What Your New Year’s Facebook Posts Really Mean

So I did that Facebook “Year in Review” thing a week or two ago even though I’m moderately sure it serves up some extra layer of data-mining capacity on a platter to Zuckerberg’s new personalized learning minions. Encapsulated in ten photos, my reductive 2015 in review looked…nice.

Really nice. A lot of travel, a lot of family time, a Ph.D earned, a conversation on Twitter with David Bowie’s son. Some excessive (expletive deleted) snow, but otherwise nice.

It left the rejected papers out. The time my son wore the same socks for four days. My posts about alcohol and fascism and friends leaving town all stayed conveniently out of the frame, presumably because Facebook knows these are not the prettiest things upon which to reflect fulsomely at the close of the year. Or perhaps Facebook only *knows* that because nobody much liked those posts.

All in all, it made me appear more or less like an amalgam of the identities I aspire to. Yeh, yeh.

You already knew that about Facebook.

But I think there’s more going on there. Today, on New Year’s Eve, my Facebook feed is a radiant orgy of Auld Lang Syne recollecting the year gone by in (mostly) tranquility and (mostly) appreciation, with a smattering of don’t-let-the-door-hit-you-on-the-way-out, depending on what kind of a year people had & also where they self-identify and perform on the emo-to-chirpy spectrum. It is also, increasingly, a site of exhortations to do better as a society in 2016, a space for calling out the broken social contracts and structural underpinnings that differentiate individuals’ life chances so drastically even in some of the wealthiest countries in the world.

It occurred to me this morning that a thousand years hence, should archaeologists or aliens dig up the remnants of bourgeois North American “civilization,” such as it is, they will be sorely challenged to understand a damn thing about who we were and how we lived without our Facebook feeds.

If we cared about the future, people, we’d be chiseling this stuff into stone.
***

I got a book for Christmas – thanks Santa Dave! – called A Colorful History of Popular Delusions. Like all good gifts for fledgling academics, it has me thinking about work, even while I appear to be lolling in sloth over the holidays.

The book is a cultural history – without excessive depth, but this is not a peer review – of mass phenomena that overtake pockets of society at various intervals: fads, crazes, urban legends, mass hysterias. It details examples of each of these phenomena, from the tulip craze in Holland through the Salem witch trials and McCarthyism, and some of the extenuating cultural factors that generated them.

Two things strike me:

  1. We, as humans, are profoundly adaptable – we have, historically, in matters of weeks and even days, on occasion adjusted the norms and compasses of our societies – in ways that seem almost unimaginable later on – in response to triggers that prey upon particularly cultural powerful fears, aspirations, or repressions.
  2. We, as cultures, are profoundly vulnerable to the narratives that we circulate and enact as members of our societies, particularly surrounding fears, aspirations, and repressions.

What does this have to do with Facebook?

Facebook – and more broadly, social media in general…but Facebook remains for the moment the space of the widest participation across demographics even while targeting ads designed to keep people IN their existing demographics – is the stage upon which the battle over dominant cultural narratives is played out.

Social media is where we are deciding who we are, not just as individual digital identities but AS A PEOPLE, A SOCIETY. Or perhaps, as we haven’t quite acknowledged yet, as almost separate societies within the same geopolitical entities, subject to laws and policies that have differential effects on different bodies and identities. Day-to-day, social media is the battleground for the stories we live by. It is the space where our cultural fears, aspirations, and repressions circulate.

Previously, at least as my book loosely outlines it, these narratives tended to be nursed and cultivated through a combination of institutional and moral edicts, generally protecting whatever the status quo was except in times of upheaval wherein individual voices – or, occasionally, intentional power gambits – destabilized those normative belief systems and identities and galvanized new ones around them, even if only for a brief window of time.

I’m not naive enough to think this means we’re free from our institutions, the media perhaps most outsizedly and dangerously powerful among them in terms of narrative capacity, but as any of us who have had any level of professional media exposure via social media participation can attest, even the media now draw their sense of the tenor of things from social media, even if they insist on repackaging them in binaries in the process.

This is why hashtag activism matters, and why social media visibility is risky and why posting about mass shootings draws out your weird uncle (who otherwise never acknowledges anything you say) in full Gandalf “YOU SHALL NOT PASS” mode, even if Gandalf wouldn’t approve of his from-my-cold-dead-hands politics.

Facebook and the rest of social media are our day-to-day archive of who we are trying to become.

These are our times and they are fraught and sometimes ugly and we move too fast from fad to fad and whiplash to whiplash in the outrage generator that social media creates, absolutely.

Still, I watch people get a little bit more media literate all the time, make the wizards behind the curtain a little more visible, push back against witch hunts in ways that I’m not sure were possible in closed and isolated societies like 17th century small-town Massachusetts.

Sometimes I have hope that maybe this isn’t all just a one-way sinkhole. Sometimes.
***

Which brings us back to the New Years posts. We live lives of inexorable and relentless change, amplified by the bucket lists and planned obsolescences and precarities and excesses the kinds of lives Facebook seems designed to reflect. A lot can happen in a year of living one’s Best Life (TM), after all, and if one fails to reflect on it all with sufficient attention, one is committing the ultimate sin of those aiming for Best Lives. My thoughts on the pressure to live our Best Lives are not pretty.

But when I see our collective New Years wishes and reflections and updates and hopes less in the vein of the “yay me” holiday update of wonderfulness and more in the spirit of a mass ongoing narrative conflict in which we try to influence our peers’ understandings of what has meaning and value, of what our repressions are and what our fears and aspirations *should* be…I’m less cynical.

Bring on the New Years posts and wishes and wrap-ups. Maybe these little outpourings help us focus on bits of hope as we cross into a new turn around the sun, bring collegiality to spaces and identities that are often fraught. Even if the aliens and archaeologists never see it all, maybe it makes a difference to the rest of what they dig up someday.

Happy New Year, friends. :)

academic influence on Twitter: the findings

So. Since last November, I’ve been researching how networked scholars ‘read’ each others’ credibility and influence, when they encounter each other and each other’s work outside of the formal system of academia. I’ve been curious about the patterns running through the logics by which we make sense of each other; curious about what counts as influence in open networks. In a post a few months back I wrote:

Influence is a complex, messy, slightly socially-discomfiting catch-all equation for how people determine the reputation and credibility and essentially the status of a scholar. There are two ways influence tends to get assessed, in scholarship: there’s the teensy little group of people who actually understand what your work really means…and then there’s everybody else, from different fields, who piece together the picture from external signals: what journals you publish in, what school you went to, your citation count, your h-index, your last grant. It’s credibility math, gatekeeping math. It’s founded in names and organizations people recognize and trust, with a running caveat of Your Mileage May Vary.

