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Liking as Taste Making. Social Media Practices as Generators of Aesthetic Valuation and Distinction

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Abstract

Much research has been conducted on how social media platforms are used as outlets of taste expression, displaying cultural preferences acquired outside the platforms. This research largely builds on the cultural sociology of Pierre Bourdieu and his analysis of taste as a medium of social distinction. We propose to shift the emphasis from the study of taste expression to an analysis of taste making on social media. This shift is occasioned by broader cultural transformations since the 1990s as well as developments on social media since the late 2000s. We see that rather than merely performing a taste learned elsewhere, users cooperatively develop sensitivities on social media platforms, constituting practices of joint observation, evaluation, and distinction. We call this the triangle of taste in which subjects, objects, and media mutually co-produce each other. Open Access at NM&S: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1461444820939458
https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444820939458
new media & society
2021, Vol. 23(10) 2947 –2963
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DOI: 10.1177/1461444820939458
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Liking as taste making: Social
media practices as generators
of aesthetic valuation and
distinction
Johannes Paßmann and Cornelius Schubert
Universität Siegen, Germany
Abstract
Much research has been conducted on how social media platforms are used as outlets
of taste expression, displaying cultural preferences acquired outside the platforms. This
research largely builds on the cultural sociology of Pierre Bourdieu and his analysis of
taste as a medium of social distinction. We propose to shift the emphasis from the
study of taste expression to an analysis of taste making on social media. This shift is
occasioned by broader cultural transformations since the 1990s as well as developments
on social media since the late 2000s. We see that rather than merely performing a taste
learned elsewhere, users cooperatively develop sensitivities on social media platforms,
constituting practices of joint observation, evaluation, and distinction. We call this the
triangle of taste in which subjects, objects, and media mutually co-produce each other.
Keywords
Distinction, memes, praxeology, Reddit, social media, symbolic interactionism, taste,
Twitter, valuation
Introduction
Recent studies of social media revolve around issues of taste online (cf. Dhaenens and
Burgess, 2019; Literat and Van Den Berg, 2019; Schonig, 2020). We think this is no
coincidence and that it points to the importance of taste as a social and aesthetic phenom-
enon that is central for social media practices in general. We conceive taste making
Corresponding author:
Johannes Paßmann, Seminar für Medienwissenschaft, Universität Siegen, Am Herrengarten 3, 57072 Siegen,
Germany.
Email: johannes.passmann@uni-siegen.de
939458NMS0010.1177/1461444820939458new media & societyPaßmann and Schubert
research-article2020
Article
2948 new media & society 23(10)
broadly as collective practices of valuation and distinction, in which aesthetic judgments
are created, negotiated, and transformed. This leads to specific taste preferences, be it for
a certain kind of humor, for a mode of reading news, or for watching videos. Taste, in
other words, is something one learns, refines, and transforms online.
One dominant topic in studies of taste online concerns the expression of taste prefer-
ences on social media platforms, such as crafting profile pages to present specific “taste
statements” (Liu, 2007) or selecting specific news preferences (Lindell, 2018). In these
cases, taste is expressed or reinforced online, while it is created elsewhere (cf. Mihelj et
al., 2019) or the markers of social distinction are transferred from offline lifeworlds to
digital communities (Nissenbaum and Shifman, 2017). We seek to extend this research
in a yet understudied direction. Rather than studying how social facts, such as stratifica-
tion and inequality, are expressed or reinforced through taste on social media or how
taste functions as a mode of distinction and exclusion in online communities, we are
interested in the ways that judgments of taste are generated on and with social media
platforms.
We consider taste neither as objectively given, nor as purely socially determined but
as a temporary result of a shared sensitization for specific, detectable, and nameable dif-
ferences. This basic principle of sensitization has been described by Becker (1953) in his
seminal article Becoming a Marihuana User. He differentiates three stages—in his case
for a taste for dope:
(1) learning to smoke the drug in a way which will produce real effects; (2) learning to recognize
the effects and connect them with drug use (learning, in other words, to get high); and (3)
learning to enjoy the sensations he perceives. (Becker, 1953: 242)
This emphasizes first, how the making of taste requires a shift in subjectivity: Users
have to learn to detect something previously unfamiliar. Second, this co-produces the
object as well: The object appears differently for an experienced user and this cannot be
reduced to the newly acquired sensitivity. The object’s materiality sets conditions for its
appreciation without determining it. Whereas the same sensations could not be accom-
plished just with tobacco, they could neither be accomplished without a learning process.
Third, this process is more than a dyadic relation between single users and tasty objects:
It is also a social process, in which novices observe and imitate connoisseurs, thus pro-
ducing and reproducing shared practices of enjoyment (Becker, 1953: 237). Following
Hennion (2007), we conceive taste making as an ongoing accomplishment and a shared
activity: “Tastes are not given or determined, and their objects are not either; one has to
make them appear together, through repeated experiments, progressively adjusted” (p.
101). An analysis of taste making must, therefore, consider its specific dynamics and
conditions: In different situations or historical contexts, with different participants and
different media, taste is made differently.
