Interview by Mary-Caitlyn Valentinsson
Mary-Caitlyn Valentinsson: What do you see as the main focus and argument of this book?
Crystal Abidin: Logistically, I wanted to write a highly accessible primer text for a general audience. My original disciplinary training is in anthropology and sociology, but the bulk of research on this phenomena has come out of media and communications. Because of this, depending on the journal or the audience or the edited collection I’m writing for, I variously use terms like “microcelebrity”, “internet celebrity”, “online celebrity”, “influencer”, and so on and so forth. We all know that depending on our background and our training and our disciplinary preferences, this would mean that as we’re searching for literature, we’re going to miss out on heaps and heaps of articles or data or reviews. So, I wanted a book to kind of consolidate all these related but distinct concepts. That’s why I wanted to do this on the operational side of things.
Intellectually, I wanted to publish a text that captured the state of the industry at this very moment and share this piece quickly with a wide audience. My publisher Emerald Publishing has a series Society Now that does just this. Although I have also published a number of book chapters and journal articles, my thesis—which focused on my internet ethnography of influencer culture in Singapore—is going to take some time to be published as an academic monograph due to the processes of academic publishing and the need to update my conceptual thinking in this quickly evolving domain. So while that’s being done, I was thinking about a condensed and stripped down version of this upcoming thesis-to-book monograph. But at the same time, a lot of my newer fieldwork now involves working with industry, and I saw this as a great opportunity to combine a populist and corporate way of framing these phenomena with an academic and scholarly way of understanding and analyzing them.
Mary-Caitlyn Valentinsson: Do you see this book as any particular kind of theoretical genealogy in anthropology? What would be the value of this work for anthropologists who maybe don’t know anything about this side of internet culture, or maybe are curious about it— how does this work speak to anthropologists specifically?
Crystal Abidin: Although my research and analysis is guided by anthropological theory, I don’t think it’s explicit in this book, because I needed to cater to the widest audience possible – it’s really primed for perhaps a large undergraduate introduction course, or anyone from the general public who can’t differentiate between a YouTuber and a meme, or the concept of virality from celebrity. But, if I were to return to my initial rhetoric in planning the chapters, then certainly I worked hard to showcase the variety of methods that I used throughout my projects. The first chapter I feel is quite similar to a traditional literature review or archival research, glazing through the phenomena. And in this text, I have organized this information as a historical overview of how we came to this idea of internet celebrity, drawing from various books and concepts across multiple disciplines. This is one of the things I struggled with in my earlier work in my doctoral studies, that if we were bounded by a discipline in terms of where we looked for journals or for books, we would miss out on a lot of the good debate developing in other industries and developing in other disciplines. So that was one thing I struggled with and one thing I needed to overcome. I was explicit throughout the whole book that I work primarily as an anthropologist and as an ethnographer but my literature review was more encompassing and generous across the disciplines.
In the second chapter, I highlight some of the key repetitive tropes that we see of internet celebrity, the qualities that they share, even though I chose specific case studies that were resonant mostly in the Asian market or during that time period. It was drawn from several long-term research projects that used traditional ethnography, participant observation, interviews, and then even digital ethnography, content analysis, media analysis, and trend watching.
The third chapter dives deeper into case studies and I think this is where at times I extrapolate between the social media posts, some of the comments, some of the reactions from the press— this would be what an in depth digital ethnographic study or media studies content analysis would look like. Because it’s not a one-time-off study of a single viral post, but a long-term engagement as a viewer/fan/hater/follower/and so on across multiple connected internet spaces in a network, I was able to piece together a longer-term digital biography of some of these personalities.
Finally, I wanted the last chapter to be a springboard to the thesis-to-book monograph on influencers that I am finishing up. So, this chapter positioned the industry of influencers within a climate of internet celebrity at larger, and my upcoming thesis-to-book monograph will then dive in explicitly into the microcosms and social relationships on the level of the influencer as an actor. And here, I felt better able to share some of the ethnographic snippets and observations from my work—say, mapping out the structure of the industry, sharing some of the observations from vignettes or from conversations.
Mary-Caitlyn Valentinsson: With this kind of internet-based research, the traditional anthropological framing of the “field site” becomes a bit murky. As a researcher who herself is very engaged with internet culture, how do you circumscribe the boundary of the “field site”, in this book and in your related work?
Crystal Abidin: It doesn’t come up much in this book per se, because this text is a summation of several different projects across various ideo-geographical fieldsites in East Asia, Southeast Asia, and the US and Europe. If I were to really stretch it, I’d say that the data in this text is bounded by temporality – I had intentionally focused on a range of years when I was selecting case studies form my data, specifically to demonstrate the shifts across forms of celebrity – traditional or digital – that I had mapped out in the first chapter. But I also made specific decisions over which of my locational or cultural fieldsites to showcase – where possible and where the arguments could still be communicated well, I substituted many Anglo- and Euro-centric examples with ones from the Global South, in line with my research and personal ethic to promote visibility and representation of equally interesting phenomena happening elsewhere in the world that is often lost in discourses propagated by the popular media.
