First Monday, Volume 18, Number 4 - 1 April 2013

Synthesizing sponsorships: Toward a lens of composite sponsorship on social network sites
First Monday

Synthesizing sponsorships: Toward a lens of composite sponsorship on social network sites by Kaitlin Marks-Dubbs

This paper examines corporations as institutional sponsors of writing for non–employees, demonstrating the shaping or teaching of writing to consumers through corporate writing contests as they currently appear on Facebook. It specifically focuses on the sponsorship of writing in these networked spaces, wherein the networked compositional platform itself and the individuals and corporate entities eliciting writing cooperate as sponsors.


Why retailers? Why Facebook? The stakes of writing in a networked economy
Retailer incentives for shifting consumer compositions to a separately sponsored site
Facebook’s role in composite sponsorship: Emphasizing authenticity, reputation, and connections
Composite sponsorship at a structural level: The role of the writing platform interface in sponsorship
Composite sponsorship and confluent ideologies: The use of identifiability in a networked economy
Sponsorship as mutually constitutive identity–construction
Sponsorship of a composing labor force: Acknowledging the indirect targets of compositional or composite sponsorship
Implications for future research




In 1998, Deborah Brandt’s theory of literacy sponsorship rendered legible how economic and ideological interests are transacted through the instruction of literate activity. Brandt identifies sponsors of literacy as “any agents, local or distant, concrete or abstract, who enable, support, teach, model, as well as recruit, regulate, suppress, or withhold literacy — and gain advantage by it in some way” [1]. Within the fields of literacy and writing studies, research of sponsorship has been commonly executed through ethnographic research on the development of multiple sponsorships of individual’s literacy practices (Brandt, 1998, 2001; Emig, 1971; Fishman, et al., 2005; Gere, 1994; Selfe and Hawisher, 2004; Webb–Sunderhaus, 2007; Yi and Hirvela, 2010). While such a focus has productively examined the relationship of literacy and those instructed or otherwise enabled to read or write, this essay seeks to articulate the rhetorical function of sponsorship as it positions writers to mediate sponsored messages to a broader audience, especially in the context of social network sites and Facebook specifically.

Over the course of this essay, I argue that the sponsorship of writing structures not only literate acts, or even ways of being in the world shaped around literate practices (Prior and Shipka, 2003), but also various means of reaching others in the promotion of the sponsors’ interests. I focus on the sponsorship of writing in networked spaces, wherein the networked compositional platform itself and the individuals and corporate entities eliciting compositional participation within it cooperate as sponsors. Current marketing trends in social network sites (SNSs) show that agents prompting, modeling, and rewarding compositions often rely on additional sponsorship to not only reach the sponsored writers but to further spread their economic and ideological interests beyond those individuals whose writing they directly elicit. For example, as retailers create Facebook pages and use the compositional spaces there to prompt consumer–written praise for their products and brands, they reach the consumers whose writing they have prompted; each consumer–writing response further reaches various members of an individual writer’s social network, allowing retailers direct network access to potential correspondents and indirect access to potential consumer markets.

I argue that sponsorship is frequently multiple and layered, a series of processes in which multiple sponsors elicit sponsored writers to structure channels between themselves and a broader audience than they could attract alone. In my primary example for analysis, I focus on sex–toy retailer Babeland’s sponsorship of writing contests within the “status update” and “comment” feature compositional spaces of Facebook, a social network site that requires legal names for its participating members. While has compositional spaces that allow writers to remain anonymous, pseudonymous, or ambiguous [2], contest guidelines for compositional sponsorship events such as the “Toy–a–Day Giveaway” and the “Seven Days of Cobra Libre” giveaway require written participation on Facebook. This requirement of identifiable composition operates to identify contest participants as affiliates of Babeland’s brand within a social network that signifies public displays of connection [3] as the primary means of identity construction. Participants do not need to fully appreciate themselves as affiliates of a specific brand in order for others to interpret them as such. Similarly, sponsoring networks such as Facebook are not necessarily fully aware of their cooperation in compositional sponsorship with that of businesses such as Babeland, which use their writing platform. Such a synthesis of sponsorships, however, results in both structural and ideological changes to the processes and products of either sponsor acting alone.

The co–sponsorship that Babeland creates between itself and Facebook merges the sex–positive ideologies and brand promotion that Babeland sponsors through its writing prompts and the social value of reputation (specifically constructed with legal names) with the publicly displayed network connections that Facebook sponsors through its terms of access to its compositional spaces. The synthesis of these sponsorships results in the prompting, rewarding, and regulating of a named and identifiable affiliation with the Babeland brand, the sexual products it vends, and the sexual desires and practices such products mark. The synthesis of these sponsors’ confluent interests in gathering, targeting, and organizing consumers through compositional affiliation results in what I term “composite sponsorship,” in which the cooperation of multiple sponsors results in structural significance and ideological freight distinct from those resulting from the operation of either on its own.

