Saturday, March 1, 2014

Studying Up: A Review of Alice Marwick’s Status Update

“When we up in the club, All eyes on us, All eyes on us, All eyes on us”
“Scream and Shout,” Will.i.AM
“Each one began to look at the others and to want to be looked at himself, and public esteem had value.  The one who sang or danced the best, the handsomest, the strongest, the most adroit, or the most eloquent became the most highly considered; and that was the first step toward inequality…”
“On the Origins of Inequality,” Jean Jacque Rousseau

Of late, when I’m reading a book, I’ll tweet about it.  Here’s what I said a moment before starting Alice Marwick’s Status Update:

I’m sure this is not the most scintillating tweet you’ve run across but it does illustrate a number of things about tweeting while reading.  First, I had included Alice Marwick’s twitter handle (@alicetiara) in the tweet which would notify the author that I was reading her book.  Although I’m sure I’m not the only one to have done this, I don’t think it’s a common practice on Twitter.  Who, after all, wants to tap into people who are life-streaming their reading of a book?  Even if the tweets are good, wouldn’t it be the case that (as the saying goes) “the book is better?”  Maybe.  But I do it anyway in the hope that the author will tweet something back and enrich the reading experience.  I also do it because of something Walter Ong, said about books in Orality and Literacy:

The Delphic oracle was not responsible for her oracular utterances, for they were held to be the voice of the god. Writing, and even more print, has some of this vatic quality. Like the oracle or the prophet, the book relays an utterance from a source, the one who really ‘said’ or wrote the book. The author might be challenged if only he or she could be reached, but the author cannot be reached in any book. There is no way directly to refute a text. After absolutely total and devastating refutation, it says exactly the same thing as before.

Ong, who died in 2003, didn’t know about Twitter.  But had he lived a few more years it’s possible he would have had the impulse to revise the above.  With Twitter the author can actually (occasionally) be reached, and the vatic quality of the book diminished.  By tweeting directly at the author, in the presence of one’s followers, one is, at least in some very diminished sense, attempting to subvert the vatic one-sided communication inherent in a book and move toward the give-and-take of an oral face-to-face culture.  Of course, if the author doesn’t reply to your tweets (and Marwick never responded to mine) then the vatic quality remains.  Score “1” for Marwick and a big “0” for me.

It might seem crass to keep score (even if I’m only joking about it) but it underscores one of the central points Status Update is making:  in Marwick’s view, social media users (or at least the users she studied in the Bay Area) tweet not only to exchange information but to increase their social capital.  And in striving to increase their social capital they also participate in modeling and practicing the type of activities that support neo-liberal economies that thrive on hustle.  Building on an argument first forwarded by Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron in “The Californian Ideology” Marwick contends that people involved in the Bay Area “tech scene” ascribe to a set of neo-liberal beliefs that give foundation and legitimacy to Silicon Valley entrepreneurial business practices.  On the surface, Silicon Valley presents itself as a counter culture that is epitomized in the figure of Steve Jobs who had more than a few hippy predilections including a vegan diet, youthful wanderings in India, and a [perhaps mortal] faith in the power of alternative medicine.  But while Silicon Valley may take on revolutionary and counter-cultural vestments, it’s more fundamental commitments are to neoliberalism and its celebration of individuals who compete freely with one another by selling and promoting themselves through markets.  While these cultural contradictions have been described by others besides Marwick (see for example Fred Turner’s, From Counterculture to CyberCulture), she throws in a kicker by arguing that these same contradictions have been embedded in so-called “Web 2.0“ social media platforms.  She observes that many people in the Valley believe that these platforms carry out democratic and egalitarian ends by facilitating connections and by spreading information.  While social media may do these things sometimes, in Marwick’s view, its more salient function is that people learn to use it for self promotion, for enhancing status, and for displaying oneself to others.   So in tweeting,  I too might have been “subjecting” myself to these same questionable models of social behavior.

As I was absorbing these points, I happened to tweet about them:

At the time, my tweeting seemed like a benign act.  I’d merely transferred my habits of annotating books from the physical marginalia of the printed page, into Twitter.  But if you apply Marwick’s theoretical framework to this act it takes on a darker more disturbing character.  To be sure I’m performing a Status Update (e.g. “Hey followers! I’m on page 6 of Marwick’s book and she’s making a pretty cool point!).  But I’m also probably engaging in a more competitive and performative act of updating (and promoting) my status (e.g. “Hey followers! Check out the erudite books I read!  Retweet it and maybe your followers will start following me).

While the second parenthetical is purposefully left unsaid when people tweet, seasoned Twitter users are aware of it.  And since we tolerate these types of messages and produce some of our own, we’re turning ourselves into subjects that model neoliberal ideals of virtue.  Marwick didn’t reply to this tweet either.  I can only speculate as to why but here are two possible explanations:    If she had internalized neoliberal subjectivity she probably wasn’t responding because her status wasn’t enhanced by connecting with me. Alternatively (and more positively), she didn’t respond because she didn’t want to participate in an interaction that gave further credence to neo-liberal models of the self.

In subsequent chapters on lifestreaming and self-branding Marwick argues that the performative self isn’t just a discrete behavior that people in Silicon Valley adopt while using social media.  Instead, it’s a behavior that pervades entire lives whether they are working, playing or socializing.   In the aggregate, Status Update is a compelling description of how some people in a particular time, and a particular place, inhabit and navigate through a neo-liberal world.

