Towards a New Social Economy

Friday, August 23rd, 2013


Online activity is continuing to expand as an increasingly significant part of our daily lives, and social media presents to us various new frameworks within which to express ourselves, interact with one another, and reflect upon our situations.  As the platforms we engage with advance in interface, increase in popularity, and grow more familiar to us, we collectively develop an array of social codes by which we regulate our behaviour and evaluate our circumstances (self-worth, interpersonal relationships, social circles, etc.). Currently, many of the popular platforms share a similar design that drives social action by allowing for subscription, expression of approval, and dissemination.  In this paper, I would like to propose that these three functions serve as the primary vessels for an emerging social economy. Within the context of Twitter, we will examine this taxonomy of functions, the behaviours it affords, and their associated symbolic values. Particular focus will be paid to the restrictions this limited selection of functions places upon us, as well as the problematic ambiguity that comes from our lack of an explicit and collective understanding of this economy.


Subscription, Expression of Approval, and Dissemination

First, let us examine the concept of currency in relation to the functions of subscription, expression of approval, and dissemination (to be referred to from here on as the SAD framework). In Understanding Media, Marshal McLuhan describes currency as an information storehouse that serves as a widely-accessible language for translating a diverse collection of work and product into a comprehensive value system, within which exchange can be made efficient and consistent[1]. Twitter users possess the following initial commodities available for exchange: profile, produced content (tweets), attention, and opinions. The SAD framework helps to organize these commodities. Think of the following functions as the organizing language.


On Twitter, subscription comes in the form of “following”. When one user follows another, they give their attention: a resource growing in scarcity and demand as the information realm continues to expand[2].  Because Twitter makes subscription information publicly available, the act of giving attention also functions as a form of symbolic currency: the “follow” is turned into a badge, worn on the profiles of both user and account followed ( the followee). The “follow badge” appears in three forms: one, it contributes to the following and follower counts (fig. 1) of user and followee, respectively; two, the followee’s name appears on the user’s following list (fig. 2); three, the user’s name appears on the followee’s followed by list (fig. 3). The first form is based in numerical value. In the second form, the user offers their profile as a surface for advertising the account of their followee. In the third form, the user offers their name as a stamp of endorsement on the followee’s profile.

following follower counts

followers list

following list

Expression of Approval

On Twitter, expression of approval comes in the form of “favoriting:” a public gesture of praise that also functions in badge-like formation. The favorite badge appears in three forms: one, it contributes to the tweet’s favorite count; two, it inscribes the user’s aviator onto the tweet as having favorited (fig.4); three, the tweet appears in the user’s publicly visible “Favorites” list (fig.5).

fave count

fave list


            On Twitter, dissemination comes in the form of the “retweet:” an act by which a user shares the tweet of another account on the timeline of their own profile, as well as the newsfeeds of their followers (fig.6).  Retweeting is a method by which users give the attention of their followers to someone else. It is a form of advertising more aggressive than that of the follow in that it thrusts information into the sightline of followers. In this way, we can see how the value of subscription is passed between users, and how dissemination relies upon the investment of subscription. The retweet also takes on badge-like formation in that it contributes to the tweet’s retweet count and inscribes the user’s aviator onto the tweet as having retweeted (fig.7).


retweet count

Thus far, I have attempted to outline the SAD framework in a way that pertains strictly to the objective functions of Twitter’s interface. That is, we have examined the operations of the medium, itself, independent of user input. Of concern in this paper is the manner in which users generate value within this framework. More specifically, we are investigating what problems might arise from the system of currency that this framework attaches to our social interactions. The primary question we will address is: How might this platform’s framing of social value influence inter-user relationships and users’ conceptions of self-worth?   

lol trent

The Standing Reserve, Aesthleticism, and Klout

Because the SAD framework organizes user behaviour around the exchange of subscription, expressed approval, and dissemination, it is of concern that the users’ desire to acquire these resources will begin to define the manner in which they relate with one another. Of course, it can be argued that a system of currency that facilitates the exchange of said resources is beneficial to a social network. Such an argument would be on par with McLuhan’s account of currency as a tool, and we must acknowledge the role this tool plays in allowing users to efficiently connect, share and discover information. That being said, there is much more to socializing that the exchanges afforded by said system. What we are to be wary of is forgetting the interactions that fall outside of Twitter’s Interactions.


To elucidate this concern, it will be helpful to call upon Heidegger’s concepts of “enframing” and “the standing reserve”, as discussed in “The Question Concerning Technology.”[3] In this piece, he examines humankind’s technological conquest as a behaviour and mindset that encourages us to view the world as a resource. Within this perspective, he argues, we are prone to consider and taxonomize our surroundings in terms of their perceived use and profit-yielding potential. Heidegger refers to nature ordered in this fashion as “Bestand,” or “the standing reserve”[4]. He sees this “challenging” of nature as an oppressive ordering of the world, through which we are given a false sense of power or control. The control is not ours, for through adopting this orientation and setting towards the actualization of a harvest, we join the ranks of the standing reserve: “Only to the extent that man for his part is already challenged to exploit the energies of nature can this revealing that orders happen. If man is challenged, ordered, to do this, then does not man himself belong even more originally than nature within the standing reserve?”[5] Humans fall into the order of standing reserve both as a workforce and as a network of consumers. It has been interpreted that the major ramification of ordering the world in terms of “standing reserve” is the ensuing loss of dignity for both humans and nature [6]: to be seen as “standing reserve” is to have one’s value reduced to a utilitarian purpose framed by someone else, to be “made subordinate to [an] orderability”[7]. In this way, becoming caught up in the ideology of technological conquest and its afforded “conveniences” can easily blind us from our entrapment in this system and associated loss of agency. Of further concern is that our propensity to objectify that which surrounds us in nature will evolve to an objectification of our fellow humans.


We can picture Twitter’s SAD framework as a system of enframing that positions users as a source of attention, endorsement, and publicity. When users begin to view one another by these terms, they fall into the order of standing reserve. Users can feel power and success when rich in said resources, but it is important to remember that this validation is tied to the metrics of achievement defined by Twitter’s interface.  In this way, Twitter provides a system of currency that serves to positively reinforce a user-driven harvest for attention and endorsement.


The industrial imagery conjured here may call to mind the somewhat recent notion of “aesthleticism,” associated with “internet personalities” who function through rapid content production and dissemination within the realm of social media, relying heavily upon audience participation. The “aesthlete” has been presented as a phenomenon of the rapidly-increasing competition for attention online. Their approach to this competition is to remain constantly present in the ever-refreshing newsfeed. Much of their status, often framed in terms of “influence,” depends upon an ability to drive engagement with their content. In his examination of the aesthlete, Brad Troemel speaks to the role social currency plays in determining status: “Notes, likes, and reblogs serve as the quantitative basis for influence in an art world where critics’ written word has been stripped of power.”[8] Oftentimes, aesthlete is a term used with negative connotations (such as valuing quantity over quality, for example), and can be seen as a reductive typecast. Whether or not we wish to believe in the existence of the aesthlete, the concept of aesthleticism can lend us insight into the patterns of behaviour emerging within social media. We can imagine aesthletic behaviour as an exaggerated example of Twitter users falling into the order of standing reserve. In this light, two problematic conditions present themselves: first, aggressive treatment of audience attention; second, metrics replacing the critic’s authority.


The first condition illuminates how the harvest for attention can change inter-user relationships, as well as user behaviour. The desire for and effort to acquire attention is not necessarily an inherently problematic condition. What must be examined is the end to which attention is directed, and the method by which attention is acquired. In its simplest form, attention can be seen as the act of focusing one’s mind toward a given thing. When one user gives their attention to another, it can be said that they have focused their mind toward the followee. Within the SAD framework, each user acquires their own personal collection of focused minds (i.e. the follower-base). As we have discussed, a user’s follower-base is what gives value to their act of dissemination. When a followee cares not for what their follower’s focused mind perceives, but instead sees this attention as a vessel for further dissemination, they treat the follower as a resource of follower-base, rather than as a fellow human. In this way, the follower-followee relationship loses its dignity.  Furthermore, when a user composes a tweet with the outcome of virality in mind, (s)he treats her-/himself as standing reserve.


The second condition speaks to a shift in value assessment. It is not of concern here that The Critic has been stripped of his/her cultural authority. Rather, it is that users allow the metrics to define their conception of value. It might be argued that these metrics represent user input (i.e. the favorite count is not simply a number, but rather a history of expressed approval), but, again, we must acknowledge that the interface first shapes user input. Consider the following passage from “The Question Concerning Technology”: “because physics, indeed already as pure theory, sets nature up to exhibit itself as a coherence of forces calculable in advance, it orders its experiments precisely for the purpose of asking whether and how nature reports itself when set up in this way”[9]. The reasoning here is that if you frame nature with a particular formula, it will only present to you that which you have calculated for. This reasoning can be applied to the relationship between user, interface, and metrics. All user value to be demonstrated by means of metrics is rooted in the formula of the interface. Users should work to generate and conceive of value independent of such formula; to do otherwise is to forfeit autonomy and limit possibilities in expression, interaction, and self-realization. Treatment of metrics as authority is problematic, as it encourages users to function within the parameters of the interface.


The problematic authority of the metrics is further enforced by external applications geared toward calculating, scoring, and documenting “social influence,” such as Klout, Kred, and Peer Index[10]. Let us use Klout, arguably the most popularly-known services of this nature, to examine the growing authority and danger of metrics-derived user status. With the tagline, “Make Your Mark,” Klout presents itself as a platform that helps you to “Discover how you influence your networks,” “Share and grow your passions,” and “Earn recognition for your influence.”[11]The platform functions by gathering data from a user’s social media activity, such as follower count, level of activity, Klout scores of associated users, and favorite and retweet counts. Using this data in combination with its secret algorithm, Klout calculates an influence score out of 100 for each user. Klout has calculated and documented a score for all public Twitter users, regardless of their having registered with the platform. In this way, Twitter users are able to compare their scores with all fellow Twitter users, in turn, gathering a sense of how they “rank” within the grand scheme of Twitter. The simplistic packaging of a Klout score makes user-ranking efficient, accessible, and easily transferable: qualities that, again, echo McLuhan’s account of currency. The appeal of this simplicity’s afforded conveniences, coupled with the user’s ability to know the precise meaning upon which value has been founded, heightens the danger of authoritative metrics. On the topic of such metrics, famous virtual reality pioneer and web-critic Jaron Lanier has said, “People’s lives are being run by stupid algorithms more and more. The only ones who escape it are the ones who avoid playing the game at all.”[12] Yet such an avoidance may not be so simple. We see the “real world” effects of Klout’s dangerous authority, for example, in cases where employers consult the Klout scores of job candidates. Candidates, potentially unaware of the platform or their rank within it, can have their working success quickly undercut by a relatively low influence score. [13]


Thus far, we have examined two main problems to be wary of within the SAD framework: one, that a “harvest for attention” mentality can degrade a user’s relationships and self-realization; and two, that treating metric-driven value-assessments as authority can restrict users from conceivng of and generating new forms of value. This being said, in the case of both issues, users still possess the ability to subvert said behaviours and mentalities. Subversion begins with awareness. Users must work toward remaining mindful of the frameworks and formulas guiding and depicting their behaviour, as well as that which exist as potential outside of these guidelines. Simultaneously, users must also work toward developing an understanding of how said frameworks are of use and benefit to them.


discover me

Representative Currency and The Precession of Simulacra

McLuhan provides a poetic account of currency’s “inherent good” that can serve to remind us of the SAD framework’s purpose. He describes money as “social medium or extension of an inner wish and motive [that] creates social and spiritual values”[14]. Here, he is referencing the late 19th century sentiment of Samuel Butler, who described money as “the symbol of duty,.. the sacrament of having done for mankind that which mankind wanted”[15]. In this way, we can remind ourselves of the social depth that each of the functions outlined in the SAD framework holds. Subscription is the act of focusing one’s mind upon another, expression of approval is the act of outward praise, and dissemination is the act of sharing amongst a group. Each of these functions holds the potential for great social impact. Keeping these functions and their potential in mind makes users better able to take ownership of their behaviour within the framework.


