At the end of the 19th century, American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen said that people take their cues about what to consume from the social class immediately above their own. They want things just beyond their reach.
A new paper in the journal Communication, Culture and Critique shows how this theory explains some dynamics of the influencer economy and the rules that govern Instagram. In it, researchers Emily Hund and Lee McGuigan at the University of Pennsylvania investigate the mechanics of “a shoppable life.” The term describes the contemporary phenomenon of influencers marketing their lifestyles, then selling aspects of it, like the beauty products they use or elements of their home’s decor, through nearly seamless technological infrastructure, and the finding that more and more commercial opportunities rise with the way people present themselves and interact with each other.
One influencer told the researchers that a favorite part of her job is getting freebies, like a new set of furniture, from brands that want to be promoted in her channels. “They’re things that I love and never could have afforded on my own, and it’s going to bring a lot of value to the blog, so I’m excited about those just for that reason.”
Veblen wrote in his 1899 book Theory of the Leisure Class that the “ideal of consumption” for most people is what they can’t acquire, or which, at best, could be acquired only through considerate effort. “The motive is emulation—the stimulus of an invidious comparison which prompts us to outdo those with whom we are in the habit of classing ourselves,” he writes.
The researchers write in their paper that the influencer’s perspective on the furniture she gets for free can be understood through “a sort of social media age update” to Veblen’s theory. “These products give influencers, who are themselves models of aspirational lifestyles” —whether for luxury, fashionability, eco-consciousness or ethical spending— “for their followers, access to a lifestyle that is aspirational for them.”
A key to Veblen’s theories is the notion of “conspicuousness” in consumption or leisure. The point of buying or doing certain things is to communicate a certain lifestyle or class aspirations. The researchers put it another way, quoting the 2014 St. Vincent song Digital Witness: “If I can’t show it, if you can’t see me/What’s the point of doing anything?”
This, of course, describes a lot of how Instagram works, from the Rich Kids of Instagram and the daily displays of wealth by the Kardashian sisters to many of the pictures mere mortals post while on vacation to show their friends that they too can drink craft cocktails under a palm tree.
And Instagram’s marketing and technology infrastructure brings the life that is just “out of reach,” as Veblen says, just a little bit closer.
The “shoppable life” phenomenon is about more than just display. “To be made to matter, consumption choices and aspirational lifestyles must not only be displayed visibly, but audiences, or witnesses, should be able to acquire the elements defining the lifestyle and the self-identity,” the paper argues. “The shoppable life is not only branded; its constitutive elements can be bought.”
Influencers make their posts a seamless way to acquire their highly-curated lifestyles. Affiliate link platforms like LikeToKnowIt, which allows users to buy items straight from the influencer’s photo, eliminate barriers to buying their lifestyle—and make heaps of money in the process. Users who sign up with LikeToKnowIt accounts only need to “like” an influencer’s photo on Instagram to get an email from the company where they can purchase the product the influencer is promoting.
The “shoppable life” is an effort to “separate people from their money with less and less friction,” says Hund.
There is one major difference between Instagram today and American society more than a century ago: In the past, people were after an unattainable lifestyle they saw in the class above them, which was created mostly by inherited wealth; Today, on Instagram, they are after the lifestyle of the “class” above them that is largely an illusion crafted by technology and marketing. It’s hard to say which is worse.