Through composite sponsorship with networked platforms such as Facebook, Babeland and other retailers (as well as non–profit and other interest groups with fund–raising interests) can work to pass their economic and ideological interests on to those whose writing it sponsors and the social contacts who read writers’ recent compositional participation. As such, the study of compositional sponsorship executed in cooperation with social network sites can potentially help us better understand the dissemination, uptake, and potential normativization of knowledge, instruction, ideologies, and even misinformation through “viral” marketing, word–of–mouth, and grassroots strategies that use networks of lay writers to mediate and reproduce messages to increasingly wider audiences. This essay asks how developing a lens of composite sponsorship might raise new questions — and awareness — of who writes, where they write, for whom they write, and for what gains they write within networked writing economies. Although the notion of composite sponsorship may extend beyond SNSs, within the context of Facebook, I find that corporate sponsorship of composition ultimately becomes the sponsorship of a specifically branded consumer identity.



Why retailers? Why Facebook? The stakes of writing in a networked economy

Facebook’s affordance of compositional space to its users provides retailers with a platform in which consumers are already consuming and producing texts. My analysis departs from the necessary observation that retailers, who do not necessarily pay for ad space, can reap the benefits of a social network’s drawing consumers together. Inviting consumers to become part of the advertising process on Facebook requires no financial payment to the social network site. Analyzing retailers’ use of the compositional spaces coded into Facebook’s interface demonstrates that sponsorship can occur through multiple structural and ideological processes. Facebook’s interface, its structuring of compositional spaces, its determination of how many characters they can include, of how they can be “tagged” or hyperlinked to one another, and its inclusion of affordances to upload photos and video all structure what, how, and in what contexts its users can compose. The construction of compositional space (whether through digital coding or otherwise) is thus one process of sponsorship, as compositional interfaces facilitate, constrain, and ultimately regulate how and what a person can compose within its affordances and boundaries as well as providing a context for composition.

The sponsors I study cooperate with Facebook’s network to not only prompt compositions but further to channel them beyond the writers they sponsor for the consumption of each writer’s social contacts. How they decide to use the structures that Facebook provides to both influence writers and their readers is another process cooperating with the provision of the compositional structures themselves. Facebook’s structure of status updates and contributing comments subsumes commenting responses under the status that prompt them (see Figure 1). Babeland and a number of other retailers (LELO, Threadless, DSW) take up this structure to carry out writing contests that prompt sponsored compositions to appear in various social networks’ newsfeeds across Facebook as a social network site. In one such example, Babelandsea Seattle, one of multiple Babeland Facebook pages, posts a call for participation on its Facebook wall: “We are giving away 2 tickets to SHINE: A Burlesque Musical [hypertext]. Just comment below to enter to win. Winners chosen on Thursday.” The direction to “comment below” instructs users to take advantage of Facebook’s comment features that organizes written responses beneath their prompts and indented slightly to the right, much as a threaded conversation in an online forum.


Babelandsea Seattle promotion on Facebook
Figure 1: Babelandsea Seattle’s promotion on Facebook.


As such, Facebook’s organization of compositional transactions lends itself to an Initiation–Reply–Evaluation (IRE) mode of composition sponsorship. The documentation of this IRE [4] pattern of instructor and instructed interactions was originally developed through studies of common structures of classroom discourse in which an instructor initiates writing with a prompt or assignment, the student replies with a text [5], and the instructor evaluates the product (Mehan, 1979; Prior, 1998; Sinclair and Coulthard, 1975; Wallace and Ewald, 2000). Facebook’s structure of indenting responses beneath the initial prompt, but not allowing responses to be indented beneath other participants’ responses, structures all comments as responding to the initial Babeland prompt, never identifying a new Initiator to whom to respond within the many comments (as many threaded forums do). Individuals first seeing the contest or returning to it later can easily locate prompt responses through this organization, and Facebook notification settings allow users who have participated to receive messages whenever a new comment appears, keeping the conversation alive across time and space, as users need not remain present in real time. In this example, Facebook structurally sponsors social relations between Babeland, as the initial speaker, and the brand’s potential consumers, as respondents.

Facebook, however, sponsors these writing contests not only through its structure (subsuming responses to writing prompts) but also in framing an ideology of networked identity in which social reputation is built upon visible identity connections. Such an ideology has appeal for retailers in that Facebook users’ interactions with their companies’ Facebook pages circulates composition of the brand and further affiliates the users with the brand; their networked identity is shaped by their visible connection to the brand, and thus the brand’s networked identity is shaped by consumers’ willingness to openly affiliate themselves with it, marking it as desirable.



