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Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication
Social Network Profiles as Taste
Hugo Liu
Media Laboratory and Program in Comparative Media Studies
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
This study examines how a social network profile’s lists of interests—music, books,
movies, television shows, etc.—can function as an expressive arena for taste performance. By composing interest tokens around a theme, profile users craft their ‘‘taste
statements.’’ First, socioeconomic and aesthetic influences on taste are considered, and
the expressivity of interest tokens is analyzed using a semiotic framework. Then,
a grounded theory approach is taken to identify four types of taste statements—those
that convey prestige, differentiation, authenticity, and theatrical persona. The semantics
of taste and taste statements are further investigated through a statistical analysis of
127,477 profiles collected from the MySpace social network site between November
2006 and January 2007. The major findings of the analysis include statistical evidence
for prestige and differentiation taste statements and an interpretation of the taste
semantics underlying the MySpace community—its motifs, paradigms, and demographic structures.
The materials of social identity have changed. Up through the 19th century in
European society, identity was largely determined by a handful of circumstances
such as profession, social class, and church membership (Simmel, 1908/1971a). With
the rise of consumer culture in the late 20th century, possessions and consumptive
choices were also brought into the fold of identity. One is what one eats; or rather,
one is what one consumes—books, music, movies, and a plenitude of other cultural
materials (McCracken, 2006).
New emphasis on taste and cultural consumption frees identity from some of its
traditional socioeconomic limitations (Grodin & Lindlof, 1996). The milieu of cultural interests one creates for oneself can even be transformational, because cultural
consumption not only ‘‘echoes’’ but also actively ‘‘reinforces’’ who one can be
(Csikszentmihalyi & Rochberg-Halton, 1981). In the pseudonymous and text-heavy
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 13 (2008) 252–275 ª 2008 International Communication Association
online world, there is even greater room for identity experimentation, as one does
not fully exist online until one writes oneself into being through ‘‘textual performances’’ (Sundén, 2003).
One of the newest stages for online textual performance of self is the Social
Network Profile (SNP). The virtual materials of this performance are cultural
signs—a user’s self-described favorite books, music, movies, television interests,
and so forth—composed together into a taste statement that is ‘‘performed’’ through
the profile. By utilizing the medium of social network sites for taste performance,
users can display their status and distinction to an audience comprised of friends, coworkers, potential love interests, and the Web public. Although social network sites
are relatively new, SNP taste performance can be seen as an instance of what sociologist Erving Goffman (1959) termed everyday performance. Successful performers
are ‘‘aware of the impression they foster.’’ Thus, taste statements need to be crafted so
as to stand up to the scrutiny of an audience that is able to ‘‘glean unofficially by close
observation’’ (Goffman, 1959, p. 144).
This study adopts a semiotic framework to investigate how taste statements—the
high-level outcome of taste performance—can be understood in terms of the expressivity of interest tokens. First, SNPs are described as a medium, and previous work
on SNP analysis is reviewed. Second, a review of the taste literature identifies socioeconomic and aesthetic influences on taste. Third, according to cultural semiotics,
the semantics of taste expression are attributed dually to paradigms (e.g., socioeconomic paradigms such as ‘‘educational capital’’ and aesthetic paradigms such
as ‘‘heartwarming versus alienating’’) and to syntagmatic rules governing how interest
tokens are combined (e.g., via ‘‘expressive coherence’’). Fourth, to test research
hypotheses about taste influence, taste semantics, and taste statements, an empirical
analysis of 127,477 MySpace profiles is undertaken. Following a grounded theory
approach, a pilot study found four types of taste statements by qualitative analysis of
a small sampling of profiles. Then, applying statistical measures and Principal Components Analysis to all 127,477 profiles, the motifs and paradigms of the MySpace
taste community are interpreted, and evidence for taste statements is inferred from
the statistics.
Social Network Profiles
Since 2002, hundreds of social network sites have launched with both professional
(e.g., LinkedIn) and non-professional (e.g., MySpace) orientations. Unlike most
professional sites, non-professional sites typically feature users’ interests, so they
are the only ones relevant to the present study. Four of the largest non-professional
sites in the English-speaking world are MySpace, Facebook, Friendster, and Orkut.
While reports vary as to how many millions of users are on these sites (comScore,
2007; Lenhart & Madden, 2007; Nielsen-NetRatings, 2006), MySpace is thought to
be the largest (comScore, 2007). Taste data from MySpace are analyzed for the
present study.
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 13 (2008) 252–275 ª 2008 International Communication Association
MySpace is an online community that early adopters helped shape into a musicfriendly place where hipsters, indie bands, and fans could network and socialize with
one another (boyd & Ellison, this issue). It has many features traditionally associated
with online communities, such as forums, user groups, network structure, and highly
customizable user profiles. Figure 1 depicts the typical layout of a MySpace SNP.
A MySpace profile provides many ways for users to express their tastes. Textually,
users can complete forms to provide demographic details and lists of cultural interests; they can also write about themselves in free text. Users can choose photos and
customize the look and feel of their profiles using code they find online (Perkel, in
press). According to Donath and boyd (2004), a user’s friend connections speak to
their identity—the public display of friend connections constitutes a social milieu
that contextualizes one’s identity. The act of ‘‘friending’’ others, and choosing the
subset of these friends to display in the so-called ‘‘Top 8,’’ constitute identity performances, because they are willful acts of context creation (boyd, 2006). The present
study complements scholarship on the identity implications of friend connections by
exploring the taste implications of the SNP’s lists of cultural interests.
Cultural interests are organized into categories in SNPs. Five of the six categories
displayed by MySpace—general interests, music, movies, television, and books—are
shared by Friendster, Facebook, and Orkut. The use of these five categories in a SNP
originated with Friendster, although the faceted display of interests in a personal
profile has a longer history with online dating sites (Fiore & Donath, 2005). It is
conventional for users to fill in an interest category with a punctuation-delimited list
of interest tokens (cf. Figure 1, left), although social network sites do not explicitly
enforce this.
Figure 1 The typical layout of a MySpace profile, filled in with details from MySpace founder
Tom Anderson’s profile (www.myspace.com/tom), retrieved June 1, 2007
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 13 (2008) 252–275 ª 2008 International Communication Association
Previous research has implicated interest tokens as markers of taste and social
identity. Liu and Maes (2005) computed statistics on interest token occurrences
across 100,000 Friendster and Orkut SNPs and found that tokens exhibited a high
degree of clustering. Working with the same dataset, Liu, Maes, and Davenport
(2006) showed that clustering interests at a high level of abstraction produced ‘‘taste
neighborhoods,’’ each with a distinct identity theme (e.g., fashionista). Paolillo and
Wright (2005) reported similar findings when they analyzed interest token occurrences across 21,000 user profiles from LiveJournal, a weblog hosting service. Using
Hierarchical Cluster Analysis (HCA), they identified nine emergent clusters of interests and interpreted each grouping as corresponding to a subculture or theme (e.g.,
‘‘goth subculture,’’ ‘‘romance’’). Then, using Principal Components Analysis (PCA)
to articulate the major dimensions of variation in the data, they interpreted each
dimension as capturing a paradigm comprised of two opposing motifs (e.g., dimension three: ‘‘aesthetic sensibility’’ versus ‘‘general sociability’’). From this prior work,
a first hypothesis is formulated:
H1: Major dimensions of variation in interest token occurrence data for MySpace SNPs will
capture interpretable paradigms and opposing motifs.
Taste and Its Influences
Why does one like what one likes? According to the literature reviewed below, one’s
tastes are influenced both by socioeconomic and aesthetic factors. Socioeconomic
factors—such as money, social class, and education—can shape tastes, because access
to cultural goods may require possession of these various forms of capital. Aesthetic
factors—such as paradigms of personality (e.g., degree of sarcasm), sentiment (e.g.,
utopian versus dystopian), and identity (e.g., degree of fashionableness)—define
motifs toward which one’s tastes may gravitate.
Socioeconomic Influences
Thorstein Veblen’s (1899) Theory of the Leisure Class was the first work to describe
the social motivations for cultivating taste and performing one’s tastes for others.
Drawing on his observations of the leisure class of his era, Veblen theorized that the
tastes of that class, and especially its tendency toward conspicuous consumption of
costly goods, were driven by the desire to assert and vie for status and honor. The
‘‘high class’’ gentleman ‘‘is no longer simply the successful, aggressive male—the
man of strength, resource, and intrepidity. In order to avoid stultification he must
also cultivate his tastes’’ (p. 74). Veblen argued that taste has real social utility
because it signals prestige and presents an opportunity for differentiation. The fact
that luxury goods are costly to procure and leisurely pursuits require ample free
time makes the display of taste a more reliable signal of prestige than signals such as
verbal declarations, e.g., ‘‘I have prestige’’ (Donath, 1999). This leads to a pair of
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 13 (2008) 252–275 ª 2008 International Communication Association
H2a: MySpace users will craft their SNP lists of interests so as to assert their prestige.
