Kozinets, Robert V. (2020), “#Luxe: Influencers, Selfies, and the Marketizing of Morality,” in Felicitas Morhart, Keith Wilcox, and Sandor Czellar, aeds., Research Handbook on Luxury Branding, London: Edward Elgar, 282-299.
“Money will level all ranks, wash away all stains on birth, money will erase all crimes, money will stand in for talents, virtues, and services, and everything, including love, will be for sale.” — Antoine Polier de Saint-Germain (1784), Du gouvernement des moeurs, p. 58
From the Bible to Plato, to St. Augustine and of course Thorstein Veblen, a range of commentators stretching to the current day have issued unequivocal warnings about the moral consequences of money and its conspicuous exhibition in luxury products and lifestyles. And de Saint-Germain’s opening prediction, first published 340 years ago, about money substituting for morality may have gained new urgency in the age of social media display. For, in no generation of the past has conspicuous consumption ever been easier or more super-charged. Today, luxury is energized by the global media presence of multinational luxury brands, the vast and deep connective power of communication networks, and the pro-consumption morality of neoliberal ideology. Across the world, this potent mix of capitalist ideology and media power have manifested a marketized moralizing of luxury brands and their consumption. This chapter will explore this societally important intersection.
Moral debates about luxury tend to retain its two primary connotations. The first is that luxury is actually a “greed for the superfluous” (Maza, 1997: 217), a desire for things that do not truly matter in life. The second is that an emphasis on luxury promotes “social chaos” by loosening the bonds of cooperation, turning them to competition, avarice, and jealousy, and resulting in “an acute sense of moral void and social dissolution” (Maza, 1997: 219). And yet the history of social media, with its promise of unhindered communications between peers, was premised upon more communitarian and moral concerns. Luxury and social media might thus appear to be strange bedfellows. But, indeed, they are a power couple extraordinare. Around the world, luxury is becoming a favorite topic of social media postings, and social media is becoming one of the most important ways luxury brands are spreading the word to new generations. Thoumrungroje (2014), studying social media based conspicuous consumption in Thailand, finds that the mechanism of social comparison present in social media has an enticing effect upon luxury consumption. Invidious comparison on social media stokes the desire not only for luxury brands, but for self-pampering, materialism, and luxurious lifestyles. As Ismael et al. (2018: 233) found, “the greater the use of social media, the greater the tendency towards materialism and conspicuous consumption”.
Concerns about luxury and its cultural consequences are nothing new. According to historians, the moral panic surrounding the accommodation of luxurious products and lifestyles and their display may have reached its zenith in eighteenth century France and England, a time when luxury was considered “the single greatest social issue” (Sekora, 1977: 74). As Maza (1997: 216-217) points out, at the time luxury “was a singularly protean concept” which acted “as a convenient code for all of society’s perceived problems”. Critiques of the nineteenth century tended to view luxury consumption as “abusive, unproductive and irrational” and as an abdication of the moral responsibility of individual to help fellow citizens, such as by partaking in “distributive justice” (Hilton, 2004: 118). In current times, many of these debates have become quieter as capitalism’s positive influences on culture have become largely unquestioned, even in allegedly communist nations such as China. However, Miller (2001: 232) is correct to point out that many contemporary critiques of consumption, including conspicuous and luxury consumption, are clearly related to what he terms a “Veblenesque” argument that tends to equate the critique with the “evident excesses of wealthy consumers”, and to use it to decry “negative values such as status competition or insatiable greed.” Pursuing that sort of Veblenesque arguments is not the purpose of this chapter. We should not judge luxury consumption as some sort of glib commentary on the moral state of the zeitgeist, as Miller cautions, nor should we characterize it as wholly good or bad. Instead, in this short chapter, I seek to explore some of the important linkages between social media consumption and production, luxury brands, and neoliberal ideologies and ethos.
