It has been a while since I have posted on this blog and that is because I was busy finishing my PhD thesis and preparing for the viva. That is all done and minor corrections have been submitted, so now I am waiting for that official letter!
Just before Christmas I was delighted to have been awarded an AHRC Creative Economy Engagement Fellowship, working with the Crafts Council. Full details are in this blog post and call for participants but essentially I am looking at how women makers from diverse backgrounds use social media. This is building on initial insights in my PhD research relating to the potential benefits of signalling expertise on social media. The women in particular found the mutuality and aspects of community on social media valuable for their career in creative work, however such online spaces appeared to be quite homogeneous. Focusing on the specific area of craft and working with the Crafts Council to address their priority of diversity, I want to look at how social media can support diversity in craft practice. The project incorporates a knowledge exchange approach comprising interviews and social media workshops with makers.
During this project I also want to think about notions of expertise in craft practice, which I touch on in the thesis but there is much more scope for further exploration. The project is running until the end of October 2018, so keep an eye on my Crafts Council blog for further updates as the project progresses.
I’m coming to the end of a first full draft of my PhD, and in the introduction I attempted to situate my work within the wider context, my work being about expertise, and the wider context being debates around ‘post-truth’ and the denigration of experts. I mention it briefly in my introduction but if I expand on it there it doesn’t make sense, so I will do so here because I think it points to some further research which could be done in the future (and not necessarily by me).
First, the rise of populism and ‘post-truth’ politics. This is discussed by Hadley Freeman in her article about “bullshitting culture”. She points out that the denigration of expertise is a component of this bullshitting culture, “because expertise provides a bulwark against nonsense”. This nonsense includes whatever comes out certain politician’s mouths, and the “figurehead of the clean eating movement” Ella Mills. Freeman takes aim at both, claiming that both the U.S. President and Ella Mills come under “the umbrella of bullshit”. Ella in particular is heavily criticised for claiming in an interview that she is “shocked that some of her followers have ‘taken healthy eating to extremes’ and insists she ‘can’t take responsibility’. Then, in the next breath, she talks enthusiastically about how, for Christmas dinner, she ate just carrots and brussels sprouts.” Freeman argues that:
“We live in a blog culture where it’s pitched as a triumph of democracy that everyone can claim authority, which means anyone who says that, actually, there is an objective truth is condemned. Feelings rather than facts are what matter, these purveyors of bullshit claim”
Freeman’s critique demonstrates how on social media, it is becoming more and more difficult to distinguish expertise. When experts do offer insight and facts, they are dismissed by politicians. While the author is right to point this out and be critical, she is assuming that experts are always right.
In the same newspaper 11 days later, another article emerged about the ‘clean eating’ fad and once again Ella Mills was the target of criticism for trying to distance herself from the movement. The author of this article, Ruby Tandoh, shows how some of the ‘clean eating’ pioneers are desperately trying to distance themselves from the fad after a recent BBC documentary Clean Eating – the dirty truth. Tandoh describes how some of the most popular advocates of clean eating based their approaches on the findings of doctors who were later widely discredited or even facing jail time for practicing medicine without a licence. Tandoh calls out the advocates themselves for peddling misinformation, and the book publishers which sell and help to legitimise such fads which are not underpinned by robust medical evidence. Tandoh also points out a gendered issue:
“Behind the pretty public face of wellness is a far bigger beast. With the exception of fitness guru Joe Wicks, the overwhelming majority of wellness personalities are young women, and it is these women who rise to and eventually fall from grace in the public eye. And yet the machinery of these fads is constructed largely by a small group of men. These are the doctors – self-styled or otherwise – who spin questionable academic studies, patchworks of data and sometimes little more than fanciful anecdotes into best-selling diet industry manifestos.”
These two articles demonstrate how complicated expertise can be. I believe here there is opportunity for further important research which looks at expertise, social media and contemporary aspects of popular culture which rely on ‘expert’ input – from nutrition, to fitness, wellness, mindfulness and other forms of self-help. It’s January and everywhere I go I see books, magazines and videos on these subjects, and their very popularity and the ‘expertise’ behind them could do with further critical engagement.
