Month: September 2008
Some people have emailed me to let me know that comments aren’t working for them. I didn’t have a problem when I doublechecked today, so please do email me if they’re still not working for you.
And so this isn’t a totally boring post, here’s a picture I took yesterday on the street outside of Ritual Roasters in the Mission:
It says “Trendy Google professionals help raise housing costs.” Ah, gentrification squiffling targeted at a particular company! Very Bay Area.
I’ve moved to San Francisco to work on my dissertation, an ethnography of social status and elitism in the Web 2.0 startup community. I’m hanging around with people who work at Web 2.0 startups, internet celebrities, tech journalists, and various other highly-wired people with highly-mediated social relationships who are connected to the entrepreneurial San Francisco social media “scene.” I’m looking at status markers, status practices, and status hierarchies, in order to analyze how social media is creating a new status culture, and how “traditional” status is expressed online.
When we talk about Web 2.0 as participatory, creative, freeing, liberatory, or various other positive adjectives, we’re drawing from a discourse of computerization that assumes more computers = better. Likewise, Web 2.0 entrepreneurs, and many writers and thinkers, start from the assumption that social media is a positive thing. I’m choosing to drill down into this assumption by looking at a particular thread of it: status. Understanding social status is a way of understanding power. (A similar ethnography might have looked only at gender in social media).
I wanted to look at a community that was highly wired, one on a certain end of the bell curve that would give me lots of rich information about technology use online, but also how technology is used in social spaces. I’m not interested in “online ethnography;” I wanted to do an ethnography that existed both in face-to-face environments, and through various websites and mobile technologies, as that is how many people experience their social lives today.
On the other hand, the way hyper-wired Americans (or Koreans, or Swedes) use technology is not universal. It’s a quite specific culture with a quite specific understanding of technology. I’m hypothesizing that the assumptions made about technology use by those who create it — who are often the most connected, and often very wealthy, people– are inscribing a particular cultural understanding of technology.
When I tell people this is my dissertation topic, I get one of three reactions:
1) That’s awesome! You should talk to X and Y. I have Z thoughts on the topic. (obviously this is my favorite)
2) Did you just design a project so you could hang out with your friends in the Bay Area?
3) [Complete confusion][Often people think I’m studying status messages, like Facebook status.]
I’ve noticed that the people who reply with #1 are usually the people most immersed in the highly mediated technoculture of Web 2.0 entrepreneurs. They understand the status signaled by having a thousand Twitter friends, or filling a bar on a Saturday afternoon by sending a single Facebook status update. (See, here’s that confusion again.) And most of them have spent quite a bit of time thinking about this, and see the value of the project immediately.
Reaction #2 is a bit more complicated. Obviously, the fact that I have a lot of friends in the Web 2.0 culture does allow me access to areas I wouldn’t get into otherwise, like TechCrunch parties, or just provides me with enough insider knowledge to know where to find the people I’m looking for. But this is tempered by the knowledge that it’s unethical to collect data on my friends; I have to create a clear boundary between friend time and research time. This is something all ethnographers grapple with, but probably not usually to the extent that I’m grappling with it.
(Reaction #3 is often due to my poor explanation, and I’m working on elevator pitches).
I’ll be in San Francisco for nine months collecting data, talking to people, observing events, reading, and analyzing. It’s a long time to be away from home, but so far it’s going very well. Throughout this time, I’ll be checking in and sharing thoughts and anecdotes from my research; please feel free to share your thoughts and ideas, especially if you’re in the Bay Area and would like to talk.