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The Lifestyle Blog Genre

  • Julian HopkinsEmail author
Living reference work entry
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Part of the Springer Reference Sozialwissenschaften book series (SRS)

Abstract

Drawing upon a stage in the development of blogging in Malaysia from 2007 to 2009, this chapter outlines the emergence of the lifestyle blog from the personal blog. Drawing upon actor-network theory and the conceptualisation of branding work as affective relational labour, it argues that the advertising market was able to integrate personal bloggers, and capitalise upon the ability to closely measure online activity, to restabilise the disruption caused by the ‘voicy consumers’.

Keywords

Actor-network theory Advertising Blogs Digital media Genre Labour Microcelebrity Social media 

1 Introduction

This chapter will outline the beginnings of the personal blog genre in Malaysia. It will focus on the rooting of the blog in a local entangled audience, the evolution of the advertorial from the consumer review post, and the centrality of the measurement of online interactions. These processes help to explain the emergence of the lifestyle blog genre, an early example of microcelebrity (Senft 2013). The analysis will draw upon Callon’s (2001) argument, rooted in actor-network theory, to outline how these bloggers destabilised the existing media routes from advertisers to consumers, but also how they could become a means to restabilise the disrupted “economy of qualities” (ibid.).

It draws mostly upon data gathered during an ethnographic research project in Malaysia over three years (2007–2009) that included on- and offline participant observation, a survey, and interviews. The bloggers involved were primarily urban ethnic Chinese, who maintained English language blogs with daily readerships ranging from 500 to 10,000. The fieldwork comprised attending blogger events, participating in contests and related activities, maintaining two blogs, and interacting online.1

2 The Personal Blog Genre and Extended Parasocial Relations

Blogging began in the mid-1990s as a way of sharing regularly updated thoughts and links on a personal website, and over time different genres developed. Blogs oriented towards social and political commentary attracted the most academic and mainstream media interest, but the majority were ‘personal blogs’ (e.g. Cenite et al. 2009, p. 589). These descend from the personal paper diary, in that they focus on reflective comments on the quotidian life of the blogger, rather than any particular specialised topic. However, they are mostly opened to an indefinite audience, offer multimedia content, and readers can leave comments on the blog posts.

The 2003 launching of Project Petaling Street (PPS),2 a blog aggregator, was evidence of the increased interest in blogging in Malaysia, and some personal blogs were attracting audiences of several thousand readers per day. The diary format means that blogs enable an accumulation of minor, quotidian, details, and when this is done in a consistent manner, the result is a believable and personable representation of the blogger from which the regular readers can gain a strong sense of the blogger as a person. A distinguishing feature of blogs is that readers are usually able to make publicly visible comments on each post, and it was not uncommon in the earlier days of blogging for the blogger to regularly answer many or all of the comments made. A 2009 survey (n=553) by the author showed 80 % of bloggers and readers agreeing that a blog should have a comments function; only 12.7 % reported never leaving a comment, and 17.6 % had never responded to another commenter (Hopkins 2009). In addition, bloggers may engage with each other in ongoing conversations, creating hyperlinked networks with dialogical potential.

In effect, the dialogical blog becomes a social space that is produced not only by the blogger, but by a multidirectional dialogue of voices, enabling extended parasocial relations. Whereas the original concept of parasocial relations by Horton and Wohl emphasised “the lack of effective reciprocity” that separate these from face-to-face relationships, the “illusion of [a] face-to-face relationship with the performer” (1956, p. 215) becomes less of an illusion when direct and regular interactions between the blogger and her audience occur, although the relationship is still characterised by an unequal asymmetrical reciprocity (see also Marwick 2015). Bloggers usually carefully measure the relative advantages and disadvantages of personal revelations (Abidin 2013), particularly when advertising income becomes a factor.

