Symposium

Click here to buy. Click here to vote.

Mary Ingram-Waters

Arizona State University, Tucson, Arizona, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Taylor Swift's October 7, 2018 Instagram post marked her first public foray into politics, and indeed, media accounts credited her with inspiring 65,000 people to register to vote. However, Swift's social media posts reveal deliberate fan engagement strategies deployed for sustaining her celebrity status. These fan engagement strategies, like those of many other celebrities, present an illusion of fans' collective power while actually reinforcing a dynamic that privileges the celebrity over the fan.

[0.2] Keywords—Celebrity; Politics; Social media; Taylor Swift; Voting

Ingram-Waters, Mary. 2020. "Click Here to Buy. Click Here to Vote." In "Fandom and Politics," edited by Ashley Hinck and Amber Davisson, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 32. https://doi.org/10.3983/twc.2020.1847.

1. Introduction

[1.1] On Sunday, October 7, 2018, Taylor Swift posted the following on Instagram: a picture of herself with her endorsement of two Democratic candidates for US Congress along with a general call to her followers to educate themselves on the issues and candidates and to register to vote at Vote.org (figure 1). Ripples from her post could be felt within hours: the candidates thanked her, the president of the United States rebuked her, and tens of thousands of people registered to vote. By Tuesday, October 9, dozens of national and international media outlets had reported that Swift's call to action may have resulted in 65,000 new voter registrations (McDermott 2018). In Swift's home state of Tennessee, about half of the new voter registrations from the month of October happened immediately following her post (Kornhaber 2018).

[1.2] Though celebrities channeling their fame through their social media platforms to promote causes is nothing new, Swift's actions and their highly visible results garnered an extraordinary amount of attention. The October 7 post marked Swift's first explicit political call to arms and was widely regarded as a departure from her well-documented silence on politics (Haas 2018). The post itself also seemed to be a departure from her glossy, fun social media presence as a pop star. Industry watchers generally consider Swift's use of social media as savvy, effective, and thoughtfully deployed by Swift herself (Kornhaber 2018). In this essay, I argue that the October 7 post and her other political posts follow the same fan engagement strategies as her more overtly promotional posts and, in doing so, capitalize on fan labor in ways that reveal a complex, if unsurprising, power dynamic inherent in celebrity/fan social media relations.

Screenshot of Instagram post by Taylor Swift from account taylorswift dated October 7, 2018. Image: black and white photo of Taylor Swift seated on a bed and wearing a plaid shirt, with her chin resting on the back of her hand, looking up at the camera. Text: I'm writing this post about the upcoming midterm elections on November 6th, in which I'll be voting in the state of Tennessee. In the past I've been reluctant to publicly voice my political opinions, but due to several events in my life and in the world in the past two years, I feel very differently about that now. I always have and always will cast my vote based on which candidate will protect and fight for the human rights I believe we all deserve in this country. I believe in the fight for LGBTQ rights, and that any form of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender is WRONG. I believe that the systemic racism we still see in this country towards people of color is terrifying, sickening and prevalent.
I cannot vote for someone who will not be willing to fight for dignity for ALL Americans, no matter their skin color, gender or who they love. Running for Senate in the state of Tennessee is a woman named Marsha Blackburn. As much as I have in the past and would like to continue voting for women in office, I cannot support Marsha Blackburn. Her voting record in Congress appalls and terrifies me. She voted against equal pay for women. She voted against the Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which attempts to protect women from domestic violence, stalking, and date rape. She believes businesses have a right to refuse service to gay couples. She also believes they should not have the right to marry. These are not MY Tennessee values. I will be voting for Phil Bredesen for Senate and Jim Cooper for House of Representatives. Please, please educate yourself on the candidates running in your state and vote based on who most closely represents your values. For a lot of us, we may never find a candidate or party with whom we agree 100% on every issue, but we have to vote anyway.
So many intelligent, thoughtful, self-possessed people have turned 18 in the past two years and now have the right and privilege to make their vote count. But first you need to register, which is quick and easy to do. October 9th is the LAST DAY to register to vote in the state of TN. Go to vote.org and you can find all the info. Happy Voting!

