Is conspicuous consumption being replaced by conspicuous expression?

July 8, 2009 at 4:02 pm 1 comment

I’m not sure I’m buying their argument in its entirety, but Stephen Linaweaver, Brad Bate and Michael Keating have written a provocative post on GOOD, “Conspicuous, but not Consuming,” that certainly merits discussion. Their theory is that social networks are filling the hole left in our lives by our inability to buy as much stuff as we used to. The lads write:

…”conspicuous consumption’ is being replaced by “conspicuous expression” as the driver of identity. This new paradigm emphasizes the conspicuousness of ideas, interests, and opinions rather than accumulating more stuff than your neighbor. This is not insignificant. How billions choose to distinguish themselves from one another will be just as important to global sustainability as how they power their homes, what they eat, and how they commute to work, making online social networking a critical “leapfrog” technology in the developing world and a surprisingly powerful source of behavioral change in the developed world.

Are Facebook and Twitter the medicine that will cure our addiction to acquiring things? Let’s wait a bit before we draw that as a final conclusion. An enormous preponderance of the self-expression on social networks winds up like the proverbial tree that falls in the forest. Not a sound is made. Nor am I certain that 65-inch HD TVs will lose their allure because people will choose instead to forsake them and turn to the fleeting rewards of digital egotism. Nevertheless, in the short term at least, it does seem as if many are amusing themselves in a down economy by taking refuge in the social networks and doing what Ken Kesey used to refer to as “starring in their own movies.”

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