Social Media Freaks

Digital Identity in the Network Society


By Dustin Kidd

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Social media has been transforming American and global cultural life for over a decade. It has flattened the divide between producer and audience found in other forms of culture while also enriching some massive corporations. At the core of Social Media Freaks is the question: Does social media reproduce inequalities or is it a tool for subverting them?

Social Media Freaks presents a virtual ethnography of social media, focusing on issues of identity and inequality along five dimensions-race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability. It presents original and secondary findings, while also utilizing social theory to explain the dynamics of social media. It teaches readers how to engage social media as a tool for social activism while also examining the limits of social media’s value in the quest for social change.



What is the relationship between social media and social inequality? This is the question that drives this book. Since the advent of social networking platforms, we have heard a great deal about how social media is changing how we live, learn, do business, and relate to one another. But is this change for the good? And if social media is achieving something positive, who exactly is benefiting, and who is being left out?

This book focuses on people who are marginalized by existing social inequalities, but especially those who embrace this experience as a source of identity, empowerment, and connection to others. I use the word "freaks" to describe those folks. Freaks might seem like a rude or controversial word to use, but I am following the lead of popular culture, in which artists have been telling us to let our freak flags fly high and to get our freak on.

Freaky things are happening in social media. People are connecting to like-minded others across the globe to practice social activism and create social movements. In social media, the core of this experience is rooted in creative expression: making images, memes, videos, music, and powerful texts that offer a new way to imagine the world, including imagining a world without social inequality.

But in using social media as a tool, these artists and activists are contending with the massive corporations that are behind our major social media platforms. Those corporations are run by a small handful of executives and board members who are overwhelmingly male, white, cisgender, American, heterosexual, nondisabled, and wealthy. In other words, social media is controlled by a handful of corporations whose leadership reflects the height of privilege.

This book is a field guide for scholars who are studying social media with a focus on identity, inequality, and social movements. It offers a broad survey of the literature on social media from across the social sciences and even the humanities, but centering on sociology. It also introduces readers to a range of theoretical perspectives and research methods—which I highlight through sidebars titled "Methodological Moments"—that can guide us in our study of social media.

In chapter 1 I offer a set of theoretical tools for understanding the relationship between social media and social inequality, drawing on concepts from classical sociology, cultural sociology, the sociology of identities (including gender, race, sexuality, disability, and class), and media studies. In chapter 2 I focus on the history and structure of the social media industry. I draw from my own posting history to construct a history of social media. I look at the issue of power in the industry through an analysis of the leadership teams and boards of the major social media companies.

Chapters 3 through 7 examine a series of case studies that explore how various social activists and social movements have engaged social media. In chapter 3 I start with queer social media celebrities and focus on the story of Chris Crocker, famous as the leave-Britney-alone guy who had a YouTube meltdown when he felt Britney Spears was being maligned in the media. In chapter 4 I examine disability activism in social media, focusing on a unique moment when the actor George Takei posted a meme on Facebook that many interpreted as mocking disability. Chapter 5 examines the case of GamerGate, a gender-centered controversy in the world of video games that played out across social media channels including Twitter, YouTube, 4chan, 8chan, and many others. By GamerGate's end, at least three women had gone into hiding in response to vicious threats on social media, but no charges had been filed.

Chapter 6 turns to the social movement Occupy Wall Street, one of the first major social movements in the United States to embrace social media as a core movement tool. I examine how social media relates to other tools used by Occupy, particularly the central tool of occupying public space. Chapter 7 turns to the more recent social movement Black Lives Matter, another movement that blends online political coordination with the occupation of public spaces. While many, including one of its founders, view Occupy as a failure, Black Lives Matter seems to be having a more lasting influence on public discourse.

Chapter 8 is a very different kind of chapter. Presuming some readers find social media to be a compelling tool for the pursuit of social change, it offers a toolkit for that practice. Drawing on my own work in social media, I provide a series of best practices for sharing creative content on social media and engaging a range of audiences.

In chapter 9 I conclude with the difficult philosophical question of whether social media can really live up to its hype and whether it will ever be truly revolutionary. To preview, my answer is no, but I provide the caveat that a restructuring of who controls social media technology might lead to more positive possibilities for social movements.

I love social media. I post often on a wide range of platforms. My social media projects have helped me to embrace an identity as an artist, even as they also help me advance my career as a scholar. I love the possibilities that social media has created for artists and activists, but I hope to see those possibilities one day become a reality of social transformation.