It can happen, however, that users do not keep these functions in mind. As McLuhan notes, value is disembodied by representative forms of currency, making it easy for us to lose sight of the sentiment behind the monetary symbol: “when printed money supplanted gold the compelling aura of it disappeared”[16]. We can apply this same reasoning to the process by which the symbols of the interface supplant “in person” social gestures. Just as there are obvious benefits to using printed money in the place of gold, so too are there benefits to the symbolic exchanges within social media. Of disadvantage, though, is that users may forget the sentiment of their interactions, when extended through the less-immediate and more-ephemeral medium of the symbol.

The step beyond forgetting the sentiment behind the symbol is that users begin to mistake the symbol for the sentiment. This line of thinking is in tandem with Baudrillard`s notions around “the precession of simulacra,” as presented in Simulacra and Simulation. Here, he declares that we have oversaturated our world with symbolic representation and simulacra, and have consequently lost touch of reality. He proposes a taxonomy of signs broken into four stages, each successive stage being further-distanced from reality: first, the faithful image/copy, where the sign reflects a profound reality; second, perversion of reality, where the sign does not faithfully reveal reality to us; third, masking the absence of a profound reality, where the sign claims to represent something real, but rather stands as a simulation with no original; and fourth, pure simulation, where the sign merely reflects other signs[17].


Let us examine how the symbolic currency within Twitter can slip from faithful image to pure simulation, using the example of subscription. Taken on an individual basis, the symbolism of the follow can function as a faithful image: the individual follow can hold the weight of one user wanting to hear from and/or connect with another user. In group formation, however, the symbolism of following begins to take on a life of its own. Recall, for instance, the badge-like manifestation of the follower and following counts that comes from Twitter’s public display of follower and following data. This particular circumstance encourages users to compare their counts against one another. The danger of such a comparison begins with a tendency to reduce the follower as an individual into the follower as a tally notch. Following this reduction is the fetishization of the tally.  To give an example: a common form this fetishization takes on is that of the follower:following ratio. This ratio stands as a symbol of a user’s status, expressed in the terms of attention given relative to attention received. The sleek packaging of the ratio can nullify the detailed context of the account’s social dynamics and presence. In this way, the ratio functions as a perversion of reality. As users grow further entrenched in this metrics-driven system of evaluating experience within Twitter, the ratio grows more and more hollow, approaching the nature of a sign which masks the absence of a profound reality. For if users are turning their attention increasingly toward the metrics of their content, a ratio built upon attention shared between users turns increasingly meaningless.  We will omit the fourth stage of simulation (in which the sign merely reflects other signs) from this analysis, as it is arguably too hyperbolic and defeatist to contribute further productive significance.


Baudrillard’s rhetoric around loss of reality has made it difficult for scholars to apply his thinking toward principles of currency[18].  Such is a rhetoric we wish to avoid in this piece, especially in light of the dualistic thinking that surrounds distinctions between “The Real World” and “Virtual Reality.” Nathan Jurgenson terms this ideology “digital dualism,” and critiques it for positing the physical world as “real,” and the digital world as “virtual.”[19] Many studies of social media are rooted in this mode of thinking, treating the online as separate from and lesser than the physical. Jurgenson proposes an alternative view of “augmented reality,” in which “digital and material realities dialectically co-construct each other.”[20] This piece has been conducted with said approach in mind, and reference to Baudrillard is not meant to be taken as a reinstated distinction between real and virtual.

Rather than having to do with “loss of reality,” the concern we are highlighting with the precession of simulacra aligns with our previous examination of the authoritative metric.  To refresh, the danger of relying upon metrics to measure user value is that it encourages users to function within the parameters of the interface, rather than work to generate and conceive of value independent of or in subversion to this formula. Klout furthers this danger by providing an attractively simple influence score, the algorithm for which users are unable to know. In this case, the value of “influence” is obscured for users by means of an external party’s ambiguous quantification. With the precession of simulacra, users perpetuate obscurity of their own accord. In both cases, obscurity functions by first abstracting the metric from the value upon which has been founded (recall the inherent functions of the SAD framework), distancing the user from the sentiment of their interactions.

