Babies and toddlers are amassing huge followings on social media, achieving microcelebrity status, and raking in five figure sums. In East Asia, many of these lucrative “micro-microcelebrities” rise to fame by inheriting exposure and proximate microcelebrification from their social media Influencer mothers. Through self-branding techniques, Influencer mothers’ portrayals of their young’ children’s lives “as lived” are the canvas on which (baby) products and services are marketed to readers as “advertorials”. In turning to investigate this budding phenomenon, I draw on ethnographic case studies in Singapore to outline the career trajectory of these young children (under 4yo) including their social media presence, branding strategies, and engagement with their followers. The chapter closes with a brief discussion on some ethical considerations of such young children’s labour in the social media age.
Theresa Senft first coined the term “microcelebrity” in her work Camgirls as a burgeoning online trend, wherein people attempt to gain popularity by employing digital media technologies, such as videos, blogs, and social media. She describes microcelebrities as “non-actors as performers” whose narratives take place “without overt manipulation”, and who are “more ‘real’ than television personalities with ‘perfect hair, perfect friends and perfect lives’” (Senft 16), foregrounding their active response to their communities in the ways that maintain open channels of feedback on social media to engage with their following.
Influencers – a vernacular industry term albeit inspired by Katz & Lazarsfeld’s notion of “personal influence” that predates Internet culture – are one type of microcelebrity; they are everyday, ordinary Internet users who accumulate a relatively large following on blogs and social media through the textual and visual narration of their personal lives and lifestyles, engage with their following in “digital” and “physical” spaces, and monetize their following by integrating “advertorials” into their blog or social media posts and making physical appearances at events. A pastiche of “advertisement” and “editorial”, advertorials in the Influencer industry are highly personalized, opinion-laden promotions of products/services that Influencers personally experience and endorse for a fee. Influencers in Singapore often brand themselves as having “relatability”, or the ability to persuade their followers to identify with them (Abidin). They do so by make consciously visible the backstage (Goffman) of the usually “inaccessible”, “personal”, and “private” aspects of mundane, everyday life to curate personae that feel “authentic” to fans (Marwick 114), and more accessible than traditional celebrity (Senft 16).
Historically, the Influencer industry in Singapore can be traced back to the early beginnings of the “blogshop” industry from the mid-2000s and the “commercial blogging” industry. Influencers are predominantly young women, and market products and services from diverse industries, although the most popular have been fashion, beauty, F&B, travel, and electronics. Most prominent Influencers are contracted to management agencies who broker deals in exchange for commission and assist in the production of their vlogs. Since then, the industry has grown, matured, and expanded so rapidly that Influencers developed emergent models of advertorials, with the earliest cohorts moving into different life stages and monetizing several other aspects of their personal lives such as the “micro-microcelebrity” of their young children. What this paper provides is an important analysis of the genesis and normative practices of micro-microcelebrity commerce in Singapore from its earliest years, and future research trajectories in this field.
Micro-Microcelebrity and Proximate Microcelebrification
I define micro-microcelebrities as the children of Influencers who have themselves become proximate microcelebrities, having derived exposure and fame from their prominent Influencer mothers, usually through a more prolific, deliberate, and commercial form of what Blum-Ross defines as “sharenting”: the act of parents sharing images and stores about their children in digital spaces such as social networking sites and blogs. Marwick (116-117), drawing from Rojek’s work on types of celebrity – distinguishes between two types of microcelebrity: “ascribed microcelebrity” where the online personality is made recognizable through the “production of celebrity media” such as paparazzi shots and user-produced online memes, or “achieved microcelebrity” where users engage in “self-presentation strateg[ies]”, such as fostering the illusion of intimacy with fans, maintaining a persona, and selective disclosure about oneself.
Micro-microcelebrities lie somewhere between the two: In a process I term “proximate microcelebrification”, micro-microcelebrities themselves inherit celebrity through the preemptive and continuous exposure from their Influencer mothers, many beginning even during the pre-birth pregnancy stages in the form of ultrasound scans, as a form of “achieved microcelebrity”. Influencer mothers whose “presentational strategies” (cf. Marshall, “Promotion” 45) are successful enough (as will be addressed later) gain traction among followers, who in turn further popularize the micro-microcelebrity by setting up fan accounts, tribute sites, and gossip forums through which fame is heightened in a feedback loop as a model of “ascribed microcelebrity”.
Here, however, I refrain from conceptualizing these young stars as “micro-Influencers” for unlike Influencers, these children do not yet curate their self-presentation to command the attention of followers, but instead are used, framed, and appropriated by their mothers for advertorials. In other words, Influencer mothers “curate [micro-microcelebrities’] identities into being” (Leaver, “Birth”). Following this, many aspects of their micro-microcelebrities become rapidly commodified and commercialized, with advertisers clamoring to endorse anything from maternity hospital stays to nappy cream.
Although children of mommybloggers have the prospect to become micro-microcelebrities, both groups are conceptually distinct. Friedman (200-201) argues that among mommybloggers arose a tension between those who adopt “the raw authenticity of nonmonetized blogging”, documenting the “unglamorous minutiae” of their daily lives and a “more authentic view of motherhood” and those who use mommyblogs “primarily as a source of extra income rather than as a site for memoir”, focusing on “parent-centered products” (cf. Mom Bloggers Club).
In contrast, micro-microcelebrities and their digital presence are deliberately commercial, framed and staged by Influencer mothers in order to maximize their advertorial potential, and are often postured to market even non-baby/parenting products such as fast food and vehicles (see later). Because of the overt commerce, it is unclear if micro-microcelebrity displays constitute “intimate surveillance”, an “almost always well-intentioned surveillance of young people by parents” (Leaver, “Born” 4). Furthermore, children are generally peripheral to mommybloggers whose own parenting narratives take precedence as a way to connect with fellow mothers, while micro-microcelebrities are the primary feature whose everyday lives and digital presence enrapture followers.
The analysis presented is informed by my original fieldwork with 125 Influencers and related actors among whom I conducted a mixture of physical and digital personal interviews, participant observation, web archaeology, and archival research between December 2011 and October 2014. However, the material presented here is based on my digital participant observation of publicly accessible and intentionally-public digital presence of the first four highly successful micro-microcelebrities in Singapore: “Baby Dash” (b.2013) is the son of Influencer xiaxue, “#HeYurou” (b.2011) is the niece of Influencer bongqiuqiu, “#BabyElroyE” (b.2014) is the son of Influencer ohsofickle, and “@MereGoRound” (b.2015) is the daughter of Influencer bongqiuqiu.
The microcelebrity/social media handles of these children take different forms, following the platform on which their parent/aunt has exposed them on the most. Baby Dash appears in all of xiaxue’s digital platforms under a variety of over 30 indexical, ironic, or humourous hashtags (Leaver, “Birth”) including “#pointylipped”, #pineappledash”, and “#面包脸” (trans. “bread face”); “#HeYurou” appears on bongqiuqiu’s Instagram and Twitter; “#BabyElroyE” appears on ohsofickle’s Instagram and blog, and is the central figure of his mother’s new YouTube channel; and “@MereGoRound” appears on all of bongqiuqiu’s digital platforms but also has her own Instagram account and dedicated YouTube channel. The images reproduced here are screenshot from Influencer mothers’ highly public social media: xiaxue, bongqiuqiu, and ohsofickle boast 593k, 277k, and 124k followers on Instagram and 263k, 41k, and 17k followers on Twitter respectively at the time of writing.
Anticipation and Digital Estates
In an exclusive front-pager (Figure 1) on the day of his induced birth, it was announced that Baby Dash had already received up to SGD25,000 worth of endorsement deals brokered by his Influencer mother, xiaxue. As the first micro-microcelebrity in his cohort (his mother was among the pioneer Influencers), Baby Dash’s Caesarean section was even filmed and posted on xiaxue’s YouTube channel in three parts (Figure 2). xiaxue had announced her pregnancy on her blog while in her second trimester, following which she consistently posted mirror selfies of her baby bump.
Figure 1 & 2, screenshot April 2013 from ‹instagram.com/xiaxue›
In her successful attempt at generating anticipation, the “bump” itself seemed to garner its own following on Twitter and Instagram, with many followers discussing how the Influencer dressed “it”, and how “it” was evolving over the weeks. One follower even compiled a collage of xiaxue’s “bump” chronologically and gifted it to the Influencer as an art image via Twitter on the day she delivered Baby Dash (Figure 3 & 4). Followers also frequently speculated and bantered about how her baby would look, and mused about how much they were going to adore him.
Figure 3 & 4, screenshot March 2013 from ‹twitter.com/xiaxue›
While Lupton (42) has conceptualized the sharing of images that precede birth as a “rite of passage”, Influencer mothers who publish sonograms deliberately do so in order to claim digital estates for their to-be micro-microcelebrities in the form of “reserved” social media handles, blog URLs, and unique hashtags for self-branding. For instance, at the 3-month mark of her pregnancy, Influencer bongqiuqiu debuted her baby’s dedicated hashtag, “#MereGoRound” in a birth announcement on her on Instagram account. Shortly after, she started an Instagram account, “@MereGoRound”, for her baby, who amassed over 5.5k followers prior to her birth.
Figure 5 & 6, screenshot March 2015 from instagram.com/meregoround and instagram.com/bongqiuqiu
The debut picture features a heavily pregnant belly shot of bongqiuqiu (Figure 5), creating much anticipation for the arrival of a new micro-microcelebrity: in the six months leading up to her birth, various family, friends, and fans shared Instagram images of their gifts and welcome party for @MereGoRound, and followers shared congratulations and fan art on the dedicated Instagram hashtag. During this time, bongqiuqiu also frequently updated followers on her pregnancy progress, not without advertising her (presumably sponsored) gynecologist and hospital stay in her pregnancy diaries (Figure 6) – like Baby Dash, even as a foetus @MereGoRound was accumulating advertorials. Presently at six months old, @MereGoRound boasts almost 40k followers on Instagram on which embedded in the narrative of her growth are sponsored products and services from various advertisers.
Prior to her pregnancy, Influencer bongqiuqiu hopped onto the micro-microcelebrity bandwagon in the wake of Baby Dash’s birth, by using her niece “#HeYurou” in her advertorials. Many Influencers attempt to naturalize their advertorials by composing their post as if recounting a family event. With reference to a child, parent, or partner, they may muse or quip about a product being used or an experience being shared in a bid to mask the distinction between their personal and commercial material. bongqiuqiu frequently posted personal, non-sponsored images engaging in daily mundane activities under the dedicated hashtag “#HeYurou”.
However, this was occasionally interspersed with pictures of her niece holding on to various products including storybooks (Figure 8) and shopping bags (Figure 9). At first glance, this might have seemed like any mundane daily update the Influencer often posts. However, a close inspection reveals the caption bearing sponsor hashtags, tags, and campaign information. For instance, one Instagram post shows #HeYurou casually holding on to and staring at a burger in KFC wrapping (Figure 7), but when read in tandem with bongqiuqiu’s other KFC-related posts published over a span of a few months, it becomes clear that #HeYurou was in fact advertising for KFC.
Figure 7, 8, 9, screenshot December 2014 from ‹instagram.com/bongqiuqiu›
Elsewhere, Baby Dash was incorporated into xiaxue’s car sponsorship with over 20 large decals of one of his viral photos – dubbed “pineapple Dash” among followers – plastered all over her vehicle (Figure 10). Followers who spot the car in public are encouraged to photograph and upload the image using its dedicated hashtag, “#xiaxuecar” as part of the Influencer’s car sponsorship – an engagement scarcely related to her young child. Since then, xiaxue has speculated producing offshoots of “pineapple Dash” products including smartphone casings.
Figure 10, screenshot December 2014 from ‹instagram.com/xiaxue›
Sponsors regularly organize fan meet-and-greets headlined by micro-microcelebrities in order to attract potential customers. Photo opportunities and the chance to see Baby Dash “in the flesh” frequently front press and promotional material of marketing campaigns. Elsewhere on social media, several Baby Dash fan and tribute accounts have also emerged on Instagram, reposting images and related media of the micro-microcelebrity with overt adoration, no doubt encouraged by xiaxue, who began crowdsourcing captions for Baby Dash’s photos.
Influencer ohsofickle postures #BabyElroyE’s follower engagement in a more subtle way. In her YouTube channel that debut in the month of her baby’s birth, ohsofickle produces video diaries of being a young, single, mother who is raising a child (Figure 11). In each episode, #BabyElroyE is the main feature whose daily activities are documented, and while there is some advertising embedded, ohsofickle’s approach on YouTube is much less overt than others as it features much more non-monetized personal content (Figure 12). Her blog serves as a backchannel to her vlogs, in which she recounts her struggles with motherhood and explicitly solicits the advice of mothers. However, owing to her young age (she became an Influencer at 17 and gave birth at 24), many of her followers are teenagers and young women who respond to her solicitations by gushing over #BabyElroyE’s images on Instagram.
Figure 11 & 12, screenshot September 2015 from ‹instagram.com/ohsofickle›
As noted by Holloway et al. (23), children like micro-microcelebrities will be among the first cohorts to inherit “digital profiles” of their “whole lifetime” as a “work in progress”, from parents who habitually underestimate or discount the privacy and long term effects of publicizing information about their children at the time of posting. This matters in a climate where social media platforms can amend privacy policies without user consent (23), and is even more pressing for micro-microcelebrities whose followers store, republish, and recirculate information in fan networks, resulting in digital footprints with persistence, replicability, scalability, searchability (boyd), and extended longevity in public circulation which can be attributed back to the children indefinitely (Leaver, “Ends”).