Retailer incentives for shifting consumer compositions to a separately sponsored site

The trigger for this study of layered sponsorship was Babeland’s call for platform migration for its “Toy–a–Day Giveaway” writing contest participation. As articulated on Babeland’s home site, contest guidelines explain to potential participants, “All you need to do is become a Friend or Fan of Babeland on any of our official Facebook pages and send us a quick ‘Hello’ on our wall or via Facebook mail [6] to let us know you want to win one of these great toys” (Babeland’s Toy–a–Day Giveaway). For this contest, Babeland asks consumers to identify themselves as a “friend” or “fan” of this company with the possibility of a reward in turn for such public identification. The Web page provides links to three official Babeland pages: Babeland NYC, Babeland Seattle [7], and Fan Page, allowing consumers to move, with one click, from a digital space that allows users to participate anonymously, pseudonymously, or ambiguously to a site where the actual names of users are both expected and (to varying degrees) enforced.

Such a move calls to attention the ideological freight borne in accessing Facebook’s provision of compositional space. In receiving access to Facebook’s mass–distributed compositional spaces, a retailer accesses exposure to potential customers. Sponsorship of composition thus not only shapes the sponsored writers’ production of writing but also acts as a mode of reaching other consumers in their social network. In turning to Facebook as a sponsoring platform for its writing contests, Babeland rewards not simply compositions about what its brand has to offer (this could be done anonymously or pseudonymously at its home site) but users’ self–identification as a brand affiliate through their correspondence. Babeland’s access to and use of Facebook’s compositional network necessitates further analysis of Brandt’s useful concept of sponsored writers as bearing the ideological freight of its sponsor; Babeland does not bear such freight as a burden, as this branding in fact should benefit the company, but potentially reproductively bears this ideological weight to multiply opportunities for its own compositional (and thus ideological) sponsorship. The following sections of this essay review Facebook’s structuring of “authentic” identities constructed around public displays of connection to inform how the selection of a writing platform as an initial layer of sponsorship can additionally layer ideology to a second sponsor’s benefit.

Babeland stands out as a particularly relevant example of such sponsorship because of the necessity of word–of–mouth to promote products whose public advertisement on television broadcasts or billboards would be greatly limited by obscenity law. On Facebook, the elicitation of consumer compositions about products and brands distributes consumer word–of–mouth both deeply and broadly. That is to say, a consumer’s Facebook friends can view his or her compositions or writing and hear about a brand or product from a familiar source, while a consumer visiting a retailer’s Facebook page can read about that company’s brand and product from a number of sources beyond his or her individual network of friends. Both consumers and retailers value consumer–produced information regarding product use and attempt to counteract consumer concerns regarding information asymmetry between themselves and vendors (Bebczuk, 2003; Mackiewicz, 2010; Paradis, 1991; Park, et al., 2007). In other words, retailers recognize consumer concerns in judging whether a product is all that it’s advertised because they do not have first–hand knowledge but do understand that emphasizing a product’s pros and potential is in the seller’s interest and thus recognize seller–produced information as skewed. Therefore, retailers value consumer reviews as distributing knowledge from what consumers will likely see as a more objective source to back up their products, just as consumers value that alternate perspective. The organization of compositional spaces within Facebook’s interface structures what retailers can do to both produce compositions and prompt consumer compositions that do not operate as free labor for simply advertising, I argue, but for socializing their products [8].

Facebook’s interest in providing a compositional platform that captures the attention of millions of consumers is thus confluent with the interests of retailers seeking to reach as many consumers as possible with information regarding their brand and products. Sara Webb–Sunderhaus (2007) has shown that sponsors of literacy can sponsor “competing meanings of literacy,” appearing as both a sponsor and inhibitor of literate activity through seemingly contradictory messages about literacy [9]. This concept of competing and contradictory messages about the meaning of literate activity makes room for the academic study of how sponsors work to laminate confluent meanings of such activity. Babeland has an economic interest in Facebook’s requirement of identifiable authorship and definition of networked identity as constructed by connections and compositional interactions. By not remaining anonymous, pseudonymous, or ambiguous, writers here not only lend Babeland’s brand credibility to their social contacts but further construct a networked identity that includes Babeland’s brand identity. As Babeland shapes compositions in this space, it also shapes identity constructions.

While rewarding consumers for producing publicity is not a new marketing strategy, doing so in a space in which individuals further publicize aspects of identity as varied and personal as family photos and sexual interests is a new practice enabled by digital networking. As such, I present the corporate sponsorship of literate activity as a productive site for the study of developing literate identities. Building on scholarship arguing for the separation of writing pedagogy from the “traditional pedagogue” — scholarship working to acknowledge the learning through writing that takes place outside of school throughout a person’s day and across his or her lifetime and to appreciate a diverse array of interlocutors outside of student subjects (Fishman, et al., 2005; Gere, 1994; Schultz, 2002) — I suggest that such sites of study can inform scholarly understandings of sponsorship regardless of a writer’s relation to ‘in–school,’ ‘out–of–school,’ or workplace identities, functioning as neither required nor self–sponsored (Emig, 1971; Yi and Hirvela, 2010) compositions.



