Thursday, 13 November 2008

Authenticty and The Economy of Esteem

Authenticity was much talked about in marketing circles a couple of years ago. Specifically, in trying to reach a coveted and marketing-wary demographic like young adults you have to appear to be “authentic” in your approach. Your whatsit must “authentically” appeal to them as a spontaneous product of their own milieu and not as a calculated, outsider’s attempt at cynically leveraging their culture against them.

The tricky bit, of course, is that everybody knows that everything for sale is positioned and marketed rather cynically and that “authenticity” as a desirable component of marketing sort of undoes itself. Is this kind of paradoxical? If you design something, particularly a marketing campaign, to be authentic haven’t you automatically rendered it inauthentic? Well, sort of yes and sort of no.

A recent book on the subject apparently claims that “authenticity” is a matter of consumer perception. I take this to mean something like authenticity is the consumer’s perception of the intentions of those producing the item. Particularly the perception that the cynical desire to mimic the target culture for gain wasn’t the (or the primary) motivation in the dingus’s design, presentation, etc. Most marketed things simply aren’t and can’t be authentic in the strict or ideal sense of non-reflective products of their intended demographic’s culture. But they can be more or less successful at giving that impression, effectively hiding their cynical origins.

That seems pretty obvious. What interests me is why hiding cynical origins should matter. Why do we care about authenticity and what is it we’re upset about when faced with inauthenticity?

Too Cool for School

When we see somebody going a little too far in a social situation, trying their damnedest to be cool or funny or drop the right references, slang and posture, we say they’re “trying too hard.” Often this makes us uncomfortable, annoyed, sympathetic and sometimes even angry. Personally, I’m most annoyed by “studied eccentricity,” or over-articulated individuality and forced, awkward public displays of “creativity.” For example, the artsy hipster whose outfits are precisely counter-trend in just the right way and purely on principle. To me, these folks are trying too hard and it makes me uncomfortable. Why?

Well, this situation sort of has the structure of norm compliance from the last post (suggested by a recent article by Learry Gagné, although Jon Elster, Dov Cohen, Georffrey Brennan and Philip Pettit have hit on many of these ideas as well). Keeping it simple, compliers ideally fall into three categories: true believers, esteem seekers and cynics. The incentive to comply is largely based on esteem, belonging and the withholding of both. But the whole thing seems to be governed by what Pierre Bourdieu calls the principle of “disinterestedness” (but Jon Elster hits on a similar idea in his Sour Grapes) If it’s apparent that you’re cynically going after esteem, that you’re complying just so you’ll fit in and be thought well of, then you aren’t likely to get as much of it as if you appeared to be a true believer, that is complying out of commitment to the values invested in the norm.

There tend to be relatively few true believers, yet most people don’t comply cynically just to get esteem. But their compliance can be explained by esteem. Paradoxical? Not really. Esteem seekers don’t comply expressly to get it, but if esteem wasn’t available through compliance, they wouldn’t comply. The availability of esteem is what keeps them complying, but not in the cynical sense that it’s what they’re expressly seeking. Rather esteem is the affective incentive that stabilizes their behavior around a norm. This sets up what Philip Petitt, Geoffrey Brennan and others call the economy of esteem.

Pierre Bourdieu noted that what he called the economy of symbolic goods, effectively the economy of esteem, assumed a “taboo on making things explicit." In a nutshell, the whole economy of esteem crumbles if it’s exposed. That is, true believers as well as esteem seekers and cynics have an incentive to never bring up the pseudo-instrumental nature of the economy of esteem. Realizing, displaying or communicating that it’s an economy, a system for the distribution of some commodity, strikes at its own foundation, i.e. disinterestedness. Esteem is given in proportion to the apparent disinterestedness of compliance. If instrumental interests in compliance are made explicit, Bourdieu’s taboo, the whole thing crumbles and no esteem may be given or accumulated. And as with all taboos, transgression breeds discomfort and chagrin.