This week I hosted my first symposium and it was a very stimulating day that has provided a lot of food for thought. I would like to thank the fourteen speakers who travelled from all over Europe to present at the symposium. Also a special mention to MA student Anna Pirvola, PhD student Emily Bettison, and School of Media colleagues Annette Naudin and Kirsten Forkert for their help and support throughout the day.
I plan to upload the audio for each speaker to this blog when I get a chance. In the meantime, you can see the abstracts for each presentation in the abstract booklet. I also created a Twitter list of all of the speakers, for those who wish to get in touch.
When I used to blog about conferences I would summarise the presentations by each speaker, or at least the most interesting speakers. I think in this case that would not be useful; instead it is worth discussing the key themes which emerged from the talks.
One of the most prominent and noticeable features of most of the presentations was the masculinity of expertise, which I have discussed previously. I heard on several occasions the expert being referred to as a ‘he’, and most experts that were featured, whether they be Youtube vloggers or TV personalities, were white men. I think it’s important to stop and question this assumption of the expert as masculine, and explore in greater depth why women are not as heavily associated with expertise as men are.
A second theme is the idea of expertise being something you become – it is easy to proclaim and ascribe expertise, but it needs to be substantiated with evidence of knowledge and skill, and then recognised as legitimate by others of an equal or higher status. It is not helpful to think of expertise in binary terms (you have it or you don’t) – it is much more complex than that. Many of the speakers drew this out in their presentations.
Finally, I noticed that a lot of the discussion was about experts ‘out there’ – their position in politics, society and the media, and how they are perceived. There was little about the self and expertise, for example self-identity and expertise, or performing expertise. How do individuals accumulate and negotiate their expertise? How do they mobilise expertise over the course of their careers? This was thoughtfully unpicked in a reflexive talk by Natalie Squared, and there is much more room to think this through in a variety of contexts.
What also struck me was how expertise matters in so many different areas. There were talks (for example) about non-professional actors, heritage food, Martin Lewis (of Money Saving Expert fame), video gamers, street food vendors, journalists and Brexit, and expertise was thoughtfully discussed in all of these contexts and more. Expertise, so often taken for granted, needs further scrutiny and I hope this symposium is a step towards that.
Overall it was a very thought-provoking day and I was immensely pleased with the quality and diversity of the papers, as well as the level of engagement and discussion. There was also a warm and encouraging atmosphere throughout the day and I was glad to see a few of our MA and PhD students in attendance. I hope everyone enjoyed it as much as I did.
Free registration is now open for the symposium The politics of expertise in media and cultural research taking place at Birmingham City University on November 30 2016. Register here.
Due to the unprecedented number and quality of submissions the symposium will now begin at 1pm and end at 6pm. All interested in expertise are welcome!
This was originally posted at BCMCR.org, co-written with Dr Annette Naudin.
On Wednesday 6 July we attended the ‘Work/Play’ conference at Futureworks in Manchester, where we presented our joint paper Entangled Expertise: women’s use of social media in entrepreneurial work, which is currently in the process of publication.
Our presentation was part of an interesting panel about communicative labour, and we found some useful crossovers with Poppy Wilde and Francien Brockhausen from Coventry University who presented about emotional digital labour. They are both PhD students looking at different platforms: Poppy is examining an online gaming community, Francien is looking at bridal forums. Both have found that emotional and affective labour is a significant factor in the online activity of both, in the form of ‘connecting’, ‘sharing’ and ‘becoming’. They highlight how the labours of connecting, sharing and becoming require significant amounts of investment, in terms of time, effort, and emotional investment. Both online spaces call for participants to build knowledge and skill in order to participate effectively.
The significant crossover with our work was the acknowledgement of particularly feminine forms of online relating; the preference to form bonds and connections rather than merely promoting one’s business, or collecting bridal photos for personal inspiration. The relational labour (Baym, 2015) of social media use is a crucial dimension often missed in literature about digital labour, and the evidence from us and our colleagues at Coventry University suggest there are particularly feminine dimensions of this which require further investigation. What Poppy and Francien also did was highlight the importance of considering emotional labour in online communication, and their auto-ethnographic accounts were illuminating in this respect. What followed was a thought provoking panel discussion where the similarities between our work really emerged.
