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.


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