I finally got a glimmer of a dissertation idea today: status in social media. I’ve been working my way through my gender & consumer culture readings and musing on luxury, brand consumption, brand display, etc., and how this translates into online behavior. At the same time, since I’m back in the Bay Area for a month, I’ve been playing armchair anthropologist with my friends and thinking about what counts as a “status symbol” in SF geek culture.
So what does “status in social media” mean?
Well, thinking about status very literally, first there’s what I might call “Conspicuous MySpace Consumption”:
This is literal display of brand names as part of self-presentation strategy. Substitute “My Chemical Romance” or “LOLcats” for Gucci or Chanel and “personal homepages” or “blogs” for “MySpace” and status becomes just a series of signifiers– it’s not at all limited to luxury brand display. It’s just something to identify oneself as part of a group or with a particular symbol, just as you’d wear a t-shirt or a button. And naturally people use “real world” brand names online. There’s not too much difference between these types of layouts, fashion blogs obsessing about the newest “it” bag, and the fashion rating communities (like StyleMob) which are supposedly about personal style, but read more like a hipster handbook instruction manual.
( Note that there’s no digital equivalent of the real Chanel bag — yet. Multiple companies have tried (and failed) to monetize “virtual bling”, like those Facebook gifts that cost a dollar. But it tends towards the micropayment lower-end of the scale. )
But I digress. “Status” can also encompass “reputation”: eBay feedback, Yelp Elite status, number of Facebook / Pownce / Twitter / LJ friends, “interestingness” on Flickr, Technorati rankings: there are numerous visible, clear, measurable, public and easily comparable indications of popularity. I guess there are some social media sites where this isn’t an issue, but not many. I’m interested in reputation vs. popularity, too: Wikipedians generally value reputation, as do eBay participants, whereas bloggers look for number of hits or comments.
And so “status” can also be social capital, as “interestingness” (widely) or “microcelebrity”. Both of which are generally displayed and easily quantified online.
The third way to think of social media status is in terms of what counts as status in the world of social media creators. I made a really quick list:
1. Invites to betas and closed communities (think Gmail 2 years ago)
2. Gadgets: iPhones, etc.
3. Access to events (company-sponsored parties, Foocamp, various barcamps, South by Southwest)
4. How trendy the company is that you work for, and what your position there is (how cool or obscure your title is)
5. How integrated your life and your online life are (hint: the more the better)
6. Having a product, blog, meme, picture, etc. that gets widespread viewership
And when there are certain things considered status symbols in a community of creators, it stands to reason that these types of values will find themselves incorporated into the products that are being created. For instance: a company ignores their enormous Chinese user base in favor of hiring PR firms to throw flashy parties in West Coast clubs, because the latter users are “cooler” than the former users. Or limited invite schemes that are designed specifically to create buzz among a tiny community of bloggers and nerds.
So: who’s left out?
It’s relatively easy to have a MySpace layout teeming with logos. But it’s not easy to amass the other types of status, since they assume a particular class position, knowledge, professionalism, experience, or possession of free time, each of which is specific, limited, and located. This is why people are always complaining about MySpace being so tacky and ugly: because it moves beyond the echo chamber of trendiness that most social media companies focus on. I’m always bemoaning the lack of women in visionary positions in social media companies, but what about non-Americans, young people, or older people? What is the effect of these status matrices on software development? Who are we designing for, and what features do we prioritize as a result?
I need to think a LOT more about this topic.