Opinion

Nostalgia for the golden age of consumerism

Modern status-seeking isn't about having the newest iPhone. It's about getting the most Facebook 'likes.'

Modern status-seeking isn't about having the newest iPhone. It's about getting the most Facebook 'likes'

How do you get your kids "social media status" for Christmas? (John Fitzhughé/Associated Press)

More and more, we hear people talking about a strange new dilemma that has begun to show up at this time of year: what are you supposed to buy for the teenagers on your holiday shopping list?

Until recently, shopping for teens was the easiest box to tick on your Christmas list. Find out what their taste was in music, books, or clothes, and get them something a few notches this side of the cutting edge of cool. The same straightforward logic applied to video games, movies, television shows, or other things sold on discs or DVDs.

But now? It's become an impossible task. It's not just that they don't need anything, it's that they don't seem to want anything. Or at least, they don't want anything that we can buy for them.

Part of it is that clothing and electronics have become so cheap. On top of that, music, movies and television are streamed, and the kids already have subscriptions. Mobile games are free-to-play. Few of them read books anymore.

Anti-consumerism 

This goes a long way to explaining one of the most intriguing cultural trends of our time, which is the sudden disappearance of anti-consumerist rhetoric. Complaints about Christmas becoming too commercialized used to be just as much a part of the season as Christmas carols and mall Santas. Now the whole anti-consumerism agenda — against advertising, brands, the co-optation of cool – has gone missing.

This doesn't mean that the economy is dead, or that people have stopped shopping. But the fight over consumerism was never really about the economy, it was about something far more important: it was about status.

But the battle for status is no longer fought by proxy. It is increasingly being fought directly through social media. Instead of being mediated through the world of consumer goods, modern status seeking is being channeled through people's phones.

Who needs the latest pair of jeans when hundreds of people "like" your Facebook photo? (Thomas Angermann/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

The currency has become Facebook likes, Twitter RTs and Instagram followers. Who needs the latest pair of jeans when a photo of you and your squad making duckfaces gets 800 shares in an hour and might get you posted in a gallery on theCHIVE? And who needs a painstakingly assembled record collection, when you can demonstrate your elevated musical taste by putting together a playlist on Soundcloud?

As we argued in our 2004 book, The Rebel Sell, the anti-consumerist rebellion — which began with the '60s counterculture and its DIY ("do it yourself") ethos  — never really offered an alternative to the consumer society. Often, it just created more rarefied forms of status-seeking, through the "underground" goods that defined urban cool. Each generation's "rebel style" — whether it was blue jeans, leather jackets, Doc Martens or trucker hats — in time became just another mass-marketed commodity.

These consumer goods, or "experiences," were never really valued for their own sake; they were proxies in this competition for status. Whether it was an ecotour of the Costa Rican rainforest, yoga wear from Lululemon, or organic tapioca flour from Whole Foods, everything was driven by the desire to make a statement about who you were and what you valued.

Status-seeking via social media

Making a statement has now become much easier: anyone can go online and make one. The hard part is getting people to pay attention. This can make modern status-seeking very time-consuming. But there is a darker side to it as well, that feeds into the one of the most destructive and dangerous phenomena of our time.

Status-seeking via social media, especially on open and anonymous platforms such as Twitter, has put political polarization on steroids. One of the best ways of communicating the "I am better than you" message is through virtue signalling: an expression or statement intended to promote one's own righteousness or moral superiority. This is why there has always been a strong market for "ethical" products, from organic vegetables to dolphin-safe tuna. Social media, however, has created new ways of expressing one's moral indignation — starting with the retweet button.

The competitive indignation that results seems to be feeding the twin populisms of the hostile anti-elitism of the alt-right, and the crushing identity politics of the ctrl-left. From the left, the standard requirement that everyone pay lip service to identity politics has turned into an online morality police. Remember Justine Sacco? She was the corporate communications director who jokingly tweeted "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!" before boarding a flight. By the time she had landed, she'd been vilified around the planet and had lost her job.

From the right, the traditional animosity toward the "cultural elite" has turned into an unhinged rejection of fact and argument, authority and expertise – the result being widespread misogyny, anti-Semitism, and the proliferation of partisan propaganda which we politely call "fake news."

Pressure to conform

In both cases, the pressure to conform to the most extreme position is enormous. Anyone who tries to advance an even slightly moderated point of view is derided as a fascist sympathizer or a cuck.

In The Rebel Sell, we remarked that the coolhunting imperative to which we all subscribed amounted to the logic of high school, elevated to the level of a social neurosis. Today's social media-powered culture feels less like high school, and more like the Hunger Games.

It's enough to make us nostalgic for the golden age of consumerism. Back then, people who hated you and everything you stand for just went out and bought some other brand.

Andrew Potter is the Director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. Joe Heath is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

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