Anthropologist Crystal Abidin is re-defining how we view Internet-famous people—or "influencers," as she calls them. Many people assume that the people whom she studies are "just being pretty and doing frivolous things on the Internet," Abidin says. That's because most of the influencers in question happen to be young women who often blog about fashion and make-up. Of the 190 Internet-famous Singaporeans that Abidin has studied, most are young women such as Xiaxue, perhaps Singapore's most famous blogger. To her many followers, the rainbow-haired Xiaxue has the last word on everything from fashion and make-up to more controversial topics such as nose jobs (Xiaxue had one) and "the top seven most disgusting bloggers on the Internet" (which, according to Xiaxue, includes Xiaxue).
But Abidin, who gained access to her chosen industry while working for an influencer management firm, cautions against dismissing figures such as Xiaxue. "They actually use very clever strategies," Abidin says. Every emoji and selfie that Xiaxue posts is deliberately crafted around the interests—and political concerns—of her audience.
Abidin is quick to add that we all strategize when building our digital personas. "Even what I wore for this Skype call is part of my strategy," Abidin says, pointing to her blue cami. The big difference between famous bloggers and the rest of us is that the bloggers are better at building personas that sell. "These women are so good at it, they're making a full-time living out of it," Abidin says—and in a place where it can be hard for women to make a full-time living.
Abidin chose to research Internet influencers for her Ph.D. at the University of Western Australia because she admires their ability to create intimacy with followers. "I'm so intrigued by how you can get so attached to someone through a screen," she says. Abidin narrowed her study's scope to Singapore partly because she grew up there and has followed its influencer industry since 2010.
Abidin rejects the notion that digital relationships are inherently inferior to physical ones. "It's not like if we meet face to face, that means you're a good friend, and if we meet on Skype or in a chatroom, that means you're less of a friend. To me, both digital and physical relationships are valuable—just valuable in different ways," she says. Abidin carries this philosophy into her fieldwork. Unlike anthropologists of previous generations, she doesn't always travel to far-flung places to conduct research. Sometimes she simply opens Instagram.
We'll be publishing profiles of this year's list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 throughout the month of March. Visit this page every day to read about another young person who is making an impact on the social, political, and economic issues we cover every day at Pacific Standard.
Abidin, or Wishcrys, as she calls herself online, has a wide presence on the Web. She maintains 12 blogs ("yes, really"), including Cataloguing Conversations, a blog that captures "mundane conversations from everyday life," she says. On Tumblr, she archives all the graffiti she's ever seen. On Instagram, she documents #thetravelingpingu, a toy penguin who is "on a mission to meet all the faces and see all the places." (What Wishcrys' Instagram followers might not know is that #thetravelingpingu also happens to be a shaker—a percussion instrument that serves as a tribute to the many semi-professional and community orchestras that Abidin played in before she decided on a career in academia.)
Abidin is similarly prolific in her academic work, which has already been published in six top scholarly journals. When asked which research project she's most excited about right now, she says, "that's like picking a favorite child."
Abidin catalogues her many research goals on Twitter: One day, she hopes to study "cafe Instagramming" and "mobile phone anxieties" and "hypervisible Facebook farewells" and "Internet dialects." This expansive drive inspires a hashtag: "#need100postdocs."
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