Social media is full of creative combinations of different forms of communication. Consider, for example, a TikTok video, an Instagram Reel or a YouTube Short. Typically, these short videos communicate their meaning using more than one way of presenting information – there is the visual aspect of the video clip, but there is probably also written (captions, video description) and spoken (talking directly to the camera or in a voice-over) language. Researchers refer to this practice of combining different forms of communication as multimodal communication. In a globalized world, combining two or more languages in a social media post is also fairly common, so influencers’ communicative practices can also be multilingual.
In order to be successful as influencers, content creators need to figure out the best ways to combine these different communicative resources, so that the resulting social media content is something their audience will enjoy. In a recent study (Limatius 2023), my goal was to find out more about the role of such multimodal and multilingual practices in the communication of Finnish social media influencers who create fashion- and beauty-focused content. I was interested in how these influencers combine text, image and video in their social media posts, and how they combine Finnish and English. I used Instagram posts, blog posts and YouTube videos collected from six influencers in 2020 as my data.
The findings of my study illustrate how influencers’ communicative practices are shaped by the needs of their followers. The idea of a target audience appears to guide influencers’ multimodal and multilingual choices. For example, consider a blog post where an influencer reviews an eyeshadow palette. This blog post is likely to contain both textual descriptions of the performance and appearance of the eyeshadows, and visual representations that demonstrate these qualities (embedded photos or video clips). It might also contain English makeup terminology and product names, followed by Finnish translations and explanations for these terms. The influencer may also respond to comments from followers in either Finnish or English, depending on the language used by the commenter. All these features are carefully considered by the influencer, always keeping in mind the question: how can I best present this to my audience? How do I give them all the information they might want to know about this?
Through the visual presentation of the product review, the influencer invites the reader to look at the products closely together with her, which creates a sense of intimacy. At the same time, she provides detailed information and instructions on the use of the product to the reader, which creates a sense of professionalism. It is this line between personal and professional – or, play and work (Thurlow 2019) – that the influencer constantly balances on, hoping to find the sweet spot that their target audience is looking for in a review.
However, not everything about influencer communication is perfectly planned and calculated. The influencers in my data also switched between English and Finnish spontaneously, in a way one might do in everyday conversation. And, in combining different forms of communication, they displayed artistic creativity and playfulness. Indeed, it is not ideal for an influencer to appear too polished and perfect, as a big part of their success is based on relatability. For example, YouTubers tend to intentionally leave “bloopers” and mistakes in their videos, even though they could be edited out (Jerslev 2016). Influencers may also use informal language on their social media accounts in order to appear more authentic (Kováčová 2021). By letting their personality and creativity shine through, influencers become more approachable to their followers.
Of course, there is only so much that we can tell from an influencer’s intentions just by looking at the social media content they have created. Because of this, I have also interviewed Finnish influencers about their motivations for combining Finnish and English in different ways. Some of the preliminary results will be discussed in a later blog post.
Jerslev, Anne. (2016). In the time of the microcelebrity: Celebrification and the YouTuber Zoella. International Journal of Communication 10(2016): 5233-5251.
Kováčová, Dominika. (2021). Becoming #Instafamous: The analysis of (in)formality in self-presentation on Instagram. Internet Pragmatics 5(1): 12–37.
Limatius, Hanna. (2023). Examining the multimodal and multilingual practices of Finnish social media influencers. In Włodarczyk, Matylda; Tyrkkö, Jukka & Adamczyk, Elżbieta (eds.), Multilingualism from manuscript to 3D: Intersections of modalities from medieval to modern times. Routledge, 203-226.
Thurlow, Crispin. (2019). Semiotic creativities in and with space: Binaries and boundaries, beware! International Journal of Multilingualism 16(1): 94.104.