We contend that taste making is an integral part of social media practices: Activities,
such as liking, sharing, following, retweeting, tagging, bookmarking, replying, com-
menting, and last but not least posting and replying on social media are not only ways of
taste expression, but always also practices of taste making. Social media users unavoid-
ably participate in the creation of specific modes of shared observations, valuations, and
Paßmann and Schubert 2949
distinctions. On one hand, just like any other practice of taste making, this is neither fully
reducible to the technologies social media offer, nor to given social structures that are
expressed on social media platforms. On the other hand, taste making on social media is
specific, especially due to their respective functionalities providing specific architectures
for taste making. To sketch out these specifics, we first draw on previous work from
interactionist and cultural sociology, demonstrating that practices of taste making consti-
tute basic social processes of valuation and distinction that have existed before the popu-
larization of social media platforms. In a second step, we elaborate how taste making
online is articulated through specific characteristics of social media that have signifi-
cantly amplified this basic social process.
Theories of taste: from taste expression to taste making
Taste has long been conceived as a central moment in the creation and reproduction of
social order. Whereas Veblen (1994) demonstrated this connection for the “leisure class”
in the late 19th-century United States, and Elias (1997) described the proliferation of fine
taste historically as a medium of class transformation in European feudalism, it was
Bourdieu (1984), who systematized taste as a central instance in the stable reproduction
of social differences: “To the socially recognized hierarchy of the arts, and within each
of them, of genres, schools or periods, corresponds a social hierarchy of the consumers.
This predisposes tastes to function as markers of ‘class’” (pp. 1–2). Within fixed societal
hierarchies, the hierarchies of taste objects thus figure as given frameworks of orienta-
tion, enabling individuals to locate, and express their societal status relative to others;
taste expression signifies class position.
Bourdieu’s analysis of taste and distinction has since become one of the most-applied
concepts for analyzing digital cultures and observing media practices, such as the pro-
duction and circulation of Internet memes as means of social distinction (Gal et al., 2016;
Katz and Shifman, 2017; Literat and Van Den Berg, 2019; Milner, 2016; Nissenbaum
and Shifman, 2017; Segev et al., 2015; Vickery, 2014). While some studies highlight that
existing social stratifications are transferred and sometimes reinforced on social media
(Lindell, 2018; Mihelj et al., 2019; Reiss and Tsvetkova, 2019), others point out that
novel artifacts of distinction are created through social media platforms (Dhaenens and
Burgess, 2019; Nissenbaum and Shifman, 2017). A third perspective shows that social
media users might develop appraisals that differ substantially from given cultural hierar-
chies (Alexander et al., 2018). All these studies put taste, valuation, and distinction at the
center of their analysis. Because Bourdieu described a more or less stable hierarchy of
the arts, mirroring societal hierarchies, and materialized in cultural objects found in post-
WWII French society, the making of these hierarchies and objects within shared prac-
tices was not his main concern.
The stable orders of taste studied by Bourdieu have subsequently been criticized
within cultural sociology since at least the 1990s. For instance, Peterson (1992) outlined
significant changes in cultural consumption, where social hierarchies are less and less
produced by a “snobistic” restriction to the objects of “high culture,” but rather by the
capacity of knowledgeable actors to appreciate and justify a whole range of aesthetic
artifacts in an “omnivore” manner. Similarly, Prieur and Savage (2014) have recently
2950 new media & society 23(10)
argued that “choices of particular objects” within a given high/low differentiation have
become far less important for practices of distinction than “their mode of appreciation
and consumption” (our emphasis; p. 307). The shifting orders of taste do not entail that
taste has lost its value for distinction, rather, they emphasize that processes of taste mak-
ing have gained higher currency than markers of taste expression for signaling status
positions to others. In line with Peterson and Prieur and Savage, we observe a historical
shift concerning the importance of taste making for social distinction. However, this also
entails an epistemological shift: Cultural goods now markedly appear as socially con-
structed and transformed. This means that taste making involves the production of
objects and subjects at the same time. As such, it is a fundamental social process and not
just the consequence of current consumer and media cultures. The mutual attunement of
objects and subjects lies at the core of taste judgments as a form of valuation: Similar to
the economic value of commodities discussed by Simmel (1978: 62–72), the aesthetic
value of cultural objects does not reside either within objects or subjects, but emerges
from an interactive process and stabilizes in shared systems of meaning. Indeed, we can
conceive any object humans deal with to be made in social interaction, as Mead (1934)
has argued by drawing on the example of food:
[. . .] the social process in a sense constitutes the objects to which it responds, or to which it is
an adjustment. That is to say, objects are constituted in terms of meanings within the social
process of experience and behavior through the mutual adjustment to one another [. . .] (p. 77)
Following Mead, Blumer (1969) put forward an approach to taste that emphasizes the
mutual adjustment of subjects and objects of taste. In a highly insightful study of the
French fashion industry, he pointed out that fashion in current societies should not merely
be understood as a way of expressing the need of “class differentiation,” but as an emer-
gent “social happening” (Blumer, 1969: 277–278). He argued that “to be in fashion” in
the women’s fashion industry of the 1960s operates in a specific manner: “It is not the
prestige of the elite which makes the design fashionable but, instead, it is the suitability
or potential fashionableness of the design which allows the prestige of the elite to be
attached to it” (Blumer, 1969: 280). Thus, social prestige alone does not sufficiently
explain how designs come to be in fashion. In addition, the design objects themselves
must be accounted for.
This basic principle of mutual constitution between subjects and objects has recently
gained currency—especially since the practice turn (Schatzki et al., 2001). From a prac-
tice perspective, taste making is especially of interest as it explains the shaping of prac-
tices in differentiating how one does things properly. It “socially sustains the formation
of taste and the sophistication of practices [. . .] negotiating aesthetic criteria that support
what constitutes ‘a good practice’ or ‘a sloppy one’ and ‘a beautiful practice’ or ‘an ugly
one’ within a community of practitioners” (Gherardi, 2009: 547).
Such an epistemology of mutual constitution also falls in line with what Bourdieu
(1990) formulated as “sense practique” in which he differentiates the logos of an onto-
logical given grammar from the collectively performed praxis (p. 31): Praxis is often
unclear, vague, and multiple; valuations and distinctions are not integrated into a perma-
nently fixed system. Practices of valuation become shared realities precisely because
Paßmann and Schubert 2951
they are indeterminate or fuzzy without being arbitrary or random. In the words of
Bourdieu (1990): “the procedures of practical logic are rarely entirely coherent and
rarely entirely incoherent” (p. 12).
Subsequently, Bourdieu’s sense practique does not operate with fixed and passive
objects on one hand, and versatile and active subjects on the other. However, we see that
in Distinction, Bourdieu (1984) emphasized stable orders of taste and modes of taste
expression (i.e. the predisposition of “tastes to function as markers of ‘class’,” p. 2),
rather than the processes of taste making, because the former shaped the dispositifs of
distinction in post-World War II French society more prominently. What received less
attention in Distinction, then became more important for studying the modes of distinc-
tion described by Peterson, Prieur, and Savage, and others since the 1990s. We follow
this line of thinking and argue that the modes of distinction on social media since the late
2000s rely even more on practices of taste making.
Liking as taste making: the anatomy of social happenings
Whereas the shifting orders of taste in modern societies and contemporary theory have
led to an increasing academic interest in the practices of taste making, they have yet not
been systematically related to the transformative agencies of social media: Studies of
social media largely operate in the classic Bourdieusian mode of taste expression, where
active subjects use passive objects to display status, transform subjectivity, or group
identity. However, it appears that the historical shift cultural sociologists observed since
the 1990s does not only take place on social media platforms as well, rather, these plat-
forms markedly amplify the ongoing cultural transformation by materializing and dis-
playing the mutual construction of subject and object, especially in platform units, such
as likes or retweets: They are always units from a specific user and for a specific object
that is itself again tied to a specific user (cf. Paßmann, 2018: 151–182).
On social media, the mutual construction of subject and object becomes unavoidably
obvious: Liking a Facebook post alters the meaning of the original post by creating vis-
ible popularity or affixing a seal of approval, just as it attributes meaning to the account
giving the like and consolidates the practice of liking as a meaningful activity itself. The
ramifications are evident: Liking a Facebook post or a tweet does not only attribute
meaning to the account giving the like. At the very least, it functions as a paratext to a
text, transforming the meaning of the original. Liking, retweeting, following, and so on
are always ascription and self-description at the same time. The recent debate on chang-
ing the display modes of likes on Instagram puts this delicate process of appreciation into
the spotlight as it shows how such platform units have become quite indispensable in
social media practices (Gerlitz and Helmond, 2013).
Social media highlight that this process happens not only between subjects (persons
or groups, e.g.) and objects (posts, references e.g.), but is also fundamentally dependent
on media for enabling it in a specific manner. The triadic relations between object, sub-
ject, and medium of valuation, however, are not tightly coupled: In many instances, they
appear definite and determined, whereas in other cases, “judging an image [. . .] by post-
ing it or ‘liking’ is not the result of applying a set of finite criteria, but a response to an
indeterminate array of feelings and intuitions” (Schonig, 2020: 32). Sometimes,
2952 new media & society 23(10)
the platform units function rather as “producers and provocateurs of a productive inde-
terminacy,” where “symbolic indefiniteness turns into a resource for situational defini-
tion” (Paßmann, 2018: 148).
Moreover, the platform units themselves are the result of a complex history of valua-
tion and distinction: Twitter’s like, for example, started as a bookmarking symbol called
“fav” and its meaning progressively changed and shifted on the level of the users as well
as the platform (Paßmann, 2018). As the meanings of platform units change and consoli-
date differently for different persons and communities across time and space, the triadic
relations between subject, object, and media are negotiated and transformed and cannot
be reduced to either subject, object, or media.
As a result, we advocate an understanding of all elements in the triadic relation that is
neither deterministic nor voluntaristic. This goes in line with approaches that have argued
for a focus on taste making rather than on taste expression in line with the practice turn.
Although likes, for example, are generally vague and open for interpretation, it does
make a difference, whether they are symbolized by a heart providing it with an affection-
ate denotation or by a star in the tradition of bookmarking (and whether they are called
“favs” or “likes”), or, most importantly, whether they are prominently displayed or not:
Different online cultures can attribute different meanings to a high like count, but as long
as a counter is visible, there is little chance of ignoring it. Paraphrasing Blumer:
“Structural features”, such as likes, “set conditions for their action but do not determine
their action” (1962: 189–190).
In this sense, platform units are neither radically open for social construction, nor
determining their interpretation, just as taste is neither fully determined by tasted objects,
nor by tasting subjects or the media used to negotiate the process. As a result, whereas it
appears hard to say generally how taste is negotiated on these platforms, it is safe to say
that it is negotiated. By having to choose which posts to make, which to ignore, and
which to appreciate, individual and shared taste making on social media is practically
inevitable. Still, this basic feature of social media platforms, as Schonig (2020) observes,
“[. . .] is rarely discussed in relation to aesthetic evaluation even when the ‘like’ button
quite explicitly uses the language of taste” (p. 27).
What we might call a triangle of taste between subjects, objects, and media is, on one
hand, in a constant process of mutual adjustment, and, on the other hand, it is based on
conditions that lie outside of each individual situation. The triangle provides, first of all,
an analytic heuristic with which to approach taste making online. To illustrate and elabo-
rate this triadic relationship, we will revisit three recent studies of taste making online. In
each of these studies, we can see the triadic relations unfold, yet each study places
emphasis on one particular aspect: subjects, objects, and media. This allows us to trace
the subjects, objects, and media in processes of taste making online and to follow the
relations that unfold between them in each case.
Becoming a meme connoisseur: subjects in the making
Literat and Van Den Berg (2019) note the difference between taste making and taste
expression by stating that previous scholarship “has theorized the appraisal of memes for
their aesthetic or affective qualities and deployment of cultural capital” (p. 235). They
Paßmann and Schubert 2953
oppose this bias toward taste expression by analyzing the “vernacular criticism of
memes” on Reddit’s subreddit MemeEconomy. The vernacular criticism happens primar-
ily online, which means that judgments of taste are not simply transferred from offline
lifeworlds to Reddit, rather, this particular taste for memes is made on and with the
means of Reddit. This does not imply, however, that the reproduction of social status
differences is suspended: For arguing whether or not a meme is valuable, for example,
the Redditors make use of historical knowledge on details referred to in the meme’s cap-
tion, which implies a certain degree of education (Literat and Van Den Berg, 2019: 242).
And, it also requires a sensitivity for the making of taste on Reddit to use this knowledge
meaningfully within the interactions on the platform. What we can see here is neither
offline habitus simply transferred to an online realm, nor an independent online habitus
suspending the reproduction of class differences. So what can we say about the taste
making practices of the MemeEconomy based on Literat and Van Den Berg’s work?
MemeEconomy is a forum where users playfully pretend to bet on popularity cycles of
memes by mocking stock trade vocabulary. More than 250,000 users try to predict which
memes will probably become popular very quickly, which memes will not become
extremely popular but will instead remain quite popular for a longer time, and so on.
Many participants differentiate themselves into three subgroups: “meme insiders,” “new-
comers,” and “normies.” In their valuation practices, they do not only develop a shared
vocabulary and a sensitivity for these memes as they “are,” but also evaluate new aes-
thetic categories based on the very process of social distinction. One of these categories is
the “normie meme,” a meme that is so easily understandable that it is instantly devalued
by the group. Another category concerns strategies to “scare off normies”: The fact that a
meme is not understandable for normies serves as a criterion for valuation.
In other words, MemeEconomy members do not only analyze shared negotiations of
value, merely predicting popularity dynamics. They also establish shared categories by
which value is detected and produced. They develop a keen sensitivity for the aesthetics
of memes, bring them into circulation, and negotiate a vocabulary for bringing the spe-
cific aesthetics of a meme to the fore in the first place: In criticizing, they develop a taste
for not easily popularizable memes, differentiating memes into their own emic hierar-
chies of “high” and “low” meme culture. A focus on taste expression would make this
development less visible: It would highlight a more or less given order of taste and pos-
sibly the reproduction of social differences, rather than the practices on and with Reddit’s
MemeEconomy create enjoyment from the collective production of those objects.
Of course, this does not suspend social differences or the accumulation of cultural
capital outside the forum. It first of all demonstrates, how fine distinctions are produced
differently in contemporary online cultures. Second, the analysis refrains from reducing
cultural practice to one aspect (the reproduction of social difference): Taste making is, as
Gherardi (2009) argued, at the same time an epistemic practice, explaining why certain
groups understand certain information in a certain way. Third, we see that the pleasure of
participation lies not necessarily in a display of high social status, looking down on those
lower in cultural hierarchies but also in the practice of shared observation, facilitated by
communally created taste, or, in other words, in the mutual production of tasteful objects.
Thus, taste making is not only a means to an end for stratification; but also it becomes a
meaningful activity in itself.
2954 new media & society 23(10)
Literat and Van Den Berg, however, analyze their case differently. They conclude in a
classical Bourdieusian sense, rendering the objects of taste as instruments of social dis-
tinction: “[. . .] the acquired taste in memes and knowledge in how to argue regarding
their value functions as cultural capital in securing one’s position within the
MemeEconomy community” (p. 244). While they identify manifold instances of contro-
versial online valuation, the objects in circulation are mainly regarded as exchangeable
media of distinction, whose value is reduced to the capacity of objects to serve as mark-
ers for distinction. Within the triadic relation of subject, object, and medium, their analy-
sis places an emphasis on the creation of knowledgeable subjects and their position in a
social hierarchy: normies, newcomers, and insiders.
The emphasis on social factors, however, understates the epistemic qualities of social
media themselves. After some years of Twitter usage, for example, one might read the
news in a different way, or observe standard situations in a train or the supermarket
checkout differently, as one has developed a taste of the “tweetable strangeness” of eve-
ryday situations or for the scandalization potential of a certain kind of news (Paßmann,
2018: 48–50).
This is anything but trivial from an epistemological perspective. If we consider taste
making more broadly a process of joint observation and valuation, social media, and
other communities of taste constitute a “thought collective” (Fleck, 1979: 38–51), that is,
a “community of persons mutually exchanging ideas or maintaining intellectual interac-
tion” (p. 39). In a social process, one learns to see the same phenomena, rendering a
specific perception and constituting a shared object. This raises the question, in how far
social media platforms constitute such practices of joint observation specifically. And it
connects this question to the recent discussion of taste as shared epistemic as well as
aesthetic practices: “Tastemaking crafts identities and epistemic communities at the
same time, and sharing an aesthetics provides the feeling of belonging to a specific com-
munity within a community” (Gherardi, 2009: 547). This in turn relates to the issue of
“filter bubbles” or “echo chambers” in the sense of communities with a preference for a
certain style of interpretation or worldview. Even though we cannot follow this line of
thought in more detail, it shows how practices of taste making are deeply ingrained in
social media phenomena. We would like to follow a different lead here: That social
media platforms foster specific amplifications of established taste making practices,
rather than “inventing” entirely new practices of taste making.
To map out the continuities and differences of taste making offline and online, we
draw a comparison to taste making practices in a different case. As Benzecry (2009)
emphasizes in Becoming a fan, an ethnographic study of the development of taste for
operas in Argentina, the settings in which the enjoyment is learned and the practices by
which enjoyment is shared are of pivotal importance. As he demonstrates, seemingly
secondary settings, such as discussions in the entrance hall, in the bus from one opera
house to another or in opera classes are central to becoming a fan. The settings of the
MemeEconomy seem to be equally important: In the latter case, it is not the architecture
of an opera house, but the platform Reddit itself. As Miller (2019) pointed out most
recently, both, buildings and platforms “[. . .] facilitate specific forms of sociality” (p.
795). In that sense, platforms and opera houses can both be considered as architectures
of taste making, but these architectures differ fundamentally.
Paßmann and Schubert 2955
First, in a subreddit, people can upvote, post images, or write comments. It is—and
this appears to be typical for taste making online—a setting where quantified measures
of popularity are ubiquitous. Whether many upvotes on Reddit are considered measures
of success or rather measures of a low-valued “normie meme”—these counts are con-
stantly present as elements of taste making: The popularity of normie memes poses the
question why they are so popular. Users can either affirm this or demonstrate indiffer-
ence toward such measures, whereas the latter functions as a marker of superior taste: “In
positioning ‘normies’ as meme outsiders devaluing their ‘stock’, members of this sub-
reddit implicitly position themselves as meme connoisseurs and, therefore, culturally
superior” (Literat and Van Den Berg, 2019: 244). Here, the measures of popularity figure
as far more than ex posteriori assessments (e.g. of an opera house justifying public sub-
sidies), but active agents of taste making.
Second, posts always appear as single entities in a pace largely determined by users:
Whereas, opera fans described by Benzecry (2009) wait together in the entrance hall, sit
in their boxes, or stand in the cheaper floors watching the same performance, social
media users are confronted with their objects of taste in a different manner. They can
scroll an image away quickly or scrutinize it in deepest details. This scalability of social
and aesthetic pace is specific for other social media platforms, too: Whereas, on one
hand, social media are seen to support superficiality and speed, at the same time, they can
develop measures of extreme sophistication, opening the slightest visual detail or the like
of a certain user for meticulous interpretation, fostering sociality, and aesthetic experi-
ence in a slow-motion, decompositional, and comparative manner (cf. Paßmann, 2018).
Third, not only architecture makes a difference. Whereas, the opera has developed
institutionalized standards, categorizing voices, or instrumental performances, social
media often have to invent standards in the first place and often they are kept open for
constant transformation. The ironic stock market vocabulary of the MemeEconomy pro-
vides and stabilizes such standards, for example, in valorizing memes that function as
“long term investments.” Insofar, as these standards and the tastes resulting from them
are produced on and with the platform, social media platforms have an affinity to emic
high/low differences, producing their own regimes of valuation. The relation to extant
forms of cultural capital outside the platform, however, remains unclear: On one hand, it
appears safe to say that distinction on the platform is hardly independent from distinction
offline (or any other online realm), on the other hand, it is an open question how and
where these emic high/low differences transform, substitute, or supersede given forms of
cultural capital.
We contend that the practices of taste making on Reddit go in line with the larger
transformations that have been described since the 1990s, explaining the destabilization
of given standards for distinction: “[. . .] the objectified form of cultural capital has in
large part been supplanted by the embodied form” (Holt, 1997: 103). The “contents”
taste is “applied to” becomes less important and a sensitivity, independent from given
objects becomes more central (Holt, 1997: 104). In this sense, forums such as the
MemeEconomy and the centrality of taste making in general cannot be simply reduced
to the rise of social media platforms. Rather, social media platforms amplify—and their
success has been amplified by—a longer cultural and social transformation, that puts
taste making, rather than taste expression at the center.
