Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Conspicuous Consumption

Nearly two decades ago, the Internet was in its infancy. While the technological aspects of it were still being developed but it was clear what the massive capabilities were going to be, everyone knew that this was something that would easily transform how the world operates. And it did. Along with the technological and economic benefits that it created, there was also a sort of populist angle to it—here was a forum that anyone, anywhere, could use to voice their opinion or stake out their dream regardless of your background. Centuries of global trade created connections, but in a short decade the world truly became a global village, with everyone on earth merely a click away.

And while there was a bit of trepidation about who would get access to this wondrous entity known as the internet, it turned out that monthly access was priced low enough that nearly everyone could get it, and even those that couldn’t could find easy access in schools and libraries. (Obviously, poorer nations of the world had more work to do, but it was only a matter of time.)  People personalized themselves for mass consumption; sometimes this was as humble as a blog (cough, cough), or the next Big Thing that took advantage of low startup costs, minimal labor, and make even the slimmest of margins profitable. This, along with the advent of laptops, tablets, netbooks, and smartphones, and pretty much anyone could be a digital cowboy for a reasonable cost.

Of course, it didn’t take long for people to revert back to the social norms in traditional face-to-face encounters: now that you’re competing against theoretically everyone else in the world, it’s important to present yourself as better than everyone else in order to be taken seriously.

While this sentiment is mostly false—the size of the internet lets all sorts of people become remarkably successful in small niche markets—that hasn’t stopped people from trying. Your opinion of someone changes whether they have an email whose domain ends in @gmail rather than @aol. Platform snobbery is an epidemic (Q: How do you know if someone uses Linux? A: They will tell you), and buying functionally similar computers at vastly different prices is due largely to simple name brands. The same reason why people pay a premium for designer clothes or name-brand coffee that the generic would do just as well is easily applied to the world of technology.

The best, most recent example of this was the expansion of the picture-based application Instagram into the Android system. (Think Twitter, only primarily with pictures.) Previously available only on the iPhone, the moment it was released to millions and millions of other users suddenly made it, uh, “common.” Twitter was alighted with iOS users lamentingthe “end of Instagram,” worried about the subpar pictures and new users clogging up their news feeds. 

Granted, one group particularly known for their superiority is Apple users, but this was particularly harsh. Given the fact that most iPhone users weren’t even Mac users no doubt caused the Smugness Meter of the average Mac user to flip his shit. And now that Instagram has been purchased by Facebook for a cool billion dollars—as an aside, I really, really need to learn how to code—what made the brand cool and hip and worth a billion dollars is devalued as it becomes more popular.

This is hardly a new phenomenon; it’s happened to multitudes of brand names throughout consumer history. But in the wild west of the Internet, where the voiceless got a voice and everyone was equal, it’s a touch disappointing to realize that we’re all back to our same old ways.

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