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Distinction and Status Production on User-Generated Content Platforms: Using Bourdieu's Theory of Cultural Production to Understand Social Dynamics in Online Fields

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In this paper, we propose an analytical lens for studying social status production processes across a wide variety of user-generated content (UGC) platforms. Various streams of research, including those focused on social network analysis in social media, online communities, reputation systems, blogs, and multiplayer games, have discussed social status production online in ways that are diverse and incompatible. Drawing on Bourdieu's theory of fields of cultural production, we introduce the notion of an online field and associated sociological concepts to help explain how diverse types of producers and consumers of content jointly generate unique power relations online. We elaborate on what role external resources and status markers may play in shaping social dynamics in online fields. Using this unifying theory we are able to integrate previous research findings and propose an explanation of social processes behind both the similarity across UGC platforms, which all offer multiple ways of pursuing distinction through content production, as well as the differences across such platforms in terms of which distinctions matter. We elaborate what role platform design choices play in shaping which forms of distinction count and how they are pursued as well as implications these have for status gaining strategies. We conclude the paper by suggesting how our theory can be used in future qualitative and quantitative research studies.
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Distinction and Status Production on User-Generated
Content Platforms: Using Bourdieu’s Theory of Cultural
Production to Understand Social Dynamics in Online Fields
Natalia Levina, Manuel Arriaga
To cite this article:
Natalia Levina, Manuel Arriaga (2014) Distinction and Status Production on User-Generated Content Platforms: Using
Bourdieu’s Theory of Cultural Production to Understand Social Dynamics in Online Fields. Information Systems Research
25(3):468-488. http://dx.doi.org/10.1287/isre.2014.0535
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Information Systems Research
Vol. 25, No. 3, September 2014, pp. 468–488
ISSN 1047-7047 (print) ISSN 1526-5536 (online) http://dx.doi.org/10.1287/isre.2014.0535
© 2014 INFORMS
Distinction and Status Production on
User-Generated Content Platforms:
Using Bourdieu’s Theory of Cultural Production to
Understand Social Dynamics in Online Fields
Natalia Levina
Stern School of Business, New York University, New York, New York 10012,
nlevina@stern.nyu.edu
Manuel Arriaga
Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB2 1AG, United Kingdom,
m.arriaga@jbs.cam.ac.uk
I
n this paper, we propose an analytical lens for studying social status production processes across a wide variety
of user-generated content (UGC) platforms. Various streams of research, including those focused on social
network analysis in social media, online communities, reputation systems, blogs, and multiplayer games, have
discussed social status production online in ways that are diverse and incompatible. Drawing on Bourdieu’s theory
of fields of cultural production, we introduce the notion of an online field and associated sociological concepts to
help explain how diverse types of producers and consumers of content jointly generate unique power relations
online. We elaborate on what role external resources and status markers may play in shaping social dynamics in
online fields. Using this unifying theory we are able to integrate previous research findings and propose an
explanation of social processes behind both the similarity across UGC platforms, which all offer multiple ways of
pursuing distinction through content production, as well as the differences across such platforms in terms of which
distinctions matter. We elaborate what role platform design choices play in shaping which forms of distinction
count and how they are pursued as well as implications these have for status gaining strategies. We conclude the
paper by suggesting how our theory can be used in future qualitative and quantitative research studies.
Keywords: electronic commerce; social media; user-generated content; status; power; Bourdieu practice theory;
network analysis
History : Chris Dellarocas, Senior Editor; Brian Butler, Associate Editor. This paper was received on January 15,
2012, and was with the authors 15 months for 2 revisions.
1. Introduction
Social media websites rich in user-generated content
(UGC) dominate the most popular Internet destinations
(Nielsen 2009). In 2009 alone, the amount of time spent
on social networking and other UGC sites tripled,
thus comprising nearly one-fifth of the time spent
online (Perez 2009). Digital platforms such as Amazon,
Facebook, Wikipedia, and YouTube
1
allow individuals
to readily upload and share pictures and videos, journal
entries, encyclopedia articles, product reviews, and
personal profiles. The processes of content cocreation
and consumption that take place on these platforms are
being monetized by digital businesses, whose growth
is anchored in creating the kind of social dynamics that
promote contributions that appeal to their audiences
while weeding out those that do not (Aral et al. 2013).
1
The appendix briefly overviews the nature of various contemporary
examples of platform we use throughout this paper.
There are numerous reasons why individuals con-
tribute to UGC platforms, including the desire to
socialize, belong, learn, contribute to the social good,
and/or build a reputation (Kraut et al. 2011). Users’
diverse motivations notwithstanding, their varied con-
tributions produce a joint social space that unites them
in some common interest while also dividing them in
how well they distinguish themselves relative to others
in pursuing this interest. Any given UGC platform—a
system that enables users to contribute, evaluate, and
consume content online—generates a variety of ways
in which social distinctions can be acquired, the most
common being the number of views and downloads,
the number of a user’s followers, and positive ratings
and comments on the content. On some sites, status
markers are very prominent (e.g., a noticeable display
of how many followers a user has), whereas on others
they are subtler and less visible to a casual visitor
(e.g., a hidden structure of editorial roles). Almost
468
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Levina and Arriaga: Distinction and Status Production on UGC Platforms
Information Systems Research 25(3), pp. 468–488, © 2014 INFORMS 469
universally, however, a relatively small proportion
of contributors is responsible for the lion’s share of
contributions (Crowston and Howison 2005, Moon
and Sproull 2000, von Krogh et al. 2003, Wu et al.
2009, Kane 2011), and no UGC site is likely to survive
without attracting users who are willing to distinguish
themselves by investing their time in contributing
content that others find interesting.
This means that status accumulation associated with
content production and evaluation has critical impli-
cations for platform design decisions. Each platform
makes countless design choices in promoting content
and its producers. Should the platform display status
markers associated with the content (number of likes),
with the producer (number of followers), or both? How
prominently should it display perceived worthiness of
content? For example, YouTube prominently displays
the number of times a video has been viewed, and
Wikipedia subtly notes which articles are “featured.”
Amazon uses an elaborate system of badges, but Twit-
ter sticks to a few—number of followers and re-tweets.
Should a platform enable social network–based status
markers? For example, Flickr has added “friendship”
ties many years after it was launched. How much
weight should be given to “offline” status? On Digg,
user profiles are easily accessed by merely clicking on a
username, whereas on 4chan.org, an image-sharing site,
anonymous contributions are the norm and no user
profiles exist. Moreover, platform designs also vary
by how much weight lurkers (noncontributing users)
have in content valuation. For example, on YouTube,
lurkers have significant weight as the number of views
is the most prominent status marker. Last, whereas on
most platforms consumers are initially given the same
evaluating authority (ability to vote, comment, and
link), on other platforms, community managers and
prominent users get more “voting” power than regular
content consumers (Ren and Kraut 2013).
To get a sense of how important these design deci-
sions are to the content cocreation processes of digital
businesses, it is worthwhile considering how much
major UGC platforms have transformed themselves
over time. For example, Amazon started by simply
allowing its customers to write reviews. Today it has
developed an elaborate system of distinctions rang-
ing from designating a celebrity by prefixing “the”
to their names (as in “the Jeff Bezos”) to rating mul-
tiple reviewer ranks (from “top 1,000 reviewer” all
the way to “Hall of Fame Reviewer”). In a different
transformation, YouTube, which initially indicated
how many times a particular video was downloaded
(a simple content-based distinction), has evolved into
a system combining both content-based (e.g., video
ratings and comments) and user-based (e.g., number
of subscribers to a user’s channel and user profile
information) distinctions.
Although examples of status markers and associated
design variations are plentiful, our understanding of
how they stimulate or impede content production
is limited (Aral et al. 2013). For example, why are
platforms not immediately copying each other’s status-
related design choices? Flickr, for example, is not
implementing the same badge system as Amazon. More
intriguingly, researchers have studied the importance
of feedback mechanisms on tech support forums and
concluded that formal feedback systems lead to more
contributions (Moon and Sproull 2000). Yet, Wikipedia,
after experimenting with such a system, decided to
abandon it. Without a unifying theory of social dynam-
ics responsible for differentiating users, their online
and offline identities, and their contributions and the
dynamic relations they enter in, we cannot explain why
findings in one setting would or would not generalize
to another.
Unfortunately, traditional social psychology-based
theories of social status are not readily applicable to
UGC platforms. They have been developed in relatively
small, collocated groups where diverse individuals
interact on specific tasks, often drawing on formal
organizational authority or external status cues such
as race and gender in the process (see Magee and
Galinsky 2008). Online, however, the visibility and
impact of social status cues such as gender or race are
much reduced and formal organizational authority is
either absent or diminished (Sproull and Kiesler 1986).
Moreover, UGC platforms often have millions of users,
with only a handful of individuals directly interacting
with each other. These millions of content consumers,
nonetheless, collectively shape the status of content
producers by downloading, rating, and commenting
on their contributions.
Furthermore, social distinction online rarely exists
on the “whole” platform. Instead, users tend to form
relations of influence over particular shared interests.
For example, on Flickr, someone passionate about
street photography might upload her photos and have
her contributions followed by others who share her
enthusiasm (Zeng and Wei 2003). Similarly, a medical
expert can distinguish herself by writing several impor-
tant Wikipedia entries on medicine, but be completely
invisible in other regions of this platform (Ransbotham
and Kane 2011). Therefore, prior to applying any theory
of status production online, we need to identify the
relevant group(s) within which status is being granted.
The goal of this paper is to introduce a theoretical
framework that brings together different perspectives
on how social status is attained online while taking
into account the need to identify the relevant social
space(s) in which individuals compete for distinction.
First, we review prior literature on UGC as it pertains
to social stratification (production of social status) on
the Web and summarize organizational theories on
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Levina and Arriaga: Distinction and Status Production on UGC Platforms
470 Information Systems Research 25(3), pp. 468–488, © 2014 INFORMS
social stratification. Then, to overcome the shortfalls of
psychological theories that focus on status in small
groups with defined membership, we draw on Pierre
Bourdieu’s sociological theory, developed to under-
stand how agents compete for distinction in a society,
with a focus on how this happens in settings where
cultural goods such as art and media are produced
(Bourdieu 1984, 1993). Using Bourdieu’s theory allows
us to articulate a process model of how content pro-
ducers compete for distinction within particular social
spaces online, while also “importing” and “export-
ing” their online status to other online and offline
settings (summarized in Figure 2). We conclude by
articulating implications of our theory for social medial
design and suggesting future research directions. As
Aral et al. (2013) have observed, “Understanding how
social media design impacts interaction and social
structure is critical because these social processes affect
the very fabric of society” (p. 5). Our theoretical work
contributes to this important research goal.
