This month at Postconsumers, we’re shining the light on some activities, hobbies, niches or even social norms that are ridden with consumerism but are often thought of as being postconsumer alternatives. Today, we’re tackling what may be the most ubiquitous presence in many people’s lives, social media. You probably think of social media as a way to connect with and stay-in-touch with your friends and family, a way to keep up-to-date on topics and groups that you care about and possibly even a way to meet new people. And when used for good, social media does all of those things. But there is also a hidden … and not so hidden … strain of consumerism in social media.

Obviously, We’re Going to Start by Talking About the Ads

Depending on your age, you’ve probably experienced the following cycle at least once and possibly several (or even many times). A social network launches. There are no ads, and it is glorious and you spend all of your time on there talking to people of interest or looking at fascinating (or at least mildly interesting) things. Then, eventually, the social network needs to make some money. By that time, you’ve built up your network and become invested in the website itself, so you’re unlikely to entirely flee. And then, suddenly, you find your homepage or feed or stream cluttered with ads for things that you may or may not want but almost always don’t need. Social media has become the shopping mall of the present era, but unlike most malls you don’t necessarily get the choice of which stores you want to walk into. Did you even know that you wanted to transform your Instagram photos to magnets? We’re guessing that you didn’t – until a social media ad told you that you supposedly did!

The bait and switch with advertisements on most social networks is the most obvious way that consumerism is worked into the model, but it’s not the most insidious way.

Your Data is Fed to the Consumer Marketing Machine

What makes a social media network such a target-rich environment for advertisers is the amount of data that they can drill through in order to put their ads directly in front of the people who are most likely to respond to them. By “the amount of data that they can drill through” we mean “the amount of data that users provide and that the social media network shares with advertisers.” Now, to be perfectly clear, a website sharing user data with advertisers in order to help them optimize their marketing campaigns is in no way new to social media and most users never realize that by using a site or creating an account on a site they are by default allowing their data to be shared (it’s typically mentioned in very, very small print in the terms and conditions that nobody ever reads). But what makes it more insidious when a social network does it?

The type of data that you’re sharing on a social network and that the social network is sharing with advertisers is just so much more intimate. Social networks share your interests (both stated and derived from other things that you post). Did you get pregnant recently? You don’t need to share it with advertisers, you just have to post about it on a social network where you may want to share it with your friends and family and the social network’s smart computer brain knows to tell advertisers to start showing you diapers. Did you visit a website that sells hammers recently? Your social network knows that via a process called retargeting, and now you’re going to see ads from that website advertising that very product in an effort (usually highly successful) to get you back to purchase it. So while data sharing is the most insidious way that social networks implement consumerism, it’s actually not the most damaging.

Social Networks Blend Lifestyle and Marketing to Make You a Pure Consumer

At Postconsumers, one of the issues that we work the hardest to bring to people’s attention is that what makes addictive consumerism so dangerous is the way that, at this point, it’s interwoven with everyday life, society and even personal identity. That’s what’s so dangerous about the consumer element of social media. Social media is a lifestyle tool to allow you to express yourself and communicate with others, yet it’s absolutely accepted that woven into the fabric of that experience is consumerism. In fact, the practice of social media marketing relies on that. It’s assumed that people will treat brands as “people” and like, follow and interact with them. Much like the backlash against Mitt Romney’s assertion that corporations are people, too, the same is true of a brand on a social media site. Yet, the charge of customer service or sales people who manage social media presence for a company or brand is to talk to the customers or brand advocates as though the brand were a person. This fine line between how you communicate with actual living people on social media and brands, products or companies is so fine that you often forget there is a difference. And that is a dangerous blending of life and consumerism.

Social media marketing also relies on a “follow the herd” mentality, assuming that those seemingly closest to you (your social media friends and contacts) can more effectively influence you to buy, try or support a brand, company or product. That’s why almost all social media marketing campaigns are designed to encourage individuals to share information about brands, products or companies on their social network. When you see people whom you know and trust endorsing a consumer element, you are more likely to interact with and, ultimately, spend money on that element. It’s the most virtual form of peer pressure or “keeping up with the joneses.”

So, the next time you think that you are harmlessly updating your status to your friends, think about how much your social network activity is facilitating the intrusion of the consumer machine. Then update your status about that!

Did we miss a way that social media and consumerism are entwined that you want to share with us? If so, just tell us about it on one of the social media channels below.

Facebook Twitter Instagram Tumblr Pinterest Google+

Photo Credit: Geoff Livingston via Flickr