“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.



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

  1. Veronica Mitchell

    Usually when I read your posts, I feel I need to mull them over for a while before I comment. Then I either forget to comment, forget what my comment was going to be, or comment too late to contribute to the discussion. So this time I will jump in early. Look at me, all impulsive.

    You have described much of the reason I still use a pseudonym for blogging after almost everyone else has changed to their real name. I have a particular set of emphases on my blog – my niche – but I don’t want my “real life” friends to use what I write to decide what my “real life” can and cannot be, or what I am allowed to mean. I use a niche for my writing, but I don’t want to be forced into the niche outside of my writing.

    I feel even more strongly about this when it comes to my children. When I first started blogging, my kids were characters on the blog. They each had their own nickname. When I resumed blogging after a long hiatus, I stopped even using nicknames. I deliberately write more about my experience of motherhood than my kids’ actions. I don’t tell funny stories about them on the blog anymore. I don’t even use nicknames anymore, b/c the nicknames created identifiable characters who could be attached to their identities some day. When I do talk about my kids, I only say “my daughter,” and leave it unspecified which daughter I mean. Sometimes I deliberately fudge their age if I mention it.

    Being pressured to conform only to your niche is hard when it happens based on your own work; it is even harder if the pressures on you are based on your parent’s work. As a preacher’s daughter, I feel this keenly, and I don’t want my kids to feel trapped in it the way I often did.

  2. bon

    Veronica, thanks for jumping in.

    The pressures of niche and the ways in which it intersects with and becomes an obligation of identity are a huge thing, one I need to find ways to design questions to address for my study.

    I wonder how much niche pressure is felt by even those of us who don’t have an overt niche, per se (I’m thinking of my personal blog & general social media identity, which is pretty diversified). i do still think about audience and making connections, i just don’t want to limit myself to a single topic OR the focus on monetization that that would imply. but still.

    the discourse is powerful. sometimes i feel like i’m doing it wrong just because i haven’t followed that most prolific piece of advice.

    curious about the pseudonymic identity, too…do you feel pressured, then, to stay within your “niche” in so-called real life? is there a clear line between on & offline performance or freedom to “be”?

    1. Veronica Mitchell

      I think the main difference between the blog and “real life” is the speed with which I can adapt to someone’s responses to me. The trouble with sharing my blog identity with “real life” people is that, b/c the blog often has thoughts in greater detail and with the journal-like aura of intimacy, “real life” friends then see the blog as the filter by which to interpret what I really mean by the things I say. I can’t adjust that with tone or body language or changes of subject. It just is.

      On the blog the only pressure I sometimes feel is from the comments. Since I am a Christian who also writes about her faith, I sometimes get comments like “this post really blessed me.” But not all my readers are Christian, and I find if I get a string of “blessed” comments, it shuts down conversation from any non-Christians. that gives me a strange suffocating feeling. If I were having a party and I noticed the conversation making a friend feel excluded, I can diffuse it with a secret smile or an extended arm or a wry comment around the corner. I can’t do that on the blog.

      1. bon

        interesting…i wonder how my real life friends relate to my blog? truth is, i know the closer friends and family don’t read it, but i wonder if that has something to do with it? lack of fit/comfort between the ways i speak and write? too much intimacy on the page?

        i suppose i mostly write narrative and academic ideas so it’s not so likely to be fraught with tensions, between me & friends. but yes, i worry about this space shutting people down sometimes…these tend to be dense pieces and sometimes i feel like people are left feeling shut out because they don’t have a lot of familiarity with the discourse. or perhaps they have a distinction “i’m not that” reaction to it? kind of like the “blessed” stuff, which does tend to make me feel as if i’m in the wrong room, conversationally. but if i know the host of the “room,” like you…then i don’t mind. for me it’s not being outside of a discourse that’s the problem, it’s feeling like i’m not supposed to be there at all. unless the discourse is totalizing, so that even being witness to it is somehow dehumanizing of my position.

  3. Jen

    Bon, I always feel smarter after reading one of your posts. And boy would I love to read this once complete. What a thought provoking start.

    And yes:
    the discourse is powerful. sometimes i feel like i’m doing it wrong just because i haven’t followed that most prolific piece of advice.


    1. bon

      the “you’re doing it wrong” theme seems to be popping up. there’s no real counter-message, is there? no strong strain of anti-niche discourse? am i missing it?

