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Brooke Erin Duffy and Alice Marwick gave a Plenary Panel Lecture at Temple University. Following up on their panel on “Fashion and Celebrity 2.0: Reconciling Discourses of Authenticity and Self-Promotion in an Era of Social Media,” Alice and Brooke provided a post below with a more in-depth treatment of some of the central themes in their research, starting with a definition of “authenticity.” Enjoy the podcast and the post!
Brooke: It’s important to recognize that the meaning of terms like “authentic” or “real” has varied considerably across cultural and socio-historical contexts. In the early twentieth century, against the backdrop of a burgeoning consumer economy, critical theorists believed that the mass production process would destroy the authenticity of art and cultural forms. Indeed, Walter Benjamin famously contended that the rise of mechanical reproduction threatened to displace the aura of an object, thus negating its “unique existence in time and space.”[i] Concerns about the inauthentic nature of modern society became more widespread in the 1960s as counter-culture groups sought refuge from what they viewed as an evermore conformist and bureaucratic society.[ii] Despite–or more likely, because of–these critiques, advertisers began to position their products as “authentic” and suggested goods could provide consumers with a “genuine” or “individualistic” experience: Coca-Cola was “the real thing,” Calvin Klein encouraged us to “be hot. be cool. just be,” and companies ranging from Apple and Dove to J. Crew and Lanvin featured “real” people in their promotional campaigns.
I think there has been a shift in the last decade or so whereby narratives of authenticity get woven into larger discourses of media democratization, consumer empowerment, and destabilized communication hierarchies. Citizen journalists are often described as more transparent, credible sources of news while fashion and beauty bloggers are considered unbiased purveyors of information and commentary. Of course, such assumptions can provide a distinct market logic for fashion bloggers and commercial entities. By this, I refer to the tendency for advertisers and fashion designers to partner with bloggers (rather that media “professionals”) for promotional purposes. A few years ago, an American Apparel executive who used the Fashion Hive blogger network to reach audiences was quite vocal about the distinct value of bloggers: “The blog culture targets an audience that regular online campaigns cannot—real people talking to real people. Bloggers offer an authentic word of mouth.”[iii] Some bloggers are even getting called out for these types of relationships–especially if they don’t disclose financial incentives. During New York Fashion Week, The New York Times had an interesting piece on the tendency for bloggers to become “billboards for brands.” To me, these tensions revolve around conflicting definitions of “authenticity” within social media contexts.
Alice: We could cynically conclude, then, that “authenticity” in such user-created content spaces becomes simply a differentiator between brands– certainly something that’s implicit in some of the meta-discourse around fashion blogging aimed at bloggers themselves. At a fashion blogger conference I attended, Chiara Ferragni, the glamorous Italian proprietor of the blog Blonde Salad, said, “The most important thing for bloggers: first of all be true to their followers, also be true to yourselves… We are bloggers, not artists, but almost.” Authenticity is positioned as a means to an end: a type of honesty which attracts readers, increases pageviews and, ultimately, enables lucrative sponsorship deals with brands.
On the other hand, I do think that bloggers are tapping into something about the fashion industry, namely the limited range of body types and class positions that characterize the fashionable subject. Authenticity, as David Grazian writes in his book Blue Chicago, is always manufactured in contradistinction to something else.[iv] I totally agree that “authenticity” has emerged as this incredibly powerful narrative that is often contrasted to the presumed inauthenticity of the corporate, commoditized object. Fashion bloggers are positioned by readers and brands, and position themselves, as more authentic than fashion magazines. Partly this is because there is a range of people who engage in fashion blogging, including fat-positive bloggers, modest fashion bloggers, women of color, working-class fashion enthusiasts, eco-feminist bloggers, and so forth, some of who explicitly reject mainstream fashion discourse. Partly this is because much of what appears in magazines is advertorial. Bloggers argue that they are more authentic because they are presenting honest assessment of the products and trends which they cover; because they are more approachable than traditional fashion editors; or because they focus on fashion as artistic expression for everyone, rather than the provenance of just tall, thin, white models. I do think blogging opens up some spaces for discussion of fashion and the body.
In any case, the blogger herself becomes the focus, meaning that successful blogging has a very explicit self-promotional aspect.
Brooke: Absolutely; self-promotional activities are a fundamental aspect of emergent blogger practices and norms, yet they tend to get underplayed in popular accounts of fashion blogging (the previously mentioned NYT article is an obvious exception). If we turn to a site like Independent Fashion Bloggers, we can see the extent to which bloggers are encouraged to build their individual brands–through networking, through publicity, and through social media marketing tactics. Interestingly, the conversations taking place across the IFB are strikingly similar to those that emerged from my research on women’s magazine professionals: how to effectively use SEO, how to track readership, how to develop advertising partnerships, and so forth.
To this end, bloggers may view their online contributions as a springboard to a professional career in fashion, advertising, journalism, or a related field. As Justine, who at the time worked for People/People Stylewatch, explained to me, “For years, I tried to get a job at a magazine, probably in the worst time ever to try to get that job. I decided that for me to be a really strong candidate, I had to have an additional skill set that would separate me from everyone else. So I decided… `All right, I’m going digital’. . . and [I] started the blog.” While there are certainly blogger success stories such as this, they are the exception rather than the rule. What is more, these tales obscure the practical realities of blogging: it requires considerable time and resources–especially if one aspires to “go pro.” It seems, then, that many bloggers are engaged in the very same practices that are associated with work in a neoliberal, post-Fordist precarious labor economy.
