Symbolic Violence and Social Media


I work at 123people and my job is to integrate social media into a corporate environment.

A few weeks ago, I got a special request from a customer and that got me seriously thinking how social dynamics affect the business of companies.

A strange request

A customer was asking us to violate one of the rules of our customer support, a very basic one, just because he had “200K followers on twitter”. Of course we refused to satisfy the request because we follow very strict rules. However, I asked myself why would someone do something like that.

We all like to show off our follower base on our twitter profile and we also like to publish the number of reader of our feed. We also collect badges on foursquare and brag to our friends when we get a very difficult one, like the Super Swarm Badge or the Super Duper Swarm Badge.

But would you ever ask a restaurant to skip the line because you have a popular blog? Some people expect that and i wanted to understand why. What moves people to expect that being a social media star can make them to skip the line?

Pierre Bourdieu’s theory

An anthropologist friend of mine suggested that I research the studies of Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist, who came up, in the 70s, with a very fascinating theory about people and society.

Four kind of capital

He extended Marxist theory about capital, whereby people’s capital is split into four kinds: Economic, Social, Cultural and Symbolic.

  • Economic Capital is very easy to explain: money, time and production tools.
  • Social Capital is the number of people we know; our social circle.
  • Cultural Capital is what we know; our education and culture.
  • Symbolic Capital is the set of symbols recognized and legitimated by other people: job titles, study degrees, uniforms.

Capital generation

An interesting fact is that we can use one kind of capital to generate another kind: we can spend money to obtain education, we can use the people we know to find a job, we can apply a specific knowledge to meet new people.

But even more interesting is the fact that people tend to generate symbolic capital as quickly as possible. As such, we buy an expensive car or an iPhone: status symbol. Or we represent and claim the size of our social network to show off our popularity.
We also like to be recognized as authority, or being called “experts” in a specific topic.

At the same time, Bourdieu’s theory highlights the tendency of symbolic capital to be expressed by forcing these symbols upon other people, that is: symbolic violence.

Symbolic Violence

This purpose of this violence, the pressure to show off symbols, is simply the need for preserving one’s status quo. In other words, it is an attempt to keep the achieved power as well as trying to increase it.

This violence is not physical and can be expressed in many ways. A CEO who dresses up to show his job position to his employees, a journalist who always refer to his “official press badge” when speaking with bloggers at conferences, a prominent job title printed on a corporate business card.

Online symbols are even more important

This need of showing off symbols is even more present online. We expose the feed counter on our blog, we show off how many friends we have on twitter, we highlight our knowledge and former jobs on LinkedIn. There are blogs with more “awards” and badges listed on the sidebar than blogposts in the archive.

The reason for that is very simple: online, people are represented entirely by symbols: avatars, reputation, popularity, credibility. In the blogosphere we are the URL of our blog. On twitter we are completely represented by the username we use to sign our tweets, and the number of follower is the only impartial indicator of our popularity.

Three examples of Symbolic Violence

Social pressure on Farmville

A study called “Cultivated Play: Farmville” states that “Farmville players keep on playing the game not because of the engagement of the game but because of social pressure to keep on playing” and also that “Farmville is popular because it entangles users in a web of social obligations.” Social pressure equals symbolic violence.

Look at my brand new iPhone

Think about the huge amount of videos on youtube about iPhone unboxing procedures. What is interesting about unboxing a brand new iphone? It is nothing special, unless you are the first one in the world to do that. But it is all about showing off your status symbol.

I want a better sword

The third evidence is the huge growing trend in a very special market: Virtual Goods. +40% per year. Only in the US the market volume is estimated to reach 2.1B$ in 2011. People are spending huge money to dress up their avatars, buying them new items, pimp up their digital possessions. We spend real money to generate virtual symbols.


Do we really want companies that will only listen to us if we are popular on twitter, or services that work better only for those who shout more loudly? I don’t think so.

Companies aiming at professionalism have to serve each and every customer in a fair way. Fair treatment does not necessarily mean that “all are treated the same”. Instead, it means “equally good”, as excellently explained by Valeria Maltoni in a recent blogpost on Conversation Agent.

A professional Customer Service department will not rank people according to the number of their followers on twitter.

Thus, as a user, if you indeed want to obtain assistance from a Customer Service Department, ask questions, then show that you care and require them to be professional. Claim your rights in a clear way because they owe you a service, independently of your popularity.

[UPDATE]: Enjoy the video of this presentation!

Picture Credit: Teymur Madjderey



, ,



25 responses to “Symbolic Violence and Social Media”

  1. Dan Avatar

    Great post Luca! Sadly though, it’s often those that shout the loudest, and to the most amount of people that *do* get to the front of the line. Not because they are particularly special, but rather, that their influence is greater. There’s no excuse for poor customer service, but when pressed between someone with virtually no online presence and say, Robert Scoble, I’d bet The Scobilizer would get a response to his email faster than Joe Average.

  2. […] days ago i presented an Ignite Talk in Rome called “Symbolic Violence and Social Media“. Here my deck of slides, the guys at are publishing the video of […]

  3. Lox Avatar

    “This violence is not physical and can be expressed in many ways.”
    E.g. Starting a blog post about an unpleasant customer showing off your rare Foursquare Super Duper Swarm Badge. 😉

  4. Daniele Medri Avatar
    Daniele Medri

    Il tuo amico antropologo dovrebbe studiare il comportamento di chi viola la privacy altrui e rimane dietro al muretto a gettar sassi.

