The days of undiluted materialism are over. The constant desire for new and shiny products has created a market saturated with consumer goods. Today, it’s well acknowledged that consumers have moved away from the materialism that dominated the cultural landscape of the past, and into a new form of consumption, one that values ‘experiences’ over objects.
Now, the old phrase “keeping up with the Joneses’’ is not so much a matter of what you have but rather where you have been. Social theorist, Jeremy Rifkin explained this change as a result of the movement from the modern to the post-modern life, the shift from buying and selling to leasing and loaning has resulted in an increased focus on the experience over the product. Netflix, Spotify, Uber, ownership as a concept has become old hat. Today, it is about access and experience. We find that, as consumers, we have a feverish desire for new experiences, the new pop-up, the new restaurant, the new bar and the new rooftop club that doubles as a yoga studio.
Though this not a completely new phenomenon, this change has been magnified by the increasing power and ubiquity of visually rich social media channels such as Instagram, Snapchat and relatively new player, Periscope, through which our activities are mediated and validated. Likes, comments, and shares are all things you can quantify, and quantify publicly at that. This lends itself to a participation anxiety where we feel the need to do something to add to our personal equity.
Our preferred currency has changed from money to that of “presence”. Instead of handing over money for what we deem as value laden material objects, that reflect our values, we are exchanging our presence in the market of events and pop-ups for personal recognition and status. The likes of Secret Cinema, a pop-up underground cinema that charges consumers £50 a pop, blends exclusivity and something highly visual and shareable. The increasingly prevalent pop-up food markets complete with ornate signage are crying out for a photo snap.
The truth is that on these networks we are all now microbloggers, exchanging our presence, increasingly not just to actively participate in an event but for something to share. It is not uncommon for event goers to pay more attention to capturing the perfect selfie than the event itself. After all, we all have the potential to capture something and turn it into content. Whereas previously photos were a way to preserve the memory of someone or something, they now serve to validate our digital existence. Never before has there been the potential for something you capture to be seen by so many people. Your reach is potentially infinite, get enough likes and you can go anywhere.
Experience has always been loaded with notions of personal development or at least a way of changing how you perceive things. But as we know, just as with material goods, not all experiences have this effect.
“Social media has changed peoples relationship with their own experiences,” says Jacob Silverman, author of Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection. “There’s a documentary impulse now that existed in a different form before. Perhaps some people seek out certain experiences for the sake of documenting and broadcasting them, but more than that, people perform their public selves now with the awareness that anything might be immediately shareable.”
All of this has commodified culture and created a space where we now exchange our presence for the endorphin rush of likes. “Our experiences become not about our own fulfilment, the fulfilment of those we are with, or even about sharing; they become about ego, demonstrating status, seeming cool or smart or well-informed,” says Silverman.
As a contrast to this new environment, in which we seek out and discard new experiences quicker than the purchases of previous generations, New York based artist David Horvitz created an app entitled the space between us. The app turns the iPhone into a makeshift compass, a lone white arrow on a solid blue screen pointing in the direction of another device, reflecting pure presence, and not the perfect snapshot of being in a location.
“With this app I wanted to do one thing,” explains Horvitz. “I wanted attention to be diverted away from the phone, and back into real space.”
We are always anxious of something happening elsewhere, so we are simultaneously present but also absent. “Being online is like being in this kind of nowhere space, where you aren’t really anywhere physically,” says Horvitz. “Because mentally you are connected all over the world, you’re synchronised with people in different places and time zones.”
Nowadays, we visit and we leave, our exchange is over, and we have no further use for the space. We value nomadic presence, we may stay for a while, but we will always try to move on. You can’t post the same thing twice. All of this means that culture has less time to grow.
The experience, or at least the visual representation of the experience, becomes more of a means to an end rather than anything else. Social anxiety is less fear of missing out and more about your social status in the eyes of others. With nothing to show you risk looking uninteresting.
“The interesting thing is that this kind of social anxiety may be less about missing out on something than about not seeming cool or popular or happy enough in the eyes of your own network,” explains Silverman. “Think of the general Instagram aesthetic and the tendency toward self-curation, limiting anything too dark or sad. And with metrics attached to every post, we always know how we measure up against everyone else in terms of likes, faves, etc.”
Artist Amalia Ulman, with her now infamous online performance Excellences & Perfections in which she created the persona of a the common Instagram celebrity, reflected on the reality and truth of such lifestyles. A poignant piece that seemed to prelude the more public “meltdown” of another Instagram user Essena O’Neil, who decried social media in general as fake.
Experiences are becoming just as commercialised as products. They have become a branded space for companies to co-create brand value with consumers. Brands and corporations, now fully aware of the fact that “millennials” value experiences over possessions, are focusing less on their product and more on creating ‘memorable experiences’.
Brands have entered the presence market by creating temporary social spaces in which to create brand value, initially through sponsorship of cultural establishments such as large scale music festivals or friendly events and experiences. This form of marketing relies on 3 factors. The first is the brand, more often than not these are corporations that look to increase brand value. The second is affective mediator who serves to create an affective, emotional link between the brand and the target market, this is often a music artist (there is nothing quite as immediately accessible and visceral as music). The third, the audience, who arrive with their desire to use up their presence currency and fulfil the need for something that they can share.
The events are engineered to be shared by those that become co-creators in brand image. A 2014 report from Eventbrite looking into social media activity at music festivals such as Coachella, explained that, “the majority of [social media] posts fell into categories that emphasised the festival experience as opposed to specific performances that were taking place.”
It is especially precarious when brands integrate consumer presence into their marketing strategies through the adoption of the arts. The “bums on seat” of brand X to work with artist Y for an event at Z seems unsustainable, the end of the event signals the end of the contract and the relationship between everyone involved.
Events such as these risk cheapening culture by making the collaboration short-term and often, meaningless, and placing the artists’ work in a environment that doesn’t match their output.
In the end this focus on presence as currency dissolves presence and culture into something more ephemeral. It’s unsurprising that brands are seeking to extract value from every actionable aspect of consumers, yet as it stands the commodification of our presence is something that both parties benefit from. While the presence of consumers may ratify the relevance of a brand, for attendees, the potential for garnering social media affirmation creates a balanced exchange. For as long as both parties stand to gain the relationship will continue, but as its ephemeral nature implies, this can ever only be temporary.
Written by N.G