(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…