Professional networking sites and social-economic status comparison

On: January 23, 2010
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About Maarten Hoogvliet
I am a MA student of the Media and Culture master New Media at the University of Amsterdam and I have a BA degree in Communication and Multimedia Design at the HRO in Rotterdam, formerly a part of the Willem de Kooning Academy of Art. Next to doing my masters I am a graphic designer/illustrator.

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“Dan was apparent fifty plus, a little paunchy and stubbled. He had raccoon-mask bags under his eyes and he slumped listlessly. As I approached, I pinged his Whuffie and was startled to see that it had dropped to nearly zero. “Jesus,” I said, as I sat down next to him. “You look like hell, Dan.” […] Lil was waiting on the sofa, a folded blanket and an extra pillow on the side table, a pot of coffee and some Disneyland Beijing mugs beside them. She stood and extended her hand. “I’m Lil,” she said. “Dan,” he said. “It’s a pleasure.” I knew she was pinging his Whuffie and I caught her look of surprised disapproval. Us oldsters who predate Whuffie know that it’s important; but to the kids, it’s the world. Someone without any is automatically suspect. I watched her recover quickly, smile, and surreptitiously wipe her hand on her jeans. “Coffee?” she said.” (Doctorow, 2003, p. 23)


Introduction

Cory Doctorow’s novel ‘Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom’ describes a future world based on post-scarcity economy, in which everything is free. ‘Whuffie’ is the name for an abstract personal currency, based on reputation, motivating people to pursue a useful and creative lifestyle. The ‘Whuffie’ number is equivalent to a person’s social status in society, for instance, you lose points when being rude or committing a crime, you gain points when helping someone cross the street or composing a brilliant symphony. The most striking is every person having a brain implant, which enables them to interface with ‘the Net’, giving them the possibility to check everyone’s ‘Whuffie’ instantly and wirelessly.

In our contemporary society, we don’t possess the means to explicitly define or compare social status as the people in ‘Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom’ do. Nonetheless, looking up to or down on people, comparing people or finding motivation to act by other people’s social status in the most broad sense is very real; social status is a timeless phenomenon. ‘The Net’ obviously bears a resemblance to the Internet, which in Doctorow’s novel is a platform for status comparison; it enables social status to be embedded and used as a currency in real life. Social networks on the web also serve as a platform for defining one’s identity or individualism (Donath, boyd 2004; Ito et al. 2010) and to identify one’s position within a group or community of (likeminded) people; virtual communities (Smith, Kollock 1999). These processes are intimately related to (attainment of) social status.

The social network profile could be compared to the brain implant in Doctorow’s novel, being a link between the identity of the user it represents to the larger whole of available profiles; ‘the Net’, being the social network site as a possible accelerator for status comparison. The ‘Whuffie’ could then be compared to the social status captured in or radiating from a profile.

Sociological literature discussing general (offline) social status often focuses on the social-economic status of individuals (Hollingshead 1975; Lin 1999), having education, occupation and income as its foundations. Processes of interaction then constitute a scale of status comparison, for instance casual conversation. However, in contemporary society, community is not conceptualized anymore in terms of physical proximity but in terms of social networks (Smith, Kollock 1999, p. 17), which extend through communication technologies. With online social networks it is possible to establish and nourish relationships out of one’s physical reaching space, establishing evolving standards of status. Many scholars describing online social networks especially focus on youth subcultures in social networks as MySpace, Facebook and Friendster (Ito et al. 2010; boyd 2008). Social network analysis is highly focused on teens because of their early adoption of networked technology, highlighting the desire to engage in publics (boyd, 2008). Herein, online status is directly linked to popularity, constituted in number of friends, ‘top friends’ ranking lists, number of comments and physical attractiveness in photos. Doctorow also mentions a similar idea in his work of fiction: “Us oldsters who predate Whuffie know that it’s important; but to the kids, it’s the world.” (Doctorow 2003, p. 23) Nonetheless, online social network status is also very relevant for people somewhat older, for instance young urban professionals engaging in career related interaction via social network site LinkedIn. More developed social-economic status, comes at a certain age; “education changes during […] youth, but it generally stabilizes in the adult years. […] Occupation may change in the early years of adult life, but it also tends to become stable as a person grows into the late twenties and on into the thirties.” (Hollingshead, 1975)

In this paper I compare offline to online social-economic status, especially directed at professional social network site LinkedIn. I compare sociological accounts of social-economic status in communities to online accounts of status in virtual communities. Questions posed include the following: How is social-economic status constituted online? How do users of LinkedIn compare social-economic status? How do they influence each other by it? An important starting point is viewing online communities as ‘real’ communities and the Web as a reflection of offline culture, as an argument for connecting sociological literature to the Web. Among authors supporting this are those of the Digital Methods Initiative (Rogers, Stevenson, Weltevree, 2009) and Smith and Kollock (1999). The main limitation of this study is the body of literature handling online social network status being mainly applied to online teen and youth culture behavior on social network sites as MySpace, Facebook and Friendster (Donath, boyd 2004; boyd 2008; Ito et al. 2010). I will refer to these authors, because some realizations also apply to this paper, but it is important to note that there are multiple gaps between subculture analysis by aforementioned authors and this paper, for instance, in subject age, occupation, education, income and motivation to network. This constructs the difference between online social status and online social-economic status (although there is some overlap). To illustrate this difference I compare the main header on professional social network site LinkedIn; “Over 55 million professionals use LinkedIn to exchange information, ideas and opportunities: Stay informed about your contacts and industry, find the people & knowledge you need to achieve your goals and control your professional identity online.”[1] with the headline of social network site Friendster; “Friendster helps you stay connected with everything that matters to you: Friends, family and fun! It’s free to join, so go on, see what all the fuss is about!”[2] Both sociological literature on status and social-economic status as expressed by the ‘Whuffie’ are more relevant when compared to status expressions on professional social networking sites as LinkedIn than to social networking sites mainly directed at ‘fun’ social interaction as Friendster.

My main question for this paper is:

To what extent do professional social networking sites as LinkedIn enable explicit social-economic status comparison?

With this main question I have the following sub questions, which I will answer in the chapters following:

How to define (social-economic) status?
How to attain and build status on social networking sites?
How are virtual communities and peers affected by status?


Defining Status and Status Attainment

In ‘The Four Factors Index of Social Status’ Hollingshead defines status as ‘the positions individuals or nuclear families occupy in the status structure of a given society’ (Hollingshead, 1975). The four factors used in Hollingshead index are; education, occupation, sex and marital status. Education and occupation are herein mainly linked to income and an explicit position in societies hierarchy by job-position. A more specific social-economic status definition by Clauss-Ehlers reads; “a position on an economic hierarchy based upon income, education, and occupation” (Clauss-Ehlers, 2006). This professional factor is especially important when speaking of not only social status but also of economic status. It is important to note that when linking this definition to online social-economic status as expressed by LinkedIn, we speak of an individual’s position in society only, not of a family’s.

In ‘Social Networks and Status Comparison’ Lin defines status attainment as ‘a process by which individuals mobilize and invest resources for returns in socioeconomic standings’ (Lin 1999, p. 467). In this definition resources are referred to as goods in society valued by normative judgments of how these goods correspond with being wealthy or powerful (meaning goods in the most broad sense, for instance, skills, money or a acquaintance’s authority position acting as a social resource for finding a job.) These resources can be deployed for increasing one’s social-economic status.


Attaining and Building Online Status

Social network sites are relatively new channels of communication, one would say we have been given a choice to participate or not. However, numerous authors describe the opposite, we find ourselves in a situation in which new social conventions are formed around the use of communication, resulting in a situation where one is almost expected to be a member of online social network sites. For instance, Donath and boyd describe that we live in a world in which communication is instant, ubiquitous and mobile and access to information and communication is a key element of status and power (Donath, boyd 2004). Not taking part in these new technological possibilities might devaluate one’s potential in increasing status; one may risk exclusion. Social network sites both function as spaces where new bonds are forged and as showcases of connections. The function of the social network profile as an integral piece of presenting the user can especially be linked to status-attainment. Connections can be lined among the resources identified in the definition of status attainment as mentioned above.

