Monthly Archives: June 2011

Alice Marwick’s "Status Update" (chapters 1-4)

From Alice Marwick’s dissertation,”STATUS UPDATE: CELEBRITY, PUBLICITY AND SELF-BRANDING IN WEB 2.0.” (pdf) As the title makes obvious, this is very pertinent to the line of thinking I have been developing lately, that social media is essentially a self-branding platform and as such a pillar of support for neoliberal enterpreneurial subjectivity (as Foucault lays it out in the 1977-79 lectures). It supplies the compensatory salve for subjects who must assume increasing amounts of risk under neoliberalism and post-Fordism; it transmutes ontological insecurity into pleasurable sharing while habituating users to perpetual reflexivity and strategic identity development in media (in lieu of direct and spontaneous access to life experience).

I’m going to read through Marwick’s paper and cull interesting bits, then paste them below with any commentary I think they warrant.

1.

I aim to bring to light some of what the predominant discourse of Web 2.0 has obscured: social media‘s physical and contextual location in a particular entrepreneurial techno-culture of Northern California. This is a highly commercial milieu which draws partly from a rich history of Silicon Valley technology development, valorizing the young entrepreneur, the possibility of massive wealth, and self-actualization through constant labor. These capitalist, status-conscious values have influenced the affordances of contemporary social media, and how they are perceived and used.(4) … The specific modes of status building enabled through social media (that is, life-streaming, micro-celebrity, and self-branding) are not accidental but, rather, are afforded by the design characteristics of the technical foundations of social media (5)

This reminds me a bit of Adam Curtis’s argument in the first installment of All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace: embedded in technology is the libertarian biases of start-up founders, and this technology in turn socializes users into an extremist ideology of individualism. I accept this interpretation to a degree but am wary (believe it or not) of lapsing into a conspiratorial view. I don’t think neoliberalist viewpoints are limited to Silicon Valley; I think they are pervasive in U.S. society and are merely reflected in venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. But the defaults of social media have been shaped by the Silicon Valley outlook that presumes sharing, no privacy, perpetual work, etc. as norms and not radical innovations to norms. Yet my intuitive feeling is that the users of social media services have not found off-label uses to counter these biases, and have in general extended them.

2.

Social media promotes an individualistic view of technology use which encourages and rewards focus on the self and competition with others in a process similar to the mythology of an unfettered free market. Self-presentation becomes a strategic way to display and garner status, and tangibly translates into material rewards.(10)

Marwick rightly asks why it turned out this way; that is, why didn’t the internet dissolve individualism and give way to collective identity or multifarious identity as many anticipated? Is it because social media evolved to facilitate ego surfing and keeping score in various ways (number of likes, friends, followers, comments, retweets, etc.)? Or was it assimilated to capitalistic social relations, which inculcate individualism as “reality” and collectivity as “virtual” or utopian or inherently unreal? That is, the designers of social media would have needed to build anti-capitalist bias into the services they made in order to stave off this assimilation to capitalist ideology and market rationality; instead they had already embraced that rationality and designed their services to reproduce that ideology in the new social spaces generated by internet connectivity.

3. “Social media‘s accessibility has transformed celebrity from something a person is to something a person does, and exists on a continuum rather than as a singular quality” (13).
Celebrity no longer has to do with achieved levels of fame; it is a set of online practices that fosters the illusion of fame, permits fantasizing about fame, intensifies the vicarious pleasures of identifying with the genuinely famous. In other words, “celebrity,” as Marwick is using it, refers to the ways in which social-media users act as though they are being followed as intensely as they themselves may follow real celebrities. Or does this mean that celebrity is a matter of consciously using social media to promote oneself as someone worth following, adopting whatever tactics happen to be attracting attention at a given time online? Maybe what is at stake here is the pseudo-democratizaton of fame, which masquerades as a right rather than an accomplishment in the ways social-media companies promote their services.

4.

Although Web 2.0 discourse positions self-branding as a way to find personal fulfillment and economic success, it explicitly instructs people to inculcate a self-conscious persona which positions self-promotion, visibility, and comfort with idioms of advertising and commercialism as positive, high-status virtues. A successful self-brander is a tireless self-promoter who focuses entirely on work. I argue that this persona is an edited self, requiring emotional labor to maintain a business-friendly self-presentation despite the advocacy of transparency and openness by social media culture. This self-monitoring can be quite stressful for its practitioners. Although the type of freelance project-based culture that is optimal for self-branding can be creatively fulfilling, the difficulty in continuous self-monitoring demonstrates the disconnect between neoliberal ideals of identity as self-regulating, entrepreneurial, enterprising, and responsible, and the reality of day-to-day life. Successful self-branding is possible only for a few, yet advocates position it as a universal solution to the structural problems of neoliberal work conditions.(16)

I like the emphasis on the emotional work of self-branding, which tends to vanish in pro-self-branding discourse. Self-exploitation requires as much “carework” as any other service position, except one performs the affective labor on oneself. Because one experiences much more insecurity and instability, one has to treat oneself much better and with much more deliberation, which requires time and money and probably more time and attention from others. Later Marwick coins a term for it:

I introduce the concept of immaterial emotional labor to describe the practices that people go through to create and promote this self, which involves creating and establishing relationships with others, revealing vulnerable information in a performance of authenticity, and complete identification with the enterprise subject (58).

