As someone who at times seems to only exist on Twitter, I’m fascinated by the ways in which people use the platform to craft their own narratives. But I also love the off-the-beaten-path accounts – bots, parodies, and what I like to call commentary.
I spend a lot of time looking at this third type, namely through examples of @WillMcAvoyACN and @SwiftOnSecurity. I stand by my point that these are not parody accounts. In the latter, as much as they’re prenteding to be Taylor Swift, they’re not going through the daily motions or documenting on her activities. Instead, it’s almost like she was dropped in an alternative dimension – same music, same image, but just talking about tech security instead of herself. Taylor’s persona, which was much more present at the beginning of the account than it is now, served as a gimmick to interest people in the content. McAvoy is a bit different – it’s a fictional persona – but it still prioritizes content over defined character. In his interactions with fans as well as real-life reporters, McAvoy serves as a commentary of journalism by playing through the persona as well as commenting on its usage to hold people accountable for the things they say.
So, as I wrote on Slack:
Inspired by the Twitter account SwiftOnSecurity, I’m looking to build a Twitter profile that engages/raises awareness around a keyword, but doing so through a persona that challenges or distorts the messages being presented. How does this observational view of a topic – one that a persona may have a reasonable stake in – change the ways in which we understand the topic? And in what ways do the tools available on Twitter – GIFs, photos, hashtags, polls, locations – distort or shape the ways in which we understand the project? Thinking around questions from Chun and Parise, why do we invest in this information even when the likelihood of the person behind it false? In what ways does this allow us to imagine the persona and the issues complexly? Can we explore these complexities in a project like this? In what ways do we see a persona like SwiftOnSecurity highlighting or hiding the relationship? Ideally, I’ll be looking at both my construction and reception by an audience (depending on what kind of audience is generated) to talk about how distortion functions in this environment.
THE EXPERIMENTAL PROCESS
Choosing a fictional persona was the easy part, despite my initial struggles in class. After searching through GIFs and people with exciting social media accounts, I came across a great Vanity Fair article in which Britney’s use of Instagram made her one of the top ten accounts to follow in 2017. (It’s really that wacky – take a look at this deep dive at EliteDaily.) Who better to explore than someone who already has a captivating social media presence?
Finding a topic was a bit more difficult. I considered mental health advocacy, something Spears never explicitly talks about but is central to her public narrative following the events of 2006-7. I found great accounts to follow, mental health advocates on Twitter, and started curating Spears’s own social media accounts to build/critique on these ideas. But in doing so, it became uncomfortable for me to distort from that position and to put words in Spears’s mouth. I’m not well-versed in mental health advocacy, nor did it feel right to distort Britney in this way. Mental health is a major part of her public narrative, even if she’s never publicly endorsed it. But to place it on her in this project felt like an ableist, violent distortion of that narrative.
So after scrapping the research I had done for that project, I switched back to something a bit easier and also a bit more difficult: social media. What initially brought to Britney Spears was her wacky use of Instagram. For an assignment in which we’re looking at distortion, the account became a way to explore the ways in which distortion functions…by distorting someone else’s narrative. (Weird, right?) Having Spears talk about how we use social media and its tools to distort a person’s narrative seemed like a fascinating fit.
I struggled to find a balance between wanting to channel Spears’s voice and wanting to take on the voice of my own behind the account. On the one hand, as I’ll go into later on, Spears’s voice is key to understanding why her accounts are so fascinating to the outside world. On the other hand, I’m not sure how much Britney Spears would talk about these issues in her social media accounts. InfoSec Taylor Swift works because on some level, Taylor’s interest in privacy is relevant to her overall persona. But it’s the absurdity of the language applied to the account that makes it interesting. I didn’t want to go that extreme – I wanted the two personalities to be at odds with each other – the commentary and jokes being in the same form as Spears.
Some questions I came across in this process: What does carefully crafting a persona take? What does it mean to talk about social media through Britney Spears – someone who seems to have captivated the Internet by her weirdness and Mom-like attitude? Would this be an interesting perspective to discuss? How do you carefully craft a feed, a brand, or a marketing strategy to promote a person’s ideas? And does this give you any insight into what Britney’s motivations might be on social media?
