The Label Generation: Effects of Consumer Culture on Modern Identity

Brecht Vandenbroucke - ‘Everyday We Walk a Thin Line’
Brecht Vandenbroucke – ‘Everyday We Walk a Thin Line’

Who are you? Answer without: name, job, media, things you’ve done, friends

I came across this question recently, and after thinking about it for a while, it seemed that everything I could come up with fell under the categories of what not to include. Eventually, the best answer I came up with was ‘I am me’. It’s not necessarily a bad conclusion, but it didn’t provide me with anything substantial, and I was left in just as much ambiguity as when I started. It seems like a simple question, but trying to figure out what is left of myself beyond the things I own, where I live, what country I’m from, or what music and movies I like, was not as easy as expected. When I was stripped of these labels that formed what I knew as my identity, I realized it can be hard to figure out what’s left. This is an issue that comes along with fluid identity — it’s easy to only identify ourselves by transient factors that can change constantly.

 

Fluidity of Identity

My idea of what identity consists of could be compared to an empty house, that as you get older you get more acquainted with, discovering different rooms and adding your favourite decorations as you see fit. I might visualize identity as a frame that you’re born with, and you make all sorts of additions and adjustments as you become more acquainted with yourself, but in the end it still maintains the same general shape. Regardless of your environment and other influences, there is an anchor or rock that is the base for what ‘you’ consist of. Fluidity of identity may be imagined as if your sense of self feels more like a river than a rock. You have your decorations, but nowhere to keep them. You identify yourself by your style, tastes, looks, likes, dislikes, and other things that, for most people, tend to change fairly regularly, and you’re missing something sturdy to fall back on. How many people have never really considered things like their values and character? Personally, I’d struggle to come up with more than a couple things.

Consumer Culture

The sharp growth of disposable income across developed societies, alongside intense competition within increasingly unregulated markets meant, according to postmodernist theorist Fredric Jameson, that the culture industries were increasingly focused on a constant drive to develop as many new and different things for us to consume as possible. As well as developing as many variations as possible within existing genres or product categories, this search for ‘ever more novel-seeming goods’ entailed an ongoing search for new markets and new forms of advertising with which to engage these. (Jameson, 1991; Featherstone, 2007)

Losing touch with who we are beyond fluid, transitory factors may be largely influenced by consumer culture and media saturation. Crucial to the emergence and growth of consumer culture has been the ever-greater focus on symbolic value, as opposed to use value. Throughout the twentieth century, marketing and advertising changed its attention from the practical aspects of what a product will do for you, to what it will say about you. As a result of this, the determining factors in our purchasing decisions are often whether a product fits our identity, not whether it is practical or useful. This may hold potentially serious consequences for the average consumer. “If the primary role of our clothes, cars, mobile devices and household decor is to make a symbolic statement about who we are, then there are fewer limitations to the frequency with which we purchase such items. The triumph of symbolic value, then, drastically expands the intensity of consumerism” (Hodkinson, 2017).

Media Saturation

Theorists have often seen media as a reflective mirror of society, or as a shaper of society. But, rather than seeing it as something separate from society, it might be more appropriate to see media as lying at the very heart of society — an integral part of the real world, opposed to operating outside of it. In recent times, media and commerce have penetrated more and more into our everyday lives and routines.

The increasing capacity of mobile media is crucial here, as it enables many of us to take the internet, games, music and virtually any other forms of content everywhere we go. Wherever we are, then, multiple media messages from different sources are competing for our attention, to the extent that, according to psychologist and sociologist Sherry Turkle, we now inhabit a world of simulation where ‘what people mostly want from public space is to be alone with their personal networks’. Cultural theorist and sociologist Jean Baudrillard once said that we’ve come to a point of ‘information overload’, and as a consequence we may be losing our ability to develop complex, in-depth understanding of anything. Our attention is constantly switching as we engage temporarily and desire ‘bite-sized snippets of content’.

The Label Generation

The demand for ever more novel-seeming goods and media has led to the increased reuse and recycling of media, ideas, and culture. Here, instead of creating something borne from an original set of meanings, objects or styles are extracted from previous associations and fused with one another to create new products in new contexts. According to some theorists, the more ongoing this process of recycling becomes, the more devoid of fixed or substantive meanings the newly manufactured hybrids can become.

The implication is that, while previously the symbolic meanings of objects were deep and restricted, in recent decades we have seen something of a free-for-all, where an endless stream of hybrid consumables can be selected and combined at will with whatever meanings performers, consumers or others temporarily apply to them. Crucially, as our identities become more and more attached to floating, transitory symbols, we ourselves may become increasingly hybrid and fluid, our understanding of self consisting of an ever-changing array of temporary styles and objects.

