Social networking sites have helped improve the way people express themselves and find their identity. They can also be a place for people to join communities, collaborate and promote activist movements such as the vegan movement. Identity among vegan YouTube influencers is very important as there seems to be a fight for status to always be noticed. One of the more popular types of veganism on YouTube is dietary veganism, with influencers focusing on body image and food choices rather than ethics. The spread of dietary misinformation can be detrimental to their viewers and may therefore affect the appeal of ethical veganism. This paper will examine popular vegan influencers on YouTube and considers how they present themselves online, exploring the idea of identity as performance, deception and commodity, influencing the population they address.
Keywords: veganism, YouTube, identity, communities, influencers, diet
Please, hit that thumbs up!
Identity plays a very important role for social media influencers in order to remain at the top and to always be noticed. Like many other online movements or lifestyles, there appears to be a fight for status within the online vegan community. “Many vegans put a lot of pressure on themselves to live up to the strict standard of veganism, and some animal rights activists suggest this causes an unnecessary burden that may actually cause damage to the vegan movement” (Greenbaum, 2012, p.141). When they craft their online identity they are particularly cautious of how they present themselves, striving to be the “authentic” and ethical vegan so they will not be criticised by others and will be respected highly. Social media platforms have vastly improved the way people communicate, making it easier for them to connect, view or disseminate information. These tools came about during the rise of the Web 2.0 era, as devised by Tim O’Reilly (2020). People left virtual worlds and entered participatory environments, connecting with friends, family and colleagues on these social networks. An increase in awareness of social issues raised voices and promoted activist movements, such as the steadily growing veganism movement. The philosophy of veganism eliminates all animal products from their diet and lifestyle in an effort to reduce animal exploitation (https://www.vegansociety.com). Animal welfare is certainly an important issue that should be voiced and heard, and social media can advocate this message. However, many extreme vegan activists spread dietary misinformation in their social media communities, which may be detrimental to their followers and to the community with which they are affiliated. This paper will discuss that though social media platforms such as YouTube are important for strengthening vegan activist communities, there are many vegan identities performed in these communities, including dietary veganism. The dietary misinformation promoted and spread within these communities can harm community members and may therefore affect the appeal of ethical veganism. This paper aligns with the Identity in Communities and Networks stream.
All the web’s a stage.
YouTube is a virtual stage for influencers on which to perform and express their identity. As Burgess and Green (2018, p. 78) argue, YouTube could be considered a “modern day patron of artists,” a place where people can express their identities artistically. Erving Goffman (1959) suggested the idea of identity as a performance, so in this instance the actor’s platform is the virtual platform, YouTube is the platform on which they perform their identity. This is one of many social networking sites (SNS) that have provided users with a way to express themselves and find their identity through the creation of online profiles (boyd & Ellison, 2007). A social media profile can reflect the individual’s own personality, by adding unique photographs or alternatively the user can adapt the profile to change the look as they suit, thus creating the altered identity. SNS also are a space where communities are formed, bringing a sense of collaboration, common interest, shared space and encouragement of new participants. These virtual communities operate just like an offline community, it “is something experienced as belonging and it follows that if people experience belonging in virtual forms, then community does have a reality for those individuals. Its materiality is not lost, but simply takes a diﬀerent form” (Delanty, 2018, p.202).
Foodies and ‘Tubies.
