Symbolic Capital and Strategic Selection

The article Competition and Information deception in Online Social Networks by E. Mitchell Church and Ravi Thambusamy explores the antecedents of a desire for online competition and they way competitive desires impact intentions to engage in personal information misrepresentation and refusal, arguing that users’ intentions to refuse to disclose or misrepresent depend on their desire to compete with other users. Taking into account the N effect, outlined in Garcia et al.’s article, it is surprising that users of OSNs experience such a significant desire to compete, since the overall number can be in the hundreds of millions. However, as addressed in Nelson and Dawson’s article,  people will naturally “construct a genius that puts superior performances beyond the scope of comparison”. For instance, a regular Instagram user would not reasonably compare themselves to an Instagram model, as their status if virtually unattainable.

In looking at how competitive desires impact intentions to engage in PID we must also examine how OSN users engage in PID in order to determine the root causes of these engagements. In Werron’s article he examines the relevance of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu field theory, where Bourdieu argues that competition for symbolic capital (competition for attention, legitimacy, reputation/prestige) is constitutive of all societal fields. The connection between the gains to be made on OSNs and symbolic capital is undeniable, and so social media’s subsequent categorisation as a heteronomous field where competition occurs for the favour of a general audience is logical. In Bourdieu’s view, “competition… could just as legitimately be called a standardisation or homogenisation procedure.” The implication in this context is that OSN users will present similar information to their audience, as they all have a common orientation. As a means to compete efficiently users will look to other users to identify which strategies and representations are most successful and emulate them, leading to homogenisation of the information provided by users. This may in turn lead to forms of misrepresentation as they try to adjust themselves into a standard template, and the mass of similar or identical information loses value to the OSNs. Therefore, Bourdieu’s findings support Church and Thambusamy’s hypotheses, seeing as homogenisation, a result of a desire to compete, can cause users to intend to refuse to disclose personal information to a lesser extent (beneficial to the OSNs) and intend to misrepresent personal information to a greater extent (disadvantageous to the OSNs).

Nevertheless, the idea that a desire to compete will make users more willing to disclose information may be misguided, as it seems illogical to assume that more information would make a person appear “better” online – “better” meaning more interesting, successful, etc, assuming that is their aim when competing against other online users. For example, on Instagram users will typically post the “highlights” of their life in order to make their lives appear more exciting to others. This does not mean they will post more to uphold this image – they will share more selectively. Similarly, a user may choose not to share where they go to school if it is considered a “bad” school or share where they are from if they do not want to be associated with certain negative stereotypes related to that region. Greater levels of disclosure may have negative effects on their image if the information being disclosed is unflattering, meaning a greater desire to compete may actually make refusal to disclose a more desirable alternative for users in some cases to cultivate a more flattering image.

However, this idea completely contradicts the concept of an online disinhibition effect, discussed in my classmate’s article, stating that “people will act out more frequently online than in person”. This would mean that disclosure would be engaged in to a greater degree and that there would be minimal misrepresentation of data as they voice their true thoughts. Nonetheless, the aims of competition would change in this context. They may still be competing for reputation, attention, and legitimacy; however, they would not be looking to maintain an image in the same manner. The differences in my classmate’s and my own conclusions may be attributed to the particular OSNs we studied. Reddit allows it’s users to remain anonymous in a way that Facebook and Instagram do not, encouraging the loss of inhibitions. Consequently, we must be careful in making generalisations, as pointed out in the original article, explore this topic further.

Selectivity is one possible avenue, seeing as selectivity may even be preferred over misrepresenting data. In misrepresenting the user runs the risk of being called out for acting in an untruthful fashion, and with examples such as Instagram and Facebook followers and friends are often actual friends of the user and are aware of what is representative of reality and what is not. Church and Thambusamy’s article neglects the possibility of a preliminary step, such as selectivity, before engaging in refusal of disclosure and misrepresentation of personal information. Whether or not an increase in a desire to compete will result in an increase in selectivity of what information is disclosed may therefore be worthy of further investigation.

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