5. “While authenticity is held up as a virtue, social media encourages highly constructed and edited forms of self-presentation that are carefully created to boost popularity and gain status without alienating potential customers (19).” Yes. Authenticity is the product being peddled on social media. Not a means to exposing actual authenticity, but a discourse for constituting it as a commodity.

6. “aspirational production is the production of cultural content in an attempt to claim a certain status position.” I think that is a useful phrase for describing the compulsion to share in social media. Here’s how Marwick defines it:

The aspirational producer is a social media user who creates content portraying themselves in a high-status light, whether that be as a beautiful fashionista, a celebrity with thousands of fans, or a cutting-edge comedian. Aspirational production positions the creator to be discovered, either by amassing a huge number of fans or by gaining legitimacy from mainstream media. Therefore, the content produced by aspirational production can be said to have a particular goal: increased status and popularity.

It seems to me the emphasis on status here is a bit misleading; I think it’s more important to recognize this as an attitude toward cultural production, a reorientation of the reasons for creating something away from expression and toward manipulation/strategy. Expression becomes wholly self-presentation ratehr than older traditions of artists as self-abnegating, as embodying “negative capability” as Keats put it. Marwick argues that aspirational production is “about coveting the types of attention given to celebrities,” but I wonder if the concept is more useful as a description of an aspiration to be able to count oneself among the “creative class” — to be socially recognized as being able to make clever things (memes, quirky crafts, etc.)

7. “I frame self-branding as a neoliberal fantasy of how social media could best be used.” Calling it a fantasy is interesting, highlighting the counterhegemonic ways social media can be used. But I think social media’s architecture realizes the fantasy, and it takes concerted resistance to engage with social media without adopting/conforming to self-branding ideology.

8. This is a summation of the general conclusions Marwick draws, most of which highlight the doubleness of social media. They offer tangible benefits that encourage one welcome interpellation on neoliberalist terms. Less cryptically; social media make buying into the system of neoliberaism (the free-agent nation and the governmental policy that secures it) more appealing without mitigating it:

A verifiable identity makes it possible to leverage status across websites, but it also makes it simple to track people as they move around the web. A strong self-brand is a self-regulating mechanism that functions as a response to economic uncertainties. And while the social information created and shared through social media strengthens social ties, it does so in a limited way. ―Authenticity‖ and ―being yourself‖ become self-marketing strategies that encourage instrumental emotional labor. Social media furthers an individualistic, competitive notion of identity that encourages individual status-seeking over collective action or openness (60).

9. Good definition of Web 2.0 as an ideology rather than a technological development:

Web 2.0 is more accurately described as a set of applications and general philosophy of information and technology than a technical development. This philosophy espouses transparency, openness, creativity, participation, and freedom. It holds that if you allow people to collaborate and create their own content—writing, news reporting, entertainment, music, videos—the grassroots results will be superior to those produced by mainstream media or any centralized organization: more diverse and less subject to interference from corporate interests. Social media is said to facilitate activism, direct interaction with corporations and governments, and creative forms of protest. The discourse of Web 2.0 celebrates individual use of the raw material of popular culture for self-expression, and frowns upon attempts by large corporations or media conglomerates to rein in this creativity (86).

10. One of Marwick’s key arguments is that the culture and ideology of Silicon Valley — particularly its post-Fordist/New Economy way of structuring work — is reproduced in Web 2.0 application; written into its DNA as the cliche goes.

much of the culture pioneered by dot-com companies, itself massively influenced by the work culture of Silicon Valley, persisted into the social media era: flexibility, entrepreneurial labor models, creativity, self-actualization through work, and the bootstrapped startup are all common to both. (118)

Later she uses “value in design” theory to talk about the “affordances” of particular technologies. Hence: “Twitter affords status display in three different ways: follower numbers, re-tweets, and @replies” (207).

11. Another good succinct definition: “the concept of micro-celebrity, a way of thinking about the self as a persona presented to an audience of ‘fans’ ” (219). The point is not the actual accomplishment of fame but the way one presents oneself as though others are an audience rather than peers. Only people at the margins thought of themselves in these terms before the Internet become ubiquitous. Celebrity is, as Marwick emphasizes, a practice, not a condition.

Micro-celebrity can be understood as a mindset and set of practices in which one‘s online contacts are constructed as an audience or fan base, popularity is maintained through ongoing fan management, and self-presentation is carefully assembled to be consumed by others. These practices are intimately connected to social media. (230)

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