Instafame… Instashame… Instafame

On social media, it can be fast to rise and quick to fall. And rise and rise again. But who’s really watching?


Elaine Heng.jpgScreen grab of Elaine Heng in an Owndays marketing video

By Misha Wong

The media called the “spat” a “saga”, yet that had not caused influencer Elaine Jasmine Heng to lose any influence, let alone face. Not in the slightest. Despite a frankly embarrassing video that she posted to explain her side of the story behind the dispute with jewellery brand By Invite Only, Ms Heng’s popularity has increased. Her IG account in April, following the public row, registered 83.7K followers. Today, just three months later, the number has jumped to 86.3K, a 3.1 percent increase in a quarter of a year, not bad at all if you consider tourist arrivals to our island for the whole of last year was a 6.2 percent rise over 2016.

I don’t know if, in terms of reach, that’s impressive, but I think that that’s quite a lot of people—assuming there are no bots among them—following an individual with no apparent personal attributes one might call impressive. Or, fashion flair that can be considered inspiring. Whatever reason people have been compelled to click ‘follow’ on her page, it is not clear. Yet, Japanese eyewear retail chain Owndays saw it gainful to engage her for their latest video marketing. The dubious professional standing of some influencers be damned.

I suppose that’s the beauty of social media: there’s no difference between Instafame and Instashame. Who was it who said even bad publicity is good publicity? Ms Heng’s questionable antics with some of the brands that have engaged her did not appear to have put a damper on her career-via-social-media. Since By Invite Only’s should-be-ruinous disclosure, she has been engaged by Marigold Peel Fresh and the Singapore Maritime Foundation, to name just two. Is it possible that By Invite Only is a small business and their experience with Ms Heng would not have knocked off the IG/FB star’s stature among those organisations with marketing muscle who are besotted by her?

Elaine Heng 2Screen grab of video of Elaine Heng, looking like alter ego Si En, promoting Owndays online and in store

I supposed Owndays engaging a social media habitué is understandable and a matter of time. They are no longer the sole player in prescriptive eyewear retail that offers quality and affordable glasses “in 20 minutes”, and for all to see the assembly process. Compatriot-competitor Zoff has taken a slice of the pie and local upstarts such as Glimpse is quickly setting itself up as a worthy rival. Owndays’s aligning with Elaine Heng (let’s keep it short!) is strategic given their desire to be a long-term player in the local retail scene, and possibly a bonus, considering that they are likely keen to reach out to her friends, followers, and contemporaries. This isn’t just influencer engagement, this is influencer employment.

In the video, currently screened in-store, Ms Heng, dressed—all white—in a wrap-dress that could have been sponsored by Love, Bonito, and looking all wide-eye eager for her “experience”, she performs as if this was a spin-off of StarCrossed, the Toggle series that made her an actress. Trying on glasses offered to her by a store hand, she uttered flatly, “My artsy friends would love this,” pretentiousness in tact. Who would have guessed that just three months ago, this was the same defiant, argumentative, and hungry girl who posted a video of herself challenging the reasonable charges against her while slurping noodles?!

If you believe that what goes up must come down, then you may be well served to know that in social media, coming down means you land on a trampoline of unwavering supporters who would send you back up again. Users and perusers of IG and the like have short memories. Influencers and (the more desirable) KOLs (key opinion leaders) take advantage of that, deflecting unwelcome attention with ever-more drool-worthy photos of themselves. As Huawei spokesperson Peter Gauden told the BBC about the P20 Pro’s camera capability and can perhaps describe influencer obsession: “Their Instagram feeds will look far more premium than all of their friends, and it will give the appearance, of course, that they are living in a far more premium life than everybody else.” The representations of present fun, splendour, and indulgence would obliterate past—even recent—misdemeanors. Ill behaviour, bad manners/profanities, and dubious practices are prevalent enough among the community that most followers—kindred souls—prefer to sweep aside the misdeeds of their idols in favour of absorbing (and liking) glorious posts.

KOL & MediaKOLs have their own line when registering at media events. Photo: Zhao Xiangji

Influencers and KOLs are such a force to reckon with that at media events, they have their own registration line. More often than not, their numbers are larger than those representing traditional media outlets, so much so that some journalists who see themselves as the real deal have chosen not to attend so as not to be outshone by the darlings of the influencer-sphere. It amuses me to see how brand marketing heads, themselves social-media types, eagerly court influencers and KOLs—feted as celebrities, adored as ascendants.