Ever since the industrial revolution, capitalism, luxury, and conspicuous consumption have been on similar trajectories towards global acceptance. Although capitalism has meant something different and ever-changing, ranging from Hong Kong laissez faire systems to managers and supposedly socialist Scandinavian economies (Albert, 1993), dreams of economic wealth, of national superiority, and of individual moral superiority have increasingly turned on the accumulation of money and it display in luxury goods, services, experiences, and lifestyles. The moralization and neoliberalization of consumption issues (Giesler & Veresiu, 2014) have seemingly overtaken social critiques of luxury consumption. Luxury status brands such as Prada, Moet & Chandon, Ferrari, Louis Vuitton, and Gucci are omnipresent and ascendant as never before, and perhaps nowhere more visible than on social media. Social media, and in particular regular participation on social networks such as Facebook, provides an unprecedented level of social visibility for regular people. In addition, the very top tier of the more broadcast oriented forms of social media such as Instagram, SnapChat, and Twitter are dominated by decadent lifestyles of rich and famous stars such as Kim Kardashian, Justin Bieber, Beyoncé, and Selena Gomez. Another tier of social media popularity is accessed by the “Instafamous”, who “tend to be conventionally good-looking, work in “cool” industries such as modeling or tattoo artistry, and who also emulate the tropes and symbols of traditional celebrity culture, such as glamorous self-portraits, designer goods, or luxury cars” (Marwick, 2015: 139). And, indeed, those luxurious tropes and symbols hold up well, as a look at the top Instagram posts of 2017 reveal the dominance of glamorous portraits, lifestyles, and their signifiers of luxury brands – goods such as sports cars, wristwatches, and extraordinary homes, and travel destinations.
Consumption researchers have begun to examine some of these codes of consumption and luxury as well, and some of their conclusions hint at moral implications. Arvidsson and Calliandro (2015 728) studied Twitter conversations about the Louis Vuitton brand, asserting that this “high-profile luxury fashion brand” is likely to invite “conspicuous consumption”. The findings of their online study indicate that the Louis Vuitton brand is managed by official communications that present the brand as a unique and irreproducible object, set in circumstances that confer to it a unique aura. These communications associate the brand with historically and culturally significant spaces (Paris, Venice, the Louis Vuitton bag in the Red Square in Moscow) or with unique or charismatic individuals (David Bowie, Sophia Coppola). They develop a general and powerful aesthetic that “presents Louis Vuitton products as uniquely crafted artifacts or, indeed, works of art” (Arvidsson & Calliandro, 2015: 739, 741). However, social media posters also offer subversive meanings. Sometimes, these brand associations link Louis Vuitton handbags with zombie faces, perhaps indicating a lack of compassion or humanity. “Some tweets connect the brand to anti-immigrant themes, where it comes to stand for the supposed wealth on the part of Roma beggars (a persistent theme in anti-immigration postings on Twitter)” (741). Others link the LV brand “with the absurd costs and luxury lifestyle of the world of fashion”, and the excesses of the wealthy (742). Although Arvidsson and Calliandro (2015: 741-742) opine that these critiques and divergences “do not develop a coherent alternative or doppelganger image of the brand”, they certainly do seem to relate directly to long-standing moral critiques and ideological tensions around luxury products and their conspicuous consumption.
According to Rokka and Canniford (2016: 1806), who studied Instagram selfie images that contained three different brands of champagne, “luxury brands have been considered [to be] relatively stable, unidirectional and top-down expressions by charismatic and visionary creators”, the result of authentic acts of craftsmanship that should be relatively difficult to destabilize by consumers’ own self-branding practices. In his study of luxury wine branding, Beverland (2006) also found a major emphasis on narratives of pedigree, commitment, and place, all related to claims of authenticity. However, Rokka and Canniford’s (2016) findings support an alternative perspective. They see luxury on social media as a “heterotopia” of inclusive alternative viewpoints towards luxury brands. A heterotopia is, succinctly, a site of many conflicting and sometimes overlapping meanings. Rokka and Canniford (2016) view the many champagne posts as resulting in a destabilized brand assemblage, but also acknowledge the important of microcelebrity or influencer marketing practices that enhance their circulation in volume and scale. This enhanced acceleration of images is a phenomenon that they believe “directs interest and generates traffic around new forms of consumer heterotopias as well as diversity” of brand meanings (Rokka & Canniford 2016: 1808). Thus, the authors find luxury selfies to be something rather unexpected—a source of contestation and inclusion. Perhaps this is because their focal topic, champagne, is a luxury product whose price is within reach to most middle class consumers. Or, perhaps it is because social media does afford its posters large degrees of freedom and inclusion, regardless of topic matter.
