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Smartphones, Social Media, and Sociology - Perpetuating Disenchantment Through Consumption

Updated: Dec 4, 2020

In her first article, Blog Co-Manager and Editor, Ainsley Johnson, dives into the complex facets of human nature, and the role that technology and social media have begun to play in modern society. Across time, even with new developments and advances, she reminds us that we really aren't as different as we seem to believe.

Inside the bounds of a sociology classroom, one learns of a bleak, terrifying world. For those without a keen interest in late-stage capitalism and the evolution of statehood, among other things, it’s a way to pass the time between fifth and seventh period. For unique students, professors, and sociologists alike, it’s an ever-changing objective perspective of the world we have created for ourselves.

I say ever-changing because, to an extent, the subjective positions of renowned sociological minds like C. Wright Mills and Karl Marx serve as snapshots of a world that once was. But, in essence, it changes only because we change. The very foundations remain arguably still, waiting for the shift of man to pass facets of these ideas around like footballs during afternoon practice. Though there is this constant evolution of what it means to bear witness to the functions of governance and society that play out before us like a movie of what is now, and what has been, there very much exists the same rudimentary ideas of what it means to be human, and to play a role in one’s community.

With this in mind, revered minds like Weber hold ideas of rationalization as the means by which rapid globalization and advancement of human society were able to take hold. Though his title, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, isn’t a work we are going to explore, it was one of the first to establish this line of theorizing, which provided the substructure for more applicable ideas of sociology in regards to social media.

From this postulation, Thorstein Veblen, who dabbled in the fields of sociology and economics, brought forth the ideas of “conspicuous consumption (Dover Publications, 2012, pg. 47)” and “conspicuous leisure (Dover Publications, 2012, pg. 23)” as a criticism of his observations of exponential increases in consumerism as a result of capitalism, population booms, urbanization, and globalization. In his esteemed publication, The Theory of the Leisure Class (Macmillan, 1899), Veblen theorized that people in his society were drawn to more expensive commodities, though there may not have been a notable difference in quality and functionality. He believed that they required the luxury item over the standard, middle-of-the-line item, not because it was inherently better, but because it was expensive. He noticed that, as the price of luxury items goes up, the demand does as well. In the case of its duplicate, who is nevertheless comparable to its more expensive counterpart, demand and price have quite the opposite relationship. What is interesting about the item is that it is exclusive, and it symbolizes not only prosperity, but elegance and class. He felt that our society was made up of individuals who valued being seen as having a surplus of disposable income, evidenced by their purchases, over reasonable efforts of practicality and simplicity.

Similarly, conspicuous leisure speaks to the evolution of capitalism, which was once an idea of working tirelessly so as to provide one’s self with the opportunity for leisure. When time is money, the opportunity to do something as simple as taking weekends off of work is privileged. Those with the means to provide themselves and their family with downtime, taking regular breaks and working less, symbolized the kind of economic security and financial excess that everyone hoped to achieve.

Though he did much of his work on the cusp of the conclusion of the nineteenth century, I come back to the idea that sociological hypotheses are like energy or chemical elements--they are always there, and always applicable, just in a different form. The innovation of social media provided not only a platform for instantaneous communication, it established a new facet of popularity. When likes, comments, and followers are featured in such a way on one’s page, they provide a kind of display of one’s social standing. It symbolizes likability and influence, and in the social strata, in essence, this is a kind of commodity.

When society has approached such a transformation as to suggest that one’s own personality can be commoditized, it opens up an entire sector of means by which one can exploit their own social influence. One of the most important and pressing examples of this phenomenon is found in the form of an Instagram influencer. It’s the kind of job everyone would want, if they could get it. It can illustrate the ideas of conspicuous consumption through more obvious means, such as advertisements and product placement; however, things are usually much less complex. Think of perhaps the most popular influencers you are aware of; in a single post, you can pretty much guarantee that at least one luxury item--a car, a purse, an article of clothing--is in plain view.

Even without drawing attention to the item, it carries influence. It perpetuates flex culture. When you can demonstrate disposable income in more conspicuous ways, you become more popular on your platform, and therefore, more influential. These influencers may also have clothing lines, their own make-up brands, or something along those lines, but these things are not stand-alone business ventures. They feed off of the social influence of their founder, and they are successful as a direct result of the commoditization of one’s popularity.

This isn’t to suggest that having a large following is inherently evil or exploitative, only that it represents something powerful. It represents the nature of our society to associate success with social influence; Instagram, Twitter, and other social media platforms have created a means by which this can occur on a larger and wider scale than ever before, and that means something. Previously, movie stars, models, and incredibly wealthy businessmen were tirelessly revered for their image. They served as a figurehead of the idea of success. However, their fields served as a niche opportunity not awarded to many, and though this didn’t stop a number of hopefuls from trying their luck, it was well-known that one had to be incredibly lucky, or have a powerful family name, to succeed.

Social media has done quite the opposite. Instead, it has demonstrated that those previously necessary prerequisites (money, lineage, and talent) are not, in fact, necessary to achieve an even greater influence. In the mid-twentieth century, models’ careers were limited by the consumers who chose to buy one magazine above another, or attend an exclusive fashion show. Actors’ influence was found within the bounds of their silver screens, their salaries measured by box-office trajectories and good press. Now, with more than a billion active users on Instagram worldwide, who speak different languages and maintain different cultures, we have achieved an unprecedented audience. Not only is social media widespread, it is attainable across cultural and socioeconomic boundaries. It doesn’t cost anything to sign up, nor to like a photo or comment on someone’s post. This has allowed the potential for influence to reach an astounding level, and one that continues to grow.

This means that the exploitation of one’s social standing is not only a possibility for influencers, it is achievable on even the smallest of scales. Modern teenagers and young adults face enormous pressure to succeed on these platforms, even if their success doesn’t bring about economic opportunity. They commoditize popularity and likeability in much the same way as some of the most influential accounts on Instagram. The number of likes, comments, and followers one has is essentially what makes or breaks you, socially. Not only do those without the impressive follower counts of their most popular classmates fear judgement and ridicule, they judge themselves.

While influencers represent conspicuous consumption as a means of showing off luxury items, future homecoming queens and football captains commoditize the idea of themselves as a means of measuring success. They promote the idea of popularity, and consume follower counts and engagement statistics while selling others the idea of influence. If you could only be like Brian, or Sarah, or anyone else with as many followers, you could be significant, and conspicuously so.