Researching microcelebrity: Methods, access and labour
First Monday

Researching microcelebrity: Methods, access and labour by Jonathan Mavroudis and Esther Milne



Abstract
The term “microcelebrity” describes a broad range of practices, platforms and social relations that includes but is not limited to the increasing significance of public performance in everyday life, the monetisation of social media and the widening scope of what constitutes celebrity culture. While contemporary research on microcelebrity has introduced important ways of discussing the cultural impact of these new forms of visibility, the methodological focus has generally been on discourse analysis and social media analytics. In response, this paper reports on the early stages of a research project which involves interviewing microcelebrities living in Los Angeles about their profile creation on Instagram and YouTube. We argue there are significant issues at play in relation to gaining access to the interview subjects. The paper outlines the methods used and explores how the issue of access is negotiated by the interview subjects and the researcher. Since one of the authors, Jonathan Mavroudis, himself identifies as a microcelebrity with over 25,000 followers on Instagram he is in a unique position to interview these people. This high level of access to a specific cohort of microcelebrities has not been easy to gain for many academic researchers. Jonathan’s microcelebrity status opens up the possibility of conducting autoethnographic research and this is framed as a discussion of relational ethics. Although the primary focus of the paper is on method we also want to discuss early suggestive themes arising from the data including the obligations felt by these microcelebrities to enact a particular mode of identity and how this is experienced as labour. We highlight these initial topics in order to bring context to the discussion of method. Access enables and constrains certain forms of research to occur and in so doing raises questions of trust and friendship. With only 3 interviews conducted to date this is not, of course, representative of all microcelebrities. However it can function as a snapshot of early findings that we hope will inform future research methods and conceptual debates. The paper concludes with some suggestions for future directions of the field more generally.

Contents

Introduction
Microcelebrity and the critical terrain
Life as a microcelebrity: Methods and scope
Early findings
Conclusion

 


 

Introduction

While contemporary research on microcelebrity, and its platform-specific offshoots described by terms such as “instafame” and ”YouTube sensation”, has introduced important ways of discussing the cultural impact of these new forms of visibility, the methodological focus has generally been on discourse analysis and social media analytics. Investigating the affective registers and monetisation of fan bases and the aesthetics conveyed by page profiles, these studies have brought the microcelebrity phenomenon into clear view. But who are the people behind these suddenly popular profiles? This paper draws on initial interview data with users of social media who have gained high numbers of followers to hear from the microcelebrities themselves. How do they navigate the borders between public persona and private life? What role do their followers play in how the profiles are curated? To what extent does microcelebrity become a job? To answer these questions requires access. In traditional celebrity studies, it has often proved difficult for researchers to interact personally with the celebrity cohort. Despite the apparently flattened hierarchal spaces opened up across the public sphere by social media many of these same constraints now seem to be operating. Moreover, terms such as “influencer” and popularity calculators like Klout are becoming increasingly significant for academic researchers (Carrigan, 2016; Cottom, 2015; Seltzer, 2015). In other words, the methods used to explore the sites and practices of microcelebrity are often shaped by the social conventions, affordances and vernaculars (Gibbs, et al., 2014) of the platforms themselves.

We begin by mapping the critical terrain of microcelebrity through an exploration of how it emerges at the intersections of a number of socio-material forms and theoretical concerns. Drawing its name from celebrity studies (Gamson, 1994; Marshall, 1997; Rojek, 2001; Turner, 2004), the field is also crisscrossed by work on selfie culture, public identity, persona studies, self-branding and collaborative or peer to peer consumption. Cutting across these varied practices and sites is a gnawing awareness of the difficulty in adequately defining the field as a cohesive category of social relations. Struggling to define microcelebrity, scholars use a variety of conceptual frames and methods in an effort to convey the distinctive yet pervasive nature of this reconfigured public sociality. Our literature review provides an overview of the different definitions of microcelebrity, the breadth of the field and the predominant methods by which it has been investigated. Surveying the critical terrain, we argue important research remains to be conducted that speaks with microcelebrities about their particular experiences.

Having set the scene critically, we then report on the initial findings of a research project which interviews microcelebrities living in Los Angeles about their profile creation on Instagram and YouTube. In particular, we outline the methods used and how the issue of access is negotiated by the interview subjects and the researcher. Since one of the authors, Jonathan Mavroudis, himself identifies as a microcelebrity with over 25,000 followers on Instagram he is in a unique position to interview these people. This high level of access to a specific cohort of microcelebrities has not been easy to gain for many academic researchers. Although the primary focus of the paper is on method we also want to discuss early suggestive themes arising from the data including the obligations felt by these microcelebrities to enact a particular mode of identity and how this is experienced as a type of labour. We highlight these initial topics in order to bring context to the discussion of method. Access enables and constrains certain forms of research to occur and in so doing raises ethical questions of trust and friendship. The paper concludes with some suggestions for future research.

