promote friends

In October, Facebook began offering a paid promotion option to its users. This gave users the opportunity to pay money for their pictures and status updates to gain greater visibility. Now, Facebook expands this option further by offering the opportunity for users to pay to promote their Friend’s posts.

Fist, this reminds us that Facebook is a for-profit company, currently struggling to project an external image of profitability. The introduction of pay-to-use features, including promoted posts and “Facebook gifts” has been less than lucrative for the company. *True confession: I don’t even know how to give someone a Facebook Gift, nor am I inclined to figure it out.*  Facebook is supposed to be free, and while users continue to pay in abstract ways with their prosumptive activities in general, and their personal data in particular, they do not seem keen to pay in the direct, credit card-with-expiration-date-and-3-digit-security-code, manner.

Using the Power of Sociology, however, I predict that this may change with the introduction of the new pay-to-promote feature for Friend’s posts. I say this because the new feature rectifies a particular problematic niche that continues to trouble social media users on a social-psychological level. To talk about the function of the new feature, I must begin with two competing presentational tensions within the social media landscape: The attention economy, and visible identity work.

The Internet has lots of stuff on it. Social network sites have lots of people on them. This can be great, as one can find almost anything or anyone s/he needs. This can also be tricky, as one must sort through hay-stacks of information in search of highly specific needles. The flip side of this, is that each of us, and the data that we prosume, are the proverbial needles in hay-stacks. It is easy to post online, but not so easy to exist.  Even within bounded social networks, only a fraction of our content is seen by a fraction of potential viewers. This is the attention economy, in which visibility is the valued commodity. Within an attention economy, Facebook’s pay-to-promote feature is a means by which users can more effectively obtain this commodity. To use this tool, however, creates problems with deeply embedded processes of the self. It is to these processes that I now turn.

As I have written about previously (here’s a non-pay-walled article, and here is a blog post), social actors always have to manage a tension between ideal and authentic self presentation.  Self and identity are accomplishments, but we prefer to treat them as end products without origin or process. In short, aint nobody—especially you—wants to see your identity work. This tension is amplified within the social media space and on social network(ing) sites in particular, as the architecture implores the user to, in Goffmanian terms, “give” rather than “give off” impressions of the self. Complicating matters, the pay-to-promote feature, in its original form, exacerbates the hidden identity work problem. To promote one’s own post is to shine a harsh light on presentational intentionality, inviting epithets of “Narcissist,” “Fake,” “Desperate.”

The new pay-to-promote feature, which allows users to promote their Friend’s posts, has the potential (through far from the certainty) to strike a balance between these delicate presentational tensions. It can do so through the construction of a gift economy in which exchange is generalized, such that other-promotion becomes normative, and one is no longer responsible for tooting hir own horn. The gift here is visible identity with invisible identity work ; $7 for the promise of self-promotion without narcissism. For instance, if a friend defends her dissertation, and I promote her status update announcing the feat, I gain a bit of confidence and comfort with the knowledge that when I announce some good news of my own, someone—maybe the above mentioned friend, but maybe not—will help promote me.

The role of other-promoted posts is amplified by the finding that social network(ing) site users give greater credence to other-generated, rather than self-generated content. That is, social actors grant more weight to what other people say to and/or about you than what you say about yourself. Now, through the material and symbolic gesture of surrogate paid promotion, what one says about hirself can become that which others say about hir. Paying to promote for a Friend is like putting into a collective pot, in which all contributors pool their resources to create a structure in which challenges to ideal-authentic self presentation, within a saturated information economy, can be interactively managed.

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Jenny is a weekly contributor on Cyborgology and a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Sociology at Texas A&M University. Follow Jenny on Twitter @Jup83