H2b: MySpace users will craft their SNP lists of interests so as to differentiate themselves from
their peers.
Veblen also observed that personal tastes gravitate toward class norms; he argues
that consumption norms of the high class ‘‘will to some extent shape [men’s] habits of
thought and will exercise a selective surveillance over the development of men’s aptitudes and inclinations’’ (p. 212). From this premise, Pierre Bourdieu’s (1984) influential work, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, argued that taste is
central to class identity, and vice versa. Since the members of a socioeconomic class
experience the same economic, cultural, and educational boundaries, Bourdieu postulated that the taste norms of the class should greatly shape its members’ tastes. To
validate his theory, Bourdieu analyzed data from a lifestyle survey of some 1,200 French
residents conducted in the 1960s. Correlating survey respondents’ tastes to factors such
as profession, income, and education, Bourdieu used factor statistics, akin to Principal
Components Analysis, to compute two-dimensional ‘‘maps’’ of taste. Each map visualized taste similarity relationships between different demographic groups. Reading
these maps, Bourdieu found that the semantics of several major dimensions reflected
levels of economic and cultural capital. This was interpreted as strong evidence that
individuals’ tastes are strongly determined by their socioeconomic circumstance.
Bourdieu’s thesis leads to the first of a pair of hypotheses about influences on taste:
H3a: Variation in the taste norms of various demographic groups on MySpace can be
accounted for by the socioeconomic capital associated with each group.
Aesthetic Influences
Anglo-American scholarship on taste since Bourdieu has largely downplayed socioeconomic determinism, instead relying upon aesthetic groundings. Thornton (1996)
observed that tastes of U.K. ‘‘club cultures’’ are governed not by socioeconomic
capital but by subcultural capital—access to and knowledge of underground and
cult markers of cool.
Gans (1999) suggested that contemporary American society could be stratified
into echelons of taste, called ‘‘taste publics,’’ but that each echelon is defined by
cultural and aesthetic commonality rather than by shared economics. Gans proposed
five taste publics: high culture, upper-middle culture, lower-middle culture, low
culture, and quasi-folk culture. This organization can be contrasted with the socioeconomic divisions that Bourdieu worked with: bourgeoisie, petite bourgeoisie, and
proletariat. Each taste public shares values and common ways of wielding cultural
resources, rather than economics or education.
Other scholarship avoids societal characterizations of taste altogether, focusing
instead on aesthetic resemblance and affinity. Solomon and Assael (1987) showed
that there is a tendency to consume cultural goods in bundles around lifestyles and
brand images. They termed these patterns ‘‘consumption constellations.’’ Likewise
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 13 (2008) 252–275 ª 2008 International Communication Association
McCracken (1988) argued that underlying aesthetic forces guide consumption.
Consumers unconsciously systematize their tastes according to the Diderot
Effect—‘‘a force that encourages the individual to maintain a cultural consistency
in his/her complement of consumer goods’’ (p. 123). Aesthetics-based accounts of
taste compete with socioeconomic explanations. Thus, the second of a pair of
hypotheses about influence is proposed:
H3b: Variation in the taste norms of various demographic groups on MySpace can be
accounted for by the aesthetics associated with each group.
Semiotics of SNP Taste Speech
Interest tokens referring to books, music, movies, television, and general interests
constitute a cultural vocabulary for the language of taste. When observed at a high
level of abstraction, a SNP’s lists of interests imply a taste statement. According to
cultural semiotics (Barthes, 1964/1977), the impression fostered by a taste statement
is explainable in terms of 1) the paradigms (e.g., socioeconomic or aesthetic themes)
governing the semantic interpretation of interest tokens, and 2) the syntagmatic rules
that were invoked to combine interest tokens into lists.
Interest tokens can be grouped into families of shared connotation, called motifs
(Todorov, 1981). Two or more mutually exclusive motifs can be grouped together to
form a paradigm. Some paradigms are denotative and straightforward. For example,
consider that the following two motifs oppose each other and form a paradigm:
‘‘black and white movies’’ (comprised of, e.g., ‘‘Citizen Kane,’’ ‘‘Casablanca’’) and
‘‘color movies’’ (comprised of, e.g., ‘‘Goodfellas,’’ ‘‘The Godfather’’). Other paradigms are quite subjective because they involve value judgments. For example, in the
paradigm ‘‘movies with cult status’’ versus ‘‘movies without cult status,’’ it is far less
clear where tokens should be placed in that opposition.
Since a taste community such as MySpace articulates identity according to certain
values and concepts that unite or divide its membership, these identity factors should
be captured in the community’s paradigms. Conversely, if the paradigms of MySpace
could be uncovered by analysis of its interest tokens, then such an analysis should
directly reflect MySpace’s core values and concepts. For example, were a paradigm to
capture the opposition ‘‘high educational capital’’ versus ‘‘low educational capital,’’ it
could be inferred that education level shapes the tastes of MySpace participants.
Syntagmatic Rules
Whereas paradigms define the interpretive semantics of interest tokens, syntagms are
actual combinations of interest tokens that form a SNP. Barthes, for example, identified syntagms in the realms of food and fashion—e.g., for food, ‘‘Real sequence of
dishes chosen during a meal: This is the menu,’’ or for garments, ‘‘Juxtaposition in
the same type of dress of different elements: skirt-blouse-jacket’’ (1964/1977, p. 63).
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 13 (2008) 252–275 ª 2008 International Communication Association
Syntagms appropriate tokens to form high-level expressions, such as the menu and
the outfit in Barthes’ examples. In the domain of SNPs, the high-level expression of
a syntagm of interest tokens is a taste statement. The particular impression fostered
by a taste statement (e.g., ‘‘I have status’’) is owed to the syntagmatic rules that were
employed in the combinative process.
The literature describes two syntagmatic rules that are important to taste statements. First, the rule of group identification is important to understanding the
expression of prestige. After all, prestige is always performed so as to appeal to some
group of people. When enacted, the rule prescribes that interest tokens be selected
and combined so as to exhibit solidarity with the taste norms of some social group—
such as a subculture (e.g., punk, hip-hop), or perhaps the ‘‘popular culture’’ of
MySpace. By focusing on the interest tokens favored by a group, one demonstrates
knowledge of the group’s ‘‘inside secrets.whose possession marks an individual as
being a member of a group and helps the group feel separate and different from those
individuals not ‘in the know’’’ (Goffman, 1959, p. 142). On the other hand, it may be
desirable to avoid identification with a group, such as one’s circle of friends, in order
to express differentiation.
Another syntagmatic rule important for the successful performance of prestige is
‘‘expressive coherence.’’ Goffman (1959) described expressive coherence as the recognition of the ‘‘fragility’’ of impressions, as the ability ‘‘to ‘fill in’.any part that [the
performer] is likely given’’ (p. 73), and as the avoidance of ‘‘destructive information’’
(p. 140). Destructive information consists of ‘‘facts which, if attention is drawn to them
during the performance, would discredit, disrupt, or make useless the impression that
the performance fosters’’ (p. 141). The rule of expressive coherence should be instrumental to SNP users expressing prestige. Any outlier interest tokens in their profiles—
such as the inadvertent mention of something tabooed or distasteful—could constitute
destructive information and spoil the impressions the users are trying to foster.
Profiles may exercise various degrees of coherence, such as incoherent, moderately coherent, and very coherent. Sometimes, including a mistake or flaw can
enhance a perfectly coherent expression. These ‘‘disingenuous mistakes’’ (Davis,
1992) manipulate the sense of authenticity associated with Goffmanian (1959)
‘‘expressions given off.’’ With respect to the clothing code, the Italian designer Nino
Cerruti was quoted as dispensing the following advice: ‘‘For a man to be elegant, he
must dress simply with some mistakes.There is nothing less elegant than to be too
elegant’’ (Hawkins, 1978, p. L8). With respect to a SNP, one can imagine that
a perfectly coherent declaration of interests, crafted to express prestige, can only
be made more perfect by scattering a few deliberately errant (but not destructive)
tokens throughout in order to mask the pretension of the act.
In order to test the above-proposed research hypotheses about influences on taste,
paradigms, and taste statements, an empirical study was conducted of 127,477
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 13 (2008) 252–275 ª 2008 International Communication Association
MySpace profiles. First, a pilot study examined a small sample of profiles to discover
relevant types of taste statements. Then, for the main study, natural language processing (NLP) techniques were applied to extract and normalize interest tokens from
the full set of SNPs. Statistical measures and Principal Components Analysis were
applied to interpret influences on taste, paradigms, and taste statements in the
MySpace data.
Data Collection
A Python Web crawling script downloaded the HTML of 198,692 SNPs from
MySpace.com from November 2006 through January 2007. This was done without
first logging in, in order not to compromise the privacy of MySpace users whose
profiles were intended to be viewed only by logged-in users. To create an unbiased
sample, 50,000 profiles were randomly selected for download in the first stage. The
second stage extracted the IDs of users listed in the ‘‘Top 8’’ friends section from each
of the 50,000 downloaded profiles and queued these friends’ profiles for download in
random order. Some users listed more than eight friend connections in the ‘‘Top 8’’
section; in these cases, only the first eight friends were queued for download. Download was terminated at around 200,000 profiles, as that sample size balanced statistical significance with concerns about computation power required for further
Of these 198,692 profiles, 30,172 (15%) were identified as band profiles, because
they contained a ‘‘Member Since’’ field that was unique to bands. These were discarded. Of 168,520 profiles remaining, a further 41,043 (24%) had to be discarded,
because they were either marked as private or were profiles that had been deleted
from MySpace. After this, 127,477 user profiles with meaningful data remained to
constitute the corpus for this study.
Identification of Taste Statement Types
A pilot study preceded the main study in order to first catalog the types of taste
statements that are relevant to MySpace SNPs. In Goffman’s performance framework, ‘‘the role of expression is conveying impressions of self’’ (Goffman, 1959,
p. 248). A taste statement, then, is the highest-level expression produced by a profile’s
lists of interests. At this highest level, the expression does not pertain to specific
interests, but rather, it is a statement about qualities of self. Thus, a qualitative
analysis is warranted.
A small sample of 100 profiles (and the ‘‘Top 8’’ friends’ profiles associated with
each profile) was selected randomly from the full SNP corpus. A subset of each SNP’s
text was considered in this qualitative analysis—its lists of interests and the ‘‘about
me’’ passage. A grounded theory approach (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) was adopted to
allow relevant types of taste statements to emerge from perusal of the data. Two
passes were made through the data to accomplish the grounded theory tasks of
memoing and sorting. The first pass tried to freely articulate the ‘‘taste statement’’
that each profile seemed to express and also noted particular mechanics of taste
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 13 (2008) 252–275 ª 2008 International Communication Association
speech (e.g., paradigms and syntagmatic rules) that seemed instrumental to the
expression. The notes produced in the first pass were organized, resulting in the
identification of several types of taste statements. In a second pass over the data,
profiles were categorized according to the already identified taste statement types.
For each profile, both the single best-fitting statement type and all applicable statement types were identified and recorded.
Profile Preprocessing and Normalization
The 127,477 collected profiles required preprocessing and normalization before
statistical analysis could be undertaken. First, demographic responses and interest
tokens had to be extracted from each profile. For all demographic fields except
‘‘occupation,’’ responses came from a fixed list of options, so those fields did not
require further processing. The contents of each interest category were tokenized and
normalized. Responses to the ‘‘occupation’’ field were just normalized.
To tokenize the contents of each interest category, it was assumed that those
contents followed a punctuation-delimited convention. Commas, semi-colons, heart
symbols, bullet symbols, new lines, parentheses, and lists were common delimiters.
Ambiguous delimiters such as ‘‘by’’ and ‘‘and’’ were handled by pattern-matching
regular expressions. For example, ‘‘The Stranger by Albert Camus’’ is delimited
around ‘‘by.’’ To prevent invalid tokenization (e.g., ‘‘by’’ is not a delimiter in the
television token ‘‘Step by Step’’), only proposed tokens that matched positively
against a list of known interest tokens were accepted (e.g., ‘‘Step’’ is not a known
television token).
To normalize tokens, orthographic variants such as ‘‘csi’’/‘‘c.s.i.’’ and ‘‘simpsons’’/
‘‘the simpsons’’ were reconciled. In such cases, the more statistically frequent orthography was made canonical. To reconcile name variants (‘‘david sedaris’’/‘‘sedaris’’)
and abbreviations, a list of suspected equivalent terms was generated, and reconciliations were manually approved or rejected. Efforts to normalize the data had a visible
effect on the final statistics. For example, as a result of normalization, ‘‘the simpsons’’
moved up to second place from third place in the television rankings.
Principal Components Analysis
Principal Components Analysis (PCA) is a statistical technique commonly used to
identify the major dimensions of variation (i.e., the principal components) in a body
of data. As mentioned above, Paolillo and Wright (2005) recently used PCA to
identify the principal components (PCs) emergent from interest token data collected
from user profiles in LiveJournal blogs. Bourdieu (1984) also used statistics akin to
PCA to make sense of data from a lifestyle survey of French residents.
By assigning one PC to the x-axis and another PC to the y-axis, a map can be
generated to help visualize the similarity/dissimilarity relationships between the plotted
points. Both individual interest tokens and demographic groups (e.g., ‘‘occupation=
student’’) may be plotted. Generally speaking, the variation captured by each PC should
be interpretable. For example, Paolillo and Wright (2005) interpreted principal
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 13 (2008) 252–275 ª 2008 International Communication Association
component three in their study as bifurcating the space of interest tokens into those
pertaining to ‘‘aesthetic sensibility’’ and those pertaining to ‘‘general sociability.’’
Bourdieu (1984) interpreted the PCs emergent from the French lifestyle survey as
capturing degrees of economic, cultural, educational, and artistic capital.
PCA is computed by performing the Singular Value Decomposition (SVD),
a linear algebra transformation, on a covariance matrix. In this study, PCA is performed over two kinds of data points: demographic groups and interest tokens.
To generate a covariance matrix for demographic groups, a demographic category (e.g., ‘‘education level’’) was first chosen. The corpus of 127,477 profiles was
sorted into the various demographic groups existing under that category. For example, ‘‘high school,’’ ‘‘in college,’’ and ‘‘post grad’’ are groups under the education
category. Each profile was represented as a vector (salience-weighted list) of interest
tokens. The average tastes, or ‘‘taste norms,’’ of each demographic group were
computed by averaging all the profile vectors contained in that group, producing
a single ‘‘centroid’’ vector. Finally, to compute the covariance matrix, the similarity
between every pair of centroid vectors was computed, using the cosine similarity
calculation (Salton, Wong, & Yang, 1975).
Likewise, to generate a covariance matrix for interest tokens, a category of interest (e.g., ‘‘music’’) was first chosen, and the 20 most frequent interest tokens in that
category were identified. For each top token, all profiles containing that token were
added to that token’s group. A centroid vector was computed for each group to
produce the ‘‘taste norm’’ of an interest token. Covariance was computed between
every pair of centroid vectors.
Measure of Expressive Coherence
The expressive coherence of a profile’s lists of interest tokens is measured as the
average of the similarity scores between every pair of tokens in that profile. This
measure captures sensitivity to destructive information that is at the heart of the
expressive coherence idea (Goffman, 1959), because any single out-of-place token in
a profile is potentially dissimilar from all the other tokens.
Before the expressive coherence of particular profiles could be computed, similarity scores between every possible pair of interest tokens had to be computed. This
computation utilized all 127,477 profiles for training purposes. Pointwise mutual
information (PMI), a co-occurrence statistic, was the measure of similarity used. The
PMI (Church & Hanks, 1990) of two interest tokens is proportional to a ratio of
probabilities: the probability that a randomly selected profile will contain both
tokens, divided by the product of the probabilities that a profile will contain just
the first token or just the second token. Intuitively, PMI captures the degree to which
two tokens are contextually co-dependent.
Measures of Group Identification
Group identification is the degree of solidarity that exists between a user’s tastes and
taste norms associated with some social group. Three kinds of social groups are
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 13 (2008) 252–275 ª 2008 International Communication Association
relevant to the present analysis: MySpace’s ‘‘popular culture,’’ MySpace’s subcultures, and a user’s ‘‘Top 8’’ friends.
Measuring how much a user identifies with their ‘‘Top 8’’ friends involves three
vectors—(a) the vector of the user’s interests; (b) the centroid vector averaging the
user’s friends’ interests; and (c) as a baseline, the centroid vector averaging all
127,477 MySpace profiles. The cosine similarity of (a) and (b) produces a score
(a*b), and the similarity between (a) and (c) produces (a*c). The ratio of (a*b) over
(a*c) will be greater than 1.0 if the user tends to identify with their friends’ tastes and
will be less than 1.0 if the user tends to dissent from their friends’ tastes.
To measure whether a user identifies more with MySpace’s ‘‘popular culture’’ or
with one of MySpace’s subcultures, a rarity heuristic is used, in order to avoid having
to manually identify subcultures and profiles belonging to each. A list was made of all
unique interest tokens found in the corpus. This list was rank ordered from most
frequently to least frequently occurring. A simplifying assumption is made that
frequent tokens generally correspond to the taste norms of popular culture, while
less frequent and infrequent tokens generally correspond to the taste norms of
subcultures. The rarity of a given user’s interests is calculated by averaging the
popularity ranks of all the tokens in their profile. A profile with a very low rarity
score is interpreted as identifying with popular culture. A profile with a very high
rarity score is interpreted as identifying with subcultures.
