💎 What’s your status?
Examining the latest tech news through a status lens.
Looking for a Twitter alternative for your healthy internet news? Connect with New_ Public on Substack Chat for deeper dives on our posts and more links to our favorite reads.
Status is a potent lens for understanding our communities.
When we talk about the word “status,” it usually means one of two things. There’s the immediately timely kind of status: the status of your food delivery, or the status message you leave on Slack, or the status update on the repairs to the cable internet in your neighborhood.
But there’s also the stratified, privileged, and contextual notion of status: the status you may have earned as a frequent flyer, the status of a luxury purse hanging from your shoulder, or the status conferred by a blue checkmark on your social platform of choice.
The last time we mentioned status explicitly in our newsletter was a couple of years ago, in a brief show and tell from our Co-Director Eli Pariser where he shared a conversation between two of our good friends, Ezra Klein and Tressie McMillan Cottom, and Dr. Cottom described her work thusly:
In my mind, I’m always writing about one thing, and I’m always stunned that other people don’t see it. It’s just status. Status looks the same everywhere you go, but it wears a different outfit.
Eli described the interview as “extraordinarily rich” and said that he “think(s) about pieces of it daily.” And lately, I’ve been thinking the same thing.
Dr. Cottom observed that we have a lot of language around our identities—our race, our gender, and so on—but we have comparatively little language around status.
I think that acknowledging the power and influence and nature of status, both real and perceived, would serve us well as we imagine our digital public futures together. So for the next few months, I’ll be covering the many facets of status in this newsletter so that we may develop a shared language around status and get more comfortable with speaking this language.
To kick things off for “status season” at New_ Public, let’s revisit three major recent tech headlines and apply a status lens to them and see what we can learn from it.
Silicon Valley Bank revealed the fragility of nouveau riche status value.
In her book, New Money: How Payment Became Social Media, Lana Swartz covers everything from the history of credit cards to the emergence of cryptocurrency. In her own words, “Money is, uniquely, information that is socially guaranteed to be valuable.” She had this to say about the importance of reliable money systems:
To be a full member of any transactional community, to fully participate in a modern economy, and, indeed, to survive, you have to get paid. You have to have access to some kind of payment system, be it cash or electronic. And those systems have to work, reliably. A system that suddenly and unexpectedly cuts you off from money can be as perilous as not having access to any system at all.
Tens of thousands of companies and funders experienced this community cutoff firsthand when California state regulators shut down Silicon Valley Bank on March 10 after depositors withdrew large amounts of money, also known as a bank run.
Silicon Valley Bank was instrumental in building the Northern California tech region’s high-status culture because they were willing to fund projects that other banks wouldn’t. As Stefan Kalb stated succinctly in this NPR article:
If you’re a high-growth startup, you can’t get a credit card from a normal credit card provider, you can’t get a loan from a big bank, but Silicon Valley Bank would give you that. It’s these services that startups couldn’t get elsewhere.
As news of the bank run and shutdown unfolded, tech leaders were presented with a very real threat to the economic status conferred to them by SVB. To preserve that status, many leaders turned to their social capital, first in private network conversations, then on public social media platforms.
The status-based connections between identity- and money-based networks are covered extensively in Swartz’s New Money, and perhaps a post-SVB Silicon Valley could learn from another population that Swartz covers extensively in her book: adult entertainers.
Cam girls and sex workers are no strangers to uncertain financial status and inconsistencies in the electronic payment system based on their online presence. More from Swartz:
People who happen to work in pornography, like anyone else, may seek to participate in online economic activity, but when terms of service are enforced by social media surveillance, the mere fact that they participate in the sex industry in ways evident on social media may be enough to exclude them entirely.
Ironically, the payment systems these adult entertainers rely on are the types of startups who would have had a tough time accessing capital themselves, were it not for institutions like Silicon Valley Bank. And when policy changes restrict the cash flow, both groups lean on their status value capital on social media to gather support and protect their interests.
Perhaps Silicon Valley and Silicone Valley would benefit from a closer partnership in building a more human-centered way to bank and get paid, a system that doesn’t devalue their non-traditional entrepreneurial spirit as an unmarketable risk and creates a market exchange for economic and social capital. If everyone had an equal right to taking a chance on financial freedom, wouldn’t that be a healthier space for all of us?
