The Instagram effect

Social media envy is driving consumerism in ways never seen before. Fame and fortune have replaced faith and family as the core of the American Dream, according to research by marketing firm JWT.
Lane Anderson and Amanda Taylor, Deseret News National Modified: April 20, 2014 at 9:26 am •  Published: April 20, 2014
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It's hard to say how many hours a week Erin Wilson spends on social media. She's on Twitter, Facebook and a sprinkling of online dating apps, but her favorite is the photo-sharing social network app Instagram.

Wilson, a professional stage actress and singer, leads what looks like a glamorous life traveling with Broadway shows like "Wicked" and "Sister Act," and she has two Instagram accounts: a personal account that documents her everyday life performing or living in New York City, and one that chronicles her home shopping trips. The second, which goes by the Instagram handle homegoodsobsessed, has 4,000 followers. She is in the process of launching a third account, prettyeasyco, for hair and makeup tips.

Wilson is a savvy user of social media, but she's a consumer, too. She just bought a trendy crochet swimsuit, for example, that she saw on Nordstrom.com. It wasn't the marketing that sold her, but it was seeing the image again and again on Pinterest and Instagram.

"You see it once and you think, 'That's cute.' It's seeing it repeatedly, and on people whose life looks desirable, that puts you over into 'I have to have that,'" she said.

There's a term for this. Social psychologists, journalists, and social-media users call it "lifestyle envy," or Instagram envy, and savvy smartphone users are well-acquainted with its tell-tale sign: the little pang you get when a friend posts photos from his or her swanky vacation in Istanbul, or when actress Mindy Kaling snaps her newest pair of spike-toe Christian Louboutain pumps.

Envy has long been a concern of civilization, mentioned in the Ten Commandments, the seven deadly sins and countless other works down to present day America, in which the newest iteration, social media envy, is driving consumerism in new ways. According to a study by New York marketing communications firm JWT, fame and fortune are currently replacing faith and family as the core of the American Dream. Two-thirds of Americans in the study said traditional notions of the ideal life — community, religious faith and middle- class values — have shifted.

"More Americans see the ability to spend — whether by accumulating wealth or accessing credit — as a component of the American Dream," the study indicates. Also, 58 percent of respondents said "becoming wealthy" is key to the American Dream for them personally; 54 percent said "social recognition and status" were a big part of it for people today. A quarter said a big part of the dream for them was "becoming famous." Traditional ideals of the good life such as "getting married" and "attending religious services" were more likely to be categorized as part of a past definition of the American Dream than the present one.

Instagram alone, which became a social media phenomenon by allowing people to transform ordinary photos into magazine-shoot images with fancy filters and then share them with others, grew last year from 80 million to 150 million users worldwide. Are Americans becoming coveting, keeping-up-with-the-Jones consumers one perfectly filtered post at a time?

Peer pressure

People are inspired by comparing themselves to peers through social media and that is why they feel a little lift when they see an image of a friend triumphantly crossing a finish line or a co-worker's twins happily hugging. But people also become hyper-aware of the achievements and success of those peers, said Ann Mack, director of trendspotting at JWT Worldwide. Thus cuts the double-edged sword of social media.

Traditional advertising is losing some of its power over consumers who instead look to each other for trends and opinions, she said.

"If you think about 100 years ago, people would go to the town dance and see what the Jones' are doing. This comparison has always been around," Wilson said. "But now you can do it on an extreme scale. You can compare yourself to thousands of people."

And it's not just celebrities that people are comparing themselves to — it's each other as well.

Not only that, but Twitter and Facebook have brought down the wall that separated actors, musicians and athletes from the rest of the world. Now anyone can see even more closely the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Sometimes, social media blurs the lines between peers and stars, Wilson said, because people are able to package their lives on social media as though we were celebrities.

"Instagram makes our peers' lives look glamorous, but almost attainable. If Beyonce has something that's one thing, but if a friend does, it's almost in reach — or feels like it should be," Wilson said.

The term for this kind of comparison is "relative deprivation," a sociological term that refers to the dissatisfaction that people feels when they compare their three-year old's Buzz Lightyear birthday, for example, to their friend's party with letter-pressed invitations, homemade cupcakes and customized muslin juice box bags all captured by a professional photographer.

It doesn't matter that these are middle-class problems. People compare their positions to others and grasp that they have less, said Mack: "Social media is bringing us closer to the upper echelons yet simultaneously back down to reality."

Susan T. Fiske, social psychology professor at Princeton University and author of "Envy Up, Scorn Down: How Status Divides Us," said envied groups include high-status people, such as the rich and wealthy entrepreneurs. Studies find that people deem them competent, but "not on our side," and therefore "cold and exploitative."

Fiske has studied envy-using brain scans, and in one of her favorite experiments, subjects watch images of investment bankers encountering bad luck (such as stepping in gum, or getting splashed by a car), and they smile. This Schadenfreude (malicious glee) "activates the reward areas of the brain," according to Fiske, when subjects see envied others receive bad outcomes.

Comparison — to co-workers, neighbors, friends or social media contacts — is part of human nature, said Fiske. People need to know where they stand in social hierarchies and the best way to do it is by gleaning that information from peers. Traditionally, envy has played a different role in American culture because of the American Dream and the notion that everyone has equal access to success and opportunity, she said.

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