Media and Materialism

In the article Competition and Information Deception in Online Social Networks, the authors analyze what motivates people to intentionally misrepresent themselves on online social networks. Their study found that the most compelling reason people have for bending the truth online is the perceived status benefits involved, which was followed by perceived hedonic benefits, AKA enjoyment of the site. These results aren’t surprising to me. After all, we live in an overtly materialistic culture where there is quite a lot of social pressure to acquire prestigious goods – houses, cars, clothes, T.V.’s, etc – that serve as a kind of public declaration of our social class or, in some cases, simply a smokescreen of affluence. The pressure to spend money on material items causes many people to rack up large debts which can result in financial insecurity as well as stress.

Perhaps, in accordance with the study’s findings of online behaviour, in real life people may be more inclined to buy expensive things because of the perceived status benefits associated with it rather than because of their hedonic enjoyment of that item. It doesn’t seem unlikely to me. After all, can there really be a massive difference in hedonic enjoyment between a regular priced generic item and a much more expensive but otherwise very similar brand name item? Clearly, the price difference is justified because the brand-name item tells the world that I have money.

It makes sense that our cultural desire for external signifiers of wealth and prosperity would directly translatee to our online behaviour. We can’t edit our real lives, but once we are online we can carefully construct our cyber identity, a filtered version of ourselves that is perhaps a little better looking, a little more successful, and a little happier than we really are. The problem is, we do this and yet take all others on social media at face value. We compare our ordinary, unedited, real life selves to these narratives we see on the internet – particularly on social media sites – and feel a deep sense of inadequacy and insecurity. Additionally, building an identity based on misinformation could cause psychological distress in the person who is lying. As a classmate of mine wrote in their post Illusions of Approval with Online Deception in Social Media, “trying to find fulfilment through the use of PID online may paradoxically cause individuals to feel unfulfilled, as feelings of belongingness and approval that one attains from winning online competition may be illusory” .(

An example of how social media and the social pressures of materialism interact is the article’s description of 50 Cent, a rapper who “declared bankruptcy in 2015, yet he carefully cultivated a self-presentation of wealth on Instagram, showing himself surrounded by piles of cash, which he later was forced to admit was fake”. Since all of the participants in Church and Thambusamy’s study were college students in the United States, it would be interesting to study the online behaviours, particularly personal information deception, of people who belong to a culture that is less fixated on material signifiers of status and wealth.

What I found interesting about this article is that, unlike many of the other readings, it doesn’t ever clearly define competition. As we have been learning in class, competition can mean a lot of different things to different people, and defining it serves the purpose of setting parameters for the discussion. For example, Kohn defines competition as mutually exclusive goal attainment. Similar to this, Wittchen et. al. defines it as “individuals or groups pursuing exclusive goals” which is “aggravated when incentives are negatively interrelated, that is, when gains of one competitor imply a loss for the other”. In other words, for several of the readings, what constitutes competition is a zero-sum game. However, in the context of the Church and Thambusamy reading, competition is simply the desire to appear to be of similar or superior status to one’s peers/social network. And, while the competition of acquiring (or appearing to acquire) status and social capital is less easy to measure and analyze than the competition of, say, sports, there are clear “winners” and “losers” in the capitalist rat-race.

1 Comment

  1. Hey there, enjoyable read – thanks ! I would just like to say that your conclusion is what did it for me, you concluded and formatted everything nicely, in order, and used the conclusion to bring out your discrepancies of the article and that was effective. Your simple english allowed me to follow your whole response smoothly, and I agree with you that there are definitely different definitions of competition, and its that subjectivity that can ultimately make it hard to measure and analyze, as you expressed in your conclusion. Well-put, cheers.


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