Spectacle and Specter: Handling Boxes In Between Digital Content Creation, E-Commerce Advertising, and Last-Mile Delivery

Zizi Li examines imagery of stacked boxes in YouTube unboxing videos, reading their spectacular and excessive form as a spectral trace of labouring bodies in the logistics supply chain.
[This article is part of a dossier on Media In-Between.]

In 2019, Roxette Arisa Howe uploaded an unboxing video on her YouTube channel. Howe, a Japanese American beauty guru and mega-influencer, had returned to her apartment in Los Angeles after a months-long trip to discover a large pile of complimentary branded products—so-called PR packages—at the front entrance to her home.1Mega-influencer is a tier of influencers with at least 1 million followers. In the video, Howe arranges these boxes in tall stacks that nearly reach the roof. She attempts to get an eye-catching image of herself spreading out in front of the boxes to emphasize their excessive scale and spectacular function. It took Howe seven hours to unpack the multiple stacks of delivery boxes, which are displayed in an aesthetic of copiousness, yet these stacked shipping boxes only occupy one minute of screen time, functioning as signs of accumulation in the background. Viewers are thus confronted with the performance of unboxing, yet the boxes themselves remain highly disposable and almost invisible.

As this visualization of abundance shows, conspicuous consumption has intensified in the digital influencer era, becoming normalized in the name of style. More than five decades ago, Guy Debord warned us about the pending domination of the spectacle as “a social relation between people that is mediated by images.”2Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Ken Knabb (Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1967). For Debord, the spectacle is a materialized mode of advanced commodity production and consumption. In this article, I argue that the spectacular figure of stacked boxes is indicative of the logic of the social media attention economy, which reduces everything to quantitative equivalence and totalizes the commodity as the center of the world to be looked at. It is the excessive quantity of these shipping boxes that matters to these creators, not so much the boxes themselves, except as a part of the mise-en-scene, because the sheer quantity is what adds to the thrill for viewers to partake in the fetishization of the commodity.

Still from Roxette Arisa Howe’s YouTube video “MY BIGGEST PR UNBOXING HAUL EVER *not clickbait*.” September 2019.

The figure of stacked boxes thus serves as a gimmick to contrive and fascinate viewers while concealing the structure of extraction in various ways.3Sianne Ngai, Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgement and Capitalist Form (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020), 1, 9. First, constructing spectacle for social media demands unpaid labor time by creators and their family/friends, from tidying up the home and constructing a PR box wall to cutting open boxes and discarding packaging materials. Home-based informal work, despite often being devalued as a feminized, unproductive activity, is foundational to generate the PR box wall as an image to commodify attention in social media production. Furthermore, the box wall is a liminal figure: it functions as a short-lived spectacle to lure viewers, built specifically to be taken apart. A tall box wall is also unstable, always on the edge of falling apart by itself and throughout the process of unboxing. This image-in-limbo illuminates a compromised aesthetic mode that encodes how influencer cultural production maximizes the extraction of surplus value from living labor and the chronic instability of capitalism. The PR box wall becomes an ephemeral surface that invokes an ambivalent affect of excess and deficiency, simultaneously masking and revealing the structure of capitalism and its volatility. In this article, I ask: what are the material conditions that shape the grandiose yet unstable aesthetics of excess crucial to the entanglement of influencer marketing, content creation, and e-commerce supply chains? How do we unearth the shadowy, seemingly absent laboring bodies behind the recurring, hypervisible motif of boxes in e-commerce influencer media?

