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The Era of Conspicuous Web Consumption

March 21, 2011, 10:16 PM

We've entered a new era of conspicuous Web consumption, where people are encouraged to demonstrate their social status online by contributing to an increasingly unwieldy number of social media, social networking and location-based services. It's hard to pinpoint the exact date, but the Web has arguably become a different kind of place than it used to be just a few years ago - a place where attaining and then maintaining social status has become a giant game -- a sort of digital Keeping Up With the Kardashians. What it could mean for the future of the Web is that only those technologies that are capable of perpetuating the social status of the Internet elite will be allowed to prosper and succeed.

Hence, we witness the dance of the lemmings every six months or so, as Internet users fearful of losing their status online rush headlong into the Next Big Thing, eager to add to their social capital. But what does it mean for our digital future when the Internet has become a giant game where the goal is to acquire as many fans and followers as quickly as possible, across as many social platforms as possible? Certainly it speaks to more micro-content -- let's call it nano-content -- able to be generated as quickly and effortlessly as possible. Who has time to contribute in any kind of depth to so many platforms? The Facebook "Like" has become the Least Common Denominator of content, enabling us to remain on the social radar of our peers by doing little more than giving a big "thumbs up" to content we like.

Once, it was enough to write a blog, maybe participate in an online community or two, in order to achieve status on the Web. Now, The Brand Called You is out of control - we are now expected to share our retro-tinted photos via Instagram accounts, answer expert questions on Quora, check-in to wherever we happen to be at the moment, share our product recommendations with our friends, provide updates on our "status" across several different platforms and, for good measure, maybe contribute a few tweets every hour or so. The list goes on ad infinitum, of course, limited only to your ability to sign up for new "beta" accounts from companies in Silicon Valley. In such a way, cool new services are able to boast of millions of users almost literally overnight, when the reality is that only a tiny proportion actually use the service with any regularity on a daily basis.

Sound familiar? It all goes back to the theory of conspicuous consumption, first proposed by the great economist Thorstein Veblen in his Theory of the Leisure Class more than 100 years ago. For Veblen, the notion of conspicuous consumption was defined as the lavish spending on goods and services acquired mainly for purposes of displaying social status. A related term - "invidious consumption" - Veblen reserved for the special case of conspicuous consumption deliberately intended to create envy.

The Era of Conspicuous Web Consumption, surely, marks an inflection point for the Web, where we must reconcile the human need to determine social status in groups with the remarkable potential and promise of the Web. Instead of big, gas-guzzling SUVs and McMansions, have we substituted the Social Web as our new playground for aggressive ostentation?

The psychologist Geoffrey Miller famously offered an evolutionary psychology of consumption. He posited that marketers shifted our evolutionary imperative by creating an aura of "coolness" around products that we did not need, which in turn, fostered "consumption" on a grand scale. Coolness makes people buy things they don't need, merely as a way to signal their evolutionary fitness. If that's the case, what is the new source of conspicuous Web consumption? It's not marketing, since, let's face it, the cooler a service is, the fewer people know about it. Facebook was cool at 100 thousand, but is it still cool at 100 million?

I would argue that the new source of conspicuous Web consumption is the cult of the celebrity, which has finally migrated from the world of traditional media to the world of digital media. With its global scale and reach, the Internet has created the illusion that celebrity is easier to attain than ever before, with only the click of a mouse. In short, we rapaciously consume the Internet to attain and then maintain a sort of celebrity status on the Web. We only follow people with more followers than us. We only contribute to new social platforms that reinforce our status to others. We signal that we are part of the Internet Leisure Class by consuming as much of the Web as possible, in little nano-bites.

So, again the question: What does conspicuous Web consumption mean for the future of the Web? Will we, as Jaron Lanier suggests in his book You Are Not a Gadget, be left with only "empty gusts of ego-boosting puffery"? Or is there another, brighter future out there for the Web?


The Era of Conspicuous Web ...

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