Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age, by Alice E. Marwick

Silicon Valley’s stars ceaselessly shape their image to a neoliberal ideal, Finola Kerrigan discovers

February 6, 2014

Engaging, well-researched and interdisciplinary, Alice Marwick’s keen-eyed analysis of the technology and social media industry in and around San Francisco, conducted via extensive interviews with dozens of key players, simultaneously feeds our craving for Silicon Valley gossip while providing enough footnotes for us to feel intellectual. Like a mash‑up of an academic Gawker and a classic ethnography, Status Update serves up first-hand observations and anecdotes drawn from the author’s insider access to a world of code, both social and technical.

With the tech world’s cherished myths of meritocracy, democracy, authenticity and countercultural spirit firmly in her sights, Marwick, a former postdoctoral researcher at Microsoft, starts by tracing the origins of internet culture in the hacker community and the creators of zines and other cultural producers determined to loosen the shackles of copyright law and the conservative stranglehold of mainstream media. Her discussion of the roots of the Web 2.0 movement in zine and e‑zine culture highlights not only those movements’ politicised origins, but also their depoliticisation by the end of the dot.com boom.

Marwick takes care to view the arguments from all sides, as in her discussion of bloggers’ infiltration of the news arena. It is a development that its proponents believe offers a more diverse and truthful representation of news than that offered by corporate-controlled publications; nevertheless, as Marwick says in referencing Andrew Keen, it may ultimately prove a poor substitute for professional news outlets’ in-depth investigative journalism.

Drawing on Manuel Castells’ identification of internet culture as consisting of four distinct elements – namely “the techno-meritocratic culture, the hacker culture, the virtual communitarian culture and the entrepreneurial culture” – Status Update ably highlights the interplay of these often conflicting currents in the tech and social media landscape. Marwick also points to the seemingly inevitable cycle of evolution in the utopian ideal, in which utopian projects are usually the preserve of a privileged minority with the resources and freedom to experiment with alternative modes of working or being. But such experimentation often leads swiftly to a niche position in the capitalist ecosystem, as indie-spirited collectives are brought (and sold) into the mainstream economy and, along the way, lose their foundational principles.

Despite Silicon Valley’s love of its countercultural backstory, Status Update shows that its tech start-ups and social media companies are part of an inherently neoliberal landscape, in which work is seen as central to self-realisation and entrepreneurship is the holy grail. Tech innovations are viewed as laudable enhancements to society that fully justify the vast wealth amassed by their successful (overwhelmingly male, white and young) creators. Marwick also details the habits of a tribe in which consumption is meant to be inconspicuous; lavish spending on the technology, travel and sports equipment that is tied into projects of self-valorisation is seen as more laudable than acquiring conspicuous-consumption markers of “conventional” success. Along the way, she turns a spotlight on the sense of entitlement of a group who tend to assume that the material advantages they enjoy are open to all.

Focusing on her core argument that the values promoted by social media are ultimately those of enterprise business culture, Marwick highlights the importance, in this world, of the dual currencies of tech knowledge and achievement and “attention capital”. Although knowledge always trumps attention, aspiring technocrati must position themselves as self-promoting commodities, deploying marketing and promotional techniques as they blur the lines of work and play in tweeting, Facebooking, lifestreaming and blogging about their social interactions with Silicon Valley’s higher-status members.

Marwick argues that micro-celebrity, the condition of being famous within a niche group, is at the heart of status in this world, and it comes either via “conscious arranging” or through ascription by others. But regardless of the route taken, celebrity-like presentation is expected at all times. A significant difference between micro-celebrities and mainstream celebrities is the absence of a professional PR team in the case of the former, for whom the notion of “authenticity” is key. A micro-celebrity’s Twitter presence may seem open, transparent and even quirky, but it must always chime with the espoused ideals of the dominant tech community culture. What’s more, Silicon Valley norms require that self-promotion be accompanied by a hipster-like downplaying of the desire for recognition. Necessarily, then, a social media persona must be very carefully constructed – in other words, the “edited self”. In considering what we mean by talking about the “authentic” in the social media context, Status Update points to the highly staged use of authenticity as a construct within the tech industry, and by implication across the mainstream business world.