For the followers that the brands are really after, influencer posts are entry points and exposure to popular consumption. Many young consumers look to this group of self-made stars rather than trained journalists for what is trending (not necessarily selling). Whether influencer association or involvement leads to sales conversion is not quite clear. Brands are mostly tight-lipped about the numbers, as I have learned. Many seem to agree that it has, by and large, been about branding than sales lead.

Influencers know this: they are not directly responsible for driving sales. The crux of their business is the number of their followers. The quality of past brand collaborations is, therefore, possibly secondary to those who presently engage them. Elaine Heng, as I see it, knows that. So do many others. Lapses in judgement is more likely brushed aside in social media than in, say, print media, where advertising dollars loom large above the heads of writers whose column inches seek to delight the ad sales department and corroborate advertiser claims. I am not sure why there is unbridled trust in what influencers can truly offer. Or why unquestioning confidence in their true abilities outside drawing followers by large numbers endear influencers to marketers. Could it be some kind of envy that prompts ardent affiliation: Looking across the street and seeing a nicer house, bigger car, better-dressed influencer?

Daryl Aiden Yow 2018Photographer-influencer Daryl Yow waiting to tell fans how he did it. Photo: Zhao Xiangji

Another rise-and-fall Instagrammer is possibly waiting in the wings to leap up again. He rose to be a hot-shot photographer, then he’s not. He was in demand and then he’s reviled. He had hundreds of photos and then he has only one extant black square. His is possibly the most unpopulated IG account now, all because he was exposed as a Photoshop-dependent plagiarist, who created montages on a photographic base not belonging to him without crediting the source. Digital tools may have elevated him, but, tragically, it is digital media that brought him down, specifically stock photos. Yet, I think Daryl Aiden Yow (like Elaine Jasmine Heng, many influencers like using a second Christian name), already apologetic, is waiting to bombard IG with more of those sweet, pastel-hued photos that had attracted 100K+ followers to his page.

On social media, originality is in the eye of the beholder. One, accordingly, does not have to be transparent about sources as long as one appears authentic. I do not know if Mr Yow had from the beginning considered originality crucial to his work. The Nanyang Poly alumnus, who studied mechatronics, had an early pop start as a singer with a predilection for Taylor Swift songs. He sang for his school’s open house and even posted his listenable renditions on YouTube. He was also able to count namesake and fellow YouTuber Dee Kosh (aka Darryl Ian Koshy) a fan, even when the Power 98FM DJ admitted that he isn’t a Taylor Swift fan. It probably did not dawn on Mr Yow that while you can do cover versions of songs, you don’t generally do cover versions of photographs, and stay mum about it.

No one is able to tell me why Mr Yow didn’t eventually pursue singing. His online musical career was reported to have won him fans in Asia, and that was probably his first taste of fame and following (unlike his photos, his songs are still online and can be found on his YouTube channel). Somewhere along the career line, influencer as a profession summoned. Who had he hoped to influence, he had not made known either. When had he taken up photography, it wasn’t certain. How had he learned it, no one bothered. It is conceivable that, as with his singing, Mr Yow is self-taught. Like the recording of his tracks, he appeared totally dependent on digital means as well as enhancers. Covers and sampling in music-making are so accepted that the budding photographer seamlessly made them crossover to his lens work, and was not eventually able to draw the line between what’s original, what’s not, or what’s half.

Darylaiden IGScreen grab of Daryl Aiden Yow’s IG page at the height of his fame. Photos: Daryl Yow/Instagram

Perhaps the world of rose-tinted photography and KOL fashion was more appealing to Daryl Yow. Before he established himself as an influencer-photographer with the numbers, Mr Yow was working with professional and life partner, Isaac Tng, artist/digital designer cum non-practising architect who runs the boutique design-and-branding agency Sixmoredays. Prior to Sixmoredays officially establishing an office in December 2015, both fellows were working on-the-go in the cafes and bars in the Tanjong Pagar area, where they, according to those familiar with them, were often seen with their notebook computers. So regular were they in the area that in 2015, Mr Tng was able to know that “a café in Duxton was going for a very low takeover fee” and offered himself as matchmaker. At about the same time, Mr Yow, who told The Straits Times in 2016 that “women’s clothing tends to fit me better”, had set up an online fashion retail business, Putongren (普通人), with a partner—fellow Instagrammer Dingxuan (IG: Twiggtwiggz) on IG, where unspectacular (“basic”, some called them) clothes were sold. KOL Andrea Chong (IG: Dreachong), as I see, isn’t the only photogenic influencer that he had aligned himself with.