And now, in the mix, there’s Twitter. And blogs.

How can something that the general population is convinced is about what people had for lunch be a factor in changing what counts as academic influence?

Well, here’s how. For real, with details and the permission of participants, the first run of findings from my ethnographic dissertation study of 13 actively networked scholars from various English-speaking parts of the globe. This is an excerpt from a larger paper currently under review…but this is the part I wanted open and out, now. “Findings” seems like such a funny word, suggesting this stuff was all laying out in the open to be stumbled over. In a sense, it is, always, every day, even on the days academic Twitter feels like crossfire. Yet it is also constructed, and situated, and ever-shifting. Feel free to post your caveats in the comments section.

WOOT. Onward.
***
WHAT COUNTS?

The central theme that ran through participant data was that scholars do employ complex logics of influence which guide their perceptions of open networked behaviours, and by which they assess peers and unknown entities within scholarly networked publics. More specifically, all scholars interviewed articulated concepts of network influence that departed significantly from the codified terms of peer review publication and academic hiring hierarchies on which conventional academic influence is judged.

While these concepts diverged, and I’ve attempted to be responsible to those divergences and diffraction patterns by sharing some breadth of the “history of interaction, interference, reinforcement, and difference” (Haraway, 1998, p. 273) within the space available here, they nonetheless suggest webs of significance specific to open networks. These webs of significance are, of course, situated knowledges, related to the stated and enacted purposes for which specific, variously-embodied participants engaged in open networks and the value they reported finding in them. Yet a number of patterns or logics emerged vividly from the data, in spite of the fact that participants had little in common in terms of geopolitical location or academic status positions. This suggests that alternative concepts of academic influence circulate and are reinforced by the operations of open, scholarly networked publics, particularly via Twitter.

It is important to note that participants’ stated reasons for engaging in open scholarly networks generally exceeded the instrumental “this will increase your dissemination and citation count” impact narrative. This may be in part because the study required that all participants had been active Twitter users for at least two years prior to the beginning of the study in November 2013: a review of higher education publications suggests the strategic narrative did not become prominent until after 2011. In any case, participant observation suggested that while some participants did primarily use Twitter in particular for broadcasting their own and others’ work, all participants in the study appeared to be engaged in curating and contributing resources to a broader “conversation” in their field or area of interest rather than merely promoting themselves or their work.

Among the 10 participants interviewed and the 12 who completed the profile assessments of other scholars (9 did both), there was consistent indication of an individual logic of purpose and value served by networked participation. In cases where participants reflected on their own changing practices over time, I observed a pattern indicating that an emergent sense of their own capacity to contribute to this broader conversation was part of the value participants attributed to networks. Particularly for those marginalized within increasingly rationalized institutions, and for those for whom the academic “role” does not cohere with a full sense of identity, reciprocal networked engagement can be a powerful way to extend beyond institutionally-sanctioned terms of circulation and value. In relation to the influence of others within open networks, participant responses suggested that they were able to perceive and ‘read’ influence outside their own areas of interest or the corners of the ‘conversation’ they perceived themselves contributing to, but were unlikely to follow people whom they perceived as disconnected from that particular part of the conversation, regardless of the apparent influence of those others.

Below are key emergent elements in these webs of significance, outlining what appears to count as a network version of academic influence in open scholarly networked publics. While both participants and exemplars gave permission for me to identify them by Twitter handle in all research publications resulting from the study, I have anonymized specific quotes from participants in relation to exemplars and identifiable others.

“She sure has a following” – Metrics matter, but not that much
A primary finding of the research was that metrics –the visible numbers attached to social media profiles and blogs – are seldom taken up in isolation. Participants showed a nuanced and relatively consistent understanding of metrics: the higher the number of tweets, the longer a profile was assumed to have been active, and the higher the ratio of followers to following (Twitter does not require reciprocal ‘friending’ in the way Facebook does), the more likely the person was to be perceived as influential. Yet equally consistent across the data were caveats of context, in which participants made clear they seldom interpret the metrics of public Twitter profiles as a final indicator of a scholar’s influence or potential value to their own network.

@socworkpodcast: “Status does play into my decisions to follow someone, if I see someone with a huge following, whose bio suggests this is a thought leader or a person of influence online/offline. I will look through the feed to see if the most recent 100+ tweets seem like things I could benefit from professionally, or that my followers might value.”

@antoesp: “I find it intriguing to discover how we all are able to provide a defined aspect of our multiple self through the micro-portrait in the personal twitter account. Usually I don’t choose to follow someone only on the basis of this micro-portrait, but I follow the link to his/her blog/SN profile (if provided).”

Most participants reported scrolling through tweetstreams and looking at blog links before making decisions about following: a few noted that profiles without links to external sites “for ideas in more than 140 characters” are profiles they generally avoid following.

The exemplar profiles with the largest number of followers and ratios indicating a high scale of attention did tend to be assessed as more influential. High tweet numbers indicate longevity on Twitter and appeared to factor into many participants’ assessments of others: some noted they were more likely to invest in following an established profile with many tweets because they could assume ongoing contribution rather than an account that might go dormant. This was particularly true among participants who appear to maintain a cap on the numbers of users they follow: this may indicate impression management regarding their own follower/following ratios, as well as efforts at signal/noise control. However, low tweet counts or relatively even follower/following ratios did not necessarily result in dismissal of influence: it was noted by participants that accounts with smaller followings can simply reflect relative newness within the Twittersphere. One participant noted, of small accounts, “Might just mean they haven’t done anything ‘viral’ yet. But I’m more concerned with content and interests.” Profiles that had not been adapted or personalized at all, though, were commonly interpreted as signaling a lack of value.

@miken_bu: “I check their twitter profile, read some recent tweets and perhaps check out their blog or web site… I do try to follow folks who have differing views or from differing backgrounds to reduce the echo chamber. I rarely follow anyone who has an egg image and no profile info, though, unless I know them already.”

