Sunday, October 19, 2008

Thoughts on facebook

“I don’t want a big house; all I want is a bigger house than my neighbor”

We are in a constant battle to distinguish ourselves from others. We throw our dollars at things that allow us to differentiate ourselves and make us appear special or superior. Trendsetters race ahead of those sporting John Varvatos’ ‘08 collection by wearing his ‘09 collection. Teens want the new iPOD touch because everyone’s got the iPOD classic. One of the key ingredients of cool is uniqueness, so the ‘Sneak Freaks’ want their Nike limited edition Carolina-blue Jordan’s because beyond aesthetics, the word ‘limited’ means that you can’t have them.The word ‘limited’ grants a protective shield against the cool killing kryptonite; commonness.

Sophistication is the enemy of democracy; our whisky drinkers sip Black Label to edge past those drinking Red Label and fewer sip on Blue Label to get away from Black Label drinkers. It only gets more complicated when you throw cigars into the equation. The most desirable of automotive manufacturers have flourished through making cars that allow people to go faster than the next car at the traffic lights. Real estate sells flats for twice the price purely because it’s located in an area where everyone wants to live but most can’t.

Competition goes way beyond the boundaries of what people can or can’t afford, brands have recently exploited our desire to stand apart by flooding the market with greener products that appeal to our sense of morality. Hybrid cars, socially responsible soap bars, handcrafted mugs made by the indigenous people of somewhere poor yet pure, are all being marketed to us by appealing to our desire for moral superiority.

Consumerism has always been driven by rivalry. To steal off Joseph Heath and Andre Potter ‘consumerism, in other words, would appear to be a product of people trying to outdo one another’ .

The Social Economy: ‘That’s so yesterday!’ Tamara Habib

We operate in a vast and complex social economy, our experiences, relationships, and possessions are all cashed in for social tokens. The more in demand and exclusive an experience, possession or relationship, the higher the cash-in value it reaps. So telling a group of people who’ve never been anywhere beyond the borders of their own country about a trip to New York, trades in a higher value than the same story told to a group of socialites who ‘do’ New York for a weekend. Another example could be when we reflect on the fact that six months ago tossing your iPhone on a table held enough social worth to turn a business lunch into a conversation about you and your lovely new gadget. Today its popularization has lessened its value. The people who thrive in this social economy are those who have enough stuff or traits at a given time that other people want but can’t have. It is important to understand that financial power is not necessarily correlated with social power. Each and every group might have varying economic systems; what is desired in a circle of counter culture punk rock rebels is quite contrary to that desired in a group of Lebanese housewives. Yet despite the variations in group currency, each system operates under the same laws, the more in demand and exclusive something is, the higher its cash-in value.

Enter Facebook, the 24-hour competitive trading grounds of the social economy.

Facebook has sent our social economy into overdrive, by providing us with a 24-hour legitimized space that allows us to browse, speculate and trade social value. What was once an experience ‘cashed-in’ around a water-cooler the day back from a trip, is now traded more formally with a much larger group of social traders. Everyone can now see everyone else’s stocks; how many friends people have, political views, who hangs out with who, what clothes people are wearing, the music they listen to, the places they’ve been, what and who they’re doing, and how many comments their pictures gather. This trading ground has severely intensified and sped up the battle to distinguish ourselves from one another, making us work harder, think harder and spend more money in the struggle for superior standing in our respective social economies.

‘Why would I go to New York? Everyone is going there.” -The girl who’s never been to New York

Facebook has led to dramatic depreciation of social experience forcing us to work and spend more for less. News feeds, status updates, picture uploads, all keep us in the loop about where the busiest of us where, are and will be. The problem lies in the erosion of uniqueness. By seeing everyone doing every thing and everybody, going everywhere and being a fan of everyone, exclusivity, one of the key drivers of consumerism and social value, is at best short-lived, harder to attain and results in the depreciating worth of experiences. So a 5 thousand dollar trip to London that used to get you an engrossed audience orbiting around your cubicle now barely musters up enough interest from the pot noodle eating intern desperately seeking a job. This leads us to work harder, try harder and in many cases spend harder in our effort outdo one another.