Spectrality in Influencer Visual Culture

To address these questions, I mobilize the concept of spectrality. Spectrality is a concept of in-betweenness. The specter is a ghostly, shadowed figure that traverses boundaries. It occupies the liminal space in between presence and absence, past and present, the visible and the invisible, the material and the immaterial.4Maria del Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren, eds., The Spectralities Reader: Ghosts and Haunting in Contemporary Cultural Theory (London: Bloomsbury, 2013). It is inherently unstable, out of place, and transgressive. Spectrality is etymologically linked to the Greek verb phainesthai (to seem, to appear, to reveal oneself) and related to the notion of (in)visibility. Laura Kipnis theorizes visibility as “a complex system of permission and prohibition, of presence and absence, punctuated alternately by apparitions and hysterical blindness.”5Laura Kipnis, “Feminism: The Political Conscience of Postmodernism?,” Social Text, no. 21 (1989): 149–66, https://doi.org/10.2307/827813. The regime of visibility is contradictory, featuring a double play of invisibility and hypervisibility. What is perceived as invisible is not necessarily absent. What is presented as hypervisible is not necessarily truthfully there. The spectacle is a hypervisible figure that captures how the overrepresentation of certain images of a marginalized subject in fact obfuscates that subject in the broader discursive environment. As a figure that is at once present and absent, the specter reveals its ghostly presence at unexpected moments and sites through tangible traces detectable by our sensory faculty. Influencer visual culture is conditioned by the tension between the spectacle and the specter. This essay performs a spectral critique of the commerce-driven, influencer-centered visual culture by attending to nested mobilizations of labor embedded in vernacular visuality. The spectacularization of boxes in the e-commerce-driven social media culture ends up obfuscating living labor in influencer industries, from content creators to delivery drivers. I juxtapose the spectacle, as exemplified by the box wall, with the spectral presence of laboring bodies in influencer media.

Still from Roxette Arisa Howe’s YouTube video “MY BIGGEST PR UNBOXING HAUL EVER *not clickbait*.” September 2019.

How does this sense of spectrality manifest itself in Howe’s video? A doorbell rings right before Howe is about to take apart the box wall staging to cut open all the outer packages: a UPS driver has arrived to deliver more boxes. The specter makes itself known sonically as sounds of doorbell and boxes being dropped off, which penetrate through the contained media time-space of a spectacular box wall ready to be taken apart. The delivery driver’s arrival, often overlooked as part of the friction-free infrastructure, interrupts the flow of the PR unboxing haul video. Howe recounts how she started talking into her vlog camera when the UPS worker finished delivery and was waiting for the elevator. The latter became curious about who she was talking to and returned to her door. With this unexpected move, which is at odds with frictionlessness and efficiency, the off-screen delivery worker becomes a specter that troubles the boundary between two arbitrarily separated systems/spaces. We cannot see the worker himself and can vaguely hear his voice in the background. Howe, who was holding two delivered brown boxes in one hand and a vlog camera in another, awkwardly said, “oh, hi, thank you, sorry.” From the off-frame interaction captured to the muttered background voice and foregrounded white text, the ghostly traces of the delivery worker are channeled through the rupture of Howe’s filming process. This brief “interruption” dispels the magic of click-and-arrive as a seamless technology of zero work conveyed through the aesthetic of excess. It is also in momentary detour that the interdependence between creative and menial labor in and beyond the digital realm is made clear. Although delivery drivers seem to be invisible in mainstream influencer content, the materiality of their labor leaves an on-screen residue in the form of delivery boxes that is perceived by those who are willing to see.

E-commerce-driven digital media content is thus conditioned by the tension between spectacles and specters. As intermediaries amid brands and consumers, social media creators are firmly situated in between influencer marketing, content creation, and e-commerce logistics, all governed by the socio-technical infrastructure of social media networks. The liminal position of influencer cultural production offers opportunities to excavate structuring absences by attending to cracks in seamless, spectacular media portrayals.6Richard Dyer, The Matter of Images: Essays on Representations, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 1993), 83. Much e-commercial marketing and influencer content is accidental process media that reveals the logic of capital accumulation and the spectral presence of undervalued labor.7Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky, The Process Genre: Cinema and the Aesthetic of Labor (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020). To further illustrate the disjuncture between the projected aesthetic and the material realities of the influencer economy, I discuss two scenes from an influencer-collaborated e-commerce advertisement and a delivery driver’s “a day in my life” vlog. They are sites/moments of converging brand marketing, digital production, and e-commerce logistics that elicit buried connections between creative and logistical laboring bodies.