Many vegan social media influencers tend to focus their content on dietary veganism and individual food choices, rather than looking at ethical issues (O’Brien, 2017). They try to captivate viewers with their vibrant dishes that adorn the screen. Western Mail (2018) notes that the vegan movement has gained popularity through the rise of social media platforms, particularly with regards to the vegan diet. There are many variations of dietary veganism including the rather extreme version known as raw fruitarianism. According to News Release (2017) this particular diet consists of an intake of 75% of daily food coming from raw fruit which has been suggested may be dangerous if followed long term as it lacks important nutrients such as omega 3, vitamin B and protein and is high in sugar so can cause weight gain, tooth decay and may be dangerous for diabetics. Raw fruit vegan influencers are abundant on SNS, including FullyRawKristina (1.1M subscribers), Freelee the BananaGirl (784k subscribers), Durianrider (218k subscribers), Aga in America (118k subscribers) Nutrition by Victoria (7.8k subscribers) and countless others (http://www.youtube.com). Possibly the most popular and long-standing influencer is Freelee the BananaGirl, who has had their channel since 2007 (Freelee the BananaGirl, 2020). They became famous for claiming to eat up to 51 bananas a day and promoting this as a weight-loss diet, appearing on The Today Show on Australian television where they stated to have certification in nutrition. When the Australian Institute of Fitness was queried about the qualification they denied ever having them as a student (Sydney Morning Herald, 2016).
Go bananas for YouTube!
Identity performance, or the self-presentation of a YouTube influencer could be considered through Pearson (2009), who has also observed Goffman’s understanding of identity as performance, just as an actor on a stage may be free to choose their role. On SNS people can present themselves in whatever way they wish, so their online identity can differ from the offline identity. Thus, social media influencers can create a new identity for themselves, even ones that differ from other social profiles they may have. The first to consider is Freelee the BananaGirl. They have multiple YouTube channels, Facebook and Instagram accounts and recipe books. Their identity becomes a commodity, playing an important role in keeping business alive (Guy, 2017). YouTube also enables influencers to make money based on the number of views they receive by putting commercials into their videos. The website Social Blade (2020) shows statistics on how much money they make. Furthermore, the idea of the “self-proclaimed expert” on a person’s SNS, as Donath (1996) suggests, is apparent in many aspects of this identity. They state they have a qualification in nutrition but have never shown proof of this. They believe their body is the pinnacle of health and advertise this to their audience, proclaiming that everyone will have the same ‘results’ if they purchase their books and follow their advice. This continues through the use of “conventional signals” whereby they use traits and symbols to express their identity. Their logo for their main YouTube channel looks as though they are wearing a superhero costume, giving them a powerful appearance. The use of the semi-naked/naked body could also be considered a tool of deception. They will also dismiss those who ask questions that might uncover information they do not wish to answer, either through aggression or through blocking/banning the user. Freelee’s forms of identity deception may pose a risk to the unconscious viewer, but to the conscious viewer all this deception simply appears as “noise.” A further consideration for how they are trying to make their identity shine is through the idea of “impression management” as noted in boyd & Ellison (2007), when they repeatedly highlight to their audience how many followers they have, how long they have been on YouTube and that they have had many ‘success stories.’ Baccarella, Wagner, Kietzmann & McCarthy (2018) discuss the “dark side” of SNS, noting those who use misinformation, shaming, and aggressive engagement as ways to develop their online identity. Observing Freelee, their videos often contain ‘reaction’ or ‘shaming’ content that bully others for their food choices or for leaving veganism and they have also posted a video declaring people should be “forced to be vegan” or they don’t deserve to live (Should Meat Eaters, 2015). Exploitation of the body is also seen in most of Freelee’s videos. They are scantily dressed and continuously flaunt their stomach, encouraging the viewer if they follow their advice they can look the same. In some videos they walk through their backyard naked. Mascheroni, Vincent & Jimenez (2015) maintain this is a need for attention and is an addiction, and is fast becoming normalised and a habit for some girls to post themselves online with little clothing, and feel a need to constantly improve their looks to get ‘likes’ or comments from their followers. The exposure to Freelee’s videos can be quite dangerous to people with conditions such as orthorexia nervosa, who have a strong obsession with food intake/choices and body image. It is quite distressing to note that Freelee may be suffering from this condition themselves, since they have such an extreme preoccupation with body image, strict food ideas and heavy social media use (McComb & Mills, 2019; Mackey, 2015).
