New Criticals

The End of ‘What People Do Online’


A survey of the academic literature reveals that when analysts make claims about “what people do online,” the “people” are generally white upper-middle class westerners from economically powerful nations (e.g., American college students). Studies that diverge from this population mark themselves as such, while studies that maintain a white-middle class hue generally do not. The whitewashing of generality not only obscures and reifies normative race-class-national hegemony, but also entrenches this hegemony into entire theoretical systems. Theory is cumulative in that subsequent studies rely on existing work to construct research questions, design methodologies, and build theoretical arguments. When the particular (white, wealthy, western) is assumed universal, theories are both misleading and politically regressive. Combatting false generalities entails highlighting work that approaches internet studies from a critical perspective, and juxtaposing that work to axiomatic assumptions within the field. I’ve selected two such works here, one theoretical and the other empirical, to trouble analytic statements about “what people do online”. André Brock’s critical technocultural discourse analysis (CTDA) represents a key theoretical advancement, while Robin Stevens et al.’s The Digital Hood: Social Media use Among Youth in Disadvantaged Neighborhoods presents a key empirical case.

André Brock’s critical technocultural discourse analysis (CTDA) relies on critical theory—critical race, feminism, queer theory—to understand technological objects as “assemblages of artifacts, practices, and cultural beliefs.” The CTDA approach assumes that technologies are polysemic and that their meanings and effects will shift amid varied circumstances and populations. CTDA is a crucial corrective to universalizing claims about “what people do online,” as it requires the researcher to clarify which people are doing what, and under what circumstances.

Brock’s CTDA insists on a mosaic approach to theories of technology, one that captures diverse junctures of demography, geography, and culture as they intersect with hardware and code. The approach is an explicit response to published work that overwhelmingly ignores the demographic margins, or understands underrepresented populations only in relation to a centralized and normative core. For Brock, understanding the experiences of those at the margins, through interactions between technological artifacts, cultural conventions, and personal experiences, not only enriches the tapestry of knowledge, but also provides a uniquely sharp perspective unattainable by purely technical analyses, purely cultural analyses, or continued centrality of white normative subjects. Describing the impetus for constructing CTDA, Brock explains:

CTDA is a problem-oriented analytical approach to digital (née internet) objects and phenomena. It was born of my frustrations with digital divide research, which operates from the technodeterministic premise that access to the “digital” improves the lives of underrepresented groups. In brief, I find that academic and public discourses about underrepresented groups’ ICT use are inextricable from the larger cloth of cultural (not technical) beliefs about the deficiencies of underrepresented groups when compared to the “norm”: White, middle class, Christian, heterosexual, patriarchal men.

Brock’s approach ties critical theory with techno-cultural analysis. In doing so, it resists universal claims of technological determinism on the one hand, and unbridled human agency on the other. Instead, CTDA recognizes the interaction between culture and materiality as it manifests in varied user experiences and outcomes. In other words, how technology matters is always contextually contingent. When the presumed universal context is in fact tied to a particular (privileged) group, more is obscured than revealed.

Brock’s point, and the need for CTDA (and like analyses) are amplified in the empirical findings from Stevens et al.’s The Digital Hood: Social Media use Among Youth in Disadvantaged Neighborhoods. The piece, published in the current issue of New Media & Society, uses standard interviews with African American and Latin@ teens/young adults living in a low SES urban center about how they engage with Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

In their own right, the data from this article are powerful as a representation of voices that, far too often, remain unheard. But the data are also persuasive evidence that universal theories of social media use—especially those that quietly rely on white-wealthy demographics—construct warped and partial repositories of knowledge.

Youth reports in The Digital Hood trouble three central “truisms” that have become widely cited and largely taken for granted among social media analysts: Facebook is a highlight reel, Facebook is archival, and social media builds social capital. 

