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May 18th, 2014
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  1. Web 2.0 was heralded as a revolutionary game-changer that would level playing fields, but it has simply ended up reinforcing elitism
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  3. ONLY a few years ago, "Web 2.0" – a term now as quaint as the "information superhighway" – was considered revolutionary. Rather than relying on the lumbering dinosaurs of big media to get news and entertainment, people could film their own videos and voice their opinions directly via Twitter and YouTube. Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign and the Arab Spring showed that people could use social media to organise, mobilise and democratise. Emerging technologies promised a liberating future.
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  5. In 2008, I moved to San Francisco to conduct ethnographic research on the group of people who, at the time, used social media more than anyone else in the US – workers in Web 2.0 start-ups. I wanted to examine what the people at the leading edge of the country's social media technologies were actually doing with these tools, to discover what the behaviour of these early adopters might herald for the rest of us. I had worked at web start-ups during the dot.com boom, so was wary of the hype. I knew that while technology companies often paid lip service to egalitarian principles in public, their primary concern was not "changing the world" but profit.
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  7. Distinct from the stolid, established technology companies headquartered in Silicon Valley, the San Francisco start-up scene was an informal social network populated primarily by young people working at venture-backed companies like Twitter, Digg and Facebook. At the time, this included some of the highest-profile people in the industry.
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  9. Those in the community with the highest status were the entrepreneurs, who were treated like rock stars both on social media and on the street. Those who weren't company founders, but wanted broad visibility, used social media to strategically create personas that might appeal to wide audiences, using Twitter to promote themselves and position friends and acquaintances as "fans".
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  11. Rather than activism or even creative pursuits, social media was mostly used to boost popularity and status. I observed that these people were intensely concerned with how many followers they had on Twitter, how many people read their blog and whether they were invited to the events broadcast on Dodgeball (later, Foursquare). As a result, they carefully designed their online interactions to enhance or conceal facets of themselves, creating personas which they imagined would be eagerly consumed by onlookers.
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  13. Fast-forward half a decade and the promise of social technologies has, in some ways, been fulfilled. Social tools are more broadly used than ever: Facebook boasts a billion users, Twitter more than 600 million, and apps like Instagram, Whatsapp, and Snapchat – not even a glimmer in the eye in 2008 – are intensely popular and extremely valuable. The self-presentation strategies I observed in my fieldwork have also spread beyond geeks and early adopters. Increasingly, having an online brand is a requirement for academics, journalists, marketers, and artists. "Likes", "favourites", and "reblogs" are social currency not only among technology workers, but for everyday people all over the world.
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  15. Virtually every human culture values social status and people spend significant amounts of time and effort on status-seeking pursuits. So why should it surprise us when people use social media for the same thing? There are, however, two main differences in the online world. First, social media has enabled individuals to command broad audiences previously available only to mass media. It is not only celebrities, entertainers and politicians who can reach thousands of onlookers; a high school sophomore from Indiana can have 10,000 Instagram followers. While it is true that most online content has a very small audience, the potential of wide spectatorship fundamentally changes how individuals relate to audiences.
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  17. One of the strategies I observed in San Francisco is known as micro-celebrity. Micro-celebrities use social media's immediacy to promote carefully designed images of themselves. They think of their audiences as fans (rather than friends or family) and share personal information and intimate moments to create emotional bonds with viewers.
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  19. At the time, the use of the term "celebrity" was a bit facetious, since there was a significant difference between, say, a famous podcaster and a glamorous actor. Since 2008, though, I have seen this technique spread throughout digital culture, from fashion bloggers to activists. The popularity of digital photography, particularly the selfie, has moved the micro-celebrity and the celebrity much closer together. Bona fide celebrities connect directly with fans on Twitter and Instagram to seem relatable and reachable – witness Ellen DeGeneres's Oscar selfie – while the micro-celebrities most likely to get attention are those who can mimic the visual imagery in advertising, tabloids, movies and fashion magazines.
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  21. The second difference is that social technologies such as Facebook collapse audiences that are usually segmented geographically – friends, co-workers, acquaintances, family members – into a single place. Typically, we vary the way we interact with people based on context and audience. On social media, people have to create personas that appeal across these different contexts, self-censoring based on what they think the audience wants to see.
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  23. In business contexts, this means that people create "work-safe" personas, often removing political or personal content to focus on their industry and remain relentlessly upbeat about their own work. While such self-branding is often encouraged as a strategy for career success, it furthers the incursion of work into everyday life, makes it difficult to reinforce personal boundaries and it normalises the idea that all facets of our lives should be subject to workplace scrutiny.
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  25. Since 2008 I have watched as the habits of those Silicon Valley early adopters spread to the wider world. The culture I observed there has shaped the values and design of the social media tools in widespread use today. This has ramifications – for inequality, for example.
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  27. Silicon Valley is famously unequal. The tech industry frames itself as meritocratic, but success is not solely dependent on intelligence, talent and hard work. Networking is an enormous part of success, and it can be difficult to break into the industry without mentors, introductions and connections. This is doubly hard for women of all backgrounds and African-American and Latino men, who are notoriously absent from tech's upper echelons.
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  29. Venture capitalists use what they call "pattern recognition" to identify promising young entrepreneurs, usually young men who attended Harvard University or Stanford University. While mentorships are key to accessing the insider connections that lead to business success, I found that women mentored by men were sometimes accused – often on social media – of sleeping their way to the top or trading on their looks. In my ethnographic study, I observed that people who shared the "wrong things" online – parenting, dating or traditionally feminine subjects – were perceived as shallow or simply unfit for the industry. The types of self-disclosures that were valued on social media were those that reinforced Silicon Valley's pre-existing stereotypes.
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  31. In the tech scene, social tools made interpersonal connections visible to everyone, naturalising social hierarchies through the use of communication technologies. Online connections became key parts of business relationships, from finding co-founders to securing venture capital funding. Rather than equalising the playing field, social media technologies reified and codified social hierarchy by quantifying it and displaying it to all. This has now become ubiquitous in all of our online lives.
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  33. Rather than encouraging openness, transparency or authenticity – let alone activism or freedom – social media has re-inscribed a limited view of success and a surprisingly narrow range of acceptable behaviour. While this may differ between social groups, cultures and nationalities, social media's early, revolutionary promise has been replaced by a jockeying for popularity and status that is far from world-changing.
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  35. This article appeared in print under the headline "Plus ça change: social media's broken promise"
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  37. Alice Marwick researches online identity, privacy, surveillance and celebrity at Fordham University in New York City. Her new book is Status Update: Celebrity, publicity and branding in the social media age
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