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An exercise in distancing

Last week I had my final review for my PhD, which is the formal meeting at my University to ensure I am on track and ready to submit by this September. At that meeting I presented my research in five minutes, and I wondered how on earth I could condense my thesis into such a short space. In order to gain some distance and ‘see the wood for the trees’ I borrowed Annette Naudin’s idea to write about your thesis as if someone else is quoting you in their literature review. I found it strange at first but ultimately very useful for presenting three years of work in a few minutes.

So below is my attempt at gaining some distance from my own work. I changed it back to first person for my final review, but this first iteration was crucial for helping me get there in the first place.

Patel (2017) explores expertise in cultural work in greater depth, specifically how cultural workers signal expertise on social media. Her thesis, titled ‘The Politics of Expertise in Cultural Work’, highlights the contemporary relevance of expertise debates in political and popular culture, and uses this context to demonstrate the necessity of individual, everyday expertise in mitigating the risks of an unstable and volatile economic, social and political climate in the West. Focusing on the everyday expertise of cultural workers, including writers, painters, sculptors, composers and craftspeople, Patel provides a novel and timely account of the everyday skills, mastery and technique practised by cultural workers and how their expertise is presented, mediated and negotiated on social media platforms.

She offers a methodological framework for analysing how expertise is signalled on social media, drawing on the signalling expertise framework of Candace Jones (2002) and adapted for a qualitative analysis of expertise on social media. In her research Patel highlights the implications of signalling expertise on social media for cultural labour – such as its role in cultural workers’ everyday practice, how cultural workers negotiate their presentation of self and their expertise on social media, and gendered strategies for signalling expertise.

Patel offers a general definition of expertise which is: “the possession of specialised knowledge or skill, which is recognised by others as legitimate, and accumulated, mobilised and signalled within a particular social context.” Patel also acknowledges the specific forms of expertise required in cultural work, most notably, aesthetic expertise. Drawing on the history of aesthetics as outlined by Martha Woodmansee (1994) and Paul Oskar Kristeller (1951; 1952), she proposes that aesthetic expertise comprises knowledge of aesthetic codes and classifications, and skill in mastering the tools and techniques to produce a work of aesthetic value. Patel demonstrates how aesthetic expertise can be signalled on social media by cultural workers who confidently reveal aspects of the artistic process and discuss it in detail, whilst effectively managing their relationship with their online audience at the same time. A cultural workers’ ability to demonstrate and describe their process and techniques can be enhanced through the affordances of social media platforms by providing work in progress, creating tutorials, or interacting with the audience to produce testimonials and positive feedback which add to their profile.

Some of the implications revealed through the analysis include the pressure cultural workers experience to maintain an online presence, which for some punctuates and adds to daily work pressures. Cultural workers also need to negotiate what to reveal, and what not to, on social media in order to balance the maintenance of their presence with managing the imagined audience. Rather than just promoting their work, Patel reveals that the women cultural workers engaged with other women online more, sharing work and collaborating to attempt to facilitate a wider raising of visibility, which is a much more relational strategy for signalling expertise than the more one-way, promotional tactic of the men.

Patel raises questions about cultural value on social media – as cultural production online is increasingly motivated by engagement and getting the online attention of users. What could a preoccupation with numbers mean for cultural value? While social media platforms present positive possibilities for wider engagement and lowering barriers to access to cultural production, Patel argues that the democratising potential of social media is misleading – those who really want to make a living from cultural work still need the social, cultural and economic capital to make that happen, and social media will not change that. Overall, Patel provides useful insights into the individual experiences of cultural workers, and the politics of expertise in contemporary cultural work.

The distance really helped me to reflect on the key take-away points of the thesis, and of course its contributions to knowledge. It will be interesting to see how much it changes between now and the viva.

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.


Presentation at RESCON15

Last week (11 December) I presented at Birmingham City University’s annual research conference, RESCON15. I was a part of an Ethnography panel organised by Jerome Turner of BCMCR so the focus here was on methods.

I talked about social media methods and argued for the value of more qualitative methods in social media research. I revealed some early insights from my interviews and the added insight they have brought to my social media research, and I also talked about the importance of considering platforms and their owners in any social media research.

The talk was kindly recorded and edited by Dylan Line of Multimedia Services at Birmingham City University, and my slides are embedded below the video.

I should also mention that I won 2nd prize in the poster competition, in which I presented a reworked version of my expertise poster. Thanks to everyone who voted for me!


