Tinca Lukan explores TikTok's use in ethnographic research on social media influencers, detailing how she integrated it into her PhD study on influencers' working conditions in Slovenia.
In this blog post I dive into the integration of TikTok as a methodological tool for doing ethnographic research on social media influencers. TikTok has skyrocketed in popularity, boasting 672 million downloads in 2022, making it the most downloaded entertainment app globally (Statista). Beyond just entertainment, it has evolved into a go-to search engine for younger generations seeking information about products, services, and explanations (Kalley, 2022). TikTok’s wide appeal stems from the fact that it is an algorithmic media. Its algorithms smartly curate, personalise and serve content to those most likely to be interested in.
The surge in TikTok’s popularity has sparked a vibrant collection of academic literature delving into the intricacies of this platform. From a research perspective, TikTok is mostly used as a rich source of user generated content that reflects cultural trends, expressions and social dynamics. While many researchers have examined TikTok and the cultures that arise on the platform (for overview see Abidin and Kaye, 2021), my approach differs. I didn’t solely treat TikTok as the subject of analysis; rather I utilised it as a methodological tool to navigate and address the elements of ethnographic research into my study. This means I did ethnography through a platform.
First things first. Why would a busy PhD student transform her leisurely TikTok scrolling into a legitimate part of her job? The answer is my doctoral dissertation in which I examine the working conditions of social media influencers with the main research question: What shapes the working conditions of social media influencers in Slovenia? I understand influencers according to the definition of Crystal Abidin (2016) who defined influencers as ordinary internet users who accumulate a large number of followers through textual and visual narrations of their personal lives. This means I focus on influencers whose content centres around their lifestyle and everyday life and not for example, influencers who promote political ideologies. What distinguishes influencers from content creators is that they monetise their community of followers through advertising, brand sponsorship, revenue sharing models, subscriptions and merchandise sales.
In order to get an answer to the question of what shapes the working conditions of social media influencers in Slovenia, I used an ethnographic approach and utilised TikTok on various steps of the research process. Out of my research came 53 in-depth semi-structured interviews with influencers, and (hopefully) soon, doctoral dissertation. Find me on TikTok under the handle Tinca_Lukan. Just a heads up, I speak in the language of my empirical setting which is Slovenia.
In the upcoming sections, I’ll present my journey of utilising TikTok as my research field. I’ll share how it became a key player in achieving theoretical saturation, unveiling my position in the field, securing access to interviewees, fostering rapport, managing engagement, and obtaining validation from research participants. Additionally, I’ll delve into how this process shifted my role from a researcher to an influencer and demonstrate that researchers can leverage the platform not just as a source of data but also as a tool for scientific engagement and channel of communication with the broader audience.
TikTok as a field
In ethnography, the term “field” refers to the specific social or cultural setting where an ethnographer conducts their research. The field is an environment or community that the ethnographer immerses themselves in to study social dynamics, behaviours, and cultural practices of the people within that setting (O’Reilly, 2012). In a traditional sense, the field most often denotes a geographically bounded location, “imagine yourself suddenly set down surrounded by all your gear, alone on a tropical beach close to native village” (Malinowski, 1922: 4).
While conducting research on influencers’ working conditions, my investigation didn’t lead me to a tropical beach but rather to the algorithmic realm of the social media platform TikTok. While I also focused on influencers present on Instagram and YouTube, I started with TikTok because of its excellent recommendation algorithm. As with any other social media platform, what TikTok chooses to show is based on how we use the app, but the main difference is, as MIT Technology Review put it, “TikTok is simply better at it” (Ohlheiser, 2021). As influencers are platform-native workers (Poell et al., 2021), it becomes useful to consider social media platforms as one of our fields of research. By designating TikTok as my research field, the initial entry was straightforward, devoid of gatekeepers, as creating a TikTok account is a seamless process. With the account set up, the subsequent step was identifying potential research participants. TikTok’s algorithm, designed to provide content aligned with perceived user interests, played a pivotal role in achieving the next step of ethnographic research, which pertains to saturation.
TikTok for achieving saturation
Saturation refers to the point in a research study when the collection of new data ceases to provide additional insights or generate new information (O’Reilly, 2012). It also pertains to the concept of theoretical sampling, which involves explicitly seeking out people and cases relevant to the specific angle or topic under focus. Angele Christin (2020) argues that we can employ algorithms to assist with theoretical sampling. I utilised the algorithmic systems underpinning TikTok to identify potential research participants.
In this context, TikTok For You Page (FYP) became crucial as it was the platform where I sought individuals engaged in content creation and monetizing this activity through brand collaborations. FYP is a central feature of TikTok wherein the algorithm curates a personalized feed for each user. The videos on this page are not solely based on a user’s existing network but also encompass content predicted by the algorithm to be of potential interest. This feature proved particularly useful for my research as I aimed to discover unknown influencers who might appear on my FYP.