  5. Luca Sartoni Avatar

    @daniele: what are you referring to?

  6. […] Luca Sartoni will take the evening in a different direction with her speech, “Symbolic Violence in Social Media.” Sartoni currently works for where she is a team leader for social media and internet marketing. […]

  7. Jacopo Apo Bordin Avatar

    I enjoyed your Ignite presentation in San Francisco and this post was a great recap.

  8. Nathaniel Hansen Avatar
    Nathaniel Hansen

    Mediocrity is no answer to violence. In fact, it probably invites violence. At least the mediocre and the violent appear together as in the old Western movies – the ruffian outlaw band shooting up main street and the little white church with the little white schoolteacher wringing her hands. To cool violence you need rhythm, humor, tempering; you need dance! Not therapeutic understanding.

    ~James Hillman, author of The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling

  9. […] was also supposed to present my latest Ignite Talk, “Symbolic Violence and Social Media” at Ignite Portugal tonight, but I’m missing that too. I really hope there will be […]

  10. […] can find more about Symbolic Violence and Social Media just checking out some previous post about […]

  11. […] of my kickstarter supporters for Mindfire is a blogger and speaker in his own right: Luca Sartoni. He wrote a provocative article I read months ago about the dangerous implications of using […]

  12. F.B. Avatar

    Referring to the incident that got this post started, is it possible that there’s some space for misinterpretation? I mean sure, one can consider the number of twitter followers a status symbol and try to impose it on others (via an act of symbolic violence then), but it could be as simple as leverage. Could it be that those guys with hundreds of thousands of followers are simply saying “either serve me better/quicker/cheaper, or I will use my huge crowd of followers to ruin your reputation with a single comment”?

    Then I guess it’s not so much as symbolic violence, but a plain old blackmail 🙂

  13. Sean Crawford Avatar

    I don’t know much about blackmail, but my daddy always said: People who put hearsay above the evidence of knowing you personally, are people not worth you knowing.

  14. cecil Avatar

    Great post, thanks for sharing.

    You might be interested in a great book on the topic : The Rebel Sell. This books draws on Fred Hirsh and Thorstein Veblen (on top of Pierre Bourdieu’s) theories : when we buy products we acquire status goods and we are looking for distinction.

    It is a fantastic read with focus on counter-culture as opposed to Social Media but the approach is pretty similar.

  15. instagram Avatar

    We are a bunch of volunteers and starting a brand new scheme in our community. Your web site provided us with useful info to work on. You have performed a formidable task and our entire neighborhood will be thankful to you.

  16. Mark Philip Ragadio Goroza Avatar

    hello, Symbolic violence and social media is a good topic and ur presentation was excellent. I got interested to it that is why i’m planning to do an extensive research about symbolic violence. i will really appreciate it if i can get ur sources for this presentation. thanks!

  17. […] expect special treatment, because they are so special ( Luca Sartoni has written about this sort of entitlement). This is an example of symbolic violence, where people use their status, race or sex to bully […]

  18. […] blogging and social media in 2016. I went from Arnold Schwarzenegger on Snapchat, to the theory of Symbolic Violence. I explored many features of and the upcoming .blog […]

  19. […] Expo Ignite in San Francisco. It’s good to see how 5 years later my presentation “Symbolic Violence and Social Media” is still appreciated by many readers of this blog. Check it […]

  20. […] March 2011 I presented “Symbolic Violence and Social Media” at Ignite Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco. The research I put into that presentation […]

  21. stef Avatar

    Unfortunately, the examples of symbolic violence in your article demonstrate a misunderstanding of the concept. For example owning a new iPhone is about social and economic capital. Owning a new iPhone has nothing to do with tacit cultural control by structural forces!

    1. Luca Sartoni Avatar

      My point is about showing off the iPhone, as a mean to express the status quo, more than the general control. However the social pressure in owning an iPhone is a strong cultural control.

    2. Dashdez Avatar

      This isn’t entirely true, and I just finished my PhD comps talking (a lot)about Bourdieu, and the nine books of his I had to read. The act of showing off an iPhone reaffirms basic concepts about the iPhone – that it is prized, and “new adopters” have certain benefits (such as disposable income, extremely good credit, etc) to reinforce being in a “decent” position. Not having an option to get a new iPhone is a representative (and accepted) assumption in the field of practice – people can say, all they want, “I just didn’t want it or need it”, but the subtextual understanding is someone doesn’t get a new iPhone simply because they cannot, whether that is true or false.

      This affirms a belief that individuals who don’t have a new iPhone don’t have it because they don’t, in ways deemed by the system, “deserve” one yet – THIS is most assuredly symbolic violence

      All that to say Luca isn’t too far off, and more right than wrong.

  22. mizuno-wave Avatar

    Thanks for sharing your info. I truly appreciate your efforts and I am waiting for your further post thanks
    once again.

  23. […] the beginning of 2011, I was in San Francisco to speak at a tech conference, and after the exchange of a couple of messages on Twitter, he agreed to meet me at his office in […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *