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
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.”