Findings: Pilot Study
A grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) qualitative analysis of 100 MySpace
profiles yielded four relevant types of taste statements, summarized in Figure 2. Of
the 100 profiles in the sample, 21 were either blank or too short to afford analysis of
their taste statements. A first pass over the profiles focused on noting the impressions
fostered by each profile (Figure 2, rightmost column), and noting particular semiotic
details that seemed instrumental to the impression (Figure 2, middle column). These
notes were then reviewed and four types of taste statements were identified—those
conveying prestige, differentiation, authenticity, and theatrical personas. In a second
pass over the profiles, the number of times each taste statement type best fit a profile
was recorded (frequencyprimary) and the number of times each taste statement type
was at all applicable to a profile was recorded (frequencysecondary). These frequencies
are shown in the leftmost column and should be considered as fractions of 79
profiles, given that 21 profiles were discarded.
Prestige taste statements were most frequently observed as both primary and
secondary statements. This accords with the view that MySpace is the online home
of ‘‘club culture’’ (Thornton, 1996), where users are always ‘‘dressed to impress.’’ The
qualitative coherence of these profiles was judged according to this rubric: ‘‘very
coherent,’’ ‘‘moderately coherent,’’ and ‘‘incoherent.’’ Profiles that stated prestige
were often very coherent (e.g., A1, A2), but never less than moderately coherent
(e.g., C2). The vast majority of prestige taste statements either identified with the
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 13 (2008) 252–275 ª 2008 International Communication Association
Figure 2 Types of taste statements observed as being relevant to MySpace profiles
‘‘popular culture’’ (e.g., A1) or with a subculture (e.g., A2). Profiles conveying
popular prestige seemed to invoke many of the highest frequency interest tokens
on MySpace (judged against a site-wide list of top interests), while profiles conveying
subcultural prestige invoked more obscure interest tokens. Profile A2, for example,
evoked the experimental music subculture.
Differentiation taste statements were also frequently observed. The owner of
profile B1 seemed interested in expressing how utterly unique and diverse he or
she was. That intention was made clear by his or her use of alliterative pairs of
aesthetically diametrical interests. Another kind of differentiation observed was differentiating oneself from one’s friends. To judge this, the ‘‘Top 8’’ friends’ profiles
were briefly examined in the second pass to get a sense of their tastes. Profiles were
marked as expressing differentiation from friends when their lists of interests seemed
to embody tastes that were substantially different from the tastes of all their ‘‘Top 8’’
friends. No attempt was made to account for the logic of this difference.
Two further statement types—those conveying authenticity and those conveying
some theatrical persona—were more frequently considered to be secondary qualities
of SNP taste performances, rather than the primary goals of performance, in the
qualitative analysis.
Authenticity is important in the eyes of some subcultures, including rap culture
(Simpson, 1996) and club culture (Thornton, 1996), so it was not surprising to find
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 13 (2008) 252–275 ª 2008 International Communication Association
that many profiles conveyed this quality. In the semiotics of fashion, authenticity is
associated with a relaxed style and the display of slight imperfection (Davis, 1992).
Profiles perceived as having an authentic quality were ones that met this criterion.
They projected a relaxed feeling, their lists of interests were not overly verbose or
coherent, and they often broke from form and convention. For example, C1 breaks
form by not adhering to the punctuation-delimited convention for listing interests
and also mentions a song name, a rather atypical detail. Not all profiles marked as
stating authenticity were necessarily convincing, though. Some profiles tried hard to
seem relaxed. Profile C2, for example, began with a coherent list of indie music
interests, only to break incoherently toward outlier interests. This, and the fact that
rapper Tupac Shakur was identified as an ‘‘old school’’ rapper when by most
accounts he was not, suggested that these latter tokens were disingenuous mistakes
(Davis, 1992), added to improve the authenticity of the expression.
Finally, some profiles seemed intent on creating and inhabiting a caricature or
theatrical persona. For example, two profiles exuded a manic depressive persona, and
14 profiles exuded a sexy persona. To achieve theatricality, tokens such as ‘‘lol’’ and
tongue-in-cheek responses of ‘‘yes’’ and ‘‘no’’ to a whole interest category were
frequently used. One profile, D1, projected a ‘‘frat boy’’ machismo.
Findings: Main Study
This section reports findings from the empirical analysis of all 127,477 MySpace
profiles. First presented are descriptive data about MySpace user demographics
and site-wide top interests. Second, the influence of socioeconomic and aesthetic
factors on users’ tastes is examined. Third, motifs and paradigms that constitute the
taste semantics of the MySpace community are interpreted from the results of
a Principal Components Analysis of interest token data. Fourth, statistical measures
for expressive coherence and group identification are applied to the profile data to
infer evidence for taste statements.
Site-Wide Demographics
Users’ responses to five demographic fields were extracted from the 127,477 profiles
in the MySpace corpus and are compiled in Figure 3. The number of profiles
responding to these fields ranged from 57,782 for ‘‘religion’’ to 127,143 for ‘‘relationship status.’’ Assuming 95% confidence, the margin of error (i.e., 0.98/sqrt(n))
associated with these response sizes ranged from 0.4% to 0.3%, respectively.
However, additional distorting factors should be considered. ‘‘Relationship status’’
is subject to a forced reporting bias, as it was a mandatory field that only 0.3% of
users avoided responding to (by using software hacks). The response ‘‘swinger’’
seemed to be over-represented, possibly due to its comedic value or as a ploy to
create plausible deniability about actual status. In addition, ‘‘occupation’’ seemed
vulnerable to selective reporting bias, as suspiciously all of the frequently reported
occupations had allures attached to them. It is possible that MySpace users preferred
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 13 (2008) 252–275 ª 2008 International Communication Association
Figure 3 Site-wide demographics of MySpace, based on a 127,477-profile sample collected
from November 2006 through January 2007
to report their moonlighting jobs (e.g., bartender, DJ, dancer) and aspired-to jobs
(e.g., actor, artist, singer), rather than their day jobs; this explanation would in fact be
consistent with users engaged in taste performance.
Compared to overall U.S. demographics as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau
(2007), the breakdowns for ‘‘religion’’ and ‘‘education level’’ corresponded best to
the national average. To the extent that ‘‘relationship status’’ could be believed,
married people were under-represented compared to the national average. Artistic
and entertainment occupations (e.g., musician, artist, photographer, actor, writer)
were extremely over-represented, perhaps owing to the aforementioned reasons. Age
and gender demographics for MySpace were not gathered for the corpus; arguably,
such information would not necessarily have provided an accurate portrayal, due to
known distorting factors such as age deception (Donath, 1999).
Site-Wide Top Interests
The frequency distribution of cultural interests captured in the 127,477-profile
MySpace corpus provides a portrait of the popular tastes of MySpace during the
data collection period of November 2006 through January 2007. After interest tokens
were extracted from profiles and normalized into canonical tokens, frequency statistics were compiled for each category of interest. Figure 4 shows the most frequently stated tokens for each of the six categories of interest on MySpace.
Across all six categories of interests, some 240,000 unique interest tokens were
mentioned by at least two different users, and 43,000 interest tokens were mentioned
by at least 10 different users. From a semiotics viewpoint—in which interest tokens
constitute the vocabulary of the SNP taste language—the large size of MySpace’s
vocabulary of interests suggests that there is great expressive potential in this
medium. Music interests accounted for the greatest proportion of this vocabulary,
with over 70,000 unique music tokens mentioned by at least two users and 15,000
unique tokens mentioned by at least 10 users. This finding highlights the important
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 13 (2008) 252–275 ª 2008 International Communication Association
Figure 4 Site-wide lists of most frequently stated interests, based on a 127,477-profile sampling of MySpace from November 2006 through January 2007
role that musical tastes play in the MySpace community. One can also interpret this
more broadly as suggesting that musical interests are playing a more dominant role
in the tastes and identities of young people today.
Socioeconomic and Aesthetic Influences
In order to explore the influence of socioeconomic and aesthetic factors on the tastes
of MySpace participants as posed in Hypotheses 3a and 3b, PCA was performed over
the taste norms associated with each demographic group. The first two principal
components (PCs) produced by PCA—PC-1 and PC-2—are considered here,
because they explain the greatest amount of variation in the data. PC-1 and PC-2
were used to plot demographic groups in relation to one another on what might be
called a ‘‘taste map.’’ Each of the four maps shown in Figure 5 visualizes taste
similarity (two points close together) and taste dissimilarity (two points far away)
relationships between various demographic groups.
Following precedent (Bourdieu, 1984; Paolillo & Wright, 2005), the nature of
the variation captured by each PC was interpreted by reading the maps west to east
(W-E) to describe PC-1 and north to south (N-S) to describe PC-2. The caveat that
such ‘‘readings into’’ are more art than science should be considered.