Despite minimum age restrictions and recent concerns with “digital kidnapping” where users steal images of other young children to be re-posted as their own (Whigham), some social media platforms rarely police the proliferation of accounts set up by parents on behalf of their underage children prominently displaying their legal names and life histories, citing differing jurisdictions in various countries (Facebook; Instagram), while others claim to disable accounts if users report an “incorrect birth date” (cf. Google for YouTube). In Singapore, the Media Development Authority (MDA) which governs all print and digital media has no firm regulations for this but suggests that the age of consent is 16 judging by their recommendation to parents with children aged below 16 to subscribe to Internet filtering services (Media Development Authority, “Regulatory” 1). Moreover, current initiatives have been focused on how parents can impart digital literacy to their children (Media Development Authority, “Empowered”; Media Literacy Council) as opposed to educating parents about the digital footprints they may be unwittingly leaving about their children.
The digital lives of micro-microcelebrities pose new layers of concern given their publicness and deliberate publicity, specifically hinged on making visible the usually inaccessible, private aspects of everyday life (Marshall, “Persona” 5).
Scholars note that celebrities are individuals for whom speculation of their private lives takes precedence over their actual public role or career (Geraghty 100-101; Turner 8). However, the personae of Influencers and their young children are shaped by ambiguously blurring the boundaries of privacy and publicness in order to bait followers’ attention, such that privacy and publicness are defined by being broadcast, circulated, and publicized (Warner 414). In other words, the publicness of micro-microcelebrities is premised on the extent of the intentional publicity rather than simply being in the public domain (Marwick 223-231, emphasis mine).
Among Influencers privacy concerns have aroused awareness but not action – Baby Dash’s Influencer mother admitted in a national radio interview that he has received a death threat via Instagram but feels that her child is unlikely to be actually attacked (Channel News Asia) – because privacy is a commodity that is manipulated and performed to advance their micro-microcelebrities’ careers. As pioneer micro-microcelebrities are all under 2-years-old at present, future research warrants investigating “child-centred definitions” (Third et al.) of the transition in which they come of age, grow an awareness of their digital presence, respond to their Influencer mothers’ actions, and potentially take over their accounts.
The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) in Singapore, which regulates the employment of children and young persons, states that children under the age of 13 may not legally work in non-industrial or industrial settings (Ministry of Manpower). However, the same document later ambiguously states underaged children who do work can only do so under strict work limits (Ministry of Manpower). Elsewhere (Chan), it is noted that national labour statistics have thus far only focused on those above the age of 15, thus neglecting a true reflection of underaged labour in Singapore. This is despite the prominence of micro-microcelebrities who are put in front of (video) cameras to build social media content. Additionally, the work of micro-microcelebrities on digital platforms has not yet been formally recognized as labour, and is not regulated by any authority including Influencer management firms, clients, the MDA, and the MOM. Brief snippets from my ethnographic fieldwork with Influencer management agencies in Singapore similarly reveal that micro-microcelebrities’ labour engagements and control of their earnings are entirely at their parents’ discretion.
As models and actors, micro-microcelebrities are one form of entertainment workers who if between the ages of 15 days and 18 years in the state of California are required to obtain an Entertainment Work Permit to be gainfully employed, adhering to strict work, schooling, and rest hour quotas (Department of Industrial Relations). Furthermore, the Californian Coogan Law affirms that earnings by these minors are their own property and not their parents’, although they are not old enough to legally control their finances and rely on the state to govern their earnings with a legal guardian (Screen Actors Guild). However, this similarly excludes underaged children and micro-microcelebrities engaged in creative digital ecologies. Future research should look into safeguards and instruments among young child entertainers, especially for micro-micrcocelebrities’ among whom commercial work and personal documentation is not always distinct, and are in fact deliberately intertwined in order to better engage with followers for relatability
Growing Up Branded
In the wake of moral panics over excessive surveillance technologies, children’s safety on the Internet, and data retention concerns, micro-microcelebrities and their Influencer mothers stand out for their deliberately personal and overtly commercial approach towards self-documenting, self-presenting, and self-publicizing from the moment of conception. As these debut micro-microcelebrities grow older and inherit digital publics, personae, and careers, future research should focus on the transition of their ownership, engagement, and reactions to a branded childhood in which babies were postured for an initimate public.
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