As the world advances into an increasingly technologically dependent society, various forms of life writing have emerged. Starting from written autobiographies to blogs, life writing had further expanded into vlogs, short for video blogs. The rising popularity of YouTube had given way to this expansion, where many vloggers had turned to ‘Internet influencers’, all thanks to the interest people have in watching the lives of these vloggers.
One vlogger that became an influencer is Michelle Choi, a lifestyle vlogger on YouTube who uploads videos about her daily life. But how does Choi “write” her life on YouTube? This essay examines this question and analyses Michelle Choi’s online identity, digital memory-making and her authenticity on social media as a result of “writing” her identity online. The essay starts by introducing who Michelle Choi is, followed by the different ways she “writes” her life on YouTube. Afterwards, it discusses different aspects of Choi’s digital autobiography and a conclusion to wrap up what was analysed.
Who is Michelle Choi?
Michelle Choi is a South Korean-American lifestyle YouTuber who started her YouTube journey in 2017. She uploads a variety of videos ranging from beauty tutorials and meal preparations to vlogs of her daily life, which is the most common type of video on her channel. According to her YouTube profile, Choi made her channel back in 2021 but her first video was already uploaded in 2017. As of June 2022, she has garnered 1.53 million subscribers throughout her YouTube career and had also launched her own brand Little Puffy in 2019 (Michelle Choi, 2021).
Choi’s YouTube videos portray different stages of her life, from her university experience in South Korea which then shifts to the process of her moving to New York City and settling into life there. She currently focuses on showing her life as a young adult, along with her pet dog Dobby, and her experiences with the highs and lows of life. As she vlogs about her daily life, Choi frequently shares about her new purchases, current obsessions, classes she is taking and also her relationships with others.
In addition to her weekly vlogs, Choi also posts on her official Instagram account. Both her YouTube videos and Instagram posts sometimes contain sponsored content, asserting her role as an ‘influencer’. Some of her sponsored content includes skincare products, food products and fashion products. Here we can see that her sponsored content aligns with her video content on life, beauty and wellness.
This essay focuses on Choi’s YouTube channel and information mentioned in the essay was collected from the channel. Choi’s words, her choice of video titles and comments under her videos were the main data and will be analysed and compared to various essays related to life writing. Everything was done through digital ethnography.
How Michelle Choi “writes” her life on YouTube
Life writing encompasses many types of narratives such as autobiography, diaries and essays (Sanders, 2018). Before the Internet became a necessity in our daily lives, life writing was narrated through text, then came film documentaries. In this globalised era, autobiographical life writing can be done by posting narratives of oneself on the Internet, like on social media, which is exactly what Michelle Choi is doing. In other words, Choi has been and still is “writing” a digital autobiography of her life on YouTube through her vlogs.
Lejeune & Eakin define autobiography as a "retrospective prose narrative written by a real person concerning his own existence, where the focus is his individual life, in particular the story of his personality" (Lejeune& Eakin, 1989). To them, an autobiography should record one’s life narration as authentically as possible. As a YouTuber, Choi carries out this narration of her life through what is called ‘vlogging’- or video blogging. According to Mediakix.com, vlogging can be defined as "the daily practice of capturing and sharing vlogs characteristically featuring a vlogger shooting themselves at arm’s length throughout their everyday activities" (Mediakix, n.d).
Choi “writes” her life on YouTube through videos filmed by her cameras and pictures taken by her phone. Social media is the channel through which she projects her digital autobiography, in which she is the main character. Not only does she carry out the filming process herself, but she also edits her vlogs herself. This aligns with Sanders’ idea of life writing, where she mentions that life writing "could be produced quickly and easily at home" and that it can give a chance for those silent to speak up (Sanders, 2018).
Although filming and editing videos require time and effort, creating YouTube videos require a considerably shorter time to produce in comparison to writing and editing a book. YouTube can be said to be Choi’s main channel of expression since she does not own any other social media accounts other than her YouTube and Instagram accounts. On her Instagram, she mostly posts pictures and Instagram stories of her sponsored content rather than videos of her speaking.
