Keeping Up with the Joneses, Today
Participatory Mass Media Changes the Equation
You should really read Obama’s essay in The Economist. In it, he discusses the rise of populism and anti-globalization, the importance of economic mobility, the growing divide between rich and poor, and how we might address these challenges.
Midway in, Obama makes a quick point on how digital media affects one’s perceived social status (emphasis mine):
More fundamentally, a capitalism shaped by the few and unaccountable to the many is a threat to all. Economies are more successful when we close the gap between rich and poor and growth is broadly based. A world in which 1% of humanity controls as much wealth as the other 99% will never be stable. Gaps between rich and poor are not new but just as the child in a slum can see the skyscraper nearby, technology allows anyone with a smartphone to see how the most privileged live. Expectations rise faster than governments can deliver and a pervasive sense of injustice undermines peoples’ faith in the system. Without trust, capitalism and markets cannot continue to deliver the gains they have delivered in the past centuries.The argument that media exposes the underclass to a good life beyond their reach is not new. In his book, In Spite of the Gods, Edward Luce argues that access to television exacerbated unrest with regard to the economic divide in India:
What today’s villagers and small-town dwellers in India see seductively paraded before them as they crowd around their nearest TV screens are things most of them have little chance of getting in the near future: the cars, foreign holidays, smart medical services, and electronic gadgets that dominate the TV commercials. Most of these products are not meant for them at all but are targeted at — and often by — people like Alok. Such items are beyond the reach of the majority in a country where the average per capita income in 2006 was still below $1,000. Sooner or later if you are unable to get what you are repeatedly told you should want, something has to give.Yes, Obama is correct that smartphones and social media better expose us to the lives of the rich and famous, when compared to TV. But it goes beyond more access. Digital media’s effect on our attitude regarding socioeconomic standing is doubly problematic because we share our lives in the same forum as the privileged.
To audiences in the 80’s, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous was practically on another planet. Robin Leach performed a function similar to David Attenborough’s: both hosts guided viewers through an environment most would never witness. Then we turned off the TV, and went back to our real world.
But with Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook our lives, the lives of our friends, and the lives of the famous mix in the same feed. We have the same accounts, the same phones, the same cameras. Not only is there nothing to turn off to return to our real world, we must actively consider how to present our world into a feed populated with those more privileged.
This active editing, they way we’ve learned to brand ourselves and our lives, has a nasty knock-on effect: the people we know who carefully edit start to appear more privileged. I have friends of similar socioeconomic status who seem to vaction more than Leach’s subjects. Most of our feeds look this way.
This change — from the lavish life on TV to lavish life on your stream––will get to many. It fundamentally changes how we keep up with the Joneses. In the TV era, when I wasn’t in the part of the medium, one just needed a nice lawn and adequate car. Today, if we need to feed the stream, we need better vacations, better reservations, better fashion, and free time to find diverse experiences. All at a constant pace.
Unquestionably, digital media is a massive net good for the world. (Even that feels like an understatement) But its effects on perceived inequality are different than any we’ve experienced. This is a wholly new challenge. One which requires new cultural tools.