2956 new media & society 23(10)
Post-Bourdieusian studies from Holt, Peterson, or Prieur and Savage, analyze this as
a shift in how distinctions are enacted. However, what we can observe is not only a shift
toward a “knowing mode of appropriation of culture” and “cosmopolitan taste” (Prieur
and Savage, 2014: 316) that is accomplished by distinguishing subjects, but these prac-
tices also change their objects. A competent “second order reading” of trash TV (Prieur
and Savage, 2014: 308), for example, renders trash TV as something capable of offering
a heightened cultural potential. This constructional character of seemingly neutral read-
ing is even more true for the attributions through stock market vocabulary of the
MemeEconomy and media practices, such as upvoting or liking. This becomes evident
in the valorization regime of yet another meme culture described by Schonig (2020).
Especially, he demonstrates that this constructional character of doing objects by taste
making is not simply a means to an end of distinction, but also central for the aesthetic
experience and enjoyability of these practices.
Becoming oddly satisfied: objects in the making
In a recent study on “aesthetic category memes,” Schonig (2020) analyzes the develop-
ment of somewhat “unsettled” objects. Other than the MemeEconomy memes, the pro-
cess of valuation and distinction is not so much centered around their perceived popularity
and definite classification, but rather around the question of their belonging into vague
categories, such as “mildly interesting,” “oddly satisfying,” or “mildly infuriating” that
users on Reddit, Instagram, Tumblr, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter attribute to images
and short videos. Schonig (2020) argues that “the contributors to these categories are
devoted to maintaining the absurd specificity of their minute distinctions, demonstrating
an extraordinary sensitivity to what makes something ‘oddly satisfying’ rather than
‘mildly interesting’ [. . .]” (p. 27). This functions as a shared activity by means of plat-
form units such as upvotes and likes (Schonig, 2020). A sensitivity is thus also developed
using platform units: Liking and upvoting essentially participate in the process of mak-
ing the objects of taste.
Schonig (2020) emphasizes that what makes the production of these memes so rele-
vant is the “reflexive exercise” (p. 27) upon the “nebulous criteria of such strange cate-
gories” (p. 28), which does not only generate the pleasure of “[. . .] sharing an obscure
way of seeing and judging images with others” (p. 29), but involves a “contemplation of
the precise oddness of its satisfaction” (p. 33).
The aesthetic pleasure thus lies not so much in a precise congruence of category and
object, but rather in the negotiation of this very relationship. It is the specificity, the
vagueness, and indeterminateness that render this contemplation an ongoing exercise,
surfacing the act of categorization as a “[. . .] perceptual adventure, that searches not for
strange and exotic objects of perception, but strange and exotic ways of perceiving famil-
iar and mundane objects in the world” (Schonig, 2020: 36). This means, first, that the
pleasure of this practice lies in the improbable, yet realized effect of joint observation,
rather than differentiating between outsiders and insiders. Second, by categorizing, dis-
cussing, liking, or upvoting, mundane objects are transformed into specific, collectively
produced objects, precisely because the categories are considerably vague.
Paßmann and Schubert 2957
For the opera fans described by Benzecry (2009), it is important that experiences can
be categorized as examples of: The Colón Opera House and other institutions organize
lectures, classes, and other “music didactical” events following the operatic season,
where members of the interested public may refine their taste together with the help of
“maestros,” becoming sensitized for voice’s registers, style, and peculiarities, such as
range (pp. 142–145). The opera fans’ taste is also constantly worked upon, but by draw-
ing on relatively stable registers of aesthetic experience. Even after 25 years of opera
house experience, opera fans present themselves as apprentices, eager to cultivate their
sensitivity (Benzecry, 2009: 138). In both cases, the meme connoisseurs and opera fans
develop an epistemic and affective sensitivity that is constantly worked upon. The aes-
thetic categories in the meme culture described by Schonig, however, are considerably
and constitutively more in flux than in the case of the opera fans.
We argue that this is the case because on social media, seemingly stable categories are
ubiquitous. Although—or rather, precisely because—objects, subjects, and media are
always translated into fixed numbers and units, they are constantly negotiated. In line
with Callon’s (1998) notion of framing and overflowing, one might say: Precisely
because social and aesthetic relations appear to be framed so strictly by platform units,
they occasion continuous overflowing and negotiation. Translating an (imagined) aes-
thetic category into calculative categories or a perception into established vocabulary
often triggers the negotiation of their value. This has to do with the role that exact num-
bers play in aesthetic practice: Their fixedness functions not so much as an endpoint of
valuation, but rather as a provocation for joint interpretation, rendering the whole enter-
prise a collective activity, that is, a practice of observing together.
This is an important parallel between the MemeEconomy and the “aesthetic category
memes” described by Schonig: Both make social and aesthetic categories reflexive and
as a result become socially and aesthetically productive. A sensitivity for the mildly
interesting, for example, is created in light of the ubiquitous possibility of the intensively
interesting (or infuriating) and its categorization. And a sensitivity for the not easily
popularizable insider memes is produced in light of ubiquitous, highly popular normie
memes. Whereas in a classical Bourdieusian sense, subjects and objects are largely deter-
mined by social structures, the meme users make reflexive what they are determined by,
and make this part of the aesthetic experience and social distinction. The ubiquitous and
countable platform units as well as the vocabulary provide the precondition for this
reflexivity: They make evident which memes are most popular and can thus easily raise
the question, what determines their popularity. Again, this of course follows from a
longer cultural development that has not been caused but is amplified through the popu-
larization of the Internet and its social media platforms.1
For Hennion (2007), this is the central difference between a Bourdieusian and a
reflexive approach to taste and taste making: Participants “[. . .] do not deny social deter-
minisms, they rather rely on them [. . .] to ‘determine’ their own tastes” (p. 103). This
connection between reflexive determinisms and taste making seems especially clear for
social media counters: The fact that a Tweet has 10,000 likes, for example, immediately
raises the question which “properties” of this object led to this result and how this deter-
mination reflects back on oneself. This reflexivity is central for a third social media study
2958 new media & society 23(10)
concerned with taste making in a German-speaking Twitter community conducted by
Paßmann (2018).