Facebook’s role in composite sponsorship: Emphasizing authenticity, reputation, and connections

As a sponsor, Facebook brings to its composite sponsorship with Babeland a specific construction of compositional space (as previously exampled by subsuming comments to writing prompts initiated in the status feature) and an ideological emphasis on identifiable authorship and the construction of identity through social connections. Numerous Facebook corporate documents stress the need for “real” names and identities and emphasize the security measures Facebook has in place to prevent the creation of inauthentic identities and the consequences of false identity construction. For example, Facebook’s Help Center explains Facebook security measures as enacted “to help ensure that Facebook remains a community of people using their real identities to connect and share” (Help Center) [10]. Facebook’s document of principles identifies the purpose of its authenticity standards as helping “to make the world more open and transparent, which we believe will create greater understanding and connection. Facebook promotes openness and transparency by giving individuals greater power to share and connect” (Facebook Principles). Within its list of ten founding principles [11], Facebook defines “social value” (the fifth principle) as “the freedom to build trust and reputation through their identity and connections” (Facebook Principles). Within this structural perception of a social reputation as built upon visible connections, Facebook emphasizes “[m]aking connections [as] the main way to express yourself on your profile” (Help Center: Community Pages and profile connections). The result of connections as “the main way to express yourself” on Facebook is fewer spaces for the written composition of identity on a Facebook profile. Thus, wall posts, both on one’s own wall and on other walls as they appear in user newsfeeds, are the main way through which Facebook users construct their identities through literate practice.

In its explanation of page and profile connections, Facebook emphasizes displays of public connection as constructing a networked identity, explaining to users, “Making connections is the main way to express yourself on your profile” (Help Center: Community Pages and profile connections). One result in this emphasis on connections as “the main way to express yourself” on Facebook is fewer spaces for the written composition of identity on a Facebook profile. Previous spaces for writing, such as listing favorite movies, television shows, and books, for example, have been replaced with the option to connect to pages for specific movies, television shows, and books through hyperlinks. Thus, wall posts, both on one’s own wall and on other walls as they appear in user newsfeeds, are the main way through which Facebook users construct their identities through literate practice. As danah boyd (2011) observes, Facebook profiles themselves are the locus of a Facebook user’s social–networked written interaction as conversations take place directly on user profiles [12]. As such, the writing that appears on Facebook profiles reflects not only a user’s engagement with the social network site based on the conversations appearing on his or her profile but also the writer’s engagement with the individuals, organization, brands, and ideologies with whom he or she makes public connections. Because the writing that appears on a user’s Facebook wall works to shape that user’s identity, boyd argues that participants do not have complete control over their self–representation (deleting a post does not delete the time it has already spent posted not only on a user’s wall but in his or her friends’ newsfeeds).

It is through this compositional structure that Babeland rewards consumer writing with material prizes such as featured products or tickets to sex–positive events. The following sections focus specifically on two contests, one for two tickets to SHINE: A Burlesque Musical and one for seven free Cobra Libre masturbatory sleeves. First I analyze the SHINE contest prompts and responses to composite sponsorship at the structural level, as Babeland prompts, models, and rewards composition through Facebook’s status and comment features, tweaking its prompts and the responses it receives throughout the contest. Second, I move on to a brief discussion of the “Seven Days of Cobra Libre” contest in order to more clearly evidence the synthesis of sponsored ideologies that can occur in composite sponsorship. As Babeland prompts and rewards “sex while driving” stories not in the anonymous, pseudonymous, or ambiguously identified compositional space of its home site but in the identifiable space of Facebook profiles, it sponsors both composition and a way of being. Babeland asks not only for sex–positive narratives but also for narratives of public sex acts narrated in a space that connects such narratives to a named identity formed primarily through public displays of connection.



Composite sponsorship at a structural level: The role of the writing platform interface in sponsorship

Between Tuesday, 29 June and Thursday, 1 July 2010, Babelandsea Seattle issued a series of status updates prompting Facebook “friends” to comment on its Facebook wall to win tickets to SHINE: A Burlesque Musical. Through this contest, Babeland deployed its sponsorship of literate activity through repeated and revised writing prompts that increasingly narrowed compositional content to specifically focus consumer responses to capture elements of the product being raffled. In the first message, Babelandsea Seattle posted, “We are giving away 2 tickets to SHINE: A Burlesque Musical [hypertext]. Just comment below to enter to win. Winners chosen on Thursday” (Babelandsea Seattle). At this point in the giveaway, contest guidelines said simply to leave a comment without specification as to the content. Similarly, the third post appears simply to remind readers to post a comment of any kind: “Last day to enter to win tickets to SHINE: A Burlesque Musical. We are giving away 2 pairs today. Leave a comment below to enter” (Babelandsea Seattle). Comments to these posts typically expressed a general interest in winning the tickets in messages such as “Pick me, pick me!” or “meeeeeeeee” or appear to express a general interest in the show and the contest itself, such as “AWESOME!”, “yay!”, and “That’s very cool!” (Babelandsea Seattle). These messages appear to fulfill the contest criteria of leaving a comment as well as promoting the show itself.