Furthermore, a profile can be viewed in the context of connections, hereby providing information about the user. “Social status, political beliefs, musical taste, etc., may be inferred from the company one keeps” (Donath, boyd, 2004). Secondly, establishing relations with people already in the network of some of your own connections can make one surer of establishing a trustworthy relationship. Having an extensive social network can be both a sign of status as a means to increase in chances for safe connection. Important to realize is that people who share much in common are more likely to get connected. This idea of ‘homophily’ or ‘birds of a feather stick together’ (boyd 2005) and its consequences will be discussed later on in this paper.

As I wrote earlier, there is an increasing adoption of social networking sites among youth, which can explain online status considerations in general. “These sites function as social hangout spaces for teens, social network sites are home to the struggles that teens face as they seek status among peers” (boyd, 2008, p. 226). Teens use these sites to nourish existing friendships and to develop new ones, but also to seek attention and create drama among peers. Social network sites both change and intensify the ways teens experience drama and negotiate status. An important factor in status development is both the public display of connections, comments, profile information and photo’s as the profile’s owner awareness of this public display (Donath, boyd 2004). This openness of information (often a profile is completely open to existing connections and a user can opt for exposing information to strangers) creates an opportunity for active identity and status building; it creates a tension between self-presentation and (assumed) audience opinion. “Impression management is certainly crucial for identity management and for the construction of oneself online, it requires a level of awareness of others’ reactions” (boyd, 2002).

The open display of connections has parallels to the casual dropping of (high status) names in conversation, used for raising one’s own status and positioning oneself in hierarchy or discovering if a common bond (for instance, an overlap in acquaintances) exists between two people. However, in casual conversation, one could feel free to exaggerate, or to show off with impressive, but unverifiable, facts. This also happens on social network sites. “Teens want to be validated by their broader peer group and thus try to make themselves look cool […]. Even when status is not necessarily accessible for them in everyday life, there is sometimes hope that they can resolve this through online presentations” (boyd, 2008). An online status does not necessarily indicate the existence of the same offline status, at least in youth subculture. It is possible to fake parts of your profile information or creating fake connections, increasing reputation. “Online, identity is mutable and unanchored by the body that is its locus in the real world” (Donath, boyd 2004). This could direct at online status being more fluid and less concretely linked to offline status. On LinkedIn one could easily create false education and occupation info or create a fake profile for Bill Gates and connecting with him, heavily increasing the apparent social-economic status of the profile owner. However, the gains of deceiving someone can be quite low and the costs quite high. For instance, making a business deal or taking on a job on false grounds can ruin one’s status. It is much more important for people to be able to rely on their belief in other’s identity.

The use of connections as a showcase for one’s identity can act as a check of identity claims, thus affirming status. Connections that one knows read profile info. By being directly linked to a profile and being displayed as a connection, profile info gets implicitly validated. Furthermore, LinkedIn includes testimonials, called ‘recommendations’. With this function one can receive compliments about past work, suggesting the profile owner to be adequate in his particular activity. The profile owner can also recommend connections himself. This function has its own section on the website, directly linked to connections, further increasing connection and profile reliability, subsequently increasing status. The recommendation function is a way to build sympathy among connections and thus ensuring co-operation. “The power of reputation to enforce co-operative behavior lies not in confrontation with the subject, but in conversation surrounding him” (Donath, boyd 2004). Open display of connections and the recommendation function could be directly linked to the definition of status attainment as mentioned above. Investing resources (complementing connections on, for instance, skills or experience) can lead to increased socioeconomic standing by having a better relationship to connections, increasing the chance for a business deal or job and increasing income, or by the profile owner simply getting a recommendation from a connection himself.


Online Status and Connections in Virtual Communities

People seek status out of very basic evolutionary reasons, according to Wilkinson; “higher rank individuals would have greater access to material resources and the highest quality mates, increasing the proportion of their genes in future populations” (Wilkinson 2006, p. 5). Strong motivations of increasing status are due to natural selection and evolution. Therefore, struggle with status always exists within communities, being closely related to hierarchy deference and dominance, expressing identity/personality and in the end, as Wilkinson argues, to survival of the fittest. Status has an organic biological and evolutionary basis. However, status has developed in our contemporary society, it is for instance derived of excellence in a particular domain of activity without being strongly based on superior physical force: “For example, paraplegic physicist Stephen Hawking […] certainly enjoys high status throughout the world” (Wilkinson, p. 6). This differentiation in status expressions constitutes the variability in which status can appear in modern society, which is also an argument for supporting increase of status through connecting with a variety of individuals with different talents or expertise. Status attainment therefore demands processes of peer interaction and active deployment of one’s ties in community.

Social resources can be accessed through direct and indirect ties (Lin 1999, p. 468). The example of using a connection’s authority position for defining status attainment illustrates that resources can be borrowed via connections in community, emphasizing the importance of valuable connections. The acquaintance in the definition’s example is an indirect tie for increasing status. LinkedIn especially provides connection with indirect ties, not always physically within reach of the profile owner, but accessible when needed. LinkedIn provides a concrete keeping in touch with connections and maintaining relationships, which could be valuable in the future, from both sides. LinkedIn functions as an interpersonal channel, of which Granovetter concluded in ‘The Strength of Weak Ties’; “those who used interpersonal channels seemed to land more satisfactory and better jobs” (Granovetter, 1974).  Furthermore, Granovetter distinguishes weak and strong ties. Strong ties being ties with people one has many commonalities with, weak ties being connections with people one has only one or a few commonalities with, in social circles less accessed or less like one’s own. It is hypothesized that as a whole weak ties tend to form bridges that strengthen one’s network. Via weak ties one can access information in social circles not likely to be available in one’s direct surroundings (Granovetter, 1973) thus enriching one’s social network and increasing its potential. Valuable information therefore especially is available through professional social network sites as LinkedIn, by the direct and stable connection with weak ties. One might even consider if the term weak tie still applies. LinkedIn could transform weak ties into strong ties, since any connection (and potential resource for status attainment) is always only a few clicks away.

On the other hand, the supposed main purpose of social networking sites is connecting to new people with which one shares a common ground (similar characteristics as lifestyle, hobbies, taste in music, job, etcetera) (Donath, boyd 2004) and therefore empowering homophily; “it is through this commonality that one can find security in one’s views, feel validated and supported, and have the kind of environment that fosters motivation and joy. […] people do not have to defend their minority status” (boyd 2005). Out of an evolutionary perspective, this safety is indeed important; people are used to residing in communities of likeminded individuals, because this gives them the highest chance of survival. However, contemporary technology gives us the possibility to reach beyond our physical reaching space, offering chances of connection with a wide diversity of audiences. We have been given the possibility to transcend the homophilous environments in which we feel secure. This means we can learn and be influenced in multiple directions, enriching experience and status as never before.

LinkedIn, however, is one of the least open social network sites. Connecting with a stranger is not very common. When adding a new contact a profile owner must select one out of six options; how do you know [contact’s name]? Colleague, Classmate, We’ve done business together, Friend, Other, I don’t know [contact’s name]. Underneath is a message saying; “Important: Only invite people you know well and who know you.”[3] Furthermore, if you do invite people you don’t know recipients can indicate they don’t know you. This has repercussions, since LinkedIn will from then on always ask for a to-be-added contact’s email address. LinkedIn’s main reason for this is to keep the online professional networks it empowers relevant; no infinite numbers of friends, only valuable contacts. Thus, one could argue for LinkedIn being a relatively homophilous environment. However, LinkedIn does provide a profile owner to connect to a connection’s connections; view profiles, send messages, suggest valuable contacts, search for references, etcetera. Linkedin is closed down enough to ensure reliable connections, by only allowing connecting to individuals a profile owner knows and interaction with a connection’s connections, but open enough for growing one’s network in a valuable way, being a environment fostering increase of status. Profiles on social networking sites mainly indicating as being only for ‘fun’ as Friendster or MySpace tend do devalue contacts by having so many of them it seems to become both insincere and useless (boyd, 2008).


Online Status Comparison and LinkedIn Functionalities

Aspiring a higher position in status hierarchy is a natural instinct, as discussed earlier in this paper. Wilkinson describes life is a competitive climb on the ladder of status (Wilkinson, 2006), out of different capitalistic, materialistic or ideological reasons. People compare status because this supplies them with hierarchical information; what is my position in society? And subsequently; what could I do to make it to a higher step?

