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.


Creative Labour Process Group at Goldsmiths

On January 13th I went to Goldsmiths for a symposium on creative labour called ‘Concepts and Methods in a Cross-Sectoral Frame‘. This was the second event by the Creative Labour Process Group which is organised by Angela McRobbie and colleagues at Goldsmiths. The symposium was well attended by academics in the field and there was some stimulating discussion throughout the afternoon.

The focus on methods and concepts is particularly timely for me as I am currently working on my methodology in my PhD. I was disappointed to hear that Georgina Born’s keynote was cancelled at short notice but her replacement, Don Slater from LSE, was excellent. In his project with Jo Entwistle and Mona Sloan, called configuring light, the aim is to integrate the social within lighting design practices. They are working with Derby Council on lighting in its town centre, and the argument of Don and the project team is that social knowledge is crucial for design. He talked briefly about expertise, especially the reliance on scientific knowledge for legitimising expertise and knowledge in lighting design practices, which overlooks the importance of social factors too. Expertise is an important part of my PhD, and it was interesting to see expertise being questioned and unpicked in other work, which needs to be done more often.

Angela McRobbie talked earlier in the day about methodological issues in her research on the fashion industry. She talked about how she ‘abandoned theory in the pursuit of research’ when she interviewed fashion designers in London and Berlin, but pointed out problems with accessing participants, and the impact of technology on the proliferation of secondary research material. She used the example of the film ‘Dior and I’ as an example of a rich ethnography that an academic researcher would not be able to produce. It provides insights that make interviews look thin. She likened Dior and I to Howard Becker’s Art Worlds, as it highlights the collaborative nature of the fashion industry. However, while the film does provide a rich insight, it comes with the editorial constraints of the film industry. She finished by suggesting that researchers in the cultural industries can mitigate the problems and constraints of access by carrying out more collaborative work.

This was a feature of Carolina Bandinelli’s PhD research on social and cultural entrepreneurs in London and Milan. She carried out an 18 month ethnography and highlighted her problems too with the uncertainty of the field of social and cultural entrepreneurs, and how collaborating with a participant meant that she was becoming a participant in her own research. I think in research the position of the researcher is crucial, and it is important that this is acknowledged in any discussion of method. Carolina became a practitioner too in the field she is studying, which is similar to my own position as a social media practitioner studying social media and this is something I’m thinking through at the moment as I write my method.

Earlier in the day Keith Negus presented his research on musicians. He didn’t have any concrete insights yet, but he found there is a great deal of mutual support between musicians, which is an emerging theme in my own research on artists. This was followed by three papers on data-related research. First, Nicola Searle talked about IP in the creative industries and issues with researching it. Cath Sleeman from NESTA discussed their work on data visualisations, with a particularly interesting example of the ‘off-screen talent network‘ at the BBC. Finally Mark Taylor presented initial insights from the Panic! social mobility in the arts project. While the analysis is in the very early stages, there are suggestions from the research that there is an ‘ideology of talent’ among those in good jobs, who believe that career progression is meritocratic, whereas those still working their way up believe that success in the creative industries also depends on ‘who you know’.

It was an interesting symposium overall with much food for thought, and it was useful that many of the methodological questions and problems in my own research were also discussed here.

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.


Conferences at Middlesex and Salford

I’ve been on ‘tour’ in the past week presenting at conferences at the University of Middlesex and the University of Salford. Before doing a quick recap of those, first I’ll introduce what I presented myself.

Compared to my previous conference presentations, this is a more rounded analysis of my pilot study because it includes material from the interview. I incorporated Bourdieu’s ideas of the illusio into my analysis, because I have found it useful when thinking about artists and expertise. The slides are below:

My main arguments are:

  • Expertise is a social relation, and on social media this is performed in a public way through the use of platform-specific functions such as hashtags, replies, likes etc.
  • This can be conceptualised for artists using Bourdieu’s idea of the illusio – a consensus about consecrated artists, which is reached by those in power and fundamental to the elevation of those artists over others, “permitting consecrated artists to constitute certain products, by the miracle of their signature (or brand name) as sacred objects” (p.230). A ‘social media’ version of this could be when a user or company with high status, such as a world famous art gallery, retweets an artists’ work to their thousands (maybe millions of followers), immediately boosting that artist’s reputation and adding to their performance of expertise, potentially elevating them over other artists also on social media.
  • However, the temporal and structural qualities of social media, as well as the motivations of the corporations who own the platforms, influence what is displayed and seen on social media and therefore must be considered in contemporary accounts of cultural work.

