New commentary from me in today’s The Conversation:

When authenticity and advertising collide on social media

Tama Leaver, Curtin University

Be true to yourself! Embrace the real you! Fundamental philosophical imperatives or contrived marketing slogans?

The answer, of course, is both. And 19-year-old Instagram model Essena O’Neill’s very public rejection of the inauthentic nature of social media last week can been read through both lenses.

On the one hand, O’Neill deleted her heavily trafficked Instagram, YouTube and Tumblr accounts, and re-directed her audience to her new blog decrying the artificiality of social media life. She was embraced by many for revealing the inner workings of a poorly understood social media marketplace. Deleting accounts with more half a million followers certainly does make a statement.

On the other hand, O’Neill’s actions have also been interpreted as a rebranding effort, shifting away from the world of modelling toward a new online identity as a vegan eco-warrior.

Influencing the influencers

O’Neill was – and largely remains – what is referred to by marketers as an “influencer” or by some academics as a “microcelebrity”.

Given the large numbers of followers, they are very attractive platforms for brands and marketers wanting to reach these “organic” social media audiences. Yet, while these social media channels often depict idyllic lives, O’Neill’s dramatic revelations have raised questions about the authenticity of many influencers.

Or, more specifically, questions about exactly what sort of money is changing hands, and how visible sponsored and paid posts ought to be on social media.

Clashes between authenticity and commerce have a long history on social media. A notable example occurred in 2009 when Nestlé courted influential “mommy bloggers”, effectively dividing the community between those happy to be flown to a Nestlé retreat and those who argued Nestlé’s history of unethical business practices in relation to breastfeeding were unforgivable.

More recently, influential YouTube star and fashion blogger Zoe “Zoella” Sugg faced a backlash following the revelations that her best-selling debut novel, Girl Online, was written at least in part by a ghostwriter.

Anthropologist and social media researcher Crystal Abidin has extensively studied and documented Singaporean influencers, noting a range of different practices, from explicit tags to implicit mentioning of brands, to indicate paid or sponsored posts.

Recognising these various tags and indicators requires a level of Instagram literacy that regular viewers will likely develop, but casual audiences could easily miss. Indeed, as Abidin and Mart Ots have argued, this lack of transparent standards can be understood as “the influencer’s dilemma”.

As Singaporean influencers have been around for a decade, some have aged sufficiently to shift from their own sponsored posts to endorsements featuring their children, becoming what Abidin describes as micro-microcelebrities.

Australia also has its own infant influencers, the most visible being PR CEO Roxy Jacenko’s daughter, four year old Instagram star Pixie Curtis. As a second generation influencers emerge, clear social norms about sponsorship and advertising transparency on Instagram become more pressing.

Leveraging authenticity

Australian newly launched marketing company Tribe has positioned itself as a broker between influencers – “someone with 5000+ real followers” on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram – and brands.

As Tribe notes, the ACCC does not currently require individuals on social media to reveal paid posts. However, it does recommend influencers add #spon to sponsored posts to flag identify paid content.

Tribe influencer marketing in action. Tribe Group

The difference between a recommendation and a rule aside, while a quick search reveals some 47,000 Instagram images tagged with #spon, many of these are not sponsored posts.

Top images tagged #spon on Instagram, 9 November 2015. Instagram

Of the top #spon tagged posts on Instagram yesterday (9 November), they feature influencers spruiking tea, videogames, resorts, beer and a mobile service provider along with two pets sponsored by a dog show and, as seems fitting, a dog food company.

An explicit marker like #spon would at least make sponsored posts identifiable, but no such norm currently exists, and even Tribe only “strongly recommends” rather than mandates its use.

See through

In a post ironically titled “How To Make $$$ on Social Media”, Essena O’Neill notes that she was charging A$1,000 to feature a product on her Instagram feed, a fact she did not disclose until her recent rejection of her social media modelling past.

O’Neill’s own authenticity might not be helped by the fact that she took to Vimeo – another social media platform – and her own blog, to denounce social media.

This could be read as a clear reminder that social media isn’t inherently morally charged: the value of communication platforms depends in large part on what’s being communicated.

Moreover, as O’Neill’s actions have inspired other Instagram users and influencers to add “honest” captions about the constructedness of their images, if nothing else O’Neill has provoked a very teachable moment, potentially increasing the media literacy of many social media users.

Traditional media industries have long had regulations that ensure advertising and other content are clearly differentiated. While regulating social media is challenging, calling for social media influencers to self-regulate should not be.

Far from damaging their influence, such transparency may just add to what audiences perceive as their authenticity.

The Conversation

Tama Leaver, Senior Lecturer in Internet Studies, Curtin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A slightly longer version of this piece, with the title I’d originally suggested – The Cost of Authenticity on Instagram – is available on Medium.