Losing touch of this sentiment can motivate the user in three main directions: one, further subservience to the metrics; two, disengagement or departure from the network; or three, motivation to produce new meaning or value. The first direction continues along the trajectory we have just outlined: taking the numeric symbol as the inherent good to which activity should be directed, the users adapt their behaviour toward yielding the most desirable metrics, potentially sacrificing certain modes of self-expression and relationship formation. In the second direction, users feel a general sense of meaninglessness about their activity, and/or have failed to build lasting relationships with other users, so opt to discontinue their involvement with the platform. The third direction is our most hopeful option: the frustration of “meaningless” interaction motivates users to re-imbue their activity with new social value. As we have seen in the example of Klout, however, subversion of the authoritative metric can be difficult amidst a social landscape in which many users have, in some way or other, “bought into” this system of thinking.

Difficulties aside, the idea that the third direction exists as a possibility is central to this paper’s purpose. If anything, this piece has been written in an attempt to highlight and strengthen this possibility. As mentioned before, exercising an active awareness of the framework by which exchange is facilitated and value is defined will be the first step toward conceiving of and generating new value.  The critiques presented thus far have been intended as a step toward such awareness. Because social media is a relatively young phenomenon, its associated systems of social currency are also quite young. In this way, users are placed in an awkward, yet crucial position: as they learn to function within a rudimentary framework of social exchange, they pave the way for users and currencies to come.


New Systems of Currency and the Power of Community

One quality of the SAD framework’s currency that distinguishes it from classical Money is the instable collective understanding of value amongst its users.  Indeed, this instability comes partially from the framework’s immaturity. McLuhan acknowledges this toilsome process of establishing a currency system in his discussion of printed money’s relation to literacy, recounting the abrasive turn toward having a society physically visualize previously “inner” values: “Far easier is the organization of production than is the training of whole populations in the habits of expressing their wishes and desires statistically, as it were, by means of market mechanisms of supply and demand, and the visual technology of prices”[21].  The SAD framework faces a similar challenge of symbolically quantifying social gestures. The retrospective insight gained from McLuhan’s historical account calls to question what sort of paradigm shift online social currency might be approaching.


As it stands, the young SAD framework holds a precarious position. Further-structuring the framework (with, for example, a fixed-price system) offers benefits of stabilized value, while posing threats of constrained user-experience. Allowing for structural flexibility (by, for example, the elimination of numeracy) offers benefits of user-autonomy while posing threats of obstructing a collective understanding of value. Some would argue that a rigid framework of social currency cannot achieve the fluid subtlety capable of responding to social interaction. In an examination of action and contemplation within the realms of privately-owned online public spaces (such as Twitter), Brian Droitcour states the following:

Private ownership…constructs protocols that make space and public as ephemeral as money. Communities can take shape around these protocols but they grow their own, unarticulated systems of interaction and affinity that change more subtly and unpredictably than terms of service and zoning laws. The latter are brittle. Communities…adapt easily to new conditions, and thrive in discourses beyond those of the marketplace.[22]

The sentiment expressed here gives hope that in the face of codified systems of conduct and interaction, the user’s creatively social and communal drive will remain supple and resilient.

Central to this resilience is the power of community. Just as currency serves to tighten the bonds of a community, so too does currency rely upon the community’s collective understanding of its value and purpose. Droitcour’s reasoning highlights for us the opportunity for co-constructed social value.  As users find themselves amidst the birth of a new and uncertain social economy, it is with/as a community that they develop awareness and working methods of meaningful exchange.

what is a fav_edited-1


[When I decide to favorite something,] I suppose it’s just anything I like that I don’t feel requires a retweet. Oftentimes it’s a response that I like that I receive in a conversation or perhaps something I see in my newsfeed that I think is clever but doesn’t call for an RT. I certainly don’t give as much thought to favourites as RTs or tweets. I don’t see it being a terribly important function. I sometimes even favourite just to be polite and acknowledge a tweet someone has directed at me.