In the map of top 10 occupations (Figure 5, upper left), a N-S reading contrasts
textual/symbolic occupations (i.e., writer, producer, teacher, actor) with sensoryladen ones (artist, photographer, musician). Reading W-E, the possession of creative,
artistic, and cultural capitals seem to descend. In the map of education level attained
(lower left), implied age seems to ascend reading W-E. N-S was at first difficult to
interpret because ‘‘high school’’ and ‘‘post grad’’ were so near each other. Further
calculations, where the taste norm of each education grouping was compared with
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 13 (2008) 252–275 ª 2008 International Communication Association
Figure 5 Maps generated by Principal Components Analysis, showing similarity/dissimilarity
relationships among the taste norms of various demographic groupings
the taste norm of the ‘‘popular culture’’ on MySpace (as represented by the most
frequent tokens), confirmed the interpretation of N-S as mainstream (N) versus
non-mainstream (S). These calculations also showed that users in the ‘‘some college’’
and ‘‘in college’’ groupings were the principal demographic groups that constituted
mainstream tastes on MySpace.
The map of relationship status and views on children (lower right) captured
pessimism and optimism about family ties (W-E). The variation captured by N-S
was too ambiguous to interpret. As for religion (upper right), W-E seemed to
contrast the secularism of atheists and agnostics with the religiosity of Protestants,
Catholics, and other Christians. This, and the fact that PC-1 accounts for a large 35%
of all the variation in the tastes of these groups, suggests that one’s spirituality and
faith either greatly affect, or greatly correlate with, one’s cultural tastes. When the
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 13 (2008) 252–275 ª 2008 International Communication Association
taste norm of each religion group was compared with the taste norm of the ‘‘popular
culture,’’ Jewish and agnostic users were found to be close to the mainstream, while
Wiccans and Scientologists were non-mainstream. This insight is captured by a N-S
reading of the religion map.
PC-2 of the occupation map (textual-versus-sensory) and PC-1 of the relationship/children map (pessimism-versus-optimism about family ties) provide evidence
to support Hypothesis 3b, because they explain demographic variation in aesthetic
terms. The expectation for socioeconomic-based variation in the data, as articulated
in Hypothesis 3a, was not clearly met, but cannot be fully rejected. PC-1 of the
occupation map seemed to capture some combination of creative, artistic, and
cultural capital, which did belong to Bourdieu’s (1984) notion of socioeconomic
capitals; however, none of the PCs in Figure 5 clearly captured the most basic form of
capital in the Bourdieuian framework—economic. In addition, a Bourdieuian would
have expected that PC-1 or PC-2 of the education map should indicate educational
capital (e.g., low capital for ‘‘high school,’’ high capital for ‘‘post grad’’), whereas this
was not observed.
Emergent Motifs and Paradigms
Interest token occurrence data were analyzed using PCA. Whereas the taste norms of
a demographic group were calculated by averaging the profiles of its members, the
taste norm for a single interest token was calculated by averaging all profiles containing that token. The output of PCA generated the maps of Figure 6, which depict
similarity relationships among interest tokens. Following Paolillo and Wright’s
(2005) success in interpreting the PCs of interest tokens data as emergent motifs
and paradigms of the LiveJournal community, Hypothesis 1 proposed that the motifs
and paradigms of MySpace could similarly be interpreted from the present data.
The PCs of the four maps shown in Figure 6 were interpreted and are summarized below:
[Music] vague-to-specific (W-E) and cult-to-accessible (N-S)
[Television] sexy-to-humorous (W-E) and episodic-to-saga structure of show
plots (N-S)
l [Books] utopian-to-dystopian (W-E) and sincere-to-satirical (N-S)
l [Cross-category]
ironic-to-straightforward (W-E) and heartwarming-toalienating (N-S)
The relationships captured by each PC dimension were meaningful and interpretable and captured oppositions (e.g., utopian-to-dystopian). Thus, Hypothesis
1 is strongly supported. Each pole (i.e., N, S, E, W) captured a motif largely
pertaining to aesthetics, especially to sentiment (e.g., utopic, alienating) and personality (e.g., sexy, sincere). Each PC captured a tradeoff between two opposing
motifs, which form a paradigm. In turn, these paradigms seemingly reflect the
aesthetic distinctions and debates that are most useful for articulating identities
and tastes on MySpace.
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 13 (2008) 252–275 ª 2008 International Communication Association
Figure 6 Maps generated by Principal Components Analysis, showing similarity/dissimilarity relationships among top interest tokens
Statistical Inference of Taste Statements
The pilot study provided initial indications of prestige and differentiation taste
statements. To test Hypotheses 2a and 2b, statistical measures devised for two indicators of taste statements—expressive coherence and group identification—were
applied to the MySpace data.
First, the relationship between a profile’s group identification and its expressive coherence was measured (Figure 7). The average of all pairwise similarity
scores between the tokens in a profile measured expressive coherence. The average rarity of the tokens in a profile was used as a measure of identification—
a profile whose tokens are not rare (high-frequency) is said to identify with the
popular tastes on MySpace, whereas a profile with rare tokens is said to identify
with subcultural tastes. To boost precision in the coherence measure, a subset of
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 13 (2008) 252–275 ª 2008 International Communication Association
Figure 7 36,132 profiles, plotted by average rarity of their interest tokens (x-axis) versus
coherence of tokens (y-axis)
36,132 profiles having six or more interest tokens each was selected from the
Figure 7 shows that there is a wide distribution for both coherence and average
token rarity. The greatest range of coherence is observed near mean rarity, but
incoherence begins to taper off as rarity decreases and increases. At the lower right
of the mass, there is a slope up: As a profile becomes increasingly obscure, it is more
and more unlikely to be incoherent. Since mindfulness about expressive coherence
and self-censorship of destructive information signal that a performance is underway
(Goffman, 1959), this slope suggests that users with obscure interests are engaged in
performance. At the lower left of the mass, a similar slope up suggests that users
with popular interests are also engaged in performance. Considering that taste
performances are more consistently observed at the two extremes of the x-axis in
profiles that identify with either popular culture or subcultures, these performances
can be interpreted as seeking popular and subcultural prestige. This finding strongly
supports Hypothesis 2a.
To examine the degree to which users identified with or dissented from their
friends’ tastes, the statistical similarity between a user’s interests and the aggregated
interests of the user’s ‘‘Top 8’’ friends was measured. This was then compared to
a baseline—the similarity between the user’s profile and the overall tastes of
MySpace. To improve precision in these measurements, a subset of 24,979 profiles
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 13 (2008) 252–275 ª 2008 International Communication Association
Figure 8 24,979 profiles, plotted by degree of identification with ‘‘Top 8’’ friends’ tastes
(x-axis) versus degree of identification with overall MySpace tastes (y-axis)
was identified in the corpus, such that each profile contained six or more interests,
and all of their ‘‘Top 8’’ friends’ profiles were also in the corpus. Figure 8 plots the
profiles along these two measures. The center of mass is located at (0.036, 0.074)—
this indicates with statistical significance that on average, MySpace users tended to
differentiate themselves from their friends, rather than identifying with their friends’
tastes. This finding supports Hypothesis 2b, although not conclusively.
The above findings from empirical analyses of MySpace profile data clearly indicate
that SNPs and their lists of cultural interests are being fashioned into taste statements
and utilized for taste performances. In addition, the findings confirmed that much of
the variation across the taste norms of various demographic groupings was owed to
aesthetic factors.
The pilot study suggested that prestige and differentiation were the two primary types of taste statements expressed by MySpace SNPs, with authenticity and
theatrical persona as secondary qualities. Further evidence that users were asserting
prestige and differentiation was inferred from statistical measures of profiles’
expressive coherence and group identification. Two groups of users—those whose
profiles aligned with the most popular tastes and those whose profiles aligned with
obscure and subcultural tastes—happened to demonstrate the most consistent
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 13 (2008) 252–275 ª 2008 International Communication Association
level of expressive coherence, a Goffmanian (1959) indicator of taste performance.
The collocation of the performance stance and identification with popular/
subcultural tastes most certainly suggests that prestige was the goal of these
Another graph comparing user identification with ‘‘Top 8’’ friends versus user
identification with overall MySpace tastes showed with statistical significance that
users’ interests tended to be more dissimilar from their friends’ tastes than would be
expected to happen by chance. Several explanations are possible for this observation:
1) users tended to friend those who complemented rather than overshadowed their
unique tastes; 2) users tended to only select friends who did not overshadow them
for the ‘‘Top 8;’’ or 3) users maintained an awareness of their friends’ profiles and
crafted their own profiles so as to be unique. The third explanation most directly
supports the finding of differentiation taste statements, while all three explanations
are consistent with Simmel’s (1908/1871b) observation that differentiation is a basic
social drive, of which taste performance is only a small part.
Principal Components Analysis was applied fruitfully to gauge socioeconomic
and aesthetic influences on the tastes of MySpace. Aesthetic paradigms such as
pessimistic versus optimistic views about family ties and textual versus sensory-laden
occupations offered evidence that taste differences across demographic groups were
aesthetic in nature, according with the Diderot Effect (McCracken, 1988). Evidence
for socioeconomic factors was inconclusive. Although economic capital did not
explain variation for any of the demographics examined, other forms of capital were
implicated, including cultural capital, which was emphasized by Gans (1999). The
maps of education and religion also captured a paradigm of mainstream tastes versus
non-mainstream tastes, which could also be interpreted as possession of social capital or subcultural capital (Thornton, 1996).
