Date of Award

Winter 12-1-2020

Level of Access Assigned by Author

Open-Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)




Judith Rosenbaum

Second Committee Member

Paul Grosswiler

Third Committee Member

Michael Socolow


In recent years, the social media usage of young adults has seen exponential growth. This growth, both in numbers of users and time spent on various platforms, creates a greater opportunity to market lifestyles, goods, and behaviors to the masses. Corporations have taken to allocating more time and attention to reach those masses and utilize the quickest means to that end. One example of these means is the influencer, i.e., social media users who monetize their online performances through practices of self-branding, or developing a public image used for commercial and capital gain (Abidin, 2016). In this study, I focus specifically on YouTube influencer. The decision for this was in part because of a lack of relevant research which investigates the platform; current literature focuses most heavily on other social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter. In addition, the use of a video-sharing platform in the research allowed the researcher to observe the actual behavior of influencers, which is important to this study.

In order to explore the intersection between identity performance, commodification, and agency among YouTube influencers this study looked at agency, a person’s ability to act and make meaning in the environment which they operate. Structuration theory (Giddens, 1984) is the theory that explores the role agency plays in societal processes: It looks at structures, the rules and resources available to people to operate in society, and systems, the repeated interaction of people operating within the structure.

Individuals online communicate and internalize their sense of self through interaction, and the uptake in networked communication has complicated the need for impression management. The size and variation among potential audiences online further complicates the expression of self. There exists a perceived blurring of the public and private sphere where users use public channels as if they were private (Marwick & Boyd, 2011). This results in a blurring between the front stage, a concept of the dramaturgical approach (Goffman, 1959) which relates identity performance as a stage where an actor is conscious of being observed and acts according to social conventions, and the backstage, or more private matters shared with select others.

Social media complicates the interactions that take place online; this is because its text, image, and video-based representation has accelerated communication among large and differing audiences and changed the nature of interactions between users. These platforms have led to a debate about what this means for our understanding of online agency. This is because social media platforms operate through technological affordances that influence how we view agency, and the understanding that social norms and rules also inform one’s sense of agency online. This begs the question of just how one separates the rules which guide one’s behavior (the structures) from their actual behavior (the system)? Online agency, because social interaction doesn’t exist outside of the structure of platforms online, has proven to effectively collapse systems and structures. Online structures also deeply inform culture, or the shared norms, values, and expectations among people living in a society (Deuze, 2006). Digital culture is considered the democratization of online behavior because people take part in the creation of culture online, but user labor is taken up and commodified by corporations. As algorithms, or “disciplinary apparatuses that prescribe participatory norms” (Cotter, 2018, p. 896), increasingly shape user behavior their power over systems and ultimately the structure come into question. Because influencers are concerned with their visibility and the reach of their capital in the accrual of social and capital gain, they are more likely to choose to alter their identity performance as a result of algorithms constraining their behavior. Authenticity and entrepreneurship were found as core tenets among influencers in performing online (Cotter, 2018).

User activity on social media sites has impacted digital culture and resulted in the performance of labor online by users who use their emotions, lives, and subjectivity in service of the platforms (Maragh, 2016). Prior to the birth of Web 2.0., the creation of culture was heavily influenced by culture industries. Horkheimer and Adorno’s (1944) concept of culture industries equates popular culture to a factory producing cultural goods that are taken up by the masses and in their popularization, people drive the consumption of those goods. The tendency to consume goods to convey different elements of one’s identity is also known as commodification, defined as a reflexive project of the self which “is intimately linked to the process of consumption” (Hearns, 2012, p. 25). This means that individuals use consumer goods as signals to convey their identity to others. Influencers thus face the question of which brands to partner with and what that means for their identity performance as influencer habits increasingly move toward the spectacle (Debord, 1984), or the idea that images replace reality and are more ‘real.’ To stand out and retain audience attention influencers must, to some extent, move toward the spectacle. This tension between performance, identity, and the need for capital gain is the focus of this research.

This project explored YouTube influencer identity, commodification, and agency through a combination of in-depth, qualitative interviews and a content analysis of nine influencer YouTube videos. Social constructivism allows one to test structuration theory in reality and to render it operational; this is because it seeks to explore the role processes play in society which limit or enhances individual agency, and method. Because both work from an understanding that reality is socially constructed, they are perfectly paired. The data was analyzed from a social constructivist perspective, which privileges the co-creation of reality between researcher and participant, using grounded theory.

Results indicated that identity creation online for influencers affords them varying levels of agency. Agency was most constrained with respect to social expectations and enhanced when circumventing the rules of the structure. Influencers expressed enhanced agency when using the structures to effectively “cheat the system.” Further, influencer habits like the “vlog,” video blogs which take viewers through their entire day, result in the perceived blurring between the front stage, the part of yourself you show to others, and the backstage, which consists of more private matters. The final finding highlighted the complication of identity performance online: It revealed the tendency to commodify but the awareness that this was not attractive to audiences. Influencers acknowledged the need to make money sometimes being at odds with audience expectations (Interviewee 1), or those for whom they must perform.

This thesis provides a starting point for ongoing research which explores identity performance, commodification, and agency online. The key take-away from this research is that structuration theory no longer holds up in a Web 2.0 context. This research served as a case study to better explore how agency works in an online setting. The findings indicate a necessity for future research to reconsider understandings of structures as these findings highlight the ability for structures to exist outside of knowledgeability. It also highlights a need for more research which explores how influencers with varying degrees of success navigate various other platforms. This research underlines the need to continually question the democratization of online activity: One is led to believe that influencers are in control of their activity online but this study’s findings on agency reveal that this is instead multi-faceted and ever-changing.