My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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markers of status: different, and yet the same

(I was asked to respond to some of Clay Shirky’s posts on Talking Points Memo Cafe. I figured that this would be a good excuse to blog since I’ve been a bad bad bad bad blogger lately. What follows is my first blog response.)

Original Post on TPMCafe: markers of status: different, and yet the same

Speculating on social status in an age of networked participation, Clay Shirky accurately points out the ways in which metrics for status have become diversified. It is possible to gain satisfaction from achieving high status in World of Warcraft, even if popularity there is quite niche. In our ethnographic study of new media and youth culture, the Digital Youth group at Berkeley and USC also found that many youth involved in interest-driven digital practices rejected traditional status markers in preference for those that could be achieved in subcultures. Becky Herr and Mimi Ito examined different aspects of fan communities; Patricia Lange and Sonja Baumer looked at vid practices; Matteo Bittanti observed gaming culture. In all of their studies, they found diverse ways in which people marked and negotiated status, confirming Clay’s suspicion that networked participation can alter the markers of status.

Now, here’s the caveat… Just because status markers can be rearranged does not mean that they universally are. While we found tremendous examples of alternative status structures, the vast majority of youth that we studied used networked technologies to reinforce more traditional markers of status and hierarchy. While there are certainly youth who engage in a variety of geeky practices, the vast majority of youth use tools like MySpace, Facebook, instant messaging, and mobile phones to socialize with peers from school, church, and activities. The social hierarchies that exist in everyday life are replicated and reinforced online. While social categories do play a significant role in teen life, neatly defined cliques are not that normative. Still, gossip and boundary marking are part of everyday teen status struggles, online and off. In his book “Geeks, Freaks and Cool Kids,” Murray Milner Jr. suggests that teens’ particular obsession with status is because “they have so little real economic or political power” (2004:4). He argues that hanging out, dating, and mobilizing tokens of popular culture all play a central role in the development and maintenance of peer status. Just as these activities take place in school, they also take place in networked environments.

For most teens, the status that matters is that which is conferred in everyday life. Everyday friendship and dating matter more to them than the connections that they make online. This isn’t that surprising because, for as much time as teens spend online, they spend very little engaging with strangers and far more connected to people that they know. Finding interesting music videos or gross-out content online may heighten status amongst peers if this content is valued, but becoming popular with strangers online does not transfer to popularity offline. This was best explained by Dominic, a 16-year old from Seattle: “I don’t really think popularity would transfer from online to offline because you’ve got a bunch of random people you don’t know it’s not going to make a difference in real life, you know? It’s not like they’re going to come visit you or hang out with you. You’re not like a celebrity or something.”

Some of us have become celebrities online, or at least micro-celebrities. Both Clay and I have benefited tremendously by our presence online. We have achieved status through our knowledge of these spaces. Yet, we are by no means normal (in any sense of the word). I think that we’ll continue to see fantastic examples of individuals achieving status through their networked participation, but I don’t think that this will ever become mainstream. We will continue to see people achieving celebrity through online (e.g., Tila Tequila, Star Wars boy, Perez Hilton, etc.), but just as celebrity is rare offline, it will be rare online too. For those who invest massive amounts of time in particular subgenres of networked culture, we will also see tremendous achievements of status. And this will be tremendously rewarding, especially for those marginalized and ostracized people who never did and never will fit into more normative culture. But this is the marker of any good subculture. And we will continue to see new subcultures with new markers of subcultural capital. Still, my belief is that, for most people, status will continue to be about getting validated by peers in everyday life. I think that some of the ways that validation can occur is through mediated interactions, but I don’t think we’ll see fully mediated status. Of course, time will tell…

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5 comments to markers of status: different, and yet the same

  • MHB

    great post. been thinking about the value exchange amongst general youth online. while the nerd might friend the promqueen online, be it Facebook or IM, she typically treats him no different online than off (accepts the invitation, then ignores – ‘who are you again?’) And yet, almost unbeknownst to her, the nerd is able to eke out some value from this relationship, as there is now an actual/virtual thread that ties them together.

  • Hi Danah,

    I beg to disagree, a little, on two points.

    First I can imagine a meaning of “normal” that would fit you (kidding).

    Second point is related to distance, physical distance and emotional distance. The two a correlated, a lot. But this correlation is decreasing over time, as technology improves.

    In some distant but foreseeable future, as people spend more and more time “on line”, they may very well start to live in a social environment that redefines the notion of “peers”.

    An interesting question is: Would one rather exist in multiple social circles or should one rather focus on a single “main” environment? And, consequently, will there still be a Grand Social Piazza in the future or will it become a big anonymous place.

    Philip K. Dick had a definition for reality that may be transposed to better understand what society means to individuals. It was: “Reality is that there exist subjective realities and a consensual reality”.

    I believe the “Consensual” society is becoming thinner and thinner. I suspect that this phenomenon is the reason why so many people are stressed and depressed. Yet, there is no way backward, we get to go ahead. Fascinating.

  • Jo

    Before we have used virtual worlds of various kinds, they appear to be an “other” or separate place rather than a continuum. My great grand parents probably felt like that about the telephone.

    I think you make two important points.

    We do love the pecking order and in the absence of real status differences one upmanship is important (it is said of US workplaces too by people from cultures where there are large wealth differences).

    We use social media purposefully. Beyond “finding something out” or “a substitute or television” we are carving out an identity which must have meaning at other points of the continuum as well. I even believe that people watch TV to watch TV with other people. The idea of the whole country watching East Enders together is comforting.

    I agree with Clay Shirky that status markers are changing and the choices for engaging in the world are much wider. I “borrowed” a picture from Steve Jurvetson and was startled by whom I was writing to. Imagine a non-entity borrowing a photograph from a leading venture capitalist 5 years ago?

    What this means is that of two young people can sit in high school: one can follow a set path and go from grade to grade, job to job, etc. The other can actively carve out a life path and connect people around it. The stakes have changed and youngsters need to engage, filter, synthesize, evaluate is much more than ever been before. With freedom comes responsibility. Some will languish, some will flourish.

    And more will flourish if find ways to include them.

  • danah,

    I thought this was a very interesting post on the topic. I would be interested in seeing what you and the other readers would think about how the stability of the speration of offline/online presence may be affected or influence some of the findings that the Daedalus Project has come out with. In particular, I’m thinking of their finding that relationships in virtual worlds are frequently developed backwards from intimate revalations to less intimate details (physical appearence for example).

    Also I think that even if the social structure doesn’t change because of the addition of the Internet there may be some gains for individuals who are not “normal”. In particular, the ability to find and embrace subcultures that may not exist in many smaller regions of the US and the emotional support and social skills development that they derive from online communication.

  • I think it is becoming more and more obvious that one cannot draw a line and say this is online and this is offline, but the two are part of a wider continuum of social interactions. So, why would we think that social status is differently achieved/ built/ legitimized on the internet than in everyday life? Is it part of the hype around new media bringing about a structure-less world?