Perceived Interconnectedness and Web Intimacy in Women’s Lifestyle Blogging

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 1 By Crystal Abidin

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 7 Since 2005 in Singapore, many young women have taken to social media to craft out micro-celebrity personas as a career. On their blogs, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and AskFM accounts, they document their everyday lives from the trivial and mundane, to exciting snippets of the exclusive opportunities in their line of work. This form of blog and social media publishing falls within the ‘lifestyle’ genre, where the women’s lives ‘as lived’ is the central theme of their output. Those with a strong enough viewership are able to monetize their social media platforms in three ways: (1) by selling advertising space on their sites in the form of a clickthrough image or URL; (2) by writing personalized advertorials which are advertisements in the form of an editorial opinion; and (3) by taking on sponsorships for various brands and companies. In fact, these women are increasingly substituting mainstream television and cinema celebrities as spokespersons and ambassadors for a wide variety of campaigns and initiatives.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 3 Beyond the web, the women hold influence over several mainstream industries. Some of them have begun to dabble in television and cinema, modelling for print media, and fashion runway modelling and professional shoots. Outside of the entertainment industry, the women have also been co-opted into the education industry, being engaged by secondary schools, junior colleges, and polytechnics to give talks about entrepreneurship; the health industry, being asked to share their opinions on mental and sexual health, and promote safe health care practices; and even the fringes of politics, being invited to have tea sessions and webcast dialogues with ministers in the cabinet, to name a few.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 4 While they debuted with blogs and have since diversified into several other social media platforms, most of these women are still commonly referred to as ‘bloggers’, as opposed to ‘Instagrammers’ or ‘YouTubers’. The blog management firms they are contracted to have also attempted to market them as ‘social influencers’, ‘web entrepreneurs’, and ‘social media celebrities’. However, in the larger collective imaginary – and no doubt assisted by several high profile mainstream news reports on these young women as entrepreneurial ‘bloggers’ – these women are still best understood by non-insiders across generations, class, genders, and cultural backgrounds as ‘bloggers’. Borrowing from this native nomenclature in the local vocabulary, I refer to them as ‘commercial bloggers’.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 6 This paper takes interest in how commercial lifestyle bloggers in Singapore have captured and sustained the interest of their readers. This is to the extent that the social influence and clout that the bloggers have accumulated makes them sought after by corporations and investors looking to tap into their command of the attention economy online. While there are many reasons for this, this paper will look specifically at intimacy as performative strategy. It focuses on how the bloggers are able to maintain their predominantly female readership on the basis of ‘Perceived Interconnectedness’, which is a form of intimate communication that I developed based on Horton & Wohl’s work on ‘Parasocial Relations’ (1956). Specifically, I look at displays of web intimacy and discuss the tropes of ‘privacy play’, and ‘soft structure’.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 3 This paper is ethnographically-situated. The data is drawn from fieldwork in the commercial blog industry in Singapore since August 2010, and draws from several vantage points. It comprises web archiving and content analysis of the bloggers’ public and commercial blogs and social media feeds; archival research into mainstream media publications; personal interviews mediated by technology and in person; as well as ethnographic fieldwork in Singapore in which I was positioned in various capacities including a research scientist and shadow manager for blog talent agencies, and a personal assistant to some bloggers. Pseudonyms are adopted in this paper.

Intimacy as performative strategy

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 7 In the commercial lifestyle blogging sphere, I conceive of the intimacy that bloggers engage in as a ‘performative strategy’ that intersects at four nodes. Firstly, this intimacy is commercial and not personal or without vested interests. Generally, personal intimacies are not enacted for monetary gain. Between bloggers and readers, intimacy is crafted and sustained purposefully to increase viewership, which in turn allows bloggers to command higher pay rates for their advertising services. Although there is a possibility that the intimacy fostered can bear latent affection on an emotional level, the blogger-reader interactions are still largely motivated by profit.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 1 Secondly, this intimacy is mass and not individually negotiated between two persons. Established bloggers address tens of thousands of fans in each post (some top bloggers speak to hundreds of thousands of fans internationally), and have to convey intimacies on a large scale. Even in interactions where a Tweet or Instagram comment is replied to individually, the information is intended for the consumption of all readers who are able to view the bloggers’ response. Indeed, some bloggers have even taken to ignoring repetitive questions on AskFM and Twitter, urging readers to ‘scroll’ through their feeds for past responses, or crassly mentioning that the query has been addressed before.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Thirdly, this intimacy is played out in the public domains of blogs and social media, unlike traditional notions of intimacy that are negotiated in private or much less likely to be displayed to a mass audience. Some bloggers interact with readers in private email correspondence, in which fans have been known to seek relationship advice a la Agony Aunt forums. However, in the measure of quantity and quality, the bulk of these communications are still displayed in public, as the nature of even private email correspondence adopts the public ‘persona’ that bloggers have crafted.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 4 Fourthly, since commercial blogging activities are largely confined online, the intimacies are mediated with the use of devices and technologies as opposed to being organically navigated in person. While blogger-reader events are regularly held in physical spaces where the women get to meet in person, these ‘in real life’ activities are primarily negotiated on social media. For example, hype is built leading up to the event with sneak previews and invitations, readers and bloggers document the event as it is happening through live posts on social media, and bloggers and readers often publish post-event recounts where they wrap up with niceties and appreciations for those in attendance. Also noteworthy is that while men are estimated to constitute up to 20% of the blog readership, the intimacies performed by bloggers are mainly addressed towards their women readers in an ecological imaginary of homosociality.

Perceived Interconnectedness

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 4 Elsewhere (Abidin 2013), I have developed the notion of ‘Perceived Interconnectedness’ as a mode of interaction in which bloggers communicate with readers, based on Horton & Wohl’s ‘Parasocial Relations’ (1956). In that piece, I focused on readers’ expectations of commercial bloggers, the disorder this invites into the social lives of the bloggers, and their motivations for staying in the industry. This paper, however, takes an in-depth look at two tropes of web intimacy – ‘privacy play’, and ‘soft structure’ – that manifest from ‘Perceived Interconnectedness’, which we will now turn to.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 2 In ‘Parasocial Relations’, Horton & Wohl (1956) posit that television (TV) and radio personalities produce one-sided interpersonal connections and an ‘illusion of intimacy’ with their audience through conversational small talk that appears informal, casual, and responsive. This is supported by engagement with the audience and the use of media devices and theatrics to foster an illusion of intimacy. What the authors highlight is the rubric that enables the audience to cultivate an extensive knowledge of the television or radio personality, without any actual reciprocity involved.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 4 Since the mid-2000s, commercial bloggers have been enacting similar relations with readers, and the implicit expectations of intimacies mediated on blogs and social media platforms intensifies the affect of ‘interconnectedness’ and relatability between blogger and reader. For instance, bloggers are primed to extend revelations into the backstage via ‘behind the scenes’ revelations, and the use of personal voice (boyd, 2006; Lövheim, 2010) for a marketable intimacy. The pace and quantity of these social media posts and their wide circulation among readers also lends to the collective imaginary of the blogger’s intimate persona. Moreover, readers are also often invited to respond to bloggers on social media platforms, and to contribute to the curation of blog content from informal polls and solicited feedback. Stripped of bureaucratic negotiations and the distance previously introduced by the presence of a backend production view, readers are likely to view their interactions as more personal, direct, authentic, and thus intimate (boyd 2006).

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 1 I contrast ‘Perceived Interconnectedness’ against ‘Parasocial Relations’ to emphasize the former’s qualities and its role in producing web intimacy. These seven comparative elements are the medium, scaffolding of actors, authority of dissemination, flow of communication, conversational structure, origin of relations, and primary strategy. The primary distinctions between ‘Parasocial Relations’ and ‘Perceived Interconnectedness’ are tabulated as follows:

Element ‘Parasocial Relations’ Horton & Wohl (1956) ‘Perceived Interconnectedness’ Abidin (2013)
Medium TV/radio technology Social media platforms
Scaffolding of actors Hierarchical Flat
Authority of dissemination Broadcast Interactive
Flow of communication Unidirectional Bi-directional
Conversational structure One-to-many One-to-many, One-to-one
Origin of relations Constructed at persona-end By-product of expectancies
Primary strategy Theatrics Intimacies

