What’s So Social About Social Media?

Social media is possibly the worst thing that’s ever happened to media scholars. I’m not referring to the phenomenon of Facebook, Twitter, and other brand-name-as-verb online platforms—experienced ...

Social media is possibly the worst thing that’s ever happened to media scholars. I’m not referring to the phenomenon of Facebook, Twitter, and other brand-name-as-verb online platforms—experienced, by the end of 2011, by 82 percent of all Internet users over the age of 15.1 I’m not talking about the digital media industry, a simmering cauldron of business models, data analytics, nano-targeted advertising, and pimply zillionaires. I’m talking about the term “social media,” which distorts, maybe irreparably, what it means to be social.

Perhaps the most egregious thing about social media is that it suggests that other (read: pre-Internet) communications technologies and formats somehow were not social. Yet the history of mediated communication is always entwined with the society that fosters it. New technologies are invested with lofty ideals of civilizing power, geographic domination, the spread of democratic principles, and even world peace. From the telegraph to the telephone, from the bound book to the newspaper, each new medium carried within it the dreams of its era. Remarkably, these dreams often converge. “To-morrow,” an editorial in the New York Evening Post exulted in 1858 of the first transatlantic telegraph cable between England and the US, “the hearts of the civilized world will beat to a single pulse, and from that time forth forevermore the continental divisions of the earth will in a measure lose those conditions of time and distance which now mark their relations one to the other.” This hope, as the communications scholar John Durham Peters observes, is no less than “the dream of communication as the mutual communion of souls.”2

Twenty-first-century superlatives adapt this well-worn rhetoric for Web 2.0. Every new app or analytics tool is world-changing; every startup visionary; every computing innovation births a social revolution. And despite the dramatic downsizing of some ideals (we’ve finally stopped crowing that social media “caused” the Arab Spring) there persists in the popular imagination a belief in the capacity of our media to bring about community, equality, and participatory democracy.

Each of these books show that the media that seem so inevitable today are the products of both strategic decisions and unplanned contingencies.

Three new myth-busting books help us surface from this undertow of lazy thinking. Two of them—Jonathan Sterne’s MP3: The Meaning of a Format and José Van Dijck’s The Culture of Connectivity—take a historical approach to their subjects. Each shows that the media that seem so inevitable today are the products of both strategic decisions and unplanned contingencies, both institutions and aesthetics, both habits and systems of belief. In other words, our technologies are always already social. Van Dijck also, along with Alice Marwick in her new book, Status Update, reminds us of the inequities inherent in social media, where commensuration and competition belie the romance of egalitarian peer-to-peer connection.

The forms of sociality we experience online, Van Dijck argues, are different in quality and in kind from the social exchanges we have in offline interaction. Online exchange may amplify and accelerate social connections, but we should question what kind of public space social media platforms create. Our everyday activities on the Web are “coded by technology,” and made “formal, manageable, and manipulable,” qualities that clearly benefit the platforms’ owners more than their users. Lest we forget (though it is getting harder and harder to do so), 98 of the 100 most popular Web 2.0 platforms are corporate-owned,3 a proportion with hardy roots in industrial capitalism. This fact is central to Van Dijck’s argument, and it is for this reason she proposes we rename social media “connective media,” underlining both an absence and a presence: the increasing absence of the “social” as previously understood, and the increasing presence of the value system of connective media across the Web. This value system is a Trojan horse, wheeling in the ethos of profit and market dominance via the celebration of sociality.

Consider, for example, Facebook’s treatment of “sharing.” It’s worth noting that there is not a single negative connotation to the general concept of sharing, a point not lost on Mark Zuckerberg. While sharing for many of us conjures up a notion of camaraderie or at least equity, online this term now signals that our desire to communicate can be distributed and made profitable by other companies. For Facebook, the second definition is the incentive that drives the first. As of 2007, Facebook provides APIs (application programming interfaces, or software standards) to third-party companies, allowing these companies to integrate Facebook into their sites. We’ve all seen the little “share this” buttons on news pages, blogs, and shopping websites. What these icons really indicate is that Facebook is no longer a platform but an ecosystem whose infrastructure and ethos are filtered throughout the Web. “Sharing” now refers not only to what you do with your friends on Facebook but also what you do online outside Facebook. When you “share” your status update, a photo, a news story, et cetera, on Facebook, you are also “sharing” this data with a multitude of third-party companies, who get to “share” in the potential economic benefits of your freely provided information.

In the Facebook ecosystem, sharing online is better understood as a quantity than a quality. What you share matters far less than that you continue to do so, because the more information you share, and the more people you share it with, the more Facebook’s shares accumulate value for their owners. If this isn’t paradoxical enough, Facebook has another spin on the notion of sharing. Because of Facebook’s current social media dominance, many websites that want to stay in business have no choice but to adopt Facebook’s “share this” button, further reinforcing the Facebook ecology. This is what Van Dijck means when she says that Facebook “steers” sharing. It manipulates the act and the implications to the point that not sharing becomes socially and economically impossible. The limitations of online liberalism are drawn not by conventional barriers to participation rooted in social stratification but by corporate media owners’ technocultural requirements for participation.

Another drawback to “social media” is that it gives a role to media that is both too small and too large to account for what it actually does in our lives. Jonathan Sterne’s MP3: The Meaning of a Format sits squarely in the middle of this problem. First, a disclaimer on Sterne’s behalf: his book is not at all about social media. But it’s not really—or at least not only—a book about MP3s, either. Rather, it is a thorough reimagination of the history behind the seemingly innocuous format that circulates much of your music. How else to describe a book that features step-by-step accounts of telephones assembled out of cat brains, sensational tales of suicide by inventors defeated by cunning litigation, and cybernetic visions of human bodies incorporated into mechanical infrastructures?

How else to describe a book that features step-by-step accounts of telephones assembled out of cat brains, sensational tales of suicide by inventors defeated by cunning litigation, and cybernetic visions of human bodies incorporated into mechanical infrastructures?

But the seemingly random circumstances that led to the MP3’s development, Sterne argues, are exactly the point. To retell the story of a format is to trouble what is taken for granted in the historical record, because to contest what is taken for granted is to recognize that our everyday media consumption is in fact the product of a determinate set of decisions, struggles, and accidents. This retelling is how Sterne brings the social into media: by showing us that the story of how we got the media we have can always be told differently. In his rendition, digital media is shaped by the history of the telephone industry, of auditory perception research, and of deeply held philosophical ideas of what it means to hear and to communicate. But historical and narrative contingency are key: “If another company unaffiliated with MPEG had developed a software program to perceptually code audio from compact discs, it is possible that MP3 would not even rate as a bay leaf in the alphanumeric stew of format history.”

For both Sterne and Van Dijck, ubiquity is at the heart of the problem. When a given media form appears everywhere, activities associated with that media form become accepted as “normal.” The moment these activities become norms is the moment they cease to be up for debate. And clearly, there are major advantages to establishing a standard format (the MP3) or platform (Facebook). “Without standards,” Sterne explains, “content could not travel as well as it does and could not be as well controlled as it is.”

But ubiquity has its costs. In Sterne’s account, it is sound quality that suffers. The format’s ideal listener—the one imagined by engineers, companies, industries, and other sound standard-setters—is someone who doesn’t really care about musical regularity, timbre, or rhythm. The story of the MP3 is at root a story of compression, where sound is sacrificed to make room for more signal and more content, multiplying the channels for profit. As Sterne laments, “MP3s may confront an almost infinite and immeasurable multiplicity of listeners, but they do so within a surprisingly limited set of contexts and aesthetics of ‘good sound.’”

For Van Dijck, it is social values that suffer. Despite the different features of various online platforms, most are connected by the same ideological tenets, favoring popularity over quality, interoperability over interaction, and “connectivity” over deep connections. “The ecosystem of connective media does not reflect social norms,” she writes. Rather, “interconnected platforms engineer sociality, using real-life processes of normative behavior (peer pressure) as a model for and an object of manipulation (popularity ranking).” If the ideal social media user imagined by platform operators is someone who sees nothing wrong with converting her social life into someone else’s social data, this ideal user is also someone with shockingly low standards of social interaction, at ease with the vulgarity of emoticons, character counts, and categorical tastes—not to mention the regular humiliation of having her most personal admissions and attachments sold back to her as advertising sidebars.

For something to become a standard, a surprisingly complex number of things have to happen. It has to become so ubiquitous, so thoroughly a part of our everyday lives, that we no longer question it or even wonder how things could be otherwise. But standard-setting is never a neutral enterprise. It is always the product of delicate negotiations between different interests: engineers, standards-setting organizations, corporate CEOs. And it is therefore always political, in that it congeals technical, aesthetic, and industrial choices in ways that benefit some at the expense of others.

Ubiquity is an industrial benefit; it is an informational benefit. But it is not necessarily a human benefit. Yet part of the work of standard-setting is to inculcate the belief among its users that it was what we wanted all along. Consider the extent to which we now estimate our reputations in terms of numbers. Number of hits, number of followers, number of likes or favorites. Have you said anything interesting or worthwhile? Facebook doesn’t tell you. Are your followers honorable or kind? Twitter doesn’t care. Are your shared insights of lasting significance? Who knows? I’m too busy constructing a new status update.

