“One of the most important ways in which people relate to each other socially is through the mediation of things” -Lury
Thorstein Veblen believed society would always find ways to express status. I find this concept interesting in its applications for explaining why we share so much of ourselves online. In a sense, status signaling reinforces our sense of accomplishment, and communicates those achievements to others. Status, in relation to products, is achieved through conspicuous consumption. The brands we adorn ourselves with signify price and cultural heft. Status, in relation to the social web, is achieved through sharing. Much of our desire to share has foundations in our early ancestors need to survive. Like those before us, we seek information to make decisions easier without having our own experiences to base them on. As we continued to evolve, sharing for survival turned into sharing for the survival of self. The contemporary self is grounded in the belief that we exist in the minds’ of others, meaning we must secure as sense of being visible. We fulfill our need to exist, or prove our visibility, through what we share. Technology allows us the bandwidth to do so. Technology also affords us the ability to amplify our already social behavior. Our behavior is often a reflection of those around us. We live in relations to others. From a marketing perspective, practitioners such as Mark Earls and John Wilshire discuss the need to understand what happens between people, as a response to a shift in attention given to mass marketing. The sheer volume of sharing signifies the importance of understanding how ideas and information spread. They argue that marketing must begin to value what it adds in connecting people. Instead of the individual, the focus must be placed on the space between individuals. This space is the result of sharing. This is why we must begin to understand the motivations of sharing content. Much of our sharing habits revolve around connectivity and celebrity. Both are responses to our desire for visibility. We tend to create, remix and share content as a way to endorse our own celebrity, and as a means to connect with others. This practice has evolved in a way that emphasizes capturing experiences. So, what makes the documentation of experiences so central to what we share?
Status on the Web: Portfolios of Attachment
Early web theorist described the process of building digital portfolios of attachment as a self-presentation strategy. Just has we use consumer goods to strengthen or develop status; digital content can be ascribed similar meanings. Thus, the posting of content carries implied ownership. Under this circumstance, researchers argued that “micro blog” owners hoped to accrue the same sense of value that actual ownership would produce, enhanced status. For example, a person may seek status through presenting him or herself as fashion forward. To do so, one would consume iconic fashion brands. Online, the simple act of creating and maintaining a personal site represents conspicuous displays of status signaling. With the mass adoption of social media platforms, and the ease in which we can accrue “things” (both digital and physical), are we beginning to seek superior artifacts to tell our story? If a picture is worth a thousand words, can we extend the metaphor to describe an amalgamation of status-related cues, something text-bases statuses could not? With Instagram, not only can one emit displays of products and one’s self, but display time and place, as well (i.e. more context). In Stuffocation, James Wallman wrote: “As more people realize that more stuff does not equal more happiness, but that the best place to find status, identity, meaning, and happiness is in the experiences, we will witness the old age of materialism give way, I believe, to a new age of experimentalism.” We seem to be experiencing a shift away from the value we place on products as status markers. Has this shift, combined with a vigorous adoption and consumption of visual content on sites like Instagram, spurred the value we now place on capturing ourselves in experiences? In 2013, the Oxford Dictionary anointed “selfie” as the word of the year, citing that its use in the English language had increased by 17,000 percent over the past year. In many cases, the selfie has solidified our need to capture ourselves doing things and now value the ability to be recognized for them (i.e. “pics or it didn’t happen”). Portfolios of attachment have led to portfolios of experience. Not only do portfolios of experience accommodate our fluid sense of identity, but build status signals used to obtain the visibility we seek.
Why Experiences are Powerful
The coverage of music festival culture, along with the microscope marketers have placed on Millennials, has placed an emphasis on marketing experiences. According to Adweek: “experiential campaigns are fueling word-of-mouth, providing fodder for social media feeds and become the foundation of PR and content marketing programs.” This article goes on to state that Millennials may live online, but they love live experiences. Experiences are powerful. They have the power to increase our subjective well-being. They are also relational. They help to form connections around a shared experience and help to assuage our fear of missing out. But as we move away from placing such emphasis on products, I believe we have stumbled onto the realization that experiences, not necessarily the stuff we own, are better drivers of celebrity and connectivity.
Social media allows us to turn our experiences into social objects. Gapingvoid once defined social objects as the hard currency of the Internet. It is what we “share meaningfully”. Just as products carry a monetary value, social objects carry social value. How we ultimately document our experiences relates to how we believe they will be received- or the value they might bring. It has led to that blinding omnipresent glow that hovers around us at concerts. Our status signaling experiences are fast becoming promotional tools. Simply watch the great pains that people go through to document what they are experiencing, or even an “experience” they hope to create. Vance Packard might argue our experiences are how we assure ourselves of our self worth. Access to instant notifications seem to solidify this behavior. As UCLA researcher Gary Small discovered: “they (people), thrive on perpetual connectivity. It feeds their egos and sense of self-worth, and it becomes irresistible”. In the end, it is now the things we do, not the things we own, that allow us to validate ourselves among our peers. Through followers, comments and likes, we can assess how our experiences are defining who we hope to be, and gain the visibility we seek. Visibility is what allows us to experience the connectivity to others we desire and the celebrity status we are after.
“The tendency in any case is constantly to make the present pecuniary standard the point of departure for a fresh increase of wealth; and this in turn gives rise to a new standard of sufficiency and a new pecuniary classification of one’s self as compared with one’s neighbors.” – Veblen
The new standard of wealth is the experience. Through the lens of marketing, efforts must be made to develop actions into social objects. Brand behaviors, the actions and incentives brands create, are much more important now. Similarly, brands must uncover how their offerings led to, or play a role in, our experiences. Is it really any wonder that kids now rank fame as the highest value?