Figure 1. Screencap of Taylor Swift's October 7, 2018 Instagram post (https://www.instagram.com/p/BopoXpYnCes/).

2. Celebrities, social media, and fan engagement

[2.1] Celebrities using social media to connect with fans and the larger public has been well studied despite any relative newness of specific social media platforms (Marshall and Redmond 2016). Celebrities use social media to promote themselves and their work, but they also use it to share personal moments, likes and dislikes, and to promote causes (Stever and Lawson 2013). Further, the range of topics in a celebrity's social media posts is itself a body of work that offers fans an experience beyond the celebrity's particular product (i.e., movies, songs, albums, videos) (Stever and Lawson 2013; Morris 2014). For example, the majority of Swift's social media posts are clearly promotional of her music, but she also includes selfies with friends and her cats and informally made videos of herself talking about her new music.

[2.2] Marwick and boyd (2011) have described celebrities' social media behaviors as important performative work for the celebrity. Celebrities craft their social media posts to offer glimpses into the "backstage" of their professional lives, which establishes their authenticity as real people and facilitates a sense of intimacy with their fans (Marwick and boyd 2011). Importantly, these backstage glimpses are still work that celebrities engage in to maintain their status as celebrities. In short, even the most personal selfies or appeals for action are work for the celebrity.

[2.3] Fans also engage in work to consume the experience offered by celebrities via their social media platforms (Morris 2014). Though few scholars would describe scrolling through Twitter or Instagram as hard work, fans do spend their time and energy engaging, albeit one-sidedly, with celebrities on social media platforms. Although scrolling is a relatively passive way to engage with celebrities, Swift's use of social media encourages fans to do more by offering rewards for their work. On Twitter, Swift asks her fans to use a designated hashtag when they tweet themselves fulfilling one of her other requests. For example, fans use the hashtag #taylurking when they tweet pictures of themselves with her latest album. Ironically, "taylurking" is a portmanteau of her name and "lurking," which is the most passive way to engage with someone online. Swift then rewards a small number of fans by recognizing their efforts through retweeting their tweets. While the fan is rewarded, their work coproduces free publicity for Swift (note 1). Swift's hashtags trend upward in popularity, and Twitter is flooded with images of happy fans posing with her new album.

[2.4] Celebrities using social media to engage with fans provides an illusion of fan empowerment (Marshall and Redmond 2016). Celebrities do require fan engagement in order to operate a successful social media presence, much like celebrities require fans in order to maintain their celebrity status. This would appear to give fans a huge amount of power to determine the fate of celebrities or of their various requests delivered through social media. Swift's posts ask fans to watch, listen, click, retweet, use a hashtag, or buy. Even though Swift is but one person, she sets the parameters for fan engagement and, as such, benefits most from the engagement. Even when fans use the technological features of a social media platform to try to harness their collective power—for example, by reclaiming or subverting hashtags—their efforts benefit the celebrities who they continue to publicize (Ingram-Waters and Balderas 2018).

3. Promoting music, promoting causes

[3.1] Taken as a whole, Swift's social media posts on Instagram and Twitter offer fans an interactive experience of her celebrity persona, though the level of interactivity varies from lurking to liking, retweeting, or using hashtags. Regardless of the what the fan does, their online presence is counted, so even the most passive lurker is included in the millions of views a particular post of hers may collect. When Swift posts anything on social media, she effectively coproduces her celebrity status with her fans.

[3.2] On Instagram, fan engagement may be counted by likes and views. As shown in figure 1, her October 7 endorsement post garnered 2.1 million "likes." Following the October 7 post, she made two other overtly political posts. On October 17, she posted a picture of her feet with her toenails painted alternatingly red, white, and blue. With that picture, she wrote, "Something I wish I knew about when I was 18 and voting for the first time: EARLY VOTING. It is so quick and easy to go and cast your vote before November 6" (note 2). She goes on to give information on early voting in Tennessee and directs fans to her Instagram bio for more information on early voting dates in other states. That post got 1.4 million likes. Later that month, on October 30, Swift posted a picture of herself posing next to a large "Phil Bredesen US Senate" poster (note 3). That post had 895,000 likes.

