Is Social Media Making Us Elitist?

Use brand platforms to encourage people to find contentment and happiness

We develop a smug sense of self-satisfaction - Credit by Freder/iStock

For years, we’ve known that social media platforms inspire jealousy. A 2013 study showed that people fall into a “spiral of envy” when Facebook reveals that their friends are excelling or leading glamorous lives. Scientific American reported that many studies indicate that “spending a lot of time on Facebook is linked to diminished well-being,” with Facebook-inspired envy increasing feelings of depression. FOMO (fear of missing out) has become a very real thing.

But do these negative perceptions eventually get turned around, shifting us from looking down on ourselves to looking down on others?

Our perception of value is determined by a lot of factors, and price plays a big psychological role in helping us assess how valuable something is. Technological access, the desire to acquire the “exotic,” and decreased accessibility for others—particularly via price—can all expand our view of how much something is truly worth, HubSpot explains.

That’s because the boost we gain from access to prestigious or seemingly unattainable goods makes us feel like we’ve won an invisible competition with the people around us. We may feel envious when we see on Instagram that our friend bought a pair of $300 boots, but if we buy a pair ourselves, we develop a smug sense of self-satisfaction—others are looking at us the way we looked at our friend.

Are we full of it?

The funny thing is, we’re in the midst of an era when people value authenticity above all else: 91 percent of consumers said they’d reward an authentic brand with purchases or recommendations to friends. And an Edelman study found that 57 percent of people now buy based on their beliefs, supporting companies that share their stances on political or social issues. We want to see genuine businesses succeed.

That’s what we say, anyway. HubSpot showed that given the same wine in two different cups labeled with $5 and $45 price tags, taste testers rated the expensive wine more highly and experienced more pleasure upon drinking it (as revealed by brain scans). While we say we value authentic brands, as well as goods and services that provide real value, we don’t assess value accurately—and we take action based on those erroneous valuations.

Social media can exacerbate this, repeatedly exposing us to images, messages and experiences that make us feel like we need to have those things in order to be valuable ourselves. And if we need that to be valuable, others do, too. A 2017 study found that online social communication influences people to behave like those they’re surrounded by, which encourages their acceptance and absorption of social media messages and ads. It’s groupthink on a 24/7 platform.

Brands are talking us off the ledge

Some brands have taken note of this trend toward elitist perspectives and are trying to reframe the situation for their customers. While it’s smart for brands to influence increased value perceptions of their offerings, it’s even smarter for them to encourage happiness-boosting behaviors in their customers, who receive an onslaught of “You’re not good enough” messages on a daily basis.

Chime, an online banking platform dedicated to helping people save money, recently wrote a blog post entitled “How to Handle Friends Who Earn More Than You.” The post highlighted the fact that many Gen-Zers and millennials feel like their friendships have experienced awkward moments because of finances, and it then encouraged readers to stick with their budgeting plans.

Taylor Milam writes, “In fact, that friend who is earning six figures might actually be jealous of you. No matter which way you look at it, comparing yourself to others is a losing game because everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, just like every job has pros and cons.”

Likewise, JavaPresse Coffee published a piece entitled “How to Not Be a Coffee Snob.” While the brand sells organic, fair-trade and directly sourced coffee—all of which have been lauded by elitist coffee drinkers—that mindset directly contradicts the brand’s mission.

JavaPresse focuses on helping people slow down and create routines to set aside time for the things that make them happy each day. “We both know those coffee snobs who look down at everyone else for not knowing the difference between bourbon and typical genetic coffee varieties,” Garrett Oden explains. “That’s silly. Coffee snobs are silly. Coffee should unify us.”

Finding true authenticity

Chime and JavaPresse may just be examples of the next tide in social media marketing. While flashiness and clickable photos rule the day right now, these brands’ approaches to downplaying the elitism running rampant in our social feeds may signal the next coming of “authentic marketing.”

The trick will be making these deeper ideals digestible for soundbite-driven social media platforms. What may work best here is using relatability to boost engagement. How many people remember being picked on as a kid for not wearing the coolest jeans? How many of us have felt sorry for ourselves while looking at pictures of others’ beach vacations from our couch? How many social users have labored over their posts, trying to figure out the best way to brag in a humble way?

Those are the sentiments that brands that want to downplay elitism on social media should focus on. Rather than convincing people that they need to keep up with the Joneses—and making them feel superior to those who can’t—it makes sense to use brand platforms to encourage people to find contentment and happiness.

Online restaurant reviews are influenced by the weather; dreary days lead to dreary reviews, while sunshine makes for happy customers. Perceived value of products beyond food works that way, too, so brands would be smart to realize that people who feel sunshine on the inside are more likely to appreciate the things around them.

Social media can inspire, educate and motivate us. But we’d be denying our own worst tendencies if we didn’t admit that our reactions to our social feeds sometimes lead us to adopt bad habits. Brands that truly want authentic conversations with their customers would do well to downplay the elitist tendencies living inside all of us.


@MaryCLong maryclong@digitalmediaghost.com Mary C. Long is Chief Ghost at Digital Media Ghost. She writes about everything online and is published widely, with a focus on privacy concerns, specifically social sabotage.