2. Prior Work on Social Status Online
Diverse literature streams have directly or peripher-
ally discussed the twin issues of how users achieve
distinction in online environments and how this dis-
tinction, in turn, influences their behavior. The most
common perspective on this issue has drawn on social
network analysis and has conceptualized distinction as
a favorable position in a social network. The online
communities literature has also discussed distinction,
albeit in less direct ways, focusing on the role-based
differentiation among content producers prominent
in many online communities. The literature on online
reputation has considered one particular type of online
status, namely, reputation gained from online trans-
actions. Last, there is a growing body of literature
that specifically addresses status production in online
settings such as the “blogosphere” and virtual multi-
player games. Next, we discuss these perspectives in
more detail.
2.1. Position and Influence in
Online Social Networks
Studies of the diffusion of content within social net-
works have found that users’ positions in social net-
works play an important role in content contribution
and diffusion (Adar et al. 2004, Goel et al. 2011, Susarla
et al. 2012, Zeng and Wei 2013). Certain influential users
(e.g., those who have higher network centrality) may be
responsible for a large amount of content consumption
because when they pay attention to content, they attract
the attention of their peer group (Susarla et al. 2012,
Trusov et al. 2010, Garg et al. 2011). Moreover, local
network relations (such as having a dyadic link to
another user) may shape users’ contribution behavior
in significant ways (Zeng and Wei 2013).
At the same time, a user’s network position in some
UGC settings is a fairly poor predictor of that user’s
influence. For example, it was observed that in-degree
(number of users linking to the focal user’s profile) on
Twitter does not correlate well with re-tweets (forward-
ing of messages), suggesting that something other than
network position may be driving influence (Cha et al.
2010). Indeed, content may propagate without influen-
tials by having an impact on “receptive” consumers
(Watts and Dodds 2007). Homophily, which refers to
the similarity in users’ backgrounds and preferences
(McPherson et al. 2001), may be more important in
explaining content propagation than network position
(Aral et al. 2009).
Although social network theorists clearly acknowl-
edge that the network position is not the only explana-
tion of social dynamics on UGC (see Kane et al. 2014a
for a review), the alternative concepts that their studies
use go beyond social network theory itself. Which
dimensions constitute homophily in a given UGC
context? Which kind of content makes an impression
and on which users? A recent study focused on the
relationship between social network ties, online status,
and content contribution behavior on Flickr (Zang and
Wei 2013). This study first used homophily theory to
argue that, when users formed dyadic ties, they tended
to upload more similar photos than they did before
they formed such ties. It then used a combination
of social identity and signaling theory to argue that,
after formation of a tie, users tended to gradually
differentiate their postings. Finally, it used Blau’s theory
of social stratification and borrowed from a theory
of culture to argue that relative popularity difference
between users in a dyad moderated the relationship
between the social ties and user contribution behaviors.
The paper presented empirical evidence supporting
these hypotheses. Yet, without a cohesive theory that
develops a notion of online status and unpacks its
relationship with social network position and other
types of structural resources, it is hard to say whether
we will find similar social dynamics in other settings.
For example, on social networking sites where ties are
formed based on offline relationships, it is possible
that contributions of users who form a tie are different
both before and after the tie is formed because of users’
diverse worldviews (Goel et al. 2010).
Finally, many researchers of social networks focus
on how users acquire central positions in their social
networks (Backstrom et al. 2006, Kumar et al. 2006,
Leskovec et al. 2008, Mislove et al. 2008, Kane et al.
2014a), for example, building on their prior advanta-
geous network position (e.g., Burt 2000). At the same
time, studies of social networks increasingly point out
how external sources of status (e.g., user profile infor-
mation, celebrity status) (e.g., Liu 2007, Lampe et al.
2007, Aral 2013, Vaast et al. 2013) and user contribution
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Levina and Arriaga: Distinction and Status Production on UGC Platforms
Information Systems Research 25(3), pp. 468–488, © 2014 INFORMS 471
behaviors (Ransbotham et al. 2012) shape a user’s
position in a social network. Social network theories
alone lack a theoretical basis necessary to account for
how these diverse resources generate social position.
2.2. Social Stratification in Online Communities
Web 2.0 UGC platforms are relatively new, but online
communities, which can be considered a specific type
of UGC-producing collective, have existed and been
studied for a long time. Researchers in this area have
long been fascinated by the question of why individu-
als contribute their time and effort online. Although
reasons for this vary widely, developing a reputation
as an expert within an online community (and beyond)
has been identified as an important motivator (Butler
2001; Faraj et al. 2008, 2011; Faraj and Johnson 2011;
Moon and Sproull 2008; Wasko and Faraj 2005). Some
of the strongest evidence of reputation’s importance
comes from a study of legal professionals contribut-
ing to a Web forum (Wasko and Faraj 2005). In this
study, researchers surveyed contributors to compare
their motivation for regularly contributing high-quality
content. They hypothesized such motivating factors as
a desire to help others, commitment to the community,
self-rated expertise, and network centrality. The only
significant relationship was the one associated with the
desire to gain professional reputation (ibid). In other
words, there was an expectation that status gained
within the online community can be “exported” to the
offline world of the legal profession.
Although the most often discussed way of achieving
distinction in online communities is by frequently
contributing helpful content, research has documented
that great variation exists in the nature of contribution
behaviors, with users differentiating themselves into
diverse roles based on the kind of contributions they
make (von Krogh et al. 2003, Butler et al. 2007, Preece
and Shneiderman 2009, Smith and Kollock 2009, Kraut
et al. 2011, Welser et al. 2007). Indeed, for some UGC
settings, volume of contributions was found not to
lead to a higher status of the content (e.g., Kane 2011).
Besides or instead of frequent contribution of content,
members may acquire distinction by developing infras-
tructure, providing encouragement to others, enforcing
community norms, and/or promoting the community
to external stakeholders (Butler et al. 2007, Kane 2011).
Within open-source software projects, there are individ-
uals whose main responsibility is to program, while
others answer newbies’ questions, write documentation,
route bug reports, make feature requests, and so on
(von Krogh et al. 2003, Setia et al. 2012). The nature
of participants’ contributions may also vary based
on their motivation and relationship to the commu-
nity (
Bateman
et al. 2011a). By creating and taking
on various roles, participants sustain a community in
conditions of fluid membership (Faraj et al. 2011).
When trying to understand the differences in promi-
nence among online community members, it has also
been noted that the distinction achieved by users within
the online community (e.g., tenure) seems to be more
important than participants’ offline identities, which
are often heavily discounted (Faraj et al. 2011). For
example, in coproducing medical articles on Wikipedia,
frequent, long-term participation may count for more
than an MD degree (Kane et al. 2009). Yet in other
settings, offline status markers may play a significant
role and users should think carefully about what to
disclose (Bianchi et al. 2012, Bateman 2011b). At the
same time, long tenure does not always lead to top rat-
ings for one’s contributions, as a community may also
appreciate the benefits of “new blood.” For example, a
recent study of featured Wikipedia articles found that
articles coauthored by both experienced and new users
were most likely to be promoted to the top and stay
on top (Ransbotham and Kane 2011). Thus, community
structures must have means for enticing new members
to join and feel empowered in the face of current elites.
The most relevant research stream within the online
communities literature, in terms of understanding
social status, has focused on leadership in online
communities. Some communities may have formally
designated leaders such as mailing list owners (Butler
et al. 2007, Ren and Kraut 2013). However, the majority
of online community leadership seems to be emer-
gent and stems from specific behaviors adopted by
users who differentiate into leadership roles (Johnson
2006). For example, in open-source software commu-
nities, the path to leadership is rooted in long-term
tenure, central network position, and frequent contribu-
tions (O’Mahony and Ferraro 2007). Yet which specific
combination of background and behaviors results in
leadership positions is highly dependent on the norms
and history of each community (ibid). Moreover, there
are different kinds of leaders in these communities:
some members try to progress up the vertical hierarchy,
whereas others focus on coordinating lateral activities
(Dahlender and O’Mahony 2011); and some members
may distinguish themselves by being centrally posi-
tioned within community networks, whereas others are
on the boundary of multiple communities (Dahlender
and Frederiksen 2012).
Overall, however, research into online communities
has paid relatively little theoretical attention to the
issue of social stratification, usually discussing online
and offline recognition as a form of motivation (e.g., Gu
and Jarvenpaa 2003, Wasko and Faraj 2005) and not as
the key driver of social dynamics. It typically considers
distinction in ways that focus on prosocial outcomes
such as sustaining collaboration quality, communal
well-being, and innovation (e.g., Sproull and Arriaga
2007, Faraj et al. 2011, Dahlender and Frederiksen 2012).
This literature does not focus on situations in which
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Levina and Arriaga: Distinction and Status Production on UGC Platforms
472 Information Systems Research 25(3), pp. 468–488, © 2014 INFORMS
community well-being is less of a concern than an
individual’s popularity, which is common to modern
UGC platforms.
Online community researchers have acknowledged
the multifaceted nature of distinction online, but also
called for further research to provide a more complex,
dynamic view of online status as not only a motivator
but also a consequence of social actions (Wasko and
Faraj 2005, p. 53).
2.3. Online Reputation Based on User Reviews
The focus on how users attain high status has been cen-
tral to research on online reputation systems (Resnick
et al. 2000). For many years, online auction websites
have provided users with a mechanism to express their
satisfaction with the past behavior of other participants
on the site, i.e., a means for building online reputa-
tion. Reputation mechanisms can affect prices and the
probability of a transaction occurring (Dellarocas 2003,
2010; Dellarocas et al. 2007; Duan et al. 2008; Resnick
et al. 2006; Resnick and Zeckhauser 2002) as well as
improve market efficiency (Bolton et al. 2004, Chevalier
and Mayzlin 2006).
In the early days of reputation systems, online repu-
tation was a one-dimensional concept strictly based on
a user’s past transactions. Researchers are now arguing
that treating online reputation as a one-dimensional
construct—as a single resource that users have more or
less of—is inappropriate. Ghose and colleagues (2009,
2011) have demonstrated how modern techniques of
automated text analysis allow researchers to “mine” the
text of user reviews and isolate multiple dimensions
along which online sellers differentiate themselves (e.g.,
quality of customer service, speed of shipping, careful
packaging, etc.).
Although we know quite a bit about performance-
based reputation as a marker of distinction, these stud-
ies stand in relative isolation from the work on social
network–based position or other forms of online status
(e.g., user profiles). Our work seeks to extend research
on reputation to account for the multidimensional
nature of social stratification online, with reputation
that is based on prior “good behavior” constituting
one, but not the only, type of distinction.
2.4. Status Among Bloggers and Gamers
Perhaps the issue of online status has received the
greatest attention from researchers who study online
blogs (Herring et al. 2004, Krishnamurthy 2002, Nardi
et al. 2004, Vaast et al. 2013), and understandably so
since blogs were for a long while the primary vehicle
for an individual’s online identity. Blogs have been
compared to “soapboxes” on which individuals talk,
with some standing on soapboxes of greater height and
commanding greater attention than others (Boyd 2005).
