Life on Social Media: Instagirls and the Rise of Micro-celebrity

By Dominika Kováčová

 

How many ‘likes’ did my last photo get? Has the number of my followers increased recently? Which filter should I use in my Instagram Story? – does this sound familiar? If so, you may be on your way to becoming an online celebrity!

 

Geoffroy Baud, pexels.com, CC BY 4.0

Celebrity stories fill up the pages of our local newspapers and magazines, crowd our favorite TV shows and even spam our Facebook news feed. In recent years, however, there has been a change in classifying who should be considered a ‘celebrity’. Above all, this change is connected to the popularization of social media and their expansion. Graeme Turner (2004) refers to this development as the “demotic turn” which, fueled by reality television and the internet, has turned any ordinary Joe into a ‘personality’ discussed extensively in the media. As a result, a new group of ‘digital’ celebrities has formed, which includes a number of successful “bloggers, vloggers and ‘Instafamous’ personalities” (Djafarova & Rushworth, 2017, p. 2). 

When comparing traditional and digital celebrities, some could object that traditional celebrities have worked much harder to get recognized and that their journey to fame is marked by persistence and diligence. Digital celebrities, on the other hand, are often perceived negatively, and some people fail to see the reason behind their success since apparently all one needs to do to become famous online is to post some raunchy photos or videos. Naomi Campbell, one of the most recognized supermodels of the 1990s, has expressed a similar opinion on the rise of so-called ‘Instagirls’ who, unlike her generation of supermodels, seem to have become famous overnight without much effort (Sharkey, 2015). Staunch supporters of digital celebrities would, however, quickly reject such accusations. They believe that gaining popularity online is not at all easy, especially since there are ‘plenty of other fish in the sea’. This clash of opinion undoubtedly brings about some questions: what makes the user stand out from the crowd and do online micro-celebrities deserve our attention and praise?


“We had to earn our stripes and take our stepping stones to get to where we’ve gotten, and to accomplish what we have achieved […] Then it just comes like that for [Instagirls] – but I sometimes believe easy come, easy go.”

– Naomi Campbell on ‘Instagirls’ in an interview on The Meredith Vieira Show  


 

SUPERUSERS AND INSTAGIRLS

The construction of online micro-celebrity is a very interesting phenomenon which has recently started to attract more and more attention. The surge of interest stems from realizing that the influence of digital celebrities is no longer limited to social media and the online world. While social media has always been promoted as “more egalitarian and democratic than mass media in a sense that all users [can] equally participate and contribute content,” now, several years into its existence, it is easy to observe that some users stand out from the crowd and reshape the egalitarian model with their number of ‘likes’ and large following (van Dijck & Poell, 2013, p. 6). Since the influence of these ‘superusers’ is widely acknowledged, their online profiles are often used for other than self-promotion purposes such as promoting a product or supporting a charity. This is also visible in the case of ‘Instagirls’, one of the most recognizable group of superusers.

The ‘Instagirl’ is a term coined by Vogue used to designate girls whose Instagram profiles are extremely popular and followed by millions of users around the world. The most popular Instagirls today include Kendall Jenner, Cara Delevingne, Gigi Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski and Joan Smalls (Nolan, 2015). Their Instagram profiles contain not only perfect-looking pictures, they also share a lot of unfiltered photos of themselves with millions of followers. By doing so, they make their life look both glamorous and ordinary so that their followers can identify with them and consider them their ordinary girlfriends. Because of their interest in the fashion industry, their posts are full of lifestyle, fashion and beauty tips and they are often paid for promoting certain products. Besides business pursuits, the Instagirl uses her Instagram profile for expressing her opinion on matters such as the US Presidential Elections (encouraging her followers to vote) and raising public awareness about various issues, such as eating disorders, breast cancer and domestic violence. Their influence hence far exceeds social media platforms and with such a high number of followers they are able to affect existing cultural and commercial practices (i.e. trendsetting). But first things first: how can a low-key internet user turn into a micro-celebrity followed by millions? Originality is not enough.

While being innovative and original in terms of the topic or the format of the posts certainly helps, the form of self-promotion is essential. Since one of the tenets of online popularity is the need to communicate and interact with followers and a wide audience, the chances of a user to become a digital celebrity are highly dependent on the user’s linguistic performance and on the kinds of language they employ to promote visibility. The term ‘micro-celebrity’ applied in the context of social media communication has nothing to do with the number of followers or the user’s reach; it denotes “a set of practices drawn from celebrity culture that ‘regular people’ use in daily life to boost their online attention and popularity” (Marwick, 2016, p. 338). As a result, each micro-celebrity has developed a number of strategies for enhancing popularity, some of which are native to the environment of social media platforms. The most noteworthy of these are #hashtagging and @tagging.

 

#iusehashtagstogetlikes

In recent years, hashtagging has become an inseparable part of communication via social media. Hashtags have become so popular that sometimes we just have to shake our heads in disbelief that our friend used such a long and corny hashtag in their photo description. While the history of the hash in Anglophone practice goes back to the 19th century when it was “used to denote two different semantic domains, namely ‘number’, when preceding a numerical (e.g. ‘#5’), and ‘pounds’ as an indication of mass, when following a numerical (e.g. ‘10#’),” it is exploited for different purposes in the present-day online world (Heyd & Puschmann, 2016, p. 4). Online, the hash took the form of ‘hashtag’ and its use has become so widespread that in 2014 the word was added to the Oxford English Dictionary (McBride, 2014). While hashtags were initially employed to function as “a hyperlink, allowing users to search for any content that includes the same tag” (Scott, 2015, p. 12), recent studies have shown that they have developed a number of secondary functions and become an instrument for creative self-expression.


hashtag n. (on social media web sites and applications) a word or phrase preceded by a hash and used to identify messages relating to a specific topic; (also) the hash symbol itself, when used in this way.