Utilising the TikTok algorithm to assist in identifying potential research participants, that is, internet users who share their personal lives on social media and monetise it through various business ventures, introduced specific challenges to my study. While seeking individuals for interviews, I encountered a recurrent pattern of recommendations, presenting influencers aligned with my personal interests. I consistently received content from female influencers in their late 20s who promoted a healthy lifestyle and wholesome food preparations. I found myself in what Pariser (2011) termed a “filter bubble.” This concept describes the personalised and selective information ecosystems shaped by online platforms and algorithms. It arises when algorithms predict and selectively present information based on assumptions about a user’s preferences. The filter bubble, in this case featuring female influencers promoting a healthy lifestyle, shed light on and allowed me to explore another crucial aspect of ethnographic research — positionality in the field.
TikTok for revealing positionality
Reflexivity urges researchers to recognize their positionality in the field and the inherent situatedness of knowledge. This is because ethnographers’ access to the field is mediated by their socio-demographic characteristics, such as gender, age, class, and race (Hammersley and Atkinson, 2007). Positionality encompasses the acknowledgment that the researchers’ background, identity, experiences, and perspectives can influence the research process, including the way data is collected, interpreted, and presented.
While searching for influencers through TikTok, the algorithmic recommendations revealed my positionality in the field and mirrored back my identity and personal interests. The filter bubble, dominated by lifestyle female influencers shed light on my position in the field as a cisgender, white woman of the late millennial generation, allowing me to encounter my “algorithmic self” (Bishop and Kant, 2023). This encounter prompted me to reflect on biases and assumptions, and my role in the research process. My identity markers might explain that the most insightful interviews stemmed from influencers who shared similarities with me, fostering a same-gender and generational relationship between me and the interviewees.
To escape the “filter bubble” dominated by female influencers, I intentionally manipulated the algorithm by altering my TikTok content consumption habits. I achieved this by following accounts and engaging with posts by male influencers. Consequently, I trained and effectively “tricked” the algorithm into recommending male influencers across a variety of content genres. The subsequent challenge involved conducting interviews for the purpose of getting insights into their working conditions.
TikTok to gain access to research participants
In ethnography, access refers to the researcher’s ability to enter and establish connections with the community or setting being studied. It involves gaining permission, trust, and acceptance from the individuals or groups in the field to observe, participate, and collect data (Neuman, 2003). In my case, access pertains to getting influencers to agree to talk to me and participate in my research. This was challenging as they were unresponsive to my requests for interviews. To secure access, I utilised TikTok again. I started creating videos where I discussed and essentially “advertised” my research on influencers, introducing myself and expressing my interest in conducting interviews with them. I included one of these videos about my research in the recruitment emails sent to influencers, enabling them to see me in a familiar format to them.
Before extending our roles as researchers into the influencer culture, we should be mindful of ethical standards as well as the impact of our engagement on TikTok on the research object. Concerning ethics, it is crucial but challenging to find balance with creating engaging content and maintaining the accuracy and credibility of research findings, because platforms’ logics could quickly nudge us into creating clickbait content. There is also a challenge of ensuring privacy and anonymity of research participants. The latter became a challenge as will be discussed in the next section. It is also worth noting that researchers have to be prepared to engage with the audience, which may include answering questions, comments and often also receiving criticism and hate.
Becoming a content creator myself and promoting my research this way means that the level of involvement of me as a researcher in the field changed from being a full observer to becoming an observer as a participant as I also became a content creator on TikTok. By becoming an influencer myself, I succeeded in generating significant interest in my research among influencers, creating an appealing experience for them.
In addition, I produced different kinds of videos. Given that ethnographic fieldwork involves conducting interviews, I adapted interview questions to fit the TikTok environment. I created videos in which I presented a single interview question, such as asking about their work hours and work location. In these videos, I followed the ethnographic recommendation of acting as an “acceptable incompetent,” trying to appear as a friendly outsider who wants to learn more about the way of life of the studied community (O’Reilly, 2012). In the comments, influencers responded, for example, that they mostly work from home and that influencer hubs in malls are not relevant to their labour. I followed up with individuals who commented on my videos by asking them in a reply comment if they would be interested in participating in an interview.
TikTok for building rapport
In ethnography, rapport is the ability to connect with others in a way that creates a climate of trust and understanding (Glesne, 1989). Rapport refers to the quality of the relationship and understanding between the researcher and the members of the community being studied. A positive rapport enables the researcher to gain access to information, observe more authentically, and establish a deeper understanding of the culture and social dynamics within the community. For building rapport social skills and personal charm of the researcher are needed and researchers need to show real interest in their interlocutors, sincerity and share emotions (Condon et al., 2019).
I utilised TikTok to tackle the challenge of building rapport. I created videos showcasing my passion for research, offering a behind-the-scenes of what it looks like to work as a researcher. I documented my travels to interviews, displayed the setup, equipment used, and portrayed the daily aspects of my job. I was able to bring my research participants insights into “science in the making” (Shapin, 1992). Regularly sharing content led to increased recognition of my face. This, in turn, had an impact on marketing conferences, where my fieldwork also took place, as influencers began approaching me and inquiring about my research. The insight they gained into my content and daily life created a sense of familiarity before our actual interviews, enabling them to speak more freely. During the interviews, I wasn’t a stranger to them.
