Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age available in Paperback
- Pub. Date:
- Yale University Press
- Pub. Date:
- Yale University Press
Marwick argues that early revolutionary goals have failed to materialize: while many continue to view social media as democratic, these technologies instead turn users into marketers and self-promoters, and leave technology companies poised to violate privacy and to prioritize profits over participation. Marwick analyzes status-building techniques—such as self-branding, micro-celebrity, and life-streaming—to show that Web 2.0 did not provide a cultural revolution, but only furthered inequality and reinforced traditional social stratification, demarcated by race, class, and gender.
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CELEBRITY, PUBLICITY, AND BRANDING IN THE SOCIAL MEDIA AGE
By ALICE E. MARWICK
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2013 Alice E. Marwick
All rights reserved.
A CULTURAL HISTORY OF WEB 2.0
In 2006, the cover of Time magazine's annual "Person of the Year" issue depicted a computer with a shiny mirrored Mylar screen, intended to reflect the face of the viewer. The person of the year: You. The author of the piece, Lev Grossman, wrote:
2006 ... [is] a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It's about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people's network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It's about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes. The tool that makes this possible is the World Wide Web ... not even the overhyped dotcom Web of the late 1990s. The new Web is a very different thing. It's a tool for bringing together the small contributions of millions of people and making them matter. Silicon Valley consultants call it Web 2.0, as if it were a new version of some old software. But it's really a revolution.
This cover has become a cliché of technological utopianism, but Time's breathless excitement over user-generated content was reflected in revolutionary rhetoric that appeared throughout the mainstream media as well as in hundreds of conferences and TED talks. To quote the Investor's Business Daily, "User-contributed content will forever change online media—and the entire media business." A writer for the Los Angeles Times claimed that Google's acquisition of YouTube was about "the triumph of radical left-wing politics—which means it's just as likely to subvert business as to support its reinvention." And a commentator for Wired, reliably, wrote that "Web 2.0 ... is about democratizing digital technology. There's never been a better time to tap that technological ethic to re-democratize our democracy." Utopian rhetoric also appeared in academia, where scholars investigated the new democratized web, discussed the participatory potential of crowdsourcing, and coined terms like "folksonomy," "smart mobs," and "free culture." It seemed that the intellectual, media, and technological elite had converged on a single idea. The time was ripe for a revolution, and the mishmash of technologies collected under the umbrella "Web 2.0" was there to provide it.
Technologists and pundits liberally applied the Web 2.0 label to wikis, blogs, social network sites, tagging, and user-generated content sites like Wikipedia, MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, del.icio.us, Flickr, Digg, and Twitter. These technologies purportedly foretold freedom from traditional media sources, or "Big Media." They promised the democratization of celebrity and entertainment, new forms of activism, and the potential for open, transparent information of all kinds. Web 2.0 celebrated the adoption of social technologies as a precursor to a better, freer society, and framed the collection and sharing of information as the bedrock of revolution. Any institution that prevented people from accessing information and using cultural products as raw materials for creativity became an obstacle to overcome, through collective action if necessary. The political arm of Web 2.0, such as it is, is focused on net neutrality, copyright reform, peer-to-peer advocacy, and government reform; Larry Lessig, the founder of Creative Commons and the Free Culture movement, launched "Change Congress," a campaign against government corruption and the influence of special interests in the Senate, with Howard Dean's former campaign manager Joe Trippi. Cory Doctorow, the science-fiction writer and co-author of the popular blog Boing Boing, moonlights as a copyright activist whose scope includes proprietary technologies of all kinds, from genetically engineered seeds that last only a season to printer cartridges that automatically stop working after a certain period of time. These beliefs, which draw heavily from hacker and free and open-source software (FOSS) development, are on their face antithetical to the libertarian, free-market ethos of entrepreneurial capitalism that also characterizes Web 2.0.
What's important to remember is that Web 2.0 originated in San Francisco. Northern California has a long history of generating wealth from innovative technologies: transistors, micro-electronics, video games, and dot-com companies. This history begat the "Californian Ideology," a set of widely held beliefs that increasing the adoption of computer technologies brings positive social consequences, that the technology industry is where the best and brightest thrive, and that an unfettered free market is the best way to ensure prosperity for all. Web 2.0 discourse incorporates both shifts from and continuities with the Californian Ideology. The tech scene assigned the highest status to venture-backed startups: capitalism was considered an agent of political change rather than something to be questioned. The web made possible genuinely innovative and potentially disruptive cultural products, but the San Francisco tech scene more often focused on the wealth and fame accrued by the founders of successful companies like Twitter, Digg, and Facebook (replace with "Instagram, Pinterest, and Quora," or what ever startups are in fashion as you read this). Even as the mainstream media celebrated the presumed upheaval of the establishment, they made cover stars of tech founders and newly minted social media millionaires like Digg's Kevin Rose, Twitter's Ev Williams, and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg.