On the second day of the three–day contest, Babelandsea Seattle posted a second prompt for the giveaway, spurring new comment–entries: “Have you entered to win tickets to SHINE: A Burlesque Musical [hypertext] yet? we have 2 pairs of tickets and we are picking a winner tomorrow! Leave a little sparkly love below to enter to win” (Babelandsea Seattle). Of the first few comments, half appear to appeal to the “sparkly” and half to the “love” of the “sparkly love” guidelines: “Loveloveloveee. ♥”; “Sparkle!”; “i would love to go!”; “glitta glitta haaay!” (Babelandsea Seattle). After these four comments, Babelandsea Seattle jumps in with praise, encouragement and further comment guidelines to more explicitly capture the burlesque show for which tickets are being raffled: “Great Glitter and Sparkle comments y’all. Keep ’em coming. Think pasties and tassels and shimmy and shaking. It IS a BURLESQUE musical after all” (Babelandsea Seattle). I observe similarities in this reissuing of a writing prompt to the re–articulation of prompts in which instructors engage when initial student responses — either orally in class or written in the form of in–class writing, homework — do not align with the instructor’s intentions or desired outcomes. In this example, Babeland encourages further responses, both in praising the responses that have been submitted up to this point and by explicitly asking for more, while elaborating on the prompt of leaving “sparkly love” to explain its connections to the “pasties and tassels and shimmy and shaking” of the burlesque show advertised.

Following the re–crafting of this prompt, Babeland received 15 additional messages, reproduced below:

Little sparkly love

Please yes....yes please — love sparkle!
***♥*** :D
***little sparkly love!*** ♥
Sparkling Pasties and Twirling Tassles — so much fun to see them in action
Sparkly rays coming out from the giant vagina on the Babeland float! XD LMAO!
oh ho! would love to be there!!!
I need the "SHINE" in my life please.......
Thinking all pasties and tassels and shimmy and shaking. It IS a BURLESQUE musical after all. :)

These comments evidence writers responding to specific posts directing the content of their writing within a reward system. As they address the prompt, several posters have taken it up word for word, such as the comments “Little sparkly love” and “***little sparkly love!*** ♥” that take up the language of the prompt nearly word for word. Multiple posters chose to emulate sparkly love with images rather than written words, such as “~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~**~*”, “***♥*** :D”, and “*******♥*******” (or with both images and text, as in the case of “***little sparkly love!*** ♥”). Though the commenters have gone about answering the prompt in different ways, every response [13] takes up the terms “sparkly love” with the word “love,” variations of the word “sparkly” (“sparkling,” “sparkle”), textual images of sparkles (**, etc), textual images of love (♥) or words that evoke sparkling (“blinggggggg!”). In this example, the corporate use of multiple rearticulated prompts operates similarly to in–school writing prompts in asking respondents to craft their responses to meet specific compositional goals — in this case, goals of more specifically representing the object being raffled. This perception of Facebook users, much like students, crafting responses in order to meet specific guidelines for reward appears in one commenter’s response to Babeland’s announcement of contest winners as she asks Babeland what she had to say to win the contest and what the winners said.

On 1 July, Babeland announced the winners’ names in its status with the message, “Congrats!!! You each win a pair of tickets. I will email you with details” (Babelandsea Seattle). Hours after the winners were named, one person posts, “Babeland, I missed it ... what did I have to say to win a ticket? or what did the winners say?” (Babelandsea Seattle). In this post, this Babelandsea Seattle “friend” identifies a relationship between the content of participatory comments and the prizes Babeland distributes to select participants. Her question “what did I have to say to win a ticket?” suggests an understood requirement of answering a specific prompt (what did I have to say) for a reward (the ticket). Her second question, “what did the winners say?” further identifies a hierarchy of responses; the post assumes that the ticket winners have won their reward through the best answer (as opposed to a randomly selected entry) [14]. Such concern for the winning way of writing causes me to question how compositional sponsorship extends beyond those it sponsors to those reading the sponsored texts.



