Self-Representation and Corporate Capitalisation

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In this paper I offer that social media platforms shape our online identities and capitalize on the self-representation of users. To do this I will discuss the effects of achieving financial success via self-representation on social media platforms. I will draw upon career streamers that use the platform Twitch (Twitch Interactive 2011), and the models and influencers of Instagram (Facebook 2010). I will first provide a brief outline of the histories, frameworks, affordances and of these platforms. Second, I will apply critical analysis towards depictions of financial success on these platforms. Finally, I will comment on the social, cultural and economic benefits that the companies which own said platforms reap from self-representation.

Twitch, accessible as Twitch.tv was released in 2011 as alternative option for justin.tv, a general-content streaming platform (Anderson 2017). It is currently owned by Twitch Interactive, a subsidiary of Amazon after the acquisition in 2014, a factor I will address later in line with economic concerns. After incredibly popularity, Twitch expanded through business acquisition to allow for commissions to be sent to producers as they streamed and for prizes and rewards to be transferred to audience members. Since it’s deployment the platform has almost exclusively streamed videogame related content; discussions, reveals and e-sport events. Recentadditions however cover quality-of-life discussions, fashion and music, (Amazon 2019)showing that Twitch is still expanding.

Instagram,  was deployed in 2010, the  platform enables the user to upload and modify images at their discretion for an audience base consisting of all other users (Roncha & Radclyffe-Thomas 2016, p. 305). Instagram has since been evolved to enable gif and short video segments for users to display through the IGTV feature (Instagram 2019).Initially the platform was only accessible on iOS but increased popularity soon saw access made available to Android and Windows. The platform enables sharing amongst pre-selected member lists or the entire community, with the option of direct private messaging to connect users together.Originally created by Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, Instagram is now owned by Facebook after its purchase in 2012 (Roncha & Radclyffe-Thomas 2016, p. 305).

Self-representation on Twitch, in terms of a producer, provides both liberties and restraints regarding identity. In theory, a producer gets to address content of their choosing, at a time of their choosing, from the comfort of their own homes and generate an income from a democratic process of audience appreciation. The reality of platform and the affordances it provides regarding successful streaming is quite different (Sjöblom et al. 2019, p. 20). Streamers will be banned if they cover any game with the American “Adult Only” rating prescribed by the ESRB as well as any games on a specific blacklist (Twitch Interactive 2019). As a content production model, audience engagement is a core focus and maintaining interest means adapting to audience needs regardless of personal producer choice (Gandolfi 2016, p. 78). Twitch is unique in that self-representation is done via both the real self of the producer engaging in the content and the producer’s digital avatar that enacts the digital action. In this duality producers offer the entirety of their identity, both digital and real to their audiences (Gandolfi 2016, p. 75). In order to satisfy audience appeal, producers have to become entertainers, reflecting Goffman’s theory of identity performance (1959, p. 8). Producers create an identity that suits the structure and realm wherein you are based. Goffman’s view of performed identity is neither inherently good nor bad, yet in this case of both digital and real behaviour being performative, it raises the question if the distinction between the two is diminishing with digital generations.

Financial success via Twitch is a growing trend with the average stable income of career streamers being fifty thousand American dollars per year (Johnson & Woodcock 2019, p. 339).Twitch provides a unique environment for digital labourers, pitting their self-representation against each other to quantifiable audience numbers to validate and earn payment. All the while a producer is conditioned to satisfy both the audience and competition, Twitch, that is to say Amazon, provides constant incentives to reap the benefits. If, through self-representation, a producer has gathered a large audience and is competitive with other popular producers the affordances of Twitch begin to affect the producer. Sponsorship, recommendations to new and pre-existing users to the producer’s content, physical content to be distributed and access to community events such as esports, studio tours or game reveals (Woodcock & Johnson 2019, p. 321). So the producer that wanted to present themselves and deliver content they like, become labourers to the platform and the corporate owners. Through successful producers; subscription services and premium content are offered directly by the Twitch platform causing immediate return on the success of an individual’s self-representation. There is then of course the surveillance and gathering of meta-data in user behaviour via the affordances of the platform that continues to serve Amazon (West 2019, p. 27).

To contrast the methods of self-representation of producers on Twitch I will now analyse the efforts towards success and the platform affordances of Instagram. Firstly, the platform offers time and geographically stamped image representations of the producer rather than the immediacy of Twitch (Shane-Simpson 2018, p. 277). This presents the producer with a larger luxury of time and preparation but suffers from less immediate interaction with the audience thus heightening the need for longitudinal content. As discussed by Cruc, Hanus and Fox (2017, p. 517), digital reward systems have a strong impact on identity construction. Instagram’s validates the user with the primary reward economy of “likes” and reacts. An interesting development of the platform however is that from July 2019 Instagram began hiding the likes of content in seven countries across the world (McCormack 2019). The producers can still see the likes they’ve been awarded but not that of other users, removing the quantifiable scale of success and competition that drives the producers of Twitch. The platform offers that the point of the anonymity in likes is to reduce pressure and anxiety for the users. However, this same nullification of like counts could serve to diffuse user power and enable content feeds to be organised by platform control.

Whilst still a platform of audience appreciation, nuance and individuality is rewarded so long as the content isn’t considered risqué. Instagram’s guidelines are proactively vague allowing for the platform to censor content users view as art or self-expression. Those that suffer from censorship can persevere as seen in the study by Olszanowski (2014, p. 84). The study saw that producers proactively subvert the guidelines for self-representation that would normally be removed, by creating fake profiles or only briefly housing the content before moderator removal. As the platform ultimately reflects the perspective of the producer and their content as art, thus the structure of Instagram supports individuality. This individuality is how a producer can succeed financially, not through sponsorship from Instagram itself, but rather by providing niche artwork or as an influencer and unique personality to better sell brands and synergise with the algorithms of the platform to create brand awareness (Cotter 2019, p. 896). Like Amazon, Instagram as an arm of Facebook benefits from the success of its users by gathering tailored data to better develop user profiles. Facebook as a business has monopolised user profilesto sell in order to bolster revenue and enable smarter algorithm-controlled content over its various platforms (Kathuria 2018, p. 89). 

Both platforms actively reward their users to use self-representation as a method of success and validation but capitalize on the result. Twitch and thusly Amazon create a churning cycle of stylized identities, reinforced by incentives and the knowledge of riches at the top. All the while reaping the benefits of ad trafficking, brand association, sponsorship and the sales of numerous premium services on both Twitch and Amazon (Sjöblom et al. 2019, p. 22).What originally began as heartfelt streams of personal taste has been monopolized and turned into a belching industry. Instagram to contrast, appears open to all and easy to get amongst yet restricts anything it doesn’t like, reinforcing traditional notions of class, sexism and oppression. In the self-representation that Instagram does approve it uses to its own advantage. Collating user data to add to the encyclopaedic knowledge Facebook already has (Park 2016, p.3) It is prudent to mention that at present there is growing support for regulation and control Facebook and Amazon and the monopolies they hold over digital behaviour, data and resources (Levy 2019). Analysing the above platforms shows how self-representation can be capitalised on to further target our online identities. From this fact a need for comprehensive digital literacy prevails to ensure users, both passive and active are not taken advantage of in digital realms. The manipulation of self-representation for success or the passive collection of user data allows for far too great an effect on identity to remain as an unknown element of the internet.

Word Count: 1483

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