a feminist technology blog

Category: Dissertation

Preview: To See and Be Seen: Celebrity Practice on Twitter

I’ve added a draft version of “To See and Be Seen: Celebrity Practice on Twitter,” a paper I wrote with danah boyd last summer which will be published in Convergence sometime next year.

Download draft [pdf file]


Social media technologies let people connect by creating and sharing content. We examine the use of Twitter by famous people to conceptualize celebrity as a practice. On Twitter, celebrity is practiced through the appearance and performance of ‘backstage’ access. Celebrity practitioners reveal what appears to be personal information to create a sense of intimacy between participant and follower, publically acknowledge fans, and use language and cultural references to create affiliations with followers. Interactions with other celebrity practitioners and personalities give the impression of candid, uncensored looks at the people behind the personas. But the indeterminate ‘authenticity’ of these performances appeals to some audiences, who enjoy the game playing intrinsic to gossip consumption. While celebrity practice is theoretically open to all, it is not an equalizer or democratizing discourse. Indeed, in order to successfully practice celebrity, fans must recognize the power differentials intrinsic to the relationship.

Please note that this is not the final version. But it is very close to it– we didn’t have too many edits with our peer reviewers– and hopefully it will be useful for those of you studying celebrity and/or Twitter.

This paper was a lot of fun to work on, and it inspired a great deal of the work on micro-celebrity that appeared in my dissertation. My case studies are Miley Cyrus, Mariah Carey, and Perez Hilton. Miley was an especially hilarious person to study as she often dragged her various Disney starlet friends and family members into her Twitter arguments. I was quite sad when she retired from Twitter via YouTube video.


Marwick, A. and boyd, danah (Forthcoming, in final review). “To See and Be Seen: Celebrity Practice on Twitter.” Convergence.

Status and Attention

I just read a good short paper on Crowdsourcing, Attention, and Productivity [pdf] by Bernardo Huberman, Daniel Romero (who’s an intern here at MS Research with us this summer) and Fang Wu at HP Labs. They used a big dataset from YouTube to measure content contribution and attention.

Thesis: People contribute more to content sites like YouTube when they receive positive attention, and a lack of attention causes people to uploading less content and, in some cases, to stop contributing altogether.

Those contributing to the digital commons perceive it as a private good, in which payment for their efforts is in the form of the attention that their content gathers in the form of media downloads or news clicked on

This isn’t an entirely surprising study. There’s lots of evidence that status is a major motivator for online participation– not just academic studies, but in general game and social software design (see my Tumblarity and FourSquare posts for recent examples). That’s why every arcade game has a leaderboard and why Yelp has an elite classification and why I’m writing a dissertation on the topic.

But Huberman et al. use “status” and “attention” synonymously, which interests me. They operationalize “attention” as “number of views.” On YouTube this makes sense, since the highest-viewed videos bubble up to the index pages, and videos that crack the top 100 in their category get “honors” that appear on the statistics part of each individual video’s page. So on YouTube, attention maps fairly neatly to status. And I think this is true for most sites that have quantifiable status metrics based on views, followers or whatever the site labels it.

On other sites, of course, status might be linked to skill (high scores, artistry, writing reviews of new restaurants), looks (clothing choices, aesthetics, makeup skills), wealth, whatever. But if I’ve created an amazing Polyvore collage, it’s only a status symbol if other people see it (and I’ll be more likely to create more if people view my existing collages). Similarly, although time doesn’t map directly to attention, having a low Slashdot number or an “oldschool” Upcoming badge is meaningless if nobody knows about it. I need to have recognition for my wealth, skill, or looks in order for them to function as status within a group.

I’d argue that attention is an important part of the status metric; but I don’t think more attention always translates to more status (the term “famewhore” comes to mind). But perhaps the attention is what encourages people like Julia Allison or Nick Starr to continue living public lives, even as they receive a great deal of negative attention at the same time. I would be interested to see if attention of any kind correlates with participation, or whether it is only positive attention; if the YouTubers had thousands of hits, but an equal number of vitriolic comments, would they continue to post videos?

Finally: We hear a lot about the “attention economy” or “publicity culture,” in which the most valued skills are those which increase attention. And many people decry this culture for bubbling-up sensational, sexual, or violent content– or just short bursts of info-nuggets– rather than meaningful, thoughtful, difficult ideas. I’d argue that what attracts attention is culturally specific and so we can’t automatically assume that an attention economy leads to lowest-common-denominator content. (Another assumption I’d like to see tested.)

It’s a beautiful day today and all I want to be doing is riding my bike around outside.

Some celeb twitter tools

So I’m working on a project about celebrity use of Twitter. Here are a few recent tools I’ve found to be endlessly entertaining when looking at celebs, status, and social norms on Twitter:

  • Who Celebs Tweet, with the tagline: Have they tweeted you? I find this the most interesting because they have a very clear demarcation between who is a celeb and who isn’t. Like, according to them, Heidi Montag is not a celeb. I don’t necessarily think she should be a celeb, but to deny that she’s famous seems odd. Maybe the proprietors never read the tabloids.
  • TweetingTooHard.com – this is sort of like Texts From Last Night minus all the drunk skulduggery and adding a lot of self-aggrandizing obnoxiousness. Tops now is “fan belt light came on in the 911 so now I’m driving the Cayenne Turbo S – the backup, backup car. Trying not to think about the Tesla…” That’s pretty bad.
  • Truth Tweet attempts to verify celebrity Twitter accounts, using all sorts of sources to do so. Extremely useful for my purposes (e.g. nerdily making lists of what signals celebrity “authenticity” on Twitter).

Tumblarity and Quantified Stand-ins for Social Status

So Tumblr launched its Tumblarity index last week. (Here’s Gawker’s obnoxious take.)

Tumblarity is a metric that measures one’s popularity, or degree of Tumblr-ness, depending on who you ask. It’s displayed on a nifty stats page modeled after The Feltron Report. Tumblr hasn’t revealed exactly what it uses to calculate this number, but it certainly includes number of posts, followers, likes, and reblogs. My Tumblarity is 3 (which is very, very sad, in case you’re wondering), but if it were higher, I could see where I rank in the top 50,000 Tumblogs or in my local area.

I stole this image from download squad so you can see what a slightly better Tumblarity score looks like:

stolen tumblarity

Like number of Twitter followers, Tumblarity is a quantified metric: a number that stands in for more complex social phenomena, like popularity or status. Tumblr helpfully includes leaderboards to make it extra-easy to compare Tumblarity with your friends, rivals, and frenemies, causing tech dorks pundits to complain about the “popularity contest” aspect of the feature.

A few basic things about quantified metrics:

1) They are always stand-ins for more complicated status measures. A single number cannot possibly convey the nuances involved in social status and social hierarchy (e.g. Why do so many people read your Tumblr? What group/subculture/community does it appeal to? What actions do you take to maintain this status? What does your community value that your blog provides?).

2) Techie/geek/engineer types love quantified metrics precisely because they facilitate comparison. Several of my informants talked about how Silicon Valley types love talking about VC funding and valuation because they allow people to attach clear numbers to companies in order to rank them (and convey status on their CEOs, VCs, and employees). (See also those obnoxious “30 under 30,” “100 Most Influential People in SV,” ranking lists.)

Clearly, people in general also like comparative metrics — see the high score lists at arcades, the Fortune 500, the Best Dressed list, etc.– but they’re becoming increasingly prevalent in social software (built by nerds).

3) Quantified status metrics spur competition and therefore increase user action. I’m assuming Tumblr is trying to reward certain types of behavior, which in this case is pretty obvious: Tumble a lot, follow lots of people, reblog a lot = spend more time on the site = benefit to the company.

4) Social status is an under-studied, under-rated aspect of product design and motivation for user action. This is the subject of my dissertation and I’m seeing increasingly explicit aspects of this in social software (which: yay!).

But let’s not fool ourselves that an algorithmically-generated number “is” social status. I’m sure there are tons of sub-groupings and communities on Tumblr that value different things. I’m sure the top 100 Tumblr users are popular for different reasons. I’m sure there are Tumblr conventions and social mores that mark someone as an insider or outsider, a newbie or a jaded user. There are many good business reasons for the company to boil this down to a single number, but it only tells us a little bit of the overall story. Tumblrites: ideas?

In Lieu of Writing a Real Post, I Post a Video

Here’s the @100interviews video of me from SXSW. Note I look exhausted. That’s because it’s halfway through South by and I was exhausted. Good basic overview of my dissertation.

Alice Marwick 100 Interviews

A Quick Ethnographic Quote

“In San Francisco, Web 2.0 is the new indierock. I liked Twitter, like, two page redesigns ago.” – Nick

“I was into them in closed beta.” – Micah

Women of Silicon Valley and Sleeping Your Way to the Top

Owen from Valleywag posted a charming article claiming that Pownce founder Leah Culver slept her way to the top.

If she’s sincere about avoiding fame, Culver will have to reform more than her work life. Granted, San Francisco’s pool of straight men is on the small side. But besides Burka and Fitzpatrick, Culver also dated Cal Henderson, an engineering director at Flickr; MG Siegler, a writer at tech blog VentureBeat; and Nick Douglas, a former editor at Valleywag and Gawker. If she doesn’t want to be famous, Culver might want to take a look at her relentless technosexuality, which more than hints at the acquisition of influence rather than intimacy as its goal.

The misogyny of this article is obvious; I don’t think I need to point out that the men of Silicon Valley/Web 2.0 serial date as much as the women. Since there are fewer women in power in tech than men, this is not usually seen as a way to get ahead. I suppose since it’s no longer considered OK to smear women for having sex lives, Valleywag had to come up with something else to salaciously comment on, namely, this claim that she slept her way to the top.

I think it’s interesting that I hear, over and over again (from women in tech), that there is no sexism in tech, that women in tech have no feminist agenda, and that they want to be judged on their accomplishments. Unfortunately, women are judged on their looks, their sexuality, and their male partners in a way that men are just not, in Silicon Valley as they are in “regular life.” For example, the vitriol directed at, say, Julia Allison is completely disproportional to her actual impact on the technology scene. There are plenty of fame-seeking men in SV, but they don’t get nasty comments on their body and their looks every time they post a narcissistic Twitter.

Full disclosure is that I know everyone involved in this article through my dissertation research (and I think the accusations against Leah are ridiculous).

Dissertation Research Explained: The Basics

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.

ROFLCON Talk Notes

As promised, here are my notes from my ROFLCON keynote. (lo-fi .txt version).

You can see a sneak preview of part of the talk here:

I may or may not upload the deck – it’s enormous, most of the pictures aren’t credited (which isn’t very fair to the creators) and I think the talk stands fine alone, as the deck mostly just added humor for the audience. Enjoy!

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