Facebook and Conspicuous Affection

A little over 110 years ago Thorstein Veblen published The Theory of the Leisure Class, in which he spelled out his now famous and well-known idea of “conspicuous consumption.” As Veblen argued, people conspicuously consume, buying silver wear and other luxury goods when cheaper stand-ins would do, because they desire to flag their social status.

Since the publication of Veblen’s book, people have invented many and multifarious ways of being noticed.

I have recently been thinking a great deal about the technological dimensions of self-presentation. Let’s call them technologies of conspicuous affection.

For several years, I’ve been talking about the role of conspicuous abstention in our society. You are sitting at a table with a group of people who are conversing. Paul brings up the fact that he watched Mad Men last night. He says the episode was keen. “Draper was a jerk. It was great.” Harold, who is also sitting at the table, begins to fidget. Everyone can sense his agitation. Finally, Harold feels the need to blurt.  He seemingly just has to inform everyone at the table that he does not watch tv and, in fact, does not even own a tv, and life is much better tv-less, thank you very much. Hypothetically, Harold could have kept quiet and let the people who like Mad Men talk about Mad Men, but for whatever personal reason, he wanted or needed people to attend to his renunciation of a certain technology.

This is immodest conspicuous abstention, where someone informs others what he or she doesn’t do/own. It is probably more common among some slivers of society than others. Especially now that sustainability is chic, some see life as a series of teachable moments in which to educate others about the virtues of not owning a car, not eating meat, not frequenting Starbucks, not buying anything with styrofoam in it, not ever even stepping into a McDonalds unless it is for a pit stop on the highway. Yada, yada. “Even my dog is vegan.”

Conspicuous abstention is simply par for the course in some social circles. When confronted with a conspicuous abstainer, it is usually best to bite your hand and let the situation pass. FYI, abstainers don’t take kindly to being called killjoys!

Perhaps it is worth noting how central technology is to the things people conspicuously abstain from. Not owning a car is obvious enough on this score, but that choice often goes hand-in-hand with owning and advocating for another technology, namely the bicycle. (+10 points for a fixed gear bike.) The choice not to own a tv is often connected to Neil Postman-like or Robert Putnam-esque criticisms of what television has “done” to our society. Even people who eat meat may avoid McDonald’s because of its connection to factory farms, because its industrialized food is tasteless and unhealthy, and because it uses our societies complex technological systems to deliver sweet, syrupy drinks by the vat-load. One could argue that our lives are so thoroughly intertwined with technologies that every kind of choice is related to them in the kinds of ways I just enumerated, but it may be worth pondering how conspicuous abstention is connected to other, long-standing forms of public refusal of technologies, such as the traditional image of the Luddites. 

Social media, or Web 2.0, is shifting the ground of conspicuity. Thirty years ago if you wanted to tell 150 of your friends what you did or did not like, you would have to call each of them on the phone or mail each of them a self-printed pamphlet, for instance, extolling the virtues of Magnum, P.I. and Tom Selleck’s short-shorts therein. Social media is really great in this way. It lets you quickly and easily tell everyone what you like (or don’t). As everyone knows, social media is so obviously good for this that Facebook created the “like” button, a technology for signaling our inclinations. We have entered the age of conspicuous affection.

(I’m sure that whole dissertations are being written right now on Facebook’s decision not to include a “don’t like” or “hate” button. Perhaps the company is simply worried about law suits around carpal tunnel resulting from all the clicking that would ensue such an invention.)

The full of weight of conspicuous affection became clear to me a few weeks ago when I was texting with my friend, Mike. We were talking about the weird things that people “like.” I was asking, why does anyone need to “like” NPR? Whenever I see that someone has pressed the NPR “like” button, it is almost always completely obvious that the person would be an NPR fan. That’s just the kind of person he or she is. “You mean, you like This American Life? You don’t say,” I note as I stare at the copies of Dave Eggers, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen, and Jonathan Safran Foer on the person’s shelf.  

But my friend pointed out that at least NPR is an organization that makes things. By liking NPR, you may learn more about new productions that you might want to check out. What’s really weird, he claimed, is that people “like” things such as reading and yoga, things that are not associated with any group or person but that are simply out there in the world. Social media technology allows us to flag things that we care for that others might never know we care for; that is, our affection would be invisible if we didn’t represent it through a signal.

Of course, you could just tell people these things. “I like to read.” But this might seem strange. If you said that in some social circles, people would get very quiet and visibly uncomfortable. They would think that you made some kind of joke that they weren’t getting. Why? Because everyone at the table likes to read. That’s just not the kind of thing people usually say out loud. But for some reason it is the kind of thing that some people “like.”

