During a moment of peak summer: dinner at a beachfront eatery with a spectacular view of the sunset. Included among the spectators gathered on the outdoor deck of the restaurant was a group of teenage girls who were ecstatic at the opportunity to take a photo that would be worthy of Instagram. In a flurry of activity, they organized and reorganized themselves against the railing but were quickly disappointed to find that they wouldn’t get the sunset framed behind them. They wouldn’t be deterred, however, and after a quick conference where they dismissed the suggestion of “just sitting on the lawn,” they settled on taking a picture on the rocks leading down to the water. This behavior isn’t unusual. They were chasing the ‘gram – looking for a photo that would highlight their happiness and appeal, which when coupled with a location tag or pithy caption, would capture the attention of viewers (and maybe inspire a little envy) on Instagram.
Selfies aside, Instagram users are notorious for their highly curated content. Aided in part by the platform’s photo-editing tools, anyone can produce photos that look polished – a random street can seem like an exotic location, a good hair day can seem like a phenomenal one, and a home-cooked meal can prompt dinner requests. If the image is framed with the right caption the user can be catapulted into viral fame, and if they do this enough times they may attain the elusive status of Instafamous. The formula for attaining this kind of status isn’t definitive – it requires the user to strike the right chord at the right moment – but in these fandoms we can unravel some of the dynamics of digital communities.
Alice Marwick writes that a microcelebrity is an individual able to "inhabit the celebrity subject position through the use of technologies also popular with superstar musicians, athletes, and actors." Foremost of these technologies are the social media platforms. Instagram cuts right to the heart of the attention economy: the images are just enough to grab people’s attention and by emulating or framing symbols of traditional celebrity culture, such as glamorous selfies and high profile brands, users are able to claim a place in that market. It helps too that these platforms are home to traditional celebrities who engage in traditional celebrity behavior, but also feature aspects of their non-celebrity persona. The most popular account on Instagram belongs to Selena Gomez, who has over 1.3 million followers. Chrissy Teigen, Kim Kardashian, Sarah Jessica Parker, Nicki Minaj, and others walk this line of taking their fans with them to fancy parties and vacations and bringing them into their homes to show followers what’s for dinner or share back-to-school photos of their kids. While there is always the possibility that these accounts are entirely fake in that they are managed by other members of the celebrity's team, what these accounts offer is the illusion of unfettered contact. Known as parasocial relationships, social media allows fans to respond to celebrity users as if they are personally connected. Celebrities who reciprocate this contact enhance that experience. This increases the emotional connection between the celebrity and the user, and increases the influence of the celebrity. In fact, interactions of this nature can catapult users who seem favored by celebrities into Instafame of their own right.
Non-celebrity users – those in pursuit of microcelebrity – emulate the same behaviors. With open profiles, they’re inviting followers into their space to participate in the rites of microcelebrity and reinforce their status as influential, but they’re also performing reciprocal acts of acknowledgement. Even if they aren’t engaging in online conversations with the users who follow and engage with their content, they’ve created a space where identity and belonging can be negotiated and claimed. (Note: There are instances of celebrities who have made their account private. This happens for a variety of reasons but it can be a means of apparently controlling who may follow them. This can be particularly true following a controversy. However, they often have a large following before this lock-down occurs, and the people who are already following them are not impacted by the privacy change. It could be seen as a tactic to appear more exclusive but since their follower base is so large, and there are no prohibitions – except basic human decency – that prevent the screen capture of this content and resharing, exclusivity is a reach.)
There are countless examples of high school students with large Instagram followings, as well as amateur photographers and burgeoning entrepreneurs, and individuals who are leveraging traditional celebrity connections to bolster their own brands and businesses. At an initial glance, it may appear that these individuals are famous for nothing. But the communities that form and engage around these individuals provide invaluable instantaneous feedback which can reflect and shape the priorities and values of the original poster, but also reflect larger social perspectives. These interactions help followers measure and test socially acceptable behavior. While it appears to be a commensal relationship that favors the content creator, there are benefits to the audience in identity definition.
The quest for Instafame is not just about the potential for microcelebrity status but about belonging in a world that has increasingly moved its interactions online. Users do it for the ‘gram to prove that they understand what their peers want to see and demonstrate a sense of normalcy. They emulate celebrity behaviors because they represent tested attention-owning behaviors, and because the public has been trained to react to these behaviors in specific ways. They participate in the rites of microcelebrity to demonstrate belonging. That the images may be heavily altered is expected; the significance is the story the images tell. And that story is meant to highlight all the ways in which they share an understanding of the world – how to translate high-end fashion into a high school hallway or entry-level professional job, to reinforce markers of upward social mobility, and that we support cultural symbols. People can and do disagree with these displays, and this too is a feature of the interaction. It is on this point that users divide into sub-groups or drive change. Depending on how the criticism is received, they will know whether you have found like-minded people or if they've broadened their awareness to better understand how others see the world.
In this experience, where the the #nofilter hashtag was meant to signify something unaltered, the tag is little more than an accessory. And one that is less meaningful than intended. All content is filtered, and as users look for the perfect angle, or ordering of the photographic subjects, or ensure that a specific brand is featured just-so in the shot, or as they strive to establish the right cadence and tone for their content, they're generating a representation of their world as they see it, as they hope it will be seen, and as they want it to be created.
What have you posted on Instagram (or other social media) lately? To what extent have you gone to get the perfect shot? Comments have been disabled on Anthropology in Practice, but you can always join the community on Facebook.
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