On 18th February 2015 I gave a presentation of my research at the BCMCR Research Seminar. This month was creative economy and cultural policy month, and last week’s fantastic papers by Annette Naudin and Christina Scharffe from King’s College London were hard acts to follow. In this presentation I picked up on a few points and issues which were raised that week, which I found useful in thinking about my own research. 

Here are the presentation slides and below is a shortened version of the script (I have omitted some details of the pilot study).

Slide 2 – presentation

In this presentation I’ll cover the following:

Slide 3 – questions

My initial research questions are:

My interest in this stems from working in social media for the past five years for a variety of organisations including BCU, as well as my own involvement in Birmingham’s creative sector through my MA in Media Enterprise in 2010 and a short time working at Birmingham’s Custard Factory. Through my experiences in these spaces I have always been interested in what role social media actually plays in people’s lives and how they use it.

Slide 4 – aims

My aims for this research are to provide new insights into the culture of the creative industries and the practice of creative workers through the social media ‘lens’ and explore the role of social media in their everyday lives.

As well as providing new insights I also aim to contribute to knowledge about social media methods and the ethical concerns surrounding social media research. Concerns around privacy, ownership of data, consent and what is considered public and private are ongoing issues of debate in social media research which require further consideration. However these concerns also present an opportunity for my research to contribute to knowledge and social media methods – the use of a multi-method approach has the potential to open up new ways of possibly addressing some of the common concerns around social media research. I will talk further about the actual methods I will use later on.

Slide 5 – why?

So why is this research important? There are two sets of issues here which are yet to be explored together.

The first concerns the debates around labour, precarity and the working conditions of creative industries workers, about which we saw two papers last week in this seminar. The work of Angela McRobbie in Clubs to Companies was particularly important in bringing this to light, and later work by Mark Banks, David Hesmondalgh, Andy Pratt and Kate Oakley among many others have all contributed to these debates particularly in relation to the UK creative industries workforce, and neoliberal cultural policy strategies. Issues of labour and self-exploitation are relevant here, especially in relation to the second issue I’m looking at, which is digital labour focusing on social media use.

Melissa Gregg has looked at the idea of ‘presence bleed’ for professional workers in the IT industries, claiming that the ubiquity of mobile technology, emails, the internet and work related ‘gossip’ becoming inescapable on social media highlights the potential extra pressures that social media presents, on top of the day job. How does this play out for creative industries workers? How do they use it and what is their attitude towards it?

Social media labour and exploitation of users by corporations who own the platforms, highlighted by the work of the likes of Mark Andrejevic, Adam Arvidsson, Christian Fuchs among many others is also something to consider here – who the social media user is working for, ultimately?

 Slide 6 – literature

These are the main areas of literature which I’m looking at currently, which has been refined based on further reading I have been doing particularly around identity, performance and performativity. As is the nature of this PhD this is subject to further refinement but the main themes are around performance (and performativity), identity, expertise and cultural intermediaries, the conditions of cultural work and taking into account the wider context of the creative industries for example through cultural political economy, which has been used effectively by Calvin Taylor and Justin O’Connor in their work on the UK creative industries and cultural intermediaries.

And finally social media, which ties into the other areas, and another area of interest is self-branding on social media, in which some work has been done using a linguistic approach, for example by Ruth Page in her look at self-branding and micro celebrity on Twitter.

Slide 7 – scope and potential methods

I am going to use Birmingham as a case study city because it has a particular social media scene with events such as Birmingham Social Media Café which are run and attended by creative industries practitioners in the city. The city has also seen a number of creative industries initiatives in recent years to foster economic growth in this area, such as the Creative Cities Partnership, the European Creative Industries Alliance and its projects such as Cross Innovation. Also of note are Birmingham’s digital strategies which are implemented through Digital Birmingham, set up by Birmingham City Council to develop digital and ‘smart’ technologies, initiatives and infrastructure in the city.

An interesting question raised last week referred to the use of Birmingham, and the issue of whether research which focuses on Birmingham should be about Birmingham. Of course, there are some distinctive features about Birmingham that I’ve just mentioned which led to me choosing it as a case study, so I appreciate that whatever I find out here, may not be able to be applied to other contexts, but then again it might be, I’m leaving it open and using Birmingham as a case study enables me to do that. It’s also important that I keep it as a case study because I’m looking at social media, which enables people to connect with others outside of their locality, and the notions of the ‘local’ and the ‘global’, or the ‘digital’ are important to consider.