These prior empirical investigations find a range of meanings and potential effects in the intermix of selfie taking and luxury brands, from opening up luxury brands to popular dissent and subversion, to a reinforcement of their tendencies to reinforce social divisions, to their role in furthering and valorizing materialistic values. In this chapter, I focus on the significance of the selfie to considerations of the popular morality of luxury goods and their consumption. In particular, the chapter examines some of the moral meanings relating so called selfie culture and the role of luxury consumption portrayals within it. This occurs partly by theorizing that a substantial amount of social media activity on particular media, such as Instagram, is now driven by a “luxury gaze” in which social media audience members view luxury with an anticipation of intense and extraordinary pleasure, one which involves heightened expectancy and often daydreaming and fantasy. The notion of a luxury gaze is closely related and based upon the out-of-the ordinary digital experiences of the “tourist gaze 3.0” of Urry and Larsen (2011), the “self-directed tourist gaze” of Dinhopl and Gretzel (2016), and the “selfie gaze” of Magasic (2016).
Alongside the wildly successful opening of Asian, Eastern European, and Middle Eastern economies to the pleasures of global luxury brands and their consumption, selfie culture may also be responsible for an acceleration of luxury consumption, and a rejuvenation of its appeal. By examining and theoretically developing the role of luxury selfies and luxury selfie taking in a more individualistically centered cultural milieu, we hope to explore some of the implications which the phenomenon holds for our understanding of both moral and social issues in contemporary times. Our chapter proceeds as follows. First, it will provide some essential overview of luxury selfies and their role in contemporary consumer culture. Next, we discuss two prominent posters of luxury images and messages on Instagram: Claudia Alende and Kane Lim. Finally, we close the chapter with a discussion of some of the most important theoretical implications of this exploration of the links between luxury, selfies, consumer culture, and social media.
Luxury Selfies and Selfie Consumer Culture
Selfies are “digital images characterized by the desire to frame the self in a picture taken to be shared with an online audience” (Kozinets et al. 2017: 1) and selfie culture is the set of meanings, values, rituals, and practices which supports them. Selfie culture constitutes two major shifts, both of which, in themselves, raise important moral considerations. The first shift is from taking photographs of other persons and things to photographs of the self. This shift is enabled by the ubiquity and presence of smartphones with high quality cameras attached to them. However, this is more than a shift based upon technology or accessibility, as with all shifts in consumption, it reveals a transformation of underlying social values and norms. In 2006, at the dawn of the current age of social media, the cultural picture was already so clear that the New York Times declared that taking a self-portrait is the folk art of the digital age (Williams, 2006). Further, Lasén and Gómez-Cruz (2009) use historical comparisons to the work of photographic surveys and counts to show how rare self-portraiture was among American families during the more analog, and more outward looking, 1945-1965 period.
The second shift underlying the development of selfie culture is a movement away from taking photographs for the pleasure and use of one’s self and close relations, to instead taking photographs in order to share them with a wide, and even public, network. In a 2014 finding, the Pew Research Center reported that 26% of all Americans have shared a selfie on a photo-sharing or social networking site, and a full 55% of Millennials (aged 22 to 37) have shared one. Thus, as the two types of changes interact, we are currently seeing a massive shift in the use of photography, “from photographing others for self-consumption to documentation of the self for consumption by others” (Schwarz, 2010: 165). Although selfies have been widely critiqued as signifying an increasing narcissism among society, and perhaps heralding in an age of narcissism, it is the sharing of selfies which is the more significant of the two shifts underlying selfie culture—and perhaps a more challenging one to explain. The hundreds of billions of photos which are currently present on Facebook and other social media sites are testament not only to the desirability and popularity of selfie cultures and its practices of photo taking, sharing, and viewing, but also to the influence of the phenomenon.
We might find a useful starting point for thinking about the cultural and historical context of today’s selfie to be the artistic self-portrait. “In the West, self-portraits emerged as an important visual genre in and around the 16th century, typified by painters such as Albrecht Dürer and Rembrandt. These painters used self-portraiture to enshrine themselves as artists, as well as to reveal the inner depths of their character” (Iqani & Schroeder, 2015: 408). Of course, portraiture had a long history of being used to enshrine nobility, to place their wealth and taste on display. But self-portraiture was a new phenomenon which complicated matters—as the artist had other objectives (see also Carbon, 2017; Schroeder, 2002; 2013). Selfies “reveal something about the creator in particular, but also something about humans in general” (Carbon, 2017: 17). We can see this sort of ennobling posturing, for example, in the number one liked selfie of 2017, the posed portraiture posting by Beyoncé announcing her pregnancy, which broke the standing record for the most likes ever on Instagram (see Figure 1). Analyzing the photographed selfie in Figure 1, it is clear that this is no simple bridal photo. The massive floral bush that Beyoncé poses in front of clearly signal and indulgence and luxury that mark the celebrity selfie as also, and inextricably, a member of the luxury selfie genre. As we will observe throughout this chapter, the intermingling of excess consumption, luxury, and celebrity that is evident in the extremely popular Beyoncé selfie contains th key stylistic components found through many of the other successful luxury selfies, linking and luxury consumption and celebrity together into a relation in which one can be instantly associated with the other.
