«BLUETHROAT MANUSCRIPT REVIEW HISTORY MANUSCRIPT (ROUND 3) Abstract The megaphone effect refers to the fact that the Web makes a mass audience ...»
Although misrecognition of social position is a central idea in Bourdieu’s own work (Bourdieu 1991), in his examples misrecognition typically takes the form of substitution-up, as when a student in the Paris of Bourdieu’s day (and his examiner) misrecognizes his exam performance as due to intellectual merit, rather than to a mere affinity of shared tastes and social background (see the extensive analysis of the grading sheets for the essays used to select students for elite schools in Bourdieu ). Fashion bloggers show the reverse form of misrecognition, a kind of substitution-down, in which they deny their factually privileged position relative to followers. The motivated misrecognition of boundaries by fashion bloggers provides another instance of how online consumer behavior provides a fertile setting for working with and extending Bourdieu’s ideas.
This document is part of a JCR Manuscript Review History. It should be used for educational purposes only.
Misrecognition and Authenticity Authenticity has been extensively investigated in cultural sociology as well as consumer research (see chapter 2 in Johnston and Baumann  for an integrative review). As a rule, authenticity is sought in the uncommon and in opposition to the mainstream (Thornton 1996).
Thus Holt (1998) defines a quest for authenticity as avoidance of market-constructed meanings, along with resistance to mass culture and attempts to mask or disguise its influence (Beverland and Farrelly 2009; Campbell 2005; Rose and Wood 2005). Arsel and Thompson (2011) similarly find that greater amounts of cultural capital facilitate rejection of meanings imposed by mainstream culture so that the authenticity of one’s consumption choices and taste preferences can be maintained.
A puzzle to be explained, then, is why the profusion of commercial mentions on successful fashion blogs does not lead consumers to reject or disdain these blogs as inauthentic, as happened to some of the bloggers studied in Kozinets et al. (2010). Each fashion blog is the site of many commercial messages and each photo is captioned with a list of all the brands worn, including the nail polish. Many different brands are endorsed in each post, including retailers and online shopping sites; most of these brands are well-known, mainstream fashion brands, rather than artisanal or craft brands. Often, the items displayed on the blog are sponsored or gifted by fashion manufacturers, as freely admitted by bloggers. Nonetheless, the response of blog followers remains very positive, as in these follower comments in response to overt marketing on
the blog demonstrate:
You are so stylish and I love your blog and I don't begrudge you any of the freebies you receive! I can only imagine the time and effort you put into this blog - you deserve all the good things that come your way... Plus I enjoy looking at you wearing the shiny new things! (FT 05/18/10).
Love [brand] designs but they owe you HUGELY for the free press. You are such a great writer. They should be lucky to get so much press from you!!! (CF 12/10/09).
Having been a fan of your blog (and your 007-keenness for style) for a while now, i must say how truly happy i am to see that you are clearly getting more and more attention and recognition for your talent! you are a true inspiration! (WIW 15/06/10).
One reason why the commercialization rampant on these fashion blogs does not produce the jarring effect found by Kozinets et al. (2010) is that authenticity, in Holt’s (1998) sense of rejection of marketplace meanings, may well be more important when a blog presents itself as a personal blog, an online journal where identity work will be performed (Chittenden 2010;
Parmentier and Fischer 2011); intrusion of marketing efforts then becomes a transgression.
Successful fashion blogs instead represent a public display of taste, and fashion products and their brands are intrinsic rather than extrinsic to the taste asserted. The appearance of free gifts on the blogs becomes a ratification of the blogger’s taste leadership, not a violation of trust.
Another reason may be the effectiveness of the misrecognition practiced by the blogger.
If followers live vicariously through the consecrated blogger (Bourdieu 1991), then the blogger’s receipt of invitations, gifts and deals simply reinforces this consecration. That is, unusual privileges and a bounty of gifts serve to confirm the blogger’s taste leadership. Consumers accept all sorts of overt marketing in these blogs without scorning any lack or loss of authenticity, consistent with the idea that mainstream taste leadership defines what fashion bloggers offer to their audience.
This document is part of a JCR Manuscript Review History. It should be used for educational purposes only.
We built on the later Bourdieu’s ideas to make cultural capital more analogous to financial capital: something that can be invested, risked, and accumulated (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992). Under this dynamic account, fashion bloggers act as cultural capitalists, amassing more and more capital as they continue to make venturesome displays of taste. Once these taste displays have acquired a large enough audience, bloggers’ cultural capital becomes convertible into economic and social capital, as bloggers begin to be assimilated into the established fashion system. Audience acquisition then becomes self-reinforcing, as multiple positive feedback loops, leveraging institutional elements of the fashion system, and the bloggers’ own practices of misrecognition, come into play.
Intrinsic to this formulation is a depiction of the Web as a causal factor which makes available new forms of consumer behavior. Past consumer research has tended to treat online consumer behavior as an analogue of some corresponding offline consumer behavior, and to conceptualize the Web simply as a new location where pre-existing consumer phenomena unfold much as before. Thus, marketplace communities can be established online same as offline (Muniz and O’Guinn 2000), norms of reciprocity govern online communities same as offline (Giesler 2006; Mathwick et al. 2007), and consumers’ postings online correspond to word of mouth offline (Kozinets et al. 2010).
By contrast, a focus on consumers’ newfound capacity, courtesy of the Web, to acquire a mass audience requires a new theorization. Ordinary consumers did not have access to such an audience prior to the Web. For consumers, there is no offline equivalent of a verbal-visual blog, a Yelp restaurant review, or user-generated video content. Prior to the Web only professionals holding an institutional position could publish their writing or disseminate video. Ordinary consumers were confined to participation in their immediate social networks and communities;
they could not grab the megaphone and acquire a mass audience of strangers for their acts of consumption. As a consequence, the value some consumers place on acquiring a large audience of strangers, and the value other consumers place on participating as a member of such an audience, had not been theorized in consumer research. We sought such a theory in the idea of a megaphone effect, adapting Bourdieu and Goffman to conceptualize the process whereby an ordinary consumer can acquire and maintain a mass audience.
The distinctiveness of the megaphone effect, as manifest in fashion blogging, may emerge more clearly through a contrast with earlier studies of online consumer behavior by Schau and Gilly (2003) and Giesler (2006). In their study of personal websites constructed before blogging had diffused as a widespread practice, Schau and Gilly found consumers who undertook to communicate to an unknown public without institutional support, in rough parallel to what we found in fashion blogging. The key difference is that the websites in their study were ultimately intended to reach individual unknown others in order to set up a dyadic interaction, as, for instance, with future romantic partners or potential employers. Giesler’s (2006) study of peer to peer file sharing through Napster is also an important predecessor to this study, in that it defines a gift system, parallel to what we, following McCracken (1988), refer to as the fashion system. For Giesler a gift system is not merely a set of dyadic gift-giving relationships, or a bounded community of reciprocal give and take, but an over-arching socio-cultural structure that rests on, and provides an opportunity to demonstrate, social distinction (cf. Bourdieu 1980, 98Likewise, we represent the fashion system as a site in which ordinary consumers, by means of the Web, can attain distinction. The key difference here is that taste leadership played no role This document is part of a JCR Manuscript Review History. It should be used for educational purposes only.
in the file-sharing gift system studied by Giesler (2006), whereas we argue that it is taste that determines a blogger’s distinction within the fashion system.
The effect of our adaptation of Bourdieu is to highlight the role of taste in consumption, particularly online consumption, even as it shifts the emphasis away from existing theorizations of how taste operates. Current conceptualizations focus on what might be called the horizontal operation of taste: the ways in which taste preferences group consumers together and serve to divide an Us from a Them—distinction-between (Lamont 1992). Our investigation of mass audiences shifted the focus to the vertical operation of taste: the fact that judgment power—the capacity to make aesthetic discriminations that can win an audience—provides an opportunity to distinguish oneself as above the rest. This action of taste to produce distinction-over conforms to a sociological perspective in which achieving social prominence may be as important as securing an authentic identity (Goffman 1951, 1959).