 

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Microcelebrity and the critical terrain

As mentioned, the field of microcelebrity studies encompasses a wide range of approaches. In this brief literature review we highlight the key debates by examining the scope of definitions together with the main research methods deployed for its investigation. First the early research on microcelebrity is covered together with a survey of definitions. Next the relation between microcelebrity and traditional conceptions of celebrity is explored. A central argument about microcelebrity is how it changes the nature of what defines traditional celebrity. As will be demonstrated, many studies deal simultaneously, and sometimes interchangeably, with the two categories. In addition, followers or fans have been a topic of research which is also discussed.

Definitions

The term “microcelebrity” was coined by Terri Senft in her 2008 book Camgirls: Celebrity & Community in the Age of Social Networks. Senft’s insight was to recognise the significance of new patterns of technologically mediated visibility by placing its study within persistent and sometimes intractable debates about the public sphere. Particularly resonant on the connection between microcelebrity and the public domain is Senft’s account of her own appearance on National Public Radio and is worth recounting in some detail. Pitted against legal heavy weight and privacy expert Jeffrey Rosen, it demonstrates an early recognition of the significant ways in which discursive claims are made about public expression. At the time a Ph.D. candidate, Senft was discussing her research into the increasing popularity of webcaming by young women. Calling it “exhibitionism and voyeurism” the host was at a loss to understand its worth. In response, Senft outlined the opportunities this new application held for women’s expression online, to tell stories and share their lives with others. Explaining how webcams afford greater control of the production and dissemination of a person’s image than is often assumed, Senft reveals she herself is a “camgirl”. Unimpressed, Rosen dismisses the phenomenon, likening it to the reality TV program Jerry Springer. Likewise the interviewer, Diane Rehm, wonders why Senft wants to broadcast herself in that way, was it her desire for “15 minutes of fame?” to which Senft quips “well, why make a radio show?” Rossen jumps in to have the last word and insists on the differences: radio is about matters of “public concern in a public place” whereas webcams expose “our most intimate unguarded backstage behaviour”. Through radio he insists, “we are able to have a discourse undistracted by the voyeuristic appeal of prurience” concluding that on public radio, “we are not violating our own boundaries of privacy” [1]. As Senft observes, who gets to determine the public sphere is often a gender and class based exercise. Senft’s impact on the field is also seen through her deployment of autoethnography, a tool used in the present research as is elaborated below. In her more recent work, Senft refines the concept by emphasising the importance of branding and she defines microcelebrity as “the commitment to deploying and maintaining one’s online identity as if it were a branded good, with the expectation that others do the same” [2].

Making productive critical inroads to define microcelebrity is the work of Crystal Abidin. In particular, Abidin argues that we need a more nuanced nomenclature to capture the full range of structures, practices and platforms enabling this media form. She distinguishes between two “geneses of microcelebrification”: systemic and diffuse. The first of these categories refers to a “firm indication of one’s crossover into microcelebrity” across a number of measures including becoming a brand ambassador or being covered by the mainstream media (Abidin, 2015a). In contrast, “diffuse celebrification” is a less organised structure depending on the “organic accumulation of attention before attaining microcelebrity”. Under this category, celebrification is enacted by “organic readers”, where ordinary social media users with little desire to monetise their profiles gain popularity; “proximate celebrity”, where, as the name suggests, microcelebrity develops from contact with mainstream stars; and, finally, “controversy” which conveys microcelebrity through the acts of shaming, scandal and infamy most obvious in the circulation of sex tapes or the stories of disastrous plastic surgeries (Abidin, 2015a). Abidin’s finely detailed taxonomy of microcelebrity is drawn from fieldwork consisting of interviews, participant observation and archival research conducted with young Singaporean women who gain traction as entrepreneurs and influencers. This latter term is an industry concept that Abidin suggests predates Internet culture and functions as an important aspect of microcelebrity. Abidin (2015b) defines an influencer as:

everyday, ordinary Internet users who accumulate a relatively large following on blogs and social media through the textual and visual narration of their personal lives and lifestyles, engage with their following in “digital” and “physical” spaces, and monetize their following by integrating “advertorials” into their blog or social media posts and making physical appearances at events.

Here, Abidin coins the term “micro-microcelebrity” which describes a fascinating emergent social media practice, that of “influencer mothers” who share photos and blog posts about their infants to attract sponsorships and utilise other types of digital media monetisation. As this cohort are the first to inherit their own digital trace while lacking any control over its content, Abidin (2015b) warns of the implications ushered in by parents who “habitually underestimate or discount the privacy and long term effects of publicising information about their children”. What remains unsettled in the literature, however, is how adequately to define the boundaries which mark off microcelebrity from mainstream celebrity and the function of followers within this process. We now turn to consider these aspects.

Celebrities and followers

A major focus in recent research is the relation between traditional celebrity and microcelebrity together with the role played by followers or fans. Many studies have grappled with the ways in which microcelebrity is changing the nature of what, hitherto, has functioned as the traditional understanding of celebrity. As Alice Marwick and dana boyd have shown, fame does not possess an on/off switch, but instead is understood to operate along a “continuum rather than as a bright line that separates individuals” [3].