The interest in studying status among bloggers can
also be attributed to another set of factors. Blogging
was the first technology to enter the digital main-
stream that made “following” (or subscribing to) the
stream of contributions by a specific writer simple,
explicit, and easily observable. Furthermore, a central
element of blogging culture is extensive linking to
posts that one deems interesting and/or debatable
(Blood 2002, 2004; Cavanaugh 2002). This activity cre-
ates a densely connected web where the centrality, or
prominence, of specific individuals—members of the so-
called “
A-list
”—quickly becomes apparent within any
given community (Adar et al. 2004, Agarwal et al. 2008,
Herring et al. 2005, Marlow 2004, Vaast et al. 2013).
2
A distinguishing trait of these influential bloggers com-
pared to other bloggers is that they reveal significantly
more information about themselves (Trammell and
Keshelashvili 2005, Vaast et al. 2013). There are also
other distinctive aspects of high-status bloggers both
in their contribution behaviors and in their crafting
of a social network (Davidson and Vaast 2009, Vaast
et al. 2013). These individuals frequently succeed in
converting their high online status into valuable exter-
nal resources, such as attention from the mainstream
media and corporations (ibid).
Last, there has been extensive research on sta-
tus in MUDs (originally [Multiuser] Dungeons) and
MMPORGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing
Games). Unlike other online phenomena, MUDs are
meant to focus user attention on accumulating status
in various forms (see Bartle 2004 for a review). They
are usually designed as games wherein users can gain
experience points, climb levels, and accumulate wealth.
Most prominent research on MUDs note that users
differentiate themselves into multiple roles such as
socializers, explorers, killers, and achievers (Bartle
1996), which is of particular interest to us because it
advances the notion that designers of platforms can
promote certain behaviors that sustain participation
by making some status markers more prominent than
others. Moreover, MUDs and other virtual games are
interesting examples of how offline resources (money)
can be used to gain online status by buying certain
weapons, secrets, etc. However, there is little connection
between status studies on MUDs and on other promi-
nent UGC platforms. Furthermore, offline identity in
MUDs, as opposed to blogs, tends to be minimized
and even hidden (Turkle 1997).
To summarize, diverse literature has contributed to
our understanding of how users distinguish themselves
online; however, no one literature has attempted to
2
The blogosphere has received extensive network analytic treatment
from within the computer science community. Moreover, given
the availability of time-resolved data (which is typically not easily
available for other forms of UGC platforms), the focus of this
literature has been on the temporal evolution and patterns of blogging
networks (Kumar et al. 2005, Adamic and Glance 2005, Chi et al.
2007, Adar and Adamic 2005).
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Levina and Arriaga: Distinction and Status Production on UGC Platforms
Information Systems Research 25(3), pp. 468–488, © 2014 INFORMS 473
account for the multifaceted and dynamic nature of
the acquisition of online distinction and its relation-
ships to offline settings. At the same time, there is
mounting evidence of the importance of status both as
a motivator of contributions as well as a positional
resource used to get contributions noticed. Moreover,
it is evident that the processes through which users
become distinguished are highly situated in specific
social contexts and that both design choices made by
platform designers as well as enacted norms, expec-
tations, and behaviors of users shape what kind of
distinction is promoted and how.
3. Organizational Theories of
Social Status
We will now briefly review how status is generally
understood within the broader management literature
and then turn to two research streams with a long
tradition of studying status in offline groups. We will
argue that these traditions, although insightful in some
ways, are generally limited for understanding UGC.
In their comprehensive review, Magee and Galinsky
(2008) define status as the extent to which an individual
is respected or admired by others. This is in line with
Weber’s early use of the term as the “social estimation
of honor” others attach to the individual (Gerth and
Mills 1958, p. 186). Status is necessarily relational and
unequally distributed. Ridgeway and Correll (2006)
write that status is a form of inequality based on
differences in social esteem and respect that, in turn,
yield influence (p. 431).
Also central to theories of status is the notion that
“admiration” and “respect” only have meaning within
a particular social context (Magee and Galinsky 2008).
These concepts presuppose a shared social space inhab-
ited by both the agents who are granted status and
those who grant that status. Indeed, a person who has
earned the status in one community may have very
low status in another.
Finally, whereas we have used the term status so
far to discuss the emergence of social differentiation
online, a related concept of “power” is critically linked
Table 1 Requirements for a Theory of Status Production on UGC
Empirical evidence from prior studies that a
unifying theory needs to account for Social network theory Status in task groups Bourdieu’s theory
Relational and situated nature of status and power Yes Yes Yes
Multidimensionality of status and power No No for status Yes
Yes for power
Importing of offline status/resources into online context Only in terms of external network position Yes Yes
Exporting of online status/resources into other online and offline
settings
Only in terms of external network position No Yes
User’s higher status and resources leading to higher visibility of
his or her content
Yes Yes Yes
High visibility of user’s content motivating further contributions No No Yes
Status in large-scale groups with fluid memberships Yes No Yes
to status. Specifically, Magee and Galinsky propose
to define power “as asymmetric control over valued
resources in social relations” (2008, p. 361). Thus, power
and status are similar in that both serve to create a
social hierarchy, and both are relational and context
specific, but they are distinct in the sense that power
pertains to control over resources, whereas status exists
only in the eyes of others (ibid, pp.
363–364
). Power
begets status in that control over certain resources (e.g.,
money) leads to respect and admiration of others; and
status begets power in that the admiration of others
facilitates access to valuable resources. Both power and
status have self-reinforcing natures in that those who
get to the top tend to stay there (ibid, p. 363).
We started our discussion by observing that modern-
day UGC platforms afford multiple ways of granting
status to content contributors by enabling venues in
which admiration for both content and its contributor
can be expressed. Thus far, we have not discussed
differences in power and status, often using the word
“distinction” in reference to the presence of a social
hierarchy. Now, based on these more precise definitions,
one can see that those indicators of distinction that
are visible to others are markers of status, whereas
differential control over resources, such as social net-
work position, cognitive and professional abilities, and
formal positional authority associated with assigning
jobs or accepting contributions, are forms of power.
In some cases, power positions can be made visible
to others and immediately become status markers,
as in displaying the number of a user’s followers.
If displayed on a platform, this indicator turns a power
position (control over who will notice your postings)
into a status marker.
We use the clarified definitions of power and status
and draw on our earlier review of diverse empirical
literature to summarize (in Table 1) the requirements
for a theory of social stratification on UGC sites. We will
now discuss how two prominent theories deal with the
requirements we outlined.
As mentioned, the most widely used theory of social
stratification in online research has been social network
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Levina and Arriaga: Distinction and Status Production on UGC Platforms
474 Information Systems Research 25(3), pp. 468–488, © 2014 INFORMS
theory. It is indeed very well established that social
network position can serve as a critical source of power
in and across organizations and in online environ-
ments (Blau 1963, Podolny and Philips 1996, Stewart
2005, Stuart et al. 1999, Chen et al. 2012). In its essence,
power in a social network is synonymous with how
well connected an actor is. The work in this area has
established multiple notions of what constitutes a better
power position. For example, beyond diverse opera-
tionalizations of network centrality, this theory has also
suggested that agents bridging structural holes (loosely
connected or disconnected network clusters) can control
informational (and other valuable) resources flowing
through the network (Burt 2000). Social network-based
power is critically important in explaining content
contribution and evaluation behaviors on UGC, but it
is only one type of power found on UGC; there is a
great deal of evidence suggesting that it is not the only
kind of power.
Some of the prominent theories of status in orga-
nizations have been theories of status pertaining to
task-oriented groups (Magee and Galinsky 2008). These
theories have not been used much (if at all) in studies
of UGC, perhaps because they have serious limitations
when applied to these new settings. First, they tend to
focus on external status cues (e.g., being a white male
in a task group is likely to lead to higher status than
being a Latino female) (e.g., Berger 1977). These cues
are often filtered out in online settings (Sproull and
Kiesler 1986). Moreover, these theories are based on the
premise that groups are characterized by a shared goal
(Skvoretz and Fararo 1996), which is not necessarily
the case with UGC, where many contributors are moti-
vated by private benefits (e.g., Wash and Rader 2007).
Third, groups on UGC platforms tend to have fluid
membership, further contradicting the assumptions of
these theories.
Although there are many other theories of power
used in organizational literature (see McGee and
Galinsky 2008), they tend to suffer from a similar set
of limitations. For example, those that account for
multiple types of power such as the classic “bases of
power theory” of French and Raven (1959) or resource
dependence theory of Salancik and Pfeffer (1978) tend
to focus on formal hierarchies of authority and organi-
zational structures (sources of coercive and legitimate
power), and have limited relevance to UGC environ-
ments where almost all sources of power are emergent.
In this sense, UGC environments are closer to markets
than to hierarchies in the way power is wielded in
these settings. Indeed, on UGC platforms, platform
designers, who have formal authority, can shape user
behavior by designing status markers as well as content
evaluation and promotion mechanisms, but they cannot
control actions, norms, or tastes, which are key in
producing social stratification online.
We turn our attention to Bourdieu because his prac-
tice theory of how agents strive for distinction not
only focuses on power (as defined above) but also
addresses the relationship between power and status,
describing how power relations are produced, repro-
duced, and transformed dynamically through agents’
actions. It proposes a lens for identifying relevant
social contexts in which power is situated, as well as a
relationship among such contexts that allows for the
conversion of one type of power into another. Finally,
it shows how multiple types of distinctions can coexist
and accounts for how relative power positions of agents
shape their motivations and actions, and vice versa.
3
Table 1 indicates how Bourdieu’s theory addresses the
requirements we outlined earlier that others theories
do not address fully.
4. Applying Bourdieu to UGC
Bourdieu’s practice theory was developed to explain
social stratification and dynamics in offline societies by
focusing on how agents (people, groups, or institutions)
produce, reproduce, and transform social structures
through practice (i.e., what they do in everyday life).
Through practice, agents produce particular social
spaces with specific boundaries demarcated by shared
interests and power relations; these social spaces are
termed fields of practice. More formally, a field of
practice is a social space held together (and defined)
by (i) power relations among the agents who belong to
it, and (ii) an “interest” that is shared among those
agents (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992, p. 117).
A field is a separate social universe having its own laws
of functioning independent of those of politics and the
economy. The existence of the writers, as fact and as
value, is inseparable from the existence of the literary
field as an autonomous universe endowed with specific
principles of evaluation of practices and works.
(Bourdieu 1993, pp. 162–163).
Two actors are said to share an interest when they
have a common “socially constituted concern for, and
desire to play, given social games” (Bourdieu and
Wacquant 1992, p. 25), i.e., when they deem the stakes
offered by a certain social game (e.g., literary prizes)
to be worth pursuing (ibid, p. 116). At the same time,
agents are more or less successful in capturing these
stakes, thereby producing asymmetrical relations of
power.
The notion of the field of practice was designed to
explain social stratification and provides more sociolog-
ical depth than the concept of social network, which
3
In information systems (IS) research, Bourdieu’s theory has been
usefully applied in studies of power relations in IS development and
use (Levina and Vaast 2005, 2008; Schultze and Boland 2000a, b) and
in explaining social inequality produced through information and
communication technology diffusion (Kvasny and Keil 2006, Rowe
et al. 2004, Hsieh et al. 2011).
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Levina and Arriaga: Distinction and Status Production on UGC Platforms
Information Systems Research 25(3), pp. 468–488, © 2014 INFORMS 475
primarily deals with one type of power—social network
capital. Indeed, the idea of the field works well for
large groups with fluid membership and nonspecific
goals such as industries, occupational fields, and even
societies as a whole. This is evident in the growing
body of organizational literature that draws on the
concept of institutional field, which was developed on
the basis of Bourdieu’s theory (DiMaggio and Powell
1983). New institutional theory (Garud et al. 2007) and
the work on institutional logics (Friedland and Alford
1991) have further drawn from Bourdieu’s work to
account for emergent, field-specific distinctions, rather
than concentrating solely on external power structures.
We are therefore adopting this lens to understand social
stratification processes on UGC platforms.
A fundamental characteristic of Bourdieu’s notion
of the field is that it is built on relations (of power)
among agents that define the structure of the field
(Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992, p. 99). Bourdieu often
uses soccer as an analogy for such a field: relations
are defined by the positions of players in the game,
which are both the result of their prior actions and
the enablers of their future actions. These positions,
however, reflect agents’ differential attainment of stakes
in the game (e.g., being close to the goal), which, in
turn, are enabled and constrained by resources (capital),
such as their skills, that agents control inside and
outside the game. Such relations are fully or partially
invisible to agents (Bourdieu 1986).
Moreover, individuals, groups, or organizations can
be agents in a given field and one individual may have
different agencies (“roles”) depending on the situation
(just as soccer players have different positions). In fields
of cultural production, such as the one we encounter
on UGC platforms, a user may be both a contributor
of content as well as its consumer. In this sense, small
interest groups found on large UGC platforms (e.g., a
group of friends on Facebook) are akin to Bourdieu’s
“fields of restricted cultural production,” where cultural
goods are produced for small circles or “tiny ‘mutual
admiration societies’ ” and focus on the “public of
equals who are also competitors” (Bourdieu 1993,
p. 116).
We can see that relational aspects of fields make Bour-
dieu’s concepts fully compatible with network-based
perspectives,
4
as well as with the notions of power and
status we introduced earlier. Three additional observa-
tions provide support for this choice of theoretical lens
for a cohesive theory of status production on UGC
platforms. First, Bourdieu’s theory is particularly well
4
This is evidenced by the proximity of Bourdieu’s ideas to some
of the most influential work employing social networks in recent
years (cf. Portes 1998, Burt 2000). Bourdieu’s concept of social capital
(network-based distinction) is underdeveloped compared to more
advanced network theory, but still allows for two perspectives to be
integrated (Bottero and Crossley 2011).
suited for exploratory theory development that strives
to account for the actual practice of UGC platform
users. Although the theory has some deductive theo-
retical concepts, it demands that researchers modify
and develop these concepts on the basis of the specific
phenomenon accounting for the emergent “logic of
practice” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992, Sandberg and
Tsoukas 2011). Complexity of the social world demands
that both qualitative and quantitative methods be used
for a richer account (Bourdieu 1996).
Second, the nature of Bourdieu’s sociology is encom-
passing of the economist’s view of social processes
in the sense that the field is likened to a game with
specific stakes, and agents draw on diverse types of
capital to play the game (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992).
Although the logic of a particular game is typically
not the rationalist logic postulated in economic theory
(even though it can be in specific fields such as the
stock market), it is still a logic that can be described
(Sandberg and Tsoukas 2011). For example, it may not
be rational for Flickr users to copy their nearest neigh-
bors with higher status, but they still do it following
some logic of practical sense (Zeng and Wei 2013).
Third, Bourdieu’s work came to prominence in his
series of studies on taste and cultural production that
demonstrated how cultural objects such as art, writing,
and films are produced, evaluated, and consumed
(Bourdieu 1984, 1993). Today, many UGC platforms
constitute prime grounds for the production of cul-
tural goods and the enactment of tastes, including
those in writing, photography, entertainment, etc. (Liu
2007, Zeng and Wei 2013). This similarity in context
offers additional advantages in applying Bourdieu’s
scholarship to our phenomenon of interest.
4.1. Understanding Social Stratification
Processes in Fields of Practice
In Bourdieu’s theory, the relative positions of the
agents within a specific field are determined by their
stocks of different “forms of capital” (Bourdieu and
Wacquant 1992, pp. 97–99). Bourdieu defines capital
as an accumulated resource (either embodied in a
person or “objectified” in an object), “which, when
appropriated on a private, i.e., exclusive, basis by agents
or groups of agents,” allows for influence (Bourdieu
1986, p. 241). The fundamental idea is that capital is a
valuable resource that (i) can be unequally accumulated
by different agents; and (ii) is simultaneously the stake
as well as the weapon in the social struggle occurring
within a field.
Bourdieu identifies three major forms of capital (eco-
nomic, cultural, and social) and one special form of
capital (symbolic). Economic capital refers to one’s
control over physical and financial resources. Cultural
capital refers to cultural skills (e.g., being an accom-
plished photographer), cultural goods (e.g., possessing
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Levina and Arriaga: Distinction and Status Production on UGC Platforms
476 Information Systems Research 25(3), pp. 468–488, © 2014 INFORMS
valuable photos), and educational (institutional) degrees
(e.g., having a degree from a renowned design school)
(Bourdieu 1986). Social capital refers to an agent’s
ability to draw resources from “connections,” that is,
from membership in various social networks (Bourdieu
and Wacquant 1992, p. 119). Finally, there is symbolic
capital, “which refers to the degree of accumulated
prestige, consecration, or honor” (Bourdieu 1993, p. 7).
Following the above definition, we can see that
symbolic capital refers to the same notion as status in
traditional organizational theory (Magee and Galinsky
2008). Similar to other theories of power and status,
Bourdieu emphasizes that status begets power (i.e.,
status can be used to increase one’s stock of the three
primary forms of capital), and vice versa, power begets
status (e.g., money, skill, degrees, and cultural objects
can be used to gain (greater) admiration). Symbolic
capital is particularly potent in fields of cultural pro-
duction where economic capital is heavily discounted
(Bourdieu 1993).
The social dynamics in fields are centered on the
generation of distinction(s) among agents, who “con-
stantly work to differentiate themselves from their
closest rivals” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992, p. 100).
5
In conformance with the law of the quest for dis-
tinction” (Bourdieu 1985, p. 40), agents (intentionally
or inadvertently) distinguish themselves in the field
through differential accumulation of capital that mat-
ters to that field. Thus, fields are “space[s] of conflict
and competition,” in which “hierarchy is continually
contested” (ibid, pp. 17, 52). Moreover, economic and
cultural capital are typically in opposition: in a field,
one group of agents typically has more cultural capital
or “means of cultural production” (e.g., artists, writers,
intellectuals) whereas a different group will have a
greater stock of economic capital or “means of repro-
duction” (such as bankers or, in cultural production
fields, publishers) (Bourdieu 1996, p. 336). Agents are
distributed in the field according to the overall volume
of capital they possess and according to the structure
of their capital (Bourdieu 1990, p. 126). Depending on
the logic of the field, these different species of capital
can be converted into each other and imported and
exported to and from other fields.
In summary, a field is the social space where dis-
tinction, in the form of diverse stocks of capital, is
produced and differentially attained by agents through
their actions. Notably, a particular capital that is active
in one field (e.g., excellence in photography) may have
no influence in other fields (e.g., writing journalistic
5
Bourdieu notes that the expression “constantly work to” should
not be given “intentionalist” readings: “There is a production of
difference which is in no way the product of a search for difference”
(Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992, p. 100). The actors’ stances in these
games are typically no more than “unconscious or semi-conscious
strategies” (Bourdieu 1969, p. 118).
articles). In this sense, Bourdieu’s view of status is
broadly reminiscent of the concept of “status contests”
(Maclay and Knipe 1972, Owens and Sutton 2001).
Agents in a given field collectively determine through
their actions which status claims matter. For example,
in Bianchi et al. (2012) study of open-source software
development, an arbitrary status marker such as living
in Silicon Valley mattered more than a task-related
status marker such as a contributor’s education level.
We have thus far focused on how agents, through
their collective actions, shape emergent field structures
(which capital matters and how). However, any practice
theory (Feldman and Orlikowski 2011), Bourdieu’s
included, also looks at how structure shapes agency.
Bourdieu uses the notion of habitus (referring to socially
learned schemata of perception and inclinations to
action) to discuss the link between agents’ prior history
in the field (e.g., their social background and upbring-
ing) and their actions. Thus, an agent who has achieved
(or was born into) a certain cultural distinction would
have both a motivation and an ability to behave in
a way that maintains and furthers this distinction.
She will invest more in maintaining her prestigious
position than an agent who has historically been in a
less prestigious position. This structure, however, is
not without change. Through changes in their attitudes
and actions, agents can “go against” the prevailing
logic of practice, thereby transforming the field. This
could happen, for example, when new agents enter a
field or existing agents seek new sources of distinctions
(e.g., distinction based on professional skills is replaced
by one based on social network position) (Bourdieu
1990, pp. 132–134; for an illustration also see Levina
and Orlikowski 2009).
Bourdieu has dedicated a large amount of his work
to studying fields of cultural production such as art,
literature, and science/academia (Bourdieu 1990, 1993).
He argued that fields of cultural production, although
functioning similarly to other fields, also have their
own unique logic, allowing agents in these fields to
break away from their social backgrounds (e.g., money,
political views, etc.). He outlined specific tensions
characteristic of fields of cultural production (Bourdieu
1993):
6
(1) the tensions between external sources of
influence (e.g., money, social background, academic
authority) and internal ones (based on their contribu-
tions to the cultural production field); (2) the tensions
between (rich) popular artists and (poor) avant-garde
artists; (3) the tension between newcomers who pro-
duce new avant-garde ideas and old avant-garde artists
who have already attained some following among
peers; and (4) the tensions around the boundary of
6
This is our summary of key tensions based on our close reading
of Bourdieu’s original texts. We are simplifying the complexity of
Bourdieu’s ideas given the space limitations.
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Levina and Arriaga: Distinction and Status Production on UGC Platforms
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Table 2 Summary of Basic Tenets Pertaining to the Production of Power and Status
Basic tenets UGC applications
Tenet 1. Differential production of capital leads (according to some
logic of practice specific to that field) to unequal accumulation of
different forms of distinction
Over time, and through the collective actions of their users, digital platforms and
online fields develop unique ways in which status and power can be accumulated
within them.
Tenet 2. External sources of capital can be imported into the field and
capital accumulated within the field can be exported outside of it
based on the logics of each field and their relation to each other.
Offline cultural capital (e.g., a user’s photographic skills) often is crucial for the
production of content within an online field. Other forms of capital external to the
field (e.g., leadership positions in other online fields) may also be used as a
resource in gaining positions in the field. Conversely, capital accumulated within an
online field (e.g., knowledge acquired by lurking on the site) can be converted into
external capital through content production and consumption outside that field.
Tenet 3. Power begets status
Participant’s social network position, cultural skills, tastes, as well as time and money
invested into the field (already accumulated capital) shapes which content gets
noticed and which gets ignored.
Tenet 4. Status begets power Having higher status can lead to improved social learning (i.e., how to please
consumer tastes), a better network position, monetary rewards (e.g., payments
from advertisers) and more attention currency (i.e., an ability to influence others)
within a field.
Tenet 5. Agents will attempt to maintain their relational positions, in
particular vis-à-vis their closest rivals
Users will be motivated to maintain their position and some will invest in improving
their relative position by learning from their prior contribution ratings, mimicking
others, and using their external capital to benefit their position within the online
field.
the field and what it takes for laymen to join it (e.g.,
a tension between nonprofessional news bloggers and
professional journalists).
Although Bourdieu (1990) insisted on avoiding reduc-
tionist formulations of complex social theories, we
will summarize some of his basic ideas in the form
of tenets concerning reproduction of power relations
in a field (Table 2) and tensions in a cultural produc-
tion field (Table 3). Some tenets in the first set can
be derived from other theories of power and status,
but Bourdieu’s theory offers unique advantages in
providing a cohesive account of the complexity of social
dynamics associated with the quest for distinction,
while also accounting for unique tensions in a cultural
production field. Moreover, Bourdieu addresses the
question of how power relations arise, namely, through
the situated, everyday actions of agents in a field that
Table 3 Tensions in Cultural Production Fields
Key tensions UGC applications (see Figures 1 and 2)
Tension 1. In a cultural field, there is a tension between the field’s
autonomy from and its integration with the external sources of
power
Online fields will differentiate themselves in the extent to which they will allow external
sources of capital (e.g., profile info, money) to shape their internal social dynamics.
Tension 2. In a cultural field, there is a tension between popular and
elite cultural producers (e.g., in the artistic field between popular
artists and avant-garde artists)
Online fields will differ in the extent to which their cultural producers will attempt to
please the tastes of mass raters and lurkers vs. the tastes of other producers and
elite evaluators. Moreover, within each field, some producers will cater to narrow
elite groups of fellow producers, whereas others will distinguish themselves by
appealing to a more general audience.
Tension 3. In a cultural field, there is a tension between old cultural
elites (old avant-garde) and new cultural elites (new avant-garde)
Online fields will differ in the range of opportunities that they afford new (and
culturally different) producers to displace existing elite producers. They will also
differ in which strategies will be available for such new entrants.
Tension 4. In a cultural field, there is a tension around what defines the
field’s boundary (e.g., between contributions of cultural producers
and laymen)
Online fields will differ in how narrow or open they are in allowing new types of
contributions that do not conform in style, language, and taste to the current norms
of what counts as a relevant contribution.
mediate external forces and combine external capital
in a unique way to produce a field-specific new form
of capital. Thus far, we have explained the left-hand
columns of Tables 2 and 3; we now apply Bourdieu’s
concepts to UGC and develop the right-hand columns
of the tables.
4.2. Online Field
Drawing on Bourdieu’s work, we define online field
(of practice) as a social space engaging agents in pro-
ducing, evaluating, and consuming content online
that is held together by a shared interest and a set of
power relations among agents sharing this interest.
On any platform (just as in any offline social context),
one is bound to find multiple nested and overlapping
fields. For example, on YouTube, one finds a huge field
of
people
broadly interested in sharing and viewing
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Levina and Arriaga: Distinction and Status Production on UGC Platforms
478 Information Systems Research 25(3), pp. 468–488, © 2014 INFORMS
videos online, some of whom distinguish themselves
through posting top-viewed uploads. But within that
broad, platform-wide field, one also finds a large variety
of other more focused subfields, e.g., a field centered on
comedy videos, another dealing with music videos, etc.,
in addition to even more specialized subfields. At the
same time, not all UGC platforms necessarily constitute
a field in their entirety (e.g., whereas the notion of top
downloaded videos on YouTube produces a field-wide
distinction, there may be no such distinction on, say,
Facebook, where users primarily exist in small “mutual
admiration societies”).
Many online fields exist only in a single platform,
but larger fields of practice (e.g., occupational fields)
may have online and offline subfields with overlapping
membership and influence. For example, in Wasko and
Faraj’s (2005) study, lawyers in an online advice forum
were primarily motivated to contribute in order to
promote themselves in their professional field offline.
Similarly, Davidson and Vaast (2009) illustrate how a
technology blogger may participate not only in the
blogosphere but also in an offline field of technology
journalism. At the same time, online distinction can
transcend the boundaries of individual platforms (e.g.,
users can now share their Twitter posts on Facebook).
We will not directly address how an action within a
particular online field affects a user’s standing in multi-
ple fields, but focus only on how capital (accumulated
by an agent) can be imported and exported.
4.3. Social Dynamics in an Online Field
4.3.1. Key Agent Groups and Their Positions
in Online Fields. Drawing on Bourdieu’s analysis
of fields of cultural production, we see that online
fields fundamentally have two key groups of agents—
producers and consumers of content—with the key
capital specific to each field being the recognition
achieved within the field. Recognition is achieved
through evaluation that occurs simultaneously with
consumption of the content. In offline cultural fields,
this attention is converted into money when consumers
purchase cultural goods (Bourdieu 1993). In the “atten-
tion economy” of the online world (
Goldhaber
1997),
attention is converted into money through advertising
revenue and other means.
In his work, Bourdieu (Bourdieu 1993) focused specif-
ically on the analysis of diverse content producers,
such as highly regarded artists, poor struggling artists,
bourgeois artists, and popular artists, and did not talk
about consumers in great detail except for differenti-
ating among diverse art/literature critics. In online
fields, in contrast, consumers play much more active
and diverse roles in awarding status to producers,
prompting us to develop new theoretical categories for
diverse consumers.
First, lurkers, individuals who “hang around” online
without ever contributing (Nonnecke et al. 2004), may
be granted agency through technological features of
the platform; most notably, YouTube gives agency to
lurkers by displaying the number of views. On those
sites on which the number of views is not displayed,
platform designers still track views in order to convert
them into revenue. Thus, by merely viewing a piece of
content, individuals are casting a vote for its value,
often with great consequences for content producers
(e.g., advertising revenue). Also, many sites enable a
more active form of expressing appreciation such as
becoming a follower of a content stream. As argued by
Romero et al. (2011), this is still passive consumption.
Of course, consumers can be much more differenti-
ated than that. As noted earlier, in cultural fields, other
producers are quite typically also judges and consumers
of cultural artifacts. For example, re-tweeting on Twitter
is both a contribution to the platform (a tweet) and
an act of evaluation (signaling that somebody else’s
contribution is worthy of attention). Although some of
the consumers who rate a lot of content are also key
producers of original content, in many cases they are
not and their contributions lie primarily in rating and
commenting. They can be termed “mass raters.”
Beyond these mass raters, some users often also act
as “expert evaluators” (defined as consumers who have
accumulated significant cultural capital). Depending
on the nature of the field, their evaluations may have
much more influence than others. In popular culture,
almost by definition, passive consumers and mass
raters carry more weight than expert evaluators, but
in “high art,” such as the field of “serious literature,”
producers are largely producing for other producers
(Bourdieu 1993, p. 15). These expert evaluators draw on
their capital as producers (e.g., writers of well-respected
reviews), giving their evaluations further influence.
Expert evaluators are likely to form a tight-knit group
within a field (Vaast et al. 2013, Aral and Walker 2012).
Consumers may also have formal authority to evalu-
ate content, which Bourdieu called “institutionalized
consecration,” granted to them by a platform designer
or other users; site moderators and community man-
agers have more power in judging contributions than
others (Ren and Kraut 2013). Platform designers them-
selves have a great degree of agency because they get
to decide which algorithms are used to promote and
demote content (Ghosh and Hummel 2011).
Together, these groups of consumers (passive con-
sumers, mass raters, expert evaluators, authorized
evaluators, and platform designers) are similar to
groups found in other fields of cultural production
(Bourdieu 1993). Each field has its own structure in
terms of how much each agent type matters in the pro-
duction of distinction in the field, may have different
field-specific groups, and may skip some generic groups
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Levina and Arriaga: Distinction and Status Production on UGC Platforms
Information Systems Research 25(3), pp. 468–488, © 2014 INFORMS 479
we suggested here (e.g., authorized evaluators). More-
over, some fields might give the most weight (attention
capital) to expert evaluators (e.g., Wikipedia allocating
significant power to expert editors), whereas others
give more weight to passive consumers (e.g., YouTube),
and still others give more weight to authorized evalua-
tors (e.g., crowdsourcing platforms working with a
sponsor). Armed with this language, we can interpret
Watts and Dodds’ (2007) observation about networks
where influence is achieved without influentials, noting
that in this case lurkers and mass raters have relatively
more attention capital whereas elite evaluators have
less.
Inevitably, it is the differentiation among producers
into diverse roles and the extent of recognition that such
differentiation is generating that is producing much of
social dynamics in online fields. Growing evidence sug-
gests that producers differentiate themselves in online
fields by taking on diverse roles (von Krogh et al. 2003,
Butler et al. 2007, Welser et al. 2007, Kane et al. 2009,
Hargittai and Hsieh 2010) such as those of “volume”
contributors, avant-garde thinkers, professional critics,
etc. For example, on a music-sharing platform, an indie
music group may want to gain recognition among
connoisseurs of a specific type of music instead of
trying to reach a mass audience through professional
critics (Baym and Burnett 2009). Of course, there is
then further differentiation within each subgroup as
producers compete with their “nearest neighbors” for
further distinction (Zeng and Wei 2013, Vaast et al.
2013). We also note that, although expert evaluators
are endowed with significant cultural capital, they are
not necessarily the same group as popular or avant-
garde producers. For example, in the blogosphere, the
most influential bloggers are not necessarily the most
active ones (Agarwal et al. 2008, Romero et al. 2011).
Bourdieu’s framework allows us to distinguish how
these roles are differentially rewarded in diverse field
structures. Each online field would have its own logic
in terms of rewarding diverse types of contributions.
On the producer side, there is also a large number
of low-involvement participants (Hargittai and Hsieh
2010) who make occasional contributions (e.g., posting
children’s performance videos on YouTube). These
users have agency in the field without attempting to
climb the social ladder. We already discussed their
role as consumers when their contributions have an
evaluative character (such as ratings and re-tweets). Yet,
even when their contributions are devoid of evaluation,
they still matter, being akin to students in the field
of academia or amateur traders in the stock market.
Their participation is important because, through their
microcontributions, the field is shaped (Sproull and
Arriaga 2007) as well as because it is only in comparison
to these “minor” producers that “major” ones can
distinguish themselves.
