The End of Conspicuous Consumption: Does Virtual World Cut Material Needs?

Image credit: Good Magazine
Do Social Networks Mark a Fundamental Shift in Consumption?
Kristin has already written about planet-savingFacebook applications, and sustainable iPhone apps are mushrooming - from easy green shopping databases to Earth911's iRecycle app. Simply using new technologies and social networking sites to do good green things is one thing - but what if the sites and technologies themselves ARE good green things? An thought provoking article over at Good Magazine is claiming just that - that Facebook, Twitter and the iPhone may just mark the end of conspicuous consumption. The theory, being put forward by Stephen Lino, Brad Bate and Michael Keating over at Good, goes something like this. Elites have always consumed to show their status - and usually that has involved purchasing bigger (or more) houses; faster, more energy hungry cars; private planes; yachts; greener lawns; private islands - whatever it was that everyone wanted but few could have.

But, argue Lino, Bate and Keating - the birth of social networking has marked a significant shift away from amassing material goods, and instead opting for increased consumption of virtual goods through virtual channels:

Professional thirtysomethings spend more time polishing their LinkedIn pages than pruning their front lawns. Prospective singles—men and women—focus more on tweaking their or eHarmony profiles than they do searching for that perfect convertible. An entrepreneur friend in Silicon Valley recently told me he sold his BMW because he was embarrassed to show up in it for meetings with younger software engineers in the coffee shops of Palo Alto. The car detracted from—instead of reinforced—his identity.

Whether or not this is a permanent shift remains to be seen - but anecdotally at least, I've detected a certain shift away from materialism as a sign of wealth or status among my circle of friends, family and acquaintances.

But let's not fall into the trap of thinking that 'virtual' equals 'benign' - all this online life has its own impact, from soaring mountains of e-waste to whopping power bills for server farms. We may well be headed in the right direction, but let's keep pushing.

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