Research update

Whilst presenting at conferences and co-writing a paper with my colleague Annette, I’ve also been carrying out interviews with participants. I’m conducting interviews to find out about the role of social media in artistic practice and cultural labour, which is one focus of my PhD (the other being the performance of expertise on social media).

So far I have interviewed 14 people (including my pilot study) and have two more in the diary before Christmas. I’ll stop there for now in terms of recruiting participants, because I also need to gather samples of their social media posts, so I will have a lot of research material.

I’m going to take time over the festive period to transcribe the interviews, collect the social media posts and analyse what I have, because I’ve dived straight into recruiting participants and interviewing them without really taking a step back. I found my participants by looking on regional arts directories such as New Art West Midlands and Art in Liverpool, I identified artists who were quite prolific on social media, and contacted them directly. The response rate was great and I must thank everyone who has taken the time to speak to me so far.

My participants include fine artists, photographers, writers, craftspeople and musicians. The interviews mostly took place over phone and Skype, and I asked them about their work and their background, how they use social media, what they think of it, how it has helped them in their career, and so on. This was to really get a sense of the role of social media in their artistic practice, and subsequently their personal lives (because most of them do not separate their work from personal life).

What I’ve been presenting at conferences so far is the performance of expertise element of my PhD which has been based on my pilot study. This has proved  to be really insightful and I’m looking forward to building on it when I come to analyse the other participants’ social media posts properly. However,  I’ve found that interviews are crucial if you want to find out how social media is used and its role in people’s lives.

One thing in particular that social media analysis doesn’t pick up is the amount of time people spend looking at it, what they’re looking at, and why. This is often called ‘lurking’ but I prefer to use Kate Crawford’s (2009) concept of ‘listening’, which:

invokes the more dynamic process of online attention, and suggests that it is an embedded part of networked engagement – a necessary corollary to having a ‘voice’. If we reconceptualize lurking as listening, it reframes a set of behaviours once seen as vacant and empty into receptive and reciprocal practices.

(Crawford, 2009:527)

Interviews reveal this process of ‘listening’ and the context in which it occurs. In my interviews, I’ve found that listening is an important part of my participants’ artistic practice – they look on social media for inspiration, to keep up with events and opportunities, and to generally ‘see what’s going on’ in their networks and specialist areas. And for most of them it’s a habit, they do it during ‘downtime’ when they’re having a coffee or waiting for a bus. This type of activity and context is not visible on social media, but is potentially important when thinking about social media and its role in cultural labour.

These are some very pithy initial observations of course, and there is much more to be drawn from the interviews when I revisit them. I do feel however they have added a valuable dimension to my research, and I’m going to present these initial thoughts at my University’s upcoming research conference, RESCON. The presentation is part of an ethnography panel organised by Birmingham ethnography coffee group.

So over the next month or so I’ll finish the remaining interviews and start to gather social media posts. I’ll also take time to reflect, not only on what I’ve gathered but also the research process and my own position as both a researcher and social media practitioner, and implications this may have for my interpretation.


Creative and cultural work, cultural ecologies

So far in my PhD I’ve been referring to my potential participants as creative and cultural workers. This has been a ‘catch all’ way for me to give a rough indication of who I’m looking at, without committing to either creative or cultural workers. This is because, as I’ll discuss in this post, of the definitional ambiguities and confusion surrounding the terms ‘creative industries’ and ‘cultural industries’, which has implications for how I conceptualise ‘creative workers’ or ‘cultural workers’.

In a discussion of creative and cultural work, it is first neccessary to situate these terms within their wider context of ‘creative’ and ‘cultural’ industries, so i’ll begin with a brief history of both terms, including differences and criticisms, before a discussion of ‘cultural ecologies’ which I think could be a helpful way of conceptualising contemporary cultural work.

Cultural industries

The term ‘Cultural Industry’ is most associated with Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of the mass production and mass consumption of cultural goods in the early 20th Century, and the absorption of culture into the economy (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1979). They argued that the ‘Culture Industry’ was a tool of the ruling class and the state over the masses. This industrialisation of culture partly arose from the technological advances of the early 20th century, and the autonomy of art was seemingly under threat. According to them, this led to resistance in the form of ‘bohemian’ lifestyle choices and ‘art for arts sake’. For me, this struggle between art and capitalism appears to have parallels with the notions of self-actualisation and aspiration for ‘meaningful work’ apparent in contemporary work (McRobbie, 1999; Boltanski and Chiapello, 2005), and for artists, the tensions between art (art for arts sake) and commerce (making a living), persist (Hesmondhalgh, 2007).