It’s worth emphasizing the fact that Marwick is talking about a particular time and a particular place.  Like any good ethnographer she tries to clarify the limits of her ethnography and the boundaries beyond which her analysis doesn’t reach.   But as readers, we want to know if the study scales.  Can Marwick’s observations be taken as a synecdoche of how the rest of us use social media?  Have the rest of us succumbed as completely to a neoliberal ethos as the Valley has?

Part of the answer to these questions lies in reviewing how others have studied culture.  In traditional ethnography anthropologists had a tendency to “study down.”  They took their craft to the ends of the earth, and instead of studying the colonizers, they studied the colonized.  Marwick has done the reverse.  She is mostly studying up.  She uses the rather regal twitter handle “@alicetiara,”   she hobnobs at the invitation-only conference Google Zeitgeist, she flies to the expensive South by South West conference, she cabs to “an opulent hilltop event space” for a Facebook party, she agonizes over what to wear in front of the step and repeat at the Webutante Ball.   This isn’t to say that there’s something inherently wrong in studying up.  Elites too deserve study and the requirements of participant observation (as anthropologists call it) probably justify the amount of time Marwick devotes to glamming it up with the tech glitterati.  But studying up, just like studying down, has its limitations and they are on display here.

First, the elites that Marwick studies are mostly in the business of promoting, selling, marketing and writing about technology.  Even though she’s married to an engineer, she spends little time talking about how actual programmers and engineers feel about their position in the mode of production.  Status Update in other words, focuses on the consumption of technology rather than its production.

Second, Status Update portrays a world where everyone is on the make, where everyone has become outer directed, where the authentic self is eclipsed by the edited self, and where everyone has become so consumed by self-presentation that nothing is left but an edited self.  This hyper edited self actually seems to be the subject that Marwick currently inhabits.  She’s @alicetiara instead of @alicemarwick.   She is circumspect in replying to tweets.  Her “mentor,” “champion,” and “collaborator” (as she states in the acknowledgements) is Danah Boyd who actually goes by the overtly edited moniker danah boyd.  Marwick “agonizes” over what to wear.  To be fair to Marwick it’s possible that we’re actually all pretty outer directed and that we all seek acclaim from others.  In the Discourse on Inequality  Roussau postulates  that this is simply a facet of becoming civilized.  So even if we don’t subscribe to neoliberalism, maybe Status Update is a mirror that reflects all of us.  And maybe Marwick is just being a little more honest then the rest of us about the fact that she’s outer directed. Still, it’s unlikely that we are outer-directed to the same degree.  That seems pretty clear when I associate with my plainly dressed programming colleagues, a good portion of whom occupy the top introverted quadrants of the Myers Briggs test.  It’s not like we don’t occasionally like to bask in the limelight.  But programmers wouldn’t be programmers if they didn’t derive some of their most enjoyable experiences from talking to machines rather than performing in front of others.  Pace Will.i.AM we don’t generally like to have “all eyes on us.”

Third, part of the purpose of studying up is to examine how the colonizers have subjected (or reshaped) the colonized.  Marwick does a pretty good job of showing how that has taken place in the Bay Area.  But it’s an open question as to how much the ideology of the Valley has colonized the rest of us.  I’m a programmer and I’ve programmed in Utah (sometime referred to as “Silicon Slopes”) for the last thirteen years.  Before that I programmed in Kentucky.   So I’ve met my share of people who live close to the Web and use the term “Web 2.0” in our daily working lives.  Many of us are still earnestly laboring to embed Web 2.0 principles in software.  But most of us aren’t involved in start-ups, or living anywhere near “the scene” (as Marwick describes the Valley), or subscribing in any conscious way to the tenets of neoliberalism.   In particular, when Marwick suggests that neoliberal ideology is part and parcel of whatever people have adopted when they subscribe to Web 2.0 principles and Web 2.0 technologies she is making an association that probably doesn’t have that much traction outside her field site.  The people who use the term most these days are programmers and designers who refer to it when they are trying to describe a rich user interface that is snappy and responsive.  It has a discrete meaning and its principles are subscribed to by programmers and designers of many different political stripes.  Some of them may be neoliberals but others of them are distinctly not.  Status Update however glosses over this more common usage and piles onto the term a set of politics that are not in keeping with the way the term is most commonly employed.  This isn’t to say that Marwick has invented her definition out of whole cloth.  She gets it from the way Tim O’Reilly and other hoi poloi of the Valley have tried to spin the term.  But the dissonance between her definition and the way it is used elsewhere illustrates the fact that her study cannot be easily scaled.   Put another way, Status Update may be a faithful portrait of life in the Valley.  But we should be careful not to let that portrait eclipse how technology is being produced and used in the hinterlands where social media may be being repurposed for other ends.

In studying up Status Update misses a large segment of Web 2.0 producers and consumers and the less narcissistic ways that some of its members have chosen to integrate themselves into late capitalism.  If cyberspace was developed in Silicon Valley (and that proposition might itself be a myth) its power base is diffusing rapidly out across the world.  To document this digital culture we’ll need to complement Marwick’s successes in studying up with ethnographies that “study out” and “study down.”  Until then we won’t know whether or not the colonizers have actually colonized the rest of us.