[3.3] For some context, the vast majority of Swift's 334 posts are promotional in some way, with just a small handful featuring her cats, her noncelebrity friends and family, or her taking personal time. Recent posts of Swift posing in outtakes from a new music video have garnered 1.2 to 2.4 million likes, and a recent post of her cat had 1.8 million likes (note 4). A recent video post in which she appears to be filming herself describing different aspects of the songs on her new album has 8.1 million views (note 5). The differences between likes and views reflect the differences in how fans interact with her posts.

[3.4] Only six of Swift's 334 Instagram posts are political, including the original endorsement post and the two other midterm election–timed posts I have described. The three other political posts have addressed the youth gun control movement known as "March for Our Lives"; the "metoo" movement, to which Swift added her own claims of sexual assault; and her most recent activism comprising a letter-writing campaign to US senators and a related petition to bring the "Equality Law," which would guarantee many protections for LGBTQ Americans, for a vote in the US Senate (note 6). All three of these posts have about 1 to 1.2 million likes, bringing them in line with her other posts. It is striking to note that her overtly political Instagram posts result in as much fan engagement as her usual posts. While her Instagram account boasts 120 million followers, it is quite normal for just a few million Instagram users to like any one of her posts. Though the 2.1 million likes are often cited in any reporting on her October 7 endorsement post, it is clear that this number is on a par with most of her other promotional and personal posts.

[3.5] Swift's Twitter activity, generally, is similar to her use of Instagram in that the majority of posts are promotional. Twitter's retweet and hashtag functionalities allow Swift to engage in political activity with her Twitter followers similar to how she uses the previously described #taylurking process. In May 2019, when Swift published an online petition at Change.org to ask the US Senate to vote on the Equality Law, she encouraged her Twitter followers to write to their own senators to make a similar demand. Through retweeting, Swift recognized and rewarded those Twitter users who posted pictures of themselves with their letters to their senators (figure 2). Swift encouraged the use of the #lettertomysenator hashtag, which when used next to her Twitter handle, resulted in publicity for both her activism and herself.

Screencap of Twitter post from account @PetermanAubrey dated June 1, 2019, as retweeted by Taylor Swift at account @taylorswift13. Text: Today I wrote to my senator, Ted Cruz, for the first time. Thanks to the awe inspiring words of Taylor Swift and the example she set, I took a stand for equality #LetterToMySenator [emojis: rainbow flag, rainbow, red heart] http://taylorswift.lnk.to/petition. Underneath the text are two images. The first image is a color photo of a girl with long brown hair wearing a dark T-shirt with a rainbow and the words All For One. She is standing in a living room and holding a sheet of paper in her hand. The second image is a clickable black-and-white image of a letter.

Figure 2. Screencap of Taylor Swift's retweet of @PetermanAubrey, June 1, 2019 (https://twitter.com/PetermanAubrey/status/1134905642412584961).

4. Conclusion

[4.1] The journalistic accounts of Swift's use of social media as a political call to arms have presented Swift as a commander, rallying her legions of young fans to do her bidding. Indeed, the possibility that 65,000 new voters heeded her call lends credence to this perspective. However, a closer look at her social media strategies shows that her political posts follow the same strategies as her promotional and personal posts, all of which contribute to a marketable celebrity persona.

[4.2] Swift uses Instagram to promote her career as a pop star by primarily sharing professionally rendered images of herself alongside details of how to consume her products. Interspersed with these promotional posts are posts with more personal pictures of herself, her friends and family, and her cats. These images also contribute to her professional celebrity persona in that they facilitate the illusion of access to a side of Swift that presumably only those closest to her would have. Because she has deliberately cultivated a fan experience of herself as a pop star and a regular person, her political posts fit right in. She posts a nonprofessional, personal image of herself alongside a personal appeal with links for fans to click. Rather than a departure from her usual Instagram posts, the October 7 endorsement post was part and parcel of her wider strategy for fan engagement. On Twitter, Swift's strategies for promoting political causes even more clearly mimic her strategies for promoting her products as seen from the #taylurking and #lettertomysenator campaigns.