The idea of Facebook as a highlight reel refers to people posting only their best moments online. They may post delicious homemade kimchi, for example, but leave off the stale corn chips they ate in bed. Much of the research on social media and self-esteem contends that highly curated performances on Facebook can make onlookers feel bad about themselves, as scrolling through a newsfeed may invoke feelings of inadequacy. Facebook, the highlight reel hypothesis contends, represents an aspirational and unrealistic ideal.

However, the “highlight reel” has no place among participants’ reports in The Digital Hood. Instead, participants view Facebook as a place where their “business” is exposed. It’s a place for fights, harsh words, and embarrassing images. As 15-year-old Amijah explains:

I think Facebook is like a ghetto news center for like, who’s died, who’s pregnant, find out everything is bad in the world but nothing’s good.

Participants also describe “whore” pages (i.e., revenge porn) and related forms of bullying, in which kids create profiles for each other that include nude images and negative commentary. Far from heavily curated highlight reels, Facebook for these participants is a volatile and unpredictable space in which bad news flourishes and unwanted exposure is always a threat.

The way in which participants describe revenge porn and related content not only contests the notion of Facebook as a positive self-presentational platform, but also challenges the archival characteristic of the platform. These fake profiles and gossip oriented pages are fleeting, subject to reporting by the victim or pre-emptively taken down to avoid trouble. 19-Year-old Ahmir describes these pages and their temporality:

The boy will be like, “Send me a picture of you naked!” And she’ll send it and next thing you know, it’ll be on that, it’ll be on whores, it be on, a whore page … They put it up … to warn you, stay away from that person because she’s a whore. Then it’s a [City] hood page where it’s though they got people from [City] and they expose them. They tell ‘em what kind of person they are, what they after, what are their goals. But it’s all negative stuff. It’s never nothing positive.... But usually, you have to go actually looking. You can’t be directed to it. You have to go, like, searching for one. Because as soon as it goes up, it might be like a couple hours and then somebody takes it down (emphasis added).

Generally, analysts treat Facebook as a platform on which content has staying power. This assumption is rooted in the materiality of the platform, which, by design, “hangs on” to images and text and ties content to  presumably ongoing individual profiles. However, platform architecture is not deterministic, and youth in The Digital Hood study subvert platform design in patterned and meaningful ways, turning an archival site into a platform for ephemeral content.

Finally, the data from this study call into question the well-documented positive relationship between social media and social capital. Ellison, Steinfield, and Lampe’s 2007 article The Benefits of Facebook ‘‘Friends:’’ Social Capital and College Students’ Use of Online Social Network Sites has over 8,000 citations (and their 2011 update has almost 1,000). Although Ellison et al. make clear that they are studying college students specifically, the idea that social media increases social capital through network connection has become a bedrock assumption of social media researchers. Without much (if any) fuss, data from a very particular demographic morphed into a generalizable claim.

However, for participants in The Digital Hood, social capital does not seem to be an outcome of social media use. In contrast, youth report leaving Facebook or minimizing their participation because the risks associated with network connection are too high (see also Marwick, Fontaine, and boyd 2017). 15-Year-old Luz, for example, limited her Facebook usage after Friends started arguing and referenced gun violence, while Jamal (19-years-old) describes Facebook as a “drama” site where people get “carried away,” “expose” each other, and start fights.

The Digital Hood shouldn’t be an exceptional study, but within the corpus of peer-reviewed scholarship, it is. So much social media research takes the normative subject as the universal subject, obfuscating diverse voices and reinforcing the “Otherness” of marginalized groups. The extent to which Stevens’ et al. trouble persistent truisms about social media reveals the need for critical analyses—like Brock’s CTDA—that approach socio-technical systems from the multiple perspectives of materiality, culture, practice, and ideology. Technology in society is a living, breathing process, not a stagnant phenomenon. Linear theory building is thus irresponsible and misleading, especially when the building blocks are decidedly exclusionary. Instead, theories of social media (and social life more generally) most robustly derive from critical approaches that emphasize the particular, situate the general, and continuously address issues of context. Concretely, this means centralizing the question: for whom and under what circumstances do these claims pertain?, while doing away with sweeping statements about “what people do online.”