The Reign Of The Lifestyle Vloggers

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

In today's blog post I'm sharing an old essay from university. In my third and final year, I studied a module called 'Digital Cultures in the Americas'. For one of our essay projects, I decided to explore how two American lifestyle vloggers construct an aspirational lifestyle through their online identity. I've watched Youtube videos since I was a wee teenager, less so now as I get older, but am forever fascinated by the phenomenon of the 'vlogger' aka video blogger. I hope you enjoy this essay.

“Identity construction can be seen as the sense-making process by which people selectively organise their experiences into a coherent sense of self” (Papacharissi, 2011). In this essay, I will explore how two lifestyle vloggers organise their experiences into this ‘coherent sense of self’ and how they construct an aspirational lifestyle through their online identity and their choice of mise-en-scène in their Youtube videos. The first vlogger I will be looking at is Jenn Im - a Korean video blogger born and raised in Los Angeles, California. The second vlogger I will be looking at is Bethany Mota - a Mexican/Portuguese video blogger born and raised in Merced Country, California.

Bethany Mota

All the activity of a given participant on a given occasion which serves to influence in any way of the other participants is described as “performance” (Papacharissi, 2011). This element of “performance” can be applied to both video bloggers. Essentially, both video bloggers perform to their audience in a certain way and choose which content they will create and ‘edit out’ before uploading to the internet. As the amateur platform of Youtube allows the professional attributes of a filmmaker, the amateur video bloggers are thus putting on the performance of an online persona. However, these "amateur videos are not simply representational practices. They are communicative, dialogic events that can provide the basis for community formation.” This quote from ‘Watching Youtube’ suggests that not only do Youtube videos represent their performers but simultaneously aid the performer to form a niche community amongst the internet. It is said that this peculiar mixture of larger-than-life personas and the feelings of connection and intimacy they inspire are formed and spread through mass media (Rettberg, 2016).

Jenn Im

Jenn Im is a Youtube lifestyle video blogger with 1,900,265 subscribers (May 2017). Jenn Im mainly uploads videos of style musings, tutorials, lifestyle advice and travel. Im can be described as a ‘micro-celebrity’. A term coined to define a self-presentation technique in which people view themselves as a public persona to be consumed by others and use strategic intimacy to appeal to followers, and regard their subscribers as fans, just like A-list celebrities have 'fans'. As Youtube is primarily focused on visual aesthetics, it is often conventionally attractive people who portray a luxury lifestyle who become a symbol of the micro-celebrity. This luxury lifestyle that some video bloggers portray is what leads subscribers to aspire to said lifestyle.

Through Jenn Im’s videos, she is constructing a brand identity, subconsciously or not. Her 'favourites' videos, where she discusses products and things she has been loving the previous month are her most popular video and recur to be uploaded every month since she began her Youtube channel. In contrast to the typical micro-celebrity, Im embodies both celebrity with a luxury lifestyle and a ‘girl-next-door’ persona thus making her appeal to a larger audience. This ‘girl-next-door’ persona juxtaposed with a luxury, aspirational lifestyle can be seen through the mise-en-scène of Im’s videos. For example, often her videos are staged at her home either in her living room or bedroom. The living room is an open space where both the living area and kitchen can be seen. Essentially, Im allows viewers an insight into her personal life thus creating the image of an amateur filmmaker, as her videos do not take place inside a studio or a ‘set up’ location. In other words, the location for her videos is often in her personal space where she lives, and not in a location with no connection to her.

Thumbnail capture from Jenn Im's Apartment Tour Video

However, Im’s home is clean and modern suggesting a luxurious and well-organised lifestyle therefore by framing herself within her home like this for her videos, she conveys an image of an aspirational, successful lifestyle but retains an image of a woman who is down-to-earth. Essentially, she is an everyday working-class person but with aspirational, luxurious tastes and aesthetics which is what makes her more desirable to watch. However, Im is not the everyday working-class person as her job is documenting her life and the opportunities she has gained through Youtube. Thus, this is both exciting and unique for viewers to watch as it is an insight into the micro-celebrities luxury life.

It is said that online interactive media further complicate the question of boundaries. There is a blurring between professional and personal identities in electronically mediated environments. As Jenn Im’s profession exists online, her performance must remain professional however the line is often crossed when Im shares her personal life with fans, therefore, confirming that boundaries on the internet are often complicated and complex.

These “public professional identities are constructed through a combination of social ties and relational context” (Rettberg, 2016). The use of different social media platforms facilitates this as it allows Youtuber star’s like Jenn Im to present herself and connect with fans easily. The micro-celebrity thus differs from the celebrity as Youtuber stars have direct contact with their fans and essentially can interact with them through a smartphone or computer. However, this constant connection with fans demands a lot of Youtube stars to remain constantly connected and interactive with their fans. Furthermore, this means that their online identity can never be truly 'switched off' so to speak, and the need to update fans constantly means the video blogger or public figure exists within the public sphere as the professional is pervasive.

Essentially, users and professionals on Youtube expose themselves to observation by peers, clients, potential clients, others, and internet 'trolls' - sharing their life with a wide range of viewers. It is said that Youtube videos are synonymous with reality television programming as the medium emphasises the sharing of mundane life events, information and advice. Whilst Im often documents the more entertaining parts of her life where she attends events and travels, she also documents the ‘mundane’ such as walking her dog, cooking, running errands, going to the gym and so on. Again, this juxtaposes the public sphere with the private, furthermore, it means that Im is making the private areas of her life public to her viewers.

Vloggers such as Jenn Im are often described as the new, modern-day “tastemakers”. A term which is defined as one who determines or strongly influences current trends or styles, in fashion or the arts. Primarily, Jenn Im creates videos where she will discuss products, mostly beauty or fashion related, that she may or may not recommend to her viewers and subscribers. Therefore an online identity is constructed through the products that she recommends. Her subscribers aspire to her lifestyle therefore when Im promotes a certain product, fans believe her opinion to be valid and truthful and may then purchase the product for themselves if they desire to. Previously, people would look to celebrities, their favourite band, actors etc. in magazines or online for style advice or were influenced by artists and singers however young people are increasingly more influenced by these vloggers as they portray a girl-next-door/best friend personality whom they can trust. They are also far more accessible for advice than a Hollywood star, for example. Vloggers often mention that they will ‘put a link in the down bar’ where they can list direct website links and information about the products mentioned in their videos. Viewers can purchase something a vlogger has mentioned at the click of the button and therefore consumers purchase faster, and more collectively.

Subsequently, this act of copying or taking inspiration from the micro-celebrity extends this active interpretation into the productive activities of organised fandom. It is said that this fannish activity could build community and enable creative activity (Baym, 2000). It blurs the lines again between consumption and participation in the media and how people interact with trends and styles, particularly within the arts, fashion and beauty.

It is also important to note how Jenn Im documents her travels to fans. Im has documented her travels, in particular across Asia - such as Shanghai, Korea, Indonesia, Bangkok etc. As Jenn Im is of Korean nationality, she remains true to her roots, and this is portrayed in her videos. She often travels to conventions abroad such as BeautyFest Asia and Unforgettable Gala by Kore Asian Media. Viewers can see that Jenn Im interacts with her Asian fan base but simultaneously performs the identity of an American from Los Angeles as her videos are conducted in English and she speaks with an American accent. Therefore it could be said that Im is aware she has an audience to perform for and chooses to speak in her native language as this is what comes easiest to her and grounds her with her large English-speaking audience.

Additionally, when documenting her travels, Im acts as director of her travels and commentates the experience. For example, in her video ‘Jenn Goes To Bangkok’ (Youtube, 2014).  She captures her surroundings whilst juxtaposing it with shots with the camera pointed at herself, where she pauses from the surroundings to update her viewers of what she is doing. Essentially the camera becomes the eyes and ears of Im as it documents the travels from her point of view. She often performs these pauses between her travels in her hotel room again, making the private-public and allowing fans an insight into her personal life. Again, this portrays the aspirational lifestyle as viewers can see inside the luxury environment of the hotel she is staying at. Im also recurrently documents her travels to Coachella, the Californian music festival. Brands will often invite her as a brand ambassador which essentially says that companies and brands now value micro-celebrities as highly influential. Youtube allows its most successful vloggers to live the life of an A-list celebrity and take the audience behind-the-scenes to experience it with them.

When looking at the Youtube account of Bethany Mota, a channel of 10,352,503 subscribers (May 2017), it can already be seen that Mota’s fan base is significantly bigger than that of Jenn Im. What differentiates the two vloggers is their type of fan base. Whilst Jenn Im has most likely a mixed age range in her fan base, her fans are mostly later teens and 20-year-olds who have mature tastes whereas Mota's fan base will more likely appeal to young teenagers, similar to UK's Zoella. The difference between both vloggers is quite evident in both style and aesthetic and how language is used to commentate the videos. For example, Mota uses high-pitched energetic tones in her voice to narrate her videos. She is both excitable and loud which engages with the majority of a teenage audience. To contrast, Jenn Im speaks on a more neutral level, however, is as well articulated as Mota. Within the frame of Mota’s videos, the aesthetic is clean and white occasionally with fairy lights, fluffy toys adorned with bright colours. Similarly, Im frames herself within a clean, white backdrop surrounded by modern interiors. Something as simple as a vloggers backdrop of their video could simply attract one viewer but put-off another.