Figure 1 clearly points to an important aspect of selfie culture, which is its links to mass media and celebrity culture, and also, through them, to the realm of influencer marketing. There is an intense intentionality to selfie taking and selfie culture (Kozinets et al., 2017). Preparing for, taking, and sharing selfies is a very deliberate act which not only drives the development and marketing of smartphone technology (forward-facing cameras, self-timers, filters), but also drives ancillary industries. Cosmetic sales are rising, and many believe that the reason is selfie culture; in addition, selfies are used to promote new products, such as mascara (Maheshwari, 2017). Marwick (2015: 142) links selfies to “advertisements for the self” and also states that “curation of online photographs is a serious business”. She finds both that celebrities are highly engaged in sharing selfies online, but also that “regular people” are, and that these ordinary consumer selfies “often emulate celebrity-related media” (Marwick, 2015: 142) .
It may well be that ordinary consumers also engage in these effective and influential branding practices by their strategic use of social media luxury selfie sharing. Rokka and Canniford (2016: 1790) explain that the luxury brand selfies they studied “reveal visual self-branding techniques and microcelebrity identity work” that they believe to “together engender powerful effects on brands via social media spaces”. Indeed, their research examines a range of personal practices in which consumers apparently seek to elevate their own social standing by associating with luxury champagne brands, while others also seek to lower luxury brands’ standing by associating them with mundane elements such as pets, bathtubs, computer games, drugs, and food, or by showing the expensive beverages being drunk out of paper or plastic cups or coffee mugs (Rokka & Canniford, 2016: 1802).
What Rokka and Canniford’s (2016) research encounter with luxury selfies reveals well is the complex manner in which actual consumers play with luxury brands. Stripped of Veblenesque moral critique, luxury champagne brands become flexible signifiers that consumers attempt to manipulate through social media. Sometimes, status games are clearly the goal. Posing with Moet & Chandon in a fancy night club surrounded by attractive members of the opposite sex is an unmistakable attempt to visibly raise, assert, or reinforce one’s social standing. However, posing with an expensive luxury champagne in a plastic cup or a coffee mug might help to socially and strategically position a consumer as a particular species of consumer, one which is perhaps less materialistic but still conspicuously wealthy. Playing with luxury in this manner might create new values, or positions as different from those who create their own luxury imagery in more traditional or elitist ways. These occurrences might be better understood in context, by examining particular consumers’ postings as a holistic set that portray their revealed personalities and suggest their social media aims.
The Expertise of Luxury: Claudia Alende
Luxury selfies are a special type of selfie. They are portrayals of the self, portraits of the self engaged in some sort of luxury pursuit or consumption. This luxury pursuit can be something out of the ordinary, such as travel to an exotic location, or partaking in an unusual activity such as hang-gliding or sky-diving. The luxury consumption can also involve a special type of consumption, such as drinking an expensive champagne, or a consumption activity such as shopping for expensive shoes. Or, perhaps more commonly, the luxury selfie can portray a luxury brand or product incorporated into the daily, even ordinary, life of the selfie taker. In this way, selfie taking actually encompasses a range of selves, a diverse array of identity and consumption positions which is, perhaps, why Rokka and Canniford (2016) considered it to be a heterotopia, a site of numerous incompatible and overlapping meanings.
We can first consider the Instagram selfies of Claudia Alende, a Brazilian model and businesswoman, to be instructive examples. Alende can be recognized as a social media “influencer”, someone whose social media self-branding practices have been so effective that they have become not only celebrities and public figures, but also “semi-experts”, assuming a knowledge economy role previously populated by trained and certified practitioners such as scientists and reviewers (Khamis et al., 2017: 205). Through her social media accounts, Alende offers her subscribers a look into her lifestyle, combined with a panoply of different types of business and beauty advice, mixed with outright commercial recommendation. In Figure 2, we see Alende, color-coordinated, posed in her car with her Prada handbag positioned nearby. The text accompanying her photo is pure inspirational capitalism, straight out of the motivational speaking playbook, as well as promotional. “To be a boss you got to be first” she states, projecting and maintaining an image of herself as a modern woman who is successful in all aspects of her life. She then proceeds to recommend a particular crypto-currency to her followers, and states “Don’t miss out like we all did on Bitcoin!”.