Figure 1 An Example Structure of an Online Field
Cultural capital
Attention currency/economic capital
Popular producers
Passive consumers/lurkers
Authorized evaluators
Minor contributors
Expert evaluators
Mass raters
Platform designers
Avant-garde producers
To summarize, we have outlined a structure of
an online field in which, through the practices of
contribution and evaluation of content, agents generate
a unique set of power relations. The key struggle in the
field is among producers who each vie for recognition
of their content (or meta content). Figure 1 illustrates
how agent types may be positioned in an “example”
online field. These positions would be different in each
field based on its specific logic (e.g., in fields akin to
high art, expert evaluators will have more attention
capital than mass contributors and the opposite may
be true in fields akin to popular culture). Next, we will
discuss how external capital influences the positions of
agents in online fields.
4.3.2. External Capital Imported and Exported
from Other Online and Offline Fields. Although the
existence of the field is defined through the production
of a unique distinction not reducible to those outside
the field, external sources of capital still play a key
role in what happens inside the field. This is true
for both producers and consumers. Producers draw
on their external cultural capital in making valuable
contributions by bringing in their technical, artistic,
and other professional skills as well as cultural artifacts
that they own (e.g., photos, videos, articles). They also
may draw on economic capital if money is required
to make a recognized contribution. The importance
of economic capital varies based on the logic of the
field. For example, for hotel review sites, the economic
capital of individual users matters less on TripAdvisor,
where reviewers are not required to have stayed in
hotels they reviewed, and more on Orbitz, where they
are (Mayzlin et al. 2012). On Amazon.com, reviewers
are not required to have purchased, but having a
verified purchase brings more attention to the review
(Forman et al. 2008). In online games and virtual
worlds, users utilize their economic capital to buy
online ammunition and other valuable artifacts. In most
UGC platforms, however, the producers’ economic
capital tends to be heavily discounted; in fact, some
platforms pride themselves on reducing the power of
economic capital. Yelp.com, a site enabling reviews of
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Levina and Arriaga: Distinction and Status Production on UGC Platforms
480 Information Systems Research 25(3), pp. 468–488, © 2014 INFORMS
local businesses, claims that its success lies in nurturing
eloquent dedicated reviewers (cultural capital) and
limiting the voices of paid reviewers (Hansell 2008).
The external economic and cultural capital stocks
of consumers are as important. Consumers use their
external cultural capital (skills and knowledge) to
evaluate content. It is their economic capital, however,
that tends to be more important in online fields. If
lurkers had no money, we would probably see the end
of online advertising! More interesting perhaps is the
role of economic capital in differentiating consumers.
Authorized evaluators and platform designers tend
to have much more control over economic capital
than do others. For example, on crowdsourcing sites,
external experts often have control over prize money;
the degree of that control depends on the field. Some
crowdsourcing sites tend to give weight to popular
votes (e.g., Dell’s Ideastorm), whereas others rely on
client experts’ views only (e.g., Innocentive).
Social and symbolic capital from external online
and offline platforms may also play a crucial role in
social dynamics in online fields. Well-connected and
influential individuals tend to have many followers
and their content is noticed more frequently when
they use their real names in online fields (Aral 2013).
We have discussed how diverse platforms enable the
promotion of offline identities to a greater (Facebook)
or lesser (Flickr) extent; the clearest example of this
is the Twitter platform wherein someone with high
external status (e.g., a celebrity) may get followers
without ever contributing content. External capital also
matters in consumption behavior as content noticed
by important external stakeholders tends to get more
attention (Vaast et al. 2013). External influence can also
Figure 2 Process Model of Power and Status Production in Online Fields
Producer’s
capital in the
online field
Contribution
stream
inclination and ability in
inclination and ability in
Producer’s
external capital
contributes to
Producer
contributing
Consumer
evaluating
influences
influences
Consumer’s
capital in the
online field
contributes to
results in subject to
the taste of
results in
Consumer’s
external capital
contributes to
Defines the audience for a producer
Tension 1
Tension 2
Tension 4
Shapes producer’s inclination and ability in
Tension 3
Tension 1
shape
s
p
ro
d
uc
e
rs
shapes consumer s
come from other online fields: many platforms and
groups allow and even encourage cross-linking (Butler
and Wang 2011).
Naturally, capital can also be exported from online
fields to other online and offline fields. There are
numerous accounts of how capital gained on social
media can impact employee productivity (Wu 2013),
employee engagement (Miller and Tucker 2013), and
firm equity (Luo et al. 2013). On any given day, media
reports are full of references to popular Twitter tweets
and viral videos from YouTube.
The impact of external capital on social stratification
processes in the online field is jointly shaped by the
technical features of the platform and how they are
used in practice by agents on the platform. The norms
in some fields may discourage revealing real identities
or drawing on connections to other fields. For example,
on the image-sharing platform 4chen.org, anonymous
contributions are encouraged (“anonymous is God”)
and no profile feature exists. These norms evolve
as platform features change and new use practices
are negotiated around them. Importantly, external
capital can only impact positions in the online field
through agents actions in that field (contributions and
evaluations) and not directly. A celebrity who does not
contribute a single tweet is not a “Twiter celebrity.”
4.3.3. Process Dynamics of Social Stratification.
Although we have focused so far on how agents’ accu-
mulation of different types of external capital shapes
their position in the field, and vice versa, the richness
of Bourdieu’s theory is in explaining the dynamics
that play out within the online field. We depict these
dynamics in Figure 2, showing how capital is produced
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Levina and Arriaga: Distinction and Status Production on UGC Platforms
Information Systems Research 25(3), pp. 468–488, © 2014 INFORMS 481
and reproduced in online fields. The relationships that
are summarized in Figure 2 further elaborate key tenets
from Table 2 as well as highlight tensions elaborated in
Table 3. Although the figure is still rather complex, the
complexity is necessary to express how dynamically
interconnected (or “inseparable,” in Bourdieu’s terms)
the social processes are in a field of practice.
Beyond drawing on and contributing to capital from
other fields to achieve recognition, producers start
accumulating recognition within the online field by
contributing content that consumers deem valuable.
With the accumulation of recognition, producers gain
both the ability and the inclination to contribute more
(as they will start “playing the game”). In this way,
agents’ prior positions shape their disposition to action.
If top contributors stop contributing, for example,
others will take their place in the field. The stability
of a field is generally aided by the fact that those
who have already gained recognition tend to attract
more attention (the backward arrow from producer’s
capital in the online field “influencing” consumer
evaluation) because platforms tend to use producers’
prior recognition to influence how prominently their
content is displayed. Thus, status in an online field
helps producers beget further recognition and other
forms of capital.
Finally, producers are influenced not only by their
external and internal capital stocks and the position
of their neighbors but also by the consumers whose
tastes producers must learn to please (the arrow from
consumer’s capital in the online field back to producer
contributions in Figure 2). Bourdieu articulates how
Figure 3 A Generalized Model of How Agents Accumulate Capital in an Online Field
!GENTSCAPITALINTHEONLINEFIELD
6ISIBLESTATUSINTHEONLINEFIELD
s&AVORABLEh2ATINGSvOFAGENTS
CONTRIBUTIONSBYOTHERUSERS
s&AVORABLEh2ATINGSvOFTHEAGENT
BYOTHERUSERS
s.OTABLEAPPEARANCEOFCONTENT
FRONTPAGEFEATURED
s$ISTINCTIONMARKSOFANAGENT
EGBADGESPOINTS
#ONTRIBUTIONSTREAM
CHARACTERISTICS
s1UANTITY
s/RIGINALITY
s5NIQUENESS
s4IMELINESS
s3PECIALIZATION
s0ROTOTYPICALITY
s%MBEDDEDNESS
s4EMPORALREGULARITY
s4ONE,ANGUAGE
x
/THERCHARACTERISTICS
APPEALINGTODIVERSE
CONSUMERTASTES
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LOGICOFPRACTICE
4ENET
4ENET
!GENTS
EXTERNALCAPITAL
/THERFORMSOFCAPITAL
4ENET
4ENET
4ENET
s3OCIALNETWORKPOSITION
s#ULTURALCOMPETENCEINTHEFIELD
s!TTENTIONCURRENCY
s#ONVERTEDCAPITALFROMEXTERNAL
FIELDS
1This includes both contributions of original content and meta contributions such as ratings, comments, and views.
different producers may choose to please elite or broad
audiences. That is, producers in online fields may
cater to the tastes of those who control more economic
capital (passive consumers, mass raters, authorized
evaluators, and platform designers) or other producers
(expert evaluators).
One advantage of Bourdieu’s theory is that it can be
applied at different levels of analysis in the field. On
one hand, the relationships between producers and
consumers of cultural capital are somewhat stable in a
given online field following the structure we proposed
in Figure 1. However, the positions of specific users
are always at stake. Although many of the forces we
have described stimulate reproduction of cultural elites,
there are also forces of transformation as newcomers
try to gain recognition and position vis-à-vis veterans.
It is well documented that membership in the core
group of producers online is fairly fluid and if one
is to remain in the core, he or she must continue
contributing valuable content (e.g., Faraj et al. 2011).
4.3.4. Dynamics of Producer’s Status Accumula-
tion. We have described the dynamics involved in
producing, reproducing, and transforming various
forms of capital in online fields and the flow of capital
to and from other fields. The final part of our theo-
retical model focuses on how producers’ behavior is
represented through various properties of their contri-
bution stream, which in turn, shapes their position in
the field. Figure 3 simplifies the complexity of these
interactions by hiding action (depicted in Figure 2) and
highlighting how contribution stream characteristics
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Levina and Arriaga: Distinction and Status Production on UGC Platforms
482 Information Systems Research 25(3), pp. 468–488, © 2014 INFORMS
(objectified actions) shape producers’ capital accumu-
lation. We propose this simplification because it will
help relate our work to the extant positivist literature
on social media.
In Figure 3, we illustrate how a variety of char-
acteristics of content can be differentially rewarded
with consumers’ attention as well as show how the
theoretical relations we summarized in Table 2 apply
to online UGC fields. Prior literature on social media
that we have reviewed documents that it is not only
the quantity and regularity of contributions, but many
other properties such as the tone and language of
text, originality, timeliness, uniqueness, and potentially
other characteristics that appeal to consumers’ tastes,
leading to distinction. Each field has its own logic in
differentiating what matters. Indeed, the language use
may be less applicable on Flickr (beyond tags and
comments) but is critical in the blogosphere. Simi-
larly, timeliness may be critical on Wikipedia where
news events (e.g., Olympic games’ results) need timely
coverage, whereas the usefulness of answers may be
critical on Yahoo! Answers where users often pose less
time-sensitive questions about health, style, household
electronics, etc. Moreover, producers differentiate based
on which tastes they want to please. For example, on
Wikipedia, article writers tend to be more concerned
about the originality and perceived accuracy of their
content, and editors focus on enforcing Wikipedia’s
norms and linguistic standards (Bryant et al. 2005,
Kane et al. 2014b).
Each platform also differentially rewards producers
with diverse types of symbolic and other forms of
capital (tenet 1). Visible status can come in the form
of favorable rating of content or content producers
or in the form of notable appearances of the content
on the platform or awards and other forms of formal
recognition by the platform designer for the producer.
