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‘Fads’ and expertise

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.

The Politics of Expertise in Media and Cultural Research, 30 November

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.

Registration open: the politics of expertise in media and cultural research

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 2016Register 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!

hello expert

Work/Play conference, 6 July 2016

This was originally posted at, 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.

CFP: The Politics of Expertise in Media and Cultural 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

Download the PDF version of the 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 by Friday 30 September 2016.

Female artists and performing expertise

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.

Mutual aid

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.



Bain, A. (2004). Female artistic identity in place: the studio. Social & Cultural Geography, 5(2), 171–193.

Castells, M. (2011). The rise of the network society: The information age: Economy, society, and culture (Vol. 1). John Wiley & Sons.

De Certeau, M (1984). The Practice of Everyday life.

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

Duffy, B. E., & Hund, E. (2015). “Having it All” on Social Media: Entrepreneurial Femininity and Self-Branding Among Fashion Bloggers. Social Media + Society, 1(2).

de Peuter, G., & Cohen, N. S. (2015). Emerging Labour Politics in Creative Industries. The Routledge Companion to the Cultural Industries.

Fortunati, L. (2009). Gender and the cell phone in G. Goggin & L. Hjorth, eds. Mobile Technologies: From Telecommunications to Media, Routledge, New York, pp. 23–36.

Frizzo-Barker, J., & Chow-White, P. A. (2012). “There’s an App for That” Mediating mobile moms and connected careerists through smartphones and networked individualism. Feminist Media Studies, 12(4), 580–589.

Granovetter, M. S. (1973). The strength of weak ties. American journal of sociology, 1360-1380.

Gregg, M. (2008). The Normalisation of Flexible Female Labour in the Information Economy. Feminist Media Studies, 8(3), 285–299.

Haraway, D. J. (1985). A manifesto for cyborgs: Science, technology, and socialist feminism in the 1980s (pp. 173-204). Centre for Social Research and Education.

Jones, C. (2002). Signaling expertise: How signals shape careers in creative industries. Career Creativity: Explorations in the Remaking of Work, (May
1998), 209–228.

Luckman, S. (2015). Craft and the Creative Economy. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Paasonen, S. (2011). Revisiting cyberfeminism. Communications, 36(3), 335–352.

Plant, S (1997). Zeroes and Ones: Digital Women and the New Technoculture, Doubleday, New York

Rainie, L., & Wellman, B. (2012). Networked: The new social operating system. Mit Press.

Wajcman, J. (2004). Technofeminism. Polity Press, Cambridge.

Wajcman, J. (2007). From women and technology to gendered technoscience. Information, Communication & Society, 10(3), 287–298.

Wajcman, J. (2009). Feminist theories of technology. Cambridge Journal of Economics, 34(1), 143–152.


The Most Famous Artist

Thanks to my colleague Annette Naudin for tweeting this video, which raises a lot of questions for me about art, expertise and social media.

This is a short documentary-style video by Buzzfeed which focuses on an artist on Instagram called ‘The Most Famous Artist’, whose real name is Matty. Buzzfeed follow him going to flea markets to buy paintings to modify, chart the rise and fall of his internet startup career, and include interviews with an art collector who purchased one of his paintings, and a fine art curator, who argues that even though Matty’s work seems ‘easy’ a lot of work goes into it, and it can still be considered good art. What is ‘good art’ anyway? On themostfamousartist Instagram, one person commented on the above video with this:

There was a part in this video that I absolutely loved. “People think: ‘I could’ve done that’, and the message is: “good, go do it” with my being a young artist and following a bunch of artists and art accounts here on Instagram, I see a lot of work. And I find myself looking at these works thinking “wow I wish I came up with that” or “wow I totally could’ve done that” and the subjects of these works aren’t complicated at all. So I find your artist POV very interesting and intriguing. I think that is something I, as an artist, strive to do as well: create “easy” non complicated art that just anyone could come up with or understand or recognize. That’s what I love about art, it doesn’t have to be complicated at all. Keep doing what you’re doing”

Though Matty’s art may appear to be ‘easy’ there is a some financial investment in sourcing the initial paintings, the thought which goes into what would look good for the medium, and the work that goes into creating the art. The end product is generally well received, judging by the sales, comments and growing number of online followers.

What I found particularly interesting from this video was when Matty describes his process, the most important thing for him is that he knows “it will photograph well and spread online”. When he wants to exhibit in a gallery, he uses his thousands of Instagram followers as a way of getting his foot in the door, which a few of my own participants have some difficulty with. This is an example of how social media can be integral to the art process, from being the inspiration for art (as this artist often does) to being used as a vehicle for self-promotion and performance of expertise.

What is the expertise of this person and how is it performed? He never says he is a ‘great’ artist. He actually claims in the opening seconds of this video that he “doesn’t actually know how to make any art”. His emphasis is on the ‘famous’, and his Instagram name of ‘themostfamousartist‘ encapsulates what his art is all about-fame. He creates art about hot button, popular topics on social media which he then displays on social media. I’ve been working with the idea that expertise is a process developed from relations and associations with others, and that’s exactly what this person is doing. He is building a large online following which he is using to get into art galleries and he is associating himself with large brands and public figures. All of this is evident just by looking at his Instagram profile. That is where I found the below image, by @drewtoonz:

instagram artist_edited

Instagram: @drewtoonz 

Instagram itself is a central platform for some artists and art; I’ve seen several examples recently of Instagram art and photography being exhibited, including a photography exhibition at the Ikon gallery in Birmingham. There are the spoof selfies considered to be ‘Instagram Masterpieces‘ and the New York artist selling other people’s Instagram photos for thousands. Whenever these stories come up I always think about expertise and the art world, and what this means in the ‘social media age’. Can anyone call themselves an artist on Instagram and make a living out of it and if so, how far can they go? How important is the ‘publicness’ of platforms? Does it matter how much time or effort goes into a piece of art if it gets thousands of likes? Does a number of likes on a picture make it ‘good art’?

Gender and expertise

Lately I have noticed a particular theme in my social media analysis of artists, most notably among my female participants. A lot of my thinking around this also coincides with a paper I recently co-wrote with my colleague Annette Naudin on female cultural entrepreneurs. Before that I hadn’t read much around gender even though it is incredibly important when thinking about cultural work, especially as some of my participants are women situated in a ‘working from home’ context where blurring between personal and professional life, while an accepted part of being an artist, could be exacerbated with the use of social media for work and personal purposes. Some work has been carried out on female artists working from home and it has focused on how they manage the family and the more traditional domestic responsibilities which most women are still expected to do (Luckman, 2015; McRobbie, 2016). These wider issues are important and provide the context for my own area of focus: gender and expertise.

Social media and art and craft seller websites such as Etsy allow anyone to create and sell art and potentially make money from it, and the large majority of sellers on sites like Etsy are women. The opening up of cultural production through social media and seller sites has raised questions about the legitimacy of amateur art and its impact on ‘professional’ artists (Luckman, 2015).

Social media also makes it easier for people to say they are an expert in their field, to a potentially global audience, and yet the implications of this are yet to be explored in cultural work. In addition, those who talk about ‘experts’ in the cultural industries usually refer to cultural intermediaries, consultants and art critics (Prince, 2010; Taylor, 2013) and the idea of the expert is traditionally masculinised (Thomas-Hunt and Phillips, 2004). What about the expertise of artists? And what about the female experts in cultural production? I will unpack these questions using insights from my research so far.

1. What about the expertise of artists?

My social media analysis is still ongoing; for all of my participants I am taking samples of social media posts over four months and analysing them using Candace Jones’ (2002) signalling expertise framework. My findings so far demonstrate the importance of other people and companies for artists, especially for performing expertise. This includes associations with others through mentions and follows, mutual endorsement through retweets and sharing positive reviews from clients/customers. All of these practices are evident in my analysis so far. I’m now going to relate these to two useful concepts I have come across recently.


Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of naming a useful way of conceptualising this public endorsement on social media. Naming is “a symbolic strateg[y] through which agents aim to impose their vision of the divisions of the social world and of their position in that world” (Bourdieu 1991:239). This relates to how those in power can endorse people, such as artists, and enhance their status and reputation, which I have written about in a previous blog post.

The practice of retweeting endorsements by others and associating oneself with larger clients can be considered to be an example of artists using social media to repurpose the ‘naming’ by companies or people who could help to enhance their status. Where companies or people may not explicitly ‘name’ an artist, that artist can create an impression of naming which is specific to social media, such as mentioning others in posts and retweeting or sharing positive reviews by others.

