Thursday, December 15, 2011

Social media and the "prestige area"

I have been reading C. Wright Mills's White Collar, which is by turns excruciatingly dull and empirical, and then brilliantly prescient and polemical. It's boring when he is doing the impossible work of describing society in terms of how many people are doing this job or that job and so forth, but great when he starts coining phrases like "cheerful robots" and "managerial demiurge" and begins speculating on how media intersect with emerging middle-class ideology.

In a chapter called "The Status Panic" Mills analyzes the function of prestige in the U.S., where the bases for it are "ambivalent and unstable" and as a result, "the enjoyment of prestige is often disturbed and uneasy." Mainly he's talking about the shift from work-based prestige to consumption-based prestige, which is one way of understanding how consumerism came to be dominant. He details the different "prestige areas" that different strata have to operate in and how media create new ones, or expand those which already exist. Traditionally you were dealing with neighbors and townsfolk and so on. The media prompts invidious comparison wiht idealized insecurity-making celebrity types. Social media means you are dealing with everybody you have ever known and lots of other curious strangers.

Mills connects communication with prestige, pointing out that communication can be geared to not convey information but prompt invidious comparison.

Some communication system is needed to cover any prestige area, and in modern times, with the enlargement of prestige areas, 'being seen' in the formal media is taken as a basis of status claims as well as a cashing of them.
The media thereby creates "status markets" in which the signifiers of prestige begin to more rapidly turnover. Media also allowed different strata to observe others outside of their ordinary run of life and develop disproportionate expectations for themselves.

I wonder if the prestige area generates the media system appropriate to it, as Mills seems to be thinking, or if the media system enables new forms of prestige, defines new prestige areas technologically, as the brief history of social media suggests. I think the key idea is Mills's sense that media "agitate" prestige areas -- they generate a "status panic" which churns the meanings of status symbols and generates incentives for a variety of consumer behaviors.

When media coverage was a scarcer good -- when media was more tightly controlled and required more capital to transmit -- pure visibility signified status. Obviously social media is in the process of changing that, but there seems to be a ideological hangover that leads us to still think of attention in the abstract as being prestigious.

This HBR article by Daniel Gulati notes that Facebook is "creating a den of comparison" -- that is, it is broadening the prestige area, leaving less space for us to operate outside of the concern for how we are coming across. I don't live in a Brooklyn neighborhood for this reason; I want to go home somewhere that I won't feel perpetually judged (assuming I can quell internal paranoia). Facebook means you can never go home, never escape. It wants to open the possibility that the whole of life be subsumed within a prestige area by mediatizing everything.

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