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As part of the Curtin Humanities Research Skills and Careers Workshops 2015 I recently facilitated a workshop entitled Strategies for Developing a Scholarly Web Presence During a Higher Degree. As the workshop received a very positive response and addressed a number of strategies and issues that participants had not addressed previously, I thought I’d share the slides here in case they’re of use to others.

For more context regarding scholarly use of social media in particular, it’s worth checking out Deborah Lupton’s 2014 report ‘Feeling Better Connected’: Academics’ Use of Social Media.

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Yesterday, as part of the fantastic ‘Presence, Privacy and Pseudonymity ‘panel at Internet Research 15: Boundaries and Intersections in Daegu, South Korea, I presented an expanded and revised version of the paper first gave in Dunedin earlier this year. The paper has been retitled slightly as ‘Captured at Birth? Presence, Privacy and Intimate Surveillance’; the slides are available now:

If you’re interested, Axel Bruns did a great liveblog summary of the paper, and for the truly dedicated there is an mp3 audio copy of the talk. The paper itself is in the process of being written up and should be in full chapter form in a month or so; if you’d like to look over a full draft once it’s written up, just let me know.

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OASo, it’s Open Access Week this week, and just in case you’ve not been paying attention, yes, I am a fan. Open access journals like the fantastic Fibreculture ensure anyone – whether in academia or anywhere else – can  read the work published there (including my own Olympic Trolls: Mainstream Memes and Digital Discord?). Gold open access (proper, full, unrestricted) is the best, but ‘green’ open access arrangements also mean that many commercial publishers at least allow authors to share an early version of their work, so while you might not be able to access the final published version, at least a post-print (a version not formatted and edited by the journal, but still 100% the same content) can be hosted elsewhere, which is why you can read Joss Whedon, Dr. Horrible, and the Future of Web Media over at

Instead of blowing my own trumpet further, though, I’d rather talk about two recent open access developments that are far more interesting. The first is a truly outstanding collaboration by a group from the Association of Internet Researchers (and the Selfies Research Network on Facebook) who’ve created an open access, Creative Commons licensed, Selfies course. Each of the six weeks covers a particular perspective or area relating to selfies, with readings, provocations, suggested assignments and, of course, selfie activities. The breadth of ideas, and structured learning activities, make this a great course in its own right, but even more impressively it’s explicitly presented as material that can be used, explored, utilised and built on by other educators across a range of disciplines and levels. This sort of collaboration and sharing epitomises the very best of open access education, and it doesn’t hurt that the people behind it are some of the smartest thinkers about online culture around today.

So, kudos and well done to the talented group who’ve created this amazing resource, namely: Theresa Senft (New York University, USA); Jill Walker Rettberg (University of Bergen, Norway); Elizabeth Losh (University of California, San Diego, USA); Kath Albury (University of New South Wales, Australia); Radhika Gajjala (Bowling Green State University, USA); Gaby David (EHESS, France); Alice Marwick (Fordham University, USA); Crystal Abidin (University of Western Australia, Australia); Magda Olszanowski (Concordia University, Canada); Fatima Aziz (EHESS, France); Katie Warfield (Kwantien University College, Canada); and Negar Mottahedeh (Duke University, USA).

I’ll be attending the preconference event Show Me Your Selfies: A pedagogy workshop where we’ll be discussing selfies and the selfies course, which should be a wonderful and stimulating morning, and a great lead in to Internet Research 15 which is in Daegu, South Korea this week.

Secondly, and speaking of amazing open access work, I was ever so pleased to get my hands on Jill Walker Rettberg’s new book Seeing Ourselves Through Technology: How We Use Selfies, Blogs and Wearable Devices to See and Shape Ourselves. It’s a fabulous and timely read, situating selfies, quantitifed selves and other recent phenomena with historical context, but also asking fascinating questions – and giving quite a few answers – about where these forms are going. Jill will have hardcopies of the book at IR15, but it’s completely open access, which means anyone – yes, that means you – can download and read it for free in a range of formats right now! (Update: You can read Jill’s detailed thinking behind paying for an open access monograph here.)

Looking back towards Perth, here’s a video I participated in put together by Curtin Library talking about why open access matters to researchers:

I’m the last talking head, and the bit of my interview they used is where I emphasise the importance of The Conversation using a Creative Commons open access license that explicitly gives permission for the work to be republished elsewhere. I know from first-hand experience, a piece in The Conversation can turn up in a lot of different places.

If you’re in Perth this week, there are lots of events on for Open Access Week run by Curtin Library, the details of which are here!

Enjoy Open Access Week: it’s all about sharing, after all!