In addition, Bourdieu’s process of ‘naming’ can be further progressed for social media: while being mentioned by high-profile and powerful companies/people is incredibly important for gaining increased exposure and enhancing one’s status, what occurs more often, and what appears to be crucial, is the mutual ‘naming’ among the artistic community, on social media at least, and more frequently among female artists, which I will talk about in more depth shortly.

Labour on social media

When thinking about social media use, the process of naming links to the idea of ‘relational labour’, which Nancy Baym defines as “regular, ongoing communication with audiences over time to build social relationships that foster paid work” (2015, p. 16). For my research, the idea of relational labour is useful for thinking about the labour that goes into performing expertise on social media-associating with others and nurturing those associations.

However, the idea of relational labour is too narrow for thinking about how the artists in my research use social media as a whole. Relating to each other is not all they do on social media, and paid work is not always the aim. They also build and maintain their online presence, browse for inspiration, check up on events and opportunities, see their friends’ latest holiday photos, look at memes posted by other artists or random people, or read the latest industry news. They do all of this on social media, and most of it feeds into their artistic practice. I argue that the labour of these myriad of practices, and the way they interweave with work and personal life, is better described as social media labour. 

2. What about the female experts in cultural production?

While I need to do more primary research and reading, I have some idea of where I can situate my initial thoughts on expertise in debates around gender, feminism and creative labour. Conor et al (2015) argue that despite appearances, gender inequalities are prevalent in the cultural industries; and in the same collection, Scharff (2015) highlights the challenges for female classical musicians to effectively self-brand and present themselves online in order to effectively compete for work. These accounts focus primarily on the cultural industries, such as film and music, and not the experiences of artists, however they point to wider prevailing inequalities for female cultural workers and increasingly difficult conditions for women to forge a successful career in the sector. In terms of gender inequality in art, Linda Nochlin asked in 1971 Why have there been no great women artistsWith Nochlin highlighting that the great artists of art history are often the heroic, singular male ‘genius’, identified by the male art historians. More than 40 years later, Nochlin could still be asking that question. According to a-n the artists’ network: “while female fine-art graduates outnumber male, only six women have won the Turner Prize in 30 years (four in the last ten), with male nominees vastly outnumbering female”.  The visibility of female artists remains an issue, so what about the female artists and what do they do to perform expertise on social media?

Using the signalling expertise framework, I’ve found that the major stand out theme is the widespread retweeting and mutual support demonstrated among female artists, even when they appear to be in direct competition. This is commonly in the form of simple retweets, but sometimes the tweets are quoted and accompanied by a compliment or kind message.

I’ve also noticed some communities on Twitter, particularly writing groups, where the majority of members are women and there appears to be a great deal of mutual support and encouragement going on; this is sometimes gathered around hashtags such as #Tuesdaybookblog. In interviews, a few of my participants have talked about the importance of supporting each other, with one person saying “we all need to make a case for the arts” which is important for reminding me about the significance of the wider context of the cultural economy and cultural policy.

This supportive online environment is not the form I thought the performance of expertise would take, but it has and it suggests that while the marketplace is crowded and competitive (and social media potentially opens that up to even more competition) there are at least pockets of convivial, supportive activity going on, particularly among the female artists. While they could be acting to “make a case for the arts”, are they also making a case for female artists?



Baym, N. K. (2015). Connect with your audience! The relational labor of connection. The Communication Review, 18(1), 14–22.

Bourdieu, P. (1991) Language and Symbolic Power. Polity Press.

Conor, B., Gill, R., & Taylor, S. (2015). Gender and creative labour. The Sociological Review, 63(S1), 1–22.

Jones, C. (2002). Signaling expertise: How signals shape careers in creative industries. Career Creativity: Explorations in the Remaking of Work, (May
1998), 209–228.

Luckman, S. (2015). Craft and the Creative Economy. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

McRobbie, A. (2016) Be Creative: Making a Living in the New Culture Industries. Sussex: Wiley.

Nochlin, L. (1971). Why have there been no great women artists?. The feminism and visual culture reader, 229-233.

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

Scharff, C. (2015). Blowing your own trumpet: exploring the gendered dynamics of self‐promotion in the classical music profession. The Sociological Review,
63(S1), 97-112.

O’Connor, J. (2013) Intermediaries and Imaginaries in the Cultural and Creative Industries. Regional Studies, (ahead-of-print), pp. 1-14.