The people who try too hard, like the “studied eccentrics” from above, effectively make the whole thing obvious by clumsily attempting to make a bold move in the esteem game. By playing one strategy too obviously – telegraphing the “individuality” hand – they’ve made the whole thing explicit and indirectly transgressed against Bourdieu’s taboo. In effect their bad play reveals the man behind the curtain and it’s sort of annoying; they reveal their probable cynicism and implicate us as fellow players of a game, the playing of which demands that it be taken for reality. Something that presents itself as entirely values based is revealed as partly instrumental and relatively shallow. This is unsettling.

The Inauthentic

Inauthentic marketing, for example, annoys because its cynicism is too obvious. It tries too hard to gain from playing on the tropes, codes and symbols we all use to gain esteem and a sense of belonging or meaning. Basically, it nastily and clumsily caricatures the mechanisms by which we all construct cultural meaning in social situations. The whole economy is rendered explicit and this threatens and implicates us all in a self-wrought but necessary and largely uncynical deception.

So personal authenticity isn’t even “authentic” in the strict or ideal sense (whatever that might mean). Getting back on theme, what we perceive as “authentic” marketing or products don’t try too hard. That is, they never do anything to make the norms, styles and other plays within the cultural economy of esteem explicit. I take it that’s how cynically produced items can be “authentic”; they’re quietly keyed into the playing of the game, not the gaming of the game.

Friday, 7 November 2008

The Case of "Compulsive Disclosure" - Social Functionality and Norms

In the last post, I discussed the idea of “culture” and the norms that constitute it. You can think of norms in two complementary ways: as collectively converged upon mechanisms coordinating our repeated daily interactions and as affectively charged, behavior-reinforcing repositories of shared meaning and values. In this post I want to discuss how social functionality and social media impact our expectations and preferences in interactions, ultimately leading to convergence on new norms. Because it's pretty well entrenched and understood (if passe), I'll use blogging as my main example.

To older people, it’s alarming that younger people tend to be pretty easy and open with their personal information online. One reason may be that there are many more opportunities for sharing information online that are systematically legitimated, as in registration processes, profile development and online forms in general. But this sort of disclosure doesn’t have the “bare your soul” or “edit, please” quality that I’m interested in. What interests me is the use of social functionality to (effectively) broadcast what seem to be the most intimate and/or banal details of your life. A relatively familiar example is the hyper-frank "diary" blog sub-genre. People write these knowing that friends, acquaintances and strangers will read and respond. And both producers and consumers are not typically "outliers" or closet transgressors using anonymity as a means of catharsis. Rather, the vast majority of people sustaining the norm are “regular” folks baring their souls – often sharing what seem to be the most embarrassing, compromising and/or dull details of their lives – and owning up to it.

In face to face interactions or other real world self-presentations we tend to reserve most personal information about ourselves for our closest friends and family. Often, “opening up” is about displaying trust or forcing the hearer to feel as if they are somehow symbolically indebted or "down" with you. Clearly the norms of disclosure and relevance operating in “real life” aren’t the norms observed online. I don’t think this is only because blog posts are relatively anonymous and sort of like publishing, i.e. one-way. At some level, posts are intended to set the tone and define the situation for an ensuing interpersonal interaction in a public forum, albeit a relatively stilted one with no co-presence and formidable latency.

Anyway, under the old norms, the often wrenching (or incredibly dull) self-disclosure we see online would probably create discomfort and confusion as to how to understand the interaction offline. Under the new norm(s), however, it can generate praise, esteem, sympathy and positive normative response on at least some registers. Norms, by definition, carry their standards of value and evaluation with them. What has caused the stabilization of this norm of “compulsive disclosure?”

Nothing Like a Nice Bourdieu

Before looking at the case of compuslive disclosure, I'd like to suggest a mechanism by which an old norm may be nullified and new one developed without necessarily requiring everybody to be "true belivers" in the norm's values. In other words, a mechanism that lets me suggest how the counter-normative behavior of a small group of "outliers" – folks not operating by the norms of disclosure and relevance of the “real” world – can eventually result in the acceptance and stabilization of a new norm.

