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.
People often forget that Instagram is, in essence, selling you something. Not only the prestigious opportunity for unprecedented admiration, but something else as well. Here is where we arrive at the ideas of George Ritzer, a more modern sociological mind that builds on the ideas of his predecessor, Veblen, a full hundred years after his famous work. Ritzer’s publication, Enchanting a Disenchanted World (SAGE Publications, 1999), attempts to use the lens of Weber in determining the functionality of consumption in our society. He introduces ideas such as “cathedrals of consumption (Pine Forge Press, 2010, pg. 7)” to highlight the evolution of certain settings to accommodate the ever-progressing demands of consumerism.
Ritzer’s focus is not on the goods themselves, but rather, the places in which they are bought. Through the transformation of stores and outlets for the consumption of goods, services, and experiences, he argues that we, as a society, have grown to demand a higher level of enchantment. Enchanted spaces are often obvious, such as Disney World or a shopping mall. But, what sets these cathedrals of consumption apart from the rest? What allows them to teem with the hustle and bustle of children and adults alike, with numbers unmatched by standard outlet stores? The enchantment they offer the consumer.
Means of enchantment come in many forms. In essence, they offer an interactive or exciting experience for the consumer. This can come in the form of lights, music, and displays, but can also manifest itself as men and women in stuffy costumes pretending to embody a character, live performances and entertainment, rides, and food. All in all, it isn’t one single thing, but a rapid succession of many things, all of which keep the consumer happy and more likely to return.
On the surface, it doesn’t seem like anything more than the feat of an excellent marketing team, or the desire to set a location apart from the rest. What it accomplishes, however, is setting an increasingly-evolving standard, and it doesn’t stop at shopping malls and theme parks. Ritzer argues that, when consumers grow accustomed to the enchantment offered at such cathedrals of consumption, other areas are forced to compete for the public’s attention. Fast-food restaurants maintain playground equipment inside their facilities to keep kids occupied and offer a service to their customers that keeps them coming back. Museums have shifted from drab, monochromatic buildings of fossils and relics to places featuring interactive displays, colorful lights, and strategic placement of artifacts to maintain the right balance of educational material and exciting experience.
In the age of materialism and consumerism, a number of markets are forced to adapt or suffer near-obsoletism. For the capitalist society, it promotes highly-profitable business ventures. For the consumer, it perpetuates an addictive and all-consuming cycle of consumption. In this day and age, everyone is selling something, and you are the target audience.
In the same way, smartphones have adapted to the demands of society and their obsession with overconsumption. In the same way that interactive displays, music, and lights function to create a state of enchantment in the real world, it is an ingrained facet of modern technology that keeps users coming back. Everything, from Instagram’s color schemes, to TikTok’s music, to the facets of Twitter that allow for a constant flow of tweets, and thereby, interaction, addicts the user to the overconsumption of technology, and perpetuates the demand for the evolution of means of enchantment. We have digitized cathedrals of consumption, and like I said, everyone is selling something.
Popularity, likeability, and influence are ever-present commodities, up-for-grabs by anyone willing to fight for the attention of the public. In this sphere, every user is a consumer, and what is being sold to us is entertainment. Cancel-culture keeps our eyes shifting from one person to the next, as it is a brutal cycle in the fight for notoriety, enchanting us. Flex culture, and the rise of one influencer and the downfall of another, enchants us. More than ever, likes, comments, and direct messages enchant us, and they pull us into an exploitative struggle that equates popularity with engagement, and worth with constant interaction.
We’d like to believe that we can leave at any time, but in this case, it is becoming an ever-present issue to reduce the consumption of social media. The same lights, music, and interactive displays that enchant us perpetuate physically addictive cycles of neurotransmitter activity. When we are enchanted, we are essentially high off of dopamine. When we are disenchanted, we crave more. George Ritzer’s analysis of cathedrals of consumption as a function of continuing an ever-increasing standard of enchantment highlights the ingrained ethical issues of social media, despite its development years after Ritzer’s theories were published.
If his hypotheses are correct, social media is trapping its users within systems of exploitation. We are consumers, but to the developers, our attention is the commodity. For teenagers, who are already a mess of hormones and impressionability, it’s possible that, without intervention, this could cause a long-term addiction to the enchantment that social media can offer. As we continue to use social media, there will be a demand for greater enchantment, and this will perpetuate the evolution of means of social media consumption, to the benefit of the developers and the detriment of society.
Though social media may be a relatively recent development, sociology can offer insights into the nature in which this facet of technology can interact with modern human society. Hypotheses and theories published decades and even centuries before our time highlight the ways in which society changes as a result of urbanization, globalization, religion, and population, but they also highlight, surprisingly, the conclusion that it, despite these alterations, remains very much the same. As the sociology professor drones on about society and its functions, be sure to put down the phone and pay attention. You may even learn something.
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