@katemfd: “Sometimes…I’ll choose someone with twenty followers, because I come across something they’ve managed to say in 140 characters and I think… “oh, look at you crafting on a grain of rice.”

In terms of how participants amplify other voices in their own Twitter timelines, however, metrics appear to count to some extent. During participant observation, the majority of participants were more likely to re-tweet (RT) users whose scale of followers was higher than their own. Even where participants clearly made themselves available to engaging in discussions with users of all stripes and sizes, the tendency to amplify larger voices was consistent among all but the largest accounts in the study.

“A rolling stone gathering moss”- Identity at scale
While size or scale of account was not taken up as a direct indicator of influence or value, there did appear to be a critical mass at which those who are visible in open networks to become ever more visible. A number of interviews – with participants of varying scale – noted that for large accounts identity and reputation can become “a thing,” and the reciprocal communications upon which many participants build their networks becomes difficult to sustain.

@catherinecronin: “Large nodes in a social network have more visibility, their network activity gets amplified, and they become larger yet. In Twitter this happens in many ways – through RTs, through publication of “top educators to follow” lists, etc.”

@wishcrys: “I think when someone is a Twitter personality with a Twitter reputation, regardless of their content people are just going to like it – reputation comes to overshadow content. At that point you’re no longer a content producer, you’re probably just a Twitter personality…everything you say is Gospel Truth. Whereas when you’re lower down and trying to gain some form of connection, recognition, some sort of following, your archive and content are what leaves a mark.”

Participants who had reached significant scale with their own Twitter accounts, blogs, and digital identities tended not to speak about size of account as a benefit or goal, but more as an identity shift; one that involves challenges, adjustments, and responsibilities, as well as privileges.

@raulpacheco: “(January 2014) –I find when I have conversations on academic Twitter my brain starts absorbing information on data and learning, new ways of looking at things. I’m addicted to my mentions tab – I love hearing people react to what I say.” (July 2014: Skype chat) – “I’ve reached peak tweetage. I can’t answer every single @ reply as I used to (related to how much my follower count has grown).”

@readywriting: “I make sure that I amplify a lot of adjunct voices now. I think that’s really important. POC, other marginalized people…I recognize my privilege and want to use it for some good, even if it is just amplification.”

“Status baubles” – The intersection of network influence with academic prestige
The intersection of high network status with lower or unclear institutional academic status was a recurring topic in interviews, in reflections, and in public Twitter conversations. Participants indicated that the opportunities sometimes afforded junior scholars with network influence can create confusion and even discord within the highly-codified prestige arena of academia, because the hallmarks of network influence can’t be ‘read’ on institutional terms. Networked scholars were acutely aware both of network and academic terms of influence and appeared to codeswitch between the two even on Twitter and in other network environments. However, they noted that colleagues and supervisors tended to treat networked engagement as illegitimate and, in some cases, a signal of “not knowing your place.” Of the alternate prestige economies that intersect with academia, participants reported media exposure as the most coherent to their less-networked academic peers.

@tressiemcphd: “It’s the New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Ed…I get emails from my Dean when that happens, when I show up there. With the Times I get more from the broader discipline, like a sociologist from a small public school in Minnesota – people not so much in the mix prestige-wise, but they see someone thinking like them, they reach out. But the Chronicle gets me the institutional stuff: I’ve got a talk coming up at Duke, and the person who invited me mentioned that Chronicle article three times. It’s a form of legitimacy. It shows up in their office and so they think it’s important.”

@thesiswhisperer: “I’ve grown this global network sitting on my ass and it offends people. And I’m really interested in that, in what’s going on psychologically with that, they say “it’s not scholarly” but it’s really just not on their terms. It has success. But when you’re the one getting keynotes people who’ve bought into older notions of success, they feel cheated.”

I value their work, so value by association” – Commonality as credibility and value
When it came to indicating whether they would personally follow a given account, participants appeared to give less weight to metrics and perceived influence than to shared interests and perceived shared purpose.Most participants appeared to be actively attempting to avoid what Pariser (2011) calls a ‘filter bubble’ in their networks. Rather, many reported seeing themselves as responsible to their own networks for some level of consistent and credible contribution, and so sought to follow people who would enrich their participation via relevant resources or common discussion topics.

Where commonality appeared even more important to participants, however, was in peers or shared networks: when a logged-in Twitter user clicks on another user’s profile, the number and names of followers they have in common is visible. This visibility serves to deploy shared networks as a signal of credibility in an environment where identity claims are seldom verifiable. Many participants spoke to the importance of shared peers over metrics or other influence factors in terms of whether they choose to follow. In assessing a full professor with more than 1,300 followers, one participant noted that the metrics did not sway him: “Looking at the number of followers and tweets, it would seem as if this person has some ‘gravitas’ in the field.  Just judging from his profile – I would not be particularly drawn to following him because his field is chemistry. I searched his profile online, and looked at his tweets, and he tweets mostly about non-academic issues e.g., coffee, football, etc.” Whereas the same participant then indicated he would follow another profile with only 314 followers, due to shared networks: “she is followed by a number of people whom I respect and follow. So I will give her a try.”

Participants tended to look for common interests on top of common peer networks, however. One mentioned, “I often follow people who others I follow also value – after ‘checking them out’ via looking at some tweets, profile, etc.” Another echoed, “I see that we share 65+ followers, so there are obviously many connections. (Her) interests match mine somewhat, she shares resources as well as engaging with many people…I also see that…(her) use of these particular hashtags tells me that (her) interests are closely linked with mine.”

Commonality was also overtly valued where participants used networks as ways of connecting with other scholars for support, encouragement, and specialized information: this was common both among PhD students and early career scholars in the study, as well as among those who use open networks for ongoing learning. One PhD candidate reflected on the value of another PhD student account, “As a PhD student, she is a colleague studying topics close to my interest. I am likely to follow her for a sort of…solidarity among peers, beyond the actual contribution she could bring.”

Being connected with Oxford adds to the reputation”Recognizability as a way of making sense of signals
The value placed on shared peers reflects a broader pattern observed within the research: recognizable signals have a powerful impact on perceived influence and perceived credibility. In the same way that recognizable journal titles or schools or supervisors serve as signals of conventional academic influence, so do both conventional and network factors of recognizability carry weight in assessments of network influence. Thus, shared peer networks matter, as do visible acknowledgements such as mentions and retweets; additionally, familiar academic prestige structures such as rank and institution can add to impressions even of network influence.