With Allende’s Instagram posting, we see the luxury image combined with entrepreneurship and a level of intentional promotion that would have been unheard of in prior eras. She is promoting herself and her lifestyle, certainly. She is also promoting a neoliberal view of social media economics, driven by influencers such as herself, and their ambitious positioning within a social media ecosystem, certain. Using an almost wholly unregulated communication medium, she is also promoting a financial perspective and even a particularly risky financial product. And she is doing so using images of luxury. Luxury clothing, luxury Prada handbag, luxury car…along with capitalism, entrepreneurship, and crypto-currency. The responses she gathers are interesting, as well: “Guys have a look at my page please!” “Guys come see my page please!” Self-promotion begets self-promotion. As with the champagne bloggers of Rokka and Canniford (2016), the use of luxury brands such as Alende’s use of her Prada handbag are flexible signifiers. In this case, there is a type of alternate morality being professed as Alende faces her audience head on, her exotic blue eyes penetrating into their desire for a better life, and gives them advice about ‘being a boss’, succeeding, being first, and winning. Like her blue eyes, her beauty, her posture, and her pose, the presence of Prada luxury is reassuring. Beautiful and rich, Alende and her luxury life legitimate and elevate her words, perhaps lending credibility to her somewhat dubious investment advice.
Opulent Morality: Kane Lim’s Luxury Selfies
In her examination of “luxury selfies”, Marwick (2015) examines the postings of several young people who she classifies as highly followed Instagrammers that are using various strategies to try to achieve popularity, gain attention, and achieve celebrity-like followings: an Indiana high school sophomore, a close friend of pop star Rihanna, and a design student. The design student case that she follows contains findings applicable to our understanding of luxury bloggers. Kane Lim is a Singapore native studying design in California. The contents of his Instagram account consist primarily of photographs of himself wearing couture clothing, depictions of his collections of designer shoes, clothes, and jewelry, and selfies taken with prominent Singapore socialites. Exemplifying the aesthetic of the popular Tumblr blog Rich Kids of Instagram, and the 2016 Realty TV series of the same name, selfies such as Lim’s “represent a fantastic orgy of consumerism and exist simultaneously as aspiration and matter-of-fact expression of extreme wealth” (Marwick, 2015: 154).
From Marwick’s (2015) account and focus, we might think that Lim is only using his access to luxury brands in order to build a cult-like celebrity following. However, something more aligned with an alternate moral order appears to be going on. The headlines to Kane Lim’s decadent account postings are, instead, much more about personal motivation and attitude. “Own your own reality without apology,” it begins, a motif that Kane Lim repeats often. “See goodness in the world,” is the next one, implying a certain level of morality, one which can be demonstrated more by being the receiver than the bestower of goodness. And then, a series of litanies to freedom: “be bold. be fierce. be grateful. be wild, crazy and gloriously free.”
It is noteworthy that the source of Lim’s opulent lifestyle is never mentioned. In fact, quite the opposite. When asked about his wealth, Lim usually answers that he works hard for it. However, “Lim is rumored to be the son of Singaporean billionaire Peter Lim, one of the richest people on the planet. His wealth comes, presumably, from inheritance. Still, Lim furthers the mythos of meritocracy in stating that his shelves of designer clothes from Hermès and Balenciaga are the rewards of his labor” (Marwick, 2015: 155). The most important elements in Lim’s postings are the way he consistently frames his wealth as a moral virtue or, perhaps more accurately, as the result of his moral virtuousness. In one post, reproducted as Figure 3, he exhibits a closet stuffed with over $50,000 worth of his favorite brand of shoes, #louboutins. Although this is not a photograph of the self, the singularized brown pair of shoes in the photograph’s foreground (see Figure 3) might be considered by Belk (1988) to be a photographic capture of the extended luxurious self.
It is in Lim’s textual addenda to his post depicted in Figure 3 that we can read some of his ideological intent. The post is accompanied by the pun “You SHOES [shoe emoji, alligator emoji] to be happy”, uniting extreme wealth, shoes, liberty, and happiness in the posting’s pun. This is more than a mere pun on liberty and freedom, however, it is an expression of a neoliberal ethos, as our anlaysis of this important datum reveals. Further down, he underscores the importance of the consumption of wealthy elites to the general economy by hashtagging the post with #supporttheeconomy. We cannot tell if Lim intends his statement to be taken as tongue in cheek. It surmounts irony, if nothing else. Following a the same hyperbolic and extended neoliberal economic logic as the “shoes/choose” pun, it holds that, by its effect on the national economy, spending large sums on luxurious shoes contains its own type of goodness.
