Let’s talk about social media in this Art + HCI post.
I’ll start with the hashtag #vanlife, then transition into a recent art exhibit that I went to, Hercules On Ride by Emre Yusufi. Next I’ll summarize a research study published in 2014 on popular accounts on Instagram, Instafame: Luxury Selfies in the Attention Economy by Alice Marwick. In the end, I will argue that microcelebrities on social media (or the Instafamous in the context of this post) offer an escape from the mundaneness of our own daily lives, by putting within reach a lifestyle that captures our imagination yet may be too impractical for us to actually pursue.
I recently followed a bunch of Instagram accounts with top posts tagged #vanlife, after reading the New Yorker article #Vanlife, the Bohemian Social-Media Movement. The article told the story of a couple, King and Smith, who gave up their office jobs and apartments to live in a van since 2013. In the years followed, they gradually developed their lifestyle into a brand, and started to earn a living by posting sponsored content on their Instagram account. The interesting paradox in the story is that the couple’s life on road is not always glamorous but rough, and they spend a lot of time and effort taking pictures and crafting captions, in order to look care-free.
There are 1.3 million posts on Instagram tagged #vanlife. Some top posts look like this.
I don’t know if this Bohemian vibe speaks to you, but for me, there is something comforting sitting on my own sofa after a long day, scrolling through pictures on Instagram that paints this care-free and adventurous lifestyle. I feel wanderlust. I like the idea. I like the look of it. I give these posts likes and comments, enthusiastically, along the lines of “Such a beautiful lifestyle.” Then I take a hot shower, slip into my pajamas, put out my non-Bohemian-looking clothes for the next day, and go to sleep in my own bed. There is no way I’ll live in a van.
Hercules On Ride | Emre Yusufi
Emre Yusufi is a Turkish graphic designer, artist, and musician. In Hercules On Ride, Yusufi combines photography with digital design, and makes the traditional statue of the Roman hero Hercules do everyday activities of the modern man/woman, e.g., surfing, snowboarding, boxing, golfing, riding a bike, playing football, bartending, drumming, getting drunk…and… wait for it…taking selfies. You can view the whole series here, and I’ve also included some of my favorites below.
Hercules Surf | Emre Yusufi
Hercules Bike | Emre Yusufi
Selfie | Emre Yusufi
The whimsical contradiction between heroism and mundaneness in these pictures makes me laugh. Hercules is famous for his strength and many adventures—slaying the Nemean Lion, slaying the nine-headed Lernaean Hydra, capturing the Cretan Bull, stealing the golden apples of Hesperides… The list goes on and on. It’s absurd to see this hero in the ancient times drinking Starbucks and reading newspapers—products of modern mass production. The absurdity is highlighted through the color contrast between the greyness of Hercules’ body and the bright color of the photographic elements of modern scenes.
Research: Instafame | Alice Marwick
Speaking of selfies…
Alice Marwick is a social media researcher and fellow at Data & Society—a research institute founded by danah boyd “focused on the social and culture issues arising from data-centric technological development”. Marwick’s research spans from privacy, gendered online harassment, to Internet celebrity and how people use social media to seek online status, attention and visibility.
In 2013, Marwick and students did a study on the most popular Instagram accounts (those with more than 10K followers). Not surprisingly, a lot of the popular accounts are traditional celebrities—musicians, actors, brands, reality TV starts, athletes, etc. However, there is another category of accounts that are “#instafamous”—they gained fame “natively” on Instagram.
Marwick provided three case studies of the Instafamous, each with a unique personal brand:
- Cayla Friesz, @Freeezy: the all-American teenager
- Leandra Goodridge, @Leleboo_phucku: the sexy Barbadian star
- Kane Lim, @kanelk_k: the wealthy fashionista.
The first case, @Freeezy appears to be a fairly ordinary Indiana high schooler. According to Marwick,
Her Instagram is full of selfies, along with pictures of friends, food, and concerts. Somewhat inexplicably, she has 31,496 followers; a basic selfie garnered 4,246 likes and 144 comments, including “Damm your sexy!! ;)” from @thug _life53 and “Damn I feel so ugly now HAHA” from @laurenmelissarae.
The second case, @Leleboo_phucku, is a close friend of Rihanna.
Goodridge frequently travels with Rihanna and posts pictures of her glamorous ensembles, designer clothes, and famous friends. While Goodridge is not a celebrity, her proximity to celebrity has made her one on Instagram.
The third case, @kanelk_k, is a 22-year-old Singapore student studying luxury merchandising in the U.S.
His Instagram account consists primarily of pictures of himself in expensive couture clothing; photos of his collections of designer shoes, clothes, and jewelry; and selfies with Singapore socialites. Lim has 30,231 followers and was featured in several fashion blogs for his luxe style.
Taken together, these three cases each represent a different personal brand, and “they use Instagram to provide interested onlookers with glimpses into their lives that fit these personae.” These personae then speak to a niche-focused audience, generating significant online fame and power for the account owners.
As I was reading Marwick’s paper (published in 2014), I began to wonder how are these Instafamous accounts doing now (2017). After all, it has been four years since Marwick’s study. A lot could have happened in four years in Internet years.
So I looked up the number of followers for the three case study accounts on Instagram. Here is what I found:
- @Freeezy: reduced by 40% (19.4K followers compared to 31.5K in 2013).
- @Leleboo_phucku: the account no longer exists.
- @kanelk_k: increased by 130% (69.6K followers compared to 30.2K in 2013).
I scrolled around on @kanelk_k’s Instagram page. Apparently he is still very into shoes. Fancy shoes.
In modern days, power is no longer manifested as physical strength. Power became manifested in steam engines, electricity, integrated circuits, and with the ushering in of the social media era—attention. Power is in user engagements and click through rates. Power is in the number of followers, and the percentage who actively engages with your posts.
We no longer need to wrestle with lions or bulls like Hercules (well, at least most of us do not need to). But we do need to wrestle with our own self-representation on social media for attention—view counts, likes. We can all pretend that we don’t care…
Finally, going back to the New Yorker story…
King and Smith can support their lifestyle of #vanlife with sponsored Instagram posts because of people like me who find the lifestyle that they portray attractive. I may not go live in a van, but I would totally buy a thermos by Hydro Flask, as endorsed by King and Smith enthusiastically in an Instagram post.
A big thank you to @hydroflask for creating durable water bottles that help shift the bottled/privatization of water paradigm.”
As I sip water from that Hydro Flask, for a brief moment, I think of the beautiful van parked in the middle of the woods. And that is enough for me. Then I go back to reading papers and coding, and live my mundane graduate student life, happily, yet slightly itchy for wanderlust.
— Art + HCI: I am writing a series of articles connecting ideas from art with research in HCI and social computing.
Previously in this series:
- Marwick, A. E. (2015). Instafame: Luxury selfies in the attention economy. Public Culture, 27(1 75), 137-160.
- #Vanlife, the Bohemian Social-Media Movement - The New Yorker