In a study of Twitter usage by celebrities, Marwick and boyd understand microcelebrity as a particular way of thinking about one’s own friends online, a “mindset”. As they explain, microcelebrity involves “viewing friends or followers as a fan base; acknowledging popularity as a goal; managing the fan base using a variety of affiliative techniques; and constructing an image of self that can be easily consumed by others” [4]. Moreover, contemporary celebrities are now employing the same discursive strategies and material practices deployed by the wider public in their everyday social media lives. Nevertheless, they warn about applying overly simplified theorisations of the egalitarian power of social media in the construction of identity online. Clearly, microcelebrities “do not see the returns on their efforts that mainstream famous people do; their dreams of financial success or trappings of wealth are rarely achieved” [5].

Using discourse analysis and a case study framework, their investigation examines the exchanges between celebrities and their publics by downloading the feeds of the 300 most popular Twitter accounts of 2009. These profiles included actors, musicians and politicians as well as media organisations. Marwick and boyd then tweeted at some of these accounts to record the resulting correspondence and tracked the interactions between celebrities and their followers. One of the methodological issues grappled with was how to verify the authorship of these celebrity accounts. Because their paper was written before the Twitter verification tick was in widespread use, they needed to rely on other measures and criteria such as the use of first person, the prevalence of grammatical error and whether tweets were clearly sent by a PR team manager or assistant.

Expanding on this research, Marwick’s (2013) ethnographic investigation of Silicon Valley, Status update, interviewed a diverse set of the technology community comprising those working in start ups, employees at Google, freelancers, social media “gurus”, engineers, academics, fanboys and designers [6]. Framing her investigation is the recognition that neoliberalism creates particular kinds of social media subjects produced through a desire for fame. As she explains:

... far from the revolutionary and progressive participation flaunted by entrepreneurs and pundits, social media applications encourage people to compete for social benefits by gaining visibility and attention. To boost social status, young professionals adopt self-consciously constructed personas and market themselves, like brands or celebrities, to an audience or fan base. [7]

Of significance for our study is Marwick’s insight into how obligation functions between microcelebrities and their followers where those trying to attract a fan base feel a strong sense that interactions must be maintained [8]. This aspect chimes with our initial findings and is discussed below in relation to the interviews conducted by Jonathan.

Finally, Marwick (2015) has recently used textual and visual analysis to explore “Instafame” and selfie culture illustrating how microcelebrity assumes the aesthetic tropes of traditional celebrity creation to convey luxury and conspicuous consumption.

Branding and microcelebrity has been taken up by Adam Arvidsson whose research on “consumer publics” and the promotional strategies of everyday life has contributed to a rethinking of how brands operate within immaterial networks of labour and “informational capitalism” (Arvidsson, 2006; see also Lury, 2004). In a recent Twitter study of Italian One Direction fans (“Directioners”) Arvidsson, et al. (2015) argue for a theory of microcelebrity that extends beyond ideas of individual charisma instead looking to crowd-based dynamics. For these authors, crowd generated intensity provides a better critical frame through which to understand new modes of participatory culture and burgeoning visibilities than those drawing on the curation of a personal brand. Informed by Max Weber’s sociological work on “charismatic authority”, their study critiques prevailing ideas about a kind of “rational” microcelebrity which suggests that the “main way to create a valuable personal brand is to engage in practices that can be rationally evaluated by peers according to the set of shared values that defines the community or public in which one acts”. Instead, they argue that value is created by the affective power of crowds seen through the mobilisation of trending Twitter hashtags.

Their method involved a data set of 116,823 tweets gathered between May to June of 2013 which included Directioner based retweets, mentions, hashtags and highly popular user profiles. Rather than the “deliberative” agency animating conventional scholarship of fandom, these researchers insist on the affective dynamism of crowds. The Directioners’ dialogue is “primarily phatic and affective: strong appeals to group identity or affectively charged messages about idols propagated through the crowd” [9]. While this work is productive for drawing out how microcelebrity is generated by collectivist, peer to peer logics, the relational aspect between followers and their affective objects of desire is underplayed.

Retaining Twitter as the methodological site, Bethany Usher (2015) is also interested in the interactions between celebrities and their publics. In particular, she argues the traditional press interview functions as a precursor to contemporary patterns of engagement because it provides linguistic and thematic strategies to enhance the celebrity brand. In her study Usher analysed the last 3,200 tweets of the top 20 celebrity Twitter accounts, measured by number of followers, during June 2014. These were mapped along axes of “Interactive” (comprising replies and retweets) and “Broadcast” (defined as status updates). Expressed as a percentage of total tweets, @Katyperry engaged more often in the “Broadcast” register than she did in retweets and replies or “Interactive”. In contrast @rhianna posted fewer updates, occupying her time by replying to her audience or retweeting others’ exchanges with her [10]. Expanding on this data, Usher uses discourse analysis to explore how “crowd sourced interviews”, typified by the hashtag askmeanything or #ask+celebrity name, provide branding opportunities for the celebrity and increased profile leverage for the fan who occupies the role of interviewer. However, she argues that this dialectic seems heavily weighted to favour the celebrity. Although these fan-interviewers play an active co-constitutive part in the construction of celebrity persona, according to Usher, their cultural capital remains tethered to and dependent on their ties with the celebrity.

