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Making Sense of Our Digital Lives

A graphic conceptual glossary of the new ways attention is being baited, generated, and played with online by influencers

Published onDec 01, 2021
Making Sense of Our Digital Lives
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The landscape of social media has changed rapidly over the last decade – Instagram turned 10 last year, TikTok is turning 5 next year, and Facebook recently rebranded to turn its focus to the virtual. As social media have become deeply embedded into our everyday lives, at times becoming indispensable for holding communities together and disseminating important messages during times of crises, their affordances and features have cultivated social cultural norms that augment the ways we relate to each other and ourselves.

In response, this graphic conceptual glossary draws on illustrations to demonstrate the new ways we are ‘doing’ attention differently on social media, based on the ethnographic scholarship of digital anthropologist A/Prof Crystal Abidin that focuses on Influencer cultures and internet celebrity especially in the Asia Pacific region. We turn to Influencers as prolific and important stakeholders who often gatekeep and shape attention flows online, providing nuance and clarity around many of the practices that everyday users have been conditioned to learn on platforms including YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok.


Category: Framework

1 | Concept: Shamelebrity & Controversy-seeking influencers

As the endless cycle of content production saturates social media, how do influencers distinguish themselves from the crowd to attract our attention?

While most social media influencers generally pursue a positive type of internet celebrity that hinges upon cultivating a good reputation that is sustained and monetizable, others are intentionally turning to shame and scandal to bait our interest as controversy-seeking influencers. 

This genre of influencers who generate celebrity via shame(ful) acts can be understood as a form of ‘shamelebrity,’ where users embroiled in controversy and scandal work to commodify their experience and rebrand themselves as being fully embracing of the shame cringe. Shamelebrity influencers openly court grief, scandal, and disputes, relying on the adage that ‘all publicity is good publicity.’

Read More: L8r H8r: Commoditized Privacy, Influencer Wars, and Productive Disorder in the Influencer industry, and Sorry not sorry: Influencers, shamelebrity, and para-apologetic transgressions.

2 | Concept: Privacy play & Calibrated amateurism

When influencers divulge their personal lives online, are they actually sacrificing their privacy?

Well, it depends on who you’re asking and what stage of their careers they are at. Newbies who are low-status influencers often over-share in a bid to attract interest in their diary-like lifestyle sharing, often aiming to be provocative to stand out from the crowd. But mid-status influencers who have honed a more-or-less coherent online persona can artificially stage impressions of privacy being sacrificed and broken by curating leaked videos, creating drama, and engaging in exposés. These acts give the impression of vulnerability, which causes the influencer to come across as amateurish, more down-to-earth, and more real. 

In reality, these are mere acts of ‘calibrated amateurism’, which is a practice and aesthetic in which actors in an attention economy labor specifically over crafting contrived authenticity that portrays the raw aesthetic of an amateur, whether or not they really are amateurs by status or practice, by relying on the performance ecology of appropriate platforms, affordances, tools, cultural vernacular, and social capital.

At high-status, many influencers choose to withhold information about their private lives and paint illusions of elusiveness or exclusivity. The mystique over what is not displayed makes followers more curious and more enticed to look for digital traces that they can piece together to form coherent stories.

Read More: Layers of Identity, and L8r H8r: Commoditized Privacy, Influencer Wars, and Productive Disorder in the Influencer industry.


Category: Theory

3 | Concept: Refracted publics

Is everything we see online a reflection of reality?

Standing on shore, a fisherman’s view of the catch in the water differs from what is actually happening beneath. Even if armed with the best reels and rods and the knowledge of customizing them, the layer of water functions as a deflective lens or barrier that distorts or impedes a fisherman’s access to the catch. To get around this, a fisherman must acquaint themselves with physics and the nature of light to account for necessary adjustments, or better yet, switch from sight-fishing from shore to sonar-fishing from a boat to increase the success of yield.

In a similar vein, ‘refracted publics’ consider the conditions of spaces as they are manipulated by users to enhance, deflect, or deter detection. Refracted publics are publics that are circumvented by users. They are simultaneously (1) the space constructed out of the desire for refracted perceptions and (2) the collection of subversive or circumvention practices as a result of analogue and algorithmic manipulations of vision and access. 

Refracted publics allow users and their content to avoid detection by non-target human eyeballs and machine vision, to promote deflection to smokescreens or alternative attention bait, and still facilitate the dissemination of messages in an expansive and accessible way. This usually occurs through private groups, locked platforms, or ephemeral contents. In essence, the cultures of refracted publics are shaped by circumvention and ‘off-label uses’ and allow users to remain ‘below the radar.’