Although there have been many interesting studies of celebrity in recent years, Marwick notes that few have presented the views or experiences of the celebrities themselves. Via her focus on Silicon Valley’s micro-celebrities (and arguably macro-celebrities in the case of the founders of Twitter and Wired who feature here), we gain valuable access to the impact of celebrity on the people themselves. Many of Marwick’s interviewees reference the lack of control they feel over their identity and the constant requirement to deploy techniques of presentation and self-protection, and she points to the need to obey the rules of the game and avoid “fame-hunting” or “oversharing”.

Successful self-branding is a subject that we hear much about here, particularly from social media pundits. But Marwick’s assessment differs in arguing that developing one’s “personal brand” is tied up with the neoliberal project of self-improvement, built on individual responsibility for adaptability, flexibility and skills development in an outsourced, freelanced, contingent-workforce world. It is a shame that Marwick does not engage with studies from the marketing literature that offer critiques of the self-branding concept, suggesting instead in her endnotes that marketing scholars have uncritically celebrated its rise. But in mitigation, her assessment recognises the modern-day inevitability of these processes in securing employment and developing a career, and she is insightful in her criticism of self-styled social media gurus and in detailing the structural inequalities that prevent some groups of people (particularly women and ethnic minorities) from entering, or succeeding in, the personal branding race.

Status Update is a must-read for anyone interested in the culture of the tech world and in the techniques of status-building in contemporary digital society. Marwick’s critical, readable approach offers a balanced and cautious analysis, and she poses important questions about a world in which participants too seldom acknowledge that economic, social and cultural capital are necessary in order to gain and maintain access to essential networks. In questioning Silicon Valley’s notions of meritocracy and authenticity and the reification of the entrepreneur, Marwick provides a critique not only of the workings of the tech industry’s hottest hotspot, but of the neoliberal project and contemporary (US) society itself. It is a world of stubborn structural and gender inequality, in which our public (work) life increasingly impinges on our private lives, and we see ourselves and our actions through the eyes of others and walk a tightrope between popularity/recognition and the status of mere wannabe. In essence, Marwick shows, Silicon Valley is just like the so‑called real world.

The author

“I was born in Oxford, England, and moved to suburban New York when I was in elementary school. I usually don’t bother telling people this, because I am so obviously a New Yorker in person, opinionated and loud, that hearing about my origins just confuses people,” says Alice Marwick, assistant professor in the department of communication and media studies at Fordham University in New York.

“I was raised with a strong sense of social justice, especially feminism, and this colours everything I do, from the topics I research and write about to the way I conduct my college classes.”

Marwick lives in Manhattan’s “aggressively hip” Lower East Side, “with my husband, who is an engineer. (We talk a lot about technology, although he claims I am more of a geek than he is.) It is a wonderful location for people-watching, from the anarchists who smoke outside the women’s bookstore up the street to the Yemeni bodega-owners on the corner to the Jersey Shore-esque interlopers who hang out at the nightclubs on the weekend. I find New York fascinating, inspiring, and endlessly frustrating. 

As a child, she “enjoyed schoolwork very much until high school, which I found very stressful.  I was a competitive high school debater, which meant I spent most weekends at tournaments and much of the summer at debate camp, honing my argumentation skills and learning how to use university libraries for research. Debate helped me become a confident public speaker and gave me the ability to argue my point of view with virtually anybody.” 

She adds: “I have always been simultaneously engaged with school and in love with popular culture, which made a doctorate in media studies a logical endpoint. The three biggest influences in my life as a teenager were my mom, Madonna, and Sassy magazine, a short-lived 1990s teen magazine which introduced me both to Riot Grrrl and wacky 90s fashion. (I collect old issues off eBay.)”