Thomas-Hunt, M. C. and Phillips, K.W. (2004). When What You Know Is Not Enough: Expertise and Gender Dynamics in Task Groups. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(12), 1585–1598.


Artists, expertise and mediation

For my research into the social media use of cultural workers, I’m focusing specifically on artists – for example those working in fine art, music and literature. This is because the production of art, in its traditional sense, is not known to include much of ‘the digital’ in its process. This is changing now, and I believe that looking at the role of social media in artists’ lives and creative practice will provide a useful, more contemporary insight into cultural work.

The focus on artists has led me to Bourdieu’s The Rules of Art (1996) which I have found particularly useful, as it is grounded in an historical account of artistic production which provides a useful backdrop for me, not coming from an art background. The concepts in the Rules of Art have given me much to think about in terms of expertise as well as my own conceptual framework.

One concept in particular is the illusio – a “collective belief in the game” – a collective consensus which is fundamental to the elevation of some artists over others, “permitting consecrated artists to constitute certain products, by the miracle of their signature (or brand name) as sacred objects” (p.230). In terms of the process of expertise, this has paralells with how I understand expertise through this definition by Russell Prince – of expertise as a “social relation, where a particular actor has authority over another actor through their possession of a particular form of knowledge” (2010:6). In the art field, the social consensus of artists deserving to be consecrated is reproduced within a field until even their name is sacred – the consecrated artist is believed, by those in power within that field, to possess superior aesthetic technique, resulting in their elevation. Bourdieu here is talking primarily about 19th century artists, and argues that much more lies behind the supposed ‘genius creator’.

This elevation of artists is where the accumulation of symbolic power (prestige) is a factor. Bourdieu says that this occurs for artists who observe the rules of the functioning of the field (of art production). He claims that symbolic power in this context is associated with “pure” art, and is opposed to the forms of “heteronomous power” in which “certain artists and writers and more widely all holders of cultural capital – experts, administrators, engineers, journalists – may find themselves granted as a counterpart to the technical or symbolic services they render to the dominants (notably in the reproduction of the established symbolic order)” (p.120). So in other words, those artists and writers who appear to be driven by a more economic logic, are in opposition to those who may have more symbolic capital and driven by a more artistic logic.

Is this the case nowadays? For cultural workers, tensions between ‘art for arts sake’ and making money persist (Eikhof and Haunschild, 2006). But does the opposition between prestige in the field, and working for ‘the dominants’, remain? Social media has the potential to help individuals, videos, music, images etc to ‘go viral’ and reach people all over the world. For artists. would using social media in order to reach as many people as possible and sell art be perceived as rendering services to the dominants? As argued by Hesmondhalgh (2006), Bourdieu’s work on cultural production, while valuable, pays little attention to the role of large corporations, and when thinking about social media the power of ownership cannot be ignored. Companies such as Facebook and Twitter own everything we put on their sites and can use it however they like to make money.


In terms of expertise, there are parallels between Bourdieu’s description of artists rendering services to the dominants, and questions of the legitimacy of experts in Science and Technology Studies (STS) literature, in which the legitimacy of experts in the public eye (scientific experts) is questioned (Wynne, 1992). Ulrich Beck (1992) describes how public trust in experts was undermined during the 1980s and early 1990s by not only mistakes and inaccuracies, but also the incorrect perception of the public by experts as “engineering students in their first semester” (p.59). This led to less public trust in experts, and increased mass media exposure by experts has been argued to contribute a de-legitimisation of expertise overall (Beck, 1998; Luhmann, 2000; Arnoldi, 2007). Is being ‘public’ for artists ‘rendering services to the dominants’ nowadays?

With regards to expertise, what is highlighted by Bourdieu, Wynne, Beck etc  is a tension between ‘publicness’ and legitimacy. Social media allows people to have a ‘public’ presence and perform expertise, what do artists think of this? Why exactly are they using social media, what do they gain (or hope to gain), and how exactly do they perform expertise? In terms of the illusio, a consensus about an artists’ expertise could be produced publicly on platforms such as Twitter, particularly if an artist is retweeted by a major art gallery, or a very famous artist, who, in the modern context, appear to be most able to ‘consecrate’ an artist in an online context anyway, because of the number of followers they have and the potential audience they might reach. The temporal qualities of platforms are important to consider here, which I will talk about shortly.