As Lüders et al. explain, genres are textual practices that frame and enable certain forms of social interaction; by doing so, they tend to replicate those social contexts, but are also dynamic (2010, p. 950). Personal blogging in Malaysia had reached a point where the relatively stabilised conventions and expectations of the genre had emerged to sustain persistent interpersonal and social dynamics – privileging certain forms of action and excluding others, drawing boundaries around the contingently meaningful. When interviewed in 2008, Tommy (probably the most successful personal blogger at the time) explained how a particular viral post had pushed him “from a nobody to a somebody”. He had noticed the “phenomenon of celebrity bloggers”, and in his 2005 “April Fool” post he posed in a series of pictures humorously lampooning them. The prominence of this post increased when the targeted ‘blogebrities’ commented on and linked to it, and his own audience grew. This story suggests that the personal blog genre had achieved a certain maturity by that time, in that it had taken on a form recognisable enough to be lampooned.

Lüders et al. also argue that genres enable the “coordination of specific practices” (2010, p. 950), and early practices such as ‘blogmeets’, where bloggers would meet offline to get to know each other better (see also Reed 2005, p. 225), demonstrate how the extension of parasocial relations was supplemented by interpersonal and social coordination happening across the on- and offline spheres. The first large one in Malaysia was organised around PPS in 2005, and Tommy described a typical encounter in his blog:

A typical conversation at the bloggers meet-up went something like this:

Blogger:HEYYYYYYY.... Hello {Tommy}!”

{Tommy}: “Ummm… hi!” *scans for name tag*

Blogger: “Its me, my name is HunnyWunnyBunnyKins [or some other obscure online nicknames]. Remember?”

{Tommy}: “Oh! Hi! Yea yea, I remember you! You commented before. How you doing?”

*Repeat process with 20 other bloggers* (Tommy, June 2005; original emphasis)

Another blogger, Andrew also mentioned how online interactions primed offline interactions, explaining that it was easier to break the ice, “and then just happen to start to talk, and then you probably answer the same [question] that was never answered in that particular blog post”. Thus we can see how bloggers carry extended parasocial relationships over to offline contexts, contributing to a further stabilisation of the genre in both its textual and social manifestations.

3 The Consumer Review Post and Voicy Consumers

Reflecting their own experiences and interests, personal blogs vary in content from personal reflections on relationships to everyday mundanities, but one particular sub-genre is worth focusing on – the ‘consumer review post’. This typically involved blogging about a recent purchase, or perhaps a paid experience such as a restaurant meal or movie. Chee Keong was notorious for posting about his recreational drug use, but also kept up a lively account of other activities – one of which was to try out new fast food menus, and at the end of one such post in May 2004, he jokingly wrote “This post was sponsored by McDonald’s ;)”. Through these informative expressions of taste bloggers reflect on their experiences and develop relations with readers who also consume similar goods. In his ironic aside, we can see an implicit understanding of the aim of marketing which, Slater argues, is to be able to make an object “meaningful and desirable within specific social relations […] defined and represented in terms of consumer lifeworlds” (2002, p. 247). As their audience grew, the bloggers and commenters became increasing prominent examples of what Callon calls “active, interactive, voicy consumer[s] […] in the economy of qualities” (2001, pp. 11, 15; emphasis added) – these ‘voicy consumers’ become part of the process of attaching particular goods to a market, through the ‘qualification’ of goods that are associated with particular properties, translating them into objects of value in the market context (Callon et al. 2002).

The most basic qualification of goods in conventional economics is their price, but business strategists seek to downplay this criterion to avoid the “‘commoditization’ of their products and services” – whereby only the price matters for “products regarded as generic and interchangeable” (Foster 2007, p. 716). The added value of brands comes primarily from the relational work that consumers invest in the consumption and display of these goods, thus distinguishing – or “qualifying”, as Callon (2001) would put it – different products from each other. As we shall see below, advertisers saw in personal blogs an opportunity to leverage the existing relations created through the labour of bloggers and readers, by engaging with them and redirecting ‘voicy consumers’ towards branding-related qualifications.