For our paper we looked at the Twitter activities of a sample of female cultural entrepreneurs, examining how they present their expertise on the platform and what this can tell us about professional female identities within neoliberal economies. In addition to expertise, Angela McRobbie’s ideas of the perfect/imperfect (2015) also formed a part of our conceptual framework. McRobbie argues that the notion of ‘perfection’ has ‘entered into the common currency of contemporary femininity’ (p.4). This is encapsulated in the ‘can do girl’ (Harris, 2004) who is in charge of her affairs and bears the individual burden if anything goes wrong in her career. We wondered about the online dimensions of this, and investigating it through an expertise ‘lens’ assisted our analysis.
We analysed the samples of posts using Candace Jones’ (2002) signalling expertise framework, a framework used by Jones to describe the importance of expertise in creative careers, and to identify the ways in which it is signalled. Our analysis is a departure from other work about online self-presentation, such as self-branding (Hearn, 2008; Marwick, 2013) which are more individualistic in nature. An expertise-based analysis of social media activity revealed alternative forms of online identity negotiation. We found that the female cultural entrepreneurs in our sample performed their expertise in three ways in particular, which we call ‘let’s do this!’, ‘imperfection’ and ‘not Tweeting’. Briefly, ‘let’s do this’ describes the go-getting, ‘can do’ attitude exhibited by some of the participants. Imperfection describes the way in which certain achievements or events were tempered by an admission of vulnerability – for example, one person said she felt shy being at a conference. Not Tweeting is about the female entrepreneurs who choose not to Tweet, or only to retweet others. What they are not doing can be just as significant, where refraining from Tweeting is also part of a controlled, self-conscious performance of expertise. What does ‘not tweeting’ suggest about women’s professional identity? What does the blurring of personal and professional identities on social media platforms reveal about women’s sense of themselves as experts in their field? Methodologically, what are the challenges in using data collected via public platforms such as Twitter? Our panel recognised some of the difficulties in being immersed in online communities, the significance of reflexivity on behalf of the researcher and of reviewing the ethical dimensions to our research.
I’m running an informal symposium on expertise as part of the research seminar programme at the Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research, taking place on Wednesday 30 November 2016. Submissions are welcome from researchers and PhD students in all areas of media, cultural and arts research.
I feel this is particularly timely given the anti-expert rhetoric during the Brexit campaign. Financial experts warning about the potential consequences of Brexit were ignored by more than half of British EU referendum voters, and the state of the country’s economy since suggests that the predictions of the experts are pretty much on track. The anti-intellectualism of the Brexit campaign has raised real concerns by some commentators as to the voting public’s willingness to believe propaganda and lies in lieu of expert comment. This has been brilliantly unpacked by Kath Viner in the context of social media and the ‘filter bubble’, distorting our access to information.
In light of these debates, just how important is expertise?
Call for papers
In cultural research, any mentions of experts or expertise usually refer to art critics (Bourdieu, 1996), art collectors (Braden, 2015), cultural intermediaries (Prince, 2010) or consultants (Prince, 2014). In media and cultural research as a whole, including the works cited, the idea of the expert and expertise itself is not explored in great depth. Yet, being known as an expert is crucial to ensure regular work in a precarious and competitive cultural labour market. What does expertise mean to cultural and media workers? In what ways, and where, do cultural and media workers perform expertise? How can we, as cultural researchers, explore and conceptualise expertise?
The Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research (BCMCR) hosts this informal symposium aimed at putting expertise firmly on the research agenda. We encourage submissions from all areas of media and cultural research, and invite participants to discuss how the idea of expertise pertains to their research.
Topics may include (but are not limited to):
- Expertise in cultural policy making
- Questions of expertise, professionalism and amateurism
- Expertise and new media
- Expertise and gender
- Expertise and race
- Expertise and class
- Expertise in cultural institutions
- The performance of expertise
- Interrogating technological expertise
- Expertise and celebrity
- Experts in the media
- Art and aesthetic expertise
- Theorising expertise
- Experts in media history
We are looking for informal thinking/discussion pieces no more than 15 minutes long, and visual aids are not essential. Please send a short abstract of no more than 200 words and a short biography to firstname.lastname@example.org by Friday 30 September 2016.
So far this year I’ve been carrying out interviews, analysing social media posts and now I’m trying to fashion what a discussion chapter might look like. The first area I have been concentrating on is one I initially knew the least about, which is gender. I started thinking out loud about this on a previous post in February and since then I’ve written about 7000 words of a possible chapter, but now I need to work out how best to order this chapter and my arguments.