Where Bourdieu is particularly useful for me is his assertion that there is more to cultural production than the individual act of creation:

“The producer of the value of the work of art is not the artist but the field of production as a universe of belief which produces the value of the work as a fetish by producing the belief in the creative power of the artist […] It must therefore take into account not only the direct producers of the work in its materiality (artist, writer, etc) but also the ensemble of agents and institutions which participate in the production of the value of the work via the production of the belief in the value of art in general and in the distinctive value of this or that work of art

Bourdieu (2006:229)

For artists, this includes their employers, clients, customers, and others in their networks, as well as who they associate with publicly on social media platforms. As mentioned before, the role of corporations is important in this consideration, but so is the platform structure of social media. These platforms are built to make money for owners (Skeggs and Yuill, 2015) but they also have functions and features which enable people to associate with others and perform expertise in ways which were not possible when Wynne, Beck and Bourdieu talked about expertise. These platforms mediate expertise performances and associations with other people and organisations. As argued by Kember and Zylinska (2012), the ‘lifeness’ of media is important to consider – the temporal aspects of it. For example, the timeline formats of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook mean that content is scrollable and some posts can easily be missed. So if an artist is maintaining a Facebook page, Facebook’s algorithms make that page less visible to people who ‘like’ it, to encourage the artist to pay to promote posts and drive people to their page. One of the artists I have interviewed has talked about this as a major obstacle for her, and this has led me to think more seriously about the role of platforms and social media corporations in cultural production.


The work of Bourdieu is useful for thinking about expertise in the art world as a social relation, and this has parallels with other definitions of expertise in other fields that I have used before (Arnoldi, 2007 and Prince, 2010 are examples). Another parallel I found across the literature is the tension between ‘publicness’ and legitimacy; and with social media allowing people to perform expertise in a public way, is this a tension for artists? Finally, I find Bourdieu’s ideas of field useful for conceptualising cultural production, but I argue that within the ensemble of agents and institutions he talks about, the mediating potential of social media platforms, and the corporations behind them, also need to be considered.

Expertise in the creative industries and reputation

Since the last post I’ve been focusing much more on literature on expertise in the creative industries. Before I proceed with that however I should restate why I am looking at expertise.

One of the main research questions for my PhD is How is expertise performed on social media? Expertise, as I will demonstrate in my discussion in this blog post, is essential in order to progress and develop a career in the creative industries. Reputations are built on the expertise one has (or appears to have) and it is reputation that leads to more work. On social media, there are multiple opportunities for self-branding and self-promotion, and expertise, and the performance of expertise on social media, is yet to be explored among creative industries workers. What insights can this bring about social media in the life of the creative worker? What new insights can this bring about creative work?

Social network markets, expertise in the creative industries and reputation

In reading more around expertise in the creative industries, I’ve been led to the concept of social network markets, which I think could be a useful way of conceptualising the ideas of reputation and expertise and relating them to the wider context of the creative industries. According to Potts (2011):

“A social network market emerges when consumer choice shifts attention away from price information and toward observations of other agents’ choices as a rational reaction to uncertainties about product quality arising from novelty or complexity” (p.80).

The concept of social network markets has been used to look at the creative industries from a market-based perspective (Potts et al, 2008) and user co-creation online (Hartley, 2007; Banks 2009).

Banks (2009) looked at co creative expertise and the complexity of interrelations between “traditional expertise and emergent community knowledge structures” (p. 13). He proposes the analytical framework of social network markets to try and work through this complexity:

“This model of social network markets is based on the notion that this problem of co-creative expertise is neither an economic nor a cultural phenomenon in itself, but rather the outcome of a co-evolutionary dynamic between both economic and cultural considerations.” (p.13)

The framework of social network markets picks up on the economic and social aspects of the creative industries, which is useful for looking at ideas of reputation and expertise and relating it to the wider context of the creative industries. In Art Worlds, Becker (2008) articulates this social aspect in more depth in relation to the value of reputation in the creative industries.  According to Becker, the term ‘Art World’ is used:

“To denote the network of people whose cooperative activity, organized via their joint knowledge of conventional means of doing things, produces the kind of art works that art world is noted for.” (xxiv).

