Knitting a Cocoon for Myself: Exploring Digital AUthorship on Social Media

Jun 13, 2024 9:01 AM

Ruiwen Zhou

Publication year
June 13, 2024

Knitting a Cocoon for Myself: Exploring Digital Authorship on Social Media

by Ruiwen Zhou

In September 2021, Yaya, a digital influencer who had over two million followers, was suspended by Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok. This resulted in Yaya’s content online being entirely blocked and Yaya could not update his videos anymore. Douyin offered an explanation: Yaya, a biological male, posted a video in which he had dressed up like a princess; this was algorithmically labelled as “vulgar content”. Yaya then posted a screenshot of Douyin’s notification on Weibo, another Chinese social media platform: it showed that Douyin had informed him that his content had been blocked for good due to “suspected vulgarity”. Later that day, Yaya wrote an apology statement on Weibo, acknowledging the “negative” impact of his post and promising that he would never upload similar videos. Shortly after he published his apology, his account was reinstated. However, it was not completely unblocked, certain videos continue to be withheld from the public.

From Yaya’s experience, I noticed that something “wonderfully creepy” (Chun, 2016) was going on in the digital influencer industry. Yaya acknowledged the algorithmic judgment on his video, accepted the punishment, and modified his online persona accordingly. Through this process, Yaya seemed to be guided into a safe cocoon, where digital lives could be safe if people did not break the rules and norms entangled with the silk around them.

At this moment in the digital era, we can move away from Michel Foucault’s question of “who is a real Author”, as the voice of the so-called digital author has been polyphonically integrated with other layers of voices and repeated at different pitches. Instead, in this article, I will delve into the questions around the digital influencer culture by examining issues including the conditions under which an individual like Yaya can appear; how this functions as one of the ‘egos’ of the Author; how the discourse exists, operates, and circulates in the digital space; and lastly, who controls the discourse and who is held accountable for the impact of the discourse.


Photo by Lunamarina on Canva

Shelter from the storm

Upon carefully scrutinizing Douyin’s user service agreement document (Douyin, 2023), I found that there is nothing in the regulations that bans individuals from dressing in clothes that stereotypically do not align with their gender. To some extent, Yaya’s experience reflects that the platform’s algorithms can impact the content produced by digital influencers by determining the kind of visibility the image or short video garners. In turn, digital influencers begin to learn suitable ways of participation from the feedback loop that is generated by the platform and its algorithms — thus, they are able to update their profiles consistently. Through this process, they learn from the constant reaction of the technological systems, and then make themselves appear as what the platform anticipates them to be, so as to protect themselves against the potential punishment such as shadow-banning, or even becoming de-platformed. In other words, through their everyday interaction with the platform’s algorithmic systems, they learn to knit a cocoon, sheltering themselves against the hostile elements.

The metaphor of technology as mediation (Beyes et al., 2022) suggests that technology has the ability to discipline, but there is also the opportunity to be disciplined. In Yaya’s case, it was not merely a glitch that the platform’s algorithms flagged his content as inappropriate. One month before Yaya’s accident, the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles (CFLAC) publicized an announcement, addressing the urgency to eliminate immoral and vulgar content on new media platforms (CNTV, 2021), but the standards stayed ambiguous. As a technology that can operate at the level of population (Foucault, 2012; Cheney-Lippold, 2017), algorithms are capable of targeting digital influencers who might step beyond their cocoon and deprive them of their agency by what can be described as the asymmetry of information, an imbalance in information as the social media companies have the upper hand over the influencers.

In Yaya’s case, the platform took him to task over “suspected vulgarity” and his videos were blanket banned, his earlier content became invisible without cause. The influencer/content creators have to speculate the possible reasons and modify other content accordingly. However, their ways of speculation may be affected by socio-cultural norms. By doing so, the stakeholders (in this case, the government and social media companies) can perfectly hide behind the technology as the influencers seem to voluntarily step into those cocoons. This individualized judgment offers ideal conditions for a certain political power to maintain the status quo.

A ladder to the top

It was too hard to understand the algorithmic logic as the social traffic has been totally random, so every time I filmed a video, I would refer to the digital influencers who have already been successful,” said a content creator in an interview for this article; she anticipates becoming a high-profile digital influencer in the beauty industry. It has become common knowledge in the digital influencer community that the very first thing for a beginner is to decide which successful digital influencers they should imitate in order to have a shot at fame and fortune.

However, by following in the footsteps of top influencers, those in the mid-tier, or lower rungs also internalize the rules which might be problematic for them along the way.

After Yaya’s incident, a large number of male content creators started hiding or deleting their videos in which they have worn dresses (Sohu, 2021) because they “could not dare to take that risk of being de-platformed” (personal communication, 2023). Through this kind of hierarchy, digital influencers on different levels of popularity — either the ones who are at the top or the ones climbing the ladder — are more or less nudged to align themselves with the algorithmically favored norms, adjusting their identities to become more algorithmically recognizable, and more easily mined for data just so they can get more visibility (Shah, 2015).

A reward or a trap?

In the age of the attention economy, an influencers’ engagement data is closely related to their income (Marwick, 2015), and they are on a “constant treadmill to maintain, or better to increase, these figures if they hope to earn a sustainable living” (Glatt, 2022, p.4). Only by garnering a vast number of likes, comments, etc., can influencers attract more investments from companies, which are typically the major sources of income in this particular industry.

Tina, a fashion and beauty vlogger with millions of followers, became popular thanks to her long videos in horizontal form, in which she taught her followers how to apply makeup. When she decided to transition into short and vertical-presented segments, her followers remarked on the change and she expressed her helplessness by saying, “I literally have no choice, because all the advertising companies invest in short vertical videos nowadays” (Tina, 2022).

Keeping the aspects mentioned above — the algorithmic judgment, platform policies, and socio-economic dynamics — in view, however, ultimately it is the digital influencer as an individual who always bears the risk of punishment, suffers from emotional helplessness, and is foregrounded as the author when there is a crisis happening. While pointing out the situation is important, even more important is to focus on seeking possible solutions to repair the damage (Shah, 2021).

If we examine this a bit more closely, we notice that there is a vital player who has been easily overlooked in this “visibility game” (Cotter, 2018), in shaping the cocoons through daily practice. In Yaya’s earlier narratives (2021), we learned that when he stopped updating his profile, Yaya lost 800,000 of the 1 million followers he had at that time. In social media, where online intimacy has been greatly highlighted, it is an account, a user, or a so-called follower who is behind every following and unfollowing, every like and dislike, and every comment and complaint that contributes to either the visibility or the invisibility of the influencer. With this increasing interconnectedness between influencers and their followers, exploring possible approaches to foster more responsible intimate relationships in the digital space might function as an alternative way to the dead end that digital authorship is currently facing.


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CNTV. (2021, August 24). The Symposium on the Construction of Professional Ethics and Style of the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles was held in Beijing and issued the “Proposal to Cultivate One's Moral Integrity and Cultivate One's Heart and Cultivate One's Soul—To the Majority of Literary and Art Workers”. https://news.cctv.com/2021/08/24/ARTImW9yX9zWEw3ugbcPz0hG210824.shtml

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Tina. (2022, July 1). A screen shot of Tina’s comment. https://m.weibo.cn/status/4793959630770133?sourceType=weixin&from=10CB295010&wm=20005_0002&featurecode=newtitle