At the moment, my key argument for this chapter is:
Female artists perform expertise on social media in a particularly social, mutually beneficial way, and this provides them with positive opportunities for networking, collaboration and getting their work out to a larger audience in an art world which still systematically favours men.
This is what I am attempting to emphasise throughout the chapter. In that, I have sections which outline a history of women in art, a history of feminism online (i.e. cyberfeminist movements and technofeminism) which both include literature about entrenched inequalities in the arts and technology, and both include literature which demonstrates examples of women collaborating and working together to get their art seen and their voices heard, respectively. I then go into discussion about collaboration and mutual aid (de Peuter and Cohen, 2015) then women, cultural production and place (based on some interview material I have about female artists working at home and the role of social media there).
While writing this chapter it has become apparent that the ideas of mutual aid and technofeminism are potentially useful for me conceptually, and I’ll unpack them here.
The term ‘technofeminism’ was made popular in Judy Wajcman’s book of the same name (2004). She uses it to describe the contemporary relationship between technology and gender. Drawing on STS (Science and Technology Studies) thinking, which has influenced me a lot so far in relation to expertise and social media methods, Wajcman describes the technofeminist relationship between gender and technology as one of ‘mutual shaping’ where the concept of gender is understood as a “performance or social achievement, shaped in interaction” (Wajcman, 2007:293). Gender power relations can be enabled or inhibited by technology and its affordances, and gender co-creates and co-evolves with technology. The idea of technology as gendered derives from the cyberfeminist work of Donna Haraway (1985) and Sadie Plant (1997), both of whom were optimistic about the emanicpatory possibilities of technology and the internet for women. Technofeminism advances this by appreciating the seamless integration of technology with everyday life, rather than the binaries of ‘offline’ and ‘online’, ‘technology’ and ‘human’ (Paasonen, 2011).
In relation to my own research, technofeminism is a useful concept because the female artists involved in my research use social media platforms in different ways to suit themselves and their practice. They make use of the affordances of these platforms, such as Twitter hashtags, Pinterest groups, Facebook groups and Instagram feeds to connect with other artists, network and collaborate. While platform structures may shape that to some extent, they do not completely determine how they use them. In turn, such features are routinely amended and updated by social media companies to encourage more user interaction (albeit for money making purposes). Social media platforms do not completely shape what people do on there, and they ‘make do’ (to use a term by de Certeau, 1984) with the platforms they prefer and the people they connect with on there.
What is important about technofeminism is that it treats technology as “a seamless web or network combining artefacts, people, organisations, cultural meanings and knowledge” (Wajcman, 2009:7) which is typical of STS thinking. It does not draw distinctions between ‘offline’ and ‘online’ and appreciates the integration of technology into everyday life. Frizzo-Barker and Chow-White (2012) use technofeminism as a part of their conceptual framework in their research on women’s (particularly mothers’) use of smartphone apps. They also draw on ideas of gendered networked individualism (particularly Fortunati, 2009) to show how “both gender and smartphones are viewed as part of the texture that constitutes the network society, rather than as separate from society” (2012:582). Networked individualism (Castells, 2011; Rainie and Wellman, 2012) is concerned with the macro-level of social connections and their rapid speed, emphasising that the internet facilitates more social connections, but these connections may not all be strong. They are more likely to be ‘weak ties’ (Granovetter, 1973) that are accessed and called upon when needed. People are essentially ‘switchboards’ among their many connections. Leopoldina Fortunati (2009) argues that gender differences in networked individualism need to be analysed by taking into account what technologies facilitate for women in particular. What Frizzo-Barker and Chow-White demonstrate is that technofeminism on its own is not sufficient to conceptualise the ‘socialness’ of smartphone apps; the connections between people, and the same applies to my research. What technofeminism doesn’t account for are the relationships and connections between people which are mediated through technology. For what I’ve found in my research, networked individualism is too individualistic a concept to describe the examples of mutual support and collaboration that I found in my participants’ performances of expertise, particularly among the female artists. For this purpose, mutual aid is more suitable.
