Conspicuous Tweeting

Does anyone remember Thorstein Veblen? Not personally, mind you, since he died a few months before the Market Crash in 1929. bigstock-Hand-Pressing-Like-Button-11718554But does anyone remember his great contribution to our understanding of the relationship between money and status?

Veblen was a late 19th century/early 20th century economist and sociologist best known for his book The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899). The book coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption” or the conscious spending of money on items that announce one’s status on the socio-economic ladder. It spawned the related principle of “Keeping Up with The Joneses.” In other words, to show who you are, and keep yourself in good stead with the in-crowd, you best pay attention to what you wear, what you drive, where you live, what company you work for and where you vacation.

The New Yorker recently ran a piece called “You Are What You Tweet” and it made me think of Veblen for the first time in years. (See below for link to article) For what are we living in today, in our resplendent world of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and the like, if not a new version of conspicuous consumption? Only it’s not based on what you buy, but on how conspicuously you create and nurture who you are online. The online version of your “personal brand.” In fact, Pinterest goes so far as to perfectly blend the image of consumption with the image of the personal. Every pin of a new fab item is another way of saying I not only have great taste but, in some cases, I can afford it, too.

Make no mistake, even before the concept of personal branding took hold in the 90’s, people were branding themselves. It’s just that it wasn’t front and center in their minds and it still allowed for one to easily step away from what they created.

Today, though, people are well familiar with what a personal brand is, and in most cases willing to do what it takes to develop it even if the concept seems a little off-putting. Unlike the past, though, it is no longer so easy to ignore or unmake. And that’s because the very freedom for expression and connection that social media engenders creates the burden of curating one’s online presence. You really can’t say anything you want to say because somewhere buried in a cloud-based virtual vault is every keystroke you ever struck. Every status update or tweet you liked. Every picture you posted. So much so that this casual social engagement – only a piece of the complete picture of a person – becomes the complete picture itself.  The recognition of this rear flank abdication of reputation is so obvious that colleges offer courses on personal branding.

Of course, I like social media. It has profound and positive implications for the way we live and how we create a more deeply resonant sense of community.  I just don’t always like what gets assigned to it. How a few comments from an individual, a business or a government are read as proxy for an entire history and point of view. Because once you start going down that path, you look at every posting as a calculation: How does this line up with what the rest of my network thinks? Could re-tweeting this remark from my favorite comedian make me less attractive to a future employer? Does this comment enhance or detract from my brand? (I love that one.)

It doesn’t seem very….authentic. In a time when decisions on who to hire or do business with increasingly originate online, conspicuous activity of any kind is out of place. Use social media, yes, to get out ideas and make connections. But when one’s focus is on impression over reputation, you know the balance is off. Reputation is earned by how you act and what you accomplish. Impression is the ethereal imprint you leave behind.

Which brings me back to Veblen. Professionals are encouraged to get involved in social media, use it to strengthen job prospects, network and contribute thoughts and opinion. All this is good. When the activity is driven too much by self-interest or competition or attention seeking, though, it can ultimately sully the very presence being nurtured.  That’s a caution all professionals need to heed. For who wants to be so adept at social media that they ultimately become a pariah?

As my mother once said, don’t be too conspicuous.

New Yorker article:  You Are What You Tweet



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