  4. Bud Hunt

    Yes to what you’ve written and yes to what you’re about to do – I can’t tell you how many times in recent months I’ve felt wrong or broken or incomplete because I couldn’t put a label to what I am/was/are/want to do.

    Reminded me of when I used to have to describe my music. Then, I made up an answer in at attempt to be cute. Now, I’m not as strong as then.

    And a question –

    So is this the first time that distinctions have gotten blurry? The first time that one man’s exotic wunderthing was another’s common and dreadful something or other? How did those cultures/peoples handle the blurriness? What can their experiences do to inform your inquiry?

    Good luck. Keep taking such good notes. That, it seems, is at least one of your niches.

    1. bon

      …what a damn good question. i don’t know. societies have tended towards pretty rigid structures of belonging in the past, and maybe taste didn’t play such a part in cultural hierarchy when the classes didn’t mix much. but periods of shift or destabilization must have caused some of these distinction responses before?

      perhaps i’ll switch gears entirely and do a Foucauldian genealogy of taste. that’d be interesting.

      1. Deb Rox

        Destabilization is a big part of it, right? Digital life is changing all of the markers, and once someone transcends the digital divide by having access to the Internet, there are no real class divides that matter–and it’s incredibly hard to discern the levels of performance v. authenticity someone is offering. So maybe there is a tendency for some to push harder for establishing new class identifiers in order to have some sort of safe perimeters.That’s the most interesting thing to me about digital life–what will emerge now that new class identifiers aren’t simply economic? Right now we see a new mixture of the most important new currencies–maybe verbal and visual communication skills, access, creative capital and time in the lead, but it’s all so unstable. So maybe resilience to change is the most valuable currency–and that’s why we see pushback to burnout and people touting how long they’ve been online? It’s interesting to think about what old markers bloggers (as a subset of social media) cling to or what new markers might mean. Periodically a grammar or font rant will spring up on Twitter, and the subtext of that is surely connected to policing the open gate of the Internet. Early adoption (reception of Pinterest v. Google+)can be a marker. Lots to think about.

  5. Dale Poole

    Once again, a post I had to read over several times, to get the drift ;)

    Veronica has great points to make. My first obsdervation was that “finding your niche” suggests that you and only you are responsible for how other view you. I think your niche is defined almost as much by those who read you as it is by you the writer.

    Especially in social media where often you have to be necessarily brief, you may present your niche as the colour blue. If the reader is a fan of blue that’s likely okay, but if the reader is someone who hates blue, in fact absolutely loathes blue, not only will you be “niched” by them as one of those blue-likers, but often also often other niches will be filled in.

    IE – you love blue so you probably ony listen to the blues and are depressed all the time. These niches have nothing to do with the fact that you simply like a colour, but have more to do with the associations people make in their heads about how that relates to them and their niche.

    Crap, is that what you’re saying above?

    The main thing *I* hate about “finding your niche” is this – how do I find my niche when I have a dozen or two of them?

    That is why I’m not a brand. A brand is a far too one-dimensional description of a person. Unless they are a cardboard cutout.

    In fact, that describes a lot of the modern internet – a collection of cardboard cutouts.


    1. bon

      great point, Dale…i too think that social media niche or brand or identity – the part(s) you play, whether singular or many-faceted – is relational. it’s as much about how what you put out there is taken up, what gets responded to, as it is just what you put out there.

      and yes, about the blue and the blues. in some ways, i’m hoping it matters to talk about this stuff. that it’s a mirror to all of us, me especially, to look in and examine my own reactions to what i come across. to try to unpack them.

  6. Quadelle

    Re: the Twitter exit poll question, “Does online “find your niche” mantra make you feel you’re doing it wrong?”, I would say sometimes – mainly because my initial reaction is to presume that if ‘everyone is doing it’ that it must be good, and I don’t want to miss out. But, more often it leaves me feeling a bit deflated at the shift in people’s focus, from what used to be just making connections to now intentionally creating a network.

    I gather that finding one’s niche is pragmatic, purposeful, productive and purportedly profitable. It certainly helps for finding people that fall within one standard deviation of a given person’s ‘normal’. But it’s when you get to two standard deviations away that things start to get really quite interesting. And outliers are fascinating.

    1. Bon

      Easter weekend got in the way of me getting back to these comments, which is too bad because this is a worthwhile & interesting conversation…but YES, there’s something about niche – and most market assumptions – which is so normative.

      i know the idea is that the long tail of the internet is supposed to help us all find our own tiny niches of like-minded weirdos, but when success and metrics get involved we seem to default to vanilla. or sensationalism. or sensationalist vanilla?

