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Social Media Users Are "Packaged Commodities"

It has been a while since Alice E. Marwick’s dissertation “Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Self-Branding in Web 2.0” circulated on the social web but, as you all know, academic dissertations are not as ephemeral as blog posts tend to be (who would read a week-old blog post? *warning irony detected*).

In the dissertation, Marwick talks (not surprisingly) about how corporate business models and not the democratic and collective-action ideals of the early web days inform the design of “Web 2.0” applications. What is more interesting is who stands behind these corporate business models (answer: straight white males in their thirties) and, thus, are the people that lay the basis for the design of the social platforms you use every day. Furthermore, Marwick argues that Web 2.0 applications encourages people to “see themselves as users, products, and packaged commodities” and that “social media teaches users to create an edited persona”.

Marwick writes that:

There are many reasons why this process is problematic. […] When social technologies emerged, pundits and journalists hailed YouTube, Flickr, and Wikipedia as a way for individuals to fully participate in the creation and dissemination of culture and knowledge. But what is acceptable to create and disseminate is increasingly circumscribed by what is safe: that is, what is acceptable to be publicly judged, permanently recorded, and viewed by all manner of people, from one‘s family to one‘s future employer. Even in contexts that are largely permissive about acceptable behavior, thinking of oneself as a product means sharing strategically rather than honestly. The edited self is one constructed with a particular group of people in mind, and one for which scrutiny is expected.

What Marwick talks about is to a large extent self-censorship: you only share what is acceptible to be viewed by all manner of people. The other side of censorship is corporate censorship, when design and Terms of Services decide what you can and can not do with that particular social media tool. In April this year, a photo of two men kissing was removed for violating Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, an action Facebook later revoked and excused themselves for doing. Nevertheless, the social platforms you use (for free) every day is designed and governed by someone whose ideals you might not share; is the censorship they impose ok to live with? Secondly, be reflective of your edited self: if you feel that you can’t say the things you want to say on Facebook, then start an anonymous blog or Twitter account. You have alternatives.

You can download the full dissertation on (pdf) and make sure to read Marwick’s blog.

Image credit: William Hamon CC:BY-NC-ND