Editors’ Note: This article is part of the series Digital Anthropologies in East Asia.
In August 2016, a minute-long video of a middle-aged man flamboyantly singing and dancing to an upbeat number known as “PPAP” or “Pen Pineapple Apple Pen” went viral globally on YouTube. Singing in Japanese-accented English about a mutant combination of pens, pineapples, apples, and pens, he quickly became iconized by his gaudy ensemble of snake-print shirt and pants, leopard-print scarf, and sunglasses. The man was Piko-Taro, a fictional character played by entertainer DJ Kosaka Daimaou, who is actually 44-year-old Japanese comedian Mr Kazuhiko Kosaka.
The original video amassed over 124 million views on YouTube on top of reposts by numerous social media accounts, such as the over 71 million views on humour page 9GAG’s Facebook page. It didn’t take long before tens of thousands different variants of the PPAP video accumulated on the internet, cycling through the lifecycle of internet virality including YouTube content vernaculars including covers, remixes, parodies, loops, challenges, compilations, ‘how to’ tutorials, reactions, and rants, as well as capillaries of virality on other platforms including forum discussions, institutionalized wiki pages, celebrity endorsements, and the hawking of official and bootleg merchandise.
The second wave of virality arose when media reports around the world attempted to shed light on the new internet celebrity and his breakout hit. However, it was at juncture that discourse took a troubling turn. Dozens of global news outlets branded PPAP “the next Gangnam Style” and Piko-Taro as “the next Psy”, after the South Korean musician’ Psy’s hit single Gangnam Style in October 2012, as if all East Asian artistes were indistinctive caricatures. Global media also described the song and entertainer as “bizarrely hilarious” and “nonsensical”, or “the stupid thing” as “another pop meme imported from Asia” that has “started to make inroads into Western internet circles”. This troubling discourse that was amplified by for-profit clickbait popular media framed Asian internet virality as the exotic Other, the underdog and the oriental “magical” intrusion against the backdrop of a normal, hegemonic, Anglo-centric internet meme culture.
This media cycle is not only routine but also seemingly successful, as viral history repeated itself when Western media discovered the photo-editing app MeituXiuxiu in January 2017. Global reports similarly conflated Chinese and Japanese cultures through makeshift verbs like “kawaii-fy”, committed cultural misplacements like “plenty of senpai”, and indulged in sensationalist descriptors of East Asia such as “The bizarre, pink-soaked realms of Chinese mobile app stores are strange, seemingly alien places”.
As a sociocultural anthropologist who has studied the manufacturing of vernacular internet celebrity in Singapore and Southeast Asia since 2010, such condescending and orientalist global media reactions angers me. But they also spur me to expand my research to consider the recentering (to borrow from media scholar Koichi Iwabuchi 2002) and decentering (to borrow from anthropologist Christine Yano 2013) of globalization when considering how East Asian internet celebrity emerge and circulate as cultural flows.
Historically, internet celebrity has been most extensively theorized as “microcelebrity”. As originally coined by global studies scholar Theresa Senft in 2008, it is a self-branding practice that relied upon selective disclosure, the cultivating of affective ties, and the maintenance of a digital persona as if it were “a branded good”. To date, microcelebrity has been theorized as labour, identified in branding, linguistic practice, academia, activism, and software developers.
However, a vast majority of existing research looks into instances of White, English-speaking, middle-class microcelebrity in different spaces, or applies Anglo-centric theories to different localized case studies around the world. This is despite the fact that East Asian giants like China are among the leading global producer of technology and dominate exclusive social media platforms such as Tudou, Weibo, and Weixin; and that East Asian populations in countries like Singapore and South Korea are among the most lucrative and established microcelebrity industries. Shifting away from Anglo-centric, English-speaking, global North-platforms, only a handful of work focuses on national scapes with distinctive internet governance and platform politics, such as China, Indonesia, and Singapore.
In fact, microcelebrity is so uniquely pervasive in some parts of the world that I have studied a highly intensive and vocational internet celebrity I call “Influencers”. As microcelebrity becomes increasingly common as global behaviour, it raises more questions rather than homogenizes. For instance, in 2008, ‘micro’ referenced the limited amount of fame an internet personality could garner, compared to a Hollywood celebrity. In 2017, this must be recalculated, given convergences between traditional and new media, and the periphery-center-periphery flows of popular culture worldwide.
More troubling is the fact that most research from around the world continues to apply Anglo-centric theories to localized case studies, regardless of appropriateness or fit. Thus, new research in this area should commit to re-theorizing microcelebrity studies, by interrogating citation politics, intellectual biases, and the value of conducting microcelebrity research for public good.
East Asian internet celebrities – through their various incarnations as transient virality, established memes, groomed child celebrities, politicized posterchildren, weaponized microcelebrity, or bona fide Influencers – are valuable lens through which we can understand the makings of a society. Above and beyond the mere analysis of fame and the attention economy, such highly conspicuous yet understudied aspects of the youth digital labour market provide insights into self-entrepreneurship, cultural branding, and generational innovation in an increasingly technocratic society.
As the global Influencer industry continues to register milestones and developments in legality, economics, cultural issues, and social issues, anthropological rootings and interrogations will give due care and empathy to the context, vocabulary, and cultural praxis of everyday internet vernaculars in East Asia and beyond.
Dr Crystal Abidin is an anthropologist of vernacular internet cultures. She is Postdoctoral Fellow with the Media Management and Transformation Centre (MMTC) at Jönköping University, Researcher with Handelsrådet (Swedish Retail and Wholesale Development Council), and Adjunct Research Fellow with the Centre for Culture and Technology (CCAT) at Curtin University. Reach her at wishcrys.com.