Bonnie Stewart

This content is reposted from Bonnie Stewart’s cribchronicals blog.

Theorizing the Web 2011 was a wicked conference. It was also a bit of a meta-experience in augmented reality.

Maybe not textbook augmented reality, admittedly, since – as happens at geek conferences – the sheer multitude of smart phones and laptops present overpowered the wireless system and the majority of us couldn’t get online much. I was disappointed that I couldn’t tweet a few of the presentations: one of the joys of digital participation is in turning a monologue into a forum, a conversation of sorts.

But there was plenty going on, even without much digital augmentation. Put together by PJ Rey & Nathan Jurgenson, grad students who set out to run the conference they wanted to go to, TtW2011 appeared to succeed beyond their wildest dreams. The day was jam-packed with sessions on new economies and cyber-racism and cyber-support and structure/agency and the question of social media revolutions, among others. The panels hung together, mostly, and people put work & energy into their presentations. Even the final sessions, which ran through what my parent-of-preschoolers brain has come to consider “suppertime,” played to engaged audiences.

That wasn’t the augmented reality part, though. Rather, the whole trip was. I marked my five-year blogging anniversary on Monday. And the trip to DC and College Park offered what for me – as the sole practicioner of social media in an Education cohort of three on an island half-way off the side of Canada – was a heady face-to-face tour through almost all corners of the connections I’ve made and learning I’ve done over that five years. I roomed with digiwonk, and sat in as she presented the results of a mommyblogging survey I participated in almost three years ago. I got to spend the day with Neilochka, who – as promised – didn’t call bullshit on me once. (At least not so I could hear him.) I listened to danah boyd’s keynote and complimented her on her boots, after citing her extensively in one of my term papers last fall. After all these years, I spent a glorious splashy rainy afternoon with Susan before the conference formally began. Through my panel I met fellow explorers into this messy, chewy business of cyborgs and mediated lives. I even met the real-life friend & colleague of someone I spent last week debating on Twitter. Tiny world. My apparently tiny digital world, all its interconnections brought to life in one short weekend.

The conference was the augmentation, for me, the extra. Back now in my pastoral cloister on the edge of the planet, this digital sphere is the one in which I seek the majority of my daily engagement with people over the age of five. Having them come to life in front of me reminded me of nothing so much as my first foray into Second Life, except without the difficulty walking and flying. TtW2011, for me, was proof not only that augmented reality really does exist, Virginia, but that there is no hierarchy of modes within it. All is interconnected, rhizomatically interwoven, ever-shifting and ever-surprising and ever-rich.
As for my presentation, I am still working on the art of clarity. I managed to pack a theoretically complex, 20 page paper into 15 minutes. Sorta. Here, in the slideshare below, I manage it in 10ish. I wish it were 5.

I’ve always been a literary storyteller…if I can teach myself through practice to become an effective didactic one, then I’ll be able to become the presenter I want to be. But there will be a lot of practice – a lot of reining in my natural tendency to go on and on, musingly – between now and then. Feedback welcome, and share at will.


Bonnie Stewart is an educator, writer, and Ph.D student exploring social media subjectivities at the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada.

What is it that we exchange when we interact online? Part of my research into the notion of the branded cyborg explores the question of what we circulate in the networks that constitute digital sociality. Different platforms and communities within social media privilege different types of interactions, but two dominant  conceptualizations seem to emerge regularly. One is represented by Marcel Mauss‘ gift economy, the other by Bourdieu’s notions of capital, particularly social capital.

The concept of the gift economy resonates in the history of early web communities like CommuniTree (Stone, The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age, 1995) and in the rise of Linux and the Open Source Movement. Mauss (The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, 1922/1990, p. 31) argued that gifts are never actually free, but objects of reciprocal exchange, and that “objects are never completely separated from the men [sic] who exchange them.” In a gift economy, then, objects cannot be fully transferred from one owner to another as they can in a commodity economy. Gregory’s (Gifts and commodities, 1982) work on Mauss suggests that the affiliation of the identity of the giver with the object is what compels reciprocation: gifts are inalienable, thus the act of giving creates debt that must be repaid and instantiates an ongoing relationship between individuals.  Gift exchange leads to a social bond and to mutual interdependence.

If you comment on my blog post, then, or retweet it or link to it, have you given something inalienable of yourself? Engaging in the quoting or sharing is a visible act: both connection and some sense of obligation to reciprocate may be fostered. My own experience as a blogger is that this sort of implicitly reciprocal exchange was prevalent for some time, peaking in 2007 or 2008, and can still be found in many internet communities based on shared experience, such as IVF (in vitro fertilization) and parenting boards.

Does commodification preclude sharing and interdependence? Contemporary social media is permeated by the neoliberal discourse of monetization, leverage, and brand, in which individuals are encouraged to view themselves through a “Me, Inc.” lens. In places where this ethos dominates, the concept of social capital becomes particular useful as a means to represent exchange.

Social capital functions as a network-sanctioned credential of goodwill enacted, maintained and reinforced in ongoing exchanges. Advantages conferred by social capital and one’s position in a social network can be converted to economic capital or to other advantage. Bourdieu did caution that social capital was less “liquid” than economic capital and thus more difficult to convert, but I question whether this holds true within social media. Platforms began introducing targeted ads to users as early as 2006 (Safko, The Social Media Bible, 2010).  Even individual bloggers could run ads, often generating only a few dollars monthly, but contributing to the development of a normative business discourse within many social media environments.  In 2008, at the influential BlogHer convention in SanFrancisco, bloggers were exhorted by BlogHer’s Executive Vice President Gina Garrubbo to “take the money!” that companies were eager to pay for ad space (Pagenhart, “Hi, I’m Polly, your Blogher conference programming cruise director!”, 2011).

The metrics of a cyborg subject’s identity – which represent both social capital and symbolic capital, or status within a given community – are also now demonstrably convertible to economic capital opportunities such as freelance writing, speaking gigs, and sponsorships. The rush of corporations to try to attract members to their Facebook fan pages suggests that conventional business has bet that social capital has a payoff.

My own premise is that for most cyborg subjects, digital sociality involves the exchange of both inalienable gifts and social capital, either with or without intent to commodify. My interest is in tracing which online practices privilege capital exchange and which privilege gift, and how people navigate the frequent blending of obligation and commodification. What about you? How do you see what you share in the digital sphere?

Bonnie Stewart is an educator, writer, and Ph.D student exploring social media subjectivities at the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada.