This article will examine how the concepts of micro-celebrity and self-branding are used by small business to develop a social media presence.
Our interest in this area derives from the social media campaign recently produced for Montash Jewellery Design, a small jewellery business located in North Brisbane. The social media strategy was based on the promotion of the Montash brand rather than the personality of the owner.
While this was the express wish of the client, it was at odds with the social media practice of a competitor Xennox Diamonds which has developed a strong online following through the promotion and presentation of its owner, Karl Schwantes.
Performing the self – from onstage to online
In his seminal 1959 work, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, sociologist Erving Goffman argued that identity was a “continual performance” (cited in Marwick & boyd, 2010, p.123).
According to Goffman, an individual composed a version of him/herself that varied depending on the context and the audience (cited in Marshall, 2010, p.39).
He further suggested that like actors, people negotiate ‘front stage’ and ‘backstage’ areas of their social lives as part of an overall process of “impression management” (cited in Marwick & boyd, 2011, p.144).
David Marshall (2010) contends that in the online world, Goffman’s analogy of the stage can be extended to the “profiles, images and messages” of social networking sites (SNS) such as Facebook (p.40).
This “staging of the self as both character and performance” also reflects the dual nature of social media platforms, which are simultaneously a “form of cultural production” and a “form of public engagement and exchange” (Marshall, 2010, pp.39-40).
Networked publics – modifying identity performance
The notion of “networked publics” was introduced by danah boyd (2011) to describe how publics are restructured by networked technologies such as SNS so that they become “simultaneously a space and collection of people” (p.41).
She identified four characteristics that are important in “constructing SNS as networked publics” and in facilitating the presentation of the self – profiles, Friends lists, public commenting tools and stream-based updates (boyd, 2011, p.43).
boyd (2011) further outlined three dimensions that are central features of networked publics and which complicate the performance of an online identity – invisible audiences, collapsed contexts and the blurring of private and public (p.49).
boyd concludes that in this environment, attention becomes a commodity as networked technologies make it easy to engage with all kinds of people from close friends to celebrities (boyd, 2011, p.53).
Intimate publics – performing intimacy online
In contrast to boyd, Sam Hinton and Larissa Hjorth (2013) conceptualise SNS as “intimate publics” (p.46). They argue that as the use of social and mobile media becomes more widespread, publics are increasingly characterised by “the strength of their relationships rather than the total number of network connections” (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013, p.44).
According to Hinton and Hjorth (2013), the amount and type of information revealed online is part of the “performance of intimacy” and reflects the ongoing assessment of the social value of this information (pp.45-6).
In this context, Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of social capital becomes significant (cited in Hinton & Hjorth 2013, p.42). According to Putnam (2000), “social capital refers to the benefits that can be attained from connections between people through their social networks” (cited in Ellison et al., 2011, p.127).
More importantly, this network of relationships can result in the creation of other forms of capital such as economic capital (Ellison et al., 2011, p.127).
Micro-celebrity & self-branding – “Soon we will all be famous to 15 people”
Two crucial developments are largely responsible for the rise in the practice of micro-celebrity and self-branding since the turn of the century.
Joshua Gamson (2011) refers to the first of these as “the decisive turn towards the ordinary” (pp.1061-2). He suggests that reality TV has “transformed celebrity culture by opening up unprecedented space for ordinary people to become celebrities” (Gamson, 2011, p.1065).
The second factor has been the Internet and in particular, Web 2.0 technologies such as blogs, content-sharing sites like YouTube and SNS that have enabled a “bottom-up do-it-yourself celebrity production process” (Gamson, 2011, p.1065).
According to Gamson (2011), “self-publicity has become technologically easy, and the revelation of the ordinary self in everyday activity becomes a mechanism of attention getting – nothing else is needed” (p.1067).
In this new world, the micro-celebrity is “famous to a small community of fans who participate directly in producing the celebrity” (Gamson, 2011, p.13).
Self-branding is a similar self-presentation strategy that draws on many of the same leitmotifs as micro-celebrity. Self-branding uses marketing strategies to promote the individual with the specific goal of “’winning’ attention, emotional allegiance and market share” (Marwick, 2013, p.166; Hearn, 2008, p.201).
Both processes require a “degree of self-commodification” and the “construction of identity as a product to be consumed by others” (Marwick, 2013, p.117; Page, 2012, p.182).
Xennox Diamonds – ‘Karl’ as marketing strategy
Xennox Diamonds is a high-end jewellery business based in Brisbane that offers a full range of jewellery services including design, manufacture and valuation.
Xennox Diamonds has a comprehensive website which links to seven social media platforms – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, YouTube, Instagram and Google +.
Chart 1 highlights Xennox Diamonds’ impressive social media metrics that reflect the high level of engagement achieved by the company.
Chart 1. Xennox Diamonds’ social media metrics
An examination of its social media reveals the importance of Karl Schwantes as personal brand and face of the company. The company’s Twitter and Instagram profiles identify him as “Dream Ring Designer” and author of the recently published book, Rock her world: The ultimate guide to choosing the perfect engagement ring.
Karl constructs “a meta-narrative and meta-image of the self” which he presents to his audience (Hearn, 2008, p.199). The tone of voice used is friendly and conversational creating the “illusion of friendship or closeness” (Marwick, 2013, p.117). He signs almost all his posts with “Karl”.
Karl defines his relationship with his audience by strategically managing the topics he discusses (Baym, 2012, p.310-1). His social media content mainly deals with professional subjects that also showcase his expertise.
However, he provides glimpses into his personal life by sharing photos of the card his children prepared for his wife for Mother’s Day, by highlighting his involvement in different charities and by expressing his disgust at the prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace.
Karl’s presentation of the self reflects Alice Marwick’s assertion that self-branding requires “the careful construction of an edited yet authentic self, which demands ongoing self-monitoring, a thick skin and ongoing awareness and evaluation of the audience” (Marwick, 2013, p.196).
Like most micro-celebrities, Karl seems to view his audience as fans (Marwick, 2013, p.118). This is reflected in the monthly $1000 prize offered by Xennox Diamonds for the “Fan of the month” which is voted on by the community of followers.
Karl’s celebrity is also practised by providing his ‘fans’ with “the appearance and performance of ‘backstage’ access” (Marwick & boyd, 2011, p.139). Karl does this by regularly sharing photos of the jewellery he is working on. This acts to highlight his knowledge and skill as well as create the illusion of intimacy.
The audience is also often asked to guess what Karl is working on. Questions on a range of topics are a common device used to promote conversation between Karl and his fans, and among his fan base (Marshall, 2010, p.42).
Karl creates affiliations or “cultural intimacy” with his audience by using “language, words, cultural symbols and conventions” (Marwick & boyd, 2011, p.147; Hinton & Hjorth, 2013, p.44). This is evident through posts that celebrate cultural occasions such as Anzac Day and Mother’s Day. Curated content tends to focus on themes associated with weddings such as the proposal and honeymoon, which resonate with his audience.
The affordances of the Internet and Web 2.0 technologies have enabled the practice of micro-celebrity and self-branding as a means of competing in the attention economy and achieving social and economic gain (Page, 2012, p.181).
However, these techniques are not hazard-free and practitioners must negotiate the networked environment and the uncertainties created by invisible audiences, collapsed contexts and the blurred boundaries between public and private.
For those who can successfully manage these challenges, social media platforms provide opportunities for small business owners to enhance their public profiles through the performance of an “authentic” online identity.
However, this strategy may not suit all business owners and further research is needed to determine whether the audience’s appetite for this type of engagement is changing over time.
Baym, N.K. (2012). Fans of friends?: Seeing social media audiences as musicians do. Journal of Audience & Reception Studies, 9 (2), 286-316.
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Gamson, J. (2011). The unwatched life is not worth living: The elevation of the ordinary in celebrity culture. Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, 126(4), 1061-9.
Ellison, N.B, Lampe, C., Steinfield, C. & Vitak, J. (2011). With a little help from my friends: How social network sites affect social capital processes. In Z. Pacharissi (Ed.), A networked self: Identity, community & culture on social network sites (pp.124-145). New York, NY: Routledge.
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Marwick, A. (2013). Status update: Celebrity, publicity & branding in the social media age. New Haven: Yale University Press.
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Marwick, A. & boyd, d. (2010). I tweet honestly, I tweet passionately: Twitter users, context collapse and the imagined audience. New media & society, 13(1), 114-133.
Page, R. (2012). The linguistics of self-branding and micro-celebrity in the Twitter: the role of hashtags. Discourse & Communication, 6 (2), 181-201.
By Françoise Dixon