A case in point is offered by the interactions between reality star Khloe Kardashian and one of her followers “Yasmin Kardashian”. Yasmin is herself something of a microcelebrity with nearly 30,000 followers on Twitter. Her account is called @MinieKardashian which she curates with news and images devoted to the Kardashian family. Her profile description (like many of the other Kardashian fans or “dolls”) details the number and types of exchanges she has experienced with each of the Kardashians: “Follows: Khloe, Kris, Kylie. Tweets: Khloe x20 & 1RT, Kim x5, Kendall x1, Kourt x1 & 1 FB reply, Kylie x1 & 1 DM from Kris” (Kardashian, @MinieKardashian).

Discussing the relation between Yasmin and the Kardashians, Usher finds that any leverage Yasmin gains from her proximity to the family is provisional. As she explains this “capital can only ever exist if she remains a reflection of their identities and continues to support their promotion. If she tried to separate her online self, it would vanish” [11]. We are not so convinced of the sharp distinction to be made here. Evaluating the contours of the celebrity-follower relation is a central task for future research.

Agency is a key aspect of microcelebrity for David Marshall, Christopher Moore and Kim Barbour (2015). However, their critical landscape is better embraced by the term “persona studies” which widens the scope to bring back into the equation the ways in which the mainstream celebrity is produced through similar techniques and socio-material frames as those used by internet stars. Moreover, persona studies shifts the conceptual lens from a collectivist model at work in typical audience studies to one that is firmly focussed on individual agency. The remit of persona studies therefore is to analyse how the “individual ‘publicises’, ‘presents’ and strategically ‘enacts’ their persona” [12]. Similarly, studying celebrity persona involves looking at the “strategies of foregrounding versions of public and private presentations and how these relate to the individual celebrity negotiating his/her position within institutions and the broader culture” [13]. In order to carry out these research aims, the authors introduce a number of methods including discourse analysis, interviews, social network analysis and data visualisation [14]. In relation to these methods, Barbour conducted in-depth, semi structured interviews with a group of fringe artists in order to understand how their personae are constructed through a matrix of online presentational strategies. Informing the interviews she used a phenomenologically inflected approach which uncovers how profiles are interpreted and encountered across a broad range of spaces and practices. Whether artists can be defined as microcelebrities is not overtly discussed by the authors but their methods present fruitful avenues for further work. As Marshall, Moore and Barbour note, investigating the microcelebrities themselves is an under researched area and is one which our present project addresses [15].

Summary of the existing literature

The purpose of this brief literature review was to demonstrate the breadth of definitions framing the research of microcelebrity. In particular, we highlighted the different approaches to the relations between microcelebrity, traditional celebrity and their publics or followers. Debates emerge as to what kind of leverage may open up to the fan and how to understand the definitional limits of microcelebrity. In terms of methods employed, generally speaking, the study of microcelebrity has predominantly utilised discourse analysis and social media analytics. While interviews are utilised broadly these have not been directed substantially at the microcelebrities themselves. This means the various claims made in the literature about how microcelebrity identity is produced could be investigated by raising these topics with the microcelebrities. Also relevant here is the issue of labour. As discussed above and explored in our initial findings, performing online, crafting a consumable image requires work. Moreover, followers seem able to demand this form of product. To some degree, this is in contrast with the existing studies which suggest the follower exerts little power over the microcelebrity. To explore the implications of the literature, we now outline our research project which seeks to extend the field of microcelebrity by talking to some high profile Instagram users directly about their experiences of internet fame. We argue the issue of access is a challenging aspect that has not been considered in detail. To explain the project, we discuss methods and reflect upon the utility of autoethnography.

 

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Life as a microcelebrity: Methods and scope

As mentioned, this paper is reporting on the early findings of a project researching the untold stories of those living their online lives as microcelebrities from their own perspective. In due course, this research will also consult a large number of “regular” Instagram users to explore how microcelebrity culture impacts the lives of the young people who are growing up using the application. The focus of this paper, however, is on the research methods being employed to study the microcelebrity sample which has proven to be a difficult and intricate process, with access being the largest hurdle. In the following sections we reflect on our methodological approach while Jonathan describes his journey, from his perspective, as both an Instagram microcelebrity and Instagram researcher.

Gaining access to the traditionally closed group of Instagram microcelebrities or the “insta-famous” was a journey that started with Jonathan’s own presence on the social media platform. Before beginning this project he predicted that the best way to understand the insta-famous would be to completely immerse himself within their world. He knew that he would not be able to interact with them on a meaningful, honest level unless he became one of them. After several failed attempts to interact with various microcelebrities, Jonathan realised that they seem only to respond to other microcelebrities. At this point, he had an Instagram account with approximately 200 followers. With this goal in mind, he begun to understand the culture of the platform and learnt what he would need to do to gain status and ultimately achieve insta-fame. He created a consumable depiction of himself that resembled those used by popular microcelebrities. It quickly became an obsession. By the time Jonathan reached over 10,000 followers it had become an integral part of his life and identity and as predicted, he received the attention of the microcelebrities he had been trying to contact. The self presentation techniques he used and continues to use as well as the impact it has on his offline life is a story for a future paper, what we focus on now is how Jonathan gained and continues to gain access to the microcelebrities being studied in this project.

A qualitative, visual ethnographic approach was undertaken as this research is interested in understanding the microcelebrities experiences in online spaces from their point of view. Semi-structured one-on-one interviews along with participant observations of both their off-line behaviours and their online activities were conducted. Given the relatively small body of research into young people’s experiences of microcelebrity on Instagram, ethnography is an appropriate approach as this method is valuable for exploring social phenomena about which little is known (Liamputtong, 2009). In conjunction with the ethnographic fieldwork an autoethnography is being conducted which is explained below.

Recruiting the microcelebrities

Participants aged 18 to 30 who had a public Instagram account with a significant following (over 10,000 followers) were contacted through the site. Accessing these microcelebrities required insider status as often the only way to get in contact with them is through direct message (DM) through the site. Users only receive a DM notification when the message is sent by a user that they follow. Possessing a microcelebrity status enabled Jonathan to attract the attention of prominent microcelebrities such as Aaron Rhodes, who could be messaged once he followed Jonathan back. Through DM, the research interests were then discussed.

Once the subjects showed interest in the research they were briefly advised about the nature of the project. They were told that Jonathan was interested in how fame and microcelebrity is experienced through visual social media and how this may affect identity formation in young people. They were asked to contact Jonathan on his Swinburne University e-mail if they thought they might be interested in participating. Once contact was made, participants received an information form and a consent form via e-mail. We then negotiated a suitable interview time and location. At the time of the interview participants were given the option to remain anonymous in publication or choose for their actual names to be used. So far Jonathan has made contact with 15 prominent microcelebrities. On his first research trip to Los Angeles in July 2015 he interviewed three: Aaron Rhodes (391,000 followers), Michael Turchin (100,000 followers) and Patrick Belaga (14,600 followers). All three chose that their actual names be used in publication. Interview time and locations are currently being negotiated with the remaining twelve microcelebrities.

Procedure

Interviews with the microcelebrities were semi-structured. All interviews were conducted in a quiet hotel lounge in West Hollywood, California. Each interview was digitally voice recorded. A comfortable and relaxed atmosphere was provided as participants are more inclined to tell the researcher “how it is” [16] under these conditions, capturing their subjective experiences (Liamputtong, 2009). Interviews took approximately one hour and were then transcribed so that the manuscripts could be manually coded using thematic analysis within a constructivist framework. All transcripts were coded according to key themes that are emerging through the research process.

Since the initial three microcelebrities granted permission for Jonathan to analyse their Instagram content, online ethnographic observation of the material the participants publicly post has been undertaken. Jonathan observes their photos and videos, taking screenshots and keeping notes of what they are doing online to complement the data collected from interviews. Conducting fieldwork of this nature allows the researcher to experience the lived realities within a particular social context (Wolf, 1992) by exploring the world of the people the ethnographer wants to learn from (Liamputtong, 2009). This allows for deeper understanding of the phenomenon than can be obtained through interviews alone.

Autoethnography

Being an Instagram user himself with a following of over 25,000, Jonathan is conducting an autobiographical ethnography. Both observing his own posts and reflecting on the same interview questions as his participants. Jonathan is recording his experiences in a research diary. This kind of research is appropriate when both the researcher and the participants are connected by embodied, lived experience (Liamputtong, 2009). In this research Jonathan is considering his own story in light of the experiences of the participants. Carolyn Ellis (2004) refers to this style as a reflexive dyadic autoethnography. In this method the participant’s story is the focus however the researcher’s experiences work alongside to co-construct meaning. The current project is a reflexive account of the experiences, thoughts and feelings of both the participants and the researcher. Ellis understands autoethnography as a “back-and-forth movement between experiencing and examining a vulnerable self and observing and revealing the broader context of that experience” [17].

Aside from firsthand accounts of his experiences as a microcelebrity Jonathan’s status is vital to the research methodology in regards to access. As mentioned earlier, methods used to explore the practices of microcelebrity are shaped by the social conventions, affordances and vernaculars of the platform. Jonathan’s inside status as “one of them” means that he is situated within the world being studied. Traditionally studying a closed group such as Goths for example, requires that the insider achieves some sort of affiliation with the group of interest (Hodkinson, 2002). By being insta-famous and complying with the conventions and culture of the insta-famous world the autoethnography was possible, and most importantly trust was established between Jonathan and the participants. Over the course of approximately a year he has been building friendships online that strengthened once everyone met in person. In his personal fieldwork, Jonathan has recorded these informal interactions with Instagram famous microcelebrities. While informally spending time with them Jonathan observed what these people do first hand in the most natural state possible. They were not socialising with a researcher, they were interacting with someone like them, a friend. Taking photos, discussing the content, editing and posting was done on these occasions offering an insider, “natural” view into to the world that would not have been possible in the absence of his microcelebrity status and position in the field. It is impossible to witness these things first hand, exactly how they happen in a sit down, formal interview. This research, a part of his autoethnographic case study, involves microcelebrities that have not been interviewed and those who may never be interviewed as they are often reluctant to discuss these issues formally. This kind of unfiltered access is made possible by these research methods and ultimately Jonathan’s cultural capital within the Instagram world.