  7. Brian Hischier

    Hi Bonnie,
    Distinction is inevitable, except when everybody else is doing it. I think the “Follow your niche” advice is analogous to the “Find your voice” advice given to budding writers: and it’s half bullshit, half well-meaning encouragement (“you’ll find it, honest you will”). I mean really, what is voice anyway? Is is writing with yourself in mind, editors be damned? Or is it self-aware, self-congratulatory repetition, where the victor voice is the one recognized by sheer blunt force?

    When I signed up for a Twitter account, I became anxious that words (“my” words) would become diffuse, inconsistent, vague, and meaningless, open to misuse and misconstrued. When I set up my Facebook page, I wondered why the hell anyone would “like” it when they were already Facebook friends of my real persona. And then the niche: a dozen times my blog changed its motto until it settled and I remembered that the reason I write, the reason I tweet, the reason I do anything is so that I can have a record, so that I can remember what I was thinking thirty years from now, so that I can dig into my past and realize how little I knew, how fervent I was in my errors. I remember that my daughter will someday read this massive collection and ask herself: did my father really think that? Is that what he was doing when we could have been playing in my kitchen set?

    I can sympathize with your article. I’m in a (slightly) similar position in terms of education: I train ad agencies and art students to be social with Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest (!); training them in timely delay, the compilation of future posts with Hootsuite,Tweetdeck etc; training them to be consistent (artists! consistent! really, Brian?!), opening their eyes to all the mobile possibilities that keep them “connected,” “engaged,” “alive.” And I hardly believe a bit of it, because I know the numbers, I know the psychology of “users” and users don’t care because users aren’t users, they’re people who flee any obvious attempt to connect at them, engage at them, and live at them. In my “occupation,” I am merely lending a helping hand to the agencies who wish to join the new mercantile class, the young and old who tweet their asses off in hopes of hearing some response to their soul-niche (hopefully an influential response, but the little responses will do too). In my “profession,” I’m just doing what I would normally do in the privacy of my own notebooks: trying to figure out what the hell I’m doing. Unfortunately, that’s a vague niche, a paradox in bad small business form.

    We are all part of the merchant class now, even educators. Some of us sell red apples, some us sell green apples, some of us sell rotten apples, some of us sell the worms we dug out of the apples. The merchant class has the distinction of making distinction their middle name. We here on the Internet may not have incorporated our small business of social media outpourings, but we might as well have. And we doubt it’s value, worry about what it’s doing to our children, our souls, and we do it anyway, because we have to. It’s a mass revolution in petty hypocrisy, except hypocrisy is no longer a dirty word.


    1. Bon

      Brian. nice to hear from you. :)

      “we are all part of the merchant class, now.” maybe that should be the title of my dissertation.

  8. Neil

    This niche sensibility has wrecked havoc on my blogging, mostly because I am still stuck in that old-fashioned concept of trying to be “authentic” in what I write about online. Currently, I am dealing with the emotions related to divorce, but I certainly don’t want this to be my “niche.” I have had other bloggers who almost seemed jealous of the drama in my personal life, as if I am lucky to have cool fodder to write about in my posts. I feel like I am even being pushed into a niche. “You should become a writer about divorce, and try to get a gig with Huffington Post!” Blogging depresses me sometimes because since I’m not a parent, there isn’t a clear cut niche for me to use as my umbrella. But I certainly didn’t choose to get divorced to find myself a blogging niche. I know who I am. But I feel a little lost because I don’t have that identifier of niche. And it does make me feel like a weirdo.

  9. KeAnne

    First of all, I cannot wait to read your research on this topic! I am trying very hard to resist finding a niche. I want to be me online – quirks and all. I have a personal blog and twitter account but also manage my organization’s blog and twitter accounts, so I’m constantly going back and forth between identities, trying to seem authentic in both.

    I wrote my Master’s paper last year on social media and small manufacturers, a industry that tends to be late adopters of technology. One item I came across in my research was about identity and how thanks to mobile technology, the lines between personal and professional are disappearing and that will impact how we relate to social media.

    I wonder how much of this drive to find a niche, to relentlessly classify, is a Western characteristic? What if Aristotle’s categorization hadn’t superseded Plato’s philosophy? Do other cultures with different underpinnings feel the pressure to find a niche?

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