Screenshot of Bethany Mota in Seventeen Magazine editorial

As Youtube is a place where it is becomingly increasingly more difficult to stand out, the content must be appealing to a wide audience in order to gain a following. Both Youtube vloggers, Im and Mota could be successful down to a number of factors. Their following has a lot to do with their online content and entrepreneurial spirit. It is said that the ‘ideal neoliberal citizen is an entrepreneur and that ‘these are the people most likely to succeed in social media, most likely to gain followers on Twitter and most likely to have their Facebook posts filtered into other people’s newsfeeds’. Essentially what Mota and Im both have in common is their confidence when performing online to their audiences.

In both Youtube vloggers, they are articulate and speak with confidence and also apply the 'best friend' approach. Literally, this means the performers adopt a way of speaking and performing that feels like talking to a close friend therefore viewers find this style of narrative to be more approachable and likeable. Furthermore, one is more likely to trust the opinion of a friend than of a celebrity they have never met before. Therefore vloggers are more approachable to brands and companies to promote their products for they know the viewers will have trust in their opinion. This is described as ‘emotional contagion’ (Paparachissi, 2011) therefore what one sees on their social media newsfeed has a powerful influence on how other users use their social media. 

For example, if one posts something on Facebook and a friend sees this update, it can influence their own opinion and encourage them to post something similar. Thus when a vlogger talks about a product in their video, it can create a certain ‘contagion’ in that product which is essentially how the term ‘trending’ comes about. Subsequently, when one product is promoted, another blogger will see this and promote it too thus making it ‘trend’ in the ‘blogosphere’, ie., the sphere of the internet where bloggers network. It is clear to say then that the way Youtube promotes certain performers over others has a powerful effect on how one can be influenced and a product, for example, can begin to circulate all over social media. Companies send products to vloggers for them to review, once recommended by one vlogger, then another, the domino effect circulates around Youtube and beauty and fashion fans alike will purchase said product.

Finally, one can look at the effect transitioning from amateur to professional aesthetics in both vloggers has had in influencing their online identity and professional persona. Primarily both vloggers began by filming themselves on either a webcam or compact digital camera, editing themselves and using limited equipment. This approach connotes amateur aesthetics, where the viewer takes full control of the directing of their videos, films themselves by themselves with perhaps a tripod etc., edits the videos themselves and essentially designs all areas of their online personal brand. Through the growing popularity of both channels, both vloggers have gained an entourage of professionals who aid in the making of their final Youtube video products. For example, Im now has an agent, manager and a graphic designer for her videos and often collaborates with a video production company who films videos for her.

Essentially, these aspects connote highly professional aesthetics synonymous to the entourage of an A-list celebrity. This takes the online Youtube video blogger to micro-celebrity status as they perform similar aspects to that of a real celebrity whilst still performing on amateur platforms that are accessible to the everyday person. Additionally, Mota also began by filming herself and still continues to do so. However, she juxtaposes this amateur aesthetic with videos filmed by professionals, in studios and specifically sought out locations for certain videos. 

Through analysing both video bloggers development from amateur to professional, it can be said that the vlogger can perform both sides therefore remain within the realm of amateur but perform professionally through use of modern technology and through the help of other skilled professionals. In constructing their online identity, this tells viewers that whilst the act of creating Youtube videos is, in fact, a vlogger's actual career, which requires professionalism, money and expertise, they can still remain down to earth and essentially use a 'DIY’ aesthetic from time to time.

In conclusion, the vlogger constructs their identity and aspirational lifestyle through a number of aspects. Firstly, their online identity is created through their content and individuality. If their content is unique yet appealing to a wide audience, their channel and identity are more recognisable amongst the vast network of social media. Secondly, online identity is constructed through the vloggers following and the people who subscribe to their channel. Vloggers often display their gratitude to their ‘fans’ and say that without them, they would not be able to have a career through Youtube. Evidently, they would not be a micro-celebrity without their fan base, thus the audience plays a huge part in constructing the vlogger's online identity. The act of sharing, ‘liking’, ‘retweeting’ and word-of-mouth is what helps form the vlogger's online identity and build their own online brand. 

Finally, the online identity of the vlogger is constructed through a combination of amateur, ‘DIY’ and professional, luxury aesthetics which builds the ‘micro celebrity’. Whilst viewers can relate to these vloggers such as Mota and Im because they perform as the down to earth ‘friend’, viewers also aspire to be like their favourite vloggers because they embody this luxurious, exciting lifestyle which is promoted through materiality and celebrity-like aesthetics.