Producers can convert their recognition within the
field into the accumulation of cultural skills (learning
how to please their audience), a better social network
position, and the ability to influence others (control
over attention currency) (tenet 3). Having accumu-
lated diverse forms of capital, producers can attract
further attention to their contributions and beget more
status (tenet 4). The outlined relationships equally
apply to those agents who produce major cultural
goods as to those who only rate and view. For exam-
ple, frequent rating can lead to little visible status in
a field, but may lead to significant cultural capital
accumulation.
Next, we use our framework to elaborate how diverse
design choices of platform designers as well as platform
use practices and norms developed within particular
fields can explain similarities and variations that exist
on UGC platforms and associated user status-seeking
strategies.
5. Implications for Platform Design
Choices and Understanding of
User Behavior
We have argued that decisions digital businesses make
in designing and promoting UGC platforms shape
online social dynamics in profound ways. Our frame-
work helps digital business leaders better understand
how these decisions impact the motivations and behav-
iors of diverse users. Focusing first on platform design-
ers, we can see that by empowering certain groups of
consumers and producers, they can stimulate behaviors
that they desire. Much of the work on mechanism
design from economics has focused on this topic (e.g.,
Dellarocas 2001, Ghosh and Hummel 2011, Ghose et al.
2009), but it has typically centered on a single type of
distinction, either reputation or content rating. Our
theory goes beyond that research by recognizing that
different types of agents with different interests emerge
when there are multiple forms of recognition and
capital operating in a field and shaping the field from
outside (external capital). Some platform designers may
want to rely less on external capital if their goals are to
create novel cultural artifacts. For example, crowdsourc-
ing of innovation platforms such as Innocentive and
Dell Ideastorm tend to deemphasize offline identities
and associated external status, as their goal is to find
novel ideas (cultural goods) rather than to appeal to
broad audiences. However, if a platform’s business
model is to capitalize on offline status, networks, infor-
mation, or money, they may want to reward disclosing
of offline identities. Thus, Facebook, which monetizes
information it collects about users’ tastes and prefer-
ences, hopes that users register under real names so as
to tie this information to offline identities.
Similarly, platform designers can manipulate which
audience their content targets. Platform designers
that want to promote mass consumption may want
to empower passive consumers and mass raters as
opposed to authorized evaluators and expert evaluators,
by displaying the number of views and making all
ratings equal (be they from an expert or not). Such
platforms differ from those that aim to please niche
audiences, wherein they may want to give more power
to expert evaluators.
Other decisions made by platform designers involve
the number and type of status markers used. Recog-
nizing content (and not its producers, for example)
may stimulate more newcomers as a producer’s posi-
tion in the field is more closely tied to the content it
has and is producing. This is why in the early days
of YouTube, Wikipedia, and many other platforms,
producers were in the shadows of their contributions.
However, our framework suggests that such field struc-
tures will encourage frequent rotations in membership,
which may or may not be desirable. Ransbotham and
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Levina and Arriaga: Distinction and Status Production on UGC Platforms
Information Systems Research 25(3), pp. 468–488, © 2014 INFORMS 483
Kane (2011) argue that some balance between old and
new is best for producing valued contributions. Thus,
we see that, over time, many sites create some markers
of recognition directly associated with producers. Some
of these titles may stay with producers permanently
whereas others require continual valuable contributions.
Although the illustrations we have given are neces-
sarily limited, our framework affords an understanding
of social stratification that would help site owners
to make better-informed design choices. Moreover,
we believe that our framework could also stimulate
future empirical research on how design choices enable
diverse field structures to emerge through users’ actions.
For example, Susarla et al. (2012) research on YouTube
is an excellent example of how content propagates on
this platform, and Forman et al. (2008) offers significant
insights on influential reviews on Amazon. Our work
would allow businesses to better understand why
insights from YouTube and Amazon studies may gen-
eralize to some settings (with similar logic of practice)
but not to others.
Beyond platform designers, our framework has impli-
cations for status-seeking strategies for businesses and
consumers. Much is written on how novice users can
move up the social hierarchy by emulating prominent
others who already have a broad appeal (e.g., Kraut
et al. 2011, Preece and Shneiderman 2009). Our work
points out that such direct status-seeking strategy is
risky and resource intensive as current cultural elites are
likely to hold on to their positions. Although emulation
strategies may succeed with sufficient resource invest-
ment, newcomers may also initiate “micro-revolutions”
attempting to shift the needle on the key tensions that
are present in any field. For example, a very “different”
content producer may try to oppose popular producers
by creating new circles (subfields) where her avant-
garde contributions are highly valued. Alternatively,
in a niche field composed of a small circle of mutual
admirers, a newcomer may attempt to bring in external
capital (e.g., money or fame) to increase the appeal of
his or her otherwise less visible content.
Naturally, more empirical research using our frame-
work will help develop more specific implications
for digital businesses, but even at this point having
a cohesive view of the social stratification can help
businesses develop their own data-driven techniques
to understand and reshape social dynamics online.
6. Implications for Research
We have outlined a number of gaps in the literature
on social stratification on UGC platforms. Here we
elaborate how we filled these gaps and propose ways
of using our framework for future research.
One of the key implications of our work is in recog-
nizing that diverse online contexts can be seen under
the general lens of the power dynamics: when users
start investing their resources into a joint area of inter-
est (albeit with diverse motivations), they also start
differentiating among themselves. We have argued
that such differentiation happens according to the
basic tenets of Bourdieu’s theory and shown how they
translate into UGC settings (Table 2). Moreover, online
fields generate multiple sources of distinctions and each
field has a number of common tensions among diverse
groups of producers and consumers (Table 3). Whereas
prior literature talked about these social dynamics in
diverse and incompatible language—some focusing
on social network positions, others on diverse contri-
bution behaviors, and yet others on external sources
of influence—our work posits that these are diverse
aspects of the same underlying social stratification pro-
cess. In other words, in some form tenets put forward
in Table 1 and Figure 3 should find a broad support
base across diverse online fields.
On the other hand, our theory also suggests that
online fields (both on the same platform and across
platforms) are substantially different from each other in
how they generate distinction and address the tensions
among diverse types of contributors (Table 2). Each field
has its own unique set of status markers and logic for
generating them through users’ actions and interactions.
Prior literature has documented contradictory findings
about who plays the more important role in content
propagation online (see Romero et al. 2011 and Watts
and Dodds 2007 for a review). Our work suggests that
it depends not just on the structure of ties in a field
(Watts and Dodds 2007), but also on the specific logic
of a given field and associated relative position of agent
groups (Figure 1). Mass raters and passive consumers
may be more empowered than expert evaluators in
some fields, making the influenced more important
than the influencers, but this may not be true in other
fields. Similarly, in some fields, popular contributors
may be the same users as expert evaluators but, as
evidenced by prior studies (Agarwal et al. 2008, Cha
et al. 2008, Romero et al. 2011), that is not always the
case. Our framework should enable future studies to
hypothesize which forms of distinction, beyond social
network position, explain content propagation.
The most significant implications of our work are
related to the platform design choices and associated
practices that arise in online fields. Platform design-
ers can to some extent shape the social dynamics by
designing how attention currency is allocated within
an online field (Lampe and Resnick 2004). However, in
doing so, they will be making a series of trade-offs
in response to the key tensions we have outlined in
Table 2. For example, Wikipedia has deemphasized
user offline identity and heavily discounted external
capital (Kane et al. 2009), which we would argue is
one response to tension 1 (Table 3). We can see how
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Levina and Arriaga: Distinction and Status Production on UGC Platforms
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tension 2 plays out in the design of formal feedback
mechanisms. We started our paper with a puzzle, ask-
ing why Wikipedia—one of the most successful UGC
sites today—does not adopt formal rating systems for
content popular on many other platforms (Moon and
Sproull 2008). Using our framework we can see that,
given Wikipedia’s specific cultural production goals, it
should empower expert evaluators (other article con-
tributors) and authorized evaluators (such as members
of Wikipedia foundation) to respond to contributions
with substantive contributions (comments and edits)
and not just ratings. Although recent research has
shown that providing social feedback on Wikipedia is
useful for facilitating contributions (Kraut et al. 2011),
Wikipedia platform operators are wisely cautious in not
adding a “general reader” feedback feature for every
contribution. Moreover, we can see how tension 3 plays
out on Wikipedia, where old-timers have significant
authority in evaluating contributions, making it more
difficult for new contributors to join (Halfaker et al.
2011, Kane et al. 2014b). Finally, it is well known that
when outsiders to the Wikipedia community try to
contribute, their contributions are often rejected illus-
trating tension 4 as well (ibid). Our work allows future
researchers to hypothesize how certain mechanisms
for distinction operating in specific online fields will
trigger diverse social dynamics.
We have also introduced the term “online field,”
which provides us with a certain advantage when
considering social stratification online. Unlike social
networks, online communities, and task groups, the
concept of online field is specifically targeted at under-
standing power relations and the nature of distinction
in contexts where there may be no direct interactions
but there is still influence. The concept thereby became
useful in institutional theory and filled the gap that
team and organizational literature left open (DiMaggio
and Powell 1983). It has been applied to many diverse
phenomena and has proven useful in understanding
the nature of power and social dynamics. Its additional
advantage is that it helps focus researchers’ attention
on the characteristic of the group that unites users
around their pursuit of social distinction, namely, their
common interests and practices.
Our work also has implications for how UGC plat-
forms are classified. Some frameworks classify these
platforms based on the type of content that is being
shared (as we do in the appendix). Other frameworks
classify social media using such dimensions as self-
presentation and social presence (Kaplan and Haenlein
2010). Because of the evolving nature of UGC platforms,
such classifications of specific platforms are subject to
debate (e.g., Shi et al. 2014). Our theory implies that
instead of classifying platforms, it may be useful to
talk about different types of online fields and potential
homology in the way distinctions are generated. For
example, Digg, Slashdot, and Reddit are all classified
as social news sharing sites based on their content.
Using the Kaplan and Haenlein (2010) framework they
are all classified as content communities with medium
social presence and low self-presentation. However,
social dynamics on these diverse platforms and even
in specific subfields on these platforms differs widely
with, for example, Reddit rewarding different contribu-
tion behavior (due to both positive and negative votes
shaping popularity) than Digg (where only positive
ratings count).
Before we conclude, we want to suggest how we
envision the use of the framework in future empirical
studies. First, we encourage researchers to use qual-
itative means to get a sense of the logic of practice
within a given online field they are studying and under-
stand which internal and external distinctions matter
and how they get differentially rewarded in a field
(
Figure
3). They can identify relevant groups of agents
and describe key relations. Researchers then may also
use quantitative methods to help demarcate the bound-
aries of the fields involved. For example, social network
analysis may be a good method to start clustering
users (Leskovec et al. 2008). However, given that social
network position is only one type of capital in the
online field, it may be fruitful to use other techniques
to cluster users based on their interests, such as text
mining, or to examine collaboration networks (e.g., see
Ransbotham and Kane 2011). Depending on researchers’
philosophical stance, some may want to focus on devel-
oping an interpretive account of field struggles and
evolution (focusing more on Figures 1 and 2), whereas
others may use hypothetico-deductive methods to test
key relationships in the framework including temporal
dynamics (focusing more on Figure 3).
