Defining Status Seeking in Virtual Communities
Sociologists define status as an actor’s relative standing in a group when this standing is based on prestige, honor, or deference (Berger, Cohen, & Zeldich, 1972; Thye, 2000). By extension, status seeking consists of activities designed to improve an actor’s standing in a group, and is therefore judged by the degree to which associated activities result in increasing prestige, honor, or deference. The aim of status seeking can be external and internal. Actors may seek status for purely economic and social advantage, but they may also seek status for psychological and emotional reasons. Although the two drivers are not mutually exclusive, their preponderance depends on the nature of the group involved (Perretti & Negro, 2006).
Status seeking that is externally oriented sees status as a mediating strategic step in a cycle of social and economic resource acquisition. Lin’s (2001) discussion of how individuals go about improving their status represents this perspective. He defines striving for higher status as “the process by which individuals mobilize and invest resources for returns in socioeconomic standing” (p. 78). Individuals therefore pursue status because it gives them access to greater economic and social resources, and they use economic and social resources to improve their status. For example, studies show that improving one’s rank in the social hierarchy has direct impact on social influence, which in turn puts an individual in a better position to pursue activities that are more directly lucrative (Ridgeway & Walker, 1995). Studies by Ball and Eckel (1996) and Ball, Eckel, Grossman, and Zame (2001) suggest that individuals with higher status tend to obtain better terms in negotiations than individuals with lower status. Similarly, studies by Ensel (1979) and Marsden and Hurlbert (1988) have shown that during job transition status plays a crucial role in obtaining more highly regarded and better paying jobs.
By contrast to this external perspective on status seeking, an alternate perspective has emerged which argues that status seeking is often pursued as an “ego reward:” a valuable emotional good that individuals accumulate as a result of acquired status (Emerson, 1962). The source of status as an emotional good tends to vary. It may be rooted in the psychological need of individuals to generate better sentiments among peers (e.g., admiration), it may be due to socialization that equates status with living up to a certain normative ideal, or it may be simply that status generates more gratifying social contact (Homans, 1950). Once established, however, status can become a psychological asset for its holders (Fombrun, 2001). For example, research suggests that individuals with higher status are better at handling stress and are less prone to negative cognition. High-status individuals are also more inclined to display positive emotions such as satisfaction, happiness, or love in social settings than are low-status individuals (Kemper, 1991). This proclivity tends to increase sociability and cooperation (Isen, 1987), thus strengthening affective ties in social collectivities (Lawler, 1992). There is also evidence that high status individuals are often given more credit than are low status individuals in return for the same amount of effort (Merton, 1968).
Because status seeking is part of a generalized competition for prestige and recognition, it is closely related to reputation seeking (Washington & Zajac, 2005). To understand the relationship, we must distinguish between status as a formal property of social, economic, and professional systems and reputation as an informal process that is based on interpretation and attribution. Status seeking as a formal process usually takes place in relationship to a social, economic, or professional system where ranking of individuals is based on criteria that are intrinsic to these systems: For example, election to town council elevates some citizens to a higher status; appearing on the Forbes richest list divides the super rich from those who are just rich; and winning awards for professional achievement is a distinction that divides exceptional talent from solid performers. Put differently, status seeking in these instances is based not only on trying to improve one’s own position in absolute terms, but also on the relative position of others.
Reputation seeking, on the other hand, has no clear rank ordering. It is informal in the sense that it relies on evaluative activities that are not closely tied to the actor’s economic, social, or professional position. For example, many film and sports stars build a reputation for social activism that is distantly related to their work in their chosen field of endeavor. The relevant point for the present discussion is that this reputation may under certain circumstances enhance their overall status.
A good example of how status and reputation differ and how the two can nonetheless work together is philanthropy. The wealthy often use philanthropy to enhance their reputation as generous or discerning persons. It is for this reason that while philanthropists seek status through the size of their donations relative to the giving of other rich philanthropists (Murray, 2006), they are aware that the reputation of their endowments may depend on the quality of their giving.
The close relationship between status and reputation in offline communities is based on the ability to recycle one into the other. Status is a base for creating reputation, and reputation is used to enhance status. Thus, large firms use reputation to charge higher prices, the profits from which are then used to invest in activities (e.g., better service and advertising) that create greater reputation. Likewise, individuals acquire greater status by forming alliances with socially powerful actors, but then take care to show that they are loyal and trustworthy—thereby generating a reputation for being a reliable ally that is likely to stand them in good stead when it comes to acquiring more allies.
