An Introduction to the Affection Economy - On Crystal Abidin's "Internet Celebrity: Understanding Fame Online"
Crystal Abidin | Internet Celebrity: Understanding Fame Online | Emerald Publishing | July 16, 2018 | 100 Pages
On a sweltering summer day in Anaheim, thousands of people gathered outside of the Marriott Suite Hotel for Tanacon — a convention planned by YouTube enfant terrible Tana Mongeau. Following a tiff with VidCon organizers, the 20-year-old internet star announced her event in a rambling 1-hour video. She advertised her meet-and-greet gathering as the anarchic, carefree rival to the overly corporate VidCon. Unfortunately, it was an abject failure. The space that her team booked quickly reached capacity and they had sold too many tickets. Fans who had flown in from all across the globe were left to roast in the cruel California sun. Shortly afterward, fans and fellow YouTubers depicted Mongeau as a villain who defrauded thousands of people. A few days later, YouTuber Shane Dawson uploaded a three-part documentary delving into what exactly had happened at the now-infamous disaster. Dawson presented Mongeau as more of a naive idealist than a scam artist, a lovable blonde party girl who got swept up in the hoopla of her own viral celebrity. For the thousands of fans and dozen influencers involved, the stakes were incredibly high. For the casual observer, however, Tanacon was a glimpse into the bizarre world of YouTube celebrity.
In Internet Celebrity: Understanding Fame Online, Crystal Abidin explores the historical and anthropological frameworks behind this new kind of notoriety. Using examples from East Asia and the Western hemisphere, Abidin examines this broad notion of internet celebrity with a distinctly global lens. The guiding thread throughout Abidin’s deftly-written 100 pages is the issue of whether or not all viral stars equally benefit from their ascent. Due to structures, ideologies, and dynamics that existed well before social media platforms, some meme personalities make it onto Ellen and then go on to headline packed conventions, while others struggle to even make a single cent off the world’s gaze.
Internet Celebrity serves as a catalog of terms; each category and subcategory is fleshed out with a condensed history and, at times, ethnographic analysis. For “Meme Personalities,” Abidin breaks it down into three stages of development: “faces of memes,” “meme personae,” and “meme celebrities.” (Not everyone makes it to the second or third stage.) Later, she includes “unwilling memes” — people who never wanted the gawking attention of the web. Though there’s an authoritative tone, Abidin concludes that this project is a mere window into a moment. This topic is in flux. Internet Celebrity could be expanded on as the influencer industry grows more sophisticated. In the “Postface,” she explains that she wrote the book “as a time capsule of what the climate of internet celebrity looks like at this point of its trajectory, in the late 2010s.”
Abidin foregrounds this ‘time capsule’ with a synthesis of media theory regarding the notion of interactivity that’s fostered between a celebrity and their admirer. She packs a diversity of sources into this chapter — ranging from writings about reality TV to research into webcam girls. Now that there are multiple ways of engaging with fans through technology, the institution of celebrity has gone from being tightly controlled by film studios, publicists, and handlers to something more intimate. A Hollywood mystique has been replaced by the idea that people should know who they ‘follow.’ For internet celebrities with actual talent, these interactions and moments of spontaneity are mere gestures or ‘filler emotional content’ that they strategically employ between showcasing their skills. Many actors, musicians, and reality TV stars also have excelled at promoting themselves with social media. However, internet celebrities have to be more candid to maintain follower interest.
Abidin anchors her analysis of the influencer industry with a history of how it came about in Singapore. In this semi-authoritarian city-state, influencers originated from a thriving “blogshop” industry. “Blogshops” are online stores that heavily use blogging platforms to advertise and create a narrative around their products. This format of commerce subsequently inspired young women to blog and use social media to curate their existence into a profitable lifestyle. However, there are truths that hold regardless of country. The bigger things get, the greater number of people want a piece of the action — managers, agencies, and shady players pop up with bot followers. Abidin presents the relationship between influencers and corporate conglomerates as nuanced, sometimes antagonistic while other times symbiotic. At one point Instagram is cracking down on hashtag marketing tactics and, at another moment, Amazon is starting a “Amazon Influencer Program” that gives influencers commissions on products sold from their recommendations.
In addition to detailing the relationship between social media users and corporations, the book also diagnoses various dichotomous tensions at play in the 2010s digital landscape: traditional media and internet celebrities are in a codependent relationship; traditional celebrities are borrowing tactics from their rivals on the web; East Asian internet celebrities are facing an Orientalist sense of fascination from Western commenters; more and more, social media behemoths are capitalizing and taking a piece of the influencer pie. Some of these tensions are rooted in power dynamics that have existed well before this niche topic came about. For example, low-income Black Americans who become “eyewitness viral stars” from infamous interviews with local news station rarely have the means or opportunity to take control of their meme which rapidly descends into a racialized stereotype.
Not covered in Abidin’s book is a fairly recent incident in which this dynamic between content creator and corporate overlord turned violent. On April 3rd, 2018, Iranian internet microcelebrity Nasim Najafi Aghdam shot up the YouTube headquarters, wounding three people and then killing herself. Her central qualm with YouTube was that they shut down her channel after allegedly shadow-banning her. Her channel was composed of vegan-recipes, rants, and outlandish arty workout routines. Towards the beginning of her book, Abidin brings up four qualities that could make someone an internet celebrity: “exclusivity,” “exoticism,” “exceptionalism,” and “everydayness.” Aghdam’s videos didn’t easily fall into any of those categories. She was too kitschy, bizarre, and self-aware of the limitations of the vlog medium. Creatives face rejection all the time. But something about this tension between this creative and a monolithic tech entity lead to violence.
For all its strengths, Internet Celebrity glides over the psychological impact of this algorithmic rat race and mostly focuses on whether or not these meme personalities financially benefit. Abidin mentions the heavy-handed satirical TV show Black Mirror in the “Postface” and does constantly acknowledge the exploitative aspects of the industry but never truly pauses her analysis to examine the emotional labor of viral fame. Regardless if they make any money or not, are either the guitar-strumming child on Ellen or the eyewitness viral star ready for this level of notoriety? What about all the vloggers who spend hours filming and then uploading footage of themselves only to fade into obscurity? The incident, which was quickly branded as the “YouTube shooting,” serves as a chilling reminder of what the stakes are when social media companies promote the ludicrous idea that any user can find a lucrative and promising future on their platforms.
One of Abidin’s closing arguments is that influencers are shifting away from the “attention economy” to the “affection economy.” Influencers have to juggle the wishes of multiple brands at once. They don’t sign long-term deals and are barred from endorsing a rival product within six months to a year of finishing a partnership. Since they can’t be chameleons who adapt multiple brand personas, their personal brand is incredibly important. She states:
“Just as platforms like Twitter are starting to conflate attention with affection, or viewership with likeability, Influencers in the increasingly saturated industry find themselves required to pursue both short-term spikes in viewer traffic (often through controversies or scandals) alongside long-term investments to grow their loyal base through sustained, sincere interactions."
This shift towards the “affection economy” was made abundantly clear during the Tanacon debacle. Mongeau risked everything by trying to streamline the industry and essentially perform the roles of corporation, booker, and talent herself. But what resulted was a disaster. With her “long-term investments” at stake, Mongeau had no choice but to double down on affect and create a “sincere interaction.” It’s no wonder that her performance in Dawson’s three-part documentary was so baroque; she’s constantly crying through her repeated apologies. Is this the real Mongeau? Was Dawson’s ‘documentary’ partially scripted? Who is winning here: Dawson, Mongeau, or YouTube? Mongeau has no distinguishable skills or talents; she’s an irreverent mix of the “exclusivity” and “everydayness” requirements for being an internet celebrity. For better or for worse, this is what she’s good at: being a charismatic brat who relishes in chaos. And Tanacon ultimately, also didn’t matter. Her relatively breezy recuperation illustrates many of the problematic issues Abidin brings up about the contemporary digital landscape. Even though she wanted to be the face of anti-corporate rebellion, the YouTube star surely rests on the top of the totem pole: she’s white, attractive, and comes from a position of established social capital. All she had to do was to make her mea culpa immersive and intimate, and then she could go back to profiting from her legions of followers.