In adopting Gronow’s (1997) definition of taste in terms of judgment power and aesthetic discrimination, in one respect we departed from rather than adapted Bourdieu’s own point of view. Bourdieu throughout his career was hostile to what he called the ideology of giftedness (Bourdieu 1990, 109): the supposition that aesthetic ability or good taste was an inborn personal gift independent of the social position and historical context of the bearer, and the related assumption that objects themselves could be beautiful, tasteful, or fashionable, as opposed to being deemed such by culturally and socially situated individuals. For Bourdieu, good taste meant only the taste of the ruling class, taste judgments legitimated by the social position of the one judging. As Gronow (1997) notes, this theoretical position is unsustainable given the fluidity and mobility of postmodern consumer society, and is particularly unsuited to the sphere of fashion, where mutability is a defining characteristic.
With the post-Kantian demise of the idea that taste hierarchies are universal (Gronow 1997), the horizontal operation of taste came naturally to the fore, in consumer research as elsewhere. Taste was relativized and made particular to communities and subcultures.
Nonetheless, selectivity, exclusion, and hierarchy continued to operate in consumption spheres such as clothing. Mainstream mass society endured, and aesthetic judgments about consumption objects continue to be made and contested there. Tasteful, in the vertical sense, now consists in apprehending what might attract the approbation of a mass audience. Accordingly, taste in fashion can be defined as a gift that a select few consumers possess. By means of the Web, these select few can now leverage that gift into cultural capital, which can in turn be converted to social position and economic resources.
Finally, it is important not to oversell the megaphone effect as instanced in fashion blogging. A particular concern of Turner (2010) was to debunk the idea that the demotic turn represents any kind of democratization of power. With Lovink (2008) and Pham (2011), he calls into question the utopian cast of some early celebrations of the Web as an emancipatory medium that would place power in the hands of the people. For Turner, there is no relinquishment of political or institutional power consequent to the demotic turn; what changes is who gets access to a mass audience. There is a democratization of communication opportunities, not a change in who exercises power. Likewise, the fashion bloggers we studied did not break free of McCracken’s (1986) fashion system, and certainly did not break it up; they broke into it.
What is distinctive about the megaphone effect is the absence of institutional mediation:
these fashion bloggers acquired their initial audiences by dint of their own actions. This distinguishes the megaphone effect from reality television on the one hand, and fast fashion on the other (Ferdows et al. 2004; Crane and Bovone 2006). In fast fashion, a clothing This document is part of a JCR Manuscript Review History. It should be used for educational purposes only.
manufacturer—an institution—seeks out fashion innovations on the street among the people, and puts certain of these street fashions into production. As with reality television, originally demotic elements get picked up and presented to a mass audience; but in each case the pertinent media and manufacturing institutions control the process. Fashion blogging, online reviewing, and usergenerated content represent something different, insofar as these endeavors reduce the role of institutions by making them ancillary rather determinative. But the megaphone effect remains a matter of access to audience, not accession to the ranks of power.
LIMITATIONS AND FUTURE RESEARCH
The taste leadership on display in the fashion blogs of the young women we studied, and its inferred role in explaining their acquisition of a mass audience, may not generalize as an explanation for the success of other kinds of blogs, such as technology blogs, or even to other kinds of fashion blogs, such as those undertaken by men, or originating outside the developed Anglo-Saxon societies in which our blogs were situated (Pham 2011). Nor can taste leadership be regarded as the exclusive explanation for the success of young female bloggers in general, some of whom may blog as part of an identity project or as a means to affiliate with a particular sub-culture. We can only assert that some blogs—those studied here—do gain a mass audience because of the taste they display.