Reputation and hierarchy are at the heart of Alice Marwick’s Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age. But Marwick flips the script’s point of view from that of the consumer of media that Sterne and Van Dijck imagine to that of the idealized producer. Giving us a new take on the “social” in social media, she explores the social lives of the entrepreneurs in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, the people and principles that have turned this part of California into a Valhalla for the digerati. The values of this social set are far from the meritocratic, “anyone can be an entrepreneur” attitude it appears to espouse. Status Update is a fly-on-the-wall account of the heady parties, invitation-only conferences, and meet-ups where the “real” work of networking gets done. By taking us into the scene, Marwick brings to life Van Dijck’s political, economic, and technological analysis. Take, for example, the “popularity principle,” described by Van Dijck as a central feature of online platforms that is consistent with “an ideology that values hierarchy, competition, and a winner-takes-all mindset.” Marwick’s interviews with top tech scenesters offer strong evidence of the popularity principle at work: nearly all of the people she talks to know exactly not just how many Twitter followers they have on a given day but also how many followers their friends have.

If the stated values of this social set are bootstrapist, achievement-oriented, and world-changing, Marwick’s analysis shows its members to be instrumentalized, classist, and almost comically egotistical.

Silicon Valley has its own set of paradoxes. If the stated values of this social set are bootstrapist, achievement-oriented, and world-changing, Marwick’s analysis shows its members to be instrumentalized, classist, and almost comically egotistical. “People in tech repeatedly portray San Francisco and Silicon Valley as places where the smartest, most motivated people from around the globe are changing the world for the better,” she points out. “Unlike, say, community activists, public schoolteachers, social workers, or healthcare providers, technologists are ultimately focused on a small slice of the population, and they are primarily looking for ideas that will prove profitable. These entrepreneurs may have a passion for better audio streaming or e-mail, but to say that such pursuits are world-changing is a bit disingenuous.”

It’s also overwhelmingly male. And as Marwick reminds us, the values embedded in social media mimic the values of the engineers and CEOs who designed them. The theoretical structure of the multifaceted public sphere, where diverse interests and identities converge to hammer out social problems, is better envisaged here as a one-dimensional plane. Seen in this light, it’s hardly surprising that the popularity principle, which favors quantification, measurement, hierarchy, and status, is the guiding ethos reflected in these sites.

Fortunately for Marwick’s readers, she lets us off the hook for at least some of the responsibility for our own obsession with status in this “attention economy,” suggesting that “[p]erhaps ordinary people are now checking their rising status … not because they are delusional or narcissistic, but because they have unconsciously absorbed a set of economic ideals belonging to the people who have designed the software we use to socialize each day.”

Though she paints herself as an outsider (which she evidences by citing her low Klout score), Marwick is clearly ambivalent about her position in this scene. She is intrigued, even a little overwhelmed, by the cliquish and connected, describing “waves of jealousy” when she doesn’t get invited to one of the seemingly endless insider parties. If Marwick is both seduced and repelled by the tech scene, this tension gives her more traction in her critique. Because she loves this world, she is sensitive to its contradictions. She is respectful but clear-eyed in her takedowns—authenticity, egalitarianism, and entrepreneurial success are among her targets—and her greatest insights lie in this ambivalence.

Status Update’s how-tos for retweets and other points of social media etiquette occasionally read like “strategies of the rich and connected,” but Marwick is right not to assume that all her readers necessarily understand how Twitter language works. I recently committed a Twitter faux pas when I @replied to a senior scholar following up on a joke we had shared earlier (via email) about cocktails. She texted me back immediately to ask me to delete my reply, as she was at an event with influential people who wouldn’t get the joke and the tweet might reflect badly on her. I hadn’t realized the @reply was visible to her entire stable of followers and instantly erased it, red-faced and wishing I’d never tried this cockamamie Twitter nonsense. Status Update speaks to this squeamishness. Marwick makes us see that social media is a devil’s bargain, one that many of us are driven to take up by anxiety-fueled “FOMO (fear of missing out).”

Though these books were not designed to be read in tandem, or even to speak to one another, they overlap in productive and compelling ways. And read together, they are a meditation on what it really means to be social with digital media. The collective moral of these stories is that when economic and industrial concerns dominate decision-making, we all endure the consequences. The great strength of all three books is that this moral is not heavy-handed but deeply reflexive. Each is careful to avoid the classic David-and-Goliath tale of “big bad corporations” taking over the minds and bodies of their consumers. Still, when 98 percent of the largest social media platforms “are run by corporations who think of the Internet as a marketplace first and a public forum second,” and when media formats like MP3s squeeze out the soul of sound to make room for more marketable features, what happens to the rights and responsibilities of those who increasingly have no choice but to use them? Do we need new ways to be social? Do we get the media we deserve? All three books conclude that we need, as Sterne puts it, “other confluences of infrastructure and circulation” to help us think through history and into the future of “social” media. icon

  1. According to ComScore, an Internet analysis firm. Cited in Van Dijck, p. 4.
  2. John Durham Peters, Speaking Into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (University of Chicago Press, 1999), p. 1.
  3. Wikipedia and Pirate Bay are the holdouts. Cited in Van Dijck, p. 16.