Finally, PCA was applied to interest token occurrence data, revealing the many
motifs and paradigms that frame MySpace users’ conceptions of taste and identity.
The paradigms that emerged had much to do with personality and sentiment. Different kinds of paradigms arose within different interest categories, suggesting that
each interest category has its own expressive affordances. For example, books were
useful for expressing utopian and dystopian worldviews. Television interests, the
data suggested, afforded the expression of sexiness or humorousness, but the data
also implied that on MySpace, it is unusual to be thought of as both sexy and
humorous, as these were paradigmatic. As music interests were the most diverse
category, having by far the greatest number of unique tokens of any category, it was
unexpected that the 20 most frequent music interests were not at all diverse. According to PC-1 in the map of music interests in Figure 6, a large 40% of the variation
among the top 20 tokens could be explained simply by identifying ‘‘rock’’ and ‘‘rap’’
as odd ones out. Since the other tokens do contain some rock bands, one explanation
is that ‘‘rock’’ and ‘‘rap’’ are ostracized because they are vague labels. If this interpretation is correct, then MySpace, a site where music factors greatly into taste
expression, values specificity of music interest above all else.
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 13 (2008) 252–275 ª 2008 International Communication Association
Whereas previous studies (boyd, 2006; Donath & boyd, 2004) implicated social
network site users’ friend connections and friending behavior in identity portraiture
and performance, this study explored the expressive potential of lists of cultural
interests contained in social network profiles and presented evidence to suggest that
these lists of interests can function as taste performances. Considering that on
MySpace, interest tokens were found to be markers of rich motifs like irony, alienation, utopia, and satire, the social network profile’s lists of interests might actually
be more useful as an indicator of one’s aesthetics than as a factual declaration of
Many of the methods that were employed in this study—semiotics, natural
language processing, Principal Components Analysis, and statistical similarity
measures—are still novel within the context of the subject matter of taste and
performance. Their use here has helped to foreground some of their benefits and
limitations. These methods scale well to enormous data sets, they can illuminate
latent dimensions of data (such as motifs and paradigms in MySpace) that might not
have been considered otherwise, and they could potentially be deployed to track
aesthetic and social trends in an online community in real time. The limitations of
these large-scale computational and statistical methods include the loss of some
transparency—not always being able to understand how a generalization was
reached or how it can be mapped back onto specific examples; and the loss of some
precision—not being able to model all the technical factors and data interactions that
explain a conclusion.
Whereas this study analyzed the patterns of the MySpace community at roughly
one point in time, the next wave of taste insights might only be achieved by a recurrent, comparative critique across multiple communities and cultures, including in
languages other than English. For example, do the popular tastes of Friendster lag
those of MySpace? The aesthetics of MySpace are ironic rather than straightforward,
dystopian rather than utopian, sexy and humorous, sincere and satirical. If and when
the demographics of social network sites equal the demographics of society in general, insights such as these will take on new social importance.
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About the Author
Hugo Liu (hugo@media.mit.edu) is a research affiliate of the Media Laboratory and
the Program in Comparative Media Studies at MIT, where he has taught courses on
artificial intelligence and philosophy of aesthetics. His taste research explores the new
empowerments and insights into food, fashion, lifestyle, and consumer culture
afforded by statistical and computational modeling.
Address: MIT Media Laboratory, 20 Ames Street, Cambridge, MA, 02139 USA
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 13 (2008) 252–275 ª 2008 International Communication Association
In 1901 a message was read to a group at the
gate of Windsor Castle:
‘Her majesty t h e Queen
breathed her last at 6:30 p.m.,
surrounded by her children
and grandchildren.’
Pandemonium broke loose. A yelling stampede of journalists on bicycles hurtled down
the hill to Cowes to be first with the telephones, bawling as they went, “Queen dead!”
“Queen dead!” T h e famous ‘hush’ which had
always surrounded ‘ T h e Widow of Windsor‘
was shattered at a blow. A new age had begun. ( 3 )
At the moment of Sputnik
the planet became a global theater
in which there are no spectators
but only actors
by Marshall McLuhan
Declining to write for the Revue Europe‘enne in 1831, Lamartine said
to its editor:
Do not perceive in these words a superb disdain for what is termed
journalism. Far from it; Z have too intimate a knowledge of my epoch
t o repeat this absurd nonsense, this impertinent inanity against the
Periodical Press. Z know too well the work Providence has committed
to it. Before this century shalt run out journalism will be the whole
press-the whole human thought. Since that prodigious multiplication
which art has given to speech-multiplication to be multiplied a thousandfold yet-mankind
will write their boloks d a y by day, hour by
hour, page by page. Thought will be spread abroad in the world with
the rapidity of light; instantly conceived, instantly written, instantly
understood at the extremities of the earth-it
will spread from pole
Marshall McLuhan is director of the Centre for Culture and Technology at the
University of Toronto and author of several books on communications media, the latest
being T a k e Today: T h e Executive as Dropout (the effects of electric information speeds
on decision-making and social institutions).
Copyright @ 197’3 by McLuhan Associates Ltd.
Global Theater / McLuhan
t o pole. Sudden, instant, burning with the fervor of soul which made
it burst forth, it will be the reign of t h e h u m a n soul i n all its plentitude.
I t will not have time to ripen-to accumulate in a book; t h e book will
arrive too late. T h e o n l y book possible from today is a newspaper. (5)
Perhaps the largest conceivable revolution in information occurred on
October 17, 1957, when Sputnik created a new environment for the planet.
For the first time the natural world was completely enclosed in a man-made
container. At the moment that the earth went inside this new artifact,
Nature ended and Ecology was born. “Ecological” thinking became inevitable as soon as the planet moved u p into the s t a t u ~of a work of art.
Ecological thinking and planning have always been native to preliterate
man, since he lived not visually but acoustically. Instead of having external
goals and objectives, he sought to maintain an equilibrium among the
components of his environment in order to ensure survival. Paradoxically,
electronic man shares much of the outlook of preliterate man, because he
lives in a world of simultaneous information, which is to say, a world
of resonance in which all data influence other data. Electronic and simultaneous man has recovered the primordial attitudes of the preliterate
world and has discovered that to have a specialized goal or program merely
invites conflict with all other specialized enterprises. “All the arts aspire
to the condition of music,” said Walter Pater, and under conditions of
Journal of Communication, Winter 1974
instant information the only possible rationale or means of order involves
us in the musical structuring of experience.
Gutenberg man, in the sixteenth century, had achieved a new kind of
detachment, thanks to the new intensity of visual experience deriving
from the innovation of the printed word. This new visual stress impelled
the men of that time to follow their individual goals, whether of learning
or of travel and discovery, to the utmost extremes. A new race of visually
oriented explorers of space and time emerged from the “caves” of the
Gutenberg technology. T h e Gutenberg innovation enabled men to retrieve
antiquity as never before. T h e new speed of the printing press created vast
new political spaces and power structures based on the creation of new
reading publics. T h e matrix of the press, with its assembly lines of movable
types, provided the archetypes of the industrial revolution and universal
T h e typical virtues of industrial and typographic man are radically
revised and reformed when information moves at the speed of light.
Whereas visual man had dreamed of distant goals and vast encyclopedic
programs of learning, electronic man prefers dialogue and immediate involvement. Since nothing on earth can be distant at the speed of light,
electronic man prefers the inner to the outer trip and the inner to the
outer landscape.
Simultaneous man is, paradoxically, traditional and simple in his tastes,
preferring the human scale to the ancient grandeurs which are no longer
difficult to achieve. Simultaneous man is acoustically rather than visually
oriented, living in a world whose center is everywhere and whose margin
is nowhere. Not for him the spirit of geometry or the spirit of quantity;
instead of distant goals, he seeks pattern recognition, and instead of
specialized jobs he prefers role-playing, with its flexibility and diversity.
Indeed, at the moment of Sputnik the planet became a global theater in
which there are no spectators but only actors. On Spaceship Earth there
are no passengers; everybody is a member of the crew. These facts do not
present themselves as ideals but as immediate realities.
T o give both sides tends to ignore the possibility that
there may be many more sides than two
It is noteworthy that the popular press as an art form has often attracted
the enthusiastic attention of poets and aesthetes while rousing the gloomiest
apprehensions in the academic mind. Let us look at the image of the newspaper as it still is today after a century of the telegraph. T h a t image is
organized not according to a story line but according to a date line. Like
a symbolist poem, the ordinary newspaper page is an assembly of unconnected items in abstract mosaic form. Looked at in this way, it is plain
that the newspaper had been a corporate poem for many years. It represents
an inclusive image of community and a wide diversity of human interests.
Minus the story line of the connected narrative, the newspaper has long
Global Theater / McLuhan
had an oral and corporate quality which relates i t to many of the traditional
art forms of mankind. O n every page of the newspaper, in the discontinuous mosaic of unrelated human items, there is a resonance that bespeaks universality even in triviality. Robert Louis Stevenson said, “I
could make an epic from a newspaper if I knew what to leave out.”