In virtual communities, however, the connection between formal social, economic, and professional status and status that derives from reputation is much weaker. Individuals cannot easily use their formal status position to generate reputation, and likewise they may find it difficult to convert their reputation into formal status. The status/reputation relationship therefore operates differently. Specifically, research suggests that in online communities the relationship between reputation and status operates mostly in one direction, with reputation used as input for higher online status. For example, Rheingold (1993) and Kollock (1999), who have studied motivations of online information gift giving, point towards reputation as an important resource for attaining greater prestige. Kollock (1999) puts it this way: “A … possible motivation [for online gift giving] is the effect of contributions on one’s reputation. High quality information, impressive technical details in one’s answers, a willingness to help others, and elegant writing can all work to increase one’s prestige in the community” (p. 228).
In offline communities, reputation is only one of a variety of resources, such as income and possessions, which individuals have at their disposal when seeking to improve their standing in the community. In online communities, by contrast, reputation is often the main resource that can be generated and used to achieve the same end. This is especially the case in online communities that are supported by what Dellacrocas (2003) terms “reputation systems:” mechanisms that allow community participants to rate the activities and contributions of others in the community. Under these circumstances, reputation, as measured by these ratings, becomes an important input into the self-assessment of gift givers. Such self-assessment is an intrinsic part of an individual’s sense of establishing and maintaining status, and thus is an important impetus to status seeking more generally (Huberman, Loch, & Onculer, 2004).
Gift Giving and the Attainment of Status
The relationship between gift giving and status has been extensively studied in anthropology and sociology (Malinowski, 1967; Maus, 1970; Osteen, 2002). In offline communities, especially those that are circumscribed and have clear boundaries, gift giving is part of a cycle of resource conversion described earlier: Gifts promote status, and status is used to further other objectives such as commerce. Gift giving in online communities, on the other hand, is often in the form of opinions and information which, as Avery, Resnick, and Zeckhauser (1999) point out, is in short supply by virtue of being a public good: Once freely posted online it benefits recipients but generates no obvious reward to the providers of the information, beyond the intrinsic satisfaction that comes with contributing to the common good. As a consequence, there is in principle an imbalance between demand and supply, between the number of individuals who are looking for useful advice and the number of people willing to take the time and trouble to provide that information.
This imbalance points to a potential weakness that constitutes a threat to the long-term sustainability of virtual communities. Virtual communities are no different from offline communities in requiring a minimum level of ongoing participation to remain viable. Maintaining this minimum level of participation in open virtual communities (e.g., those that do not charge a subscription fee) depends on generating a participation cycle: Individuals log on to these virtual communities in anticipation that they will benefit from the views, advice, and opinions of others who not only log on with similar expectations, but are also willing to invest in contributing information. In a recent research setting, Schlosser (2005) differentiates these individuals into two categories: lurkers, who expect to read others’ postings while contributing little, and posters—those who not only contribute by posting reviews, but do so in the context of ongoing interaction within the online community. The latter are always in the minority compared to the former, and they do not frame their contributions as a “gift.” Nevertheless, we would argue that this is precisely what they are doing: giving the gift of information to others in the anticipation that this gift will be useful.
Bearing in mind the anonymity of virtual communities, the question that inevitably arises is what motivates individuals to give the gift of information freely to other individuals under these conditions. Research on offline communities points to altruism and social exchange governed by norms of reciprocity as key to sustaining gift giving (Belk & Coon, 1993). Both altruism and norms of reciprocity may operate in virtual communities, but have limitations that can undermine sustainability. Altruism is non-calculative generosity that is often used to explain behavior when self-interest as a motivating factor is not in evidence. However, although altruism is a recognizable phenomenon (e.g., in blood donations, as observed by Titmuss, 1971), it is a reliable motivator in relatively few people, and hence is unlikely to sustain the minimum level of participation necessary for sustainability. Reciprocity, by contrast, is a much stronger and more reliable motivating force. However, in online systems that are impersonal and thus do not allow for establishing direct personal relationships, reciprocity is subject to prisoner dilemma limitations (Axelrod, 2006). Individuals are not likely to contribute unless they clearly see the direct benefit that will accrue from such contribution, but such benefits will only happen if enough individuals are willing to step forward and participate regularly without advanced confirmation of return on their efforts.
Sustainability cannot therefore depend on altruism that is sporadic and is confined to a small number of individuals, nor can it depend on complex rational calculations such as norms of reciprocity that tend to fail in virtual environments. To our mind, sustainability must recruit social passions that are widely shared and strongly motivate participation. When it comes to gift giving, research on offline communities suggests that status seeking is a reliable social passion that strongly motivates individuals while at the same time contributing to the common good (Podolny, 2005).
Use of Self-Presentation and Status in Gift Giving
Status is a social property that combines an individual’s sense of who he or she is and how he or she would like to be seen. Status, in other words, can be created through self-presentation to others without necessarily depending on a specific bilateral relationship (Goffman, 1959). This “broadcast” model of status through self-presentation has been extensively explored by Veblen (1994), Goffman (1959), by symbolic interactionists such as Mead (1934), and more recently, by organizational sociologists such as Podolny (2005). In their work, however, status depends primarily on display of wealth, professional prestige, and formal position. In virtual communities, status depends primarily on what strangers tell other strangers. It is in the “telling,” so to speak, that status is embedded, and it is through the intentional or unintentional manipulation of this telling to establish a particular identity that individuals make a bid for status.
Since the early 1990s, researchers drawing theoretical insights from the scholarly contributions of Erikson (1974) and Goffman (1959) have pointed out that participants in virtual communities create multiple identities through digital appropriation and manipulation of text, images, icons, and hyperlinks to other websites (Nguyen & Alexander, 1996; Turkle, 1995). In virtual spaces, self-presentation is often a prerequisite to status seeking. In a recent study of online gaming community sites, Liu, Geng, and Whinston (2004) note that gamers first adopt a virtual identity, and then form into clubs that socialize, collaborate, and compete for status, often in the form of halls-of-fame or higher rankings as an objective.
Historians have explored the close relationship between modern identities and the rise of consumer society (McKendrick, Brewer, & Plumb, 1982; Zukin & Maguire, 2004). Their conclusions suggest that in economically dynamic societies in which class distinctions are increasingly blurred, consumption is often employed to signal status. Consumers will often choose products and brands that are idealized and communicate a desired self (Thompson & Hirschman, 1995). In offline communities, individuals can thus use visible ties of ownership to prestige properties and overt consumption of luxuries to promote their status and hence legitimise identity. In virtual space, the direct dramaturgical aspects of consumption that are so crucial to establishing status in offline communities cannot be established through display. Individuals who wish to convey status through consumption must do so indirectly through textual communication that seeks to convey the experience of consumption and ownership (Schau & Gilly, 2003). The content of such communications plays on both objective properties of the goods and services and on the emotional aspects of the consumption experience. This dual nature of the communication has been observed in a recent study by Baralou and McInnes (2005). They examined the dynamics of interaction in virtual teams and concluded that text-based computer mediated interactions operate at two levels. On the one hand, the communication is focused on ostensibly objective content, but on the other hand, individuals “emote” their experience as a way of establishing their own unique virtual identity.
More generally, in online forums participants textually converse with each other “as if” they are actually present in a specific place (Burnett, Dickey, Kazmer, & Chudoba, 2003). As contributors narrate their consumption experiences, others form a picture of contributors’ virtual self. This picture, however, is composed of both the objective content of the narratives, and the subjective sympathy associating with the emoting that is embedded in the narration. If in modern society consumption is strongly linked to self-actualization (if not self promotion), then the recounting of consumption experience is a key vehicle whereby individuals attempt to convey persuasively to others where they stand socially. In online communication, this recounting uses textual communication that is often embellished with symbols that are popularly referred to as “emoticons.” These act as communicative gestures that substitute for body language and other emotional gestures in real-world settings. Through them individuals are able to simulate social presence in a virtual context (Gudergan, Josserand, & Pitsis, 2005).
Thus, to summarize, in online communities the recounting of consumption experience is often part and parcel of virtual identity formation. Given the social dynamics of modern society, this identity formation is often shaped by status seeking. Within the relative safety of online experience (compared to real settings), individuals can project identities that are closer to their ideal self. Inevitably this process elicits powerful emotions on the part of those who engage in the process. These emotions are central to the motivation that sustains online participation in conditions where freely-given information does not necessarily result in tangible benefits to those who labor to provide them.