Read More: From ‘networked publics’ to ‘refracted publics’: A companion framework for researching ‘below the radar’ studies.

4 | Concept: Social drama & Call-out cultures

Whenever conflict or drama breaks out among online communities, is it always possible to work towards a productive solution?

Anthropologically, we can understand conflict and disruption within social groups as ‘social dramas’. These are a four-stage iteration of sequential steps where a group must decide how and when they want to progress to the next level to achieve conflict resolution. 

In contemporary social media cultures, we can think of Stages 1 and 2 as leading to ‘call-out cultures’. A call-out is usually a public declaration that one has experienced or interpreted an offense, whether this be personally experienced, or vicariously championed on behalf of someone else. This declaration of displeasure operates as a moral compass for interlocutors to shape the boundaries of the conversation, identifying points of compliance or critique. Call-out cultures are traditionally weapons of the weak, where people from marginalised backgrounds can rely on the snowballed network of discourse online to feel heard and seek reparations despite the status quo being against them. 

In most instances, groups work towards progressing to Stages 3 and 4, when perpetrators are willing and able to offer redressive action and reparations. However, there are sometimes instances where the progress is intentionally curtailed at Stage 3, and the opportunity to make amends and be reintegrated into the social group is relinquished.

Read More: L8r H8r: Commoditized Privacy, Influencer Wars, and Productive Disorder in the Influencer industry, and Public Shaming, Peer Surveillance, and the Profitability of Internet Drama.


Category: YouTube Case Study

5 | Concept: Sexbait & Queerbait

Have you ever been lured by a provocative YouTube video title or cover image, sat through a long video, only to discover that you’ve been duped into clickbait? 

Clickbait’ is now a bona fide attention hacking strategy online. But on YouTube, this can be an especially frustrating experience when viewers patiently sit (or impatiently fast-forward) through long videos to no avail. This tactic is so established and bemoaned on YouTube, that it has spawned a genre of top-ranking (i.e. most ‘liked’) comments on video threads, like helpful samaritans who endure the ‘ordeal’ of a long video to provide timestamps and corresponding topics for others, or viewers who simply post the answer to clickbaity video titles to save others a click. 

Of the various types of clickbait on YouTube, ‘sexbait’ and ‘queerbait’ seem especially popular. ‘Sexbait’ is clickbait that appropriates sex-related content to entice and sustain viewers, often featuring young women in suggestive dressing in the cover images, tabloidesque headlines promising tell-all reveals regarding ambiguous relationship statuses, or intentionally mosaiced images suggesting sexual acts. ‘Queerbait’ is clickbait that tends to rely on suggestive imagery, playful language, and flirtatious body language to imply that same-sex YouTubers may be in a romantic relationship, sparking off ‘are they’, ‘aren’t they’ frenzies among fans and followers who are enticed to continue consuming more content to find out.

Read More: Sex Bait: Sex talk on commercial blogs as informal sexuality education, Yes Homo: Gay Influencers, Homonormativity, and Queerbaiting on YouTube, and Gay, famous and Working Hard on YouTube: Influencers, queer microcelebrity publics, and discursive activism.

6 | Concept: Amplification cycles & Sentiment seeding

On YouTube, drama tends to breed drama. But how do these cycles work?

Popular especially in the UK and the US, the genre of “drama channels” on YouTube sees users creating streams of confession, call-out, exposé, commentary, and response videos. This usually kicks off with an “original” or “starter dough” video bringing attention to an issue, to which a network of channels then respond in waves. 

These waves include reactions or responses to the original call out or scandal, declarations of truth or attempts to dispel the original, meta-layers of ‘reactions to reactions’ or ‘exposé to exposé,’ and generally taper off with summaries towards the end of the scandal’s life cycle. In each wave, the videos attempt to emphasize more exclusive gossip, more controversial opinion, and even more authenticity as the focus often slowly shifts from the original scandal to an issue of creator veracity and content validity. 

The channels that produce such videos are also often interlocked in a network, as evidenced in the proliferation of responses by “tribes” or “packs” of YouTubers once they have been called upon. They are attentive to both the palette and response of the audience as well as the visibility afforded to them via strategic titles, descriptions, captions, cover images, and the like, through the strategy of “algorithmic gossip.” In their extreme, such “pack” behaviours can also be perceived as a form of “network harassment.”