T h e telegraph press was born in the age of symbolist poetry, the age
of Edgar Allen Poe. Poe had confronted tlie poetic process in a way entirely
consistent with the new electric speed of exmts and reporting. He simply
pointed to the possibility of writing poetry backwards, starting with the
effect desired and then proceeding to discovcr the “causes” or means for
the desired effect.
Snyder and Morris (8) pointed to the same structural revolution
in news writing that Poe arid the Symbolists had discovered for poetry:
Ouer the past hundred years the structure of t h e news story has undergone drastic modification. I t is today a commonplace of American
journalism that a news story must illustrate hind-to-end writing. Unlike
other literary forms, the climax is at the beginning. T h e lead, or opening
paragraph or paragraphs, gi-oes the reader the essential facts. T h e body
of t h e story is merely detailed expository material, its paragraph sirzrctiire
a series of separate units without transitions conncriing ihrm 7uiih 7 U / l ( L l
went before or what is to follow, and arranged in decreasing impoi-lance.
Symbolist art is the art of the rip-off. It is the experience of this active
stripping that is the effect of symbolism. Merely as classified, separate items,
things do not achieve symbolic status. I t is so in the newspaper.
I n tlie past decade there has come a recognizable change in the styles
of reporting, now referred to as the “old journalism” and the “new journalism.’’ T h e ”old journalism” had sought objectivity; in presenting people
antl events it tried to achieve this by giving “both sides” at once. T o give
tlie pro and the con, the good and tlie bad, h a s been, for a ccntury at least,
tlie approved wa.y of attaining judicial balance and fairness. TOgive both
sides, however, tends to ignore the possibility that there may be man):
more sides than two, and as the means of access to information improved
and as the means of processing information speeded up, the mere chiaroscuro of the light and the dark, the pro antl tlic con, has tended to yield
to nonvisual and subjective patterns of depth involvement by immersion
in total situations. However, if the “old journalism” tended toward the
salience of figures in men and events, the “new journalism” can be discerned as a preference for ground rather than figure. T h e “new journalism”
offers not so much a view of men and events b u t a means of immersion
in situations which involve many people simultaneously. T ~ L INorman
Mailer’s account of the 1968 political conventions in Miami and Chicago
is less concerned with the policies and the parties than with the experience
of the hurly-burly of the conventions. (4) After all, tlie “you are there”
immersion approach in journalism is only natural i n the new surround
of T V imagery: for T V brings the outside into the intimacy of the home,
Journal of Communication, Winter 1974
as it takes the private world of the home outside into the forum. T h e
bounding line between the old and the new journalism seems to have
been the popular line: “A funny thing happened to me on the way to
the forum.”
If the telegraph and the telephone revolutionized the patterns of information and speech in poetry and journalism, the advent of T V may
carry us beyond speech altogether. One plausible projection by Gattegno
(2) goes:
Sight, even though used by all of us so naturally, has not yet produced
its civilization. Sight is swift, comprehensive, simultaneously analytic
and synthetic. I t requires so little energy to function, as it does, at the
speed of light, that it permits our minds t o receive and hold an infinite
number of items of information in a fraction of a second. W i t h sight,
infinities are given at once; wealth is its description. I n contrast t o the
speed of light, we need time t o talk and t o express what we want t o
say. T h e inertia of photons is nil compared t o the inertia of our muscles
and chains of bones.
M a n has functioned as a seer and embraced vastnesses for millenia.
B u t only recently, through television, has h e been able t o shift from
t h e clumsiness of speech (however miraculous and far reaching) as means
of expression and therefore of communication, t o the powers of the
dynamic, infinite uisua2 expression, thus enabling him t o share with
everybody immense dynamic wholes in no time.
Euen if for some time speech will remain the most common way of
letting others know what we know, we can foresee the coming of an
era where the processing of uisual material will be as easy as our comprehension of talk but swifter because of the former’s lack of inertia;
and through its spatializatzon by electronv, we shall be able t o share vast
conscious experiences at once. Today large novels are needed for this.
Xerox comes as a reverse pip as the end of the Gutenberg cycle;
whereas Gutenberg made everybody a reader,
Xerox makes everybody a publisher
Without trying to look ahead one hundred years-without looking even
one year ahead, if we merely T a k e T o d a y (6) for a look at the changing
nature of human organization as reflected in things and in newspapers-it
is possible to see some striking new patterns. T h e release of the Pentagon
papers and the Ellsberg investigation point to one of these patterns, one
directly related to the matter of Xerox. Xerox, as a new service in connection with printed and written materials, is so decentralized, accessible,
and inexpensive that it results in making the ordinary person a publisher,
if he so chooses.
Quite apart from its threat to the publishing business and to copyright
regulations, Xerox has two other features. On the one hand, it has created
Global Theater / McLuhan
the large committee as a new means of decision-making, because i t permits
uniform briefing and position papers for all. On the other hand, it has
created, also on a large scale, tlie underground press. [In passing, it might
be helpful to mention apropos the underground press that its relation
to the pub’lic, or above-ground press, is soinewliat similar to the old arid
new journalism. Speaking in gestalt psycliolofgy terms, the press can be
a s well as in
seen in relation to figurc antl g w u n d , and in ~~sycliology
journalism, the ground is usually subliminal, relative to the figure. LJnder
conditions of electric simulta.neity tlie g-rozind of any figui-e tends to become more antl more noticeable. Perhaps it all began with cubism arid
the discovery that by eliminating the merely visual or rational relations
between services, by presenting the inside and the underside at the same
time as the outside, the public became totally involved arid awa.re in a
multisensuous way. As new media continue to proliferate, the nature of
“news” will naturally cliange too, along with the perpetualiy renewed
revolution in information speeds arid patterns.]
Position papers are secret or confidential documents for the attention
of committees, and any office boy can p~tblish these, no matter how
top secret they may be. T h e Pentagon Papers were position papers
which may or may not have been studied or discussed by a Congressional
committee. They are “the news behind the news,” which used to be considered muckraking but lias now become an ordinary dimension of journalism, such as nourishes the underground press and which, in turn, affects
the forms antl publics of tlie regular press. M’liat has happened since the
old muckraking clays of the 1920’s is that espionage, whether political or
commercial, lias become the largest business in the world, antl we ta.ke
it for granted that the modern newspaper depends on “bugging” the whole
community. In fact, we expect the press to “bug” the world antl to challenge and penetrate all privacy and identity, whether private or corporate.
Among the unexpected features of the information revolution are the
extraordinary diminution of private identity antl egotistic conviction, as
a result of major involventent in the lives of other people, and the extraordinary enlargement of the public sector. W e have moved into an age
in which everybody’s activities afl‘ect everybody else, and therefore the
whole matter of privacy is suspect, even as i t is impractical. One result
has been a relaxing of private morals (sometimes referred to as “permissiveness“) and at the same time an extraordinary new intensity in public
morals. This cliange is well reflected in the Watergate affair. I n Washington, ;as elsewhere, laxity of private standards is expected, but the same
private standards no longer extend to the image of the President. lJntler
electric conditions it is not possible to extend the laxity of private life
into the public domain; rather, a new absolutism in the public domain
is felt t o be mandatory.
T h e U.S. happens to be the country in which the private and specialized
had been allowed the utmost development. Quite dramatically, therefore,
the “bugging” of private lives, long taken for granted in the commercial,
Journal of Communication, Winter I974
the political, and the military establishments, has suddenly become the
means of revealing the bankruptcy of public morals.
A spectacular paradigm of the information revolution has been developed for the world at large by the Watergate affair. While it seems
to specialize in matters of political espionage and ima.ge-building, it also
draws attention to the fact that the entire educational and commercial
establishments, as much as the political and military establishments,
depend on data banks of total information concerning both producers
and consumers, both the governors and the governed. T h e Watergate affair
makes it quite plain tliat the entire planet has become a whispering gallery,
with a large portion of’ mankind engaged in making its living by keeping
the rest of mankind under surveillance. T h e FBI includes among its responsibilities keeping under surveillance individual members of the CIA.
I’Ve thus have ;i complete scheme of baby-sitters for the baby-sitterschaperones for chaperones-and
it is the business of every commercial
establishment to keep all other commercial establishments under surveillance as a minimal condition of survival.
Xerox is a new kind of decentralized service which dissolves privacy and
creates many new forms of hunian association, whether in the classroom or
in the legislature or in the press. Whereas Gutenberg ha.d created a service
that extended to whole nations, he had at the same time invented a form of
hardware that fostered new forms of central organization, including a price
system and the markets that came with it. What Arnold Toynbee had
discerned as “etherealization”-the
tendency in our time to do more and
more with less and less-is part of the electronic information revolution
of “software,” which has the opposite effect of decentralizing. While hardware requires uniformity of product to pay for a centralized operation,
the electronic form of information service permits not only decentralizing of organizations but a wide diversity of’ products without additional
I f book and hardware sales need to be large to defray expenses, electronic
publishing by Xerox can dispense w ith large-scale publics and markets
almost entirely. Even more easily t h a n by hand-press, a writer can publish
a few copies of his work for his friends by simply multiplying the typescript.