One of the most vivid examples of this was the workplace listed on one exemplar’s profile: Oxford University. The vast majority of participants who were shown this exemplar noted the Oxford name, and there was an overwhelming tendency to rate the account as influential. However, as previously noted, influence did not carry as much weight as commonality when participants were asked to weigh whether they’d follow a user: one participant reflected, “Is based at the University of Oxford – signaling for me a possible gravitas/expertise in the field. Looking at his tweets, he does not tweet a lot about academic issues – so he is most probably not, in my opinion, a very ‘useful’ person in my network.”

The Oxford exemplar also raised the issue of reciprocality and the ways in which its likelihood is minimized by scale of metrics and by prestige. One participant was frank: “This person seems like a very successful academic and is doing forward-thinking work at one of the oldest and most prestigious institutions in the world…(but) I have not followed him and couldn’t imagine he’d follow me.” Another was more overt about the ways in which influence is generally understood to affect engagement: “Clearly a more discerning twitter denizen (note the number of people following him vs who he follows), which would tell me he might not be big on interaction.” Thus, imbalance of scale does not necessarily fit with the purposes of connection and tie-building that many scholars turn to their networks for.

Outside the Oxford example, institutional affiliations or lack thereof did not have much effect on participants’ responses to exemplars, presumably because few institutions in the world carry the recognizability and prestige that Oxford does. Still, institutional affiliations can operate as credibility signals even where prestige structures are not involved.

@exhaust_fumes: “I care a bit about institutional affiliation in profiles…less that the actual university matters or rank matters, but that people are willing to put any institutional info up makes me more inclined to follow because I find relative safety in people who are clearly on Twitter as themselves as academic-y types and therefore aren’t likely to be jerks without outing themselves as jerks who work in specific places.”

Willingness to openly signal one’s workplace can operate not only as a verifiability factor but as a promise of good behavior of sorts. However, signals of institutional academic influence were also read as indicators of identity and priority: in reference to a profile that opened with the word “Professor,” one participant commented, “When a profile leads with institutional affiliation, I assume that is his primary role on social media. The rest of the cutesy stuff is there to humanize but he is signaling who and what he is in the traditional power structure.” Scholars who emphasize their conventional academic influence signals may limit the level of network – or “born digital” influence they are perceived to wield.

“A human who is a really boring bot” Automated signals indicate low influence, especially in the absence of other signals
One clear indicator of a lack of network influence was automated engagement. Three exemplar identities had automated paper.li or Storify notifications in the screen-captured timelines that were shared with participants; one exemplar’s visible tweets were all paper.li links, or automated daily collections of links. Responses to the paper.li were universally negative, even where the exemplar was otherwise deemed of interest. “Potential value to my network – she tweets relevant stuff so probably I should follow her! On second thought, she has a Paper.li, and by definition I unfollow anyone who uses that tool.” Other participants were equally direct: “The only negative for me was the link to a daily paper.li. I tend to find those annoying (almost never click them!)”

Storify was not interpreted to indicate the same level of low influence or awareness, but its automated tag feature was still a flag that participants mentioned: “This is on the fence for me since Storify takes some effort to be engaged with things and maybe she didn’t get that she can opt out of those tweets informing people that they’ve been “quoted.”

My digital networks provide me with some sense of being someone who can contribute” – Identity positions and power relations
Participants’ nuanced sense of influence in networks was particularly visible when aspects of marginality and power were explored. While none perpetuated the narrative of open participation as truly or fully democratic, many did note that networks have created opportunities and access to influence in different ways than their embodied or academic lives otherwise have afforded.

@raulpacheco: “In a very bizarre way, having a well-established academic and online reputation makes me feel pretty powerful, despite being queer and Latino…both elements which should make me feel handicapped. My thoughts are well received, generally, and my stuff gets retweeted frequently.”

@katefmfd: “Networking online has enabled me to create a sustaining sense of my identity as a person, in which my employment in a university plays a part, but isn’t the defining thing…my networked practice is much more closely aligned to my personal values, and much more completely achieved.”

@14prinsp: “My identity intersects with a particular (South African) view of masculinity and patriarchy – there’s vulnerability here. I’m out as a scholar, and I’m also HIV positive and am out in my department…I was very sensitive when I started blogging that if I said something stupid it would be there til death do us part, but I’m very aware that I manage my identity, I make very critical choices. It’s reputation management, it’s brand management, not in a superficial way: there is definitely some authenticity in it but it is carefully chosen.”

Particularly among PhD students and early career scholars, the norms of open online participation helped minimize academia’s hierarchies for participants.

@andreazellner: “I feel like Twitter is the Great Equalizer. Take a recent back and forth with the Dean my college…I am too intimidated to talk to him and he has no idea who I am, and yet on Twitter he posted about being at Microsoft Research and I started asking him questions. He ended up tweeting pictures of things I was asking about, etc., and we even traded a few jokes.”

@tressiemcphd: “My position in the prestige structure didn’t always match my ambitions and what I felt I could do, felt compelled to do. (Networks) allowed me to exist without permission: I was never going to get institutional permission, there was no space there.”

@wishcrys: “I’m far more likely to tweet to my academic superheroes or superiors: I’m not very likely to walk up to them and go “hey, great book!” I definitely feel much more comfortable doing this on social media…people aren’t going to remember my research five years down the road but they may remember that nice PhD student who sent out a nice tweet at 3am.”

Finally, it was noted that the relational connections created in open networks nonetheless reproduce many of the power relations of institutions and society, even while challenging some of their hierarchies. Networks were reflected as an alternate status or influence structure that intersects with academia, rather than as truly open fields of democratic interaction.

@readywriting: “I’ve consciously worked to follow people outside the class/race/gender norm: one of the evaluative things I do when I encounter a new person on Twitter is ask myself  “is this person a little outside of the norm? Great. I want to learn from him/her.”

@catherinecronin: “Twitter is ‘flatter’ than some other networks/media, but power relations exist on Twitter — there is no doubt about that. The online very often reproduces and amplifies what occurs offline. However, open online platforms can also subvert the usual power dynamics. Those without access to conventional public communication channels can use social media to build networks and influence outside of institutional and cultural power structures.”

