Frances Bell

home at last – for all the mes


Stars in the playground and hearts in the factory

Stars and Hearts by Dan and Fern Treacy CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Stars and Hearts by
Dan and Fern Treacy

This week the switching of the star/favorite for the heart/like has been a source of a little sadness for many in my slice of Twitter. Laura Gogia and Maha Bali supplied interesting commentaries on views expressed in ‘academic Twitter’  but I felt a little distant from the angst.  Although I don’t have active plans to leave like I do for Facebook, somehow I know that it’s unlikely I will still be active on Twitter in a couple of years time.  Like Kate Bowles, for me the corporate/ economic explanations are the most likely ones.

For a bit of fun, I checked out the symbol/ term variations for liking/favouriting across some popular sites.

Symbols on Social Networking Sites

So it seems that the concept of favourite is passé in the corporate standards of social media semiotics – it’s all ‘like’ now and the ‘favourite’ icon is the heart, thumbs up second. So it seems Twitter are following the trend for terms and symbols but meaning – that’s something else altogether.

In the last two years, I have observed, experienced and written about some highs and lows in social networking. Some old and new reading has been helping me to make sense of it.  I returned to Zuboff(1988) and her concept of informating, the generation of new streams of information about activities. That’s an interesting concept to apply to the endlessly changing yet persistent data collected by Social Networking Sites  (SNS) about activities such as liking/favouriting. Laura Gogia explained the semantics of academic tweeters’ different uses of the old Twitter star/favourite and how their practice might be different with the new heart/like.

Now, I don’t know how Twitter record a favourite/like but I imagine that it is a boolean true/false link between a tweet object and a tweeter/identity object with none of the semantics that Laura describes.  The complex semantics provide the motivation for our actions but are not recorded in the database. This simple favourite/like data is interpreted though, to provide economic value through the advertising services that SNS provide, by targeting tweeters by manipulating their streams.

My new reading has started with Ben Light’s theory of Disconnective Practice (relating to SNS) that helps with our understanding of how states of disconnection come into being and are maintained. Through Light’s book, I came across the work of Ulisses Mejias whose thesis that we need to remove our network goggles and look at what is happening off the network in the paranodal spaces around the network nodes seems particularly relevant to our consideration of stars and hearts, liking and favoriting. Monopsonies are counterpoints of monopolies, where the emergence of a single buyer, particularly of user-generated content, can lead to increasing inequality. Much better to watch this video, where he explains it for himself.

The Internet as Playground and Factory – Ulises Ali Mejias from The Politics of Digital Culture on Vimeo.

So thinking about Twitter’s aspiration to be the monopsony in micro-blogging might be a good way to understand what’s going on with the stars and hearts.  We think we are in the playground but maybe we are in the factory.

Jenny Mackness’s post reminded me that Sonia Livingstone’s hot seat for Networked Learning starts tomorrow.  I have a feeling I am going to be learning more about Sonia’s research that definitely doesn’t have network goggles.

Light, B. (2014). Disconnecting with social networking sites. doi:10.1057/9781137022479
Mejias, U. A. (2013). Off the Network. doi:10.5860/CHOICE.51-4485

LightMejiasmonopsonysocial networking sitesSonia LivingstoneTwitter

francesbell • November 7, 2015

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  1. Tom Woodward November 7, 2015 - 4:23 pm Reply

    In case it’s of interest, Twitter logs favorites in two ways –
       “favorited”: true
    “favourites_count”: 594

    You can see it in the API reference here.

    Interesting that they switch spellings. I hadn’t noticed that before.

    • francesbell November 7, 2015 - 5:10 pm Reply

      Thanks for checking out the API reference for me Tom, so I didn’t have to. Likes/favourites are the simplest action to take – just a click and who knows what Facebook, Twitter et al read into them in the ad services they provide?

  2. CogDog November 7, 2015 - 4:51 pm Reply

    Thanks for this metaphor of factory/playground, and as well the video explanation by Mejias (wow it’s been a long time since I’ve read his stuff, it goes way back).

    I’m trying to wrap my head around this interesting idea of a monopsony. It takes deliberate strategic planning and action for a monopoly to monopolize, but monopsonies get there because we as the sellers to it, give it that power. It feels rather implicitly achieved.

    And of course, YouTube does not corner the whole market (hence video), nor does Twitter (especially in other countries), but we come to believe there are no options, and we give in (“everybody is on” that other platform I keep forgetting).

    Thanks for the post, it’s good thought fodder.

    • francesbell November 7, 2015 - 5:23 pm Reply

      You’ll have to thank Mejias for the playground/ factory metaphor:)
      I agree that sellers lend monopsonies power by their actions or inactions but don’t you think that there’s a lot of strategising going on in SNS eg the hearts decision can be seen as strategic. I think what can confuse us is that we might see these sites in terms of our user experience but UX only matters to the SNS in terms of the impact on the economic value that it generates. This makes for quite a lot of sleight of hand. I am still reading but I think he’s really on to something. The question is what should we be doing about it? I do have some ideas about that.

      • Mark McGuire November 8, 2015 - 12:18 am Reply

        Thanks for this considered thoughts and useful links. I clicked on the “star” button for this post. Just so you know. Social Media Sites, like the early online “communities” have learned how it works — provide the space, the tools, and the rules, and let the participants create the value through their presence and interactions. Then, extract that value.