Generative AI grants elite status to American white supremacy.
Artificial intelligence: It’s here, it’s there, it’s every-effing-where. But of all the countless think pieces I’ve read on AI, I haven’t seen much discussion around the status value assigned to the outputs themselves, and the status hierarchies reinforced by those outputs.
Jenka Gurfinkel wrote a great piece this week about the consequences of decontextualized training data in “AI and the American Smile,” where she shares a litany of Midjourney “selfie” pics from different global cultures and ages of world history with all humans in the photos sporting the same bright smile that Americans are known for.
It was as if the AI had cast 21st century Americans to put on different costumes and play the various cultures of the world. Which, of course, it had.
This insight led me back to Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson, which laid out the eight pillars of the unspoken caste system in America: divine will, heritability, endogamy, purity, occupational hierarchy, dehumanization, terror, and inherent superiority.
These images and others like it collapse context and colonize not merely cultures, but actual human faces. For me, this phenomenon connects most strongly to the pillar of dehumanization, on which Wilkerson writes, perhaps even forebodes:
It is a process, a programming. It takes energy and reinforcement to deny what is self-evident in another member of one’s own species.
On a different but related thread, as far as the status value we assign to the things that generative AI tools are making—images, text, video, sound—I believe that the uncertainty or reluctance to adopt these tools isn’t merely an ethical question, but a status question.
One of Eugene Wei’s core principles in Status as a Service is that “people seek out the most efficient path to maximizing social capital.” When fiddling with AI software, one might be thinking, “How does this improve my own social status? Is this the most efficient way to do it?”
Furthermore, it’s not easy to tell the difference between all the competing players, and I don’t think we know what “high quality” or “low quality” AI is yet. Once we know which roads are better than other roads, we might all be more inclined to travel on more roads overall.
I believe the larger adoption of generative AI tools will hinge on the formation of a value hierarchy for the multitude of services and their outputs. When the market for AI matures and we can assign the high costs of a service to the high perceived value of its output, then I believe we will see more Internet users at large embracing the tools through the norm of peer pressure, the cost of “fitting in” or risking being left behind by the flock.
The TikTok hearing was a stark display of status imbalance.
On Thursday March 23, TikTok CEO Shou Chew appeared before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and it served as a key inflection point for social media regulation and the geopolitical rivalry between the U.S. and China.
It was a very tense hearing, one with an angry undercurrent from both sides of the House. Our friend Evan Greer dismissed the hearing as “xenophobic showboating” and Asian Americans Advancing Justice characterized the hearing as “racially charged animosity.”
The optics of a predominantly white and objectively American legislative cohort grilling a Chinese CEO definitely hinted at a distinct status gap. But this status gap goes beyond the identities of the committee or of TikTok’s CEO. The status gap is built into the room itself.
The hearing room has three rows of representatives seated at a much higher elevation, literally looking down on the person compelled to testify, a setup intended to demonstrate authority, to intimidate, to instill fear. It’s no wonder that the ensuing conversations are fraught with tension, compounded by the status values conferred to us by our identities in that context.
For improved discussions around justice and governance and policy, whether in real life or online, we must examine our design choices and the statuses they confer. Instead of the imbalanced hearing rooms, we could build a Red Hook Community Justice Center or a Midtown Community Court, where architectural choices and design choices confer dignity and status value to all participants equally to produce more just and progressive outcomes.
To translate this equitable social dynamic into digital spaces, we can start by examining the markers that suggest high or low status for a user, as well as visual cues and interactions that amplify the perceptions of our own status and the relative status of others.
It’s time to open up about our human need for status.
To become more aware of status, we need to start speaking about it more openly and frequently. Dr. Cottom said it best:
I may not be able to control how the world will see a really smart Black girl as she walks around in the world, but I can have a language for describing it, and I can know, at the end of the day, that if I can label it, if I can talk about it, it hasn’t completely broken me, and that more of us need that language. More is needed.
To build better digital public spaces, we need to be thoughtful about the creation and distribution of status value. If we can be honest about our human need to assign and obtain status, we can address that need in ways that are net-positive for our communities rather than zero-sum. 🌳
And that’s it! Thanks for reading. Our next post on “status” is gonna be a real nostalgia trip. ~*hErE’s A hInT.*~ See you in two weeks.
Sitting alone in the VIP,