Let’s look at the different functions of Linkedin, which are indications of identity and status. Linked to Clauss-Ehlers definition of social economic status, I will especially pay attention to education and occupation (income is, of course, private info). Linked to Donath and boyd’s and boyd’s analyses of social networks I will especially pay attention to number of connections and other identity specific parts as profile photo, along with personal information, recommendations, ‘what are you working on?’ and functions alike.

Sample Linkedin User Profile Page


Self-presentation is faceted on LinkedIn.  An identity is subdivided into different secluded sections. The main profile section includes name, current position and location and a profile photo (which cannot be enlarged, seemingly to minimize possible effects of physical appearance). Directly under this is an overview of the profile; current occupation, past occupation, education, number of recommendations, number of connections and (company or portfolio) websites. These different profile parts are set out more detailed further down in the profile.

A LinkedIn profile covers all aspects named in Clauss-Ehlers definition of social-economic status, it highlights them by putting them at the top of the page. Except income, which is presumably too private for mentioning.

Important to realize is that LinkedIn does not represent identities as whole; they get chopped up into manageable pieces, which enables LinkedIn users to compare the pieces apart from the whole. “These foci organize the structure of social networks because they are the circumstances and reasons people meet each other and form ties with each other” (Donath, boyd 2004). Online, identity is subdivided and categorized. This fragmented nature of the LinkedIn profile constitutes a faceted identity, leading to a differentiation of impressions a profile can give. These different parts of one’s identity, seemingly divided into various aspects, lead to a different notion of identity, and thus, status. The different parts of the profile owner’s identity have a greater chance of appealing to people yet to connect with than the identity as an inseparable whole. Furthermore, by comparing different profile parts, rather than the profile as a whole, relative positions become clear. To establish a link with my introduction; the ‘Whuffie’ as a number of total status gets subdivided into smaller units, which enable subdivision specific cross-profile comparison.

LinkedIn chops up status and identity into measurable and comparable units. This enables concrete comparison between different profiles, based on different parts of socio-economic status. Individuals are aware of this; “Awareness empowers individuals, as it gives them the ability to understand their position in a given system and use that knowledge to operate more effectively. In social interactions, people want to be aware of their own presentation, of what is appropriate in the given context, and how others perceive them. […] these two components are essential for interpersonal contextual awareness” (boyd 2002). The contextual awareness boyd discusses is highly relevant to LinkedIn. People actively construct their identity, with heightening of status in mind.

The previously mentioned ‘recommendations’ function extends the subdivision, emphasizing certain sources of one’s status in the profile, creating a preference for certain foundations of status (for instance, a particular position or education). A profile owner can actively focus on certain subdivision by, for instance, recommending weak ties in social circles (concerning that particular position or education) and asking for a recommendation in return. Thus, a profile owner can focus on a desired status subdivision through recommendations. Another function enabling a specific focus is ‘what are you working on?’, in which one can simply fill in one’s current professional activity. This can be a means to keep connections up to date and possibly renew interaction. The activity message can also be implicitly directed at certain connections, further enabling shifting of focus. A relatively new functionality is linking Twitter accounts to LinkedIn, enabling a live feed of tweets, this is comparable to the workings of ‘what are you working on?’.

Previous statements of the strength of weak ties, mutable identity and subdivided status, imply connections being based on small areas of common ground in subdivisions of the profile, which the profile owner actively constructs to radiate social-economic status. These subdivisions in status provide weak tie connections to be made more easily. This enhances use of subdivisions in the profile, going hand in hand with LinkedIn’s closed nature in connecting to new people. Weak tie connections may only know some aspects of the profile owner’s identity, assuming other claims in the profile being true because they do not know about them. This creates a tension between offline social-economic status as a whole, and, online, based upon subdivision in the LinkedIn profile. Donath and boyd also signalize this: “The type of information that flows through a tie, whether about the person or about the world at large, depends on the focus that brought them together and on the shared facets of their identity” (Donath, boyd, 2004).

