Peer popularity and social control in a digital age

This short article is based on findings from a pilot study which took place in January 2015 and primarily draws on semi-structured interviews with three girls conducted in a school in South London serving a low-income community. It marries feminist and Foucauldian perspectives to explore how female peer hierarchies and social control are navigated in both online and offline planes of interaction within school.

Being in the know and known to be in the know carries social weight for the girls interviewed: Peer popularity centers around an information currency; attained discursive practice (Foucault, 1969). This currency closely allies to localized forms of gender and class and act to reproduce heteronormative structures within the school (Archer, 2007; Thomson, 2003; Warrington and Younger, 2011). Those with the most social power are positioned at the eye of the storm and are fed stories about others from those who would like to attain higher social status. The higher the status of the person it pertains to, the higher it’s worth (boyd, 2014). The focus of those most popular is therefore to stay in the know, something which doesn’t harmonise with a studious student persona (Read, 2011).

Holding knowledge over someone, be that an embarrassing photo, a screen-shot of a conversation or evidence of liking a person’s status they shouldn’t, are sources of social power and are shown to be used against one another. These embarrassments, or deviations from the norm, appear to have a long-shelf life as a 16 year old told of photos from when she was 12 years old that still haunt her in the school corridors. This permanence is emblamatic of the Google search result, a constant visual reminder of the publicly shamed (Ronson, 2015).

Broader methods of social surveillance and control, reminiscent of the Foucauldian panoptican, took place on a popular photo sharing app (Foucault, 1977; Bulter, 1993). Under a hash-tag which was known across the student-body, the most popular students posted ‘selfies’ for the rest of the student body to judge and rate out of 10, simultaneously displaying approved of ways of dressing and behaving (which conform to performative feminine and heterosexual ideals (Youdell, 2005; Skelton, 2009; Skeggs, 1997)) and reinforces their social status through quite literal approval ratings. At the other end of the spectrum, those who don’t conform to these ideals are clandestinely captured on camera and placed on the app for the school body to negatively judge and berate. This is a method of control is through examination and the normalizing gaze: the fear of other eyes and cameras searching for an excuse to expose deviation from the norm (Foucault, 1977). This fear of public shaming causes the student body to strive to stay within the boundaries of acceptability (Warrington and Younger, 2011; Ringrose, 2011; Cahretis, 2014).

The school in which this research took place is in a controlled, regulated environment with staff visible and enforcing the behaviour policies during both lessons and recreation. However, the interviews I conducted suggest that in spite of this control, social media has allowed for a second uncontrolled plane where the majority of ‘drama’ takes place, irrespective of the time or place within school:

Charlie, 13: The teachers say, don’t talk in class but when you get on the phones you can talk about it with your friends as much as you want, like gossiping…Some people are scared to be judged so you don’t want to go online and find a bunch of messages about you… Rude messages you know, people gossiping about you and you don’t want to go in there and find out about that.
Reminiscent of a Roman amphitheatre, it is conducted in front of a baying audience as Rae, 16, observes:

Rae: So instead of sorting out the problem face-to-face, I’d say it to somebody else thinking I could trust that person. But then they will turn around and say it to the person that I said it and turns into a big thing everyone gets involved.
JFH: When those things happen why do other people get involved?
Rae: Because it’s more entertaining to see something go bad than to see it go right.

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