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«BLUETHROAT MANUSCRIPT REVIEW HISTORY MANUSCRIPT (ROUND 3) Abstract The megaphone effect refers to the fact that the Web makes a mass audience ...»

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The megaphone effect refers to the fact that the Web makes a mass audience potentially

available to ordinary consumers. The paper focuses on fashion bloggers who acquire an audience

by iterated displays of aesthetic discrimination applied to the selection and combination of

clothing. We offer a theoretical account of their success in terms of the accumulation of cultural

capital via public displays of taste, and describe how the exercise of taste produces economic rewards and social capital for these bloggers. The paper situates fashion blogging as one instance of a larger phenomenon that includes online reviews and user-generated content, and extends to the consumption of food and home décor as well as clothing. In these instances of the megaphone effect, a select few ordinary consumers are able to acquire an audience without the institutional mediation historically required.

This document is part of a JCR Manuscript Review History. It should be used for educational purposes only.

A new kind of consumer behavior has emerged online in the past decade. The Web has made available to ordinary consumers the capacity to reach a mass audience, to ‘grab hold of the megaphone’, to adapt Bourdieu’s (1999) metaphor. More consumers now have more opportunities to reach thousands of other consumers than ever before. This novel phenomenon has not yet received much theoretical attention. We draw on Turner’s (2010) idea of a ‘demotic turn’ in contemporary culture to situate blogs and other means whereby ordinary consumers take hold of the megaphone, and then develop Bourdieu’s idea of cultural capital to explain the processes whereby a select few ordinary consumers acquire a mass audience.


Fashion blogs are an example of the Web phenomenon to be explained. Among the first fashion bloggers to grab the megaphone was a 13 year old girl (Rosman 2009); by 2010 this blogger had been profiled in the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, and other publications, and her blog posts were read by tens of thousands. This blogger got hold of the megaphone by means of her actions—not by birth or through institutional position. We document ten other fashion bloggers, ordinary consumers all, who built a sizable audience for their blogs, and argue that a theory of cultural capital, revised and updated to reflect possibilities inherent in online consumer behavior, can provide an explanation for their success.

The phenomenon is not limited to the fashion context or blogging. Chocolate and Zucchini is a food blog whose author was not trained as a chef and did not work for a food magazine prior to starting the blog; she was employed in the computer field. Her posts may receive over 100,000 views. Tight Ass Little Apartment is a blog about interior design and home decoration. This blogger was not trained in design or employed as a designer prior to starting the blog. Setting blogging aside, Yelp.com, a site that hosts reviews of local businesses, each year deems some of its most active reviewers to be Yelp Elite. A multi-year member of the Elite may post hundreds of restaurant reviews, receive thousands of compliments, and be read by tens of thousands, without ever having owned a restaurant, worked for a food publication, or been a chef; these online reviewers have got hold of the megaphone. Likewise, ‘user generated content’ on YouTube and elsewhere, such as haul videos (Smith, Fischer and Yongjian 2011), also provides ordinary consumers opportunities to grab the megaphone (Burgess and Green 2009;

Snickers and Vonderau 2009).

On the other hand, blogs need not concern consumption, and online behavior consists of much else besides consumers grabbing hold of the megaphone: social media, content that goes viral, avatars in virtual worlds, and so forth all represent phenomena beyond the remit of this paper (Boellstorff 2008; Jenkins 2006; Miller 2011). The megaphone effect, as treated here, is specific: it occurs when ordinary consumers, defined as individuals lacking professional experience and not holding an institutional or family position, post to the Web about consumption and acquire a mass audience for these posts.

All of the examples given represent consumer behavior. The blog posts, reviews, and user-generated content of interest are primarily concerned with consumption objects: fashion, food, home décor. Consumer bloggers achieve an audience that historically was only available to institutionally located professionals (McCracken 1986), but they achieve this audience by means of publicly consuming: choosing, evaluating, and engaging with clothing (in our focal example), and posting accounts of this consumption that garner a large audience of strangers.

This document is part of a JCR Manuscript Review History. It should be used for educational purposes only.

This new consumer phenomenon, made possible by the Web, is not well-explained by existing theory. During the period studied, anyone who wished to share their thoughts with others could do so on Facebook or other social media sites. Hence, when an individual chooses instead to generate content for a mass audience of strangers, the phenomenon is not readily understood as sharing (Belk 2010; Giesler 2006). Moreover, the fashion bloggers studied generally don’t display clothes they sewed by hand, but mass-marketed, branded goods;

likewise, food bloggers do not only show meals cooked from scratch, and online reviewers do not only write about craft breweries and artisan bakeries. Hence, the phenomenon can’t readily be understood as prosumption (Campbell 2005). One could label the phenomenon electronic word of mouth and call these bloggers opinion leaders or market mavens (Kozinets et al. 2010;

Feick and Price 1987), but this obscures what is new and different about their consumer behavior: ongoing communication by ordinary consumers to a mass audience of strangers.

Turner (2010) provides a conceptual framework that situates the megaphone effect within a larger cultural movement that he terms the ‘demotic turn’, which embraces such phenomena as talk radio and reality television (Rose and Wood 2005), in addition to various forms of online behavior. The demotic turn is defined as an increase in opportunities for ordinary people to appear in the media. Normally only media professionals, other occupants of powerful institutional positions (e.g., government officials or business leaders), and designated celebrities appear on television or otherwise gain a mass audience. Moreover, celebrities became that way by prior successful performances in a credentialed institutional setting (entertainment, sports, etc.). Until very recently, ordinary individuals lacked access to the mass-media and could only gain that access by successful performances in specified institutional settings—however extraordinary their individual motivation or skill.

These restrictions began to loosen with the spread of reality television. Here the media began to create celebrities, rather than mediate between existing celebrities and the mass audience. Turner (2010) notes, however, that the celebrity gained by successful reality television participants is not gained by their independent action nor even owned by them (his discussion of exploitative contract terms is bracing). Reality television celebrity thus remains an institutionally-mediated phenomenon in which the owners of mass media determine which ordinary citizens are to be granted access to an audience.

What distinguishes the megaphone phenomenon within the larger context of Turner’s demotic turn is that in certain consumption spheres, consumers are able to grab the megaphone for themselves, without institutional certification or enablement. Unlike reality television participants, a successful blogger gains her audience directly, by blogging in such a way that large numbers of other consumers begin to follow her posts. Once a consumer gains a large audience, this can be converted into institutional access, and further leveraged thereby, but prior institutional mediation is no longer required for audience access.

However, not every blogger succeeds in gaining an audience (Lovink 2008). What has to be theorized is the process that allows a small number of fashion bloggers to realize the newfound possibility of building a mass audience for an ordinary individual’s acts of consumption. We offer a sociological explanation of this process that centers on taste judgments and the accumulation of cultural capital (Bourdieu 1984, 1986), buttressed by an application of Goffman’s (1959) analysis of social action in terms of performance for an audience.

This document is part of a JCR Manuscript Review History. It should be used for educational purposes only.

–  –  –

Although long familiar to consumer researchers (Holt 1998), the concept of cultural capital has not previously been applied to the dynamic acquisition of audiences now seen on the Web. Our adaptation of Bourdieu’s ideas reflects an evolution in his thinking, and is based on his less familiar later work (1998, 1999, 2008). This evolution can best be grasped by returning to his original formulation of cultural capital, and articulating the criticisms that led Bourdieu to evolve it.

Origins of Cultural Capital

Bourdieu developed the idea of cultural capital “in the early sixties to account for the fact that, after controlling for economic position and social origin, students from more cultured families not only have higher rates of academic success but exhibit different modes and patterns of cultural consumption and expression in a wide gamut of domains” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992, 160). The original context of this work was Parisian society fifty years ago. To illustrate, let Alain and Jean attend the same preparatory school. Let their family income and fathers’ level of educational attainment be the same, and assume each grows up in a large apartment in a good neighborhood. In terms of conventional indicators, Alain and Jean would be on a par with respect to socio-economic position. Bourdieu’s contribution was to note the potential significance of one key difference: suppose further that Alain grew up surrounded by paintings and sculpture, and had a piano in the house, on which he had to learn to play classical pieces, while in Jean’s case, money was spent on furnishings and high end appliances, and the music heard was popular songs on a phonograph.

Bourdieu’s thesis was that Alain would grow up endowed with a greater amount of cultural capital, and that this difference in cultural capital would give Alain an advantage over Jean in multiple social contexts. Because of the centrality of aesthetic judgment in the French elite schools of that era (Bourdieu 1996), his endowment would lead to better performance in prep school for Alain, and a head start for Alain in acquiring a high socioeconomic position for himself. Specifically, Alain’s trajectory would be enhanced by his capacity to exercise the sort of taste in cultural activities expected and respected among fellow Parisians who already held a high socioeconomic position.

Here Bourdieu’s thinking can be illuminated by Goffman’s (1951) earlier account, which emphasizes the potential for faking, and the need to police wishful or fraudulent claims to a high status. Taste judgments in the aesthetic realm, in the Paris of that era, served as what Goffman (1951, 301) terms a ‘restrictive practice’. Only individuals surrounded by objects of high culture from birth, and engaged early on in cultural production, such as piano playing, were likely to succeed in making the kind of aesthetic judgments required to be accepted into high social position. Cultural capital was obtained from the family and was manifest both in level of taste (better vs. worse) and in particular tastes (for certain kinds of cultural productions).

An objection raised early in the diffusion of Bourdieu’s ideas was that cultural capital might only be meaningful within a rare kind of milieu, such as Parisian society of that era (Lamont 1992). Evidence was not long in coming that American schools did not reward familiarity with high culture or art objects in the same way, nor did cultural knowledge appear to be so crucial to social preferment in American or British contexts (Halle 1993; Lamont 1992; see Goldthorpe 2007 and Silva and Warde 2010 for British accounts).

This document is part of a JCR Manuscript Review History. It should be used for educational purposes only.

For consumer researchers, this critique of the insularity of cultural capital was checked by Holt (1998), whose contribution was to detach cultural capital from high culture and art objects in general. Holt focused not on differences in what objects were owned, but on how consumers with different social backgrounds would consume the same product categories differently, in accordance with their differing amounts of cultural capital. Holt’s examination of consumption based on social position was subsequently followed by Berger and Ward (2010), Bernthal, Crockett and Rose (2005), Henry (2005), and Üstüner and Holt (2010).

A key problem with Bourdieu’s initial conceptualization of cultural capital is captured in his term ‘habitus’, which reflects dispositions instilled from birth in the course of growing up in a particular kind of family occupying a specific social position. What is explained by habitus is not so much different levels of cultural capital, as the word ‘capital’ is conventionally used, but differences in cultural endowment. Alain obtains his cultural resources through his family, while Jean is sunk from the start—he was born into the wrong family. Conceptualized as an endowment, cultural capital becomes difficult to distinguish from ‘to the manner born’: a summary label for all the differences in taste and preference associated with higher versus lower social positions. In the present context this would imply that a woman who did not grow up surrounded by high fashion—who did not grow up wealthy, with access to haute couture, runway shows, designer brand clothing, and occasions to wear it—would lack the proper habitus to succeed as a fashion blogger. Under its original conception as a form of habitus, no ordinary consumer could possess or even acquire cultural capital, inasmuch as ‘ordinary’, consistent with Turner (2010), means not endowed with pre-existing social position.

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