This term is used by de Peuter and Cohen (2015) to conceptualise the collective activities of cultural workers responding to poor labour conditions. In the absence of workers’ collectives and formal equal opportunities policies, the authors describe how groups of cultural workers mobilise to make change happen in precarious working conditions:
“Mutual aid establishes the social bonds necessary to contest labour precarity and affirms the self-organization necessary for alternative economies. The stakes, then, are not limited to cultural labour: on the contrary, the greatest significance of mutual aid among cultural workers is the formation of sensibilities that favour solidarity generally, including solidarity with segments of the working class outside the relatively privileged quarters of the creative industries.”
(de Peuter and Cohen, 2015:309)
I find this is a useful way to conceptualise the online activities of the female artists in my research, who seem to work in a collective, collaborative way to get their art noticed in an incredibly competitive (and still male dominated) art world and on fast-paced, information-overloaded social media platforms. In my social media analysis using a signalling expertise framework adapted from Candace Jones (2002), I found that the female artists in my sample were much more inclined to post and re-post the work of other artists (usually female), even though they were essentially in competition with each other. When I asked one of my participants about this, she commented:
“I always thought that because you’re competing for the same work people would be really precious about things, but I’ve had people that are really qualified for the same things and they tell me ‘oh have you applied for this yet?’ It’s a very…as far as I can tell…it’s really inclusive, people are really helpful, people are really supportive of each other.”
Other participants often used the ‘quote’ function on Twitter to share the work of other artists and add a positive comment. While there would be some motivations for reciprocity there (posting someone’s work in the hope they will post yours in return) there is some altruism in these performances of expertise, and in my chapter I’m aiming to situate this within the backdrop of long standing gender inequalities in the art world (which I’ve started talking about in a previous post) and the use of technology (in this case, social media) by female artists to get their work seen.
Tied in with all of this are some observations on female artists, cultural production and place.
Female artists, cultural production and place
My thinking around place was prompted by Susan Luckman’s book Craft and the Creative Economy (2015), in which she describes the activities of home-based craft entrepreneurs, or ‘Etsypreneurs’. Luckman argues that craft selling sites such as Etsy and social media platforms “play a determining role in normalising the home office […] the networked home is fast becoming a normalised middle class paid work location” (p.87). For many of the female artists I have spoken to, the home is also their office, and for some, the demands and rhythms of creating art are sometimes at odds with taking care of children and other domestic responsibilities. One of the artists, Jamila, said that while she prefers to work from home, having a very young daughter inhibits her ability to ‘get into the zone’ of creating at home, and so she needs to look for a studio to work in, whilst trying to find suitable childcare arrangements. Similar stories to this are found in Alison Bain’s account of female artists’ identity and the role of studios. She claims that “a woman artist is never completely insulated in her studio when it is part of her home, for she is repeatedly interrupted by the many and varied demands of domesticity” (Bain, 2004:186). Bain argues that studios are a vital way for some female artists to affirm their identity as artists; and the issues with self-identification were also described by Jamila.
However, working from home does work for some of the artists I interviewed. One has been so successful in her pet portrait business, her husband has been able to give up work to take care of their young family. Another is a writer and also runs an Etsy craft business with her daughter, who is in her early 20s. Others have told me how their children have helped them to learn how to use social media. So while the accounts of Bain and Luckman do provide important perspectives about the pressures for female artists who work from home, there are also positives with involving the family in this work. But what does that mean for notions of the amateur and expert? Can someone effectively perform expertise on social media if they have learned about it from their children? How important is being able to effectively perform expertise, against being an expert maker or artist? How much can we tell just from an analysis of online activity?
Home working does have ‘amateur’ connotations (Luckman, 2015) particularly for women, for whom the home has traditionally been a site of seemingly unskilled domestic labour (Gregg, 2008), but the internet and social media platforms offer ways for female artists to perform their expertise. Luckman, and other authors such as Duffy (2015) and Duffy and Hund (2015) draw attention to how social media and sites such as Etsy encourage the portrayal of an idealised cultural worker, whether that be the makers in their idyllic suburban homes in Etsy’s featured blogs as highlighted by Luckman, or the ‘glam life’ of the fashion bloggers described by Duffy. Both authors argue that these performances mask the labour which goes into them, particularly aesthetic labour. This is where interviewing participants was important for my research, so that my analysis of performances of expertise would be supported by a consideration of the role of social media in artistic labour – or what I’m calling ‘social media labour’ for now. An exploration of social media labour will be the focus of my next chapter.
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