[4.3] Though she's not a commander ordering her troops, Swift's use of social media to promote herself and the occasional political cause reflects the power that celebrities retain in their social media interactions with their fans. Swift's carefully expressed political social media posts have operated as fan engagement in much the same way as her usual posts do. Her strategies for connecting with fans follow her usual range of techniques: she presents herself to fans, asks them for something, and offers them a variety of ways to fulfil her requests. Fans can lurk, like, or engage in more robust ways to earn her recognition. Regardless of the level of their participation, they work with her, or perhaps for her, to coproduce and sustain her celebrity. Whether they buy her music or register to vote, she benefits from their actions.

5. Notes

1. See Morris (2014) for more on how musicians use social media platforms to engage in similar kinds of reciprocal relations with fans.

2. taylorswift (2018), "Something I wish I knew about when I was 18 and voting for the first time: EARLY VOTING. It makes it so quick and easy to go and cast your vote before November 6. Early voting starts TODAY in Tennessee and goes to Nov 1 US You can check out your state's early voting dates at the link in my bio," Instagram, October 17; https://www.instagram.com/p/BpCQFC3HKGo/.

3. taylorswift (2018), "These two Tennessee women voted for the candidate who has proven himself to be reasonable and trustworthy. We want leadership, not fear-based extremism. Early voting goes til Thursday and Election Day is November 6. Please don't sit this one out," Instagram, October 30; https://www.instagram.com/p/BpkN7A-FN0B.

4. taylorswift (2018), "Cat lady thirst trap," Instagram, July 13; https://www.instagram.com/p/Bz3P7JFj-AZ/; taylorswift (2018), "Some of us had champagne on set and it shows," Instagram, June 18; https://www.instagram.com/p/By3C5Irjvw0/.

5. taylorswift (2018), "So excited to show you the deluxe versions of Lover!" Instagram, July 23; https://www.instagram.com/p/B0RkMK8BDcf/.

6. Taylor Swift (2019), "Support the Equality Act," Change.org [petition], [June 1]; https://www.change.org/p/test-test-06258347-9bdc-4671-907f-03fb29e79287.

6. References

Haas, Susan. 2018. "Taylor Swift Makes Rare Political Statement, Backing Democrat in Tennessee Senate Race." USA Today, October 7, 2018. https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/2018/10/07/taylor-swift-getting-gasp-political-instagram-post/1562123002.

Ingram-Waters, Mary, and Leslie Balderas. 2018. "Blurring Production Boundaries with Fan Empowerment: Scandal as Social Television." In Adventures in Shondaland: Identity Politics and the Power of Representation, edited by Rachel A. Griffin and Michaela D. E. Meyer, 197–213. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Kornhaber, Spencer. 2018. "Taylor Swift's Savvy, Smiley Instagram Voter Drive." Atlantic, October 30, 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2018/10/taylor-swift-voting-instagram/574300.

Marshall, P. David, and Sean Redmond, eds. 2016. A Companion to Celebrity. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell.

Marwick, Alice, and danah boyd. 2011. "To See and Be Seen: Celebrity Practice on Twitter." Convergence 17 (2): 139–58. https://doi.org/10.1177/1354856510394539.

McDermott, Maeve. 2018. "Taylor Swift Inspired 65,000 People to Register to Vote, Says Vote.org." USA Today, October 9, 2018. https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/music/2018/10/09/taylor-swift-inspired-65–000-people-register-vote-says-vote-org-tennessee-phil-bredesen-trump/1574916002/.

Morris, Jeremy Wade. 2014. "Artists as Entrepreneurs, Fans as Workers." Popular Music and Society 37 (3): 273–90. https://doi.org/10.1080/03007766.2013.778534.

Stever, Gayle S., and Kevin Lawson. 2013. "Twitter as a Way for Celebrities to Communicate with Fans: Implications for the Study of Parasocial Interaction." North American Journal of Psychology 15 (2): 339–54.