Technology and the Status Game

Over at TPMCafe Book Club, Internet guru Clay Shirky and tech policy wizard Tim Lee are discussing the old debate between Henry Farrell and me about the proliferation of status dimensions enabled by wealth and the development of new technology, and whether or not there is some kind of meta-ranking of status dimensions.

To Henry’s attempt at a sort of comic reductio in the example of a “level 75 Night Elf Rogue who Kicks Serious Ass!”, Clay responds:

Now this example is designed to be an absurd extreme, and Henry says as much, but even in its seemingly absurd form, I’m not on board with it. As I write this, Tiger Woods may be making some sort of golf history, burnishing further his already highly burnished reputation & c., and yet, given the choice, I’d much rather have dinner with the elf. I don’t care about golf, but I do care about Warcraft, and someone with that degree of expertise is a big deal in my book.

One obvious objection is that I am simply a pallid, pencil-necked geek who doesn’t understand the implicit meta-ranking of golf over WoW, but in fact, I am a pallid, pencil-necked geek who understands the implicit meta-ranking of golf over WoW perfectly well. The NY Times never puts serious Warcraft players on the front page of the sports section, much less the front page over all, so the general social importance of golf is hardly lost on me.

I simply don’t care. That most of my fellow citizens prefer golf to WoW doesn’t make me feel bad that I don’t, which I take to be Wilkinson’s point.


Tim does an outstanding job of explaining why new technology makes the existence of a meta-ranking more and more unlikely.

What I think lends Farrell’s claim of “implicit meta-rankings” some plausibility is the fact that, until recently, the national media provided something like a uniform yardstick for status. In 1970, whoever appeared on national television and in national magazines on a regular basis was a celebrity by definition. And because there were only three television networks and a dozen or so national magazines, the top end of the status hierarchy really was close to zero-sum. If you appeared on Johnny Carson, you displaced somebody else.

But as the Internet removes the artificial scarcity of soapboxes, it is becoming increasingly implausible to suggest that everyone’s fighting for a spot on a fixed national pecking order. Case in point: I just got back home from a road trip with my fiancée, and she brought along her iPod stocked with knitting podcasts. I wasn’t aware of it until recently, but there is, apparently, a vibrant online community devoted to swapping knitting tips, complete with its own blogs, forums, podcasts, and minor celebrities. I’m sure there were a few famous authors in 1970 who wrote about knitting, but the national conversation around knitting is incomparably larger and more participatory than it was in 1970. The rise of an online knitting subculture has created a whole new status hierarchy for knitting enthusiasts to compete over.

Later, in an IM, Tim pointed out that because knitting is “done mostly by women it’s harder to place on the male-dominated Night-Elf to Football quarterback spectrum that seems to be what people have in mind when they’re positing a monolithic pecking order.” I think that’s a great observation.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center