–          Rudayna @Rudayna_B

ok hmm ok. my approach to faving. i dont know. i fav tweets that i like and thats pretty much it. it’s cool faving tweets because maybe ur making someone feel good. i feel good when people fav my tweets? when twitter took away my faving privileges it sucked because i kept trying to fav and sometimes i look thru my favs to look at all the cool tweets and i couldnt fav! so those tweets i didnt fav were lost forever. i rly like faving tweets.

–          Olivia, @FAKEGIRL500

Follower-following ratio only becomes important in my consideration to followback if someone follows significantly more users than they are followed by, and even then, there are exceptions. I’d say what is more important is the absolute number of accounts followed – when someone exceeds 1,000 accounts followed, I generally take this as a signal that they no longer use their Twitter timeline to consume content, or even then, would be very unlikely to see my content if it were to enter their stream.

–          Adrian @AJEbsary

the way i see it, there is a hierarchy of fav value that derives from the nature of one’s relationship with the other user in question. i.e. a fav from a close friend who often favs can mean less emotionally than a fav from someone who rarely favs you. Sometimes favs can take on whole other shades of meaning—favs on a selfie, for example, carry a lot of weight becaue that person is literally fav-ing your face. i guess the main point i was thinking about with fav hierarchy is that sometimes i will recieve a fav that really makes me happy, and others less so, based on my relationship with the person. the same reasoning applies to my process when faving some1 else—i fav for a lot of different reasons, from flirting to thanking someone for following me to ending conversations that i am done with to simply reminding someone i exist. i guess the latter is the entire reason for having a twitter lol.

–          Ezra, @ezra_marc

[1] Marshal McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York:  McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1967), 123-34.

[2] J. Falkinger, “Attention economies,” Journal of Economic Theory: 133.1 (2007), 267.

[3] Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” in Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings, ed. David Farrel Krell (Toronto: Harper Perennial Modern Thought, 2008), 311-41.

[4] Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” 322.

[5] Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” 323.

[6] David I. Waddington, “A Field Guide to Heidegger: Understanding ‘The Question Concerning Technology’,” Educational Philosophy and Theory 37.4 (2005) 574.

[7] Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” 323.

[8] Brad Troemel, “Athletic Aesthetics,” The New Inquiry, May 10, 2013, accessed August 21, 2013,

[9] Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” 326.

[10] For an example of how such services have been used to frame examinations of user behaviour within Twitter, see the following “influence”-centred study: Huy Nguyen and Rong Zheng, “A Data-driven Study of Influences in Twitter Communities,” arXiv: 1307.4264v1[cs.SI](2013).

[11] “How it Works,” Klout Corporation, accessed August 21, 2013.

[12] Jaron Lanier in Seth Stevenson, “What Your Klout Score Really Means,” Wired Business, April 24, 2012, accessed August 21, 2013,

[13] See the case of Siam Fiorella, within the Toronto Marketing industry: Stevenson, “What Your Klout Score Really Means.”

[14] McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 127.

[15] Samuel Butler in McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 126.

[16] McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 126.

[17] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004), 6.

[18] See, in particular, Mattesich’s critique of hyperreality in Richard Mattesich, “Accounting representation and the onion model of reality: a comparison with Baudrillard’s orders of simulacra and his hyperreality,” Accounting Organizations and Society 28 (2003), 451-4.

[19] Nathan Jurgenson, “Digital Dualism versus Augmented Reality,” The Society Pages: Cyborgology, February 24, 2011, accessed August 22, 2013,

[20] Nathan Jurgenson, “Towards Theorizing an Augmented Reality,” The Society Pages: Sociology Lens, October 5, 2009, accessed August 22, 2013,

[21] McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 128.

[22] Brian Droitcour, “Public Spaces,” The New Inquiry, October 29, 2012, accessed Aug 22, 2013,

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