Social Contexts and Solidarity

Clay Shirky, in discussing his new book at TPM Café, concludes with the following question(s):

I can imagine that however unjust it may be to be relegate to the status of a despised cubicle rat, it’s gotta be worse to be a d.c.r. who doesn’t kick ass at WoW. The question it leaves me with is this: if we have a way of increasing people’s satisfaction with their activities in flexible social spaces, is that a net gain, because it increases satisfaction, or is it a net loss, because blissing out on our local social contexts lowers our sense of injustice, in a way that makes us less likely to fight against it?

Also at TPM Café, danah responds:

It is possible to gain satisfaction from achieving high status in World of Warcraft, even if popularity there is quite niche. In our ethnographic study of new media and youth culture, the Digital Youth group at Berkeley and USC also found that many youth involved in interest-driven digital practices rejected traditional status markers in preference for those that could be achieved in subcultures… [But] just because status markers can be rearranged does not mean that they universally are.

For most teens, the status that matters is that which is conferred in everyday life. Everyday friendship and dating matter more to them than the connections that they make online. This isn’t that surprising because, for as much time as teens spend online, they spend very little engaging with strangers and far more connected to people that they know. Finding interesting music videos or gross-out content online may heighten status amongst peers if this content is valued, but becoming popular with strangers online does not transfer to popularity offline.

I agree with danah here, but think there’s also more reason for hope regarding the value of online popularity. For introverted – nerdy, geeky, etc. – kids, online activity can be a source of validation absent elsewhere in their lives, and sometimes that affirmation can transfer back to their off-line lives either as greater self-confidence or, in some cases, more local social capital. In the upcoming Born Digital, John Palfrey and Urs Gasser focus on the case of one introverted teen who was not classically popular – until word made it back to his school that he was a successful and popular video mash-up artist online.

Certainly there’s a n=1 danger here – most nerdy, socially awkward kids will remain, as ever, at the lower rungs of the social totem poll in high school (saying this as a proud alumnus of the class of nerdy, socially awkward kids), and danah also relates the thoughts of,

Dominic, a 16-year old from Seattle: “I don’t really think popularity would transfer from online to offline because you’ve got a bunch of random people you don’t know it’s not going to make a difference in real life, you know? It’s not like they’re going to come visit you or hang out with you. You’re not like a celebrity or something.”

Bringing this back around to Shirky’s original question – will this dull our sense of injustice? I would ring in here with a full-throated “NO.” What Shirky is really talking about when he says “blissing out in our local social contexts” is a very old idea, and a powerful one – you say esprit de corps, I say solidarity. Building social capital is a good thing, no matter how local it might be, because the alternative (could be) a society atomized down to the most basic component level of the individual. That doesn’t work, Thatcherite critiques notwithstanding: we’re social creatures, happiest and best when we’re most social. ICTs at their best can be a tools in creating greater solidarity among citizens: more people with a sense that working together and towards a common purpose might, as a general principle, be a good thing. And in my book, there are few goals more worthy than that. A generation raised with practice building solidarity – even if it is with “random people” (indeed, perhaps especially if it’s with random people) – is a hopeful sign for society.

Jacob Kramer-Duffield