Online status seems to be more flexible than online status, being able to shift its appearance when coming across different social environments; interaction with contacts from different social circles. Considering LinkedIn being a community especially empowering connection of weak ties, online status seems to be not an exact entity like the ‘Whuffie’, but a transforming whole of different parts, appearing anew to each connection’s eyes. Furthermore, a profile owner can shift the focus of the profile to privilege particular weak ties. This already gets specified on the homepage of LinkedIn; “control you professional identity online”.[4] Through active management of only identity “one writes one’s social-economic status into being.” (boyd, 2008)

Through this online status management one can effectively pursue goals in professional life, with relatively little effort. Connecting to related individuals, in whatever broad sense, is always at hand, as is active status comparison. While communication gets increasingly computer mediated, the computer becomes almost as a limb to humans. “In today’s society, access to information is a key element of status and power and communication is instant, ubiquitous and mobile” (Donath, boyd 2004). When we are mobile and ubiquitously connected, what exactly is the difference between checking someone’s ‘Whuffie’ through a brain implant and checking someone’s social-economic status on a professional network site through a mobile Internet connection? Next to the interface, maybe the only difference is the exact number of the ‘Whuffie’ being self-explanatory and LinkedIn profile info needing interpretation.


Conclusion

To conclude; my main question was:

To what extent do professional social networking sites as LinkedIn enable explicit social-economic status comparison?

Social-economic status as based upon education and occupation is explicitly materialized in profile info on LinkedIn. Through a whole of weak tie connections (meaning connections with which the profile owner only has few commonalities) which form a bridge, connecting to otherwise unavailable social circles become a possibility. LinkedIn’s possibilities of staying in touch with weak ties, along with functions as ‘recommendations’, may be reforming the definition of ‘weak tie’. Therefore, social economic status has the opportunity to grow beyond offline only accounts of social-economic status. Through active construction of online identity, the subdivided nature of self-presentation via profile info provides explicit status comparison between different subdivided profiles and thus, between different profile owners. This gives opportunities for personal growth of the profile owner and a higher relative position in society’s hierarchy.


[1] LinkedIn homepage headline on 11-01-2010 (www.linkedin.com)

[2] Friendster homepage headline on 11-01-2010 (www.friendster.com)

[3] Note on LinkedIn’s add connection page 13-01-2010

[4] LinkedIn homepage header on 14-01-2010 (www.linkedin.com)


Literature

  • boyd, danah. ‘Faceted Id/entity: Managing representation in a digital world’. Master’s Thesis, MIT Media Lab, 2002.
  • boyd, danah. ‘Sociable Technology and Democracy’. In Extreme Democracy, ed. Jon Lebkowsky, Mitch Ratcliffe. Toronto: Lulu, 2005.
  • boyd, danah. ‘Taken Out of Context: American Teen Sociality in Networked Publics’. PhD diss., University of California, 2008.
  • Clauss-Ehlers, Caroline. ‘Diversity Training for Classroom Teaching: A Manual for Students and Educators’. New York: Springer, 2006.
  • Couvering, Elizabeth Van. ‘Is Relevance Relevant? Market, Science, and War: Discourses of Search Engine Quality’. Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, 12(3), 2007.
  • Doctorow, Cory. ‘Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom’. New York: Tor Books, 2003.
  • Donath, Judith and danah boyd. ‘Public displays of connection’. BT Technological Journal, 22(4), 2004: 71-82.
  • Granovetter, M. ‘The Strength of Weak Ties’. Am. J. Sociol. 78, 1973: 1360-1380.
  • Hollingshead, A.B. ‘Fout Factor Index of Social Status’. Unpublished Working Paper, 1975.
  • Ito, Muziko et al. ‘Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media’. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010.
  • Lin, Nan. ‘Social Networks and Status Attainment’. Annu. Rev. Sociol., 1999 (25): 467-487.
  • Rogers, Richard, Michael Stevenson and Esther Weltevrede. ’Social Research with the Web’. Pre-Print, Amsterdam: Govcom.org Foundation, 2009.
  • Smith, Marc A and Peter Kollock. ‘Communities in Cyberspace’. London: Routelegde, 1999.
  • Wilkinson, Will. ‘Out of Position: Against the Politics of Relative Standing’. Policy, Vol. 22, No. 3, 2006: 3-9.
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