Following Learry Gagné, I return to Pierre Bourdieu for the mechanism. I’ve discussed this before. Effectively people seek symbolic gain in interactions, but importantly, the terms of that gain are set by the cultural milieu in which they’re operating. In Bourdieu’s terms you often have to use your cultural capital – your knowledge, skills and abilities in understanding and creating domain-appropriate cultural artifacts and situations – to gain symbolic capital – status, prestige, esteem or general recognition by your focal group.

Mechanisms like this create what Philip Petitt and Geoffrey Brennan call the economy of esteem. People engage in behaviors they wouldn't engage in were they not capable of gaining esteem from them. But they don't necessarily comply cynically. Esteem maintains the norm in the sense that people who aren't naturally "outliers" would cease the behavior were the norm no longer there to gain esteem from. But, they've internalized the norm to such an extent that their compliance is pretty much emotional or non-maximizing.

Does the Nature of Social Functionality Impact Norms?

Of course it does. Three properties of social media seem particularly relevant to the rapid stabilization of norms online.

1. The poster’s relatively low-costs (in time, money, attention, etc.) of forming a presence (blogging, posting a video, etc.)

2. The consumer’s low cost of switching and/or forwarding.

3. The ease and efficiency with which feedback accumulates from the consumer to the poster.

The first suggests that you’ll get relatively high volume of content, providing social and cultural “outliers” in particular an equalized platform. The relatively small number of people who really do have a need to bare their souls in a public forum – counter to the norms supported by the larger culture – now have a potentially much larger public forum.

The second suggests that people can zip between posters easily both because of the arbitrarily linked nature of the web and because of the conventions of social media content genres (short, easily digestible pieces, e.g. blog posts).

These two together give the "outliers" a forum and a mechanism for gaining an audience. Basically, the qualities of the medium allow potentially counter-normative behavior – behavior at the "edge" of normal – to be viewed from the center. The third helps solidify the self-disclosure sub-genre by providing a stabilizing and often legitimating feedback channel.

To unpack this a little, "outlier" producers – the people who naturally transgress against the "real world" norms – use the platform as a cathartic mechanism for logging their innermost feelings. The relative impoverishment of the context reduces the salience of applicable norms so the discomfort of witnessing the transgression isn't as acute as it would be in person. But norm transgression, in this case the enactment of intimate privacy in a public space, can be fascinating in itself and this appeals to a significant “outlier” subset within the audience.

So we have a platform that's just distinct enough from the real world to allow public transgression of dominant interaction norms without the crushing sanctions that would occur in the "real world." The platform also provides extensive means of getting this narrow-appeal content before appreciative eyes. Finally, the feedback channel largely provides validating evaluations of the transgressive performance (partly because of the self-selecting nature of the audience). Constant public transgression coupled with forwarding and positive, visible feedback via the third property effectively weakens the old norms while laying the normative framework for new ones. Enough exposure to a new way of framing an interaction or self-presentation coupled with public displays of acceptance and evaluation can create the sort of structures of expectation, preference and values that define new norms.

But what’s interesting beyond this formation of the norm among the “true believers” or "outliers," the folks who would break the old norm anyway, is the fact that the norm can stabilize among the mainstream. There is a lot more comfort with, expectation of, and preference for personal disclosure in some online contexts than there is in most offline contexts. Basically, I claim that the voiding of the offline norms was facilitated by the properties of the medium. They effectively amplified the dispositions of the “true believers” creating an environment in which new normative expectations – expectations of others expectations that conditionalize our preferences in situations – could stabilize and spread beyond the “true believers.”