        • francesbell November 8, 2015 - 10:10 am Reply

          Hi Mark – good to see you here. I remember reading about commercial online communities in the early 2000s. They seem like primitive extensions to user groups compared with what happens on SNS today in terms of what we allow them to take in terms of metadata and data.
          In UK at present, we even have our Home Secretary Theresa May telling us not to worry about the government having our metadata
          ” So, if someone has visited a social media website, an Internet Connection Record will only show that they accessed that site, not the particular pages they looked at, who they communicated with, or what they said. It is simply the modern equivalent of an itemised phone bill.
          Law enforcement agencies would not be able to make a request for the purpose of determining – for example – whether someone had visited a mental health website, a medical website or even a news website.”
          Someone has put in a FOI request for hers I think we can guess how that will go.

        • Mark McGuire November 8, 2015 - 8:22 pm Reply

          Hi, Frances. Yes, I’m sure she would be worried about releasing the “date, time, and sender” of all communication and the “domain address of every website
          visited”, just as we all should be. It’s amazing how, one small step at a time, we are expected to relinquish our privacy and control over our data. It’s a substantial price to pay for “free” online services.

  3. sensor63 November 7, 2015 - 8:58 pm Reply

    “We think we are in the playground but maybe we are in the factory.”

    Forget maybe Frances.

    However not sure factory is the right image.


  4. francesbell November 7, 2015 - 9:04 pm Reply

    The factory metaphor is Mejias’ but a good one I think. It’s the factory where we are paid with free use of SNS. Why might market be better? SNS and their paying customers are in the market.

    • sensor63 November 7, 2015 - 9:57 pm Reply

      I don’t think we are paid with free use of SNS. Factory implies emphasis on production. I don’t think SNS are any more interested in production than nightclubs in reproduction. I think the factory metaphor is passe.

      • CogDog November 8, 2015 - 9:17 pm Reply

        The factory is not producing for you, Simon, you are the raw materials inside someone else’s factories. You think you experience a playground reality, but it’s a factory of the Matrix.

        • Mark McGuire November 8, 2015 - 9:27 pm Reply

          Yes, we’ve chosen to take the blue pill and enjoy the “blissful ignorance of illusion” ( We’re so focussed on playing with the toys, and with each other, within the bright, happy interface that we have conveniently forgotten that the playground has been constructed inside a factory.

        • francesbell November 8, 2015 - 9:38 pm Reply

          @Mark – we found 2 papers when writing about Facebook that might interest you and

        • Mark McGuire November 8, 2015 - 9:53 pm Reply

          Thanks for the links to the Facebook articles, Frances. Fortunately, my university subscribes to these journals. I’ve been increasingly worried about using Facebook, esp. for teaching, so these will be useful.

  5. francesbell November 7, 2015 - 10:15 pm Reply

    We usually pay to get into nightclubs and who produces the content for SNS?
    Do you think you exchange anything for your free use of SNS?

  6. catherinecronin November 8, 2015 - 1:24 pm Reply

    Great post, Frances – many thanks. I missed it until today, but glad I’ve caught up 🙂 Thanks to our conversations over recent months I’ve been reading Mejias and enjoying the fresh perspective on networks, particularly re: networks and equality. Many equality narratives necessarily focus on inclusion — addressing forms of exclusion such as the digital divide. Mejias’s perspective is different, provocative, and useful — noting that we are all engaged in the production of inequality through our participation in digital networks. I read his critique not as a rejection of networks but more as a prompt for a deeper critical understanding, and more sensitivity, e.g.:

    “The project of disrupting or unmapping the network and encountering its outsides is one that goes from trying to solve the problem of ‘communicating in the presence of noise’ to one that sees ‘noise as communicating presence’, the presence of the Other. In short, noise communicating difference. It is only in the outside spaces of the network, beyond the limits of nodes, where we can acquire enough clarity to listen to the sounds that alternative subjectivities, even from within us, might suggest” (Mejias, 2013, pp 16-17).

    My thinking continues, particularly in analysing results from my own research study. Many thanks, as always, for sharing and prompting deeper reflection.

  7. francesbell November 8, 2015 - 2:54 pm Reply

    Thanks Catherine – that is an amazing quote for thinking about subjectivities and reconstituting inequalities. Over the last couple of years, I have come to think that exclusion/offence/misunderstandings are inevitable in group/network conversations, particularly online, and that we should build in repair strategies (that may not always work). The ‘happy clappy’ orientation, that I think is quite common in social networking, doesn’t avoid exclusion but may drive it underground. I suspect that back channels that could help us to listen to alternate subjectivities can also be used to reinforce conformity and reject difference.

    • catherinecronin November 8, 2015 - 3:58 pm Reply

      Developing more complex understandings of networks and building in repair strategies… What a wise perspective, Frances — obviously borne out of network experience as well as your own research/scholarship. You’ve nailed a key aspect of the unease with #TwitterHeart here, I think. As you say, the happy-clappy (heart-shaped) orientation — as evidenced by the change from the more nuanced Favourite/star — is not only an effort to reinforce conformity but can be seen as a means of driving exclusion underground. This move is motivated by $$$, as you and others have noted. Cutting through the ‘adorbs’ corporate-speak is so important in order to see the more deleterious consequences, i.e. increasing inequality. Thanks again.

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