These developments seemed doubly exciting because popular wisdom had all but written off the web after the 2001 dot-com crash. Investors and journalists claimed that people would never again pay for online content, that Amazon was the victor in the e-commerce wars, and that money, funding, and attention had left the internet, possibly for good. Web 2.0 shone a spotlight back on the young entrepreneurs and "thought leaders" of Silicon Valley. In the process, it brought utopianism back to the front lines and created new investments and personal fortunes.
While the Californian Ideology is still widespread in Silicon Valley, the Bay Area's strong countercultural influence has also, and in equal mea sure, shaped the contemporary technology scene. Web 2.0 ideology is the child of both Silicon Valley entrepreneurial capitalism and activist subcultures like in de pen dent publishing, anti-globalization activism, Burning Man, cyberdelic rave culture, and free and open-source software. These countercultural movements can be hard to detangle. Many anti-corporate activists believed that the consolidation of media companies during the Reagan and Clinton eras created a homogenized, profit-led mass media, resulting in toothless journalism that lacked the muscle to check corporate or government power. During the early web era, dot-com workers built personal homepages in their free time to provide an alternative to mainstream entertainment. In the Web 2.0 age, blogs and Twitter facilitated "citizen journalism," a bottom-up form of media that was thought to be able to compensate for the shortcomings of mainstream media. Web 2.0 situated itself in allegiance with the countercultural critique of mainstream media, but positioned social technology, rather than protest or political participation, as the solution. The preexisting affinity between West Coast anti-establishment activism and the homebrew ethos of technology culture created a fertile environment for these ideologies to intermingle. This combination of radical activism and business culture created a strain of idealistic techno-determinism that, rather than rejecting mainstream capitalism, embraces it.
Talking 'Bout a (Technological) Revolution?
What do I mean by the "discourse" of Web 2.0? I mean that when everyday people, popular media, and scholars discuss Web 2.0, they often abstract real events, technologies, and people into an all-encompassing metanarrative. Talk about Web 2.0 is a part of social life in the tech community, and is itself reflected in social media, blog posts, popular books, and presentations. These texts have far-reaching effects on how people think about themselves and their actions, on which technologies are attended to and which are ignored, and on how financial resources circulate. Web 2.0 discourse is, ultimately, embedded in the everyday life and conversations of people.
Web 2.0 discourse demonstrates what is called "digital exceptionalism," the idea that the internet is different from other forms of communication and therefore not bound by the same legal and market forces. Obviously, internet communication has different properties than mass or face-to-face communication (Microsoft Research scientist danah boyd summarizes these properties as persistence, replicability, scalability, and searchability). These differences have been extrapolated into a series of discredited claims: the internet cannot be regulated, it is intrinsically democratizing, and so forth. During the mid-1990s, "cyberspace" was frequently conceptualized as a sphere separate from daily life. This "disembodiment hypothesis" suggested that internet communication freed people from their earthly bodies, allowing for pure communication unfettered from discrimination. Theorists like Sherry Turkle and Sandy Stone hypothesized that digital communication could transcend structural power relations like sexism and racism. (Research instead indicated that internet communication reflects the power relations of the people communicating.) Web 2.0 again places exceptionalism front and center. This illusion is nothing new. As legal scholar Tim Wu points out, "Again and again in the past hundred years, the radical change promised by new ways to receive information has seemed, if anything, more dramatic than it does today." Excitement over the newest of the new media is an endless historical cycle.
Web 2.0 narratives also frequently assume that simply introducing social technology to a community will result in greater participation and democracy, while disrupting those institutions and industries that do not adapt. The idea that the adoption of technology causes behavioral changes and social effects, regardless of context, is false. Historical analyses of science and technology show that this technological determinism is a fiction, because political, economic, and social differences in places and times affect the deployment and use of technology. The printing press and the Gutenberg Bible did not cause the Protestant Reformation. To say so would ignore factors such as the rise of anti-clericalism, the breakdown of feudalism, the rise of urbanism and the merchant class, and the Renaissance. Likewise, when we introduce new technologies into different social settings, they find different uses. American teenagers, Japanese teenagers, West African entrepreneurs, and Egyptian activists, for instance, demonstrate different patterns of mobile phone use, and understand the use of technology differently.
While much work on Web 2.0 tends to stress its positive aspects, an increasing number of popular books take the opposite approach. Andrew Carr's The Shallows argues that social media, text messaging, and web browsing are distracting people and making it difficult to concentrate. Former cyberutopian Jaron Lanier claims in You Are Not a Gadget that values "baked in" to social media technologies emphasize robotic conformity over expressive individualism. Andrew Keen's Cult of the Amateur contends that user-generated culture is dreck that crowds out expertise. While these books can be provocative and engaging, they often make the same rhetorical moves as Web 2.0 supporters. In other words, they fall into both digital exceptionalist and technologically determinist traps, the difference being that for these authors, the effects of social technologies are uniformly bad (Keen especially goes off the rails, blaming Web 2.0 for child pornography and online poker). Rather than drawing from empirical data, both techno-optimists and techno-pessimists extrapolate grand, singular theories about technology.