Read More: Meme factory cultures and content pivoting in Singapore and Malaysia during COVID-19, L8r H8r: Commoditized Privacy, Influencer Wars, and Productive Disorder in the Influencer industry, and From ‘networked publics’ to ‘refracted publics’: A companion framework for researching ‘below the radar’ studies.


Category: Instagram Case Study

7 | Concept: Insta-vagueing & Vague-booking

Have you ever seen posts on Instagram and Facebook that appear at once inspirational yet cryptic?

As it turns out, this ‘Insta-vagueing’ and ‘Vague-booking’ are strategies of ‘social steganography”’ that allow users to skillfully encode and embed layers of meaning and subtext into an integrated piece of content.

After some light detective work by locating the context, these Hallmark-esque quotes are eventually revealed to be sharp messages, criticism, or ‘shade’ in disguise, with subtle referents only decodable by those with insider knowledge. In their playfulness, such cryptic posts serve to deflect away attention from ‘outsiders’ and ‘passersby’ who are not the intended audience of the encoded message, while luring other invested ‘insiders’ to uncover layers of meaning and subtext through a detective hunt.

Read More: Growing up and growing old on the internet: Influencer life courses and the internet as home.


8 | Concept: Hashtag jacking & Grief hype-jacking

Can anyone ever ‘own’ a hashtag? What does it mean when someone ‘hijacks’ a hashtag? Why is hijacking public grief a faux pas? 

On Instagram where Influencers, aspirants, and even everyday users have taken to curate personalized hashtags, disputes sometimes break out when users ‘hijack’ or publish a post using a hashtag that someone else had wanted to claim as their own. Despite hashtags being a public entity, many users labour over the curatorial and gatekeeping work of keeping their personalized hashtag streams pure, at times leaving comments or messages asking others to delete their posts or use another hashtag. 

For everyday users, this practice is most common for personalized wedding hashtags (often relying on wordplay and puns) and baby hashtags (often extended to include a child’s middle name or nickname to ensure ‘exclusivity).

For Influencers, personalized hashtags are an important way to streamline and display their commercial contents. It is thus no surprise that they are often subject to hashtag jacking, which is one of the common ways that followers and consumers may sabotage Influencers should they experience displeasure, or simply want to spur a ‘hate’ campaign.  

A popular variant of hashtag jacking is ‘grief hype-jacking’, where users bandwagon on highly visible, trending, or viral public tributes especially relating to the collective outpouring of collective grief, usually in response to the death of a public figure or a disaster. These can sometimes take a rather distasteful turn, with users over-personalizing grief that is not theirs to ‘claim’ while pilfering away attention and sympathy from victims who truly needed it.

A common example is when disaster strikes major tourist spots, only for grief hype-jackers to self-victimize from a safe distance and muse over the nostalgia of their luxurious experience, without a concern or care for the locals who are actually managing the loss up close and personal.

Read More: #In$tagLam: Instagram as a repository of taste, a brimming marketplace, a war of eyeballs, It’s a blog eat blog world, Grief hype-jacking and Saturation fatigue, Shadow Economies Of The Influencer Industry, and Young people and digital grief etiquette.


Category: Twitter Case Study

9 | Concept: Ratios & Minority celebrity

What does it mean to “ratio” or “get ratioed” on social media? Is this just about math? Is this even grammatical?

With its origins on Twitter, being “ratioed” describes a situation where a post has very high engagement measured via metrics, but is skewed towards ‘replies’ (and on Twitter, also responses in quote tweets) rather than ‘likes’ or ‘shares’. This usually signals that despite performing ‘well’ in registering a high volume of interactions and a high visibility, in reality, users are responding to the content negatively and likely perceiving the post as controversial. 

In my fieldwork, Influencers have admitted to contributing to getting posts “ratioed” through the strategic amplification and call-out work that they do on Twitter. This may involve said Influencers calling upon or rallying followers to ‘bombard’, ‘swamp’, or ‘attack’ a post, resulting in such Twitter ratios. 

However, by continuously participating in this type of call-out work, many Influencers also experience being typecast as “minority celebrities”, referring to the status and condition where fame and recognition is founded on commodifying and representing a usually marginalised and stigmatised demographic of society. This means that such Influencers must constantly assuage their followers of their moral compass and continually grow their popularity by relying on the validation and celebration of minoritarian values. 

While this can be productive as Influencers (usually those who are ethnic, religious, gender, or sexuality minorities) can push for meaningful discourse through the political agenda of making public and critiquing the systemic and personal challenges experienced by their minority group in everyday life, it also confines their expertise and potential for representation to a rather narrow range of topics.