I n fact, Xerox completes the work of the typewriter. A poet composing at
the typewriter is “publishing” his work, as i t were, while composing. Xerox
gives to this fact a new meaning.
Electric speed may already have violated human scale, tending
as it does to transport man instantly everywhere
In the early days of the book, Montaigne thought of printing as a kind
of flip from the confessional to the expressional:
L etter writing . . . is a k i n d of work in w h i c h my friends t h i n k Z have
some ability. A n d Z would have preferred t o adopt this f o r m to publish
Global Theater 1McLuhan
my sallies, if I had had someone to talk to. Z needed what Z once had, a
certain relationship to lead m e on, sustain me, and raise me up. . . . I
would have been more attentive and confident, with a1 strong friend to
address, than Z a m now, when Z consider the various tastes of a whole
publzc. A n d if Z a m not mistaken, Z would haue been m w e successful. . . , Amusing notion: many things that I w,ould not want to tell
anyone, Z tell the public; and for my most secret knowledge and thoughts
Z send my most faithful friends t o a bookseller’s shop. (1)
Montaigne here draws attention to the book as a kind of message in a
bottle: secretly dispatched, to an unknown public of potential acquaintances. His thoughts on this subject help to reveal an aspect of the newspaper
as well, because there is a special meaning in publication as a form of “put
on”; the writer, whether of a diary or a newspaper column, is engaged in a
very special way in putting on his public as a mask.
ERSLIA:W h y wasn’t it true? Z wanted to kill myself!
Yes! But in doing s o you created an entire novelERSILJA
( fearfully): Wfzat do you mean, created? Do you think Z made
it all up?
No, no, Z meant, in me. You created it in me, without knowing it, by telling your story.
ERSLIA:W h c n they found m e in that parkLUDOVICO:
Yes, and then later, in the hospital. Forgive me, but how
can you imply you were nobody? For one thing, y,ou existed in the
pity everyone felt for you when they read your stolry in the paper.
Y o u can’t imagine the impression it made when it was published,
the interest you aroused all ouer the city.
( anxiously): Do you still haue it?
Yes, Z think so. Z must have saued i f .
Find it, find it! Let m e see it!
LunovIco: No, why sh’ould you get all upset again?
Let m e see it! Please! Z want to read it, Z want to read what
they wrote about me. ( 7 )
T h e most secret diary, even that of Samuel Pepys, written in a code which
remained unbroken for centuries-even such a diary is for the writer a mask
or a vortex of energy which increases his power over the language; for our
mother tongue is itself a corporate mask of energy which is stepped u p by
the act of writing and, once again, by the act of publication. I n the early
days of printing, Montaigne saw this action as both putting on the public
and the taking off his privacy:
Z owe a complete portrait of myself to the public. T h e wisdom of my
lesson is wholly in truth, in freedom, in reality . . . of which propriety
and ceremony are daughters, but bastard daughters. , . .
. . . Whoever would wean man of the folly of such a scrupulous verbal superstition would d o the world n o great harm. O u r life is part folly,
Journal of Communicntion, Winter 1974
part wisdom. Whoever writes about it only reverently and according to
the rules leaves out more than half of it.
Montaigne had discovered the paradox that the larger the public, the
greater the premium on the self-confessional.
There is something rather mysterious about the process of the “put on”
which is inseparable from communication. Baudelaire’s famous phrase
“hypocrite lecteur m o n semblable, m o n frere” captures the entire process.
T h e reader is hypocrite in the very act of putting on the author’s poem as
his mask, for in reading the poem he is perceiving the world in a very
special way, using what another poet, S. T. Coleridge, called “a willing
suspension of disbelief for the moment.” When we put on any man-made
mask such as painting, poem, or music, o r when we read a book or a newspaper, we are looking at the world in a very special way, altering our own
perceptions by an artistic act of faith in the process in which we are engaged.
T h e second part of Baudelaire’s phrase, “mon semblable, m o n frere,”
draws attention to the reciprocal part of the action. Whereas the reader o r
the user of any form puts it o n as his mask, as an extension of his own perception and energy, the author or maker has also to put on his public, the
potential reader or user of whatever he has made. T h e maker tends to
project his own image as the mask of the user or reader which he endeavors
to “put on.” This complex process of communication, by which the medium
is “put on” by its users in order that they may experience some alteration
and extension of their own perceptions or powers, includes the “putting on”
of the user by the medium. Commercially, this latter operation is referred
to as “giving the public what it wants” or “the customer is always right.”
T h e complexity of this process is such that even literary critics have despaired of ever unravelling it. Critics of the press, on the other hand, are
accustomed to labeling the whole thing as degrading, even as Shakespeare
did with his own profession of acting.
One thing that needs to be noted in both connections is the great increase
of the sense of power on the part of both the maker and the user. Since the
process in question is at the very heart of the communication activity, it is
certain to remain central to the issue so long as readers are human and not
merely robots. Since “human scale” is indispensable for human satisfactions,
the future of the press must inevitably retain this dimension. At present,
electric speed may already have violated human scale, tending as i t does to
transport man instantly everywhere. When you are “on the air” you are
simultaneously here and in many other places in a manner that is discarnate and angelic, to say the least.
At instant speeds. . the public begins to participate directly in
actions which it had preuiously heard about at a
distance in place or time
It is time to ask ourselves: “What is news?” When a visitor stepped into
an antique store, he asked: “What’s new?” His jocular query draws atten-
Global Theater / McLuhan
tion to the fact that we live in the age of the fake antique, which is itself a
form of the replay. I s not “news” itself a replay in the newspaper medium
of events that have occurred in some other medium, and does not this
replay quality in reporting urge us to narrow the margin between the event
and the replay? Does not this make us define news as “the latest”?
However, in the new age of the instant replay, news takes on a totally
new dimension that is almost metaphysical. A ball game or a horse race can
now be replayed for its meaning, as it were, minus the experience. During
the actual experience the issue may have been in doubt, but, as the poet
explains, “we can have the experience and miss the meaning.” I n fact, such
is the nature of experience that it is almost inevitable that we do miss the
meaning. T h e “meaning,” or the relation to ourselves of a particular event.
may not come home to us until much later. However, with the instant
replay of our own or others’ experiences, it is now possible to have the
meaning without the experience. Referees and judges may wait for the
replay in order to render a decision. They have had the experience and are
merely waiting for the meaning or the relation of the experience to themselves and to others.
T h e quality of the instantaneous in the replay of experience is somewhat
like the difference between cognition and recognition. Recognition may
come somewhat after the event and is a form of awareness in which we say:
“Oh, I didn’t realize it was you” or “Oh, now I see what it’s all about.”
Recognition is an altogether higher order of awareness from cognition, and
yet it is now taken for granted as a normal feature of daily life in the
electric age. Newspapers have long used this instant dimension in experience, at least since the time of the telegraph and the telephone, which have
been with us for many decades. T h e mysterious thing about this kind of
speed-up of information, whereby the gap is closed between the experience
and the meaning, is that the public begins to participate directly in actions
which it had previously heard about at a distance in place or time. At
instant speeds the audience becomes actor, and the spectators become participants. On Spaceship Earth or in the global theater the audience and the
crew become actors, producers rather than consumers. They seek to program
events rather than to watth them. As in so many other instances, these
“effects” appear before their “causes.” At instant speeds the cause and effect
are at least simultaneous, and it is this dimension which naturally suggests,
to all those who are accustomed to it, the need to anticipate events hopefully rather than to participate in them fatalistically. T h e possibility of
public participation becomes a sort of technological imperative which has
been called “Lapp’s Law”: “If it can be done, it’s got to be done”-a kind
of siren wail of the evolutionary appetite.
Journal of Communication, Winter 1974
1. Frame, Donald M. Biography of Montaigne. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World,
1965, p. 83.
2. Gattegno, Caleb. Towards a Visual Culture. New York: Outerbridge and Dienstsfrey,
1969, p. 4.
3. Longford, Elizabeth. Victoria R.Z. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1964, p. 562.
4. Mailer, Norman, Miami and the Siege of Chicago. New York: New American Library,
5. McLuhan, Marshall. “Joyce, Mallarme, and the Press.” In Interior Landscape: T h e
Literary Criticism of Marshall McLuhan, edited by Eugene McNamara. New York:
McGraw-Hill, 1969, p. 5 .
6. McLuhan, Marshall, and Barrington Nevitt. Take Today: T h e Executive as Dropout.
New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovicb Inc., 1972.
7. Pirandello, Luigi. “To Clothe the Naked.” I n To CLothe the Naked and T w o Other
Plays, translated by William Murray. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1962.
8. Snyder, Louis L., and Richard B. Morris (Eds.). A Treasury of Great Reporting. New
York: Simon & Schuster, 1962.

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