Ed Gregory, pexels.com, CC BY 4.0

First and foremost, superusers and Instagirls in particular employ hashtags in posts which act as advertisements of a product or service. In this way, the hashtag not only makes their post more visible but also enables the retrieval of similar content through search and thus fulfils its original function. Such hashtags usually contain either the name of a specific product, the name of a collection or the name of a brand. Similarly, some hashtags are used to categorize the subject matter of the post and indicate what the post is about, e.g. #vsfashionshow for Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show or #ama for American Music Awards.

While hashtags are still predominantly used for these purposes, their secondary functions flourish and are likely to be on their way to take over. In order to achieve more popularity, Instagirls and other high-achieving users exploit hashtags to express their opinion and emphasize their stance. Thus, for example, #imwithher was trending around the time of the US Presidential Elections to show support for Hillary Clinton and hashtags such as #cute can be found below the photos of puppies to express user’s affections. What is more, hashtags are helpful in constructing our identity on social media which explains the use of #fashionlover and #model by Instagirls.

Hashtags have also become instrumental for micro-celebrities in participating in various trends popularized by social media. One such trend is #mannequinchallenge which, as many know, consists of posting a video in which participants remain ‘frozen’ in action like mannequins while a moving camera shoots the scene. While the challenge was extremely popular among Instagirls and other superusers, traditional celebrities and personalities such as Adele, Hillary Clinton and Cristiano Ronaldo also joined in. There are numerous hashtags of social media trends that users employ to promote their online visibility. These include, for example, #OOTD (outfit of the day), #TBT (Throwback Thursday), #like4like and #instamood.  

 

@ TAG YOUR (POPULAR) FRIEND

When posting a picture or video on a social media platform such as Instagram, micro-celebrities can be certain that none of their posts will remain unnoticed. The highest engagement (i.e. liking and commenting) usually takes place immediately after posting. While it is impossible for superusers to be familiar with all their followers, they do employ certain strategies to enter into conversation with their audience. Such communication can be labeled as one-to-many interaction and does not usually last more than two turns. This means that after initiating the conversation in the post, the followers write their reactions in the comment section and unless the author takes pains to respond, the communication comes to an end. The tendency is that the higher the number of followers, the less likely the user is to respond and, on the other hand, the lower the number of followers, the more likely the user is to respond. Engagement with the audience is particularly important in the beginning when the user is trying to drum up followers and get recognized as an online micro-celebrity. To arouse the interest of (prospective) fans, users often employ neutral address terms such as guys or hey everybody, inclusive ‘we’ (e.g. We must stand together), imperatives (e.g. Join me!) and pose some nosy questions.  

Another strategy for making yourself more visible online is to take advantage of tagging. It pays to know the right people and the online world is no exception. The practice of tagging somebody in a post is predominantly used to show that you are friends but, at the same time, it avails you of the possibility to reach a much larger audience (yours plus your friends’). The posts which include tags can be either unidirectional, i.e. addressed to those users who are tagged in the post, or bidirectional which are intended for both the tagged users and followers at large. Common instances of unidirectional posts are birthday wishes which Instafamous personalities can exploit not only to congratulate somebody, who is likewise or more popular online than they are, but also to publicize their relationship. This act of kindness is, therefore, often staged for the purposes of self-branding. In addition, tagging is often used for articulating user’s circle of friends, colleagues and acquaintances. Instagirls, for example, regularly tag people they collaborate with (fashion designers, hair stylists, make-up artists, photographers, etc.) in their posts. By doing so, they identify themselves with various influential people and, at the same time, expose their profiles to a much wider audience.

 

ONLINE → OFFLINE

Becoming a digital celebrity is certainly not a matter of mere chance. Our daily interaction on social media confirms that users have developed a number of strategies such as hashtagging and tagging to boost their popularity and turn themselves into micro-celebrities worth following. When looking closely at the posts of established superusers, we can notice that they no longer use social media merely for self-promotion. They also use them to join the debate on various (global) causes and their values and opinions are acknowledged and respected by millions of followers. In this way, their popularity on social media has earned them a valued place in, for example, marketing and advertising, entertainment industry, awareness-raising activities and even politics. Their influence is, therefore, not limited to social media but affects all areas of public life.

These findings have been supported by numerous studies, e.g. the research by Djafarova and Rushworth (2017), which explored the influence of online celebrities in the purchase decisions of young female users, has shown that teenagers are more likely to be influenced by Instafamous personalities rather than traditional celebrities in their purchase behavior because they consider the posts of their online celebrities more credible. What is more, teenagers easily identify with digital micro-celebrities and do not feel so distanced from them since the strategies that contribute to their online popularity are readily available to all users. Modeling agencies have also admitted that “Instafame is the latest criterion for models” (Djafarova & Rushworth, 2017, p. 3) because it acts as a powerful promotional tool of a product or service. A strong presence on social media is a must for current models and we can only wonder if Naomi Campbell and other 1990s supermodels would be able to utilize social media if they were to start their careers today.  


Bibliography

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Dominika Kováčová is currently pursuing her Ph.D. degree in English Linguistics at DEAS, where she also completed her BA and MA studies. Besides English, she studied Russian Language and Literature and spent one semester at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies in Berlin as an Erasmus student. Since writing her MA thesis on the language of video blogs devoted to showbusiness news, her main interest has been in analyzing the language of news presenting and social media communication. She loves catching up on celebrity gossip and is lucky to often find a way of incorporating this hobby into her research.

 

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