[Photo by biblioteekje CC BY NC SA]

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SeekingTransparencyThe newly-released edited collection Locative Media by Rowan Wilken and Gerard Goggin features a chapter from Clare Lloyd and me looking at issues of privacy and transparency relating to the data generated, stored and analysed when using mobile and locative-based services. Here’s the abstract:

A person’s location is, by its very nature, ephemeral, continually changing and shifting. Locative media, by contrast, is created when a device encodes a users’ geographic location, and usually the exact time as well, translating this data into information that not only persists, but can be aggregated, searched, indexed, mapped, analysed and recalled in a variety of ways for a range of purposes However, while the utility of locative media for the purposes of tracking, advertising and profiling is obvious to many large corporations, these uses are far from transparent for many users of mobile media devices such as smartphones, tablets and satellite navigation tools. Moreover, when a new mobile media device is purchased, users are often overwhelmed with the sheer number of options, tools and apps at their disposal. Often, exploring the settings or privacy preferences of a new device in a sufficiently granular manner to even notice the various location-related options simply escapes many new users. Similarly, even those who deactivate geolocation tracking initially often unintentionally reactivate it, and leave it on, in order to use the full functionality of many apps. A significant challenge has thus arisen: how can users be made aware of the potential existence and persistence of their own locative media? This chapter examines a number of tools and approaches which are designed to inform everyday users of the uses, and potential abuses, or locative media; PleaseRobMe, I Can Stalk U, iPhone Tracker and the aptly named Creepy. These awareness-raising tools make visible the operation of certain elements of locative media, such as revealing the existence of geographic coordinates in cameraphone photographs, and making explicit possible misuses of a visible locative media trail. All four are designed as pedagogical tools, aiming to make users aware of the tools they are already using. In an era where locative media devices are easy to use but their ease occludes extremely complex data generation and potential tracking, this chapter argues that these tools are part of a significant step forward in developing public awareness of locative media, and related privacy issues.

A version of the chapter is available at (and just for fun, the book has a 2015 publication date, so at the moment, it’s *from the future*!)

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At last week’s Australian and New Zealand Communication Association (ANZCA) conference at Swinburne University in Melbourne I gave a new paper by myself and Tim Highfield entitled ‘Mapping the Ends of Identity on Instagram’. The slides, abstract, and audio recording of the talk are below:

While many studies explore the way that individuals represent themselves online, a less studied but equally important question is the way that individuals who cannot represent themselves are portrayed. This paper outlines an investigation into some of those individuals, exploring the ends of identity – birth and death – and the way the very young and deceased are portrayed via the popular mobile photo sharing app and platform Instagram. In order to explore visual representations of birth and death on Instagram, photos with four specific tags were tracked: #birth, #ultrasound, #funeral and #RIP. The data gathered included quantitative and qualitative material. On the quantitative front, metadata was aggregated about each photo posted for three months using the four target tags. This includes metadata such as the date taken, place taken, number of likes, number of comments, what tags were used, and what descriptions were given to the photographs. The quantitative data gives also gives an overall picture of the frequency and volume of the tags used. To give a more detailed understanding of the photos themselves, on one day of each month tracked, all of the photographs on Instagram using the four tags were downloaded and coded, giving a much clearer representative sampling of exactly how each tag is used, the sort of photos shared, and allowed a level of filtering. For example, the #ultrasound hashtag includes a range of images, not just prenatal ultrasounds, including both current images (taken and shared at that moment), historical images, collages, and even ultrasound humour (for example, prenatal ultrasound images with including a photoshopped inclusion of a cash, or a cigarette, joking about the what the future might hold). This paper will outline the methods developed for tracking Instagram photos via tags, it will then present a quantitative overview of the uses and frequency of the four hashtags tracked, give a qualitative overview of the #ultrasound and #RIP tags, and conclude with some general extrapolations about the way that birth and death are visually represented online in the era of mobile media.

And the audio recording of the talk is available on Soundcloud for those who are willing to brave the mediocre quality and variable volume (because I can’t talk without pacing about, it seems!).

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I’m pleased to announced that the special themed issue of Digital Culture and Education on Facebook in Education, edited by Mike Kent and I, has been released. The issue features an introductory article by Mike and I, ‘Facebook in Education: Lessons Learnt’ in which we may have some opinions about whether the hype around MOOCs and disruptive online education ignores the very long history of learning online (hint: it does). As something of a corrective to that hype, this issue explores different aspects of the complicated relationship between Facebook as a platform and learning and teaching in higher education.

This issue features ‘“Face to face” Learning from others in Facebook Groups‘ by Eleanor Sandry, ‘Exploiting fluencies: Educational expropriation of social networking site consumer training‘ by Lucinda Rush and D.E. Wittkower, ‘Learning or Liking: Educational architecture and the efficacy of attention‘ by Leanne McRae, and ‘Separating Work and Play: Privacy, Anonymity and the Politics of Interactive Pedagogy in Deploying Facebook in Learning and Teaching’ by Rob Cover.

Also, watch this space in about a month for the related and slightly larger related work in the same area.

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