Research Proposal draft

Unfinished referencing, a work in progress:

  1. Working Title: An exploration into the relationship between celebrity, social media and online activism
  2. Aims and Objectives

My work explores social media and questions whether its rapid evolution can have a negative impact on how we understand and respond to social issues.

This project’s initial assumption is that the speed in which social media evolves is directly proportional to the fast paced evolution of viral trends and as a consequence allows little time reflect on their value, meaning or impact. I believe this is particularly important when related to viral campaigning around charities, causes or movements. In 2014, the no-makeup selfie charity campaign successfully raised over £8 million pounds for Cancer Research, despite not being initiated by the charity. The money went to a worthy cause but the campaign left a confusing message in its wake. The no-make up aspect to the campaign could be seen as a form of female empowerment, but it could also be seen as a subversive form of self-expression and an awareness of our desirability that ultimately begs the question how does this relate to cancer research?

Equally, many viral trends begin out of seemingly thin air, which means most of the time there is no person or group to attribute them to. This anonymity helps trends to flourish with little responsibility. As these trends live on social media, they also rely on visual user-generated content such as selfies and succeed because of placing ourselves in a public sphere with the hope of being positively judged, liked and shared.

  1. Context (Inc. historical, contemporary and theoretical contexts

Third Wave Feminism

I extend my inquiry into celebrities and their use of social media, as I believe there is a strong correlation between the notion of celebrity, gender and digital culture.

Firstly, I aim to explore the nature of celebrity and viral trends in relation to and contextualised by by third wave feminism where applicable as I believe this form of feminism permeates through social media and celebrity culture, unwittingly or otherwise.

Third wave feminism contains pluralistic definitions, but the part of it this proposal is particularly interested in is mentioned in Mediating Third-Wave Feminism: Appropriation as Postmodern Media Practice in which it is stated that:

‘Empowerment takes on a different meaning in this new feminism in other ways, as well—not in collective terms, as with the second wave, but in very individualistic terms. Being empowered in the third-wave sense is about feeling good about oneself and having the power to make choices, regardless of what those choices are’ (Waggoner, O’Brian, Sugar. 195)

The open nature of this definition of empowerment allows the word to be interpreted in many ways, and at times to the benefit of a celebrity’s brand.

An example would be the selfie of Kim Kardashian and Emily Ratajkowski that went viral summer 2016 (see fig ???). Ratajkowski uploaded the selfie on her Instagram with the adage as mentioned in The Telegraph: ‘However sexual our bodies may be, we need to hve the freedom as women to choose whn & how we express our sexuality.’

Ratajkowski went gone on to say that: ‘’The whole idea is that when Kim takes a nude selfie, she’s just seeking attention. That’s not the issue. A woman can be seeking attention and also make a statement. They don’t need to be mutually exclusive.”

This presents a working contradiction that allows Ratajkowski and Kardashian to celebrate their sexuality within their definition of  empowerment while functioning to ‘reify dominant patriarchal codes and discourses’ and allowing themselves to be ‘commodified, reinscribed, and sold to audiences in a hegemonic fashion’ (Waggoner, O’Brien, Sugar. Abstract).

It is the idea of working contradictions and this one in particular that this proposal seeks to explore. Can one’s openess around their sexuality be as empowering when it serves the purpose of enhancing their brand?

This discussion around third wave feminism and social media comes at at a time when one of the challenges that faces third wave feminism is the decline, documented on social media, in popular support for the relevance and importance of feminism in what some call a ‘post feminist’ era’. To say this statement is true or not is not relevant here, but it does explain the level of hostility both within discussions around feminism, and how it is then sold as part of somebody’s brand. This is particularly apparent on social media where both regressive conservatives and regressive liberals have dominant voices.

Portraiture and Photography

Furthermore, the research for this proposal will be contextualised by the history and development of photographic portraiture.

When referencing Susan Sontag’s work On Photography in relation to social media, writer Maria Popova says that ‘aggression precipitates a kind of social media violence of self assertion – a forcible framing of our identity for preservation, for idealisation, for currency in an economy of envy’

This works well when thinking of the dominance that selfie culture plays in celebrity branding and online activism. If selfies are a visual manifestation of an aesthetic currency in an ‘economy of envy’ what is a selfie’s transferrable ‘value’ when used to highlight causes such as feminism or other charities? How are they related?

Sontag also said that:

‘In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing’

In referencing the ethics behind photography, what do selfies portray of ourselves? Have they allowed us to more openly celebrate our vanity? Does combining a selfie with the more serious plight of feminism make it have more integrity as an image? In contrast to most forms of photographic portraiture where there is potential to see a relationship between the subject and the photographer or indeed a deeper exploration into the subject’s character – a selfie portrays the photographer and the subject as one individual.

As a final point, Sontag states that:

‘Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy.’

This, I believe is the case with celebrity and social media visual culture as selfies in their essence have no intrinsic inner value and as such allow internet users, the perpetrators of the photo and the media and us are able to assert endless meanings to the selfies without hesitation and after the photograph has been taken. This is another aspect of my project I will endeavour to explore.

  1. Methodology
  • I endeavour to pursue a practice based research so as to allow me to explore different processes of making alongside theoretical research. The nature of my proposal will require me to have a firm understanding of the subject of feminism and how it relates to internet culture. For that I will ensure to access library resources as well as other forms of secondary research such as documentary and radio and ensure to visit exhibitions as part of this. The next point in my research is to investigate 20th and 21st century portrait photography, including the work of Cindy Sherman (see fig. 2) so as to have a better understanding in the art form’s recent history and how it relates to selfie culture.
  • I will also conduct artist research into those who relate to my proposal either on the basis of the subject of their work or the aesthetics of it. This includes the work of artist Amalia Ulman (see fig 3.) and comedians Tim and Eric (see fig 4).
  • In studying celebrity and working contradictions I will make a comparative study into the words and actions of celebrities who are relevant to this proposal such as Kim Kardashian.
  • I will also, in continuation from here, creating photographic responses to celebrity social media accounts by way of creating characters inspired by the work of Cindy Sherman and Amalia Ulman.
  • Finally, I hope to explore ways into producing work around digital culture that have a physical manifestation. This includes looking into 3D printing, sculpture including photosculpture and woodwork.