4 Glocalising Blog Advertising

Amidst increased mainstream media reports and blog audiences, and spurred by the affluent demographic of many blog readers, advertisers began to take note. In August 2005 a Singaporean telecommunications company approached Tommy to display a banner advertisement3; later, a regular reader of his blog, who was also the local Marketing Manager of a multinational car company, contacted him for an ‘advertorial’ – a paid-for blog post – that appeared in May 2006. Invitations by restaurants were another example of blogs being enrolled for public relations purposes, and in May 2007 a restaurant offered to a host a birthday party for a leading blogger and her twenty blogging guests, in the expectation of gaining online exposure.4 Thus ad-hoc arrangements were developing, but in early 2007 two blog advertising networks were founded and rapidly registered thousands of blogs, formalising and becoming effective go-between agents for both bloggers and advertisers – one of these, “BlogAdNet” (a pseudonym) became a locus of the author’s participant observation.

The opportunity for the bloggers lay in the disjuncture between the globally available internet, dominated by American and European interests, and the local Malaysian advertising market. The globalised internet audience did not suit local advertisers, but Malaysian bloggers were successfully engaging local audiences. The globalised Google AdSense did not serve personal bloggers well, as its keyword-based system was most suited to niche blogs focused on single topics, and in addition there was little use of AdSense by local advertisers at the time. In an advertorial commissioned by BlogAdNet as part of their launch, Tommy also argued that Google AdSense did not work for most Malaysian bloggers and concluded that with BlogAdNet: “you can actually enjoy the products or services being advertised on Malaysian blogs! […] Relevance. That’s the keyword” (March 2007). In this example of “glocalisation”5 of the internet (Miller and Slater 2000, p. 103), BlogAdNet leveraged global trends by building upon the local entangled relations developing through and on blogs, in particular through transforming the consumer review post and blogmeets.

5 Entangling Blogs and Blogmeets

The evolution of the ‘consumer review post’ into the more formalised commercial ‘advertorial’ illustrates the process of transformation from the personal blog to the lifestyle blog. Alvin, a blogger and journalist, explained that “advertorials in newspapers you tend to write it like a news piece and things like that; on blogs they let you personalise it”. Thus the advertorial epitomises the entanglement of the personal blog and the commercial message. The advertorial is expected to be woven into the usual prosaic narrative of the personal blog post, its casualness belying the careful planning and negotiation that goes into its creation. Interviewees explained that they would receive a client brief, including instructions such as how to use particular pictures, ‘brand phrases’ (relevant to search engine optimisation (SEO) and marketing strategies), and hyperlinks. Their draft was screened by BlogAdNet, then forwarded to the advertisers. Most reported that the clients would request relatively minor changes, such as product details, or the removal of inappropriate language and/or pictures; however, on occasion, there would be a repeated back and forth. Occasionally, this resulted in the blogger refusing to carry the advertorial as requested by the client, but an agreement was usually reached. Since each blog post is usually an individual webpage with its own unique URL, indexable via a search engine, the advertorial becomes a quasi-permanent advertisement, contained on a single web page designed for SEO, with traceable incoming links, visits, and other derivable metrics.

The most important aspect of advertorials for advertising clients is the opportunity to have their brand presented to the blog readers by a trusted interlocutor, who is able to translate their brand message into one that resonates with the relationships already present. Although not all bloggers agreed to do all advertorials, they are the most lucrative form of blog monetising6 and are a clear example of how disruptive voicy consumers can be internalised and the advertising market stabilised – it is an effective example of what Foster argues is the appropriation of “consumption work” (2005, p. 11). Thus, in 2008, reflecting upon the availability of advertising revenue, Chee Keong (who wrote the McDonald’s consumer review post referred to above) said:

it has affected blogging since because […] it used to be that you promote a thing because you like it, I used to do like KFC, McDonalds, I really liked doing that when they have a new product. But now I’d be doing it because, there’s money in it.

The transformation of the blogmeet also demonstrates the process of “attachment” of consumers to the “strategic management of product qualification” (Callon et al. 2002, pp. 201–202). The hosted birthday party mentioned above was a precursor to a variety of events, some of which were variations of press launches, while others were more focused on bloggers – with products such as mobile phones or mobile subscription services being launched at festive marketing events that included music, refreshments, and contests. In this, they became a means to attach the network of bloggers and their readers to market-oriented practices, and brand narratives became included in blog posts about the blogmeets.

