Alice E. Marwick’s Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity and Branding in the Social Media Age (Yale University Press) is at once a cultural history, an ethnographic observation, and a scathing critique of Silicon Valley’s post-Facebook startup scene and the culture of what we now call the social web (what we used to call Web 2.0). Marwick embedded herself in the Silicon Valley tech scene from 2007 – 2009, the heady years where social media came of age as a cultural force and an industry – such that it is. Marwick, a professor at Fordham University that studies online culture, of followed and observed industry professionals and tech journalism at events like South by Southwest Interactive (before it became a brand circus), at parties sponsored by online publications like Mashable and Techcrunch, and at Silicon Valley co-working spaces where startup employees gathered.
She also followed the industry scene as it was documented on Twitter, at the time where the industry back-channel was starting to gain momentum. Her findings are at once illuminating and cringingly familiar for me, as my own career social media began at roughly the same time in Chicago. Marwick’s observations clearly paint a picture of the heady and genuine excitement of the time, before the industry was oversaturated with people and cynicism, when communities were formed, ideas were shared and people were collectively attempting to make sense of the potential use of these network platforms. At the same time, Marwick is unsparing in her critique of the narcissism and superficiality of this brand-obsessed industry.
Many of Marwick’s critiques of social media and tech culture aren’t really particluarly new: she points out the erasure of online privacy and the eroding divide between personal and professional online identity, the emotional currency (and cost) of developing curated, commercialized public self: the pressure to construct a social media persona under the guise of “authenticity”; the fetishization of “meritocracy” in a persistantly homogenous work culture. What makes the book an interesting read is the interviews and anecdotal observations of many of the current (and past) major players in the scene. For example, tech journalist Sarah Lacy, before she started PandoDaily, talking about her personal brand:
“For me, this is my entire life and I am fine with it being my entire life. I don’t have any balance and there are very few people who are willing to do that.” says Lacy about her job. Of course, reading this in 2014 we now see “passion” and the willing convergence of personal and professional life is practically required of those who work in most digital fields, particularly at startups.
Reading Marwick’s observations is like reading a roadmap to online culture of today. While in 2014, critics bemoan the age of “toxic Twitter wars”, 2005 was the age of the “anti-fan” where online communities were formed around the collective activity of expressing hatred for social media “micro-celebrities” like Julia Alison (remember her?) Absolutely nothing is new, even in the microscopic history of social media.
For me, the most interesting and useful chapter of Status Update is the first one; “A Cultural History of Web 2.0,” which describes the dovetailing and sometimes clashing forces that developed the social media culture many of us currently participate in: the utopian, entreprenurial ethos of hacker and open source culture, the personal expression and subversive nature of 90’s print zine culture and early blogs/message boards and the anti-corporate, activist tone of late 90’s – early 2000’s Indymedia culture. As someone who participated in both the indie print scene and blogged since 1999, I’ve observed the connections and similarities between these scenes but never went to the trouble of articulating them; Marwick does a clear, lucid job of bringing together these parallel cultural histories, it’s the jumping off point to a much more detailed historical documentation.
Summary: Status Update succeeds as an critique of the audience-centered focus of social media culture (particularly within the tech industry) but is even more intriguing as a cultural history of Web 2.0 online culture and its offline influences.