To unravel the complex assumptions within Web 2.0 ideology, it is necessary to understand its origins. The term began as a marketing ploy to differentiate a new crop of tech companies from their failed dot-com counterparts. Web 2.0 is firmly grounded in a history of labor that emphasizes creative capitalism, personal fulfillment through work, and entrepreneurialism. These traditions combined with grassroots initiatives to engender a Web 2.0 "scene" of San Francisco technology workers. This scene was predominantly young, white, and male, and favored developers who were simultaneously committed to venture-backed startups and core Web 2.0 principles like openness and transparency. That is, Web 2.0 emerged from a geographically rooted history, dragging its baggage into a new era. Social media thus has to be understood as a continuation of preexisting cultural forces rather than as deterministically transformative.
Not One Origin, but Many
As hinted previously, Web 2.0 culture has a variety of influences. In the 1980s and 1990s, a mesh of social movements criticized the increasingly international structures of corporations, governments, and media. To groups of people as diverse as hackers and anti-globalization activists, these systems were stifling, monopolistic, and working against the public interest. Anti-globalization activists bemoaned the abuses of multinational corporations. Grassroots media activists argued that consolidated mainstream journalism had failed to provide a check on government or corporate power, and turned to alternatives like in de pen dent media centers and weblogs. The homogenization of corporate entertainment inspired "zine" and "e-zine" publishers to create bootstrapped, in de pen dent, photocopied magazines and emphasize "doing it yourself." Following the hacker ethos, free and open-source software developers critiqued the political and economic implications of proprietary software and, by proxy, intellectual property. Many participants in these social movements believed that internet technologies could be a literal instantiation of their political ideals. By designing open, participatory technologies, activists could encourage cooperation and coordination rather than top-down hierarchies. The intrinsic decentralization of the internet could potentially break down information asymmetry and give equal access to broadcast and distribution technologies, ending monopolistic media practices.
Many (but by no means all) of these philosophies emphasized the fundamental deficits of corporate capitalism, calling for "dropping out" and creating alternatives outside the mainstream. In Northern California, for example, an explicitly countercultural movement grew up in tandem with dot-com internet technologies—a movement that claimed online communication could build community and open minds. This utopian "cyberdelic" mindset relied on self-organizing communities and volunteerism. Rather than rejecting capitalism, however, Web 2.0 ideology fully embraced it. Northern California has a long history as both a center for technical innovation and counterculture, and the anti-capitalist ethos of hacker culture and print zines became overshadowed by a new ethic of Silicon Valley in which the free market became the purveyor of choice and creativity. Web 2.0 discourse positioned the entrepreneur as the mythic hero and venture-backed startups as the epitome of high status. In other words, social media positioned capitalism to be an agent of social change without challenging underlying inequalities. And while many of the preceding social movements were diverse, Web 2.0 was primarily white, male, and technologically determinist. Web 2.0 thus selectively drew from elements of San Franciscan counterculture while embracing Silicon Valley's technologically fueled economic success. The tense relationship between these two ideals has been evident throughout its history.
Coding Freedom: Hacker and Open-Source Culture
On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.
—Stewart Brand, 1984
The hacker's information sharing and "do it yourself" (DIY) ethic is the core of social media ideology and deeply woven into the free and open-source movement. The hacker appears in popular culture like Hackers and Wargames as a talented technological aficionado, or, more typically, an antisocial young man hunched over a laptop, wreaking havoc. In actuality, hacking is a philosophy and a diverse, varied global subculture of programming enthusiasts devoted to openness and transparency. The term "hack" refers to a clever and elegant solution to a complicated problem. Originally applied only in technical contexts, the concept was broadened, leading to terms like "lifehacking," which involves solving everyday problems to increase productivity. Although hackers are often maligned and grouped with spammers, phishers, "cyber-terrorists," or malware distributors, the liberal ideals embodied in the hacker ethic are still evident in technologically mediated cultures, and are intimately tied to the philosophy and culture of social media and its affiliated projects.
Excerpted from STATUS UPDATE by ALICE E. MARWICK. Copyright © 2013 Alice E. Marwick. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
1 A Cultural History of Web 2.0 21
2 Leaders and Followers: Status in the Tech Scene 73
3 The Fabulous Lives of Micro-Celebrities 112
4 Self-Branding: The (Safe for Work) Self 163
5 Lifestreaming: We Live in Public 205
6 Designed in California: Entrepreneurship and the Myths of Web 2.0 245
Appendix: Cast of Characters 283