Choi can be said to be “writing” her life on YouTube by regularly posting her daily vlogs. She includes many parts of her life in her vlogs, such as the dishes she cooked, her fitness journey and holiday trips. If her audience continues watching her videos for some time, they can connect one video content to another and recognise changes in her life, like hobbies and sometimes emotions. Her daily vlogs that cover a large time frame can be seen as a public growth process as she advances into different stages of her life, resembling the different chapters of an autobiography.
Another way Choi “writes” her life is by not only showing her activities but also her emotions, opinions and feelings throughout her videos. She speaks up about the Black Lives Matter movement, Asian racism and her mental health journey. On a more personal level, Choi opens up about her breakup in one of her videos. She expresses how she was "contemplating" telling her audience and that she was "still trying to process" (MichelleChoii, 2021, 0:29) the situation. This indicates that although she was hesitant to break the news to her audience and that she was still not emotionally ready, she was still transparent about sensitive aspects of her life in her vlogs. She then says that she hopes her audience "can respect his privacy" (MichelleChoii, 2021, 0:52), referring to her ex-boyfriend. This shows trust in her audience that they would do what she says.
Lejeune & Eakin (1989) assert that autobiographers establish a ‘referential pact’ with their readers, affirming that the autobiographical account "refers to reality beyond the text" (Marek, 2002). This notion of a referential pact can be related to Choi’s role as a YouTuber. She would want her videos to look as authentic and natural as possible to show that she is just like any other young woman. Her emotions, feelings and experiences- like the breakup- all had the possibility of being relatable to her audience, something that her audience may have also experienced and therefore share similar affections and sympathy with her. When she had established the image of a relatable person, there are higher chances that viewers will believe, trust and possibly, look up to her.
Choi's Online Identity
Choi’s online life writing resulted in a variety of outcomes. Her continuous vlog uploads create a chain of stories: something that both Choi and her audience can look back to as memories. From the many memories she had made over the years, Choi had also curated a digital identity that was imposed through the ways she projected herself in her videos. Moreover, being the main character and editor of her videos means that Choi opens the question about the authority that she has over what she shows in her videos. This section focuses on memory-making, Choi’s digital identity and authority that formed through her life writing process.
Starting from 2017, Choi has consistently been uploading videos on her YouTube channel on a weekly basis. Many of the experiences she went through, conversations she had and activities she did were recorded and compiled into short clips. These videos can be regarded as traces of her life, her digital ‘memories’.
Of course, Choi’s memories consist of things that happened to her and the emotional aspect that was associated with these memories was specific to how she processed them in her mind. According to Smith & Watson (2001), narrated memories like Choi’s videos are interpretations of "a past that can never be fully recovered". The videos attempt to preserve and illustrate Choi’s memories, allowing her audience to re-live them at different time periods, but the videos only serve as replicated representations of the memories. Both Choi and her audience would not be able to feel the same emotions Choi initially felt while experiencing the same memories.
Smith & Watson (2001) also note Nelson’s idea of remembering something: we are expected by the people around us and our culture to remember certain things. Thus, we learn certain techniques of remembering, depending on the norms of our culture (Nelson, 1993). Because Choi can be regarded as an influencer with a growing audience, her audience can set expectations regarding the type of video content they want to see from Choi. These expectations from her audience can lead to Choi choosing particular memories, or aspects of her memories, to share with her audience to ensure that her audience will stay interested and keep watching her videos.
One memory that Choi constantly shares on her channel is her moving vlogs. She had been moving to different apartments in New York each year and had always taken her audience along on the journey by vlogging the process of moving. Comments like the one shown below enable Choi to be aware of her audience’s enthusiasm, and possibly expectations for her to vlog, leading her to always vlog the process of moving, buying furniture and decorating her new space.
As her audience follows her into different stages of her life, Choi creates the process of ‘collective remembering’, meaning that people share ‘collective memories’. Corning and Schuman (2014) define the term ‘collective memories’ as referring "to memories of the past that are shared in some sense by members of a group—often, though not necessarily, a nation". Choi’s audience who watches her videos not only shares collective memories with Choi herself but also with other audiences. When collective remembering is done through the use of technologies, the memories become 'artificial' because technology is used to preserve and pass on the memories (Smith & Watson, 2001).
What Choi says, expresses and experiences in her videos together create her digital identity. Not only does she assert a certain identity on herself, but her publicised life also allows her audience to designate identities on her too. There are identity traits that are obvious and perceived the same by everyone. For Choi, these traits are her biographical data, such as her name, age and ethnicity. Other traits are less obvious, like her music taste, political ideologies or cultural beliefs.