Highlighting the closed group nature of the insta-famous world, two of the microcelebrities interviewed explained that they had been approached by other academics from various universities who wanted to interview them about their experiences. They explained that they did not trust discussing their experiences with someone who “wouldn’t really get it”. They expressed that Jonathan’s insider status made them feel as though he would be able to relate to their experiences as it’s likely Jonathan would have experienced the same things. His insider status however means that he must consider the relational ethics at play as the participants have become friends. It is also likely that these bonds will strengthen as the project continues.

Ethical considerations

Autoethnographic relational ethics go beyond procedural ethics mandated by university ethical committees. Choosing which stories to share and how to share them is complicated, we can never be sure how those we write about will react to what has been said about them (Ellis, 2007). There are no set of rules to follow regarding relational ethics. Ellis and Bochner’s (2006) advice is to remember that autoethnographies are about people who are in the process of figuring out how to live and what their experience mean. We must be sensitive to that, and think carefully about the stories we choose to tell especially when the researcher possesses insider status and develops close bonds with the participants.

Many researchers have utilised their insider status to successfully conduct ethnographic studies. In the field of subcultural studies, Hodkinson’s (2002) proximity granted him access into the mysterious lives of Goths, Malbon’s (1999) allowed him to study dance club culture from within the circuit while Weinstein (2000) used her “street credentials” to study heavy metal culture. However the ethics of friendship and insider status remains an underdeveloped field (Ellis and Bochner, 2006; Taylor, 2011). The advantages include possessing prior knowledge allowing for deeper understanding, closer and more regular contact with the field and also better access to participants including easier recruitment, stronger rapport and trust (Taylor 2011). There is also a deeper level of understanding afforded by knowing the lingo or being “empirically literate” (Roseneil, 1993). Insider status can of course also be problematic. It can result in role confusion, conflict, feelings of betrayal and run the risk of compromised researcher objectivity (Taylor, 2011). It is important to be aware of these issues when conducting research of this nature. Jonathan holds a unique position within the closed group of microcelebrity. He possesses a level of understanding, rapport, trust and of course access that only comes from building meaningful relationships with participants. Insights from the literature are helping Jonathan to think through the friendships that are emerging with his interviewees and how this impacts upon research.

Inevitably, there will be things that Jonathan will witness but not be able to report. Participants are aware of Jonathan’s research interests prior to them becoming friends however, the researcher/friend roles need to be monitored in order to maintain some sense of critical distance. While Jonathan attempts to remain alert to his role as researcher, participants could easily lose sight of the study being undertaken and begin to treat Jonathan primarily as a friend. In this case the researcher must carefully filter the interaction, omitting information that if reported could compromise the friendship. It is important to respect the friendship and uphold a sense of trust as it is the friendship component of these relationships that makes this kind of study unique and above all allows it to continue. It is ultimately the researcher’s responsibility to find a balance between consolidating friendships and remaining focused on the research objectives. Achieving this kind of balance is an integral aim of the project and one for which Jonathan continues to strive.

We now turn to a brief discussion of some early findings that are emerging from the three interviews and the autoethnographic fieldwork conducted thus far. Although the major focus of the paper is on method, we want to flesh this out with some concrete, situated discussions. The following section therefore draws together issues covered in the literature review section, such as the role of followers and the relation between microcelebrity and celebrity. The literature on these topics is extended by considering how labour plays into these dynamics. Developing these points is made possible by the access to the interviewees.

 

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Early findings

A recurring theme in this research is the extent to which microcelebrity or the pursuit of microcelebrity has become a job. Interviews and ethnographic observations made possible by the researcher’s access to the participants have revealed that the microcelebrities consulted so far attribute their status to work. They see managing and maintaining their insta-fame as a form of labour. Microcelebrity could be considered a type of immaterial labour (Lazzarato, 1996; Terranova, 2004) albeit structured by patterns of both paid and unpaid compensation. For example, when one of our subjects, prominent microcelebrity Aaron Rhodes, was asked whether he would consider travelling overseas without posting pictures to his social media accounts he explained:

No! ... it’s like a wasted opportunity, it’s like what you were doing has slipped through the cracks and nobody gets to see it, and you don’t get to document that, so it’s like it never even happened ... I mean I have 230,000 [18] people who want to see what I’m doing, so it’s like you let them down if you don’t post anything. Especially if they know you’re on that trip and they don’t see anything from it ... it’s like you owe it to them in a way. (Rhodes, 2015)

Although at times the microcelebrities interviewed have made money from their social media use through product endorsements, for the most part it is a type of immaterial labour. It involves promoting a sense of self in order to gain fame or status online. There seems to be an understanding that this is the culture of Instagram resulting in an expectation that others are doing the same. There also seems to be a sense of obligation associated with this kind of self promotion. When asked during interviews why the microcelebrities use Instagram Aaron and Michael responded:

For self promotion, isn’t that what we’re all doing? It’s what people want so you just keep doing it ... I have to be in the photo, cause if I’m not in the photo, they don’t do as well [get as many likes], so I don’t post them. (Rhodes, 2015)

For self promotion in general ... you’re supposed to get your face out there ... The majority of my followers and likes are for if I post something of myself. The majority of people follow me for my shirtless selfies, so I get frustrated when I post my art because I usually get half as many likes which is frustrating. (Turchin, 2015)

This type of self promotion and identity construction is not the effortless and spontaneous activity that outsiders may believe it to be. From Jonathan’s experience as a microcelebrity, the content he posts is very deliberate and involves a great deal of work. It is not a seamless extension to who he is off-line, it is rather a carefully crafted identity specifically designed for consumption by the public, with the ultimate aim of maintaining insta-fame. During his autoethnographic fieldwork Jonathan was told by two separate microcelebrities “I am not my Instagram” and “Don’t believe what you see on my Instagram”. When Aaron, Patrick and Michael were asked “do you feel that Instagram is an accurate portrayal of who you are off-line?” they responded:

I feel like Instagram sort of obscures like a concrete perception of who I am. (Belaga, 2015)

No it’s not at all. Not even how I look sometimes because honestly you’ll take a busted ass pic [bad photo] and then you edit it and it doesn’t even look like anyone so it’s all an illusion ... It’s not in any way a true portrayal of who I am I don’t think ... it’s what people want. (Rhodes, 2015)

Curating and managing a public persona that differs from your real life identity requires a great deal of work. Traditional celebrities hire public relation professionals for this. The microcelebrities consulted in this project revealed just how labour intensive maintaining their Instagram life becomes. The sense of obligation to produce a widely consumable version of self is overwhelming:

When I started like two and half years ago ... it was not really anyone’s job to be on Instagram like it is now. I post things now because I have to, not because I want to anymore. Like, I used to love doing it and now it’s just a chore and a job ... It’s not really about “hey mom did you see what I was doing” it’s more like I’m contracted to post this so I have to get it done and just make everybody happy. (Rhodes, 2015)

Instagram for so many people has become a part-time job ... people put effort to become famous ... it’s definitively encouraging fame ... My whole day could be taken up by selfies, it’s very time consuming. (Turchin, 2015)

The interviewees acknowledged that the branded identity they portray online is extremely important to their microcelebrity status. It is something that they seem to manage and craft quite carefully as if they are a public relations professional for their online selves. All three stated that there has been content that wanted to post but didn’t because they didn’t believe it would “suit their profile”. The following quotes reveal how they manage their online brand through controlling the content they post:

I wouldn’t post things that are too personal ... there’s a fine line between the selfies that are “oh that’s cute and hot” to “that’s slutty” (laughs). So yeah I wouldn’t ever post a selfie with just me in my underwear where you can see everything, I wouldn’t do that, I’m more of a sophisticated shirtless selfie person ... In most of my selfies, I do like to have a stupid face because I don’t wanna come across like I’m taking myself too seriously. (Turchin, 2015)

Anything with drugs or alcohol I don’t post that on Instagram ... I shy away from shirtless selfies and stuff cause I feel that over sexualises people and I don’t want to be put in that box. (Rhodes, 2015)

I never post party pictures. I don’t like to post pictures that indicate who I’m with or what I’m doing in a way that’s sort of a popularity contests kind of thing. For me personally, I wouldn’t never post party pictures ... Obviously I go to parties ... but i don’t think they represent me. (Belaga, 2015)

This sense of obligation is ultimately to the micro celebrity’s audience however when Jonathan was in the process of becoming insta-famous he also felt a sense of obligation to Instagram itself. As mentioned earlier, Jonathan quickly understood that the culture of the site was about producing a consumable version of yourself, and if the audience receives you well it should result in fame. At this stage Jonathan felt as though he was working for Instagram, trying to comply with the culture of the application in order to attract some sort of praise and eventually a significant audience. Since achieving a microcelebrity status Jonathan primarily feels a sense of obligation towards his audience. This sense of obligation to the followers is shared by all the microcelebrities encountered in the research thus far. The following quotes by Aaron Rhodes capture the extent to which this relationship to the audience feels like work.

My audience is very important and I feel like I owe something to them in a way, I feel like I’m obligated to make them feel good even if I’m not feeling good ... I feel like I always have to have a smile on my face. I might not feel happy or giddy that day but when I’m on camera I have to be energetic because that’s the character or persona I’m playing. (Rhodes, 2015)

They’re looking at you as a friend and you’re looking at them as a job. You’re looking at them as something that you need to help you get somewhere. (Rhodes, 2015)

You might be wondering, what is the point of becoming a microcelebrity? What do these individuals get out of it? Why put in so much work? For all the microcelebrities consulted, including Jonathan himself, those formally interviewed and those approached during autoethnographic fieldwork, Instagram is believed to be a gateway to future success. The three microcelebrities who were interviewed explained that they would not be as successful in their current career were it not for their status on Instagram. As for Jonathan, he would have chosen a different topic to research for his Ph.D. as he would not have been able to conduct this research in this way. Microcelebrity seems to be understood as a new form of cultural capital based on followers and likes. But as with any capital it does not come free. What opens up is an interesting tension operating between microcelebrities and their followers where the image of self is at stake. In other words, what we are finding is that even while the social media exhortation is to ‘be yourself’ this turns out to be a fraught process. ‘Cute and hot’ is ok; ‘slutty’ is not. Shirtless selfies are borderline. Pictures documenting social events are good as long as they don’t seem to boast of popularity. What remains to explore is the other side of this coin. How, for example, do followers feel about the labour exerted by the microcelebrities and is there a sense, perhaps, of a shared task? These topics will be explored as the research unfolds with a major survey recently launched of Instagram microcelebrity followers and further interviews currently being conducted in New York.