Becker claims that reputation as a social process, and argues against the common tendency in policy discourse to emphasise the genius individual with a unique and rare talent (Bilton, 2010). Other people have as much to do with the value and reputation of a person or work of art, and it is this idea which is the base argument of Art Worlds. Becker emphasises the importance of consensus among peers and consumers, as well as the role of production and distribution systems, in forging a reputation. Becker’s account was written before social media and the internet, and so some of what he talks about with regards to distribution systems could be problematised in this context, for example:

“That writers do not achieve major reputations does not mean that no one is doing work that would, by the standards of those worlds, deserve such reputations, only that the world’s distribution system does not let participants know what they need to to make the comparisons that would allow credible judgments.” (p.363).

The internet and social media have made production and distribution of creative work much easier to do. Though it is still very difficult to gain the mass exposure that the larger media companies can generate, it is slightly easier to gain at least some form of exposure on sites such as YouTube. One also still has to rely on social networks (and a form of consensus) in order for their work to reach many people, and this aspect remains the same from Becker’s original account.

So even though anyone can now create something and publish it online, people still need to see it. This is where the importance of signalling expertise comes in, for getting one’s work noticed.

Expertise and signalling 

Signalling is a way of communicating one’s expertise and building reputation, which leads to other forms of value, as Potts (2011) outlines:

“Credible signalling builds reputation, and reputation is social capital; a capital that is then fungible over future market and non-market contexts. Creative production occurs in a social context that gives rise to arbitrage opportunities over market and non-market spaces. The currency through which these transactions occur is not always monetary; indeed as often it is reputational, in the sense of being an investment in the wealth of a credible signal” (p.81).

Again, the internet and social media are worth considering in this context. How does the performance of expertise on social media play out here? Social media appears to be a ‘social context’ in which opportunities for creative production and distribution occur. What form does ‘signalling’ take here?

Candace Jones (2002) talks about signalling of expertise in the creative industries, utilising the work of Goffman to put together a theoretical framework to conceptualise signalling strategies. Again, there are ideas here which could be worth further exploration in a social media context. Jones talks about signalling content which consists of knowing why (identity), knowing how (performance) and knowing whom (relationships) (p.213) all of which are aspects of the online presence which I aim to explore in my own work (particularly performance).

She then talks about signalling strategies which are vitally important for reputation building. Reputation building strategies involve the types of relations someone pursues, and Jones talks about this using some of the terminology from Mark Granovetter’s strong and weak ties, claiming that strong ties dampen negative and amplify positive signals (and weak ties are more likely to invert that, i.e. amplifying negative signals). She also talks about reputation and self-presentation in terms of the audience and picking up ‘clues’ (using Goffman’s terminology) to best manage an impression. Again, these are ideas which are worth looking at on social media. A lot of work has been done on self-presentation online using Goffman’s framework, but not in terms of signalling of expertise.

Another interesting aspect which Jones mentions signalling as expertise – i.e. being an expert in signalling. Again, this is an idea which is worth exploring for my research in terms of social media usage. If you are highly competent, or expert, at using social media, does that make you appear more of an ‘expert’ in your creative field, because you are able to communicate it effectively online? What does this mean for peers who may not be so ‘expert’ at using social media? Jones claims that this practice of signalling as expertise involves analysis and intuition; intuition in particular is honed through experience. This idea of intuition has paralells with the ‘everydayness’ of expertise as talked about in my previous post.

If performance of expertise on social media becomes intuitive and natural for a practitioner, does that mean they are experts at social media, or experts in their field? What bearing does one have on the other in terms of time and effort invested into it?

Jones could have unpacked this idea of signalling as expertise further, however this is where I could pick up and explore in the context of social media use, particularly in treating it as a medium for communication and a part of creative workers’ everyday practice.


Banks, J. (2009). Co-creative expertise: Auran Games and Fury – A case study. Media International Australia, 130(February), pp. 77–89.

Becker, H. (2008) Art Worlds: 25th Anniversary Edition, updated and expanded. University of California Press.

Hartley, J. (2007). The evolution of the creative industries – Creative clusters , creative citizens and social network markets. Keynote address to Creative Industries Conference, Asia-Pacific Weeks, Berlin, September 2007.

Jones, C (2002) ‘Signaling expertise: how signals shape careers in the creative industries’ in M. Peiperl, M. Arthur and N. Anand, Eds Creativity: Explorations in the remaking of work. Oxford University Press, pp. 209-228.

Potts, J (2011) Creative industries and economic evolution. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Potts, J., Cunningham, S., Hartley, J., & Ormerod, P. (2008). Social network markets: a new definition of the creative industries. Journal of Cultural Economics, 32(3), pp. 167–18