I’m currently putting together an abstract and paper based on this, and incorporating my more recent research, for an edited collection based on contributions to the Creative Industries and Collaborative Production Symposium at the University of Middlesex.

The Creative Industries and Collaborative Production, University of Middlesex, 13 Nov 2015

The keynote for this one was Sarah Brouilette, who talked about her recent work with Chris Doody on the Literary as Culture Industry, which is of particular interest to me. Sarah said that the idea of being a writer is still highly appealing because it appears to be a form of non-alienated labour, but this idea is tenuous. She talked about how the literary nowadays is transmissible to other media forms such as films, TV, etc – a “profilerating literary adaptation industry, endlessly repurposed”. She argues that the literary is now liquid content which pervades all other forms of media, and now that authors are aware of this, it changes the illusio – authors that are elevated are those whose books can successfully translate to other media forms. She also raised a point about e-book readers and their function to determine how people read books and collect information about them. This is an example of the ‘power of the platform’ I talk about in my own work.

The other papers included a great mix of work on new media and creative industries. James Graham (below) also talked about the literary industry and authorship – arguing that the author – the ‘brand name’ (to draw on Bourdieu again) is a platform for translating product into sales. James talked about a collaborative, edited collection called Ponte City in which the editors were eventually listed as the main authors, the auteurs, and therefore recieved the credit.

20151113_124457 Alessandro Gandini, who I met at University of Warwick and who asked me to present at this symposium, finished the day with a great presentation about his work on creative labour markets and the collaborative economy. He talked about creative workers and reputation – the idea that ‘you’re only as good as your last job’ and how this is crucial for securing work in precarious industries, where free and unpaid work is common. Of particular interest to me was his idea of the social media reputation economy – how freelance websites and social media contribute to reputation building, which is prominent in the dialectic between risk and trust for workers. On social media this requires the production and curation of a public and social self to be sold as a commodity – self-branding.  Alessandro argued that we have a financialised labour market where free labour is an investment, and risk falls entirely with the individual. He argued that the collaborative economy resembles “neoliberalism on steroids” rather than an aftermath of neoliberalism- with self-exploitation as investment and false consciousness as self-branding.

I see reputation as a subset, a component of expertise, and I’m particularly interested in the ways reputation is manifest online, particularly through social reputation measurement sites such as Klout, which calculate your online reputation through a series of algorithms, and present you with a score to show how influential you are. The role of these sites has not come up in my own research yet.

Challenging Media Landscapes, University of Salford, 16 Nov 2015

This was a huge event with four paralell sessions throughout the day and two high profile keynote speakers in David Hesmondhalgh and Angela McRobbie. David talked about his new book on cultural policy, providing an overview and critique of cultural policies since New Labour, right up to the current Conservative government. He argued that cultural policy has failed to deal with inequalities in access and participation in the arts, and that policies should pay more attention to social democratic goals, highlighting the activities of the left-wing Greater London Council in the late 1980s as an example of this.

Angela McRobbie also talked about inequalities in cultural work and entrepreneurship in the ‘talent economy’. She argued that the double movement of individualisation and neoliberalisation is defined through competition, talent and self-responsibility. Much like what Alessandro talked about at Middlesex, the risk is with the individual whether they sink or swim, with no safety net of the welfare state. This is reproducing social inequalities.

 Angela also talked about the ‘middle-classification’ process – a new creative workforce working in jobs in retail and the service industry which have been ‘elevated’ to creative work, such as coffee baristas. Young people are paving the way for an inflated middle class where the emphasis is on passionate work which permeates all aspects of life. I see this as an example of the artist as a model for all types of work, as argued by Andrew Ross and others.

The final panel of the day was particularly interesting for me, with contributions from Dan Ashton, Daniel Allington and Leandro Lima, all about cultural production online. Leandro talked about gender equality in crowdfunded games, highlighting that even though there are opportunities for anyone to create games, gender inequalities in those that are crowdfunded still remain, with very few women in major development roles.

Daniel Allington presented his work on Soundcloud and music production within ‘scenes’. Even though soundcloud offers a space for anyone to make music, place is still important, and those producers with the most followers resided in the major cities within particular clusters and cliques. Finally, Dan Ashton talked about cultural production in the bedroom and its value, presenting some examples of people who have made millions from creating YouTube videos, arguing that the bedroom is now an important site for cultural production. Creating these videos requires a great deal of time, effort and equipment, which not everyone has access to.

I pointed out at the end of this panel was that these were all examples of ‘amateur’ cultural production, which carries with it the idea that ‘anyone’ can produce cultural products, and the promise of one day ‘making it big’ regardless of your gender, social class, and so on. But what was apparent in all of those examples was that the issues and social inequalities associated with traditional forms of cultural production appear to be replicated in amateur, online cultural production.

These conferences were really helpful for thinking about the really relevant issues for my work – particularly around social class and inequalities in contemporary cultural work.

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.

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.

The Sociality of Sharing, University of Warwick, 23 Sept 2015

This was originally posted on the Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research blog.sociality of sharing conference

It’s been a while since I’ve had chance to attend a conference and the Sociality of Sharing symposium at the University of Warwick was as thought provoking as I thought it would be. Hosted jointly by Celia Lury and Adam Arvidsson the conference aimed to stimulate thinking and discussion around the ‘sharing economy’, and its implications for sociality.

Celia Lury started off by asking us to think about the idea of ‘borrowing, stealing, sharing’ and the distinctions between the three. Is there any difference between them in the ‘sharing economy’? Nate Tkacz, also part of the organising team, said that the sharing economy turns Marx’s traditional capitalism on its head. In my literature review I’ve talked about Marx’s labour theory of value and how it is being used by Christian Fuchs, among others, to conceptualise digital labour. That view was not shared by many here, especially by Adam Arvidsson who spoke about the value generated by Facebook and using the logic of derivative financial instruments. Adam argues that because derivative instruments are used to value intangible assets,  which are difficult to reduce, this approach is more suitable for calculating the value of Facebook rather than labour time calculations, which the likes of Fuchs and others draw upon when talking about digital labour. For my own research, these arguments are worth acknowledging but at this stage I’m not dwelling on them too much. What is important about Adam’s argument is that value in the case of Facebook especially derives from ‘immeasurable social relations’. Will it ever be possible to measure these types of social relations?

This event was called the ‘sociality’ of sharing yet the papers that were given highlighted the dearth of work about ‘the social’, particularly empirical work done with social media users. Carolina Bandinelli and Alessandro Gandini offered some useful insights into the sociality of knowledge workers in co-working spaces. A combination of ethnography and interviews with workers revealed some of the practices of sociality, such as people using co-working spaces to avoid isolation, network, and help to build reputation. More of this type of work needs to be done in relation to social media use, which is where my research will contribute.

Other papers given talked about crowdfunding and co-creative working in SMEs, before Trebor Scholz ended by talking about ‘platform co-operativism’ in the sharing economy. He talked about an intensification of digital labour and talked Amazon’s Mechanical Turk as an example of the precarity of online freelancing. Trebor argued that this type of working doesn’t protect people, despite the rhetoric of co-operative working “collectively changing the world”. He finished by saying that an “inability to imagine a different working life would be capital’s ultimate triumph”. Giving musicians, filmmakers, etc rewards for uploading their material to Vimeo is an example of what Trebor sees as a fairer co-operative ‘platform economy’ but how can this work?

There was much talk throughout the day about co-creativity, co-production, Uber, Airbnb and crowdfunding, but as Celia rightly pointed out at the end, there wasn’t much talk about sharing, not explicitly anyway. Is crowdfunding sharing? Especially when something is crowdfunded and it’s never delivered? Isn’t that stealing? Or is it borrowing?

This conference provided many more questions than answers. I haven’t thought about sharing as much in my own thesis yet there is so much emphasis on sharing in our everyday lives nowadays, especially on social media. And in a recent chat with a potential participant in my research, ‘sharing’ was mentioned many, many times. Are we moving into a ‘sharing economy’? And what implications does this have (if any) for cultural production?

Overall it was a useful day and I made some great contacts. It’s certainly got me thinking more about sharing, something that, in the social media age, is almost second nature.

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.