6 The Lifestyle Blog

With the reordering of priorities and practices that accompanied the opportunities offered by advertising income and marketing activities, a new genre emerged. The lifestyle blog retains the personal blog’s focus on the quotidian experiences of the blogger, but reduces the more intimate emotional and personal accounts in favour of consumer-led topics and accounts of social events. The latter are usually directly or indirectly related to public relations, marketing and advertising campaigns, and the lifestyle blogger receives material incentives for a significant proportion of his or her blog posts. The money from blogging, and the events that bloggers get invited to, often support the consumer lifestyle that is then reflected in the blog, but – as Nicky explained – it may simultaneously reduce the time to do “normal” posts.

To understand the emergence of the lifestyle blog, we can turn back to the concept of “economy of qualities” (Callon 2001), and see how personal blogs themselves were qualified in ways that made them suitable for advertising. When bloggers sign up with BlogAdNet, they are required to install a proprietary ‘web counter’ that records individual views of the blog pages, as well as their geographical location. These are essential for BlogAdNet’s clients, who want to connect with as many Malaysian consumers as possible. While the blogger – whose life experiences are most attuned to the interests of local audiences – carries out affective labour, ‘translating’ the brand message in ways that leverage extended parasocial relationships with readers, the statistics provide an essential metrological translation device between the blog and the marketing analyses that underpin advertisers’ budgetary decisions. James, a BlogAdNet co-founder, explained that “the advertiser has completely no way of measuring how effective the advertorial is” (original emphasis) unless the blog had a “critical mass” of 500 unique daily visitors. The measurements would include page views, analysis of comments, and clicks through to the client’s chosen web destinations. The importance of clicks is central, as it is a calculable expression of a relational tie; however, the validity of these clicks is carefully policed for instances of ‘click fraud’ – i.e. clicks that do not represent a genuine interest.

7 Conclusions

Personal bloggers attract an audience through artfully exhibiting chosen topics in a resonant expressive style, and they strengthen the persistence of this audience through enabling and engaging in regular and meaningful dialogical interaction via their blog and associated social media. When they engaged in consumption work, qualifying goods and carrying the brand as they built relationships with other, these autonomous agents destabilised the advertising market. However, market professionals were able to enrol them by paying them to promote particular goods, and the ability to measure online audience and interactions enabled advertisers to generate statistical measures of return on investment.

The successful shift from personal to lifestyle blogs demonstrates the contingent interactions of cultural and economic factors with technological components. While the paid component of lifestyle blogs undermined the perception of authenticity fundamental to personal blogs, most bloggers rationalised this by distinguishing between advertorials – disclosed in various ways – and their other posts. This chapter has outlined a period in the development of social media where blogs were at the forefront. As usually happens with the internet, new platforms emerge and users shift their patterns of use – now, many of the above kinds of microcelebrity-related activities occur on Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and other platforms. However, the above is presented as an early analysis of these trends that can be used as a basis for understanding the ways in which online social and interpersonal relations are becoming increasingly commoditised.

Fußnoten

  1. 1.

    Interview details are, in order of appearance: Tommy, August 2008; Andrew, August 2009; Alvin, October 2009; Chee Keong, July 2008; Nicky, October 2009; James, February 2009. To maintain confidentiality, pseudonyms are used and blog post URLs are not provided.

  2. 2.

    http://petalingstreet.org/ (accessed 14.05.2016).

  3. 3.

    Banner advertisements were a significant part of the advertising strategies, but are not discussed in detail here due to lack of space and close similarities in terms of analysis with conventional mainstream media advertisements.

  4. 4.

    Blog post, Maango, May 2007.

  5. 5.

    The term “glocalisation” that originated in the sphere of international marketing was introduced in social and cultural sciences by Roland Robertson (1992, pp. 173–174).

  6. 6.

    At the time, one advertorial could pay between MYR 500 and 4,500. A starting graduate monthly salary in Malaysia was about MYR 2,000.

References

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Copyright information

© Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Arts and Social SciencesMonash University MalaysiaBandar SunwayMalaysia

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