7. Conclusion
We have argued that, although diverse research tra-
ditions have looked at social stratification on UGC
platforms, without a unifying view of what constitutes
distinction online and of social processes responsi-
ble for its reproduction, these traditions have led to
somewhat narrow and disjoint explanations of the
phenomenon. Unfortunately, traditional organizational
theories were not adequate for building such a frame-
work. Bourdieu’s theory of practice, and specifically
the notion of field of practice, offered us conceptual
tools necessary to address this gap.
The theory has allowed us to see the social processes
through which individuals and organizations compete
for attention in the brave new world of UGC. This
competition shapes what we have termed an online
field, a social space in which producers and consumers,
held together by a shared interest, deploy different
forms of internally generated and externally produced
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Levina and Arriaga: Distinction and Status Production on UGC Platforms
Information Systems Research 25(3), pp. 468–488, © 2014 INFORMS 485
capital to gain influence. The interaction among agents
pursuing a given interest in a particular social setting
determines what will count as status and how it may
be achieved. Although status and power over resources
are not the explicit motives behind contributions for
many users, we have shown how these concepts can
be used to account for social processes responsible for
diverse content production and propagation dynamics
in the attention economy. Our framework helps in
understanding how digital businesses take advantage
of users’ desires to distinguish themselves and what
they can do to try to stimulate desired behaviors. Its
integrative nature should enable future researchers to
build on each other’s work, despite the differences in
our research perspectives and the specific sites that
we study.
Acknowledgments
The study was supported in part by the National Sci-
ence Foundation [VOSS Grant 1122381]. We would also
like to thank the participants of the Warwick Business
School, Information Systems and Management Seminar
as well as participants in the ISR Special Issue on Social
Media workshop for their thoughtful feedback. The paper
has also benefited greatly from the insightful and devel-
opmental suggestions of the editors and the anonymous
reviewers.
Appendix A.1 Current UGC Examples
Examples of types of Contemporary Contemporary Contemporary
UGC platforms Example 1 Example 2 Example 3
Social news sharing Digg—Allows users to comment
on posts and vote posts up and
down, with only up votes
effecting popularity
Slashdot—Allows users to
comment on posts and selects
random moderators to distribute
points. Front-page articles
selected by platform designers
Reddit—Allows users to comment
and vote posts up and down,
with both positive and negative
votes impacting popularity
Video or image sharing YouTube—Allows video sharing.
Displaces number of views,
allows for comments,
prominently displays posters’
profile info
Flickr—Allows photo sharing.
Displays rating and commenting
of content
4chan.com—Allows image sharing.
Does not have user profiles and
encourages anonymous posts
Social networking Facebook—Social networking
website that requires creation of
user profiles and links content
through social network ties.
Allows sharing of all sorts of
media, rating, and commenting
Twitter—Microblogging website
which allows users to “follow”
one another; content propagates
through unidirectional network
ties, primarily through
“retweets”
MySpace—Social networking site
that requires creation of user
profiles. Has strong emphasis
on music
Product/service reviews Amazon—E-commerce website
that enables and encourages
product reviews and allows for
users to rate these reviews
TripAdvisor—Hospitality services
review sharing website that is
focused on reviews
Yelp—Location-specific business
services review sharing website
Crowdsourcing Innocentive—Allows a sponsor to
post scientific and technical
problems that public
participants solve for a monetary
prize. Participants compete for a
handful of prizes and the
sponsor picks the winner
Dell Ideastorm—Allows a
community of Dell technology
users to propose new features
and services to Dell. Ideas are
rated by other consumers and
by Dell employees who
participate online.
Wikipedia—Allows users to write
and edit encyclopedia articles.
Specially selected editors pick
which edits stay or go
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... Such behaviour can give rise to changes in control that the operator does not anticipate (Eaton et al., 2015). In a similar vein, guided by automatically rendered decisions or algorithmically computed metrics, participants can organise a social activity to their advantage (Alaimo & Kallinikos, 2021), thereby exercising control over resources and other participants (Levina & Arriaga, 2014). This suggests that platform control changes over time as a function of participant interaction with each other and with the operator through digital technology. ...
... For example, the distinctions between formal and informal means of control can be blurred when platform participants engage through digital media and when the formal controls that platform operators inscribe in the technology are reformulated, interpreted, and re-enforced by informal means on the platform (Alaimo & Kallinikos, 2021;Orlikowski & Scott, 2014;Plantin et al., 2018). Similarly, when users act in their interest, the unifying goals, norms, and values of the authorised central platform operator may become unclear, leaving ample room for participants to enact control through the use of digital technologies (Levina & Arriaga, 2014;Möhlmann et al., 2021). Thus, control on digital platforms can also shift in its source, corresponding to whether control originates from the platform operator or from other participants. ...
... Because platform participants are individuals who vie for income, status, and visibility on the platform to advance their objectives, they do not act solely as agents for the platform operator (Duffy et al., 2021). For example, when participants organise social activity on the platform by using technical components (algorithms, visual design, computed metrics, etc.), they gain social influence and acquire a position that allows them to exercise control over resources and even other participants (Levina & Arriaga, 2014). As such, control on platforms is not limited to the operator's exercise of it and is dynamic as these power games play out over time. ...
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... Digital scholars have found Pierre Bourdieu's interrelated concepts of field, capital, and habitus useful in explaining digital inequality (Gilbert, 2010;Halford and Savage, 2010;Ignatow and Robinson, 2017;Levina and Arriaga, 2014;Lutz, 2016;Reiss and Tsvetkova, 2020;Sims, 2014;Yates and Lockley, 2018). According to Bourdieu (2004Bourdieu ( , 1990Bourdieu ( , 1984, a field can be defined as a network of interacting social agents, the habitus of whom represents the transportation of objective structures of the field into subjective structures of action and thoughts. ...
... called for researchers to move beyond self-reported data to examine "objective relations' and discover "crystalized acts of recognition" [3]. Levina and Arriaga (2014) proposed the concept of an online field to examine power relations online in relation to user generated content. Here we use both behavioral and survey data to determine online fields and actors and the demographic differences between them. ...
... Digital capital is also considered secondary to the more primary forms of capital such as economic and cultural . Social media activity more often leads to the social form of digital capital, rather than more skills-based digital capital such as programming knowledge, which can more directly lead to economic capital through labor skills Levina and Arriaga, 2014). Successful digital producers whose content is shared and favorited the most can then earn digital capital by capturing the attention of consumers on a platform. ...
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... To address these questions, we build on theories of status (e.g., Levina & Arriaga, 2014;Washington & Zajac, 2005), communication (e.g., Bourdieu, 1991;Pan et al., 2020;Rhee & Fiss, 2014;Snihur et al., 2021), and the entrepreneurship literature on social media (e.g., Fischer & Reuber, 2014;Obschonka et al., 2017) to theorize about the effect of status on audience engagement with new ventures' social media posts. We test this theorizing using a panel of introduce the communicator's status as an important boundary condition of the previously established positive effect of provocative communication on audience engagement online. ...
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... Advancing our understanding of social media communication and audience engagement requires us to first build an understanding of the motivations of social media users. To do that, we build on existing literature on status dynamics within social media (e.g., Iyer & Katona, 2016;Levina & Arriaga, 2014). Second, by adopting a linguistic perspective, we theorize how the characteristics of social media posts influence audience engagement. ...
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... Las redes sociales en las empresas La interacción entre los agentes que persiguen un determinado interés en un entorno social concreto determina el estatus y cómo puede conseguirse; esto puede utilizarse para dar cuenta de los procesos sociales responsables de las diversas dinámicas de producción y propagación de contenidos en la economía de la atención [16]. ...
... A continuación, se presentará los hallazgos claves identificados mediante los aportes extraídos: las redes sociales existen diversos entornos sociales creados mediante la interacción de agentes que comparten un interés específico, en estos entornos se generan procesos sociales que dan origen al estatus y que a su vez crean líderes de opinión o influenciadores [16]. En segundo lugar, el E-commerce y el Marketing Online (EMO) cuenta con 3 elementos principales, estos son las creencias de gestión, actividades de iniciación y actividades de implementación, el grado de EMO es influenciado por la ventaja relativa que el consumidor percibe y por la presión que este mismo ejerce mediante su poder adquirido gracias a las redes sociales [17]. ...
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This article theorizes and empirically investigates how status and provocative language influence audience engagement with new-venture posts on social media platforms. Using venture capital funding as a status proxy, we analyzed 369,142 Twitter posts by 268 new ventures. We found that status (1) increases engagement with ventures' tweets, and that it (2) moderates the effect of provocative language on audience engagement so that provocative language has a negative effect for low-status ventures but a positive effect for high-status ventures. Post-hoc analyses provide a basis for pragmatic theorizing and explore the effects of status tiers and subdimensions of provocative language.
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Der Band gibt eine kompakte Übersicht zu zentralen Theorien (in) der Kommunikationswissenschaft. Insgesamt werden 28 Schlüsselwerke aus der Mikro-, Meso und Makro-Ebene vorgestellt. Ziel ist es, Studierende und Dozierende in den Stand zu versetzen, ein wesentliches Werk in dessen Kontext zu verstehen und in die jeweilige Fachdiskussion einzuordnen. Darüber hinaus wird in diesem Band die Frage diskutiert, welches analytische und empirische Potenzial von den „Klassikern“ in Zeiten digitaler Kommunikation ausgeht.
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Increasingly, firms source more complex and strategic as well as harder to codify information technology projects to low-cost offshore locations. Completing such projects successfully requires close collaboration among all participants. Yet, achieving such collaboration is extremely difficult because of the complexity of the context: multiple and overlapping boundaries associated with diverse organizational and national contexts separate the participants. These boundaries also lead to a pronounced imbalance of resources among onshore and offshore contributors giving rise to status differences and inhibiting collaboration. This research adopts a practice perspective to investigate how differences in country and organizational contexts give rise to boundaries and associated status differences in offshore application development projects and how these boundaries and status differences can be renegotiated in practice to establish effective collaboration. To illustrate and refine the theory, a qualitative case study of a large financial services firm, which sourced a variety of high-end IT work to its wholly owned subsidiaries ("captive centers") and to third party vendors in multiple global locations (in particular, to India and Russia), is presented. Using a grounded theory approach, the paper finds that differences in country contexts gave rise to a number of boundaries that inhibited collaboration effectiveness, while differences in organizational contexts were largely mediated through organizational practices that treated vendor centers and captive units similarly. It also shows that some key onshore managers were able to alleviate status differences and facilitate effective collaboration across diverse country contexts by drawing on their position and resources. Implications are drawn for the theory and practice of global software development and multiparty collaboration.