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 2 ‘Parasocial Relations’ is mediated via the hard infrastructure of TV/radio technology, which stimulates a hierarchical scaffolding of actors where TV/radio personalities control the discursive dialogue. The information disseminated is broadcast top down, there is low reciprocity since viewers are unlikely to respond in a unidirectional flow of content, and the structure is one-to-many. ‘Parasocial Relations’ is constructed on the back of the TV/radio personality at the production backend and primarily engages in theatrics to sustain itself.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 1 In contrast, ‘Perceived Interconnectedness’ is mediated via the soft infrastructure of social media platforms, which stimulates a flat scaffolding of actors where commercial bloggers and readers co-produce the discursive dialogue and shape the conversation. The information disseminated is interactive and malleable, given that there is high reciprocity in a bidirectional conversation that is simultaneously one-to-many (as when bloggers publish posts to hundreds of thousands of fans) and one-to-one (as when bloggers favourite, repost, or reply to individual responses from readers via Tweets, Instagram comments, blog replies, or personal emails). ‘Perceived Interconnectedness’ is a by-product of the expectancies arising from high social media use and engagement, and primarily engages in ‘intimacy play’ to sustain itself.

Privacy play

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 1 The qualities of ‘Perceived Interconnectedness’ make for fertile grounds for web-mediated intimacies to manifest. While these intimacies take many forms, this paper will turn to two of the more common tropes: privacy play, and soft structure. This section will deconstruct the main qualities of each of these tropes, utilizing publically-circulating blog and social media content of self-identified and established commercial bloggers in Singapore as vignettes.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 3 In ‘privacy play’, bloggers openly share information that would conventionally be kept from the public eye. This is not to say that they are engaging in full disclosure and have obliterated public/private boundaries, or that they have no concerns over privacy. Instead, the bloggers aestheticize and package snippets of the ‘backstage’ (Goffman 1990) to present the illusion of an intimate sharing. However, a critical reading reveals that much of this information is not truly intrusive, invasive, or intensely intimate and personal to begin with.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 3 For instance, some bloggers in heterosexual romantic relationships talk about conflict or intimacy issues involving their partners. While several of these have been full-blown accounts of the dispute, or details about their partner’s sex preferences, more often than not these disclosures adopt the form of clickbait. Bloggers are likely to post cryptic one-liners or melancholic quotes, or publish carefully curated photographs to connote their emotional struggles, such as showing tears streaming down their cheeks, flashing close-ups of worrisome or sombre expressions, or appearing to gaze into the distance contemplatively. These moments connote an intimate yet ambivalently concealed revelation into some of the blogger’s less polished and everyday facets of life, in contrast to the carefree leisurely lifestyles they recount on their blogs.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 4 On their own, each of these posts rarely provide a complete context of the situation; in fact, they fall out of the usual persona performed by the blogger, and for this precise reason incite reader interest. If sufficiently shrouded in ambiguous tones, these ‘sneak peaks’ provoke readers to check the blogger’s updates across several social media platforms to piece together a backstory, and even to leave comments querying the blogger or vaguely encouraging them. Apart from romantic relationships, these clickbait strategies have also been used on personal struggles including mental health, physical health, financial situation, career prospects, and conflict among bloggers in the industry. In reality, like the rest of their posts in line with their blogger persona, these snippets of the backstage struggles are also calculated displays that blur the boundaries between the ‘public’ and the conventionally ‘private’, thus fostering intimacy between reader and blogger.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 1 Another facet of ‘privacy play’ is when bloggers juxtapose glamorous recounts of their highly publicized events against a running unofficial ‘behind the scenes’ (also commonly referred to as ‘BTS’ in the industry) commentary that discloses ‘insider information’ from the blogger’s point of view. An example would be captures of bloggers in dressing rooms being dolled up by make up artistes and hairdressers, or teasers querying readers which of the two outfits would better suit the event. Unlike their usually groomed and tastefully curated posts, in BTS posts it is the amateur aesthetic that is the draw factor that solicits reader interest because it connotes less staging and artifice, and conveys a sincere desire for readers to feel invested in the blogger’s journey.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 4 Publishing posts ‘on the go’ give readers the impression of ‘real time’ updates, as if watching a blogger through her ‘ugly duckling to swan’ transitions. This bridge across polished ‘after’ shots and ‘the making of’ also provides readers with scripts to achieving aspirational social mobility.
Of late, such ‘behind the scenes’ commentaries have emerged as a standalone subgenre within commercial lifestyle blogging, with an increasing number of bloggers investing time in documenting and visualizing these backend processes especially to sustain and increase their viewership.

