Symbolic Violence and Social Media

I work at 123people and my job is to integrate social media into a corporate environment.

A few weeks ago, I got a special request from a customer and that got me seriously thinking how social dynamics affect the business of companies.

A strange request

A customer was asking us to violate one of the rules of our customer support, a very basic one, just because he had “200K followers on twitter”. Of course we refused to satisfy the request because we follow very strict rules. However, I asked myself why would someone do something like that.

We all like to show off our follower base on our twitter profile and we also like to publish the number of reader of our feed. We also collect badges on foursquare and brag to our friends when we get a very difficult one, like the Super Swarm Badge or the Super Duper Swarm Badge.

But would you ever ask a restaurant to skip the line because you have a popular blog? Some people expect that and i wanted to understand why. What moves people to expect that being a social media star can make them to skip the line?

Pierre Bourdieu’s theory

An anthropologist friend of mine suggested that I research the studies of Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist, who came up, in the 70s, with a very fascinating theory about people and society.

Four kind of capital

He extended Marxist theory about capital, whereby people’s capital is split into four kinds: Economic, Social, Cultural and Symbolic.

  • Economic Capital is very easy to explain: money, time and production tools.
  • Social Capital is the number of people we know; our social circle.
  • Cultural Capital is what we know; our education and culture.
  • Symbolic Capital is the set of symbols recognized and legitimated by other people: job titles, study degrees, uniforms.

Capital generation

An interesting fact is that we can use one kind of capital to generate another kind: we can spend money to obtain education, we can use the people we know to find a job, we can apply a specific knowledge to meet new people.

But even more interesting is the fact that people tend to generate symbolic capital as quickly as possible. As such, we buy an expensive car or an iPhone: status symbol. Or we represent and claim the size of our social network to show off our popularity.
We also like to be recognized as authority, or being called “experts” in a specific topic.

At the same time, Bourdieu’s theory highlights the tendency of symbolic capital to be expressed by forcing these symbols upon other people, that is: symbolic violence.

Symbolic Violence

This purpose of this violence, the pressure to show off symbols, is simply the need for preserving one’s status quo. In other words, it is an attempt to keep the achieved power as well as trying to increase it.

This violence is not physical and can be expressed in many ways. A CEO who dresses up to show his job position to his employees, a journalist who always refer to his “official press badge” when speaking with bloggers at conferences, a prominent job title printed on a corporate business card.

Online symbols are even more important

This need of showing off symbols is even more present online. We expose the feed counter on our blog, we show off how many friends we have on twitter, we highlight our knowledge and former jobs on LinkedIn. There are blogs with more “awards” and badges listed on the sidebar than blogposts in the archive.

The reason for that is very simple: online, people are represented entirely by symbols: avatars, reputation, popularity, credibility. In the blogosphere we are the URL of our blog. On twitter we are completely represented by the username we use to sign our tweets, and the number of follower is the only impartial indicator of our popularity.

Three examples of Symbolic Violence

Social pressure on Farmville

A study called “Cultivated Play: Farmville” states that “Farmville players keep on playing the game not because of the engagement of the game but because of social pressure to keep on playing” and also that “Farmville is popular because it entangles users in a web of social obligations.” Social pressure equals symbolic violence.

Look at my brand new iPhone

Think about the huge amount of videos on youtube about iPhone unboxing procedures. What is interesting about unboxing a brand new iphone? It is nothing special, unless you are the first one in the world to do that. But it is all about showing off your status symbol.

I want a better sword

The third evidence is the huge growing trend in a very special market: Virtual Goods. +40% per year. Only in the US the market volume is estimated to reach 2.1B$ in 2011. People are spending huge money to dress up their avatars, buying them new items, pimp up their digital possessions. We spend real money to generate virtual symbols.

Conclusions

Do we really want companies that will only listen to us if we are popular on twitter, or services that work better only for those who shout more loudly? I don’t think so.

Companies aiming at professionalism have to serve each and every customer in a fair way. Fair treatment does not necessarily mean that “all are treated the same”. Instead, it means “equally good”, as excellently explained by Valeria Maltoni in a recent blogpost on Conversation Agent.

A professional Customer Service department will not rank people according to the number of their followers on twitter.

Thus, as a user, if you indeed want to obtain assistance from a Customer Service Department, ask questions, then show that you care and require them to be professional. Claim your rights in a clear way because they owe you a service, independently of your popularity.

[UPDATE]: Enjoy the video of this presentation!

Picture Credit: Teymur Madjderey

22 thoughts on “Symbolic Violence and Social Media

  1. Great post Luca! Sadly though, it’s often those that shout the loudest, and to the most amount of people that *do* get to the front of the line. Not because they are particularly special, but rather, that their influence is greater. There’s no excuse for poor customer service, but when pressed between someone with virtually no online presence and say, Robert Scoble, I’d bet The Scobilizer would get a response to his email faster than Joe Average.

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  2. “This violence is not physical and can be expressed in many ways.”
    E.g. Starting a blog post about an unpleasant customer showing off your rare Foursquare Super Duper Swarm Badge. 😉

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  3. Il tuo amico antropologo dovrebbe studiare il comportamento di chi viola la privacy altrui e rimane dietro al muretto a gettar sassi.

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  4. Mediocrity is no answer to violence. In fact, it probably invites violence. At least the mediocre and the violent appear together as in the old Western movies – the ruffian outlaw band shooting up main street and the little white church with the little white schoolteacher wringing her hands. To cool violence you need rhythm, humor, tempering; you need dance! Not therapeutic understanding.

    ~James Hillman, author of The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling

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  5. Referring to the incident that got this post started, is it possible that there’s some space for misinterpretation? I mean sure, one can consider the number of twitter followers a status symbol and try to impose it on others (via an act of symbolic violence then), but it could be as simple as leverage. Could it be that those guys with hundreds of thousands of followers are simply saying “either serve me better/quicker/cheaper, or I will use my huge crowd of followers to ruin your reputation with a single comment”?

    Then I guess it’s not so much as symbolic violence, but a plain old blackmail 🙂

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  6. Great post, thanks for sharing.

    You might be interested in a great book on the topic : The Rebel Sell. This books draws on Fred Hirsh and Thorstein Veblen (on top of Pierre Bourdieu’s) theories : when we buy products we acquire status goods and we are looking for distinction.

    It is a fantastic read with focus on counter-culture as opposed to Social Media but the approach is pretty similar.

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  7. We are a bunch of volunteers and starting a brand new scheme in our community. Your web site provided us with useful info to work on. You have performed a formidable task and our entire neighborhood will be thankful to you.

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  8. hello, Symbolic violence and social media is a good topic and ur presentation was excellent. I got interested to it that is why i’m planning to do an extensive research about symbolic violence. i will really appreciate it if i can get ur sources for this presentation. thanks!

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  9. Unfortunately, the examples of symbolic violence in your article demonstrate a misunderstanding of the concept. For example owning a new iPhone is about social and economic capital. Owning a new iPhone has nothing to do with tacit cultural control by structural forces!

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    1. My point is about showing off the iPhone, as a mean to express the status quo, more than the general control. However the social pressure in owning an iPhone is a strong cultural control.

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