“Wowwwww”. “I’m blind.” And so the Instagram audience shows its appreciation. The jewelry selfie presented in Figure 4 displays a range of expensive accessories, accompanied by the maxim “shine bright like a diamond.” My analysis of Figure 4’s bling-centric photography suggests that the external conspicuous exhibition of extreme wealth on social media is a reflection and expression of some form of inner virtue, a goodness that, as the accompanying texts suggests, shines from within the wealthy like a great halo upon the world. In fact, Lim’s photo (in Figure 4) and its accompanying narrative can be viewed as a justification and normalization of extreme wealth. Some have it, some do not. And for those who do have extreme wealth have it, “owning your reality without apology” is exactly what the luxury selfie is all about. Owning luxury products, living a luxurious lifestyle, being wealthy and owning their own reality also entitles these celebrity influencers to make moral statements about their lifestyle, and to offer advice to others about how to achieve their (presumably currently vicarious) luxury dreams.
Conclusions: The Morality of Luxury in the Age of Celebrity, Influencers, and Selfie-Centered Neoliberalism
Cloaked in my analysis of these four important figures are examples of social media luxury branding is a type of morality for the age of celebrity. As Khamis et al. (2017: 201) note, the many “breathless appeals to self-motivation” in the discourse of influencers reveal and refurbish “one of the most haloed motifs in US culture: the resourceful individual”. Khamis et al may not have intended their analysis to be applied to the halo cast by brilliant jewels in social media postings such as Figure 4, but the metaphor fits well. Beyoncé’s surrounding herself in luxurious floral arrangements serve as a celebrity warup to Allende and Kim’s luxury poses and Prada pictorials, but Allende and Kim take it further, depicting themselves as successful, upbeat, and future-focused inspirations. Lair et al. (2005: 322) assert that “marketized professional selves”, such as these, resonate strongly “with the by-your-bootstrap mythos that has historically played a central role in American culture in general and American business culture in particular, as well as with the neoliberal economic philosophy that has become so prominent for many Western governments”. Indeed, these luxury selfies are much more than mere conspicuous consumption in any Veblenesque sense. They are not heterotopias of contested meanings and inclusive images. They are, as I will explain in this concluding section of the chapter, a powerful example of an ongoing and deepening legitimation of an already-entrenched ideological system.
Certainly, as with the case of Kane Lim, luxury brands such as Christian Louboutin shoes (Figure 4), or products such as diamonds (Figure 5) are used to elevate and improve self-branding efforts, to exhibit to the public world a sense of importance and worth, and to use financial capital to build a celebrity-like social media following. In Parrott et al. (2015), online expressions of fashion “brand love” serves to elevate individual consumers as taste holders and taste makers, with virtual brands forming a type of pseudo-consumption of pseudo-luxury. In this sense, flashing luxury brands can seem both democratic and populist, because so many have access to brands such as Ralph Lauren or Coach.
Engaging with the luxury selfie gaze (as seen so powerfully in Figure 2), can be transformed into a moral activity. By visualizing oneself in the (gloriously expensive) shoes of those who enjoy great luxury (as the viewer is invited to do in Figure 4), the average viewer can partake in an imaginary moral elevation as well as a financial one. At the higher expenditure levels that seem to be required to break into the ranks of luxury influencer status such as those of Kane Lim, luxury brands still play their more traditional role of being exclusionary, serving only to reinforce existing social barriers, and doing it in a way that only teases at inclusivity. Yet it is the way this tease manifests on social media which is so intriguing. It is through appeals to magnanimity, to doing good in the world. Enjoying beautiful things is not only sensory, not only comparative, not merely good for status-signaling, but also good for the soul. The luxury selfie gaze of the viewer is guilt-free. The luxury gaze becomes as innocent, free, just and moral as Kane Lim’s extravagant and generous luxury consumption. Perhaps, at times, the luxury selfie gaze is more about generating awe than community—as Dion and Arnould (2011) found in the luxury retailing setting. But in these cases, we see something different. Social media become the medium by which the adoration and worship generated by the luxe brand are transmuted from the charismatic creator to the aesthetic product and from there to the conspicuously visible influencer-consumer. Yet now, transformed by the elevating contact with celebrity-wealthy-conspicuous luxury consumer, that consumption is ennobled. The moralized luxury consumer can now claim a mantle of rightness and goodness. Luxury becomes conscientious consumption, a pampering with purpose, indulgence with integrity. Social media creators’ discharging of the negative connotations of excess and luxury provide a fascinating ethical cover story that can help luxury brand managers, but also media, communications, branding, and contemporary consumption systems as well.
