Why We Talk: Perceived Authority

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I see this everyday. Certain users become experts in the eyes’ of others.

So, why do some users command authority?

Experts As Hubs

Those who are able to capture more content are seen as experts if framed within the division of labor concept. In the Anatomy of Buzz, Emanuel Rosen calls those that do the “heavy lifting” in a network, hubs. These expert-hubs are the ones who, through the constant collecting and promotion of content, are able to build their status and then maintain that status.

Identity Defining 

Similarly, one could argue that those who are perceived as more authoritative have created a stronger sense of identity. Stronger identity leads to a stronger perception of expertise/authority.  Schau and Gilly (2003, p. 387) write, “identity is characterized by the tension between how a person defines herself as an individual and how she connects to others and social groups in affiliative relationships.” An individual’s possessions also contribute and reflect one’s identity. Through the collection of content not only do these heavy lifters identify themselves as expert-hubs, but as collateral, create a set of ideal values for the community they serve. Ideal values are values constructed by a person or social group that those in the group aspire to, but may never achieve in real life.

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Social platforms allow users the ability to express their identity to a larger audience through digital association rather than ownership or proximity (Schau and Gilly, 2003). No longer are we bound by our physical representation. On Tumblr, these expert-hubs can post a picture of a Nike Fuel Band and immediately become associated with what the Fuel Band represents. No actual ownership is required.

In Tumblr, digital association helps to build an authority-like identity. The content curated, acts as a personal endorsement and contributes to the user’s identity. In the same example, a user may purchase a Fuel Band, because she sees the expert-hub’s post.

How is this achieved? The curation of digital content provides similar benefits that consumption offers.  Just has conspicuous consumption allows consumers to better define themselves among peers, the posting of content (or digital association) grants users similar benefits.

Word-of-Mouth and Social Capital

Users on microblogging sites perform word-of-mouth to better define a specific identity through digital association. The reinforcement of identity, through blog posts and the reblogging of content, helps the user to accrue social capital. So when we discuss status, we really mean establishing social capital within a given culture. Defined by Berger, Ho and Joshi (2011), social capital as it relates to consumption is “the knowledge of how to properly execute behaviors, wear a hat, accessorize, or use an innovation” (p.16).

The performance of word-of-mouth through user-generated content or brand content is the currency that allow a user to craft an identity. As I have shown in the examples above, those who can create a strong identity through this performance often show others that they exhibit a certain expertise. For brands, word-of-mouth understanding how their content is being used or embedded into the identity projects of consumers can become a powerful management tool.

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References:

Berger, J., Ho, B. & Joshi, Y. (2011). Identity signaling with social capital: A model of symbolic consumption.

Gilly, H., J. & Gilly, M. (2003). We are what we post? Self-Presentation in personal web space, Journal of Consumer Research, 30, 385 – 404.

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