***
So that’s a start. There’s so much more data that I’m beginning to realize I’ll never do it all justice, the rich conversations, the mountains of Twitter favourites, the backchannels, all these signals that constitute a body of research just as they constitute the water many of us swim in, as networked scholars. My next paper will take this on from a literacies perspective, rather than strictly from an influence perspective. I keep learning.

the unbearable lightness of being…digital

The other afternoon, I’d hoped to hang out in George Siemens‘ #change11 live session on sensemaking and wayfinding in digital environments, but taxes and dinner and all the other demands of living got in the way. As ever. So I caught up this morning.

Which is fitting, since sensemaking and wayfinding as a construct deals in part with the challenges of engaging with live, participatory media when one can’t always be present in the firehose of information onslaught that it generates.

Sometimes this digital identity stuff gets overwhelming.

Not the thinking and the research. The living it.

The Learning Curve: Digital Identity & Sociality Mean Constant Sensemaking & Wayfinding
Connect, filter, engage, share, participate, curate, perform, strategize, relate, produce, add value: these are some of the verbs and phrases affiliated with identity in the age of social media.

I think “locate and tether” need to be added to the list.

I don’t think of my digital life or self as particularly separate from my so-called “real” one. I’m interested in the phenomenon of enmeshed, augmented identity: how our digital practices shape and are shaped by the multiple other aspects of our lives. Most of us today live in atoms & bytes, both. Your mileage may vary, but for me, the online world is both the stage and repository of central aspects of my self and life.

But the particulars that distinguish my digital identity and existence from how I operate when the laptop is shut?

In two weeks’ time, I’m leading the second-last of the change11 MOOC topics, on digital identities and subjectivities. In short, exploring who we are when we’re online. I’m also in the middle of writing the methodologies chapter for my thesis proposal, explaining the ethnographic study I’ll be doing next year on digital identity.

I think of these kinds of adventures as exploratory learning curves: I’ve never facilitated a MOOC, nor outlined a methods and methodologies plan. I’m learning, cobbling together ideas as I go.

Dealing with constantly making sense of semi-contextualized information is a part of navigating anything new. It can be stressful, but also exhilarating and rewarding.

But when digital identity isn’t just your field but a huge part of your so-called “real life” – the way you interact with vast swaths of your personal and professional world – then the constant sensemaking and wayfinding and learning?

I wonder if it isn’t the hardest part of social media practice.

Digital Identity Means Farewell, Linearity?
See, I’m not much of a morning person. Every day, far too shortly after dawn, I half-open one eye. I croak with forced cheer at the children as I exhort them to dress and make their beds and eat. The coffee gets made, and then the world gradually shifts into focus and lunches get packed and off we all go.

What makes mornings doable for me is that my fridge stays in the same place every day. There are few variables for me to navigate in my blurry, unresilient state. Sure, the kids have moods and some days I need to actually shower or remember to write a cheque. But overall, there’s a routine I can stumble through in linear fashion.

Minimal sense-making and wayfinding are required.

HEY! Who Moved the Damn Fridge?
Online, my digital identity enters a new and multiple and constantly-shifting world everyday.

The architecture does tend to remain the same – though it is occasionally altered at random, leaving me wondering where the bloody fridge got to or why my Direct Messages have disappeared – but instead of four people trundling through the relative routine of getting dressed, fed, and out the door, there are thousands of people going every which way.

It’s like waking up in a brand new train station every single day. Some good friends and interesting acquaintances are usually there with you, passing through, but you can’t be sure any of them will actually be present. And, rather like my offspring, there’s no predicting or accounting for what kind of knot people’s knickers will be in on any given morning.

Digital Sociality: The Stress of Waking Up in a New Train Station Everyday
This is all part of what makes social media interesting. It also adds the stress and pressure of constant, public navigation of non-linearity to what are basically daily, mundane interactions.

Digital sociality means constantly trying to ascertain if you’ve understood the context of a conversation enough to enter it.

Digital sociality means having to re-orient yourself in space and time and relationality each time the context changes, which can be minute-to-minute.

Digital sociality means patching together disjointed fragments in order to frame a present in which to be.

Digital sociality means the effort to communicate intent and tone and personality with economy and concision, without necessarily being sure who’s listening or how they will hear what you say.

Digital sociality means pressure to maintain enough of a traceable public identity, via blog and social media platforms, that people can build the trust necessary to engage with you as an actual entity and not an anonymous troll (I waxed didactic on this one in Dave’s comments section this morning).

Now, these are – boiled down – simply a part of human interaction.  Other than the final point, which is specific to dis-embodied and distributed engagements in environments where people may not necessarily have pre-existing social ties, they’re part of social life in all arenas. Humans are semi-predictable creatures, at best.

But the architecture of our daily lives – our homes, our streets and offices, our built environments in general – are pretty static.

Online, this tends to be less true. Law & LaTour’s work in – and beyond – Actor Network Theory goes so far as to posit that technologies can be actors and agents in relational interactions. My own dissertation focus will be on practices, thus foregrounding the human, but from the assumption that human practices are shaped by technological affordances: I am wordier on Facebook than on Twitter, simply because I can be.

And where we interact via platforms that we have no ownership of or control over, like Facebook and Twitter, we can truly wake up in the morning and find the fridge gone. Or in the basement. Change can happen very quickly, in a way not paralleled in embodied spaces.

The challenge of digital sociality is it’s all a constant, repeating learning curve.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Digital
In social media, the sensemaking and wayfinding processes that George foregrounds – how we make meaning, how we know what we know, how we understand others – have to be on overdrive all the time, trying to orient me to relationships, contexts, and goals all at once. It’s a tall order.

And when they fail to operate optimally – these untaught, gradually-acquired habits of navigation and constant re-orientation – I find myself accidentally floating away.

I follow a random link to cupcakes or world peace or the latest news in post-structural feminism, it matters not, and half an hour and sixteen links later, I surface, bewildered, wondering what in Jesus’ name just happened.

My digital self may not be especially different from my embodied person, but it sure has a hell of a harder time finding the fridge in the mornings. It has to work harder to stay focused on why it went to the fridge for in the first place. As a digital being, I have to work constantly to orient and re-orient myself to where I am and what I’m doing; to why and with whom I’m engaging.

This will be part of what we take up in my #change11 week starting May 7th. If you want to join in, even if you’ve fallen away from the MOOC or haven’t been part of it til now, you’re very welcome.