Cultural work

As highlighted by scholars such as Sennett (1998) and Beck (2000) the emphasis on the ‘individual’ in modern work grew during the 1980s and 1990s as the decentralisation of work, which began with the Thatcher government, led to a proliferation of SMEs and freelancers. This also happened in the cultural industries, which became a particular object of policy during this time (Garnham, 1990). Reflexivity and entrepreneurship became important values in contemporary work, none more so than in the cultural industries. Lash and Urry (1994) pointed out how cultural workers possessed some of the traits which were valuable to the corporate sector, such ‘aesthetic reflexivity’ and an intuitive grasp of cultural trends. The inherent traits of cultural workers, particularly ‘creativity’, became more and more desirable in many sectors of work outside of the cultural industries (Ross, 2003) and this continues today with the encouragement of artistic interventions with businesses (Sköldberg, Woodilla and Antal, 2015). This emphasis on the artistic mentality and creativity took centre stage in UK cultural policy in the late 1990s.

Creative industries

The creation of the ‘creative industries’ as a policy object by New Labour in 1997 is what spawned much academic debate, centred around criticism of the term’s ambiguity, the emphasis on the knowledge economy and exploitation of intellectual property (Garnham, 2005) and the inclusion of software programming, video gaming, among many other industries not traditionally considered ‘cultural’ into classifications of the new ‘creative industries’, causing definitional confusion and slippages around culture, the economy and technology (Hesmondhalgh, 2007).  These criticisms are usefully summarised by Galloway and Dunlop (2007), who argue that the ‘creative industries’ as a policy object obscures the distinctive aspects of cultural work, particularly the communication of symbolic ideas and meanings (p.27).

Many alternatives have been proposed since, a useful summary of which can be found in pages 22-25 UNESCO’s 2013 Creative Economy report. David Throsby (2001) proposed a model of the ‘core’ cultural industries (comprising of the more traditional arts) which extends to other cultural industries (including film and TV) and then to creative industries (advertising, marketing, PR). A similar model was proposed by the European Commission (2006). O’Connor (2010) argues that these models fail to take into account the complex processes and interdependencies within the cultural sector, “and evades some of the real tensions between creative labour and the conditions in which is it put to work” (p.57).

Such criticisms and debates are the reason why I’ve waited until I can dig more into the literature before working out what I mean by ‘creative and cultural workers’. In terms of choosing my participants, my instinct has always been towards people who work in what Throsby calls the traditional, ‘core’ cultural industries: “music, dance, theatre, literature, the visual arts, the crafts” (p.112) and so far these are the types of workers I have been approaching to participate in my research. This is because, in traditional terms, the creative practice which takes place within these categorisations doesn’t neccessarily involve digital technology and the internet as much as other, supposedly ‘non-traditional’ (as described by Throsby) cultural industries may do. So, for now I am referring to them as ‘cultural workers’ and the work they do ‘cultural work’. However, in order to avoid the separatist tendencies of the models described above, I’ve found John Holden’s idea of ‘Cultural Ecologies’ particularly helpful for conceptualising cultural work in a wider context.

Cultural ecologies

John Holden’s (2015) concept of cultural ecology is based on Ann Markussen’s (2011:10) definition of the ecology of culture:

The complex interdependencies that shape the demand for and production of arts and cultural offerings.

The cultural ecology concentrates on relationships; between people, commercial and non-commercial organisations, professionals, amateurs, as well as the flows of ideas and money. It characterises cultural work as an activity only sometimes undertaken for profit, effectively accounting for consumer/amateur cultural production which has proliferated through digital and social media (Holden, 2015:12):

Cultural endeavour involves the making of meaning and the construction of social lives as well as (sometimes) the pursuit of profit. If culture is treated as an ecology, then the analytical approach becomes one of identifying cultural value, by taking into account the multifaceted and pluralistic value of culture beyond, as well as including, the economic.