To go through the questions in order:
- Crafting a persona takes care and effort. Spears grew on me as a person in this experiment, and it made me try to carefully consider what her established popstardom had already created as a persona in order to engage properly. What could I capitalize on? What was off-limits? What iconic lyrics or GIFs made sense to use in this case? Distorting isn’t just putting up on a profile pic with her image and then tweeting my normal way – it requires acknowledgement of how that persona changes the way the info & the person could be viewed.
- Since Spears’s social media is already the talk of the town, it wasn’t too much of a leap to think about her and social media in conversation with each other. But it did become difficult into how much I wanted to project on her. Advertisements of her most recent album and song were easy – of course that’s branded content she’d want to share with her followers. But are her regular workout videos elements of #fitspo? Is she trying to make a statement about her body? Or is she just trying to stay ~relevant~? I felt myself not wanting to put words in her mouth, so to speak – to not direct her persona in any one direction, but to open up the options for which Spears could speak. In that sense, it made it extremely interesting to take on Spears as a perspective – in some ways, her account feels more wacky and real than most other accounts. For someone who’s spent a majority of life in the spotlight, social media is very much a way for Spears to piece together her own identity. And so I’d think she’d be very aware of image and persona in these digital spaces – and this experiment let me play with that struggle, ever so slightly.
- Again, crafting a feed and voice for an account takes a lot of work. After my initial overhaul of mental health research, I found myself doing careful research into the biggest issues of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. (Here’s where InfoSec Taylor Swift has it easy – they are clearly an expert in their field, while I only dabble in social media management.)
- In terms of insight, Britney certainly grew on me. All the weirdness and wackiness that magazines picked up on doesn’t seem to be that weird at all on Twitter. (Maybe a change of platform would change my distortion?) Instead, Britney’s account came off for the most like any other celebrity Twitter account – carefully curated, positive inspiration, and Mom-like. At times, her motivation is to promote her album and performance schedule. Sharing moments from her kids, impromptu fashion runways, and funny faces are part of the ~perfect~ celebrity life. Giving her fans and followers this insight into her personal persona, even while carefully curated, plays directly into the conversations around Facebook Stories, Instagram, and Twitter influencers that my account shares.
Here’s the account. There are roughly fifty tweets scheduled through April 7 across Buffer and TweetDeck. (And I’ll probably be jumping in over the period to see if I can add to it in real-time.) These tweets consist of five categories:
- Retweets of Spears’ account using Buffer, sometimes with commentary, mostly without. Getting a sense of how she uses Twitter, and how it relates to Twitter at large
- Spears-related social media articles: commenting on her use of Instagram or Snapchat, her friends and family, and the expansion of celeb-stalking by paparazzi
- Articles about social media: mostly covering Facebook Stories, the digital distraction, and the role of social media influencers
- Spears-related tweets, featuring her lyrics with minor edits (think FeministTaylorSwift or early, early InfoSec Taylor Swift.)
- GIFs of Spears with commentary related to social media (think annoying Buzzfeed articles, or Common White Girl tweets)
I’m not necessarily interested in the type of response this account might get. My guess is that most of the people who will come across it will be a) because of this post or b) bots coming after Britney’s name. Instead, I was much more invested in the experimental process. What does it mean to distort on Twitter? Do I think this carefully about how I curate my own feed? (Yes.) Do institutions? Do parody accounts?
More relevant to our course discussions, what happens when we think about people as the mode of storytelling for distortion? What relevance does perspective have in distorting an issue? Why does it matter that these are being tweeted from a separate account instead of my own? What does this distortion accomplish, anyhow? Why does it thrive on Twitter (parody and fandom) or Instagram (the land of finstas) but not Facebook or Reddit? In digital spaces, where face-to-face (or the digital equivalent) interaction is a mode of transaction, why might it matter so much that distortion occurs?
If anything, this assignment taught me about my own willingness (or perhaps unwillingness) to distort. Like the true Britney, the account leaves so much open to interpretation. In its attempts to distort, it comes off almost cheesy and overly-performative. (Don’t forget about Britney’s ultimate act of Twitter cheesiness and over-performance.) But aren’t we all cheesy an overly-performative on Twitter? Can we ever distort what is true?
[I’ll update with some embedded Tweets as the week goes on.]
Emily Esten is a MA candidate in Public Humanities at Brown University. More info on me and examples of my work may be found at https://www.emilyesten.com. Header image from https://www.flickr.com/photos/spears_womanzz/5283382176