The status update is a major part of our daily lives. But how did Silicon Valley’s “Web 2.0” subculture make its way into the mainstream so quickly? Alice Marwick’s latest, Status Update, gives us a clue.
Discussed in this review: Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age by Alice E. Marwick. Yale University Press, 2013, 368 pages. Buy at Yale UP and Amazon.
Let’s look back to the second half of the 2000s: a time period that, on the one hand, feels so recent, but on the other, seems like eons ago. In terms of technology, a lot has changed since then. In 2006, for example, most Americans owned flip phones, but not smartphones; the iPhone was just a rumor. The first generation iPad wasn’t on the market in early 2010, and the tablet market (that is, what little of it existed) consisted of a small subset of early adopters. Twitter was not yet mainstream, and Facebook was only starting to make waves among college students and teens.
This is the period of history Alice Marwick focuses on in her book, Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age. Marwick’s insightful new book is an ethnography of Silicon Valley tech culture from 2006–2010. Status Update is a more accessible version of her Ph.D. Dissertation. It is an ethnography for the masses, so to speak. The book tells of gossip, parties, startup culture, and the rise of Web 2.0. Marwick’s goal is to give us a glimpse into how Silicon Valley operates, not from an economic standpoint, but from a cultural standpoint. The main question she poses is this: What are the values and beliefs that tie together Web 2.0 culture, particularly in the Valley?
Marwick avoids a lot of academese in this book, and it reads like a popular nonfiction book a la Malcolm Gladwell (except, she does use words like “simulacra” — oh well). She states early on that her goal is to provide a snapshot of Silicon Valley culture from the period in which she observed it, and ascribe to this subculture certain values, beliefs, or ways of operating. Early in the book, she says that “[d]espite frequent claims by technologists that the scene was egalitarian,” Web 2.0 is like any other subculture in that hierarchies and ways of operating are formed early on and reinforced by its members. She says, “insiders were happy to describe divisions in great detail,” and “a close examination of practically any online group will reveal tightly wound status hierarchies that often serve to limit participation, sometimes by following timeworn lines of power.” Basically, Silicon Valley doesn’t operate from a place of egalitarian utopia – out to “change the world,” as many claim, conjuring the ghost of Steve Jobs – but rather from a place of power and hierarchy no different from any other American subculture.
With this view of Silicon Valley in mind, Marwick’s book is much more cynical than I expected it to be, but that’s to her credit: don’t expect a pie-in-the-sky vision of the future here, a trend so common in technology nonfiction. Instead, Marwick calls out Silicon Valley’s sexist, classist, and ageist ways of operating. However, she doesn’t try to say, “well, isn’t this a shame? Women don’t have access to capital, and white, rich men still make final decisions?” but rather to say “Silicon Valley is not much different than the rest of American Capitalist subcultures.” In that way, I respect Marwick’s approach. She is not bemoaning the loss of egalitarianism, but stating that egalitarianism is just as much a myth in Silicon Valley as it is anywhere else.
Planned Obsolescence in Marwick’s Book?
Her thesis is fresh, but Marwick’s research in Status Update is already
dated. Her field research, which included befriending Silicon Valley
insiders and attending parties, took place from 2006–2010, as noted. This is a long time ago on the Web. The ways in which these tech insiders operate have changed, and many of her interviewees are not tech “insiders” anymore.
This isn’t Marwick’s fault, necessarily, but rather a fault of her type of research. Academia runs at a much slower pace than Silicon Valley or American culture as a whole. Many of the subcultural ways of operating in Silicon Valley are now mainstream. For example, anxieties brought on by social media, or a feeling of being “always on,” affect most Americans today. Our grandparents and parents use Facebook more often than our children or younger siblings, and it’s no longer “cool.” The hot new startups she discusses in the book — Digg and Flickr, for example — are shells of their former selves. Twitter is now a publicly traded company, not a tiny little corner of the Internet set aside for tech insiders as it is portrayed in this book.
Thus, Status Update is not a book for early adopters, technology insiders, or people rooted in Silicon Valley culture. These readers won’t find much new here. In fact, many readers of technology websites like Engadget or The Verge will already know about most of the points made in this book; the book already feels obsolete. However, this book will appeal to new social media users, people in the mainstream, or readers who just bought their first smartphone and are fascinated by tech culture.
Marwick does take us into corners of the Web we may not have visited yet. Chapter 5, “Lifestreaming: We Live In Public,” explores lifestreaming culture: those social media enthusiasts who use programs to track the minutiae of every day life, from a catalog of music (Last.fm) to tracking and rating every sexual encounter (Bedposted). She calls lifestreaming “a strategic, edited simulacrum, one specifically configured to be viewed by an audience.”
Lifestreaming is part of what Marwick terms the authentic self. Many of the participants in her research spoke of “authenticity” as a virtue, equating social media usage with fashioning oneself as “authentic.” As Marwick points out, authenticity “is a social construct that is always defined against something else; it is a slippery concept that is impossible to pin down.” Authenticity is how you want to be portrayed, a carefully constructed, public version of self. In that way, the idea of an “authentic” self starts to fall apart once one begins to ask basic questions like, “Who am I?” or “What is my true self?” For example, my “authentic” self is quite boring: I watch the same TV shows everyone else does, I go to work, I pay my taxes, but who wants to read about that? “Authentic,” here, means establishing norms: don’t act like a spammer or marketer and don’t overshare. Authenticity is often normed by writers like Tim Ferriss or Gary Vaynerchuk, who try to norm what is “authentic,” and in the process, fashion authenticity around a primarily privileged, white male ideal.
Overall, Status Update is a fine book, full of details (some lurid and titillating) about Silicon Valley in the Web 2.0 age. Yes, there are some faults — primarily, that Marwick’s research already seems dated and doesn’t bring much “new” insight to anyone who reads Wired or Techcrunch — but overall, the book is well-written and serves as a sociological record of a time we might later discover is more of a blip in history, rather than a time of great social change and upheaval. For that reason, the book is well worth a read.