Literature part 1 – social media

Over the past year I’ve been reading various things in the build up to beginning my PhD. I’ve mostly been picking up books and journal articles of interest and scribbling thoughts down in a notebook, and now I’m trying to go back through these notes and digest again what I read and whether it would be of any use.

What I’ve read so far spans several areas I may well cover in the PhD: social media, capital, identity, creative workers, labour, and the creative industries.

I’m going to summarise my thoughts on the area I’ve read the most about so far – social media.

Social media and the self

I’ve posted previously about Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together (2011), the book that really drove my interest in how people use social media. Turkle raises some valid concerns about people’s fixation with mobile technology and social media, and how people are more interested in their phones than the person in front of them. However, much of what she presented was anecdotal, and with American teenagers and families. It was noticing this ‘gap’ that made me want to pursue this area further.

What is really important to avoid though is technological determinism, something that Baym (2010) and Balick (2013), among others, warn against. Technological determinism assumes that technology is doing something to people, when in fact, it’s people who shape technology. My research is a counter to technological determinism – I’m looking at the reasons why people use it, and how they use social media (mainly Twitter).

I mention Baym and Balick above, whose books I have also read in my pre-PhD warm up. Most recently I read Nancy Baym’s Personal Connections in the Digital Age (2010) which I’ve heard she is now revising for a second edition. This is welcome news, because the book is now quite outdated in terms of the technology and social media sites talked about. Despite that, Baym offers a useful discussion on utopian and dystopian views of the Internet and its uses. She also argues that the users’ context is important when talking about how people use social media, and that rather than placing ‘offline’ and ‘online’ interaction in opposition to each other, they should be viewed as components in a “mixed modality” (p.51) way of communicating. She often refers to online or digital communication as “mediated communication” – another term i should probably add to my literature search keywords. Baym’s open-minded, nuanced approach to looking at online communication is more useful than the completely utopian and dystopian approaches. However, she doesn’t talk much about Twitter in this book (she may in the next), and as she concedes, much more research is still required in this area.

In a departure from my media and cultural studies background, Aaron Balick (2013) is a psychotherapist, and takes a psychodynamic approach to social media use. I went to see his talk at Social Media Week London last year and I also talked about his book in an earlier post on this blog, and though it stems from a different discipline, I think it’s important for me to acknowledge this work, because he draws on the work of Turkle and Baym quite frequently. He looks at social media use in relation to our own identity and how we see ourselves, and that’s when talk of the id, Ego and Self kick in. This book led me to consider identity and performativity, and some work has been done on this in the social media space.

Social media and identity

Murthy (2012) has looked at Twitter in relation to identity. He comes from a sociological standpoint, referring often to Goffman’s (1981) interactionist approach to understanding online communication. The article is effectively a literature review and a discussion of how Goffman’s theories can be applied to Twitter – but the framework isn’t actually used in any substantial research on Twitter and serves more as a starting point for sociologists more than anything else. Again, this approach is useful for me to know about and may be worth revisiting.

Rui and Stefanone (2012) also refer to Goffman in their approach to identity and self-presentation online. Their study is quantitative and involves a cross-cultural comparison of how culture influences self-presentation online. They argue that users are actively aware of their audience, and are strategic in their approach to how they present themselves in order to seek approval. These tensions can affect how people present themselves on social media sites; they term it “protective self-presentation to maintain positive images” (p.114). The problem with quantitative research is that it will always miss the actual context of the user, and I feel in this area of research that while large-scale data has value, it’s equally important to talk to users and tease out their own motivations, rationale and perception of their social media use.

Cover (2012) uses Judith Butler’s theories of performative identity, and argues that, like Baym, what we put online should not be considered completely separate from our interactions offline, however the coherence of online identity can be disrupted by what others say about us. The establishment of an online profile is a performative act in itself, but the rigid sections and the architecture of social networking sites mean that “playing out an identity” (p.181) can be difficult. The use of Butler’s theories of performative identity could be useful, but Cover does point out that the Butler (and Foucauldian) understandings of subjecthood – the notions of private/public are problematised in the context of social media, which is something I need to consider and look into further. Whilst providing some good examples of how Butler’s theories of performativity can be applied to social media identity online, there are some assumptions made by Cover, such as that the maintenance of multiple online profiles is an ever-growing task of managing identity – or labour – yet it’s not fully known yet what kind of labour is taking place here and again, the personal context is missing. Some people might like maintaining 20 different profiles and tailoring them for each audience; others may not.

I’ve looked into other traditional theories of identity too, such as the work of Peter Burke and Jan Stets, but I feel a discussion about these should be in a separate post about the wider theoretical frameworks that I’ve explored, which includes capital.

Social media and capital

Capital is another aspect I’m planning to address in the PhD, specifically the role of Twitter usage in the accumulation of capital. At the very early stages of my proposal I was fixed on social capital and that’s were most of my reading so far lies. However, I plan to look at other forms of capital, because what makes one form of capital more relevant for this research than another?

There is a growing body of work on social media use and social capital. A study on the relationship between Facebook use and accumulation of social capital by Ellison, Steinfeld and Lampe (2007) found a causal relationship between the two – the most frequent users of Facebook tended to have higher levels of social capital. However, this study, and many others in this area are empirical and on college students in the USA, and do not tell us enough about the relationship between social media use and capital. Wellman, Haase, Witte and Hampton (2010) did not look at social media but the use of a particular website, and also found a causal relationship between interaction online and participation in ‘offline’ community groups.

There are two problems with the studies mentioned above – they are outdated (which all studies in this area will become), and they treat online and offline interaction as completely separate acts, that one may influence the other. I don’t believe this is the case anymore. As I talked about at the very beginning of this blog post, technology, and social media, do not cause anything. It’s the users that make it what it is. I still have a lot more literature to look at in this area, not only in relation to social capital but also other forms of capital.


About Karen Patel

PhD candidate in social media and cultural work at Birmingham City University.
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