Jean Paul Sartre and other philosophers have claimed that the self, or the ego, is not something inside of us but rather something external in the world. For instance, Tony relates to himself in the same way you and I relate to Tony’s self. His self is something that everyone, including him, tells stories about, rather than being something inside of him that he has special access to. It is interesting to consider how social media allows us to construct ourselves and perhaps gives us a sense that we can have more control of the narrative about ourselves. This sense of control is almost certainly illusory. You can “like” Charles Dickens however much you want; your nearest and dearest will still know that you spend most of your free time with American Idol. Yet, Sartre argued that the ability to control others’ perceptions was something that everyone profoundly desired. The (bad) functionalist argument would go like this: And having some sense of this desire, tech companies created a technology to give some semblance of mastery . . .

This is the thing. Facebook created a button that allows us to signal our affections. At first blush, this button was to be used to strengthen social networks and increase use of the system. You post a photograph. I “like” it. You feel good that I gave you attention; you like that I “liked” it. The button also simultaneously allows us to spell out our identity. It lets us flag our fondness.

And people are pushing that button, again and again and again. 


3 thoughts on “Facebook and Conspicuous Affection

  1. Margaret Curnutte

    Can I like your post on facebook? I want to construct my identity as supporting a critique of the conspicuous abstainers. You know how I have a fondness for the vegans and vegetarians.



  2. Hank

    Hey! There are a lot of interesting issues packed in here. How does the part about abstention (from “For several years” to “Luddites”) link up with the part about affection (from there, on)? Is this about “liking” others' abstention? Or is it that both can now be conspicuous? There's some connection I'm missing.

    The whole “liking NPR” thing is part of FB's evolving interface in a neat way. Time was, you just listed things you liked on your own page. Later, links popped up if FB recognized what you were typing. Then, companies, products, and creators got their own “pages” (first you subscribed; now you like).

    Last thing! There's more to Veblen – the very existence of FB (rather than the behaviors it enables) fits. Beyond silver, there's the church and its priests to prove his point, which transcended individual behaviors to the level of social patterns. Facebook as twenty-first century cathedral-building?


  3. Lee

    You aren't missing any connection between these two parts. There's only the loosest tie. For a long time, I've been thinking about being conspicuous through the lenses of pragmatism and performativity (ordinary language philosophy). It's about what people are *doing* to gain attention, and conspicuous abstention was what got me thinking about this. (This book I read in high school also shaped my thoughts on the matter: http://www.amazon.com/The-Pursuit-Attention-Power-Everyday/dp/0195135490#reader_0195135490)

    The bit about abstention's relation to technologies and the Luddites is more or less an aside, though instinct tells me they are ultimately connected in a deeper way that I haven't puzzled out yet.

    My thoughts on conspicuous affection fell into this stuff I'd already been working through. If anything, the post is a record of my thought's trajectory.

    What interests me about Facebook is that it gives us a number of tools to present ourselves. The “like” button is particularly interesting when viewed as a tool. We click the mouse; a light lights.

    Imagine a society in which there were very powerful light bulbs placed all around public spaces, like in a public park. If you enjoyed the public park, you would walk up to the light, press a button, and the light would glow. Perhaps a horn would even blow. The traditions of this society hold that people walking by the space should stop in their tracks, turn, and nod at you, thereby, recognizing your affection.

    Facebook can be a bit like this, only we use its tools to flag things that are more private, things about our home life, things about our leisure time.

    I should mention that this is connected to something that sociologists and others have recognized for a long time, namely that people now “identify” themselves less with their work and more with their extracurriculars.

    Another thing: I meant my post to be cheeky, but in the process, I focused on a very particular bit of society, namely the educated and the middlebrow. A friend, Aimee Rickman, is writing her dissertation at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on how rural teens use the internet. Work patterns have shifted in these places. There are few jobs, and young people are living with their parents for longer periods of time. Since financial independence is a marker of adulthood in our society, people experience longer periods of adolescence, where they are marginalized and treated as less than fully autonomous. What role does online identity formation play for these people? Many people live in communities where people *do not* read. What does pressing the “like” button for reading mean for such people? Surely something much different. I can't wait to read what she finds.

    Your point about “FB's evolving interface” is hugely important because we have to consider the company's business strategy in all of this. My wife was telling me last night that she uses FB as a news aggregator, which brings her back to the site pretty often. FB increasingly presents us with many functions that might bring us to the site. It can fulfill many needs, needs both psychodynamic and practical. For some people, it might be about “liking” yoga. For others, it's a place to check the news. Either way, they are on Facebook.

    Facebook as twenty-first century cathedral-building? Hmm. What do you think people go there to worship? I have a few ideas.



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