Beneath Urban Screens
Still from Amazon Fashion’s “imma x Amazon The Drop” collection ad campaign “Tokyo Chaos.” January 2021.

In January 2021, Amazon Fashion released a concept video titled “Tokyo Chaos” with Japanese fashion lifestyle virtual influencer Imma to promote the launch of their collaborative collection featuring several physical fashion items. This ad emphasizes Imma’s fluidity in between material and immaterial spaces: footage of her traversing across physical, digitally simulated, and animated environments is edited together to create a sense of frictionless operation across different spatial dimensions. Imma wakes up and finds herself immersed in a simulated Tokyo cityscape, looking at high-rises with LED screens displaying images of her. The cityscape is imagined as a canvas to advertise Imma as a cultural commodity: the city becomes Instagram, with city screens serving as the display interface to circulate and consume Imma as the ideal sign. In line with Japanese cyberpunk imaginations of the city as an information society, Tokyo is transformed by physical urban screens and pop-up social media screens into a city of consumption wherein architecture becomes a backdrop overlaid by “circuits of information and desire.”8Hajime Yatsuka, “Gendai Kenchiku Ni Okeru Nōtēshon No Bōken,” 10+1 3 (Spring 1995): 40. Imma is imagined as the cultural commodity with her body/information constantly being extracted, circulated, and consumed in the digital city. The stacked displays of Imma through these screen “boxes” of varying sizes share similarities with the previously discussed spectacle of stacked delivery boxes. As more images of Imma pop up and lay on top of the already highly simulated urban landscape, the space around her is being encroached upon in this engulfing environment of spectacle-making by totalizing Imma as a commodity to be looked at from all directions and at varying scales.

But as these massive screen facades dominate our visual field, the video ambivalently implies that logistical labor and activity take place beneath these urban screens of spectacular images. Imma is, for instance, portrayed as an Amazon “package handler” in the very last scene. An Amazon truck parks in an alleyway in between urban high rises. We see piles of brown boxes stacked up, not strictly as a box wall as previously discussed but set up in another unpractical yet aesthetically pleasing way. Imma wears a shirt dress from the advertised collection, sitting up straight while holding a small package. She is not actually handling or delivering these packages; instead, she poses as a model for a photoshoot. The box stacks serve an aesthetic function as staging props. Their arrangement is so far from the reality and best practices of how delivery boxes are loaded in a truck that the dissonance becomes a site through which the operating logic of masking and the presence of spectrality come into our view. Situated in a delivery truck together with boxes of physical goods, Imma is ultimately positioned as a racialized, gendered material commodity like those clothing items Amazon sells under her name. She serves as a circulatory commodity for Amazon symbolically through the excessive screen displays, and materially through the physical clothing items.

Still from Amazon Fashion’s “imma x Amazon The Drop” collection ad campaign “Tokyo Chaos.” January 2021.

Physical commodities are circulated through big and small boxes in delivery trucks driving on busy streets and delivered to apartments in packed buildings. These are mundane but infrastructural laboring activities performed by logistics workers who are made spectral in the video, in the shadows of the spectacularized urban screens. If the sea of Imma on simulated city screens emphasizes her immateriality and fluidity as signs, this final appearance of Imma interacting with physical delivery packages highlight her materiality, while obscuring highly exploitative and subhuman material conditions experienced by Amazon delivery drivers and other logistics workers that enable the ever-flourishing e-commerce industry. The material conditions portrayed in the staged image of Imma “loading” in the back of a van are inaccurate and far from the reality experienced by millions of Amazon delivery drivers around the world. The capitalist-serving portrayal of a marketable e-commerce operation in today’s consumer society is one that is not only fast and seamless but also characterized by images of happy, well-treated workers. Such a façade is, however, always haunted by actual Amazon delivery drivers and their labor conditions.