Further, the luxury selfie gaze in these images is the concretization of an ascendant self-branding movement already noted and examined by early scholars of Internet culture such as Schau and Gilly (2003). The marketization of the self and promotion of the visibly influential self are now thoroughly embedded within a commercial culture that has evolved into the word-of-mouth based influencer market initially mapped by Kozinets et al. (2007, 2010). Because of these developments, and the loose or nonexistent enforcement of already-lax communication industry rules online, it is currently impossible to determine who is a paid influencer and who is not. Although celebrities and their photos with luxury goods are often likely the results of acknowledged promotional arrangements, in which the celebrity was either paid or given products with the expectation or hope that these would show up in the celebrity’s social media account postings, there is a panoply of micro-celebrities and micro-influencers who engage in no such word-of-mouth marketing disclosure. The alleged heterotopia for shoes and designer handbags at least is highly consistent in these matters, and does not seem very heterotopic after all. Luxury branding and the promotion of luxury brands online are interwoven with contemporary marketing strategies (Abidin, 2016). Luxury products and markets are not a mere organic phenomenon of digital communications; they are key elements of a system of marketing strategies and tactics in which a range of content producers are noticed, contacted, compensated, and promoted by large luxury companies, spurring and reinforcing the entrepreneurial mindset that already drives their neoliberal communications. Thus, rather than the materially inclusive “heterotopia”, which Rokka and Canniford’s analysis suggests we should find, we see instead more of a capitalist utopia, a morally consistent imaginary realm bound and structured by the audience’s luxury selfie gaze, and fed by content producers who create and share those lofty, ostensibly ethical images of life lived large and free.
Phenomena such as the RKOI (Rich Kids of Instagram) reveals the celebration as well as the celebrification of wealthy, elite, conspicuous consumers (Abidin, 2016). Rich kids of superrich parents such as Kane Lim seek approval and celebrity online by displaying their wealth, not only seeking to convert it into fame, as Marwick (2015) rightly asserts, but also to morally justify their wealth and consumption. Further, they employ social media as a type of pulpit from which to preach an entrepreneurial gospel, a neoliberal pseudo-belief based upon largely meaningless, feel good, self-help New Age type platitudes that celebrate luxury consumption while also asserting the quasi-divine rights of wealthy elites. As the young, fashionable ambassadors of the wealthy to the common people, these microcelebrities use their social media standing to garner not only admiration for themselves, but ideological justification for the lifestyles of those in their rarefied socioeconomic realms. Marwick (2015: 139) calls this “Instafame” and argues that it demonstrates that the influencers who are “successful at gaining attention often reproduce conventional status hierarchies of luxury, celebrity, and popularity that depend on the ability to emulate the visual iconography of mainstream celebrity culture. This emulation calls into question the idea that social media are an egalitarian, or even just a more accessible, way for individuals to access the currency of the attention economy.” Although heterotopias are absent in this formulation, we do have the gathering of a sort of distinct moral “e-tribe”, to use the bygone term from Kozinets (1999), a calling of those who want to admire luxury not only for its economic and material qualities, but also for its apparent beneficence and even mutuality.