Becoming a Twitter user: media in the making
Learning to become a skilled and successful tweeter entails an affective, perceptual
transformation resulting in novel forms of observing one’s everyday experiences and
becoming sensitive to their “tweetability,” and also to learn social skills, such as deciding
whom to follow back or whom to support to build a retweet network. From 2011 to 2015,
Paßmann participated in the rise and fall of a German-speaking Twitter community that
was concerned with producing tweets considered aesthetically valuable: The German
“Favstar Sphere,” which evolved around the satellite platform Favstar.fm. The platform
ranked the most faved, retweeted, and liked tweets, according to different metrics and for
different languages with vivid English, Spanish, Japanese, and German communities.
With Favstar, the users were able to cultivate a distinct Twitter humor.
The related practices were to a large part concerned with what Bourdieu-inspired
studies emphasize: Who is part of the “Twitter elite,” how can one become a member of
the established and esteemed groups, and so on. But what users did most of the time
was: (1) Writing, reading and reading again the tweets they wrote, watching them grow
popular as they received more and more likes, favs, and retweets, thinking about why
one’s own tweet became so successful. (2) Reading other people’s successful tweets.
Thinking about their style. Are they genius? Are they using cheap tricks to get many
retweets? (3) Thinking about the meaning of the platform units: Are they meant seri-
ously? Do they imply “real” recognition? Does somebody want to manipulate me by
liking everything I write?
On one hand, a specific social order developed on the basis of the Favstar quantifica-
tions, which some users took quite seriously. This had to do with the fact that if one
wants tweets to go viral, one needs accounts with 10,000 followers more than accounts
with 100 followers, which means the value of retweets or likes is frequently bound to
their “givers” metrics. On the other hand, this order became reflexive as a cheap deter-
minism: Other users developed a devaluation discourse and ridiculed the so called
“Twitter elite,” which was allegedly driven merely by high, but meaningless follower
and retweet numbers. From that point of view, good tweeters had to be indifferent toward
these platform units.
As a result, the units became central media of taste making. Several subpages of
Favstar showed the most successful tweets of each account or the most successful
accounts (in a board called “popular people”). Favstar established a variety of measures,
inviting to develop tastes for both, the style of popular tweets in general and the style of
a certain user. In conversations with Paßmann, some users said they were able to differ-
entiate the styles of other users so precisely, that they would immediately “smell” when
certain users “stole” a tweet from somebody else.
Here, we can observe again how social media platforms provide very highly devel-
oped architectures of taste making that set conditions for their action, but do not deter-
mine them. The counters’ quantifications were utilized for valuation and devaluation
practices, for the observation of regularities and specificities, for the sensitization for
Paßmann and Schubert 2959
one’s own style in relation to other people’s styles, or differentiations of recognition and
manipulation. Important were not only the platform units’ quantities and their compara-
bility, but also their distinctness and scalable pace. The distinctness of platform units,
tweets, and accounts motivated to scrutinize all of them, determine and observing one-
self being determined by them. All these countable elements were used to develop taste
together. Taste for how successful tweets work, for how one’s own tweets work and how
value and recognition are ascribed—be it due to their aesthetic qualities or rather their
social prestige.
In Twitter’s Favstar sphere, there were quantified metrics everywhere, but—similar
to the meme economy—these metrics where made reflexive in practice. The platform
units were not simply the cause of this taste making, but also a tool of refinement. In
their everyday practice, in their valuation, their writing, scrutinizing, and liking of
tweets, the users created what Hennion (2007) calls “attachments”: intimate relations
between amateurs and their objects, that mutually produce subjects, objects (and their
media). In case of Twitter, you cannot simply find any tweet elegant, funny, witty, or
stylish, but you can make yourself sensitive for what an elegant tweet might look like.
And you can make yourself sensitive for what your elegant tweets might look like. This
does not render the triadic relations of subjects, objects, and media obsolete, quite the
contrary, it takes their social construction equally seriously as their objective specifici-
ties and highlights the attachments produced within these relations, as Hennion (2007)
underscores: “beautiful things only offer themselves to those who offer themselves to
beautiful things” (p. 106).
In case of Twitter, but also of the MemeEconomy and aesthetic category memes, the
counters of likes, shares, or upvotes function not only as means to the end of “boundary
policing” of what is popular or valuable but as a common ground from where a refined
observation becomes a shared activity. This is also the reason why Reddit’s MemeEconomy
develops its economic vocabulary: They translate their valuations into an ironic stock
market vocabulary not simply because the “normie” taste can be devalued thereby, but
rather because it is precisely this vocabulary that makes the calculated metrics account-
able, allowing for a reflection of one’s own taste. The “low” and easily popularizable
memes function independently from a refined sensitivity, whereas the “high” memes
produce a different kind of pleasure, and this pleasure wants to be shared and thus pro-
duced as an aesthetic experience in itself.
Conclusion
The main aim of this article was to elaborate a concept of taste making on social media
platforms. We argued that platforms are not only instances for expressing taste (of course
they are), but also inherently tied in with practices of taste making that unfold within a
triadic relation of subjects, objects, and media. Whereas the relations of subjects and
objects have been studied in processes of taste making, the role of media and especially
of social media have not been addressed in detail. As we have shown, platform units such
as likes, shares, retweets, up-, or downvotes do not simply function as formats of taste
expression but as transformative means of taste making which are themselves created in
the process. This shift from taste expression to taste making is not confined to social
2960 new media & society 23(10)
media, rather, we can see this as general changes in cultural modes of valuation and dis-
tinction that have been described by cultural sociology since the 1990s. Even though
these changes did not originate on social media, they are amplified through the ways that
social media specifically afford and even necessitate taste making in two respects.
1. The objects and media of taste online invite and initiate constant and collective
reflections. The case of dedicated meme forums emphasizes this openness of aes-
thetic categories and the pleasures of playfully engaging with vague classifications,
where the obviousness of platform units is called into question. Liking as taste
making thus functions as a twofold process: On one hand, it creates seemingly
objective measures of popularity and valuation, on the other hand, it occasions
critical appraisals of the like and its significance—on both, an individual and a col-
lective level. These valuations and distinctions are not simply preformed on social
media platforms, but performed through the platform units. As a result, these units
function as media of taste-making, fostering shared observation and the constitu-
tion of shared objects. This is inscribed into likes, retweets, and so on as units from
a specific user for a specific object, which is itself tied to a specific user.
2. Developing a taste for social media objects is largely based on the scalable paces
of small-scale scrutiny and large-scale comparisons. Social media platforms
afford to study a post in great detail, often without temporal restrictions, just as
they provide a near infinite reservoir of comparative cases. Liking as taste mak-
ing thus entails an awareness of subtle nuances. The necessary deceleration,
decomposition, and comparability are openly observable in case of the meme
forums, whereas the individual strategies can be drawn from the Twitter case.
The possibility to scrutinize every post, tweet, or image, to observe meticulously
which person liked what and who follows whom is an essential part of becoming
a competent member through processes of taste making.
Whereas the minute differentiations of the mildly interesting or infuriating develop a
considerable refinement—just like the MemeEconomy insiders and parts of the Favstar
Sphere—these fine modes of social media practices differentiate those users from the
ridiculed “Twitter elite,” normies and other groups taking the platform units at face value
or appearing in any other way too unapologetic about their popularity and its measures.
In resonance with the broader cultural changes since the 1990s, distinctions on social
media do not simply run along differences between popular or high culture but along the
question how these very differences are made aesthetically productive through the reflec-
tion of possible determinisms. In a milieu where popularity is ubiquitous, popularity may
instantaneously neither be affirmed, nor rejected.
Since the reflexive negotiation of platform units and their meanings in processes of
online taste making resonates with and enhances the increasing importance of taste mak-
ing in cultural valuation and distinction per se, social media and society enter into a
productive relationship. If the shifting orders of taste are specifically amplified through
platform metrics, social media figure as transformative agents in processes of taste mak-
ing and, therefore, as transformative agents in the basic processes of contemporary valu-
ation and distinction.
Paßmann and Schubert 2961
Funding
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this
article.
ORCID iD
Johannes Paßmann https://orcid.org/0000-0002-2822-6082
Note
1. This argument goes in line with Whitney Phillips’ (2015) troll ethnography This Is Why We
Can’t Have Nice Things: The trolling practices of the early Anonymous movement were never
a pure Internet phenomenon, as they gained their shape especially by mirroring the sensa-
tionalism of Fox News covering their spectacular activities. As a result, the trolling practices
functioned as an amplified translation of older TV practices into a new environment. In another
media historical strand, Coleman (2012) demonstrates that trolling practices in the 2000s have
predecessors in the phreaker culture of the late 1950s. All these seemingly new media practices
of digital culture are translations of old media practices into a new media milieu.
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Author biographies
Johannes Paßmann is a research associate of the Digital Media and Methods team at Siegen
University. He obtained his doctorate in 2016 with a thesis on Twitter in Germany. He was a
Paßmann and Schubert 2963
research fellow at Locating Media, a postgraduate program funded by the German Research
Foundation, worked as a lecturer in the Department of Media and Culture Studies at Utrecht
University (NL), a visiting researcher at the Nordic Centre for Internet and Society (Oslo, NO),
and also as a guest lecturer at the University of Basel (CH). His research focuses primarily on the
sociology, history, and aesthetics of social media.
Cornelius Schubert is a senior lecturer on innovation studies at the University of Siegen. He spe-
cializes in science and technology studies and qualitative empirical methods. He has conducted
research on human–technology interactions in medicine and global innovation networks in the
semiconductor industry. He is a principal investigator in the interdisciplinary project “Visually
integrated clinical cooperation” at the Collaborative Research Centre “Media of Cooperation” at
the University of Siegen.
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