As her audience watches her videos, there are chances that more of her personality can be revealed, but only to the extent that Choi allows. For example, Choi has never disclosed her music taste but she has always been quite transparent about her mental breakdowns. She has never shown her brother’s face but shows her parents’ business. This confirms that Choi’s digital identity is not her ‘full’ identity- some parts of her personality are concealed but what she reveals constructs an outsider’s view of her identity, possibly the way she wants her audience to perceive her. Narrators like Choi know what identities they should adopt and are ascribed with through the discourses that encompass them (Smith & Watson, 2001), such as comments on YouTube. So, constructing identity means that identity is discursive and layered. Identity is then perceived differently by each audience depending on the cultural repertoires that they are personally in.
One way Choi constructs her identity is through her video titles. Her Living Alone Diaries imply that she spends much of her time alone at home, and by including words like chill, simple or casual, she asserts that she spends her time doing activities that many others do, setting herself as indifferent to her audience. This creates the identity of her being a homebody who likes to stay home and live life differently compared to other influencers who tend to glamorise partying, socialising and spending money. Choi aims to be seen as relatable and comparable to other women, as briefly discussed previously.
In a certain video, Choi tells her audience that she treats her vlogs "like a diary" and that she feels "comfortable talking about vulnerable parts" (MichelleChoii, 2021, 9:20) of her life. As previously discussed above, Choi possesses both the authority to select the aspects of memories and identity that she wants to share with her audience. She also needs to make sure that her audience believes that her videos are true and real. To Smith and Watson (2001), a narrator’s focus on the authoritative aspect of their experiences persuades its audience to be persuaded in believing the authenticity of the narrative and validates these claims as ‘truthful’, leading its audience to believe the narrative.
As Choi asserts the identity that she is just like any normal person through her words, actions and video titles, she engrains the idea that her videos are truthful. The way she limits her audience from knowing everything about her makes it seem like she has the authority to protect certain parts of her identity as most people would consciously, or unconsciously, do. Choi once said that she will talk about her life "in the capacity that I (she) feel comfortable in" (MichelleChoii, 2021, 9:05). The fact that Choi also includes parts of her life where she felt demotivated and vulnerable creates the feeling that she trusts her audience to know these not-so-perfect parts of her life. Moreover, her friends and family that appear in her vlogs experience the same memories as Choi, authenticating what she vlogged.
Because her audience finds Choi ‘just like them’, Choi wins the trust of her audience who regard her videos to be a credible portrayal of her life. Since memory is "both source and authenticator of autobiographical acts" (Smith & Watson, 2001), what Choi captures in her videos is assumed by her audience to be authentic and real, simply because of the presence of video proof of those memories. This means that Choi is obliged to monitor which parts of her life seem the most authentic and choose those aspects to represent her online identity in the most truthful way possible.
Michelle Choi's life writing
This article discussed a case of digital life writing- Michelle Choi’s daily vlogs- and it reviewed how Choi “writes” her life on YouTube. Not only had this article analysed how Choi recorded her memories for the public to see, but it also showed how she created a digital identity and how she possessed the authority to determine the memories and aspects of identity she wants to be projected online. Through these features, Choi’s life writing can be posed to be credible and trustworthy. Her vulnerable and authentic content asserts honesty and reliability.
The Internet, technology and social media are all fast-paced affordances that will develop into various forms in the future. Using the example of the possibility for people to write and translate their lives digitally, we can presume that even more innovative forms of life writing will be possible in the near future. People like Michelle Choi are not the pioneers of life writing, but they sure are trailblazing the path for future life writing authors to venture into other life writing breakthroughs.
Choi, M. [Michelle Choi]. (n.d.). Videos [YouTube channel]. YouTube. Retrieved November 15, 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/user/michellechoii/videos
Choi, M. [Michelle Choi]. (2021, Oct 1). Living Alone Diaries | Let's cook and chat! Post breakup, fears, career, life updates. [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jFo02JnuOaE&t=617s
Choi, M. [Michelle Choi]. (2021, May 14). Getting settled into my new apartment, life updates, new beginnings… [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pfhyll45Jno
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