I will pursue a variety of disciplines to uncover a final piece of work. This will benefit my work as it will enable me to discover how I best research as well as give me the opportunity to refine my artistic voice.

The only outcome I know I aim to achieve is for the work to create a discussion around the research subject as opposed to providing a total point of view. I hope it to be relatable to a variety of viewers whether it provokes agreement or disagreement.

I hope for my work to represent a pause for thought, and will allow people to reflect on a matter that can too easily pass us by.

  • As such, both my approach and outcome I hope to be multidisciplinary fashion in order to discover how best to communicate my work.
  1. Bibliography


Fig 1


Fig 2


Fig 3


Fig 4



Buckingham, D. (ed.) (2007) Youth, identity, and digital media (john D. And Catherine T. MacArthur foundation series on digital media and learning). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Burns, K.S. (2009) Celeb 2.0: How social media foster our fascination with popular culture. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger/ABC-CLIO.

Warburton, S. and Hatzipanagos, S. (2012) Digital identity and social media. Boca Raton, FL, United States: Information Science Reference.

Buckingham, D. (ed.) (2007) Youth, identity, and digital media (john D. And Catherine T. MacArthur foundation series on digital media and learning). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Burns, K.S. (2009) Celeb 2.0: How social media foster our fascination with popular culture. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger/ABC-CLIO.

Warburton, S. and Hatzipanagos, S. (2012) Digital identity and social media. Boca Raton, FL, United States: Information Science Reference.

Cashmore, E. and Cashmore, P.E. (2014) Celebrity culture: Second edition. 2nd edn. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Chouliaraki, L. (2012) The ironic spectator: Solidarity in the age of post-humanitarianism. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Gunter, B. (2014) Celebrity capital: Assessing the value of fame. United States: Bloomsbury Academic USA.

Marwick, A.E. (2014) Status update: Celebrity, publicity, and branding in the social media age. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Sontag, S. (2001) On photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


Al-Deen, N., Hendricks, H. and Allen, J. (2011) Social Media: Usage and Impact. Available at: (Accessed: 28 September 2016).

Allmer, T. (2015) Critical Theory and Social Media: between emancipation and commodification. Available at: (Accessed: 28 September 2016).

Sugar, H., Agley Waggoner, C., Lynn O’Brien, D. (2010) Mediating third-wave feminism: appropriation as postmodern media practice. Available at: (Accessed: 10 November 2016).

Davis, A. (2013) Promotional Cultures: The Rise and Spread of Advertising, Public Relations, Marketing and Branding. Available at: (Accessed: 28 September 2016).

Fuchs, C. (2015) Culture and Economy in the Age of Social Media. Available at: (Accessed: 28 September 2016).

Gehl, R.W. (2014) Reverse Engineering Social Media: Software, Culture and Political Economy in New Media Capitalism. Available at: (Accessed: 28 September 2016).

Hemsley, J. (2013) Going Viral. Available at: (Accessed: 28 September 2016).

Kukkonen, K. (2011) Images in Use: Towards the critical analysis of visual communication. Available at: (Accessed: 28 September 2016).


Salla, M. (2014) ‘Self-branding in social media: contsructing a strategic self as a brand’, LCC.


Front Row (2016) BBC Radio 4, 16 February.

Woman’s Hour: Weekend Woman’s Hour (2016) BBC Radio 4, 23 July.

Woman’s Hours: Young Women and Social Media (2016) BBC Radio 4, 19 July.


Molloy, M. (2016) Emily Ratajkowski gives perfect response to Kim Kardashian nude selfie outrage. Available at: (Accessed: 8 November 2016).

Frost, A. (2016) Cindy Sherman review – high-society selfies by quintessential postmodernist. Available at: (Accessed: 30 September 2016).

McDonald, J. (2016) Cindy Sherman: Self-portraits of the artist as an everywoman. Available at: (Accessed: 30 September 2016).

Popova, M. (2013) Aesthetic consumerism and the violence of photography: What Susan Sontag teaches us about visual culture and the social web. Available at: (Accessed: 9 November 2016).

Waldron, S. (2016) ‘I want every girl to look powerful’: The intoxicating photos of Hailun ma. Available at: (Accessed: 30 September 2016).


As such, the aims and objectives of this project are in its initial stages to  look at the trio of celebrity, social media and online activism separately as they are all big terms that need to be defined in order to pursue appropriate research for this project.

For example, I made a comparative study contrasting famous images from the Suffragette movement, with Miley Cyrus, a pop singer who speaks openly about her sexual fluidity and gender identity (see link 2). Cyrus in an interview with the BBC in 2013 stated that ¿[she] feels like she¿s the biggest feminist in the world right now,’ which gave me an insight into the way celebrity self- branding and, in this case, a personal re-definition of ‘feminism,’ for example, is so often played out on social media.

‘ Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood. To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge — and, therefore, like power.’

Perhaps selfies are a powerful communicative tool – but what do they communicate?

Third wave feminism also promotes a ‘vigrorous assertion of one’s individuality’ (Waggoner, O’Brien, Sugar. 195), which I believe plays well with the sexual disc.  I believe this is an  while celebrities’ social media is a carefully calculated offering of their lives. When surrounding yourself with issues of gender rights, how much of your individuality are you asserting in an environment where you are careful not to?


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