 

++++++++++

Conclusion

This paper extends contemporary research on microcelebrity and “insta-fame” where the methodological focus is typically discourse analysis and social media analytics. The paper goes beyond investigating the aesthetics of online profiles and consults the microcelebrities directly, striving to understand and give meaning to the phenomenon from their perspective. We argue that doing this kind of research authentically requires access. Jonathan’s microcelebrity status as a researcher in this field allows him to situate himself amongst the people he is studying. Immersion and observation is key to this kind of research. However, access constrains and enables certain types of research to occur on microcelebrity and raises questions about how relational ethics operate. As we explored, insider status, such as that occupied by Jonathan, allows for a deeper understanding of the field and easier recruitment. But there could be risks of betrayal felt by the participants or situations where “objectivity” may appear compromised.

While our paper is predominately focussed on methods we suggest initial themes should be shared to provide context. Early findings from this research reveal that microcelebrity has become a job not only for microcelebrities but for those aspiring to achieve this status. It is a form of labour that involves producing a manufactured version of self that can be publicly consumed. Agency seems to be limited by the overwhelming sense of obligation felt by the microcelebrities to conform to the culture of self promotion and satisfy their audience. Ultimately, microcelebrity as a cultural formation has an important social function that we should better understand.

In order to gain further insight into the field, future research directions could explore in detail the relations between microcelebrities and their followers. The existing research as we outlined seems to show the relation is uneven with more cultural capital accruing to those with microcelebrity status. However, the slippage between the categories of celebrity, microcelebrity and follower suggest these are complex interactions. Evaluating the contours of the celebrity-follower relation is a central task for further research which could assess the degree to which followers themselves understand this dynamic to be operating. Future work could also extend our arguments about access. In particular, the links between insider status and the emerging friendships between microcelebrities and researchers represent exciting potential for critical development. End of article

 

About the authors

Jonathan Mavroudis is a Ph.D. candidate at Swinburne University, Melbourne, Australia. His current research interests include how fame and microcelebrity is experienced through visual social media and the implications this has for young people. Jonathan also teaches in the sociology program at Swinburne with a particular focus on the critical and methodological frameworks for researching families, relationships and sexuality.
E-mail: jonathanmavroudis [at] swin [dot] edu [dot] au

Esther Milne is Associate Professor of Media and Communication at Swinburne University, Melbourne, Australia. Her research investigates the history of media technologies and the emerging publics of online sociality. She has published on the cultural and legislative frames of celebrity production and is the author of Letters, Postcards, Email: Technologies of Presence (Routledge, 2010). She is currently working on a book for MIT about the everyday contexts of e-mail use.
E-mail: emilne [at] swin [dot] edu [dot] au

 

Acknowledgements

To Aaron Rhodes, Michael Turchin, Patrick Belaga and the other microcelebrities involved in this research, this project would not have been possible without you. Thank you for being so generous with your time and sharing your experiences with us. We would also like to thank Dr. Deborah Dempsey for supervising this research and helping to make this publication possible.

 

Notes

1. Senft, 2008, pp. 77–79.

2. Senft, 2013, p. 346.

3. Marwick and boyd, 2011, p. 140.

4. Marwick and boyd, 2011, p. 141.

5. Marwick and boyd, 2011, p. 155.

6. Marwick, 2013, p 8.

7. Marwick, 2013, p. 5.

8. Marwick, 2013, p. 118.

9. Arvidsson, et al., 2015, p. 14.

10. Usher, 2015, p. 311.

11. Usher, 2015, p. 316.

12. Marshall, et al., 2015, p. 290.

13. Ibid.

14. Marshall, et al., 2015, p. 288.

15. Marshall, et al., 2015, p. 291.

16. Dearnley, 2005, p. 21.

17. Ellis, 2007, p. 14.

18. This figure represents the number of Instagram followers that Rhodes had on 17 July 2015 at the time of interview. As of June 2016 Rhodes has 405,000 followers on Instagram.

 

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Editorial history

Received 25 January 2015; revised 26 May 2016; revised 10 June 2016; accepted 16 June 2016.


Creative
Commons License
This paper is in the Public Domain.

Researching microcelebrity: Methods, access and labour
by Jonathan Mavroudis and Esther Milne.
First Monday, Volume 21, Number 7 - 4 July 2016
http://www.firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/6401/5529
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v21i7.6401





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