Read More: Minahs and Minority Celebrity: Parody YouTube Influencers and Minority Politics in Singapore.

10 | Concept: Coordinated hate

In the wake of strong public opinion or a firm status quo, how can counter narratives be seeded or planted among the general citizenry to sway public opinion? 

In various ‘bot farms’ and ‘click farms’ around the world, coordinated inauthentic sentiments and hate campaigns usually comprise a network of internet users who work pseudonymously in secret, operating volumes of ‘fake’ profiles to intentionally criticize or counter mainstream opinion, to give the impression that a critical mass of everyday users and citizens hold the sponsored opinion. 

Some of the more public case studies include the likes of China’s ‘Fifty Cent Army’, Malaysia’s ‘Cyber-Troopers’, Russia’s ‘Internet Research Agency’, and Singapore’s ‘Internet Brigade’.

Coordinated hate campaigns can also be instigated by Influencers themselves, and enacted towards other brands rather than towards users. Since the mid-2010s, case studies have been made public detailing how some clients and agencies partner with Influencers to produce content not to promote their own wares but to badmouth competitors. Such campaigns usually take the format of a handful of Influencers astroturfing sponsored content as personal opinion, which are then disseminated in various tones and platforms over a period of time to give the impression of uncanny coincidence.

Read More: It’s a blog eat blog world, Influencers Tell All? Unravelling Authenticity and Credibility in a Brand Scandal, and From ‘networked publics’ to ‘refracted publics’: A companion framework for researching ‘below the radar’ studies.


Category: TikTok Case Study

11 | Concept: Reloopability tropes

The short video app format of TikTok allows posts that are between 5 seconds and 3 minutes long, while an average post is usually between 15 to 60 seconds. This leaves a very short runway to get viewers hooked onto content. So how do TikToks encourage viewers to ‘stay awhile’ or watch their short videos over and over again in “reloops”?

While many vernacular tropes have emerged to encourage “reloopability” on TikTok, three of the most common ones include faux pas, easter eggs, and omissions. 

In ‘faux pas’ reloops, users intentionally introduce typos, mispronunciations, wrong facts, and other rather obvious errors into their post. This entices viewers to replay the video on a double take, leave the video on loop while they correct the TikToker in the comments section, and stimulate engagements by relying on the faith that “angered” or “triggered” commenters will “correct” their errors in the comments section. 

In ‘easter egg’ reloops, users strategically sneak in hidden messages, signs, or symbols into their videos to encourage users to replay the videos in order to decode what has been veiled. The most common strategy thus far involves planting ghastly hints of the supernatural (e.g. ghosts, spirits, unexplained shadows inanimate objects moving, UFOs, voiced whispers) in the background.

In ‘omission’ reloops, users deliberately produce a TikTok video that is indecipherable without context, leaving users baffled. This usually takes the form of cryptic captions or overlay text insinuating a situation that is not readily understood by the viewer given the lack of visual cues in the video post, which then draws viewers to click into and scroll through comments section in search of clues or answers to decode the post.

Read More: Mapping Internet Celebrity on TikTok: Exploring Attention Economies and Visibility Labours, Audio memes, Earworms, and Templatability: The ‘aural turn’ of memes on TikTok, and TikTok and Youth Cultures.


12 | Concept: Voldermorting via greenscreen duets/reacts

Is it possible to talk about something openly online without channeling more attention and traffic towards it?

Many Influencers and users have certainly played around with such strategies to hinder Search Engine Optimization or suppress the visibility of sources by restricting backlinks. On TikTok, this practice is usually enacted when users create duets or reacts to call out a specific account or post, but also want to ensure that the source account or post does not receive augmented traffic – either due to the controversial nature of the post, or to prevent the account from profiting off the increased traffic and visibility. 

Screenshots” – or the reproducing of content through duplicated pictures rather than via direct links to the source content – are the most common strategy used, usually in tandem with users pleading with others not to mention or tag the original post(er). Such a circumvention technique is also known as a form of “Voldemorting”, in which users avoid the mention of keywords to reduce searchability and break connections to the source.

Read More: How social media Influencers are shaping Singapore’s GE2020, and From ‘networked publics’ to ‘refracted publics’: A companion framework for researching ‘below the radar’ studies.



Read more about A/Prof Crystal Abidin’s research at wishcrys.com or @wishcrys on Twitter and Instagram.
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