of (mis)information are not confined to South Korea or Asia:

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A final remark from me:

Some of us may be tempted to brush these phenomena off as mere pop culture or fan practices. However, I find it more useful to frame these vernacular fan practices as strategies demonstrating effective science communication. These fans who are volunteering their time, labour, and expertise are using the vehicles of K-pop to demonstrate the production and circulation of misinformation, white noise, false flags, information amplification and burial, attention shaping, sentiment seeding, and clickbait on social media. They also display: a) the wit to tap across various interest communities whether through social media affordances or fan affects; b) the savvy to cohere across a variety of platforms with good knowledge of how each algorithm ‘works’; and most crucially, c) the rapid ability to spot, learn, replicate, and adapt emergent verification markers on social media, whether instituted by the social media platform or informally but widely acknowledged by fan cultures. In my current and future projects, I will continue to study such weaponising of popular culture as cultures of knowledge.


Dr Crystal Abidin is a socio-cultural anthropologist of vernacular internet cultures, particularly young people’s relationships with internet celebrity, self-curation, and vulnerability. She is the author of Internet Celebrity: Understanding Fame Online (Emerald Publishing, 2018) and co-editor of Microcelebrity Around the Globe: Approaches to Cultures of Internet Fame (Emerald Publishing, 2018). Reach her at or @wishcrys.

After his clash with the Wall Street Journal in February 2017 become memorialised as a struggle between YouTube Influencers and the legacy media, PewDiePie was embroiled in more controversy for amplifying anti-Semitic sentiment, attacking/calling-out more journalists and media outlets, and inciting a YouTube channel war that has stimulated his followers to spew racist remarks. Despite all this, journalists observe that “PewDiePie’s frequent controversies seem to have no real effect on his popularity“.

In the wake of these events, I asked by several journalists to provide context and commentary on Influencers and their relationship to the mainstream media. As expected, I was pressed to forecast if Influencers would eventually replace digital news media outlets, or to confirm if legacy and digital media were increasingly threatened by Influencers’ impact in the information space. I struggled to respond to sweeping statements such as ‘YouTubers have more legitimacy than the press’, ‘Young people generally trust Influencers over the media’, and ‘Influencers have a larger reach than the media today’, without providing situational context. As a reflection on a fortnight of such conversations, I briefly pen here three nuances to keep in mind when comparing digital news media to Influencers, given that each is held to distinct barometers of authority, engagement, and reach.


1) Digital news media’s promise of legitimacy vs. Influencers’ premise of charisma

Many digital news media carry the promise of legitimacy from institutional prestige, the public’s long-standing familiarity with their brand, and their reputation. This sense of legitimacy is heightened for outlets who were converted from print media with celebrated legacies over decades. As an institution, these are widely believed to be organisations and corporations staffed with trained journalists who are held to a code of ethics (sidelining the fact that the journalism industry itself is becoming a gig economy and that under-trained/under-experienced freelancers are increasingly replacing seasoned correspondents). On the other hand, Influencers generally offer charisma. Influencers who intentionally foster charismatic authority usually deploy internet-native forms of parasocial relations to maintain social ties with viewers, and strategically emphasise their amateur-like status and aesthetic to appear more convincing and homophilous to everyday followers. But the terrain and flavour of internet celebrity is diverse, and many Influencers burst into the scene with whimsical charisma birthed out of memorable catchphrases, bad photographs that become memes, or viral enactments of everyday skills. Even the most financially successful Influencers turn to everyman empathy and narratives of victimhood to produce impressions of perpetual precarity (even if it no longer applies to them), as they never want to appear to followers as if they have ‘arrived’ out of the fear that this takes away from the notion of everydayness.

2) Digital news media’s crisis of trustworthiness vs. Influencers’ burden of relatability

Digital news media outlets are facing a crisis of trustworthiness amidst concerns over ‘fake news’, especially internet-only/internet-native websites as opposed to the digital estates of already established legacy media. And at a time when they are expanding on social media to sustain their business models (see below), it does not help that consumers’ trust in news derived from social media is wavering. On the other hand, Influencers are not so much judged for their objective trustworthiness as they are for their ability to stealthily provide opinionated persuasion. Followers turn to Influencers not for a fair assessment or balanced view of social issues, but for specific takes and stances that are filtered through the Influencer’s personal preferences and identity-as-brand – Influencers are ultimately in the business of inducement and primarily serve as vehicles for sponsored messages (be they products, services, or ideologies) after all. In other words, the average Influencer is not instituted to be held to fact-checking or a code of ethics, save perhaps for recent moves by various governments and trade commissions to institute transparency around sponsored content. But even then, these initiatives focus only on the declaration of commercial interest and do not curtail Influencers in their production of harmful op-eds or sponsored messages, even when Influencers have been revealed to intentionally produce negative reviews to sabotage a client’s competitors, and even when a growing number of Influencers boasts readership that drastically overshadows that of legacy media.

3) Digital news media’s accessible legibility vs. Influencers’ niche reach

In an age where digital media companies are folding or organising mass layoffs due to budget cuts, it is important for these outlets to remain legible to the widest possible audience to maintain readership. This is achieved by simplifying the aesthetic delivery and content of the information they deliver, such as mass producing short articles with simple vocabulary and the use of listicles and clickbait to appeal to the ‘lowest common denominator’. On the other hand, on a regular basis Influencers tend to reach to rather niche audiences, whether this be the regularly scheduled content for their loyal followers comprising highly contextualised insider vernacular and community norms, or the scheduled controversy to antagonise others as way to parlay bad publicity into signal boosting one’s visibility – after all, the algorithms that register internet traffic (and in turn translates into ad revenue) do not discriminate between the eyeballs of fans and haters, and lukewarm sentiment does not sell. Although self-sensationalism has also birthed popular memes such as the YouTube Storytime Clickbait Parodies, the culture of Influencers can often be contextually and culturally insular to the general public despite their statistical prominence.


Dr Crystal Abidin is a socio-cultural anthropologist of vernacular internet cultures, particularly young people’s relationships with internet celebrity, self-curation, and vulnerability. She is the author of Internet Celebrity: Understanding Fame Online (Emerald Publishing, 2018) and co-editor of Microcelebrity Around the Globe: Approaches to Cultures of Internet Fame (Emerald Publishing, 2019). Reach her at or @wishcrys.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dr Crystal Abidin is a socio-cultural anthropologist of vernacular internet cultures, particularly young people’s relationships with internet celebrity, self-curation, and vulnerability. She is the author of Internet Celebrity: Understanding Fame Online (Emerald Publishing, 2018) and co-editor of Microcelebrity Around the Globe: Approaches to Cultures of Internet Fame (Emerald Publishing, 2018). Reach her at or @wishcrys.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

These days, Influencers are starting off younger and older.

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


On the plane of legality:

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

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

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

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

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


On the plane of economics:

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

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

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

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


On the plane of cultural issues:

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

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

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

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

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

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


On the plane of social issues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

This post was first published on on 19 July 2017.


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

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


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.



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. 



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.



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 and @wishcrys.

This post was first published on on 22 February 2017.


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 and @wishcrys.