Composite sponsorship and confluent ideologies: The use of identifiability in a networked economy

Beyond the promotion of sex–positivity on its home site (an ideology of economic profit to the company), Babeland prompts and rewards those who “practice what they preach,” so to speak, in connecting their names to publicly distributed narratives of public sexual acts. On Babeland’s home site,, contest guidelines for “Seven Days of Cobra Libre” explain Babeland as giving away seven Fun Factory Cobra Libre vibrating masturbation sleeves to users who respond via comments to any of the “sex questions” Babeland asks over the course of seven days on its official Facebook pages. Contest guidelines specify, “You will need to be a member of Facebook to participate in this contest” (“Seven Days of Cobra Libre”), thus deploying Facebook’s requirements of identifiable authorship. Contest guidelines offer the following preview of some of the contest questions:

  • The Cobra Libre design was inspired by the AC Shelby Cobra; what other cars scream “sleek and sexy”?
  • Planes, trains, and automobiles — are you turned on by sex en route?
  • On the hood, in the back seat, solo? What car sex positions are out there?
    (“Seven Days of Cobra Libre”)

Other questions asked include: “Does driving fast get you aroused?”; “Do you have a ‘sex while driving’ story?”; and “What car seems like it was designed with car sex in mind?” (Babeland Seattle). These questions are followed up with the instruction “Comment below to enter to win the Cobra Libre today” or “Win the Fun FactoryCobra [sic] Libre by answering this question” (Babeland Seattle). When consumers respond to these questions, their names appear next to the comment as a hyperlink allowing readers to connect to their profile, which may or may not be public or private to varyingly fractal degrees [15]. Facebook profile photos appear next to names and comments as well, although these photos do not always feature the user. Entries are often sexually explicit.

In response to “Do you have a ‘sex while driving’ story?” one contest entrant writes, “Why yes, I do. On our honeymoon, my partner and I drove from Montana to the Oregon coast. To pass the time during the drive, we told each other stories, talked dirty, and generally did our best to get each other hot and bothered. It worked like a charm! And even when things got a little touchy–feely, we managed not to crash” (Babeland Seattle). Another uses her partner’s name writing, “Paul and I used to live in CA, taking long drives regularly to visit family ... we often talked dirty, or talked about fantasies we each had. A few times on hwy 101, when the talking had become uncomfortable squirming, I leaned over and gave Paul one if his number one fantasies. Hwy Oral, and let me just say as good as I am, Paul is a very steady driver :P” (Babeland Seattle). Such Facebook wall comments, as boyd (2011) observes, “are not simply a dialogue between two interlocutors, but a performance of social connection before a broader audience” [16]. Consumer responses will not be seen only by Babeland, or even only by other Babeland consumers, but likely by numerous Facebook friends subscribed to a user’s newsfeed updates.

In responding to such prompts, these users have constructed their compositional sexual identities — as well of the identities of the sexual partners they include in such narratives — on Facebook as per Babeland’s instructions, publishing the specific stories that Babeland prompts (in this case, sexual narratives surrounding the semi–public space of a car). Babeland initiates expressions of both public or semi–public sexual desires (asking for information regarding contest participants’ “turn–ons” en route on planes, trains, automobiles) and practices (“sex while driving stories,” positions on the hood, in the back seat, et cetera). These contest prompts, coupled with the contest requirement of publishing such information on the Babeland Facebook wall with legal names, challenge social norms of public indecency. Such challenges to constructions of public, private, and normative sexual behavior are, of course, of interest to a company that sells products that can be deemed illegal by obscenity laws in various states. In a compositional space in which both sponsor and sponsored publish, the publications construct compositional flecks of identity for both the page owner and its visitors. As Babeland scripts the sexual narratives and ideologies it sees as productive to both company sales and consumer sexual health, sponsored responses to these scripts ultimately co–construct facets of identity of both the sponsor and the sponsored to other social network participants.



Sponsorship as mutually constitutive identity–construction

Babeland’s repeated sponsorship of composition on Facebook helps to evidence three key points in this essay: 1) multiple sponsors’ methods, structures, and ideologies of sponsorship can be compounded, as demonstrated through Babeland’s deployment of Facebook’s status and commenting structure and requirement of identifiable authorship; 2) sponsors can use compositional prompting, modeling, and rewarding to influence not only those whose composition they sponsor but also the consumers of such compositions; and, 3) sponsors’ shaping of sponsored writers’ identities is not entirely one–sided. Compositional sponsors can rely on sponsored writers to shape their own identities. While Babeland’s sponsorship of consumer participation at its home site through consumer reviews shapes its brand as transparent about its consumers’ experience and as generally approved by its consumers, its sponsorship of composition on Facebook further shapes its brand as approved not by faceless reviewers as potential brand company employees or individuals of non–normative sexual desires and practices but of people known within their respective social networks. Facebook similarly relies on its sponsored participation to shape it as a desirable compositional platform; the more people who find this compositional space valuable for textual production, the more desirable the space is for advertisers to target audiences.

This mutual constitution of identity through sponsorship is perhaps more explicitly exampled by sex–toy brand LELO’s acrostic contest, initiated on the LELO Facebook page with the following call for consumers to re–brand LELO through composition:

“If you want to be one of three lucky winners of a luxurious pleasure object, it’s time to get creative! LELO originally stood for Luxury Erotic Lifestyle Objects — so tell us some of the ways LELO inspires you by using the letters LELO to write an acrostic of your own. Post your masterpiece here on our wall before 1 August. We’ll then choose our ten favorite entries and let our Facebook pals vote for the best three — and as an added bonus, one random voter will win one of our sensual Flickering Touch massage candles.”

As in the example of, Babeland, LELO jumps into the contest partway through the contest with encouragement and evaluation of a few of the early posts: “These are great so far — style points to Annie on her charming little haiku! Cheers for the enthusiasm, Flick! It was a risky move, but it paid off.” In this re–branding strategy, LELO recognizes its consumers’ co–construction of its brand’s meaning, and thus, marketability. Contest participants’ publications simultaneously represent these consumers’ public affiliation with this sex–toy brand and this sex–toy brand’s uptake by its consumers.



Sponsorship of a composing labor force: Acknowledging the indirect targets of compositional or composite sponsorship

What, ultimately, does the study of composite sponsorship within compositional networks do to extend studies of the sponsorship of literate activity? LELO’s example not only demonstrates roles of sponsored writers in constructing sponsors’ identities but further the expectation of sponsored writers as not only taking up sponsors’ messages but passing them on to others; this re–branding of LELO is not aimed specifically at the writers but at the social network participants who will view the compositions. These same premises extend and apply beyond the study of retail to studies of social activism, political campaigning, and legal policy. I have argued that the study of composite sponsorship with digital networks illuminates how compositional sponsorship can work not only to reach those whose writing is directly instructed but further to reach such sponsored writers’ audiences. This is perhaps most effectively evidenced through examples of composite sponsorship as a process of multiple networks, seen in the example of The Vicktory Dogs: The Little Engines That Will, a Facebook advocacy group of the dogs taken from Michael Vick’s property in 2007. The Vicktory Dogs post: “Need some help!! This is Wilson Potter [17] and I would love to hear some funny captions for this pic, so we can get it up on the cheezeburger site [18]. I want to help get more Pitties onto the site, so people can see them as they are. A giggle will go a LONG way to help people not believe the hype, right?” (The Vicktory Dogs: The Little Engines That Will). In this request for compositions, The Vicktory Dogs clearly articulate their goal of spreading pit–bull–positive ideologies beyond The Vicktory Dogs’ social network through the digital distribution of compositions. In specifically identifying [the cheeseburger site] as the site for compositional distribution, this call for participation presents a generic guidelines for all submissions: captions should illuminate the photograph of Wilson Potter in a way that makes readers feel good, fitting with both the atmosphere of a compositional network devoted to humor and with the desired ideology of pit bull positivity. These confluent interests of and The Vicktory Dogs cooperate together to result in a composition that both furthers the “cheezeburger” network participants’ interest in “lolz” and The Vicktory Dogs’ interest in associating positive feelings with pit bulls.



Implications for future research

Like Babeland and LELO, The Vicktory Dogs initiate a contest in order to elicit compositional labor and distribute its results. The Vicktory Dogs do not offer a material prize but do articulate how winners are chosen, choosing to publish Wilson Potter’s photo with the caption that receives the most “likes” on Facebook. As all three network participants elicit, instruct, and reward compositional submissions, I have suggested that the lens of composite sponsorship can help us to understand the dissemination of information and ideologies through lay social networks in the interests of selling products as well as ideas and ideologies. Focusing on retailer use of social network sites as a foundational study of composite sponsorship, my overarching goal was to demonstrate how the same principles driving a company, such as Babeland, to use networks such as Facebook to reach consumers can be extrapolated to examine a variety of sponsorship phenomena in which sponsored writers act as mediators between sponsors and broader audiences.

As seen in the example of The Vicktory Dogs’ efforts to spread pit–bull–positive ideology, the use of sponsored writers to co–produce and distribute messages of interest to the sponsor is, of course, not limited to retailers. As I close, I ask how similar studies of sponsorship can also inform how our own socially constructed networks of academic protocol function to shape the direction of scholarship within academic conferences and publication. Our calls for participation similarly operate to elicit compositions with specific submission guidelines. Calls for conference presentations, specially themed journal publications, and book chapters dictate what topics and questions might be taken up by scholars, rewarded with publicity and CV credentials, and distributed throughout the academy through oral presentation or print or digital publication.

These calls for participation and rewards of publicity create channels of information distribution and choose whose compositions and what compositional content are of great enough value to be distributed and to count as knowledge. Just as social networks such as Facebook and icanhazcheeseburger act as channels of distribution for the retailers and advocacy groups analyzed in this paper, academic calls for participation network scholars together as various scholar–editors sponsor other scholars’ work within their fields. How might the lens of composite sponsorship cause us to question how specific interests and theories develop, shift, grow, or go out of fashion as venues of publication potentially encourage, discourage, and even script how certain interests might emerge, grow, or persist within the field? End of article


About the author

Kaitlin Marks–Dubbs is a doctoral candidate in the English Department at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign.
E–mail: marksdu1 [at] illinois [dot] edu



1. Brandt, 1998, p. 166; 2001, p. 19.

2. For example, consumers might post their names and locations, such as “Danielle from USA,” without much risk of identification.

3. Judith Donath and danah boyd (2004) define a public display of connections as an implicit verification of identity that places one’s reputation on the line with all transactions, as a negative transaction with one member of a network can sully ones reputation with others (p. 73).

4. or IRF in earlier definitions using the term “feedback.”

5. This can include oral participation.

6. This option to participate through less publicly visible composition disappears in later contests, which require public wall posts.

7. This link leads to what is currently listed as Babelandsea Seattle, a personal profile, and not to the Babeland Seattle fan page.

8. In his research on the operative forces of texts instructing the use of technology, James Paradis argues that “familiar objects to the suburbanite or the avid television watcher, require little assistance to learn how to operate” as user strategies can be built upon the stock of generic images that is shared by society, while “access to more complex technologies [...] usually requires a formal framework of explanation” as the public stock of imagery no longer suffices to guide the operator successfully through the necessary operating procedures (p. 264). I argue that this extends beyond merely complex technologies to particularly socially “private” technologies that do not consistently appear either in mass media representations of tooled life or even in public spaces of real life (while you might not own a television to see social actors using a screwdriver or lawnmower, you might see a neighbor or household member operating such a tool) and therefore are not included in the public stock imagery that Paradis sees as informing much of consumer tool use. Because sex–toys are not as commonly observed in operation, I argue that these texts not only advertise but further socialize their everyday practices.

9. Webb–Sunderhaus, 2007, p. 7.

10. While Facebook users have successfully set up “fake” Facebook pages for identities under made–up names, names attributed to fictional characters, and so on by connecting multiple accounts to separate e–mail addresses, Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities asserts the right to shut down profiles of users that do so (Statement of Rights and Responsibilities). This policing of authentic named identities creates a productive avenue for marketing through word–of–mouth, allowing for a wider distribution than non–digital face–to–face interactions but a greater degree of personal accountability to known friends than anonymous, pseudonymous, or ambiguous consumer reviews.

11. Freedom to Share and Connect, Ownership and Control of Information, Free Flow of Information, Fundamental Equality, Social Value, Open Platforms and Standards, Fundamental Service, Common Welfare, Transparent Process, and One World.

12. boyd, 2011, p. 43.

13. Except, of course, for the response that nearly word–for–word repeats Babeland’s prompt to think all pasties and tassels and shimmy and shaking. It IS a BURLESQUE musical after all.

14. Babeland, in fact, never specifies that the best answer will win the tickets and may, like a radio station, simply choose the fifth response.

15. Here, I invoke Patricia Lange’s (2008) representation of hybrid forms of fractalized gradations between “public” and “private” in “publicly private” and “privately public” activity on online social networks. These notions of fractalized gradations of privacy are drawn from Susan Gal’s (2002) theorization of the public/private dichotomy as having a fractal distinction in that “the distinction between public and private can be reproduced repeatedly by projecting it onto narrower contexts or broader ones” (p. 81). Gal provides the example of the home as contrasting with the public nature of the street, while in narrowing one’s focus inside of the house, the living room becomes the public part of a domestic private space, such that “the public/private distinction is reapplied and now divides into public and private what was, from another perspective, entirely ‘private’ space” (p. 82).

16. boyd, 2011, p. 45.

17. Defined on his Facebook page as a “public figure,” what pit bull enthusiasts would call a “breed ambassador” to represent pit–bull–type dogs positively to the public.

18., a site featuring photos of cute and/or funny photographs of dogs and cats with funny captions known as LOLdogs and LOLcats, building upon the Internet acronym for “laughing out loud.”



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Editorial history

Received 17 September 2012; revised 28 October 2012; accepted 15 February 2013.

Copyright © 2013, First Monday.
Copyright © 2013, Kaitlin Marks–Dubbs.

Synthesizing sponsorships: Toward a lens of composite sponsorship on social network sites
by Kaitlin Marks–Dubbs
First Monday, Volume 18, Number 4 - 1 April 2013