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Going Viral, Selling Out: The Paradoxes of Visibility in the Attention Economy

Image:  Courtesy of Justin Flom
Wednesday, January 12, 2022, 11:00 am – 1:00 pm

Attention is a valuable resource for which content creators compete in the online “attention economy." This talk theorizes the value and logics of attention by asking, whose attention is valuable? How does attention convert into money or status, two things which are frequently at odds in cultural fields? And what risks come with high visibility, since greater viewership increases surveillance by platforms and theft by competitors? Through in-depth ethnographic research, I immersed into the world of viral content creators to understand the labor and economics behind the emergent creator economy. Creators develop what I call an “algorithmic imaginary” as they strategically push boundaries to maximize their chances of being seen, while avoiding platform discipline in a game of “cat-and-mouse.” I document how virality, a novel and extreme market position, reorients creators to new standards of authenticity. They come to understand artistic quality in algorithmically data-driven terms. Virality comes with the self-objectification of their bodies, particularly women’s bodies, which become tools to hook viewers’ attention. As they go viral, creators begin to pursue the extrinsic rewards of metrics and money afforded by platforms, that is, they “sell out,” replacing their personal, artistic, or feminist values with economic ones. The case of viral content creators invites a critical rethinking of the rules of art in the digital era.