As an undergraduate Marwick attended Wellesley College, “one of the oldest and most respected women’s colleges in the United States, the alma mater of Hillary Clinton and Nora Ephron. I consciously chose a women’s college so I could focus on intellectual development without the relentless sexism that virtually any intelligent teenage girl confronts in the classroom. I loved it.

“Wellesley was a joy; it was where I first engaged with critical theory and criticism, and also where I was able to explore my interest in the early internet without feeling like it was a male activity. I also learned to value female companionship and friendship as something deeply rewarding and empowering,” she observes.

Of her decision to pursue an academic career, Marwick recalls: “In the early 2000s, I was working at a teen-targeted mobile phone start-up doing copy-writing. It was possibly my favourite job I’ve ever had, as I got to immerse myself in product design, technology research and current youth trends. Our entire team got fired on the same day, as if we were a boil lanced off a toe. I was heartbroken, and spent months casting about for something to do.

“I spent a lot of time traveling, reading BoingBoing and books about memetics. Around the same time, a friend told me that he saw me as a pundit making speeches about technology, and something in that struck a chord with me. I reasoned that if I spent my free time thinking deeply about technology, it made sense for me to pursue that as a career,” she says.

Does she see any similarities between Silicon Valley and the academy?

“Absolutely. Just like Silicon Valley, the academic world is somehow blinded by its privilege by cloaking it within a discourse of meritocracy. The inequalities in academia are unbelievably harsh, especially in the US, where there is a two-tier system of tenured and tenure-track faculty with secure employment, and adjuncts and grad students who struggle on minimum-wage salaries. Tenure-track jobs are partially, if not entirely, dependent on networking and connections made at conferences and through personal relationships, just as funding and venture capital is in the technology world.

“But academia somehow positions itself as above capitalist analysis, or as more ideologically pure than working in a corporation,” Marwick adds. “Certainly there is little difference between working in a corporation and working in academia insofar as contributing to inequality. But there is a deep suspicion of corporate jobs in the humanities especially, although I think the general working conditions for corporate employees are far better than the working conditions for adjuncts.” 

Reflecting on the Silicon Valley insiders and aspiring insiders she interviewed for this book, Marwick says, “I think most technologists are intelligent and thoughtful people, and much of the most insightful analysis in the book comes from my interviews with reflective people who see both the good and the bad in the work that they do. When I was interviewing Ev Williams, the founder of Twitter, for instance, he was very aware of how Twitter contributes to status-seeking behaviours that the book covers in depth. And he was generally dismissive of people who engage in such behaviour even as he recognized Twitter’s encouragement of it.” 

The book’s reception in that community, she says, “has been very good. Most people don’t read book-length works, but the excerpts in Wired and Medium had both critical and supportive comments. Silicon Valley as an entity can be a bit tone-deaf, but many of its participants recognise both the good and the bad in their working environment.”

Marwick’s academic work focuses in the main on “investigating online identity…through lenses of privacy and surveillance”. Asked whether she considers Edward Snowden a hero or scoundrel, she responds: “Hero, absolutely. I’ve studied privacy and technology for more than a decade, and much of what Snowden revealed was widely suspected, but difficult to prove. We need to publicly acknowledge and work through issues of government and private surveillance, and the leaked NSA documents have started a robust public conversation. I am concerned that the current administration is so hostile to whistleblowers, and like many Americans, I am frustrated that ‘because terrorism’ is still effective in shutting down so many areas of inquiry.”

If a good fairy were to offer her the gift of any skill or talent she does not now possess, Marwick says she would choose to be able to speak fluent Spanish. “I have taken classes off and on since I was a teenager, but my Spanish isn’t even good enough to talk to my neighbours.”

Karen Shook

Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age

By Alice E. Marwick
Yale University Press, 320pp, £17.99
ISBN 9780300176728 and 199154 (e-book)
Published 16 January 2014

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