In this blog, I will discuss some of the main findings of my postdoctoral research on social media influencers. If you are interested in learning about social media phenomena, especially from the perspectives of language use and communication, I hope you will follow along on my journey!
In my postdoctoral research, I’m particularly interested in studying social media influencer communication from a gender perspective. In this blog post, I’m going to discuss the reasons why I think this is important.
Unfortunately, sexism and gender-based harassment take place frequently on social media platforms. Previous research has observed these challenges especially in the context of online gaming (Cote 2017; Naidoo et al. 2019). However, female social media influencers have also been found to receive sexualizing and sexist comments (Drenten et al. 2020). Research can draw attention to such issues and help in finding solutions.
The media also appears to talk about female influencers differently. Deller and Murphy (2020, 125) note that areas of content creation that are considered “feminine” have been criticized as “frivolous” in the press, whereas the criticisms towards male influencers’ work are not as clearly gendered. However, more research is needed to find out how attitudes towards different genders shape the public discussion on influencers.
Influencers’ gender also affects the way their followers view them. For example, in a recent study, Hudders and De Jans (2020) found that women are more likely to engage with social media content posted by influencers who are also women. Studying influencer communication from a gender perspective may help us understand influencer-follower relationships better.
Social media work involves a lot of “invisible” labor that is often done by women. “Invisible” labor in this context refers to work that is overlooked, undervalued and often poorly paid (Duffy & Schwartz 2018, 2976). For example, creative social media workers might be expected to work for “exposure” instead of receiving actual payment. Research can help promote gender equality in social media work.
How will my own work add to the research on influencers and gender?
Through my work, I hope to contribute to the research on social media influencers and gender by examining a genre of content creation that is particularly popular among young women, yet often belittled and overlooked: the genre of beauty content. Creators in this genre are easily dismissed as “superficial” or “vain” (Abidin 2016), but their work has the potential to empower people and to question gender norms.
For example, many beauty-focused influencers (particularly women) are balancing between “fashioning” or “beautifying” the body and promoting acceptance of the body “just the way it is”. Even though the fashion and beauty industries can be viewed as problematic, since they enforce particular ideas of what people (especially women) should look like, many influencers have taken a different approach to the idea of beauty.
These influencers have adopted their ideas from the body positivity movement, which seeks to challenge beauty standards in society and increase the visibility of marginalized bodies in the media (e.g., Brathwaite & DeAndrea, 2022; Sastre, 2014). Through combining body positivity activism and beauty- and fashion-focused social media content, influencers are able to redefine both beauty norms and gender norms. I am interested especially in the ways in which influencers do this through their language use.
Finally, although there are already several interesting studies on the topic of influencers and gender, there is a lot more work to be done. For example, while my own research focuses on women, the specific experiences of male influencers, as well as non-binary or genderqueer influencers, should also be considered in future studies.
Brathwaite, K. N., & DeAndrea, D. C. (2022). BoPopriation: How selfpromotion and corporate commodification can undermine the body positivity (BoPo) movement on Instagram. Communication Monographs 89(1), 25-46. https://doi.org/10.1080/03637751.2021.1925939
Deller, R.A., & Murphy, K., (2020). ‘Zoella hasn’t really written a book, she’s written a cheque’: Mainstream media representations of YouTube celebrities. European Journal of Cultural Studies 23(1), 112-123. https://doi.org/10.1177/1367549419861638
Drenten J., Gurrieri L., & Tyler, M. (2020). Sexualized labour in digital culture: Instagram influencers, porn chic and the monetization of attention. Gender, Work & Organization 27, 41–66. https://doi.org/10.1111/gwao.12354
Duffy, B. E., & Schwartz, B. (2018). Digital “women’s work?”: Job recruitment ads and the feminization of social media employment. new media & society 20 (8), 2972–2989. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444817738237
Naidoo, R., Coleman, K. and Guyo, C. (2019). Exploring gender discursive struggles about social inclusion in an online gaming community. Information Technology & People 33 (2), 576-601. https://doi.org/10.1108/ITP-04-2019-0163
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.
If you use social media, chances are you also follow social media influencers, or have at least seen them on your timeline. Influencers are users who create social media content regularly and post it publicly on their social media channels, typically for a notable number of followers. Most influencers create their content for a specific, niche audience interested in a particular topic – some examples are influencers focusing on tech, fashion and beauty, fitness, or parenting. For many influencers, creating social media content has become a full-time job, and you may have noticed that some of their posts are sponsored by various companies. Indeed, many of us are now interested in knowing our favourite influencers’ opinions on a product or service before making the decision to purchase it. You may even feel like some influencers are kind of like your friends, even though you’ve never met them, because they share a part of their life with you, and you can relate to them. A part of this relatability comes from the language our favourite influencers use – it’s not just about the specific products or experiences they talk about, but how they talk about them.
In my postdoctoral research, I am particularly interested in studying the language use of social media influencers. What kind of things does an influencer need to consider when they start writing a post, when they sit in front of the camera and talk to their followers, or when they respond to comments? What is it about their way of speaking or writing that engages their followers and prompts them to interact? How is a relatable, entertaining and trustworthy “influencer identity” constructed through language use? These are some of the questions I’m hoping to be able to answer.
If you are interested in following along on my journey towards a better understanding of influencers, their communicative practices and their language use, I hope you follow this blog! You can also follow me on Twitter to get the latest updates regarding my research.