It is said that Mr Yow learned a lot from Mr Tng, who has been described as a go-getter, and is, between the two of them, more of the conceptualiser and “visionary” (in 2015, when he wrote on Facebook that “Scoot makes it a point to take a jab at everyone else in their marketing campaigns”, he did not foresee that three years later, someone once close to him would be the subject of Scoot’s cheeky jabbing). Some observers thought Sixmoredays’s aesthetic distinction “feels Taiwanese”, as seen in Mr Tng’s design for the company’s homepage, the Putongren logo, and others, attributing it to the designer’s frequent visits to Taiwan. The duo worked well together, I was told, and their services mostly came as a pair: one for content, the other for the images. (Early this year, fellow influencers spread that Daryl Yow and Issac Tng parted ways.) Like most business owners fresh from school who prefer the start-up path, both creatives emerged in the scene with no/little corporate exposure.

It is perhaps helpful to understand that in today’s one-man/woman-operated, business-via-social-media setups, experience is not vital, and is, in fact, to those thinking that it’s an easy leap out there, an alien concept. Why bother with experience—a long-drawn affair—to impress when social media platforms can springboard you to greatness, fame, and likes? If models and singers could do it, why not graphic designers and photographers? Instagram and its kind allow their users to post as many photographs as he/she can, even those of dubious origins. In rushing out this online portfolio—containing entries in the thousands, influencers need speed, not ideas independent of anyone or anything else. Few, if any, will choose what Robert Frost called The Road Not Taken, one that seductively “wanted wear”.

Darylaidenyow IG July 2018Screen grab of Daryl Yow’s Instagram page today

It’s not hard to see that the race to fame triumphs over originality. Influencers can’t wait to influence, to make it to the top of the heap, to count as “key”. Originality becomes subordinate. Digital creatives today have a tough time making their representations stand out because there are so many of them in the Instagirl/boy set that is out to make money. The barriers to entry are low enough that even those never remotely connected to employment are jumping and racing to the top. It’s alluring up there: a new aspirational target. Look where Kylie Jenner is perched on—a pile reportedly making her the world’s youngest “self-made” billionaire, according to Forbes; and drawing an estimated USD1 million per post, according to WWD.

Despite what can now be considered to constitute a legion in our city, I do not imagine that social media stars are the same as you and I, the casual blogger. Not only are they a brand on to themselves, they’re also their own enterprise, complete with staff and office. Admittedly, I am thinking of Andrea Chong. I don’t know how much she makes per post, but I’m certain I won’t be discussing my pay grade with her anytime soon. It dawns on me that with her coasting along and posting of what every other influencer of her ilk posts, unvarying is perhaps a lot easier to try than original.

To base one’s own output on material already out there is commonplace enough that even retail big-wigs such as ION Orchard wasn’t able to escape the urge. The hope is that whatever one does, it’ll win raves instantly and then quickly gets lost in the buzz. Just because there are followers does not mean there are watchers. Unfortunately for Daryl Yow, the noise dimmed enough for his oversight to boom. And the watchers to pounce or trolls to trounce. Just as search engines can bring you to the farthest corners of what creative ideas are put out there, it can also draw you close to the stuff that looks a lot like yours. Google search provides unimaginable breadth to what’s available in the digital world and, as ardent users know, one does not search by text alone; one can search by images too.

The opening up of the online world—expansive, descriptive, and affective—has led to what people who are dedicated to their craft call a “crisis of creative originality”. Honestly, I don’t know if it is really a plight yet. In the case of Daryl Yow, there were as many who condemned as those who shrugged indifferently. Social media is gripping perhaps because there are flying gods and fallen angels. I guess Depeche Mode was right when they sang with foresight, eleven years ago, “The sun will shine; the bottom line: I follow you.”