The norm is adopted by the larger community because of user's expectations of other's expectations, i.e. the possibility of the earning or withholding of esteem. Considerations of esteem don’t enter into it for the “outliers” or true believers. They’re just that way; their behavior is a manifestation of their values. However, it does enter into it for the majority of people who perpetuate the norm, both as producers and consumers. They wouldn’t necessarily behave this way without the existence of the norm to generate esteem. The discomfort at transgression of the old norm is lost and a new set of normative standards – a set of felt preferences and eventually internalized ways of simply being in the world – replaces it. The normative standards provide mechanisms by which self-esteem and esteem can be gained, either consciously or rationally – for “posers” or cynics – and unconsciously or emotionally – for people who may not be outliers dispositionally, but adopt the norm “in good faith.” As long as no one knows everybody else’s true status – true believer, esteem seeker or poser – and the groups are effectively indistinguishable in behavior, then if esteem is flowing the norm will stabilize and perpetuate.

Clearly, the properties of social media have deep effects on the norms and (thus) culture online. Realizing this fact has important ramifications for how we design and deploy social functionality. We can see that we must design for the development of pro-social norms. We can also see how media and cultural dynamics interact in the abstract. But clearly even non-antisocial norms like compulsive disclosure can appear negative from the outside (though I personally don't think that they are). And because the norms that develop are the path dependent and immensely complex results of strategic negotiations and interactions among enormous numbers of actors, there’s no way you’ll be able to predict what norms will actually emerge. However, with this understanding you will be able to make non-judgmental sense of – and thus develop coherent, non-reactionary policy to address – the ones that do emerge.

Monday, 3 November 2008

The Social, The Cultural and The Difference

In my line of work we use the word "social" a lot... social media, social networks, mobile social software, etc. And in analysis of these things, we generally use the word ambiguously to mean either the social or the cultural. What, even in caricature, is the difference? Here’s an intuitive first stab at the distinction.

The Social is about the connections and interactions between people, whereas The Cultural is about connections and interactions between people mediated by shared concepts, history, symbol systems, etc.

That is, most social interactions are mediated and structured by cultural mechanisms like norms and institutions.

Social functionality and social media obviously have some effects that are purely social in the sense above, i.e. that impact the number and quality of our interpersonal connections and the efficiency with which new connections may be made. But social media just as obviously operate on and respond to culture, i.e. the conventional meanings, preferences and distinctions that structure the interactions within our social network.

In this post, I’ll sketch a view of social norms and thus culture. Basically, I want to be able to use this formulation in future posts as a means of understanding how social media impact our preferences and expectations going into interactions. In other words, I ultimately want to look at how the specific properties of social media change culture, but first I'd like to clarify what culture is.

The Games People Play

Social norms are the informal rules of society that are maintained in several ways: by sanctions from others; by our expectations of others’ expectations; by our general desire to do as relevant others do or by some combination of all of the above. You can look at social norms in at least two ways.

1. Norms embed, encode and instantiate values.

2. Norms coordinate interactions.

To me, these are complementary ways of thinking about norms. The first is more of a lived, affective understanding. It’s about our motivating emotional states, presumed expectations and means of personal and interpersonal leverage. The second is a more cognitive understanding. It’s about the conventional structures of interaction and the delimited sets of feasible strategies that turn potentially destructive “state of nature” mixed-motive games into coordination games. The two ways of thinking of norms feed into each other: the affective reinforces and “operationalizes” the cognitive and the cognitive effect of coordination “justifies” the affective.

Culture is a system of norms that coordinates repeated interactions. Stanford political scientist David Laitin provides a tidy definition of culture in his book Nations, States, and Violence.

culture [is] an equilibrium in a well defined set of circumstances in which members of a group sharing in common descent, symbolic practices and/or high levels of interaction – and thereby becoming a cultural group – are able to condition their behavior on common knowledge beliefs about the behavior of all members of the group.

Basically, he’s using game theory jargon to say that culture is a set of complementary “plans” – or strategies – for interacting with other locals. The plans allow us to coordinate our actions efficiently and effectively. If we stick to our learned and conditioned plan we can greatly reduce the daunting task of keeping track of everybody’s probable motivations, expectations and preferences (i.e. what game they’re playing) in every interaction. Essentially, our plans tell us how we’re expected to proceed and what we should expect from others in most interactions. Once that’s out of the way, we can get down to the business of actually getting what we need out of the defined interaction. Others are using similar interaction-defining plans and expect the same from us. If we deviate, they may have incentive to try to get us back on plan. Thus feedback keeps the set of plans in a relatively stable equilibrium; deviation from conventionally understood plans often results in forces – from others and from within – that may pull us back on plan. So, in effect culture systematizes and stabilizes most of the repeated interactions we get into and defines the ones that might be unclear otherwise.