Between Several Jobs

In September 2021, Connecticut-based Black Jamaican beauty creator Shanique Bella posted a video titled “A Day in the Life of An Amazon Delivery Driver” on YouTube, the second most popular one on her channel at the time of writing. As the title suggests, this is a vlog that walks viewers through her workday as an Amazon delivery driver and key steps in last miles logistical work. The image above captures the loading phase during which a driver packs their van with the several hundred packages assigned to them that day. Unlike the effortless photoshoot-like set-up in the Amazon ad, Bella’s video documents the repetitive hard work of moving and organizing packages in her van: huge bags of packages on the shelves are visible on screen right and oversized heavy packages on screen left. Delivery vlogs challenge and complicate the “distribution fetishism”: how e-commerce businesses utilize media to enhance customers’ affections toward commodities and to raise their expectations of short delivery time in ways that disregard humans and environmental costs.9Emily West, Buy Now: How Amazon Branded Convenience and Normalized Monopoly (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2022), 52. Bags upon bags of Amazon boxes are visualized on screen, not primarily to elicit joy from consumers per se, but to illustrate the work performed by delivery drivers as logistical laborers and infrastructure to fulfill customer’s demand and Amazon’s promise. At the same time, these contents exemplify a form of “logistics fetishism” by making visible the often-hidden material realities of last-mile delivery processes.10Tamara Kneese, “Keep It Oakland: E-Commerce Meets Social Justice,” Media, Culture & Society 44, no. 2 (2021): 1–12, https://doi.org/10.1177/01634437211048342. Emphasizing the crazy number of packages and the stressful nature of their job helps delivery drivers assert their labor value.

Still from Shanique Bella’s YouTube video “A Day In The Life Of An Amazon Delivery Driver.” September 2021.

Most videos on Bella’s channel are mundane vlogs that enable a space to capture a range of laboring activities: from doing daily household chores to spending hours in the gym and in front of the makeup mirror for beauty maintenance, from delivering packages for Amazon to setting up a beauty studio business at her home. Non-elite creators must hustle more for their basic livelihood and their fame does not usually translate to financial security. As YouTuber Gabe Dunn once shared: “One week, I was stopped for photos six times while perusing comic books in downtown LA. The next week, I sat faceless in a room of 40 people vying for a menial courier job” (emphasis added).11Gaby Dunn, “Get Rich or Die Vlogging: The Sad Economics of Internet Fame,” Splinter, December 14, 2015, https://splinternews.com/get-rich-or-die-vlogging-the-sad-economics-of-internet-1793853578. Dunn’s comments point out the pride of struggling creative workers and the cultural hierarchy that perceives delivery jobs as less desirable. But one must earn the money to eat and pay rent, not to mention costs going into creating content. Bella is a vlogger who works as both a delivery driver and a beauty worker doing clients’ lashes and hair. This convergence makes visible how creators move back and forth across spaces of creative, commercial, and logistical production. While Bella is seemingly out of place in her beauty lifestyle channel, her delivery vlogs document slices of precarious workers’ lived experiences in digital creator cultures and the platform economy. She is a node in a chain of gendered and racialized laborers linked to one another by bonds of capital production and goods distribution.12Precarity Lab, “Digital Precarity Manifesto,” Social Text 37, no. 4 (December 2019): 77–93, https://doi.org/10.1215/01642472-7794402.

Still from Shanique Bella’s YouTube video “In Home Beauty Salon | My 2022 At Home Salon.” May 2022.

Comparing Bella with Howe in the opening discussion illustrates significant disparities within the influencer economy, especially layered precarities pertaining to market, industry, and platform uncertainties.13Brooke Erin Duffy et al., “The Nested Precarities of Creative Labor on Social Media,” Social Media + Society 7, no. 2 (2021): 1–12, https://doi.org/10.1177/20563051211021368. Creators with already underprivileged backgrounds, and hence less resources, are less likely to maximize their online visibility. Howe was an elite figure skater before becoming a YouTuber while also pursuing a degree in communications and working in the industry as a social media manager and a writer. She was able to convert her interest in makeup along with a working knowledge in audience and community management into a beauty guru career. Bella, however, is building her brand as a small beauty lifestyle creator on top of working as a delivery driver and a beauty technician. While Howe was stacking up the wall of PR boxes and Imma was elegantly sitting in a chair surrounded with packages, Bella was loading her van with packages for hundreds of addressees. Juggling across different jobs leaves underprivileged creators significantly less time and energy to both produce content and adapt to the social media temporality that governs fast-changing market trends, platform policies, and algorithmic systems.