Social Media, Art, and the Network Society

An alarm on my phone wakes me up. I reach for the phone to silence the alarm, but doing so puts the whole world in my hands. Instead of going back to sleep, I open my phone and begin tapping through apps. I always check Facebook first. The number in the red circle under notifications makes me anxious. I click through each notification to see who has liked or commented on my posts. I also have three friend requests. One I confirm, one I delete, and one I decide to let sit for a few days while I think about it. Closing Facebook, I open Snapchat. Most of the stories on Snapchat I simply click past, but I slow down when I get to my favorite Snapchatter, Chelsea Handler. Between her improvised rapping and her adorable dogs, I can't get enough of her snaps. I break to play a game on my phone for a few minutes, usually a round of an escape-the-room game. I scroll through my timehop and pick out a photo from this day three years ago that I decide to share on Facebook. Once the photo starts getting likes and comments, I'll end up having to open Facebook again. For now, I turn to Twitter. This is a more involved app-check, as I have three Twitter accounts. I check to see who has added me on each one, as well as the responses to my latest tweets. The last Twitter account I check is my work account. This awakens my work brain, and I realize I should check my e-mail. Twenty messages since I set my phone aside at midnight. Most are spam, which I open and delete. Another message from the struggling social media platform Ello, urging me to log back on. I am amazed at how many colleagues have sent messages at four in the morning. I answer the ones that just need a quick reply and leave the rest in my in-box to be answered when I get to my desk. I tap through Pinterest, Tumblr, and Blogger, though the only traction I get from those platforms happens when I post links to them on Twitter and Facebook. Instagram is next. There are fourteen likes of various photos, almost all of my cat. I scroll down the feed and click the little heart on photos I like of my friends and their pets. I note some good posts from celebrities like Matt McGorry (How to Get Away with Murder) and Tracee Ellis Ross (Black-ish). Closing Instagram, my thoughts turn to the news, so I open the Huffington Post app. I read a story about the lack of diversity in Hollywood that I think I should share with my audience, so I click the share button and post it to Facebook. I read a few more stories and realize I should get back to Facebook to check my new notifications. I click through to see who has liked my timehop and HuffPost shares. Then I start scrolling the newsfeed. Several items seem relevant to my work, so I click the option to save them. I will use the saved list later in the week when I am scheduling daily Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn posts using Hootsuite. Finally, I check LinkedIn and accept a connection invitation from a colleague. It's now at least an hour since my alarm went off. I move to the kitchen, where I plug my phone into my speakers and open a Spotify playlist so I have some music to listen to while I make my coffee and breakfast.

I'm such a freak.* A social media freak. But many people reading this will identify with my morning routine. The combination of social media and smartphones has changed the way that we interact with technology, each other, work, and the world. Social media has turned us into freaks by infiltrating our lives and making us addicted to mediated communication. But we are not passive dupes of the social media hegemony. Many of us have embraced the new possibilities presented by social media, and we have created opportunities for connection and change that exceed the vision of those who built this technology.

In my previous book, Pop Culture Freaks, I argued that popular culture turns all of us into freaks by telling us that we are never good enough. We are too fat or too skinny, too old or too young, too rich or too poor, too brown or too pale, too masculine or too feminine. Popular culture presents us with an image of beauty that has been touched up, Photoshopped, and surgically enhanced. We can never attain that level of beauty. But the industries of popular culture promise us that if we keep buying what they are pedaling, we might get there one day.

Rather than feel shame for being freaks, many of us—the consumers of popular culture—have embraced our freak sides and flown our freak flags. The R&B artist Janelle Monae asks, "Am I a freak for dancing around? Am I a freak for getting down?" in a song called "Q.U.E.E.N.," which seems to equate being a freak with being a queen, in a wonderful rhetorical inversion. In an interview, Monae explains the Q.U.E.E.N. acronym as Queer Untouchable Emigrant Excommunicated Negroid (Benjamin 2013). The artists of popular culture have defied their corporate overlords and called for us to wear our freak flags as a badge of honor.

Social media is the new kid on the pop culture block, and it too makes us feel like freaks. We are worn down with daily messages critiquing in painstaking detail our bodies, our homes, our careers, our families, and our romantic lives. But in the case of social media, those hurtful negative messages are coming from both the entertainment industry and our peers, and that just makes them hurt even more.

However, social media is also a tool that we can use to push back against these negative messages. It can give us a voice and a chance to participate in ways that are missing in other forms of popular culture like television or radio. Many social media users are seizing the megaphone provided by these platforms and using it to create new stories about what it means to be human that disrupt old stereotypes and challenge the many dimensions of social inequality.