And in anticipation, I’ve started a Mendeley group on digital identities. After a week or two of initial neglect because I floated away from it and forgot to go back, my plan is now to start populating it with papers – and hopefully discussion – on the topic. Feel free to join in, and if you’ve happened on anything related to the idea of digital identity – please contribute. Crowdsourcing is one of the great benefits of digital sociality, after all.

Just don’t float away on your way on over. ;)

“find your niche” can suck my elephant: on Bourdieu’s distinction, and social media identity

Find your niche, they tell us, all those contemporary exhortations to success. 

Do the thing you love and the money will follow! 

I’ve been reading Bourdieu, thinking about his concept of distinction. Distinction is at the heart of Bourdieu’s theory of cultural consumption, or how we divide ourselves by class in contemporary culture. In his work, class distinctions go far beyond economics to other forms of capital. Symbolic capital and cultural capital – the ineffables of class captured in phrases like “high class” and “classy” – manifest in aesthetic preferences that are actually marks of taste, or belonging. They refer less to money than to status and aesthetic status markers.

They aren’t only the purview of the ruling classes, though. Every group within society has its markers, its distinctions. We think of them as our tastes, but they are – says Bourdieu – markers of our class identities, internalized and usually invisible to us. (Or they were until the hipsters started drinking Pabst, at least.)

Distinction says “I am not that. I am this.”

In Bourdieu’s work, “all cultural symbols and practices, from artistic tastes, style in dress, and eating habits to religion, science and philosophy – even language itself – embody interests and function to enhance social distinctions” (D. Schwartz, Culture & Power, 1997, p. 6).

Bourdieu is helping me understand why I shudder when I hear “find your niche.”
***

I am in the middle of designing the study around which I will build my dissertation. 

Any act of writing, really, shapes what comes after. And while you’re not married to your dissertation, it IS a significant relationship. It’s years of your life. And a carving out of intellectual territory, particularly if your research is your own.

And so each of the small choices by which I’m gingerly shaping the direction of my Research Ethics Board proposal feel amplified, like echoes that bounce ahead into unseen territory. Most aren’t likely to cause rockslides, really, but the fact that I cannot tell the difference is ever intimidating.

I am relearning, again, the story of the blind men and the elephant.

The field of education is a strange animal. It straddles the disciplines of the academy, but it is not – at least so far as I understand it – a discipline unto itself. It is, rather, an elephant.

In the nearly twenty years since I started my Bachelors of Education program in 1993, I’ve run the full gamut of wise blind men – and women – clutching at tails and feet and ears. Some swear the entire animal corresponds to the piece they hold. Some work hard to see and appreciate the whole, except for that cancerous hunk over there, with its discourses irreconcilable to the piece they have spent their careers grooming.

It’s rather like distinction. The “I am not that” is as important as “I am this.” And all of it is tied to practices and discourses and identity.

And I, of course, am no different. All the more full of hubris, because I keep believing I’ve discovered the outline of the whole beast only to slip again in elephant shit.

But now, I must choose a part of the elephant to tie myself to, upon which to build the rest of my career.

The last time I planted my own stake firmly in the poor old elephant it was for only a Master’s thesis and really, it was neither a professional nor a public enterprise then. There was no social media and nobody much outside my committee ever read it except Dave, bless him. That it got published a few years later was a great joy to me, because publication wasn’t what grad school seemed to be about, then and there. I thought then that education was a societal enterprise best geared toward social justice and analyzed via poststructuralism and if I didn’t fully understand what all that was, well, the rest of the class were still stuck debating whether kids should wear hats in class or no.

But I am now in a faculty far more strongly aligned with the social sciences and that has opened up new doors for me into my research. And so I am a neophyte all over again, self-consciously grappling with a part of the elephant I’ve never held or named.

And all the while, the elephant itself keeps changing.

Higher ed in general is far more self-conscious and self-aware and strategic than it was fifteen years ago. The world of knowledge and cultural production has had its gatekeeping industries exposed and deconstructed; its institutions questioned.

That’s the narrative around which my dissertation and my research study are designed: I’m interested in our practices as social media subjects because I think social media and its ever-encroaching neoliberalism has changed the cultural and knowledge production industries most  – or at least first – and academia, according to Bourdieu, is one of these industries. The find your niche prescription for success that permeates contemporary culture echoes strongest out here in social media, where we make ourselves in words and pictures everyday, and are taken up by others as we portray ourselves. But it is part of the academic process too: hence the meta-dilemma of this act of picking which part of the elephant to stand in. Or on. The cultural pressure shaping both is largely the same.

As I saw in my tweetstream just yesterday morning, via @resnikoff: “Ubiquity/structure of social media mean you’re now an eccentric if you *don’t* treat your public presence like a corporate brand.”

In finalizing my research direction, I’m in effect branding myself, tattooing myself all over with identifications, with labels and signifiers.

I am making my niche as a scholar, just as surely as I am making my niche publicly by writing and tweeting about social media media identity.

And in making my niche, I end up not just getting stuck with one part of the elephant, but in all the conversation about the damn elephant, too: all the baggage of generations of scholarly debate.

That’s the problem with “finding your niche,” people. It mires you in everybody else’s distinction processes. Wonder why everybody’s slagging everybody else so hard these days for seemingly mundane choices? We’re not actually arguing with each other, anymore. We’re just enacting distinction. We’re shouting about our part of the elephant.
***

Niches, of course, are boxes. Rather like the academic disciplines, niches first coalesce areas of interest and then harden lines of communication and their underlying ideologies. If you have a niche, your interactions with the world tend to take on something of a “stay on message” party line. And especially in the social media sphere – which is generally where one is magically supposed to find one’s niche, or at least the market for it -even a purely professional niche becomes a central component of the identity around which relational interactions with others are built.

The “find your niche” mantra is a discourse that reduces a world of complexity to false simplicity. The neoliberal market assumption that there actually IS a niche for everyone makes inherent value judgements about the kinds of people and practices that matter, and it tends to elide the issue of all those who do not fit its precepts. Don’t have something of market value? Don’t want or know how to shill it? You don’t count as a “you,” then, apparently.

Or better yet, you’re arrogant for not self-promoting. Yeh. Far better to find your niche as a pompous zealot.

But then I think, hush, Bonnie. Because my reaction to that kind of extreme neoliberalism is just MY distinction processes at work.

As an educator, yes, it’s part of my role to consider the literacies and privileges and means of production that tend to be necessary for people to actually engage – successfully or no – in the cultural production processes of social media and contemporary commerce. It’s part of my role to value, recognize, and foreground things that the market is not designed to reward. And that role is part of my identity.

But the tastes in discourse and values that led me to choose that role? The ones that are largely invisible to me as anything other than the way the world *should* be?

Those are products of distinction. Just as is my preference for complexity over simplicity.

You are not that, distinction tells us. You are this. And this is good. Our tastes go unrecognized for what they are: the ways in which we construct and are constructed by the hierarchies of society in our turn. Distinction  makes aesthetic and taste and identification preferences appear simply natural.

So. Here’s my hypothesis:

In my research study on social media identities and practices, I want to explore whether and how distinction, as part of Bourdieu’s theory of cultural consumption, can be applied to cultural production, too.

One of the tenets of social media identity is that we are prosumers, involved in processes of produsage. We put our own work out there, and consume and comment on that of others. Thanks to the weakening of those traditional gatekeeping industries that protected the role and status of cultural knowledge producers in academia and journalism and the arts over recent years, we have become part of the cultural production conversation. Production, in other words, is no longer so separate from consumption.

I suspect this is how the so-called culture wars have gotten so nasty over the last few years. As cultural production’s come uncoupled from the traditional gatekeeping institutions – which themselves all had roles in the hierarchies of cultural and symbolic capital – it has become increasingly overtly aligned: the once-naturalized taste distinctions between opera and bluegrass music, for instance, have been gradually blurred and broken down. Cultural products that once carried high class status became visibly commodified, and the ease of technological reproduction and sharing has made awareness of products that were once marginalized appear more exclusive and “authentic.” This lent them a particular sheen of symbolic capital, because their ties to any sort of economic interest were less visible.

In other words, things have gotten messy. Add in a panoptical site of identity performance and prosumption like social media, and you’ve got people’s distinction reactions bouncing up against each other All The Time.

I think our webs of alignment and values have gotten all tangled up. We can see and feel the alignments at an identity level – and react accordingly, with our “I am not that!” defenses of whatever it is we feel is threatened – but because of the way distinction operates, we can’t name them or unpack them particularly well.

We find our niches – even those of us who resent the idea for its reductionism and its misrepresentation of overt economic interests as natural and good – and we cling to our pieces of the metaphorical elephant like blind men, insisting we see the whole, and we wonder what the hell happened.

Does this make sense?

In my research, I want to explore our social media practices, our identity performances, and our alignments of distinction within this newly fragmented field of cultural production, or prosumption. And I want to consider the ways in which dominant neoliberal social media discourses like “find your niche” – which encourage strategic thinking but also naturalize and assume universal market reward without need for other systems – affect our identities and our sociality. All while I unpack my own distinction processes and biases as I go.

Now, I just need to frame this in a way that makes sense to the various keepers of the elephant.

 

 

Pinterest: digital identity, Stepford Wives edition

Oh, Pinterest.

You’re so pretty. Everything in your world looks sanitized and inspirational.

Your tagline is “organize and share things you love.” You don’t really mean our sticky kids, though, or the gritty streets of NYC on a February Tuesday. That’s for Flickr and Instagram.

You’re about our aspirations. Your purpose is to make us look like designers of our digital lives: clean, controlled, concise. Maybe quirky, just a little.

“Find your niche,” advises our culture’s contemporary mantra for success: “Me, Inc.” The age of Neoliberalism.

Your niche and passion, Pinterest, is our deep desire for escape from our cluttered excess. We are busy and overloaded, most of us. We’d like to run away and live online, in miniature white screen frames stark and orderly as zen paintings. With witty aphorisms. And tiny, perfect servings of food porn. Your niche is our escapism.

And so you’re booming, Pinterest. Last night, Mashable released a chart showing your rapid rise in user engagement numbers over recent months. You’re, without a doubt, the flavour of the week.

And you look and taste great. Hey, I enjoy a decontextualized serving of digital heart-shaped creme brulee (almost) as much as the next person.

But there’s something terribly Stepford Wives about the whole practice.

We Are What We Share
Sure, it’s just a hobby, a pastime. But you make me nervous, Pinterest. Because when I run away and live online in your world, as opposed to on my blog or on Twitter or even Facebook, I’m crossing into a model of digital identity that’s very shiny, but also scary.

It’s “Me, Inc.” without the, um, “me.”

(No, this isn’t about copyright, Pinterest.  Yes, that’s what everybody’s on about these days, and it appears with good reason: you look to be a bit of a copyright nightmare, with Kafkaesque Terms of Service. According to this lawyer, you have apparently reserved the right to prosecute users for the very copyright violations the Pinterest platform seems designed to support.)

But. My issue isn’t the copyright practices you implicitly encourage.

It’s the identity practices.

Using social media shapes who we are, and how we see ourselves. Social media relies on identity: on handles or names or pseudonyms that represent us and our contributions to the rest of our networks. Pinterest is the same: when I sign up, I get an account, under a name of my choosing. People can see what I share. Being “re-pinned” means what I’m sharing is stuff people want to see.

To our networks, we are what we share.

And on Pinterest, that stuff? Isn’t usually mine. And isn’t encouraged to BE mine.

“Me Inc.” Without the Me
See, the difference between Pinterest and most of the major social media platforms that have come before is that Pinterest is set up to encourage us building identity and reputation primarily on the basis of other people’s content.

On Pinterest, sharing your own work goes against the explicit etiquette of the site. Rule #3: “Avoid Self-Promotion.” Sure, “If there’s a photo or project you’re proud of, pin away! However try not to use Pinterest purely as a tool for self-promotion.”

I can see the collective exhale, here. No wonder Pinterest looks kinda like an Ikea catalogue for every facet of human life. Its express purpose is to free us from the awkwardness of self-expression and keep us safely in the realm of the pre-chewed, the market-filtered.

Admittedly, self-promotion on most online platforms gets tiresome. Hey, look at what I did! What I wrote! What I dug out from my back teeth and photographed in extreme closeup!

On Pinterest, I’d just share pictures of somebody else’s perfect teeth. Whitened. Without the accompanying stories of orthodontistry or the person’s flossing regimen. Probably not even his or her whole face.

Pinterest is exactly what it claims to be: the digital equivalent of the corkboard I had in my bedroom when I was thirteen. I had me some Bono, some Annie Lennox, a dented centrefold of Thriller. I once tore a page out of a hair salon magazine for a grainy shot of the dude who played Robert Scorpio on General Hospital. I may also have clipped the Volkswagen microbus ad out of chapter six of my geometry text. (Sorry, Mr. Murnaghan.)

These things weren’t me. They were who I wanted to be, in a sense, but in the dream realm. My cutout of Robert Scorpio didn’t actually further my path to becoming a soap opera spy, in any sense. My purloined VW image didn’t actually buy me a car. It was just an early form of brand affinity, a way of performing identity and belonging.

That’s the problem, Pinterest. You’re a grownup version of dress-up, of playing cotton-candy princesses. It’s fun. Play is healthy. But when we build broadly networked aspects of our public selves based largely on these tickle-trunk identities? Especially with stuff that we’ve lifted finders-keepers-style from other people’s equally aspirational magpie nests? We may eventually find ourselves with the identity equivalent of tooth decay.

Because make no mistake: the way social media works, our Pinterest practices ARE shaping our digital identities.

Augmented Reality: The Blurring of Offline & Online Worlds
Social media’s promise is that of an augmented reality: one wherein physical and virtual combine to create a blurring between offline and online.

Most of us who use Facebook or Twitter already live in some version of this reality; our networks of friends live both inside and outside the computer.

By extension, so does our identity, and theirs: we know and understand each other via a combination of physical and digital interactions. To the friend on Facebook whom I haven’t actually seen in person since 1988, I am as much my photos and my status updates and whatever I share of my contemporary life as I am that girl who used to chew her pencils. I hope.

Social media bypassed the gatekeeping of mass media control, and enabled us to become creators as well as consumers.

Identity-wise, this was revolutionary. Instead of sharing who I was via brand or band allegiance, or some other externalized representation of myself, I could actually connect with people – with anybody, anywhere, so long as we happened upon each others’ networks – on the basis of my words and thoughts and images. On the basis of what I created.

I could be known for being me. Or an aspirational version of me. Instead of having a picture of a typewriter pinned to my corkboard, I could write, and build an audience, and gradually – slowly – come to see myself and be seen through that lens. “Writer” became part of my digital identity. And – thanks to the blurring between online and off – my so-called “real” identity too.

Anybody could do it. You could share your work – your words, your pictures, your witty-ish status updates – and engage with the work of others and in so doing build reputation and connections and complex linked networks. Axel Bruns called this produsage. George Ritzer – with a few minor variations – calls it prosumption.

Want to be a photographer? Social media offers access to photography platforms, photography learning opportunities, and photography communities. You can take pictures and share them, with your name attached. You can participate in the sites and networks where other people are sharing photography that appeals to you. If you want to become known there, you can gradually build a presence and an identity and – yes – a niche. If you keep sharing and are generous with your own work and that of others, you may never be Ansel Adams, but you’ll be – in a very genuine way – a photographer.

The Difference Between Curators and Creators
An internet of a billion aspiring photographers, of course, does tend to get clogged. The culture of scarcity which led to my criminal defacement of a geometry textbook back in my misspent youth no longer exists. Instead, we have abundance, or excess. And a need to curate.

Since blogging died the first of its over-reported deaths back in, what? 2007? and Facebook and Twitter began minimizing the centrality of creation and enabling the public sharing of other people’s content, the notion of “curation” has been getting attention. Curation, really, is what librarians and archivists and gallery owners do. It involves more than collection and sharing, in its original context. But increasingly, and with some apoplexy on the part of professional curators, it’s being taken up simply as what you do when you select and share a friend’s great picture, or a New York Times article you loved, or a pin of vintage Snoopy coffee cups.

Curation is as much a part of our digital identity practices as creation, today.

It’s what Pinterest operates on, entirely. But at the express expense of creation. If you search “I wrote this” in Pinterest, for example, you get a gallery of pins that are pretty easily digestible, at a glance, without much depth to click and explore. Commerce. Curation. Not much in the way of creation that could actually be tied to a person’s digital identity or fledgling reputation as a writer.

And that’s no huge deal, if Pinterest is just a sideline in our digital identity practices. But in fact, it extends trends already begun with Tumblr and even, increasingly, Facebook, where frictionless sharing of unidentified content stands in as the means by which we communicate with our networks.

Here’s the thing, identity-wise. If we drop the “creator” part of the equation, people of Teh Internets, we really go back to being consumers, and consumers alone. Because the type of curation Pinterest offers isn’t actually new at all; it just used to involve doing unspeakable things to geometry texts and hair salon magazines.

Style over Substance: Simulated Reality, not Augmented Reality
The things Pinterest enables us to share need to be more or less instantly visually communicable, either in the form of a picture or an image of words, preferably in minimal quantity. It’s well-suited to design and aphorisms. It’s not well-suited to complexity.

Life is complex. In this augmented world of constant engagement and digital self-promotion, it’s exponentially complex. It’s no wonder we want to go live in Pinterest’s perfect white kitchens and surround ourself with cute pictures of polka-dots and cupcakes.

But online practices become habits. What we see shared shapes what we understand to be shareable, to be palatable.

Taken to its logical conclusion, the practices of Pinterest suggest we’ll stop writing about the stuff stuck in our teeth, or the stories of how our teeth or our selves got broken. (Schmutzie does a beautiful job of taking this apart, this creeping process of self-presentation). We’ll default increasingly to playing dressup in decontextualized, aspirational pictures of other people’s purdy teef. Like in the magazines.

Magazines have always been simulated reality. I like magazines just fine.

But you would not know me from a magazine article about me, if such a thing existed. You might recognize me from a picture, but the meeting – the moment where the physical and the digital selves converge in the same space – would be like meeting a celebrity, a cardboard cutout, not a person with whom you share a regular, intimate interaction in daily life, even if ‘only’ online.

If we trade the produsage model of augmented reality for a simple, Stepford-wife simulated reality, we undermine the premises and promises of social media; the idea that the long tail will ultimately have something for all of us. If we gradually remove ourselves from the creation portion of the creator-curator-consumer model, we’ll end up simply shuffling mass-mediated or market-driven versions of self around Teh Internets, wondering what went wrong.

Or perhaps entirely oblivious, smiling, Stepford-style.