Social media practice

For my PhD I’ve spent much of this first year focusing on the performance of expertise on social media, and drawing from my pilot study which has resulted in a draft paper. Now I’m focusing on literature around my other question:

What is the role of social media use in the everyday lives of creative and cultural workers?

This question is an important one because there are similar concerns raised in literature about creative labour and digital media use – most notably about the blurring between personal and professional life and self-exploitation (for creative work – McRobbie, 2002; for digital media – Gregg, 2013, many more are cited in my draft paper). The need to have an online presence, promote yourself and your work, network and perform your expertise is becoming increasingly important in creative and cultural work (Duffy, 2015). What are the implications of social media use for the personal/professional life balance of creative workers? Has it affected their workload? Does it add to their time pressures? Does it fit in with their creative practice? If so, how?

So for this section of my literature review I am looking at creative labour, digital labour and ideas of social media, creativity and everyday practice. This post is about that final section.

At the beginning of my PhD I was prompted by my supervisor to consider the ‘medianess’ of social media. But not in the traditional sense – as a text to be analysed – but by also thinking about the role of users and how they perceive social media and its medianess. After seeing his keynote speech at a conference I was at a few weeks ago, I read more into Nick Couldry’s (2012) practices approach to media. I have always been interested in the ‘everydayness’ of social media. When asked to think about its ‘medianess’ too, I’ve found Nick’s work is particularly useful for approaching this, illustrated in this quote from Media, Society, World:

“A practice approach to media frames its questions by reference, not to media considered as objects, texts, apparatuses of perception and production processes, but to what people are doing in relation to media in the contexts in which they act” (p.35).

By media, Nick is not referring specifically to TV, newspapers, radio, and so on. When he refers to media in this context, he is referring to “all institutionalised structures, forms, formats and interfaces for disseminating symbolic content”. (p.iii) This includes social media.

However, I have realised that what is different with social media is not only does it disseminate symbolic content, it is also the means by which this symbolic content is created. Social media constitutes, and is constituted by, its content. This has parallels with the work on the social life of methods that I’ve been looking at by Law, Ruppert and Savage (2011) who argue that methods both constitute, and are constituted by social life. They make the same argument later on about digital devices in Reassembling Social Science Methods: The Challenge of Digital Devices.

The practices based approach of Couldry is concerned directly with what people are doing with media. Leading from this, I’ve been reading more into practice theory. Reckwitz (2002) defines a practice as:

“a routinized type of behaviour which consists of several elements, interconnected to one other: forms of bodily activities, forms of mental activities, ‘things’ and their use, a background knowledge in the form of understanding, know-how, states of emotion and motivational knowledge.” (p.249).

Reckwitz provides a useful summary of the various approaches within practice theory, notably by Bourdieu, Giddens, Foucault, Latour and Schatzki. All have different conceptions of practices and I don’t need to go into too much detail about them here. What practice theory can help with is understanding the everyday, and how ‘things’ fit in within a wider context of everyday life. Couldry’s application of this to media is especially useful for my research.

As well as Couldry, Elizabeth Shove (2007) has also examined practices in more contemporary contexts, but her concern is more with materials and everyday life, and the actual ‘doing’ of things such as DIY and photography. This quote about digital photography could apply to social media practices and how they may be integrated with creative practice:

“Digital photographers make endless small decisions about how to handle the data they collect. These moves are now so intimately related to the doing of photography itself that they are now effectively part of it, whilst also retaining a distinct status of their own”. (p.85).

How does social media use relate to creative practice? Is it intimately related to their practice, as the digital practices involved in digital photography are?

Ann Swidler (2001) describes practices as actions which need to be observed, but how can social media practices be observable? Because everything is online, and we can see the time things were posted, what was posted, and on Facebook sometimes people’s mood and what they’re doing, is observing social media enough? No. What also needs to be considered is what the person has done before and after that posting, whether they used a mobile phone, computer or tablet, and what led to them posting that. The routine, the everydayness. This cannot be observed online, other methods such as interviews and diaries are needed. But is that enough? Are there other ways of observing someone’s social media use?

Bourdieu (1977) conceptualises practices as being learned, then reproduced below the level of consciousness – naturally and routinely (habitus). Couldry argues that Bourdieu’s approach is not entirely helpful for considering media related practice, because Bourdieu emphasises the conditions (and preconditions) under which practice is possible, rather than individual goals and perception (as argued by Giddens, 1979). In the case of social media, for example, deliberation and thought (most of the time) goes into what is posted on social media, as demonstrated by Marwick and boyd (2010) when they talk about the ‘imagined audience’ – people tend to post on social media with a certain audience in mind (though the actual audience may be completely different) and to achieve certain goals. Such ideas can be related back to the performance work of Goffman (1959) which I am drawing on for looking at the performance of expertise on social media, which also emphasises how taking others into account is part of a presentation of self.

This ‘taking others into account’ points to the need to consider how practices relate to wider contexts. Stephen Turner (2001) argues that practices and habits are learned from others. Schatzki (2001) talks about the importance of “shared, embodied know-how” (p.12) for maintaining practices. Swidler (2001) builds on this to consider how practices can be culturally constituted and convey meaning. She talks about ‘constitutive rules’ such as group identities and norms of behaviourThese rules aren’t necessarily anchored anywhere and are generated from a consensus:

“The establishment of new social practices appears not so much to require the time or repetition that habits require, but rather the visible, public enactment of new patterns so that ‘everyone can see’ that everyone else has seen that things have changed.” (p.96).

In the case of social media, such constitutive rules could be the conventions of text and language, for example twitter hashtags, abbreviations, emoticons and so on. Trending topics on Twitter only trend because of their use by an increasing number of users over a period of time.

Though initially my exploration of practice theory was related to addressing the ‘everyday’ and ‘media’ aspects of social media use and how it fits with creative practices, I also see overlaps with the performance of expertise aspect of my PhD. As Schatzki (1996) points out, practice is a performance. So any practice, whether it be painting, writing, pottery, or a tweet, is a performance. Also, as Shove (2007) mentions: “an emphasis on practice brings other issues into view, including questions of knowledge and competence” (p.14). The words knowledge and competence are often associated with definitions of expertise (competence – Dreyfus and Dreyfus, 1986; Knowledge – Prince, 2010).

So as I read more about practices, I’m finding a variety of overlaps and paralells with what I’ve been reading about social media, expertise and creative work, and as I begin my empirical research it will be interesting to see how a consideration of practices could help to explain the role of social media use in contemporary creative work.

References

Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice (Vol. 16). Cambridge university press.

Couldry, N. (2012). Media, society, world: Social theory and digital media practice. Polity.

Dreyfus, H. L., & Dreyfus, S. E. (1986). From Socrates to expert systems: The limits of calculative rationality. Springer Netherlands.

Duffy, B. E. (2015). The romance of work: Gender and aspirational labour in the digital culture industries. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 1–17.

Giddens, A. (1979). Central problems in social theory: Action, structure, and contradiction in social analysis (Vol. 241). Univ of California Press.

Goffman, E. (1959) The presentation of self in everyday life. New York: Doubleday.

Gregg, M. (2013). Work’s intimacy. John Wiley & Sons.

Law, J., Ruppert, E., & Savage, M. (2011) The Double Social Life of Methods, CRESC Working Paper Series, vol. 95, pp. 1-11. [pdf] Available at: http://www.open.ac.uk/researchprojects/iccm/files/iccm/Law%20Savage%20Ruppert.pdf.

Marwick, A., & boyd, D. (2010). I tweet honestly, I tweet passionately: Twitter users, context collapse, and the imagined audience. New Media & Society, 13(1), 114–133.

McRobbie, A. (2002). Clubs To Companies: Notes on the Decline of Political Culture in Speeded Up Creative Worlds. Cultural Studies, 16(4), 516–531.

Prince, R. (2010). “Fleshing out” expertise: the making of creative industries experts in the United Kingdom, Geoforum, 41(6), 875-884.

Reckwitz, A. (2002). Toward a Theory of Social Practices A development in culturalist theorizing. European journal of social theory, 5(2), 243-263.

Schatzki, T. R. (1996). Social practices: A Wittgensteinian approach to human activity and the social. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schatzki, T. R., Knorr-Cetina, K., & Von Savigny, E. (2001). The practice turn in contemporary theory. Psychology Press.

Shove, E. (2007). The design of everyday life. Berg.

Swidler, A. (2001). What anchors cultural practices. In: T. Schatzki, K. Knorr Cetina, & E. von Savigny (Eds.), The practice turn in contemporary theory, 74–92.

Turner, S. (2001). Throwing out the tacit rule book: Learning and practices. In: T. Schatzki, K. Knorr Cetina, & E. von Savigny (Eds.), The practice turn in contemporary theory, 120-30.

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About Karen Patel

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