Social media, the internet and mobile technology allow increasing opportunities for cultural production, co-production, self-branding, networking, and most of the work which goes into these activities is unpaid, what Terranova (2000) calls ‘free labour’. The increased capability of co-production and perceived blurring of distinctions between producer and consumer have led to what Andrew Keen (2007) and John Hartley (2009) have argued as an erosion of expertise in cultural life (as argued by Keen) and media work (argued by Hartley). This, however, needs much further investigation and interrogation and is a primary focus of my research in relation to expertise and how it is performed on social media. A talk yesterday by my supervisor Paul Long prompted further thinking about amateur cultural production and co-production which is emerging as an important theme in my research.

PhD Research outline September-October 2015

At the beginning of year two of my PhD, my research questions and focus have been refined since the outline I provided a year ago, so here is an up to date description of my research.

PhD title: The social media use of creative and cultural workers

Primary research questions:

  • What is the role of social media in the everyday lives of creative and cultural workers?
  • How is expertise performed on social media?
  • What insights can both of these questions provide about the nature of contemporary creative and cultural work?

The conditions of creative and cultural work have long been a subject of critique and debate in creative industries scholarship, with concerns such as the precarious working patterns (Gill and Pratt, 2008), blurring between personal and professional life (McRobbie, 2002), and self-exploitation and labour (Hesmondhalgh and Baker, 2009) dominating these discussions. Similar concerns are being voiced around digital media use, including blurring between personal and professional life (Gregg, 2014) and digital labour and self-exploitation (Arvidsson, 2008). For creative workers using social media, are these extra concerns for them in addition to the pressures of creative and cultural work? How does social media use fit in with their everyday lives, and creative practice? How do they negotiate the potential tensions of social media use and their creative practice?

In the creative industries, being known as an expert is the goal in order to gain regular work; in the context of a growing ‘expert system’ in the UK creative industries (Prince, 2010) and with social media offering increased opportunities to promote yourself and your work, how does this manifest for creative industries workers? How is social media used by them to communicate and display their expertise?

My research will also contribute to knowledge and innovate in social media methodology. I am looking to use a multi-method approach, using interviews, social media analysis and a collaborative platform to capture social media and its role in everyday creative practice.


I’ve completed a full first draft of the literature review, and now my attention is on methodology and the actual fieldwork for this thesis. I do talk about method in my literature review – I have a chapter dedicated to social media methods and in this post I’ll talk a little bit about that, and think out loud about which methods to use to answer my research questions.

To recap, my research questions are:

  • What is the role of social media in the everyday lives of creative and cultural workers?
  • How is expertise performed on social media?
  • What insights can both of these questions provide about the nature of contemporary creative and cultural work?

In my literature review I identified that practice theory and the philosophy of expertise are useful for conceptualising those first two questions respectively, and this is covered in my previous blog posts. My main argument from the literature review is that there is little work about the nature of contemporary creative work which explicitly considers social media use. In addition, social media offers opportunities for people to perform their expertise publicly, and in creative and cultural work where being known as an expert is more important than ever in a saturated and incredibly competitive job market, how do creative and cultural workers negotiate this on social media? What are the implications for their work/life balance and boundaries between personal and professional life?

A multi-method approach is required in order to answer these questions. For looking at the performance of expertise on social media, I have talked before about using the signalling expertise framework of Candace Jones for analysing social media posts and I think this can be helpful, as my pilot study has shown. Capturing the role of social media in the everyday lives of creative workers however is more complex. In taking a practices oriented approach I need to consider the various procedures and practices of these creative workers, not only in their social media practice but also their creative practice, and how it all interleaves together. Observation is the obvious route to take when looking at environments and institutions, but individuals? Won’t they be very aware of the researcher’s presence, and won’t they be a little self-conscious with the entire focus being on them?

This is where more creative methods are needed, in fact any research which looks at contemporary social worlds should be more experimental and reflexive, as argued by Law, Ruppert and Savage (2011) when talking about the social life of methods. They argue that our research methods are not only constituted by our social world, but also constitute it. This, as I mentioned in my previous post, could also be said of social media. People use social media to create things, perform expertise, express their views and opinions, etc. It takes work, time and effort. Yet people also use social media to catch up with friends, read news, watch videos, etc. They are experiencing aspects of the world through social media. So shouldn’t social media, somehow, also be used in the methods for exploring social media?

This doesn’t mean data mining or even analysing social media using frameworks such as signalling expertise. To truly consider the role of social media in the everyday, social media should be used, and I’m currently thinking through possible ways of doing this. How can this be done effectively, without being a waste of time for the researcher or extra work for the participants?

Comments and suggestions welcome, send me an email or a tweet.

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.


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:

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.

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