Another interesting point last week highlighted in particular by Christina’s presentation was that of focusing on one particular profession, rather than bundling creative industries workers into one study. While I think it would of course be valuable to focus on one particular niche, there could be value in seeing how people from different disciplines approach their social media use and how this might relate to the conventions (or not) to their profession. For example, the musician who likes to shy away from the limelight or the actor who will go to the opening of the envelope, so keeping it open in this regard may help to uncover some useful insights for comparison.

I’m looking to interview around 15-20 practitioners working in the creative and cultural industries in Birmingham. I’m choosing to do interviews because from my own experience being in the social media space, and from talking to people working within it and of course my own reflections on what I do, there are indications of a reflexivity and a conscious consideration of managing one’s own social media activity and that this can change over time, and teasing out this reflexivity would be particularly valuable.

Of course the interview situation itself may not capture enough about this reflexivity, the process of it as well as the role of social media usage in creative workers’ day to day, so I aim to address this by asking participants to also keep a reflective diary of their social media use, to not only note down what they do, but again asking them to reflect on it may tell us more about how it fits into their daily practice.

I’m also looking to analyse social media posts using Norman Fairclough’s method of relational discourse analysis. Fairclough has used this method to look at politicians and experts, in terms of the construction of their identity and use of language to characterise the position of an expert. Relational discourse analysis considers the external relations of texts – including social events, social practices and social structures, and the internal relations of texts – including discourse, semantics, grammar and vocabulary. Fairclough states that the internal and external are connected through the mediation of an “interdiscursive analysis of the genres, discourses and styles which they draw upon and articulate together”. Styles are described by Fairclough as the “discoursal ways of being, identities” and the process of identity formation through discourse is of relevance to my research.

I have begun a pilot study with a fellow PhD researcher and practicing artist who has worked at galleries around the world. She’s kindly agreed that I use a small portion of her Twitter feed in this presentation to illustrate my potential approach, which I will talk about more later on. But before that I want to touch on a recurrent theme during this month – neoliberalism.

Slide 8 Neoliberalism

The issues I’m concerned with in my research of self-promotion and ‘selling’ oneself, the growing ‘expert system’ in the UK creative industries and beyond, the increasing importance of sociality and reputation, labour and exploitation and precarious work, are among the characteristics of neoliberalism. The issues brought up by other presentations this month have highlighted how important it is to for me acknowledge neoliberalism in my research, and situate my findings within the wider context of the creative industries.

Russell Prince (2010) wrote about expertise within the UK creative industries, in how certain figures position themselves as ‘experts’ and align themselves with government assemblages to influence policy. More recently he has furthered this by looking at consultants, describing an ‘economy of expertise’ and outlining the significance of networks within the logics of neoliberalism, as he describes:

“The continuance of certain neoliberal logics is apparent in which markets are used to organise almost everything, including expertise. This introduced new forms of expert relations and interests, such as the pursuit of value and profit, to the work of cultural organisations.” (Prince, 2014:12)

So, it’s for this reason why I think it is important to relate my findings to the wider context, and now I’m going to talk about the different ways that I’m thinking of doing this in relation to performance of expertise on social media.


Slide 9 – performance of expertise

Also mentioned last week was the distinction between performance and performativity, which I’ll make now.

Performativity is concerned with signifying and enacting through words – this is the linguistic definition by Judith Butler, who claimed that we perform, or do, socially constructed roles, such as gender.

Performance is performing! Erving Goffman (1959) has heavily influenced this area, using a dramaturgical approach to describe how individuals present themselves in face to face and group situations, and are actively aware of their audience during interaction and self-presentation. The work of Goffman, as mentioned by Dave Harte last week, has already been used in a plethora of studies on social media and presentation of self, and there is a lot of useful work there.

What I will concentrate on here however, especially as I have been talking about neoliberalism, is performativity because of its linkages with the economy; this is where the work of Michel Callon (1998) is particularly influential. Callon claims that economic discourses help to frame and constitute economic behaviour, and are performative.