Why are cultures different in different places? Because there are a huge number of sets of plans that form equilibria for the repeated interactions we get into daily. Which equilibrium your group actually converges on is a path dependent accident of history. And of course, the “chosen” equilibrium could always fall apart and a new equilibrium could be converged upon.

So culture is just a locally stable, conditioned and self-reinforcing set of plans for coordinating the situations that continually arise in interactions with others. Specifically, they coordinate interactions by limiting the available plans for action given everybody else’s probable plans.

Seems pretty anemic, doesn’t it? Indeed, our daily experience is of the affective, values-embedding aspect of norms. It’s affective insofar as there’s a definite emotional and felt component to this conception of norms. We feel the draw of values and morals to comply or sanction non-compliance. We feel a certain dread (or delight) in transgressing them. Or when our fully internalized and purely habitual norm compliance is challenged we feel discomfort or confusion as to how to proceed.

It helps to think of these two aspects – the cognitive and the affective – as operating at different levels. If the equilibrium story describes culture from a broader perspective – of long term, pan-player negotiation that ultimately settles upon conventional ways of framing situations and thus structuring interactions with each other – then the affective aspect seems to be more about the short-run, lived experience of these coordinated interactions. That is, the equilibrium understanding is about the way we stabilize interactions through longer term development of coordinating conventions, while the affective understanding suggests something of the way we perpetuate, commit to, signal compliance with and internalize the equilibrium’s strategies in our daily lives.

My interest here is in motivation to comply and how that can stabilize and perpetuate norms. People like to belong. But more than that, they like to avoid sanction or be esteemed or attain high status or maintain a (good or bad) reputation. These are social needs that manifest themselves through the conventional “channels” and mechanisms of norms.

Some social norms, like fairness, have a clear benefit in coordination. Others, like wearing burkas, seem a little murky and arbitrary to cultural outsiders. We really can’t see any benefit in the custom and actually often perceive moral and political dangers to women. Still, the custom is valued by many and tolerated and perpetuated by many more for reasons of social pressure, perceptions of sanction and societal expectation. Still, those who don’t really feel that it’s god’s will that they wear a burka must act as if they are doing so out of devotion. It’s not enough that they do it, but rather they must do it as if they are true believers. If they didn’t they could face exclusion, disesteem or possible social and physical sanctions.

Following the work of Jon Elster and Learry Gagné, I claim the emotional aspect of norms – even though norms “really are” just arbitrary, conventional and clearly sub-optimal instances of behavioral coordination or sub-game equilibria of a higher level game equilibrium like religion – explains the perpetuation and spread of even the most detrimental customs and practices in a way that purely instrumental or utility maximizing accounts can’t. Emotions and values make these things sticky and resilient in the face of obvious sub-optimality and irrationality. Many of the people maintaining norms don’t even have to believe in the encoded values and may even suffer because of them. They simply have to believe that others believe and thus will sanction, not value or ostracize them if they don’t comply. Most importantly, they must desire the esteem, belonging and the self-respect that comes from acceptance by others. And, of course, they may fear both external sanctions and the emotional sanctions one gets from transgressing internalized norms. If there are vocal and salient norm believers, a significant number of compliers and a lot of folks interested in belonging and accumulating esteem, even lame, unpopular norms can be indefinitely perpetuated (if the incentive to change is outweighed by the incentive – rational and emotional – to maintain).

Properties of social media – in particular the ease with which feedback accumulates and speed with which items can be propagated – can impact dynamics of culture. I’ll explore this idea in the next post by looking at the new norm of “compulsive disclosure” online.