Soft structure

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 1 ‘Soft structure’ refers to the affordances accorded by the mechanisms of Perceived Interconnectedness that allow readers to feel a degree of personalization and individualized attention from bloggers despite negotiating most of their intimacies via disparate screens. These are the flat, bi-directional, and interactive engagements bloggers are able to sustain with readers via the functions built into platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Many bloggers are likely to ‘favourite’ or ‘re-tweet’ (RT) comments from followers as a sign of acknowledgement and appreciation. This act also publicizes a follower’s Twitter handle to the blogger’s tens of thousands of followers, inviting other fans and followers to ‘follow’ each other. Such a publicity move that contributes to spiking one’s ‘follower’ count is known as a ‘shout out’. Readers have been known to shower enthusiastic thanks and disbelief publicly on Twitter or Instagram whenever a blogger chooses to respond to their comment amidst thousands of others.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 1 ‘Soft structure’ also denotes the breakdown of physical barriers between reader and blogger. Unlike mainstream celebrities who are not usually passable to everyday people, bloggers engage in a micro-celebrity strategy of remaining accessible to their readers. Specifically, their relationship is not merely confined to digital web-based spaces, but also traverses into physical ‘in real life’ interactions. Bloggers often use social media platforms to organize ‘giveaways’, a variety of contests, or ‘meet & greets’. For example, they may invite readers to share their opinion on an issue or comment on a photo, and mail the best responders gifts and prizes. Some bloggers have also been known to organize ‘open’ giveaways in conjunction with the anniversary of their blogs or festive seasons such as Christmas, by promising to mail all readers who leave their mailing address a token of appreciation. In the past, these have included handicraft purses from trips abroad, handwritten cards, snack goodie bags, and beauty products. Some times, these giveaways are held in conjunction with contests organized by the blogger’s advertisers, where prizes are sponsored by a brand in exchange for publicity.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 Lastly, bloggers have also been known to organize ‘meet & greet’ sessions where readers can see bloggers in the flesh. These are often held in conjunction with an advertiser sponsored product and have taken the form of flea markets, tea parties, food tastings, hair and beauty sample services, or photography and autograph sessions. Sponsors may provide the venue, complimentary door gifts, food and beverage, or services in exchange for publicity on the blogger’s social media platforms. This has proven to be successful regardless of the type of product or reputation of the sponsor as the draw factor is the blogger herself. Local Twitter and Facebook trends noting snaking queues and the magnitude of the crowd is not uncommon, and readers are encouraged to post about the experience ‘live’ with a dedicated hashtag.

Web intimacies

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 2 The intimacy negotiated between bloggers and readers is commercial, mass, public, and technologically. It is supported by a system of relations I term ‘Perceived Interconnectedness’ on social media platforms, which allows for an engagement that is flat, interactive, and bi-directional. It is a by-product of the expectancies when using social media that can be communicated in a one-to-many or one-to-one structure. While this web intimacy may be strategized in a variety of ways, two of the most common are ‘privacy play’ and ‘soft structure’. In ‘privacy play’, bloggers aestheticize and package snippets of the ‘backstage’ to present the illusion of an intimate sharing where the boundaries of the conventionally ‘public’ and ‘private’ are blurred, thus acting clickbait in the form of ‘sneak peaks’ to sustain reader interest. In ‘soft structure’, the affordances of specific social media platform-based functions allow bloggers to maintain a reciprocal dialogue with readers. Carrying these interactions into physical places in real life further sustains the impression of a genuine intimacy between reader and blogger.


27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 Abidin, C. (2013) “Cyber-BFFs: Assessing women’s ‘perceived interconnectedness’ in Singapore’s commercial lifestyle blog industry”, Global Media Journal Australian Edition 7(1).

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 boyd, d. (2006). A Blogger’s Blog: Exploring the Definition of a Medium. Reconstruction: Studies in contemporary culture 6(4), viewed 15 June 2013, <http://reconstruction.eserver.org/064/boyd.shtml>.

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 Goffman, E.(1990). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Doubleday, New York.

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 Horton, D. & Wohl, R. R. (1956). Mass Communication and Para-social Interaction. Psychiatry 19(3): 215-229. Republished in Particip@tions 3 (1), viewed 15 June 2013, <http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Modules/TF33120/horton_and_wohl_1956.html>.

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 Lövheim, M. (2010). Young Swedish Female Top-Bloggers and the Performance of Authentic Selves. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, Suntec Singapore International Convention & Exhibition Centre, Suntec City, Singapore, Jun 21, 2010.

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 Version of Record: Abidin, Crystal (2015). Communicative intimacies: Influencers and Perceived Interconnectedness. Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, No.8. doi:10.7264/N3MW2FFG

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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