Sean Nixon (2014) combined elements of Callon’s economic work with Pierre Bourdieu’s approach to social formation, class and taste dispositions to look at cultural intermediaries, (who tend to be considered ‘experts’ in their field) and unpack the process of cultural intermediation. Using the example of advertising, he describes how advertisers define and frame the characteristics of goods so they are suitable for circulation in the market – which is Callon’s concept. He then talks about Bourdieu’s conception of cultural intermediaries as an emerging class fraction, or the ‘new petite bourgeoisie’ and Bourdieu’s emphasis on class and taste dispositions, and the ability of the new petite bourgeoisie to effectively negotiate between high and low culture and combine elements of both into products to appeal to the market. Nixon argues that both approaches – the economic and the sociological – are of value to help us understand the process of intermediation. For my work, it’s certainly possible that I could take a similar approach in conceptualising performativity of expertise in my discussion.

Slide 10 – pilot study

This is a screenshot [not included in the slides] from the Twitter account of my pilot study, who is a practicing artist and PhD researcher. She’s given me permission to start looking at her Twitter feed, and I’m going to do a brief analysis here to demonstrate how Fairclough’s relational discourse analysis could be used to look at performance of expertise on social media.

Fairclough points out how expertise is increasingly broadcasted through mediated communication and mass media. For my research I am treating social media as a form of this mediated communication; as a text to be analysed.

Fairclough used relational discourse analysis to look at experts and the language of the expert. He describes how the language of the expert tends to be authoritative, they present information, and they offer knowledge and expertise in the form of statements, and he provides some useful illustrative examples of this in his text. Fairclough also points out the importance of looking at practice, for example creative practice, or social media practice, and also, particularly relevant on social media, associations. Danah boyd and Jeffrey Heer in 2006 talk about the ‘public displays of connection’ by people on Friendster, which Dawn Gilpin (2011) argues plays a role in professional identity construction online. Rob Cover (2012) claims that identity ‘performances’ occur through associations and tagging, yet this can sometimes be at odds with a stable identity narrative, which is one of many examples of the negotiations and tensions that occur with presentation of self on social media and which I want to unpack further.

So I only have a few tweets here and her biography. Within the biography you immediately pick up on the use of words such as ‘specialist’ in a particular area – if we go back to du gay’s ‘personhood’ and categorisation of person, this artist has categorised herself as a specialist in a particular field, through discourse. Also in her biography are her associations, which reinforce her identity as a practitioner within this field.

On to her tweets, I noticed there are a mix of the professional and personal nature, on the surface.  Language wise, there is little in the way of the information giving, authoritativeness which Fairclough talks about in relation to experts.

This of course does not mean that she is ‘failing’ to present herself as an expert or doesn’t think of herself as an expert, what should be considered here is the medium of Twitter, and the conventions of the language on there. A prime example of this being the use of hashtags, and this person is a very interesting case in that she repeatedly uses a particular hashtag to describe herself in the third person; it is her ‘brand’ and a part of her online identity which corresponds with her blog, in which she writes at length about her personal and professional life.

Her tweets mainly refer to her personal development and journey as a practitioner and academic, particularly with the use of the #PhD hashtag which places those tweets within a wider collection from other users about PhD study and life.

Slide 11 – initial observations

Her ‘performance’ of expertise here, just from this small snapshot, comprises of her categorisation as a ‘specialist’ within a specific field, her associations or ‘public displays of connection’ with other people and companies which reinforce this, and the use of medium-specific conventions such as the special hashtag she uses to establish her ‘brand’.

She is not presenting herself here as a practitioner, or a PhD student, or a person who likes to blog candidly, she is all of that. And as mentioned by Christina last week, the emphasis on the whole self as a project to be worked on and a product to be marketed, is one of the distinctive features of neoliberalism.

Interviews and a diary from this person can hopefully tell us more about how this practice of working on the self as a project or brand, in particular through the use of social media, fits in with the practice of a creative industries practitioner.

A huge thanks to everyone who attended and contributed to the discussion afterwards. There were useful points raised about cultural and creative workers I will approach, the nature of creative work and other jobs/commitments (such as doing a PhD, as in my pilot study), sampling, discourse analysis and other aspects of method. 

Follow my research blog for more about my PhD.

Birmingham Centre For Media And Cultural Research

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