Another influencer within the community to consider is Nutrition by Victoria (Nutrition by Victoria, 2020) who shares their nutritional advice, and has participated in videos such as “Durianrider’s Sugar Mountain Challenge” which involved eating unlimited sugar for 30 days. Though they are not as aggressive in their engagement with their audience, they nevertheless also adopt the identity of the “commoditised self” (Guy, 2017) in order to gain views and have a deceptive means of self-presentation that involves showing their semi-naked body at the ‘correct’ angle, and often breastfeed their child while talking to their viewers with their breasts exposed to the camera. Is this taking things too far with self-image, as they again watch themselves on the camera while breastfeeding? Leaver & Nansen (2017) address the implications of mothers who publicly post infants and breastfeeding on SNS and the normalisation of this as children then develop their own online identity. Breastfeeding should be a blissful, nurturing and powerful moment between mother and child, and this breastfeeding that is posted to Nutrition by Victoria’s SNS could be seen as a means of impression management and identity deception. This also raises queries of the privacy and rights of the child, as the child has been given an online identity, generally without consent as at this age they are too young to understand, and their digital footprint has already been formed on the Internet.
Is veganism contagious?
People are naturally and instinctively connected, and social networks facilitate the spread of an idea or a suggestion, and for people to adopt those ideas (Christakis, 2010; Rosenquist, Fowler, & Christakis, 2011). For instance, people interested in veganism can join YouTube to view videos for a common interest, and as they watch these videos they are exposed to the suggestions offered by the influencer. The suggestions implied by Freelee the BananaGirl and Nutrition by Victoria may pose a danger to viewers if their advice is followed unconsciously. Their ideas can easily spread within the community through tagging and sharing on various social media accounts, and algorithms within YouTube keep videos popular and more likely to be found when searched (Burgess & Green, 2018). When influencers refer to one another within the community this also inflates their fame and keeps them in the spotlight. Influencers that exhibit an obsession with body image and dietary misinformation can quickly become normalised and adopted by the viewer. These influencers could also be presenting depressive symptoms or disorders such as orthorexia, which may become adopted by the viewer and then spread through the community. As Mackey (2015) notes, if social media use becomes a way of life for the viewer, then body image and food choices can also become obsessions.
Why the ‘tude, dude?
Vegans are often seen negatively by the public, and there is a stigma associated with veganism. Judgement and criticism also occurs within the community, for instance, ethical vegans will judge health vegans and those within the community who leave the movement are mocked. YouTube influencer Rawvana (Shugerman, 2019) was spotted on one of their videos with fish on their plate of food, causing an uproar within the vegan community. Their ‘coming out’ as non-vegan caused them to receive resentment and even death threats. It is this behaviour that creates the stigma that includes a fear of the “spread” or what is considered the “courtesy stigma” (Markowski & Roxburgh, 2019, p.3). This is a spread by association, people will distance themselves from vegans to avoid “catching” any associated characteristics and thus becoming vegan themselves. It is this militant-style self-presentation towards veganism that causes misinformation that harms community members and damages the reputation of the community. When these influencers present their semi-naked bodies and shame others for their food choices, they forget about ethical veganism. Instead of voicing about the oppressed and exploited they are actually exploiting themselves (O’Brien, 2017).
YouTube is a powerful platform on which identities are performed and presented. It is one of the many SNS that have improved communication and enabled people to promote activist movements, such as veganism. The interest in ethical veganism can be impaired when extreme vegan activists distort dietary information on social media. The vegan community can be critical, so their self-presentation and online identity on social media is of particular importance as they strive for authenticity and purity within their community. Popular vegan YouTube influencers include Freelee the BananaGirl who now lives as this character, and Nutrition by Victoria who also expresses their identity through body image and breastfeeding, which raises issues for the child’s online identity and privacy. These influencers try to lure their viewers through exposure and suggestion, their focus on food choices and shaming of others puts animal ethics in the background. What do these YouTube influencers truly claim to be advocating? With the pervasiveness of dietary veganism now online and offline, what does this mean for society? Is the ‘spread’ of stigma inescapable?
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