Bullying, harassment, surveillance, and stalking are just a few of the terrible things that can happen to people who use social media, and they happen most to those who have the least power: women, racial minorities, disabled persons, sexual minorities, trans people, and the poor. Yet for all of the harm that can happen on social media, marginalized and minority groups continue to embrace it. Why is that?

In this book I use a series of case studies to examine the ways that various groups in society experience oppression and harassment in social media and the ways they use social media to push back against that oppression. I propose a new lens for understanding the value of social media in the lives of those who are marginalized and oppressed or who feel they do not conform to the norms of mainstream society. I attempt to shift the discourse around social media from being a discussion about media and communication to a discussion about art. This shift allows us to examine the creative aspects of social media making and not just the productive aspects. It also gives us a better way to understand how social media has become sacred in the lives of many young people and adults.


In order to claim that social media should be understood as art, not just as media or communication, I need to clarify what it is that I mean by art and what it is that I think is lost when we refer to social media as media or communication and not as art.

Obviously, all art involves media, whether canvas, camera, choreography, or any of a number of widely recognized art forms. However, we do not treat all types of media as art. What distinguishes artistic media from nonartistic media? Option one is quality. In some cases, quality is a useful way of understanding how the word "art" is deployed. Great examples of film or music and other genres are said to be elevated to the status of art. But many people would also agree that a great deal of "bad art" is nonetheless art. A bad painting is still seen as art simply because it is a painting, and paintings are a recognized genre of art. A second option for explaining the distinction between art and nonart is to say that art refers to a set of genres or media formats. Paintings, photographs, and ballet are all art. Pop music, newspaper articles, and line dancing are nonart. This approach highlights a legitimate arbitrariness in the distinction of art, but it doesn't tell us what the social value is of treating some things as art and others as nonart. A third option is to suggest that art distinguishes sacred objects from mundane ones. The things we call art often end up in museums that have the grandeur of temples. When an object shows up in these sacred spaces, we are more confident in recognizing it as art. However, while a great deal of art has been sacralized, there is also certainly a wealth of mundane and even profane art from across the centuries. Andy Warhol made this strikingly clear with his famous works inspired by everyday objects such as Campbell's soup cans and Brillo boxes. Robert Mapplethorpe took the point even further with his controversial photographs of kinky gay sexual interactions. After Warhol and Mapplethorpe, and so many others who have pushed the boundaries of art, we cannot make the argument that art is simply a matter of distinguishing sacred objects from mundane and profane ones.

I would like to suggest a very different way of understanding what art means and to offer an approach that makes it easier to think of social media as art. I argue that "art" refers to the creative dimension of all human action. I reject the approach that says humans make a lot of media and only designate some of it as art. Instead, I argue that humans make a lot of art, but then reduce a great deal of that art to just media. Instead of asking why some things are counted as art, I ask why more things are not. Trained, disciplined creativity goes into the design of all the objects that humans make—from food to architecture—and into all the ritual processes in which humans engage—from sports to fashion—yet we only allow a fraction of those objects and actions to count as art.

In line with the sociologist of art Janet Wolff (1984), I argue that one consequence of industrial capitalism is that the productive and creative dimensions of human activity were divided from each other. Most humans, the mass of laborers, were alienated from the creative dimensions of their labor, which took on a wholly productive value, making profits for the factory or corporation. Creativity then became the monopoly of an artistic elite, blessed by an intellectual elite of art critics, curators, and historians. As a consequence, most people today do not feel they have the right to call their creative work "art."

If this is the case, if my argument is correct, then the shift from an industrial age to a network society (or information age) may present the opportunity for a new formulation of the role of art in social life. But before moving on, I still need to address the question of just what I mean by art. It is this: Art refers to disciplined, creative work that may be performed by both artistic professionals and outsiders or amateurs. Art is distinguished not by its sacredness, but rather by a sense of the integrity of the process. This is a deliberately broad approach to art that is meant to recognize that the creative work performed by canonized artists is the same kind of creative work that all humans perform daily.


Social media is a form of art, but in this book I am not interested in all artists. I am focusing here on the artistry of people whom I refer to as freaks. For me, this term encompasses a wide range of social media users. It includes the queer social media celebrities who are using it to offer new ways of thinking about sexuality and gender, as well as new ways to express their creativity. It includes the activist leaders of Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, who have demonstrated that images and poetry are just as important to social movements as protests and policy. It includes the gamers who colluded on Reddit and other platforms to launch the GamerGate controversy, as well as the women game developers who used Twitter and blogs to fight back. When I call these people freaks, I am not using the term as a slur. I am referencing both the ways that society has marginalized them and the ways that they have found empowerment through embracing their identities.

My use of the term "freak" derives in part from the work of the early sociologist Georg Simmel. Simmel's discussion of the stranger in his 1908 essay introduces us to a sociological type (Simmel 2010). The stranger is the social outsider who lives within the social unit, a traveling merchant who decides to stay. The stranger never becomes a part of the social unit, but is always an outsider within. As Simmel says: "The stranger is an element of the group itself, not unlike the poor and sundry 'inner enemies'—an element whose membership within the group involves both being outside it and confronting it" (2010, 303). The stranger serves a particular social role in reminding the other members of the social unit of the completeness of their membership. If the stranger is the outsider within, then the bulk of the other members of society are the insiders within.

But notice a little extra phrase in Simmel's prose; he refers to the "poor and sundry 'inner enemies'." Who are they? They are not strangers. They are not outsiders who visit and decide to stay. They are members of society who were pushed—not out of society, but to its margins. They are insiders pushed to the side.

For years, my reading of Simmel's "The Stranger" led me to think of minority groups and marginalized groups as variations of the stranger type. But Simmel is very specific. The stranger is one who comes from elsewhere, visits, and decides to stay. His social role is spatial in nature: "The distance within this relation indicates that one who is close by is remote, but his strangeness indicates that one who is remote is near" (2010, 302). In other words, our attempts to find a trope to understand how and why members of society are pushed to the margins will have to look elsewhere besides the stranger. Simmel at least gives us a lead in his phrase about poor and sundry inner enemies.

So I propose the trope of the freak as the lens for understanding these marginalized insiders. "Freak" is an ascribed condition, in that social institutions deem certain types of bodies and behaviors to be abnormal. No one is inherently a freak—we simply are who we are—but cultural forces deem some to be freaks. But freak is also an achievement, in that many marginalized people choose to embrace precisely that which makes them different as a source of pride and empowerment and as a tool for organization. To return to the Janelle Monae song referenced previously, embracing our freak is a way of finding our inner queens and kings.

The term "freak" is from the language of the sideshow, in which marginalized bodies—many of which would now be deemed disabled—were pushed out of the mainstream of society and forced to work in the circus. These freaks are wonderfully and fearfully portrayed in Tod Browning's 1932 film Freaks. Many modern disability communities continue to embrace the word "freak" as a term of empowerment, along with reclaiming other words like "cripple" (or just "crip"). Other marginalized groups have also invested in reclaiming derogatory language, from feminist embraces of "bitch," to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) uses of "queer," to the widely debated N-word. "Freak" also references decades of youth culture and the idea of "letting your freak flag fly."

In sociology, the term has been used in various ways, but perhaps most notably by Joshua Gamson in Freaks Talk Back (1998), his study of daytime talk shows. Explaining why he loves the "trash" of these shows, he says: "I identify with the misfits, monsters, trash, and perverts.… If you are lesbian, bisexual, gay, or transgendered, watching daytime TV talk shows is pretty spooky.… Almost everywhere else in media culture you are either unwelcome, written by someone else, or heavily edited. On television talk shows, you are more than welcome" (2010, 4). In Gamson's analysis, the TV talk shows of the 1990s were a platform for acknowledging, debating, and dissecting the lives of freaks and misfits. His focus is largely on sexual misfits, but class, gender, and race also play significant roles in his analysis.

Those shows persist today, and they continue to offer a space for freaks to talk back to society and media. But technological developments have also created a new set of participatory media outlets, peppered across the Internet and social media. Freaks are no longer just invited guests. Now they are hosts of their own channels, found on YouTube, Tumblr, Twitter, Reddit, and 4chan. They are honing their social media craft, training their voices, and building massive audiences. In their hands, social media technologies are not just communication tools, but also artistic tools, as they craft powerful messages couched in narrative and entertainment delivered to responsive audiences.


Before I turn to an examination of how freaks are using social media as an artistic medium, I want to say more about the economic and social changes that ground this development, as they impact both technological progress and artistic change. Of the stranger, Simmel says that his appearance can be understood in terms of economic history because the stranger has most often been the trader. The freak also can be understood in economic terms. To paraphrase Simmel, in the history of economic activity, the freak makes her appearance everywhere as a niche market. No economic era has ever relied so heavily on dividing consumers into niche groups.

The last several decades have been marked by transformations in the labor force and the rise of computerization. These changes are typically referred to as the dawn of the information age, a new stage of global capitalism that functionally replaces the industrial age (even as industrial capitalism continues to persist). Here, I rely primarily on the work of Manuel Castells in his three-volume set The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture, which has provided the dominant theoretical account of the information age, or what Castells calls the network society. "This new social structure is associated with the emergence of a new mode of development, informationalism, historically shaped by the restructuring of the capitalist mode of production towards the end of the twentieth century" (Castells 1996, 14). According to Castells, the transformation from industrial capitalism to informational capitalism has been characterized by flexible production models; increasingly horizontal systems (replacing corporate hierarchies); and most important, a growing reliance on networks by both individuals and firms.

Capitalist production is increasingly marked by corporate cooperation rather than corporate competition. We see this across fields, but media provides an excellent example. Seemingly competing corporate entities are increasingly linked through co-ownership of major properties (like the ownership of the CW network by both CBS and Warner Brothers), cooperation on major endeavors (such as the collaboration of NBC, Fox, and ABC on the platform Hulu), and contractual relationships that are mutually beneficial (as when television shows made by one network's studio are then aired on another network). The reliance on networks characterizes not only corporate production, but also individual labor force participation. A growing number of workers function as consultants or contractors and rely on professional networks to produce new income-producing contractual relationships.

Castells has a great deal to say about how identity functions in the network society. The second volume of his opus, The Power of Identity, is devoted to the topic. Castells begins by distinguishing three types of identity. Legitimizing identity refers to the identity systems of dominant groups, which ultimately function to justify their power. To be clear, legitimizing identity is not simply the identities of the dominant groups themselves, but rather the totality of the identity systems to which they subscribe, which are reproduced by the institutions they control. Resistance identity refers to the counter-models of identity subscribed to by oppressed or marginalized groups. Project identity refers to new identity systems introduced by social actors who are seeking social transformation. The three formations of identity might best be seen through the lens of Hegel's notion of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. I am focused on the ways that individual actors use social media as a tool in resistance and project identities that seek to both assert artistic individuality and transform the way that society understands and responds to various marginalized collective identities.

Project identities are best understood as social movements. Castells has taken great interest in the prospects for social movements in the age of the network society, expressing hope that these movements may prevail in an era of flattened hierarchies and expansive networks. Occupy Wall Street is perhaps the best known example of these flattened social movements, in which the cause became a household name and yet no specific leader owned the spotlight.

Castells has essentially nothing to say about how art functions in the network society. However, I think it is useful to extrapolate from Castells a theory of the social role of art. Industrial capitalism alienated the workers from the fruits of their labors and even from themselves, even as it reduced their existence to their roles in economic production. The workers, which is to say the masses of individuals, were further alienated from their creative characters as creativity became the monopoly of an institutionalized artistic elite. Art became upper class in a middle-class society, intellectual in an anti-intellectual society, feminine in a masculinist society, and counterproductive in a society consumed by production.

In a network society, is there now the potential for these divisions to diminish? In the production of information, is there now an opportunity to recognize the creative dimension of all human work? In a world of horizontal production, might the worker no longer produce in a state of alienation?

I think the answers to these questions remain to be seen. But I do think that there are many who are working to find positive answers to these questions, and I think they are at least seizing opportunities created by new relations of production that are appearing now in the information age.


  • "Social Media Freaks offers a critical, accessible investigation of some of the most important social movements of our time, including Occupy and Black Lives Matter, that will animate new conversations about the power and consequences of social media. . . . Students will walk away from this book with a new understanding of the social forces at play on our various digital screens and an ability to critically engage the diversity of social media platforms that demand our attention."—Patrick Grzanka, University of Tennessee, Knoxville
  • I think [Social Media Freaks] is a much needed approach to social media. It's the approach I would take in my classroom to explain the significance of social media.—Janet Johnson, University of Texas at Dallas
  • "The detailed analysis of the leadership and corporate structures of Facebook, Twitter, etc ... is especially clear and useful. The discussion of sexuality and social media ... is superb and much needed; especially valuable is the author's analysis of social media as tools for research into human sexual attitudes and behavior."—Paul Levinson, Fordham University

On Sale
Mar 7, 2017
Page Count
288 pages

Dustin Kidd

About the Author

Dustin Kidd is Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of Intellectual Heritage at Temple University in Philadelphia. Kidd is the author of two other books: Social Media Freaks: Identity, Mass Media, and Society; and Legislating Creativity: The Intersections of Art & Politics. He has also published articles and essays in several journals including The Hedgehog Review, AfterImage, Research in Political Sociology, The Journal of Popular Culture, Contexts, and Sociology Compass. He has taught courses on the sociology of popular culture since 2001.

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