At the hype of the Miss Universe pre-pageant in Manila last January 2017, a few blog posts concerning the one of the contestants, ‘Miss Canada’ Siera Bearchell were posted all over the internet and within social media platforms primarily Facebook. These recent blog posts which also made its way to local and global news, were all talking about her seemingly-overweight appearance. According to one of Bearchell’s Instagram posts, she revealed that she was recently asked and somehow publicly criticized in the form of questions like “What happened to you?”, “Why have you gained weight?”, “you are losing points”. To which Bearchell countered and responded by saying that while she might not be the same size she was when she was 16 or 20, which of course should not be surprising to anyone who understands the development of the human body, she is more “confident, capable, wise, humble and passionate than ever before.” She further added, “As soon as I started to love who I was rather than always trying to fit what I thought society wanted me to be, I gained a whole new side of life,” she wrote to her 15,000 followers. Bearchell, in another post said that for previous pageants she had undergone extreme diets by “restricting my food intake intensely” but instead of feeling happier felt “miserable and self-conscious” and like it was never good enough.
This event somehow gained a viral sense to the masses (particularly in Facebook) at the time because the Miss Universe pageant is widely known to showcase some of the “most beautiful” women in the world. Though I quoted “most beautiful”, this means that I do not one-hundred percent agree that that there should be that one “standard” of beauty to be somehow regarded as a ‘default’ for the world to appreciate and appeal to their sense of what is beautiful. I personally am not a hardcore fan of beauty pageants but because of my circle of friends and the gravity of its “importance” in the Philippine scene, I get to watch it to appreciate and enjoy their beauty which appeals to my OWN sense of what is beautiful. To me, I find curvy women more attractive than the skinny ones. However, seeing Siera Bearchell rocking a little more weight and flashy curves alongside with the other “most beautiful” women in the world seemed too “off, disrupting, and disappointing for these trolls or ‘body-shamers’. Though the posts about her shaming were quite evident, what is interesting here was not the news that has been initiated by the trolls and the body-shamers. Rather, it is the spread of the news of her ‘gentle backlash’, the manner on how she responded to these criticisms. In one of her tweets, Bearchell again defended her appearance by saying:
“This is the side I am trying to bring to the @missuniverse competition. The side of life that is rare to find: self-worth and self-love. We always focus on the things we could change rather than loving everything we are.”
This whole ‘shebang’ of exchange made me wonder about four highly-important points on the “viral” characteristics and attributes of these types of online news. Among these are its timely-ness, contextual-ness, hypertext-ability, and worthiness. Though admittedly, this news did not last very long, or at least I have seen it lurk in my social media for about two weeks until the pageant ended on the 30th of January this year. First, the news’ own actuality existed because it is timely. This means that to say that it happens every January, and a lot of people are getting into the gym/cross-fit lifestyle nowadays probably because summer season is fast approaching. So the audiences would think, how come we don’t talk about it? Why not? To add to this, news about fitness or getting in shape, or people posting pictures doing their cardio at the beach must be also ‘in the loop’ at that time to make it tick. An example of people who would most likely fall on the “viral trap” to click this or may find this relate-table would be fitness enthusiasts themselves—probably because when they hear or see “fat-shaming” themes on the news, they tend to check it out to also check themselves if the “fat” in the shaming would also be reflective of their own appearance. Hence, they could just read this news, then either laugh, sympathize, or defend Bearchell by commenting or sharing the news materials in whichever form such as a simple “Like”, or by clicking the “share” button on Facebook, and by producing a reaction video, or blog.To say that a news is timely may be deemed as “trending” but I think that trending itself is not just bound with time or just a ‘highlight’ within the passage of time, it also has to adhere to certain forms of context.
My second point is that, the news stayed on for two weeks on the “airwaves” simply because it is in context. And by context, I mean it should answer questions of what, who, and partly why in the news. My conception of the “what” goes along the lines of, It’s January, “It’s Miss Universe time!” To put it in Filipino sensibilities, “Anong balita?” (What’s the latest news today?) or “Nabalitaan mo naba yung balitang…?” (Have you heard of the news about…) As in the case of Miss Universe, news and updates about its preparations, pre-pageant, and coronation night have been built-up no more than two months before and its actuality has been sparkling the “airwaves” since then. And this is probably and partly why Miss Universe’s digital footprints crawled up and down in my Facebook and Instagram news feeds, not to mention the covers or the headlines, and sub-headlines of the newspapers and tabloids I see on the streets while I’m on my way to work. They all were peppered with trending Miss Universe news and updates. And part of this trending web of news is none other than Miss Canada, Siera Bearchell, which answers the “who” is involved in our context. The viral trap here is that you somehow had no choice but to see this ‘shaming’ news, which eventually captures our attention, and engage with it in our own ‘little’ ways. Though I would argue that, even a “level of engagement” is not even necessary at times. The viral trap further entraps because our pre-conceived notions of what Miss Universe, or whichever beauty pageants for that matter tells us of a new set of contestants of which were “templated” or defaulted into something “beautiful” by a particular dominant ideology. And it seems like it is our job as audiences in this whole spectacle to click, conform or not conform to it, agree or disagree, engage or not to engage to it—whichever of these works, because whether we like it or not, the news’ very presence in our timelines within a given context signifies its “viral power”, which leads me to my next and third essential and rather technical attribute and characteristic of the viral news (or of the Internet in general), the Hypertext.
Hypertext can mean and imply a number of complexities in different disciplines of media and this so-called new “new media” that we are all engaged in nowadays. To put it simply, these hypertexts manifest in the form of the links or clickable elements (buttons) that we interact with in browsing or reading through online content. George Landow (2006), wrote a book entitled “Hypertext 3.0: Critical Theory and New Media in an Era of Globalization which gave us the idea that “hypertexts embodies textual openness”. The duration of a news lifespan and its ability to sustain itself in mass consciousness nowadays (especially online news) no longer heavily relies on repetition of airings on TV, maintaining a physical archive (which is very costly) using old tapes, and arguably by maintaining a sharp memory. Instead, a major attribute to foster a particular news’ durability and longevity is its attachment to the Internet, particularly social media web platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and other major news blogs. On the technical side, this could also answer the question as to how are these online news easily scattered in social media. The hypertext, is fore-grounded by the connectivity of the Internet and its ubiquity (of these hyperlinks) in these social media platforms opened a wide range of possibilities to allow for new news items to surface, diffuse, linger, and “die a natural death” which may in most circumstances grant a possibility for it to re-surface or resurrect if not “die” completely to once again ‘seep in’ to mass consciousness with a new lifespan on its own.
Arguably, we can simply state that the Internet alone, and not specifically the existence of the hypertext or hyperlinks is one of the key responsible contributors to the ‘viral potential’ and longevity of a news. But in specificity of online postings, and in news articles that are being published, these are purposefully bound to a set of keywords and ‘meta tags’ that are structured and wrapped around every hyperlink that we see, and eventually click. These meta-tags are wrapped within the concept of hyper-linking and creating links to branch out to other websites. They are formed in keywords that actually help the web track down one’s content by creating algorithms then categorizing these sets of keywords and compiling them in “related searches” or “recommended for you” sections of social media and news websites. If that’s too much of a mouthful, consider the “hashtag” phenomena. Where you open up the possibilities of making your news/post familiar and be easily accessible online. Examples are #missUniverse, #missCanada #WhyUsoFAT, #BodyDiversity among other things. If an audience sees the link “Miss Canada Siera Bearchell speaks out after fat-shaming” in her timeline, he or she clicks on it, reads it, and happens to resonate well with this news, then about 90% of the time, he or she would actuate the “hyper-link” concept and click on the share button to add another strand of ‘web’ to the world wide web. From the far side of the globe there’s yet another friend of this audience who sees the link and would almost always do the same thing. In this manner of user participation, the news travels ever so quickly to create further “ripples” in the airwaves but there is also the danger that it would die a quick and natural death because the news is at the mercy of time and context as discussed earlier. This case of news with Bearchell’s fat-shaming is only one, but rather tiny node from a colossal sphere grid of nodes in news networks and their reach. As we all know, there is always bigger news with its own reach with different ‘gravities’ of social impact and repercussions thus they appear to get their own “fair share” of airtime to replace old news and stories with timely and contextually-situated ones.
Speaking of ripples and repercussions, it was the 5th of February early this year that Lady Gaga performed at the NRG studio in Houston, Texas for the half-time show of the Super Bowl 2017. News came out that she, like Bearchell, was body-shamed/fat-shamed during and after her performance. A line in one of the published news post was “Gaga was trolled and called “fat” among other things after she donned multiple outfits during the halftime show, including one which exposed her midriff”. I have personally have seen the performance in YouTube, and I myself have observed the part where her “midriff” was exposed. To me, it also looked strange that she had this belly “flop” bouncing while performing because I have seen her expose her midriff before in older acts but the “flop” wasn’t just there. But that didn’t keep me from watching and enjoying her performance! The mini-concert she had I thought, was superb in so many levels. And just like in Bearchell’s case, Gaga’s responses were also far worth sharing. Gaga responded in her Instagram account by saying:
“I heard my body is a topic of conversation so I wanted to say, I’m proud of my body and you should be proud of yours too. No matter who you are or what you do. I could give you a million reasons why you don’t need to cater to anyone or anything to succeed. Be you, and be relentlessly you. That’s the stuff of champions. thank you so much everyone for supporting me. I love you guys. Xoxo, gaga”
My final point as to how these types of news gets viral power is simply if it has enough worth for the audience reading it. Certain sensibilities, cultural narratives, and value systems are attached to different kinds of news. In a sense, this is what Lady Gaga emanated in her responses by telling the world that she does not necessarily give a damn to what other people say, because at the end of the day, the derogatory comments will not help her succeed. Her responses rippled to mass consciousness, at least in online, virtual worlds and with the power of hyper-linking, people were able to lash out on Gaga’s “nay-sayers” and post responses contributing to the news that could possibly give birth to new news headlines, whether it would be for dancing, fashion, eating healthy, or just simply news of an extraordinary performance or concert. Without over-analyzing these exchanges, we can simply say that news can get viral if the audiences can directly be triggered within their own sense of feeling, having “struck a chord”, or being able to relate well (physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, morally, culturally, etc.) to the posted news. Or simply put, if it really matters to them.
In a span of two weeks, Miss Canada’s Siena Bearchell and her supposed “notoriety” in the news feeds disappeared. If we are to look at it based from my perceived attributes, the news died because the Miss Universe 2017 pageant has finally reached its commencement last January 30. All the fat-shaming, body-shaming news goes with it. People especially those wired within the social media, cannot any more get a sense of “still talking about it.” The immediacy and instant gratification that social media and technologies continuously immerse in our lives at this stage in time even cut-off our precious attention span. Some few days later, a new news of the same type of subject re-appeared because “It’s Super Bowl time! Miss Universe was so January! Why not talk about that 30-minute live performance of Lady Gaga. Oh and let’s not forget her “Pot-Belly” flopping!” See what I mean?
The bashings, body-shamings or fat-shamings made by these trolls or shamers were drawn from, or because they too, also “have been struck a chord”—which to them, have distorted their notions of what is ‘normal’ or beautiful in their own perceived social orders and cultures. All these somehow consolidated in a form of a moral panic of some degree. What’s interesting are the ‘ripples’ and repercussions manifested out of the public backlash that has translated into discursive arguments originating from both sides of the audiences that is being mediated by the news and new media technologies. In most cases within today’s postmodern, social media-driven society, no longer is the news being broadcasted on TV/radio/newspapers made to be later on re-broadcasted to these social media platforms. With these timely, contextualized, structurally hyper-linked news items that are found worthy enough by the masses to be appreciated and worth-investing several forms of engagement on, it may often times be the other way around. This phenomena of discursive exchanges somehow pitches in, if not heavily dictates which news content should be published and broadcasted on our TV channels and how long should they last in our news feeds and radio programs. In addition, these types of news and their online discourse over time also tells the media when to ‘kill’ it, and when to give it the ‘elixir’ to be re-surfaced on the“top stories”of our virtual news feeds.