In my other works beyond this book, I bound or segment my fieldsites differently depending on the project or my research question. There are instances where I am studying a specific trend or viral incident, so my field is bounded chronologically by time. But if I am studying the everyday practices of a particular demographic or community of people, then I bound my field by the biographies or locations of the content producers. In other words, I adopt more anthropological approaches to study genealogies, and here my field is determined by the snowball sampling that may expand more laterally to include more and more influencers, or vertically to study up the chain (such as agencies or industry) or down the chain (that is, followers and fans). Sometimes this may mean identifying a different space altogether, such as the backend or logistical and operational systems of influencers (such as bot factories, software and infrastructure). In my more ambitious works, I may consider a larger cultural group as a phenomena, my newest major project will focus on influencers in cultural East Asia, broadly defined as China, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. In general, depending on my research question or what I am isolating as my factor of analysis, my fieldsites are scoped and bounded differently.
That said, I’m only able to do this because my very initial sampling of influencers for my traditional observation and later in my digital observation was quite large, aimed at getting an idea of the field. Some of this is really purposive sampling—for example, covering almost every role possible in the influencer industry in Singapore. Anyone you can think of, from an assistant that helps in the warehouse that’s owned by an influencer, all the way down to the parent or the loved one who is somehow implicated in their visibility. And then I am also going back and forth with the different production and circulation chains. So I am not just focusing on the influencer themselves, but also the companies that are sustaining the platforms they use. This includes policies from different social media platforms, like how Instagram deals with ads, and also regulations and provisions by third-party companies who may provide the ability for influencers to trace their metrics and do real-time analysis of their audiences. It also includes where they are congregating in discussion forums, where they are meeting in the flesh, what they are doing when they meet in the flesh— going down to these spaces and hanging out with these young people.
For example, I have recently conclude fieldwork looking at the influencer industry in the Nordic region, but because of time and resource constraints, I’m not able to replicate the very thorough and in-depth studies I’ve done, say, in Southeast Asia. Instead, I have decided to focus on the specific lateral category of influencer agencies, specifically those in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland, to constitute the ‘Nordic market’. I conduct interviews with specific people in these companies, and record observations about their daily work in the offices when I have the privilege to embed in spaces or attend events to conduct participant observation. While I no longer have the same depth as, say the project of influencers in Singapore that thoroughly investigated every possible role in the industry, this Nordic project is asking a completely different set of questions on a more macro scale.
Mary-Caitlyn Valentinsson: Going back to the Internet Celebrity book specifically, I loved the art style used to illustrate your data. I found that to be a really interesting choice, especially given how much of internet culture, broadly speaking, centers the visual. Was there a particular motivation for using this style of art rather than a more direct representation of the data you were looking at (for example, screenshots of actual memes)? What were you hoping the audience would get out of that?
Crystal Abidin: Again, a variety of reasons—I’ll mention a conceptual one, a more intellectual one, and a pragmatic one.
Conceptually, in Internet Celebrity, one of my key arguments is that while some of the people who opt in to internet celebrity pursue this fervently and become influencers—which is what the last chapter points to, and the focus of my work that’s forthcoming– we also have a lot of internet celebrities who stumble into this or are forced into this industry, as in the case of the unwilling meme (Chapter 3, page 52) or the eyewitness viral star (Chapter 3, page 38) that circulates widely and gets mocked with racist tones of humor. So, not wanting to replicate or reignite that violence against these people, it would not feel right to republish their images in print, even if the publisher allows it, even if they have become widely circulated as memes, or even if the images are generally considered in the‘public domain. The aesthetic of it would not have been congruent with the argument I was trying to make, so I needed to be careful with that.
The second endeavor was more fun for me—to illustrate a more intellectual goal of using this art style. I was thinking about how verbally referring to a meme and explaining it with thick description, versus actually seeing the meme, are two different experiences. We consume internet celebrities via a visual form. If could could visually simulate a mere skeleton or likeness of the form, and have the readers able to guess or recall what this refers to, then this successfully demonstrates the arguments in the book that internet celebrity has a feel of templatability, a wider social memory, that cuts across different cultural pools of knowledge. It has been really fun for me to get feedback from readers who have told me, “Alright, we’re reading this in text form and this sounds familiar,” and then in the next page they flip to they see an outline and they think, “Oh yes, I know exactly the meme she’s talking about.” It also points to the difference in how we process information with our social memory. Traditionally, anthropology and ethnography has relied a lot on thick description, and very persuasive writing, and that’s a craft that I’m trying to hone. But when I do similar work in the industry, that’s not a format that’s palatable to people working in social media, working in tech companies, working with some of the biggest conglomerates in the media industry. Often, I have to present a different framing for the exact same thing I want to put across, such as relying heavily on visual aids. So, I also saw this as an experimental opportunity.
The third reason, of course, pragmatically, is dealing with the notion of public property, or copyright. Different publishers have different logistical guidelines for what constitutes an image that can be used for fair use, or for academic critique. Some of the publishers have guidelines ranging from how extensively public am image has been circulating, whether it has been deposited into the major meme or gif libraries, whether it has been reposted by reputable newspapers or online news sites of a certain leverage – and all of these guidelines are fair enough. They are all an approximation trying to estimate how public something is, and to iron out the difficulties of tracing the ownership of something that feels authorless like a meme. But again, going back to the ethic I adopt in this piece of work, something that’s put out and publicly available may not have been intentionally made so. So I brainstormed over a better method of engaging with the audience of the book, while also staying true to the intention and the ethic of the arguments I was trying to make.