This also presented a unique challenge for me as a researcher. As my research gained interest, some influencers expressed a desire to be featured in my TikTok content, eliminating the possibility of maintaining their anonymity. I included them in my content as a way of expressing gratitude for their interviews, which also helped alleviate the feelings of researcher guilt.I incorporated influencers into my content by creating “spend a day with me” videos, documenting my day as a researcher. In one segment, I featured an influencer sitting in a cafe and waving at me at the end of the interview.
In ethnography, disengagement refers to the process of withdrawing or ending the researcher’s involvement in the field or with the community under study. Disengagement requires ethical handling as it involves concluding the researcher’s presence in the community and potentially ceasing interactions with participants. We know about feelings of alienation and guilt towards informats on the part of researchers and how disengagement from the field often feels as a form of betrayal and leaving behind the people that helped and informed the research as “friendships are made and perhaps ended, perhaps retained” (Adler and Adler, 2007).
In my case, as already recognized by Christin and Lewis (2021), incorporating social media platforms as a component of the research entails a fundamental absence of disengagement from the field. Through TikTok, algorithmic connections between me and my informants persist even after the fieldwork is completed. I stay connected and continue to interact with my research participants by liking and commenting on their posts from my TikTok profile. In the case of social media, disengagement from the field would be quite harsh, such as unfollowing or blocking them. It is worth noting that staying in touch with my research participants through TikTok helped me overcome feelings of betrayal and alienation after my fieldwork was completed.
TikTok for participants’ validation
Ethnographic research strives to achieve validity, concordance of the world as seen by the participants with the world as interpreted by the researcher. It often involves member validation whereby members of the studied community evaluate suitability of the results. This means sharing the research findings with research participants to verify the accuracy of the interpretations. Participants are given the opportunity to provide feedback, corrections, or additional insights to ensure that their perspectives are accurately represented (Neuman, 2003).
To seek validation, I utilised TikTok. I created five videos where I presented my research findings and interpretations and in the end asked influencers whether they agree with my findings. In the comments, I often received comments that they know very well what I am talking about and thus obtained their validation. It’s important to acknowledge that seeking validation from influencers commenting on my videos may introduce a confirmation bias. The comments validating my research findings, could potentially reflect a bias rather than genuine confirmation. This is due to two main factors: firstly, the self-selection of individuals who choose to comment on these posts, with only around 10 out of 53 interviewees engaging in this way. Secondly, there is a possibility that these validating comments are influenced by social desirability bias – the tendency for individuals to respond in a manner that is perceived favourably by the researcher. Therefore, these comments primarily serve as personal feedback for me and should not be regarded as scientific validation of my results in the context of my doctoral thesis.
TikTok videos discussing my research findings serve another purpose in the research process: science communication. Sharing information about my research beyond the academic sphere is beneficial. I received 12,000 views on my videos about my research findings, and while it may not be considered viral fame, when considering that a PhD student, if fortunate, may have their supervisor read their dissertation, achieving this number of views is noteworthy. Additionally, I will soon provide further insights on utilising short-form videos for science communication on the HIIG website as an open educational resource. Stay tuned for more details.
Conclusion: Fieldwork as a personal transformation of the researcher
Fieldwork necessitates researchers’ complete immersion in a specific culture, and this immersive experience can potentially bring about transformations in researchers, influencing their values and emotions. In my case, engaging in fieldwork went beyond conventional expectations, leading to a transformation in my professional role. Utilising TikTok as a methodological tool, I not only assumed the role of a researcher but also embraced the identity of an influencer. This dual role was particularly valuable as it allowed me to understand the processes of content creation, idea generation, and the challenges of navigating algorithms for visibility. By immersing myself in the influencer role, I gained insights into their cultural references, dramas, and feuds, enabling me to participate more fully in these conversations.
The transition into an influencer role has altered my professional identity, a phenomenon Sophie Bishop (2023) refers to as “influencer creep.” This concept underscores how influencer cultures are permeating and influencing practices across various professions. Influencer creep involves the adoption of self-branding, optimization, and authenticity, and as a researcher, I have drawn from these influencer techniques. The incorporation of TikTok as a methodological tool serves as a tangible example of how influencer culture norms have transcended their original domain, infiltrating the landscape of academic research. This integration blurs the boundaries between traditional academic roles and the evolving social media-influencer labour. There are many pitfalls of influencer culture creeping into the academic profession, like requiring self-promotion and experiencing hate and hostility on social media. For example, one commenter of my video dismissed the relevance of researching influencers, likening it to a “second-grade middle school essay”. Despite these challenges, I would employ this methodology again. It has helped me to engage better with my research participants because I genuinely experienced what it means to seek visibility on social media. It has also improved my ability to communicate my research in an accessible and understandable manner. My TikTok also helped me legitimise the research topic of social media influencers as due to my content on TikTok mainstream media in Slovenia became interested in the topic of social media influencers and they regularly contact me to comment on this topic which helped me to popularise this topic and make it legitimate as influencing is career aspiration of many young people and presents the present and future of work.