Posted by Rob Walker on March 23, 2009
Posted Under: "Social" studies,America,Consumer Behavior,Ethics,Things/Thinking,Virtual Whatever-ness

In a post back in November, I quoted a little from Robert J. Samuelson Newsweek article in which he more or less drew a link between American materialism, and American self-esteem (this in the context of  the economic downturn that at the time was still coming into full view).

An interesting comment on that post came from reader Jonathan, who essentially said that material goods had already been fading in significance: “Generations Y and X place more value on social capital in establishing their self-esteem, as in how many Facebook friends they’ve got, how their love lives are going, etc. … The Internet provides more opportunity for inexpensive socializing (meetups, parties, conversation).”

While I can think of ways to rebut, or at least question, that assertion, I think the essence of Jonathan’s point is pretty interesting, and it’s stuck with me. I’ve been intrigued by what I guess I’m going to call immaterialism for a while, and I do wonder if there’s a sub-plot here to the question of what sort of consumer culture eventually emerges from this recession.

Here’s some more fodder. I apologize in advance for the long post, but if  you have reactions I’d love to hear them.

Recently, Wired’s Underwire blog, in answering the hypothetical question, “what would you grab if you had just 20 minutes to save the objects in your home that mean the most to you,” replied: My USB drive. Obviously that answer has nothing to do with the  object, but rather with the immaterial data it stores.

Similarly, on a SXSW panel, Tim Brown of Ideo said something about (if I remember this right) the data on his laptop being more important than the physical laptop.

Another variation: A couple of times Consumed I’ve dealth with virtual goods — in this October 16, 2005, column on EverQuest, and this October 1, 2006 column about Second Life. And I’m certainly not the only person to write about that (non)stuff — there are whole books about people making and spending real money in virtual worlds.

And finally: A more recent Consumed dealt with iPhone apps, even silly ones, that consumers will spend money on and presumably value, creating another vibrant immaterial marketplace.

Now, none of that is exactly what Jonathan was talking about.

But … Let’s say you go along with the basic premise that much of the material-object-buying of recent years (decades) is partly explained by consumer desires for more abstract ideas such as individualism, or connection, or progress, or status, and the self-esteem that Samuelson references.

Can these various immaterial offerings serve a similar function? If so, does that have a  broad impact on consumer culture going forward, or does it just become another element of it? And how, in turn, does the recession affect our desires for immaterial goods — spending on stuff in virtual worlds, for instance?How does t

I return to virtual goods in part because I listened to a segment on DNA recently about an architect who has basically moved his practice to Second Life, creating “buildings” there for various clients. In that old EverQuest column, I noted argued that spending a few dollars on an (immaterial) Pristine Teak Strong Box isn’t that different from paying a few dollars extra for a (material) suitcase that happens to carry a luxury brand name: “Paying for the intangible is hardly exotic; most of us do it all the time.”

To take that another step: The immaterial object isn’t made in a dubious factory, and won’t end up in landfill. So maybe it’s even possible to argue that immaterialism channels consumer desires in ways that are, on some level, better.

Which isn’t to say there are no consequences (eco and otherwise) to our digital habits — more on that tomorrow. Because this is way too long.

For now, just sketching out these few thoughts, and curious if  you have any.

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

Reader Comments

I was briefed to find some stats on escalating debt levels for UK under-25s today (Gen-Y?).

I got a surprise.

More stories were turning up on rising unemployment levels and a new tendency to save. Easy credit was old news.

It may be a coincidence that social media’s growth has coincided with shrinking means for young adults and teenagers (I’m only 26 myself, so I hope I’m not generalising out of turn).

But I don’t think you can consider the two developments in isolation from one another.

It’s harder to get a quick, satisfying hit from consumerism these days if you’re under 25. But there’s a nourishing drip for your self-esteem in free, online social activity.

So if kids are saving, what would they be saving for?

I know my answer: a new laptop, an HD camera, an iPhone, a projector. A tool to create and share…

(Sorry this comment was so long – sketching out some thoughts in return!)

Written By Guy on March 23rd, 2009 @ 1:54 pm

I’ll share a worn adage given to me by a Journalism professor as I pursued a degree in Advertising, RE: how to sell to consumer. “People don’t buy drills, they buy the ability to make 1/4 inch holes.”

I realize know she was referencing Theodore Levitt (

I think this is a really excellent post and certainly I saw threads of this discussion in my own SXSW experience.

What it boils down to, for me, is this: the technology (or product or service) isn’t all that inherently interesting, it’s what you do for your customers (or enable them to do for themselves) that makes or breaks you.

As for me, it’d be a prized digital camera that I’d save. Even if I lost some photos, I could record and share new memories.

My two cents.

Written By Seth on March 23rd, 2009 @ 2:13 pm

read william gibson’s novel “pattern recognition” if you never have.
It’s got some stupid spy stuff in there, but it’s essential argument is the new branding economy–we’re tied to a feeling not the product function; we’re tied now to the information, not the materiality.

Of course he wrote the book in 2002, so it’s all different now.

Written By josh on March 23rd, 2009 @ 8:47 pm
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