 Conclusion

This article has juxtaposed three scenes, each of which complicates the discourse of labor invisibility to shed light on the interwoven precarities experienced by undervalued laborers who work in plain sight but often remain in the shadows. Logistics workers and small-scale social media creators are situated in what Anita Say Chan has called “networking peripheries,” performing underpaid labor under capitalistic exploitation and the commodification of bodies/data.14Anita Say Chan, Networking Peripheries: Technological Futures and the Myth of Digital Universalism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014). Triangulating these liminal time-spaces of laboring in this piece is thus an experiment to process the tacit material connections representative of the broader industrial and labor relations in between digital cultural production, e-commerce marketing, and last mile delivery. The act of juxtaposition activates one’s spectral gaze when engaging with the frictionless rhetoric and excessive form of e-commerce-driven influencer media production. My broader research shows that the rhetorical and aesthetic focus on seamlessness and excess mediated through influencer marketing obfuscates the intricate material realities of the actual workflow and labor conditions of global e-commerce operations. I engage with shadows and peripheries in the influencer culture and economy, excavating the ghostly labor buried as infrastructural traces. This short piece suggests that a close reading of the spectacular surface images of influencer culture deploying the destabilizing concept of spectrality and the relational approach of juxtaposition, informed by the framework of in-betweenness proposed by this dossier, can help expose the ghosts of digital cultural production. The layered presence of the specter pierces through the ideal image of a smooth space of flows, prompting us to rethink the material conditions and operative logics that shape the circulation of image/commodity/capital.

Notes

Notes
1 Mega-influencer is a tier of influencers with at least 1 million followers.
2 Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Ken Knabb (Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1967).
3 Sianne Ngai, Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgement and Capitalist Form (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020), 1, 9.
4 Maria del Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren, eds., The Spectralities Reader: Ghosts and Haunting in Contemporary Cultural Theory (London: Bloomsbury, 2013).
5 Laura Kipnis, “Feminism: The Political Conscience of Postmodernism?,” Social Text, no. 21 (1989): 149–66, https://doi.org/10.2307/827813.
6 Richard Dyer, The Matter of Images: Essays on Representations, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 1993), 83.
7 Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky, The Process Genre: Cinema and the Aesthetic of Labor (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020).
8 Hajime Yatsuka, “Gendai Kenchiku Ni Okeru Nōtēshon No Bōken,” 10+1 3 (Spring 1995): 40.
9 Emily West, Buy Now: How Amazon Branded Convenience and Normalized Monopoly (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2022), 52.
10 Tamara Kneese, “Keep It Oakland: E-Commerce Meets Social Justice,” Media, Culture & Society 44, no. 2 (2021): 1–12, https://doi.org/10.1177/01634437211048342.
11 Gaby Dunn, “Get Rich or Die Vlogging: The Sad Economics of Internet Fame,” Splinter, December 14, 2015, https://splinternews.com/get-rich-or-die-vlogging-the-sad-economics-of-internet-1793853578.
12 Precarity Lab, “Digital Precarity Manifesto,” Social Text 37, no. 4 (December 2019): 77–93, https://doi.org/10.1215/01642472-7794402.
13 Brooke Erin Duffy et al., “The Nested Precarities of Creative Labor on Social Media,” Social Media + Society 7, no. 2 (2021): 1–12, https://doi.org/10.1177/20563051211021368.
14 Anita Say Chan, Networking Peripheries: Technological Futures and the Myth of Digital Universalism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014).
Li, Zizi. "Spectacle and Specter: Handling Boxes In Between Digital Content Creation, E-Commerce Advertising, and Last-Mile Delivery." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 9, no. 2 (June 2024)
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