Visibility isn’t success
012. On social and cultural capital
Hey, friends—welcome back to online/offline, a weekly newsletter about technology, culture, and the future. This week, I wanted to talk about why clout chasing is futile. This newsletter is meant to be a conversation, so do reply/DM me with your thoughts/questions. And if you haven’t already, make sure to subscribe below.
Nobody cares if billionaire venture capitalist Marc Andreessen blocked you.1
Okay, maybe some people care since there seems to be an “I got blocked by @pmarca” club that inducts new members with a mandatory Tweet showcasing screenshot evidence of said block. I’ve seen too many to count at this point.
I’ve always found the practice strange and I could never figure out why until I began reflecting on what visibility means to people today. Is the screenshot a badge of honor because a billionaire noticed you? Because you could get under his skin? Does the same honor translate to a @pmarca follow even though he follows over 20k people?
There’s a lot to be said about the dynamics of social and cultural capital, and how they’ve evolved in today’s connected world. If you add economic capital into the mix, you’ll either be entertained or mortified. Before, artists would shape culture, but get recognition and profit long after death. Today, influencers are sitting front row at fashion week, launching NFT collections and making millions in a week, and copying and pasting content to gain an audience. You no longer have to understand craftmanship and garments, produce quality art, or even know what you’re talking about. Yet, people generally measure success by follower count, tagged locations, and JPEGs found in crypto wallets and Instagram profiles.
To get a clearer understanding of why this is happening, I revisited sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s theories on social and cultural capital. His theories are an ideal way to frame the current state of affairs. Let’s start with some definitions:
Social capital is the sum of resources that accrue to an individual/group by virtue of possessing a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition. In less academic terms; social capital is who you know. You can either create these relationships yourself or you can inherit them.
Cultural capital is the accumulation of knowledge, behaviors, and skills that a person can tap into to demonstrate cultural competence and social status. There are three types of cultural capital:
Embodied capital is visual and auditory. This includes the qualities of your mind and body such as posture, mannerisms, and taste.
Objectified capital is the possession of material belongings that have cultural significance.
Institutionalized capital includes the symbols of cultural competency and authority like titles (Doctor, Professor, etc.) or institutions (Harvard, Goldman Sachs, etc.).
Social and cultural capital are important in an individual’s or group’s pursuit to gain (or protect) their power and influence.
In yesteryear when men wore white wigs to parliament and women wore corsets, social capital was determined by your family. I mean, King Charles II of Spain allegedly had a very streamlined family tree that gave a whole new meaning to “keeping it in the family.” In comparison, one can build social capital today by sliding into a power player’s DMs or email. It’s easier than ever to get a follow, a cosign, or a like ... For example, I know that Obama easily follows half a million people on Twitter but I’m still bummed I’m not on that list. Social signals are important though they’re now easy to acquire.
The same can be said of cultural capital; it’s also easier than ever to acquire the semblance of knowledge, behaviors, and skills that show competence.
Embodied capital: we’ve lived on the internet for the last two years so it almost doesn’t matter what you look like, but what people believe you look/sound like. Thanks to Facetune and Photoshop, subreddits, TikTok, the death of cultures, and the emergence of subcultures ... Anyone can roleplay as a “cool” kid, a rich heiress, or a crypto genius.
Objectified capital: I saw “early investor in Bored Ape Yacht Club” in someone’s Twitter bio this weekend. Having disposable income and spending it on NFTs brings credibility now. Because NFTs are hot. Being “early” to arcane knowledge has enabled anyone to own materials with cultural significance.
Institutionalized capital: PhDs may be brutal but I think they will always mean something. Just like being employee #22 at a hot startup will always mean something. This is probably the most difficult capital to acquire and why some groups are keen on dismantling instututions.
The thing is—acquiring social and cultural capital doesn’t mean success. The ease of acquiring most of the clout described above makes it cheap and temporary, which is why people have to keep posting content to stay relevant. Being visible is the only way to prolong 15 minutes of fame. Sadly, visibility means nothing without a foundation of competency and contribution that can outlast the theatrics. In due time, people get smart and realize that maybe someone doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Or, they get bored and move on to a newer, shinier thing.
There are influencers with millions of followers who can’t sell products to their audience.
There are advisors and investors with thousands of followers whom no one respects.
There are collectors with thousands of followers who are still trying to build trust.
There are writers with an international brand who aren’t proud of their work.
Success is subjective, but there is something meaningful about building something that’s everlasting. Being seen online/offline is great; being seen through one’s contributions to the world is even better. Whether that’s a product, community, business, art—creating is less fickle than clout. Creating leads to a legacy beyond space and time. To me, that’s the meaning of success. You don’t see some people online, yet you’ll feel their impact for decades to come.
And with that, I’ll leave you with quotes from two people whom I deeply respect and were inspirations for this piece—Reggie James, founder of Eternal and a legend in the making, and Michaela Coel, one of the best writers of our generation.
“In a world that entices us to browse through the lives of others to help us better determine how we feel about ourselves, and to, in turn, feel the need to be constantly visible, for visibility these days seems to somehow equate to success. Do not be afraid to disappear, from it, from us, for a while, and see what comes to you in the silence.” — Michaela Coel
Special thanks to my friends Alex Marshall, Kristy Tillman, and Abena Anim-Somuah for their feedback and support. Thank you for reading. If you’re new to online/offline, make sure to subscribe to join the conversation.
Unless you’re Jack Dorsey. Then we care a little bit for the LOLs.