Authenticity and Digital Intimacy Between Influencers and Researchers*

Marie Hermanova**

Person holding smartphone. Free mobile phone image on Unsplash.

Ethnography of and on social media, in which my own research on female influencers on Czech Instagram is embedded, presents a growing, diverse and exciting field of research. It also places the ethnographer in an intricate network of relationships that are both more distant, yet also more intimate than their offline counterparts. As was already noted in the introductory post of this blog series, these new types of intimacies call for new types of reflections, both methodological and ethical. I choose here to explore two issues related to digital intimacy as both the subject and method of my research: the methodological dilemma of getting to know my informants by scrolling through their feeds and the ethical dilemma of reciprocating this intimacy via my own feed.

Digital intimacy as currency on Instagram

“Every time I feel like I’m out of breath, I read an email from one of you, full of this beautiful energy you all have. … I’m so grateful to have [you] all here. You are such an important and huge part of my life, it feels as if I know you all personally”, writes Tessa, a 30-year-old blogger and entrepreneur from Prague in one of her Instagram posts. She is in the middle of writing her second book and reconstructing a house she recently purchased with her husband while also caring for her two-year-old son. I know all this because Tessa has been on Instagram since the early stages of influencer culture in the Czech Republic, in the early 2010s, and she is sometimes considered the “founding mother” of influencer marketing in the Czech context. I have been following her Instagram account since 2014, long before I started my research. I know what her house looks like, what her child looks like, what her husband likes for breakfast, where she went to school and what her favourite colour is. Elsewhere, a user left a comment under a picture of Alex, another Czech influencer, from a ski resort in the Czech mountains: “I was standing right next to you in line for coffee today! I was too shy to come over and say hi, but it felt like seeing an old friend.  “You should have come! I’d love to talk to you,” Alex comments back, following it with a heart emoji.

Tessa and Alex are both successful Czech influencers I have been following for the past year as part of my research project on authenticity and gender normativity on Instagram. Within Instagram’s influencer culture, authenticity has become the main criteria of success, and influencers employ different strategies to produce an authentic self-presentation (Audrezet et al., 2017). There is a growing body of research exploring how social media influencers use authenticity to foster relatability and intimacy with their followers (Pooley, 2010; Enli, 2015; Abidin, 2015, 2016; Duffy & Hund, 2019; Reade, 2020). Digital intimacy as an affective connection between influencers and their followers that fosters a sense of familiarity and mutual trust is thus one of the key components of what Crystal Abidin calls the “performative ecology” of social media (Abidin, 2017). In other words, the sense of belonging, friendship and intimate connection between influencers and their followers is what reinforces the perceived authenticity of the influencer’s social media presence and thus makes them relatable to us. And relatability, in turn, is what enables influencers to successfully promote products and brands through personal recommendations and thus monetize their presence on Instagram. In my research, I have identified this fostering of intimacy as one of the main authenticity-building strategies employed by Czech female influencers on Instagram. [1]

“It feels as if I know you all personally”: The methodological dilemma

In the preparatory stages of my research, while I was analysing and scrolling through the various profiles of women I intended to engage in my research, I often caught myself feeling ambivalent – I also felt like I already knew the women despite having never spoken to them. Scrolling through someone’s Instagram profile often feels like a truly intimate experience, sometimes perhaps too intimate, because, as Alexandra Molotkow (2019) notes, someone else’s intimacy is “literally what is not for you”; hence why their intimacy is so compelling. In the offline ethnographic fieldwork, building the specific kind of trust and intimacy that is so crucial to participant observation can take months, even years, and it forces us to go through many awkward and sometimes unpleasant, yet necessary encounters. On Instagram, I was presented with so much information, everyday snippets of life, before I had even spoke to my respondents. It was all there, in the feed, seemingly just a few clicks away.

For a digital ethnographer, the research of authenticity and intimacy in the specific case of influencer communities on Instagram creates an interesting methodological dilemma: Where and when does the fieldwork start? What do I really do when I scroll and click? The process enables me, the ethnographer, to feel intimate with my research partners through engagement with the content they create. By engaging with it, I am turning their posts and stories into ethnographic data. This ambivalently intimate experience of scrolling down someone’s Instagram feed is, from this point of view, a specific ethnographic encounter and needs to be treated as such. Although it might seem one-sided, because it is – at that concrete moment in time – just me engaging with content that is already published, it is, from the research perspective, an interaction, between me and the influencer. Whereas, in the offline context, the presence of the researcher and their research partners is clearly marked by the time and place of the encounter, in the online context, this demarcation line is not always clear. Josie Reade (2020), for example, suggests always attempting to remain visible to the research partners through “liking” and commenting on their content, with their permission, to acknowledge that the researcher’s presence on the social media platform is, indeed, an ethnographic encounter of which both parties are aware. This situation requires the ethnographer to reflect on her/his engagement with the influencers’ content openly in their research output.

Negotiating intimacy and privacy: The ethical dilemma

 “It is not about only showing the good side of things,” says Vera, a 28-year-old fashion and beauty influencer. I want my followers to also see that I have bad days, I cry, not everything is rosy and pink all the time. I want them to know that we all have our bad days, we all fail sometimes and it’s okay if we talk about it.”

Being intimate enough to be relatable to followers often requires showing vulnerability, as Vera notes above. On the other hand, research indicates that women are more often than men the targets of hate speech and cyberbullying on social media (Duggan, 2017; Banet-Weiser, 2018; Bayer & Bárd, 2020). Moreover, the content of hate speech directed at men and women is different – women are at higher risk of being sexualized and subjected to threats of sexual violence (a 2016 study by Dlouhá et al. analysed gender-based online violence specifically in the Czech context and confirmed these trends). Almost all my informants experienced some sort of sexualized hate speech on their Instagram profiles. Maintaining a positive, safe space in which it is “okay to talk about bad things” is important to them both on a personal as well as economic level. In practice, it requires careful negotiation of what to reveal and where to draw the line on privacy. For female influencers, maintaining the relatability of their online personas while protecting themselves from the hate speech that inevitably comes whenever they accidentally reveal something considered to be “too much” is delicate, yet an absolutely vital task.

An illustrative example of this delicacy are posts about weight, health and acceptance of one’s own body. For many female influencers, it is important to show pictures of their bodies with imperfections, without filters or photoshopped parts, and they engage in the debate about the acceptance of body diversity and body positivity. These posts however easily trigger shaming and sexualized hate speech.

From the very beginning of my present research, the question of privacy over my online presence was very important to me. In my previous research on the media presence of migrants and refugees, I experienced hate speech myself, and, through the experiences of my research partners, I am familiar with the dread of being constantly harassed in a way that makes people want to disappear from the online space altogether. The experience taught me to very carefully distinguish what kind of content I post as public versus private, and it is one of the reasons why my own Instagram profile is now set to the private mode.

While talking with female influencers, I have however realized that disappearing from the Internet is a choice not immediately available to everyone, for example, people for whom being public on Instagram constitutes their source of income. For my informants, showing vulnerability is a necessary part of the strategy they employ in order to stay successful on Instagram, build their brands and monetize their content. The risk of being harassed and bullied, often in a very openly sexualized way by both women and men, is hard to avoid for them. The only way to escape it completely would be to not show anything personal or vulnerable at all. If they decide not to be intimate and thus not vulnerable, they might lose the trust of their followers and risk being perceived as inauthentic and “fake”. This could mean, in the end, the loss of the very social capital that enables them to work with brands and earn money from their online presence.

This subsequently calls into question the issue of reciprocity. If authenticity based on digital intimacy (which again is based on vulnerability) is the main currency in the ecosystem of influencer culture on Instagram, should the ethnographer doing participant observation in this ecosystem not also be part of it? John Postill (2013: 10) notes that the ethnographer’s presence on social media (in his case, Facebook) creates a situation that is “fundamentally awkward” for the researcher. The architecture of social media, which enables a crossing of the lines between various social groups of which we are a part, results in “digitally mediated ‘open plan’ sociality, a quality of social intercourse in which formerly discrete facets of our lives are now within the purview of our wider network” (ibid). On my Instagram profile, for example, people who would normally never meet, now become aware of each other. Moreover, if my account were public, my informants might also be aware of my private life, of what my flat looks like, with whom I spend time and what my favourite colour is. As Postill (2013: 11) notes, “Facebook brings into the semi-public personal spaces of ethnographers two sets of significant others, namely the researched and the non-researched, sometimes even blurring the distinction between the two.” And it is no different on Instagram. But that is exactly what the influencers do every day for a living, blurring the distinction between work and free time, the public and the private, creating the intimacy on which my ethnographic research, in the end, is built upon.

Doing research in this setting thus necessarily opens a discussion about ethical and methodological implications such as: how we remain authentic, engage in intimate ethnographic encounters and acknowledge the vulnerability of our research partners without becoming too awkward or vulnerable ourselves?


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[1] It is interesting to note that the authenticity strategies are significantly gendered, as Duffy and Hund (2019) also showed – in the content of male influencers that I have analyzed as part of another research project, the notion of intimacy was far less present, and mutual trust was often enhanced through what could be labeled “leadership strategies”, based on vocalizing political opinions and engaging in political debates.

* This contribution builds on the questions raised by Monika Palmberger and Philipp Budka in the first post of the blog post series “DEI Dialogues”.
Preferred citation: Hermanova, M. (2021, February 15). Authenticity and digital intimacy between influencers and researchers. Digital Ethnography Initiative Blog.

** Marie Heřmanová is a social anthropologist and writer based in Prague, Czech Republic. She works as a postdoc researcher at the Institute of Sociology of the Czech Academy of sciences and as an affiliate researcher at the Faculty of Humanities, Charles University. Her main research areas are internet culture, influencers, social media, online hate speech and disinformation and media representation of migrants and refugees. She’s also engaged in applied research as a member of the studio for applied anthropological research Anthropictures and writes for various Czech media. She tweets about her research and writing at @MarieHermanova.

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