By Annette Naudin & Karen Patel
On Wednesday 6 July we attended the ‘Work/Play’ conference at Futureworks in Manchester, where we presented our joint paper Entangled Expertise: women’s use of social media in entrepreneurial work, which is currently in the process of publication.
Our presentation was part of an interesting panel about communicative labour, and we found some useful crossovers with Poppy Wilde and Francien Brockhausen from Coventry University who presented about emotional digital labour. They are both PhD students looking at different platforms: Poppy is examining an online gaming community, Francien is looking at bridal forums. Both have found that emotional and affective labour is a significant factor in the online activity of both, in the form of ‘connecting’, ‘sharing’ and ‘becoming’. They highlight how the labours of connecting, sharing and becoming require significant amounts of investment, in terms of time, effort, and emotional investment. Both online spaces call for participants to build knowledge and skill in order to participate effectively. The significant crossover with our work was the acknowledgement of particularly feminine forms of online relating; the preference to form bonds and connections rather than merely promoting one’s business, or collecting bridal photos for personal inspiration. The relational labour (Baym, 2015) of social media use is a crucial dimension often missed in literature about digital labour, and the evidence from us and our colleagues at Coventry University suggest there are particularly feminine dimensions of this which require further investigation. What Poppy and Francien also did was highlight the importance of considering emotional labour in online communication, and their auto-ethnographic accounts were illuminating in this respect. What followed was a thought provoking panel discussion where the similarities between our work really emerged.
For our paper we looked at the Twitter activities of a sample of female cultural entrepreneurs, examining how they present their expertise on the platform and what this can tell us about professional female identities within neoliberal economies. In addition to expertise, Angela McRobbie’s ideas of the perfect/imperfect (2015) also formed a part of our conceptual framework. McRobbie argues that the notion of ‘perfection’ has ‘entered into the common currency of contemporary femininity’ (p.4). This is encapsulated in the ‘can do girl’ (Harris, 2004) who is in charge of her affairs and bears the individual burden if anything goes wrong in her career. We wondered about the online dimensions of this, and investigating it through an expertise ‘lens’ assisted our analysis.
We analysed the samples of posts using Candace Jones’ (2002) signalling expertise framework, a framework used by Jones to describe the importance of expertise in creative careers, and to identify the ways in which it is signalled. Our analysis is a departure from other work about online self-presentation, such as self-branding (Hearn, 2008; Marwick, 2013) which are more individualistic in nature. An expertise-based analysis of social media activity revealed alternative forms of online identity negotiation. We found that the female cultural entrepreneurs in our sample performed their expertise in three ways in particular, which we call ‘let’s do this!’, ‘imperfection’ and ‘not Tweeting’. Briefly, ‘let’s do this’ describes the go-getting, ‘can do’ attitude exhibited by some of the participants. Imperfection describes the way in which certain achievements or events were tempered by an admission of vulnerability – for example, one person said she felt shy being at a conference. Not Tweeting is about the female entrepreneurs who choose not to Tweet, or only to retweet others. What they are not doing can be just as significant, where refraining from Tweeting is also part of a controlled, self-conscious performance of expertise. What does ‘not tweeting’ suggest about women’s professional identity? What does the blurring of personal and professional identities on social media platforms reveal about women’s sense of themselves as experts in their field? Methodologically, what are the challenges in using data collected via public platforms such as Twitter? Our panel recognised some of the difficulties in being immersed in online communities, the significance of reflexivity on behalf of the researcher and of reviewing the ethical dimensions to our research.