‘Here, have a dollar in fact no brother man, have two’- Arrested development, Mr Wendel

Like most media, Facebook paints a distorted, romanticized representation of the state of things, leaving many of us to overestimate how much socially richer everyone else is and how much catching up we have to do. Most profiles are representations of idealized versions of ourselves or who we’d like to be. It’s slightly odd that all of a sudden the worlds choice in cinema, quotes and literature have become markedly more sophisticated, citing foreign movies, pensive quotes and musicians none has heard of as their preferences in an effort to distance ourselves from the mainstream mongrels. Our profile pictures are carefully selected to ensure the right image is projected, be it beauty, quirk, rebellion etc. Our albums go through rigorous screening processes and our experiences are well documented and publicized. Bizarrely, everyone seems to be a whole lot more interesting on Facebook; well cultured, better travelled, more popular, better looking, more desirable and all in all, socially prosperous. So the massive influx of post Eid holiday pictures makes those of us that didn’t go anywhere feel inadequate and pressured into making sure we do next time.

‘I went to the Justin Timberlake concert’- The guy that went to the concert but wasn’t there

Perhaps one of the clearest indication of facebooks dramatic impact on the social economy and how hard it’s got us working, is our tendency to trade in real life experience for garnering proof of them. Compare today’s concerts to those 20 years ago; back then, Michael Jackson popped up on stage and 6,000 people fainted due to an emotional rush of adrenalin. Today, Justin Timberlake anthemically poses for 6,000 people watching him through 1.2 inch phone cameras. Facebook has made us so consumed with the social economy that saying we were at the Justin Timberlake concert is more important than actually being there. What’s even more tragic is that the next day as you rush to the Facebook trading grounds to upload the video of the concert you paid 200AED to prove you attended, Tom, Dick, Harry and their cousin Spiky have uploaded their own versions bringing the value of everyone’s video down to zilch. Justin is, however, planning a concert in Amsterdam…

“Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life.” Facebook homepage

Facebook helps us connect with friends, colleagues, family members and in many cases strangers. The benefits of it have proven fruitful to any and all of us, one report stated that ‘if you’re not on a social networking site, you’re not on the internet’. However, above and beyond all its wonders, it is important to understand the sociological, cultural and economical implications of Facebook and other social networks. Facebook brings people together, but in doing so, it is perhaps one of the most dramatic catalysts of social rivalry and in turn consumerism bestowed upon us.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The answer to: How the imbecile made it to the top

I was sitting in a meeting a while back, one of those meeting where you have everyone and anyone there, clients, agencies, more agencies and some more clients. I was sitting back trying to take everything in, all the figures, the data, the percentages, the correlations, the numerous sentences that start with a percentage and then I had one of those epiphanies, you know the ones where I finally get what everyone else already got?

The same way women love diamonds, men love statistics! You see there is nothing more dear to a man then feeling powerful. Be it through wealth, terrorizing people, war, competition, land grabs or merely memorizing statistics, men yearn for power. Power is the ultimate manifestation of a mans desire to stand out, to feel important and unique.

Man dreams of one day waking up, hauling ass in a super charged car more powerful than any on the road, rocking up into the shiny office boardroom, throwing his briefcase onto the table where his minions sit awaiting to throw mountains of undivided attention his way, before listening to and acting upon every word said. In the ideal business world, man speaks, people shut up and listen.

Fortunately for us, few men are born into monarchies or messengers of gods to have such power. However, man has learnt that through the power of ‘The Statistic’ he can elevate himself to command the seas to part and the armies to march… Why? Becuase you can’t disagree with a f*cking statistic, well you can but it’s a whole lot harder to shoot a statistic down then an opinion. We’ve all been there, in meetings where some guy more annoying then rubbing salt on the rash around your balls, is in a position of absurd power blurting out a repertoire of stats that leave those who aren’t econometricians, or as cerebral as the likes of Fadi Khater, or Omar Gammal or the legendary countercultural maverick Anton Reyniers, with little to say or do but twiddle their thumbs and nod in synchrony. The issue becomes a problem when statistics get in the hands of the wrong man, because stats can obviously be horribly illusive, misleading and damaging. Needless to say that the worst combination is a stupid man with a dangerously powerful toy, to me and other ignoramuses the statistic is arguably as dangerous as the nuclear bomb.

Thanks the lord we have Fadi Khater, Omar Gammal or the legendary countercultural maverick Anton Reyniers and institutes like the London School of Economics to keep our world safe from statistics.