“The result is an industrialized version of cultural expression, whose enticing, standardized form numbs the minds of the population, crushing their capacity for independent thought and distracting them from the development of real solutions to their alienation. The culture industry acts as a conduit for the incorporation of the masses themselves into the system and helps to bring about an end to any realistic prospect of mass opposition” (Hodkinson, 2017).

Brecht Vandenbroucke – ‘The Label Generation’

The Internet

Online freedom from physical constraints was argued to enable identities to become particularly malleable and fluid. Not only could the images and text that represent us on-screen change as often as we like but we could also sustain multiple virtual identities at any one moment in time. Rather than being a unified individual consisting of a stable inner core and physically located body, then, online selves can manifest as incoherent, multiply located and always shifting. And as greater and greater time, energy and emotions are exhausted on parallel virtual personas, it becomes increasingly unclear which identity is ‘real’ and which artificial.

One consequence of this is that the boundaries between private and public can become blurred, with more and more details of our intimate lives shared with diverse and, sometimes, unpredictable audiences. Our private interactions with friends, meanwhile, take place increasingly within commercialized environments where what we say, like and share is recorded, archived and mined for information with which to more effectively target us with commercial messages. Social and developmental psychologists have long argued that we need both a private and a public persona. We need a public self to allow us to fit into society, and a private self to develop our own uniqueness. Nowadays, when we spend so much time on social media and allow personal data to be gathered and stored online, the distinction between our public and private self is rapidly decreasing.

There are reasons to be concerned about a total merging of public and private self. Studies show that if we think we’re being watched, we’re more likely to comply with the wishes of those around us, rather than stick to our own beliefs and inclinations. Thus the more we rely on our public self to make decisions and to guide our behaviour, the less individualistically we think and behave. And perhaps most importantly, time as your private self is time to play, experiment and dream without fear of censure. Only in this way can truly new and original ideas emerge. (Blair, 2017)

Though they make a number of salient observations, postmodernist approaches to the internet such as those described by Turkle tend to to exaggerate the social impacts on which they focus. Why should we assume that most people will be prompted to develop such parallel identities, especially when the internet offers equally strong possibilities to consolidate one’s existing position in the world? For most contemporary users, the internet does not comprise an alternative world, but a set of communications tools that integrate increasingly seamlessly with their existing identities. Rather than offering a distinct ‘virtual’ world, then, we might better think of the internet as forming part of the broader saturation of everyday life by mediated communication.

Conclusion

“While previous generations of teens acquired dexterity in self-presentation and self-disclosure primarily offline, the smartphone generation prefers to rely on social media to help with the development of these skills. In fact, one in three adolescents prefers to talk through social media rather than face-to-face when it comes to love, sexuality, and things that embarrass them. Moreover, recent American data indicate that the vast majority of teens indicate that social media helps them feel more connected with their friends’ feelings and daily lives” (Valkenburg, et al.).

The internet is a great outlet, but using it excessively at the expense of our offline identity leaves a breeding ground for inability to handle real-life social situations, like something as simple as talking on the phone. If you’ve given so much attention to your online persona at the expense of your offline self, neglecting to nurture your ability to face people in person, it stands to reason that simply existing offline will make you anxious, like just ‘being’ is something unfamiliar.

How different is my online self from my offline self? Do I ever act different online than I would in reality? If I weren’t connected to the internet and my online self at all times, how different would I be? These are a few of the questions that have come to mind since the day I asked myself who I am. This idea of having online vs. offline personas is not a new one, and many people have grappled with it. Perhaps one way to tell you’ve given precedence to your online self is how often you find you’re on a website or scrolling a news feed before you even realize what you’re doing. Until recently, my attempts to stop using certain social media platforms were in vain, as I couldn’t go a week without having certain apps on my phone.

Why does it even matter if I’m cognizant of my identity? I consider myself as I would consider a project for school or work. Would I be more concerned about making sure I had quality content, or making sure it looked exactly how I wanted? Both are often important, but without substance, it doesn’t really matter how much you dress something up.

Works Cited

Blair, L. Give More Time to Your Private Self. London: Daily Telegraph, 2017.

Featherstone, M. Consumer Culture and Postmodernism — Second Edition. London: Sage, 2007.

Hodkinson, Paul. Media, Culture and Society: an IntroductionSecond Edition. London: Sage, 2017.

Jameson, F. Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London: Verso, 1991.

Valkenburg, Patti M., and Jessica Taylor Piotrowski. Plugged In: How Media Attract and Affect Youth. Yale University Press, 2017.

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