Prince recently took London by storm. He performed a series of short-notice, small-scale gigs. Only the lucky few could attend. Anyone who didn’t get a ticket was massively envious of those who were there. Those who were there documented every moment through social media.
Next up, Beyonce hit town and, although on a massively different scale from the Prince gigs, the city was split between those who were there and tweeted it and those who weren’t and tweeted something about their cat.
Documenting experiences is central to social media. Instagram is awash with pictures of idyllic holidays, smiley faces and dirty burgers. Facebook has become a place where all the good things in life are shared and dark times do not exist. It’s natural that we do this, we often don’t know the people we’re connected with very well, and even if we did, social media isn’t really the place for a heart to heart. A tweeted hug is no hug at all.
The flipside to all this positive lifestyle sharing is that experiences seem to be overtaking possessions as social signifiers. Your Gucci jeans say less about you than the villa you stayed in during your French holiday. Everyone knows about the villa, its pool and tennis court because of the pictures you instagrammed with the hashtag #blessed.
In an age of plenty and of mass produced luxury, it’s no surprise that experiences, which are rationed by their very nature, become much more valuable. Only a handful can be at a Wimbledon final, a concert or stay in a particular villa.
Of course, the prizing of experiences is nothing new. From colonial explorers who were the rock stars of their day, to the flying aces of the early days of aviation, adventurers have always cut a dash in society. Moreover, when it comes to one-upmanship, doing trumps owning. Indeed in Shakespeare’s Henry V, on the eve of the play’s great and final battle against the French, the eponymous King gives a rousing speech about how the those in the small English army would be able to stand tall among their countrymen due to their presence on the battlefield that day.
It seemed for a time, while package holidays, budget airlines and stadium concerts made experiences less exclusive, that possessions were the thing to set you apart, but that was a mere historical blip.
The advent of social media has meant that we’re able to document our experiences and others are easily able to view them like never before. This has created a simple and effortless way to reference and judge social ranking. As Daniel Kahneman has shown in his studies of human behaviour and decision making, the ease with which we can now discern others’ lifestyles and our natural tendency toward rules-of-thumb mean we now have a low-effort ready reckoner of the social pecking order.
So what if experiences replace objects? It is, after all, just one materialistic way of judging someone replacing another. There are, however, some ways that this shift is likely to change how we interact as a society. The world can be a lonely place and, increasingly for those who aren’t having a great time, it’s likely that the web, a long time haunt of misfits and outcasts, will become a lonely place too.
Moreover, as certain experiences become the ‘must do’ things in a life, there’s a chance that we’ll start experiencing homogenised lives in the way we purchase homogenised goods.
It used to be an article of faith among car salesman that if you wanted to know if a customer could afford a car, you only need look at their shoes or watch. Now they need only to look up their social media profile.