Luxury selfies lead us deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole of contemporary technocapitalism, neoliberalism, and celebrity. Because luxury brands attract a certain amount of admiration for their owners, the desire for positive attention and status become transformed on social media into a desire to have and to display luxury brands. Like the ways in which the desire for luxurious and delectably decadent food is turned into food porn, the desire for status and importance in society is turned inward, into the luxury selfie gaze. The need for something (more) luxurious is a need for something better, an inextricably capitalist narrowing of the utopian impulse. Combined with social media, luxury consumption becomes a system turned, via mediated technology consumption, into a territorializing network, one which colonizes what Jameson (2003) describes as the utopian imagination. In the posts we have examined and analyzied in this chapter, the desire for the better is reconceived as a network of desire. Informed by Deleuze and Guattari’s (1988) theory of desire, networks of desire are defined and explained as “complex, open systems of technologies, consumers, energized passion, and virtual and physical objects interacting as an interconnected desiring-machine that produces consumption interest within the wider social system and among the interconnected actors. The most fundamental unit of power in the network is attention, and attention triggers the investment of desire energy—machinic and bodily—into product, brand, lifestyle, and experience forms of consumption interest” (Kozinets et al., 2016: 667). We can consider these networks of luxury and conspicuous consumption to be additional contexts in which to find these desire amplification effects. When the context is luxury, not only is desire amplified, but it is purified, legitimated, and moralized. Unlinked from negative moral connotation, cast into pure image, luxury becomes the foundation upon which the luxury selfie gaze is built. These influencers and microcelebrity personal brands are quasi-experts whose moral discourse legitimates not only their own consumption, but the consumption of luxury brands in general. Their effect is not a destabilization of brand assemblages, as Rokka and Canniford (2016) held, but quite the opposite. They stabilize and accentuate, even as they colonize and territorialize. Emboldened and engoldened, influencers promulgate a new and luxurious morality, one which places their own already idealized, ideologically stable, and institutionally mainstream luxury consumption at its ideological center.
As this chapter’s opening quote from de Saint-Germain’s underscores, there is a long and tumultuous history of conceptual turmoil between the realms of money, its conspicuous display. and morality. Perhaps that history is drawing to a close. Perhaps a new and neoliberal morality is being born in the interrelation of celebrities, content creators, social media platforms, and the luxury selfie gaze. As scholars and humanists, we might think about the implications of the rising tide of micro-celebrity experts, this new generation of self-appointed and populism-anointed influentials. Although Giesler and Veresiu (2014) theorize that neoliberal ideologies underlie the current subject positions of “responsible” and “responsibilized” contemporary consumers such as the bottom-of-the-pyramid consumer, the green consumer, the health-conscious consumer, and the financially literate consumer, there seem to be important extensions of their theoretical work into luxury and consumption.
For the reality in social media is that micro-celebrity luxury influencers act as role models and life coaches to the lurking and commenting masses, translating self-actualization into self-indulgence. They become recognized experts, as Khamis et al. (2017) found, developing and demonstrating their own post-truth, post-scientific psychological assertions. They demonstrate a capable moralization of consumption based on a justification for well-deserved luxury. Above all, they promise the ordinary person a celebrity-like transformation to a more beautiful and perfect life, an individualist utopia of decadent parties, friends, and prestige, where everyone recognizes the great value of the same luxury brands. Perhaps we might say that luxury consumers are thereby portrayed as the most liberated, satisfied, entrepreneurial, and self-realized consumers possible—an idealized neoliberal consumer, who freely and morally consumes all possibilities, engaged in an orgy of self-fulfilling delight, constantly fulfilling, constantly fulfilled, gazing out at us meaningfully like Claudia Alende does with her Prada bag in Figure 2, alongside her advice to buy the latest crypto-currency, or telling us to be gloriously free and without apology as Kane Lim does in Figure 3 with his fortune in shoes and his support-the-economy hashtag.
Online, media moves in the direction of luxury, display, and consumption, raising social conundrums and creating multiple moral mysteries for us to examine and consider. Future research might examine some of these questions, and continue to explore the notion of the luxury selfie gaze. Could it be that social media and neoliberalism create responsibilities for both visibility and visible morality? Might this indicate that a responsibilized moral visibility underlies consumption (such as the increases in cosmetics consumption among young women because they are constantly on display on social media)? Could this increase in conspicuous online consumption also contribute to the appeal of visible brands, and visible luxury consumption, producing an immense, unacknowledged, and powerful impetus for additional visible luxury consumption? Or do we live in a world that is not only post-truth, but post-moral? Could it be that all that is left of morality and ethics is luxury consumption? That our new ages of social media technology and celebrity have redrawn the ancient lines of social behavior as luxurious webworks of indulgent desire? Are we increasingly engaging online in neoliberal networks of status competition, a game in which the elite are playing with a loaded deck? What role does the utopian imagination play in this game? If, indeed, the luxury selfie gaze heralds a new time of post-morality, what sort of general social good might it promote? Might this emphasis on continued economic growth be beneficial to many, and thus, in many ways, a much clearer and more populist moral good? Finding answers to these questions may help us to better understand the nature and the implications of the rapidly changing world of luxury, technology, and consumption.
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