Social media has become something of a funhouse mirror of contemporary social commentary. Described one way, it's a set of technologies championed as a means for democratic expression and social change (Shirky, 2009), while others argue that social media reduces our relationships (Lanier, 2011; Turkle, 2011), changes or even eliminates our expectations of privacy, and even rewires our brains (Carr, 2011). Missing from popular discussions of Web 2.0 technology is a sense of moderation or complexity. Alice E. Marwick's (2013) book Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity & Branding in the Social Media Age complicates this conversation; the text presents academic research for a popular audience, providing an example of how academic research on social media can contribute to popular discourse.
For writing researchers interested in how individuals use and write with social media as well as social media's place in individuals' digital literacy ecologies and implications for our teaching, Marwick's text is a reminder of the culture in which these technologies were created. Her strength is in demonstrating how the values of these social media sites and those encouraged for adoption by average users are the values of the Silicon Valley tech industry, noting how those values perpetuate through social media today. Status Update drew from Marwick's dissertation work, which included extensive ethnographic fieldwork in the tech industry in Silicon Valley in 2008 and 2009, a time period that saw the growth and development of mainstays of social media that are publicly traded companies today, like Facebook and Twitter. Marwick centered her study on the concept of status, arguing that by studying the status structure of the tech community in the Bay Area, we could better understand how the values and ideologies of this community are built into social media platforms. Through interviews with prominent figures during this time period, Marwick argued that the industry's blind worship of both neoliberalism and meritocracy has created and encouraged the construction of online identities that need to appear both transparent and safe for consumption. Marwick built this argument through chapters that emphasize different practices common in new media, including micro-celebrity, branding, and lifestreaming.
Marwick began her book with a question about how social media "produces subjects": "what types of selves are people encouraged to create and promote while using popular technologies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube?" (p. 5). The answer, according to Marwick's analysis, is corporate-friendly, easily consumable, and safe identities rather than complex ones. In perhaps her strongest argument, Marwick borrowed from Foucault to argue that social media platforms are "technologies of subjectivity; that is, social media has become a way that people govern themselves" (p. 11). This critique—in addition to her means of situating social media within the Silicon Valley culture in which it was created—made her project a thoughtful critique of Web 2.0 and its culture.