Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Knowledge 2020 / Undergraduate Ethnography

Digital Cultural Capital Exchange and Value: Knowing What to Say and How to Say It, By Sabrina Wu, Kaylee Tang, and Tenzin Tsundue (Ethnography of the University 2020: Focus on Knowledge)

This blog post was part of the coursework for the Ethnographic Practicum course, “Ethnography of the University 2020: Focus on Knowledge.” It was originally posted in the category “Online Communities.”

A popular image of a mouse is blown up on a billboard for receiving more likes than the number of votes that determined the results of the 2000 US presidential election. This Reddit Up the Vote campaign ironically highlights the difference between the content that people are willing to engage with online versus in real life. It begs the question, what kind of content or knowledge is valued on social media? How is this value measured and how do users know how to create value in these formats?

The success of digital content seems to be enumerated based on a post’s likes and shares but knowing what type of information will be engaged with requires cultural capital, an accumulated set of knowledge that can be used to demonstrate one’s competence in a particular social environment (Bourdieu 1986). Cultural capital in an objectified state is transmitted through material forms such as writing, and it may in turn generate economic capital (Bourdieu 1986, 19). Identifying the form of cultural capital in a digital context proves to be a struggle, as it is difficult to pinpoint which materials or set of norms are assets to users. The widespread distribution of content on social media obscures the traceability of cultural capital. This further complicates the matter of seeing who actually holds capital on social media, especially when the capacity to influence changes frequently amongst users, companies, and platform producers themselves. Hence analysis needs to shift from a focus on assets to engagements, especially when considering interactive media such as Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn. In order to sustain the engagement of a digital community, users must know how to use these online networks to assert both online and offline authority through interactions. 

Using social media has been described by some as being intuitive, however, there are several unspoken rules on how to behave, communicate, and present the online self. These rules impact the type and shelf-life of media power.

Kaylee’s research on who circulates information about social issues on Instagram reveals the use of identity politics in maintaining digital cultural capital. For example, several Instagram bios point to respective users’ sexuality, gender, or race to authenticate their authority in speaking about issues pertaining to their identities. Knowing how to be authorized to discuss certain topics establishes clout, a product of cultural capital that is granted power by a targeted online audience.

In contrast, Tenzin’s research concerned a Buddhist priest who already had considerable authority in real life but used social media to maintain and further circulate his influence. Through the priest’s Facebook page previously established offline followers continued to interact with the leader digitally while sharing his posts to other online communities, generating new followers. Cultural knowledge such as trends, news, and memes are used to demonstrate the religious figure’s knowledge through relatable means. The immediacy of accessible media also prioritizes cultural relevance when circulating content, affecting their survival as trending content. Offline authority can extend and maintain cultural capital through their online presence and engagement with culturally relevant information.

Maintaining online engagements that transmit cultural capital also requires knowledge on relatability with online social groups. Personal branding has been seeping into various elements of social media. Sabrina’s research on the incorporation of the authentic self in the professional environment of LinkedIn reveals a microcosmic form of personal branding where users have to sell their ideas, belief system, values, and personality. The form of consumerism prevailing on the digital social field moves away from material products towards users’ attempts to hold cultural capital, an intangible status facilitated by digital exchanges. Curated accounts and posts adopt marketable prototypes which can direct their interactions to project an image of authenticity. The advertised message from media users then promotes and circulates knowledge on how to purchase authenticity and digital cultural capital. 

Online and offline identities gain access to certain social communities through exchanges that reinforce what kind of content is valued on social media. Our research projects have attempted to study various forms of cultural capital that generate threads of engagement. The digital space presents a social field where capital may not necessarily be possessed in a concentrated form but can be harnessed by those who know what to say and how to say it. 

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1986. “The Forms of Capital.” In Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. Edited by John G. Richardson, 241-258. New York: Greenwood Press.

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