Alice: Theorists have really struggled to define these new labor models that have risen with the popularity of social media. Some new media theorists have adopted the model of “immaterial labor” proposed by Italian Marxist Maurizio Lazzarato, which defines knowledge work, work on computers, work that leverages social capital and so forth as immaterial.[v] Certainly fashion bloggers are engaging in taste-making cultural labor that’s distinct from more physical forms of labor, or even Fordist labor, but what makes online self-presentation labor is not just the immaterial, I think. Arlie Hochschild’s model of “emotional labor” is also useful; to do fashion blogging work successfully, one must share and engage with an audience in a way that really does necessitate repackaging one’s self and intimate feelings into something that’s consumable by others.[vi] Self-promotional activities like tweeting, answering comments, writing blog posts, taking self-portraits, styling outfits, engaging with other bloggers, etc. are intrinsically tied to the entrepreneurial, enterprising subject, and even more than in other online contexts are linked to the display of the corporeal body.
In my previous work I hypothesized that such immaterial, emotional labor was linked to the uncertainty of contemporary work contexts and the widespread desire of people to be their own boss. Especially in creative fields like fashion, where entry-level jobs are limited and low-paying, the fantasy of being a successful fashion blogger is very appealing. It is worrisome, though, that in a growing swath of employment contexts, being self-promotional and turning oneself into a brand, even willingly and happily, is becoming a requirement for even very modest economic success– one that is going mostly uncriticized.
Brooke: Like Alice, I believe that the ubiquity of these activities demands a revisitation of traditional understandings of work and labor. And over the last few years, a great deal of research has been published on social media and user-generated content. Yet, as I’ve argued elsewhere, there’s a tendency to see these activities as either wholly empowering (a celebratory view of the possibilities for digitally-enabled power) or wholly exploitative (a Marxist-inflected position that conceptualizes participation as free labor). One way to reconcile these perspectives is to turn to the meaning-making practices of participants and think critically about their situatedness in existing social structures. Fortunately, some recent theorizations are making great strides in this area. In addition to Alice’s work and Culture Digitally participant Gina Neff’s recent book on “venture labor,” I really like Kathleen Kuehn and T.C. Corrigan’s idea of “hope labor,” which they define as “un- or under-compensated work carried out in the present…in the hopes that future employment opportunities may follow.[vii] I’ve been using the term “aspirational labor” to describe a highly gendered form of (unpaid) work that has the potential to pay off (with economic of social capital)–especially for those who “aspire” to work in a commodity-centric field such as fashion, media, and/or marketing. It is meant to capture the resources involved with social media projects as well as the potential for them to reproduce existing social inequalities (in this case, female-oriented aspirational consumption). However, I don’t think what we are finding is limited to the narrow contexts of fashion and celebrity. Rather, many of these activities—from self-branding to commenting/evaluation to community-building to personalization—are symptomatic of emergent communication structures in the digital economy.
Alice: I agree- these activities really are symptomatic of the digital economy. I first witnessed the self-branding and emotional labor activities in Web 2.0 workers in San Francisco, a social milieu where there’s a notoriously slim division between work and life. Because entrepreneurs in this context were so high-status, people spent a great deal of time and energy emulating the entrepreneurial subject position.
But many of these workers were freelancers, or promoting some sort of small business. What’s interesting to me is that many of the self-promotional strategies that Brooke and I are talking about, to which I would add micro-celebrity and life-streaming,[viii] are undertaken by people with nothing to promote and no clear marketable agenda. On Twitter, for example, there are accounts with names like Ohteenquotes and Sotrue_quotes run by teenagers who tweet a lot of maxims and song lyrics about life, love, and relationships. Some of these accounts have millions of followers, but there are dozens of imitators with just a few. These aspiring tweeters might vaguely conceptualize some sort of monetized end game, but more likely they’re gratified by followers and attention.
So does this all boil down to the attention economy? For fashion bloggers, there’s an assumption that many readers = brand engagement = profit, and this equation demonstrates a clear relationship between labor and exchange value. But what if the value is simply attention? What if the gratifications are not just about making money? Right now fashion blogging is firmly situated within a somewhat traditional capitalist framework, but I think by studying some of the nuances and complexities of these discourses, and how they’re experienced by those who engage in them, we can begin to tease out what makes social media distinct.
[i] Benjamin, Walter. (1936/1992). The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. In H. Zohn (Eds.), Illuminations (pp. 211-244). London: Fontana.
Frank, Thomas. (1997). The conquest of cool: Business culture, counterculture, and the rise of hip consumerism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
[iv] Grazian, David. Blue Chicago: The Search for Authenticity in Urban Blues Clubs. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2003, p. 11-13.
[v] Lazzarato, Maurizio. “Immaterial labour.” Radical thought in Italy: A potential politics (1996): 133-147.
[vi] Hochschild, Arlie Russell. “Emotion work, feeling rules, and social structure.” American journal of Sociology (1979): 551-575.
[vii] Kuehn, Kathleen. M. & Corrigan, T.C. (2012, May). Hope labor: The role of employment prospects in the practice and structure of voluntary online content production. Paper presented at the meeting of the Union for Democratic Communications, Tallahassee, FL.
[viii] Senft, Theresa M. Camgirls: Celebrity and community in the age of social networks. New York: Peter Lang Pub Incorporated, 2008. Hearn, Alison. “Meat, Mask, Burden: Probing the contours of the branded self.” Journal of Consumer Culture 8.2 (2008): 197-217.