An earlier post detailed the two different types of status contests being waged during this climate of rising competitiveness that began sometime in the '70s: career striving vs. lifestyle striving.
A key ingredient of any status contest is an objective and honest indicator of everyone's status -- otherwise everyone can lie and deceive others about satisfying the criteria for status, and no one really knows who ranks where on the great big pyramid.
The least fake-able form of status is income, wealth, and material success -- you live in an expensive home in an expensive zip code, drive an expensive car, send your kids to expensive schools, and so on and so forth. Some of that will be financed by debt rather than wealth, but wealthier people can borrow larger sums, so it doesn't matter. This is the domain of life where the status contests first took place during the '70s, with the Me Generation and later the yuppies of the 1980s. It is primarily the game played by Silents and Boomers.
After the career arena became saturated by entrenched combatants from the Me Generation, wealth and materialism came to look less and less appealing as a way to shoot up the status pyramid as fast as possible. Thus, the bulk of Gen X-ers turned to the uncolonized niche of lifestyle striving, with only a small minority going head-to-head with Silents and Boomers in the career niche. Who cares if you don't make so much money, and if you're stuck in your career, as long as you go out more often to trendy Thai restaurants and order esoteric drinks from obscure local coffee shops?
Lifestyle contests are marked by less honest signals than in the materialist domain, where you can invite people over to your McMansion in an affluent suburb, show up in a luxury car, and pay for things using a not-for-plebes credit card. These signals are things, and things are always around available to be displayed. Eating dinner at a trendy Thai restaurant is an evanescent experience that may not leave any material trace, so how can the other foodie strivers really know you went there and deserve status points? Well, perhaps by going there with you, or seeing you around the trendy foodie places every now and again. But more likely, by checking their Facebook feed and seeing the pictures you took of the meal (or of the foodie meal you prepared yourself at home).
It's a mistake to view all the pictures people post on Facebook as "over-sharing" of what ought to be private. Rather, the constant stream of images of foodie meals, vacations, etc., is a form of submitting irrefutable evidence to the jury of your peers in the lifestyle competition. Withholding such proof would prevent you from earning your status points. So in context, these pictures belong to the public, and that's why they're so openly "shared" (submitted), and why there's no expectation of privacy.
The lifestyle contests aren't exactly cheap, but they are less expensive than trying to buy a 19th-century home in a 1% zip code. Nevertheless, they still cost more than the non-striver versions -- regular coffee, regular vacations, regular etc. Wouldn't it be nice if there were a cost-free type of status contests? And by 2015, these lifestyle domains are increasingly saturated near the levels that the career domain was saturated 20 to 30 years ago. Wouldn't it be nice if there were another uncolonized niche for striving to take place in, where enthusiastic new entrants could rocket up the pyramid, relatively uncontested?
I think we're starting to see the Millennials, and some late X-ers, shifting their status contests to what I call "persona" striving -- crafting and projecting a persona that may be related to your lifestyle, but is more about the internal than the external. Related post: in status-striving times, a shift toward voluntarily constructed identities rather than inherited identities.
A lifestyle is defined by recurring behaviors -- you can't be a foodie "in theory," and you can't "affiliate as" a foodie. You have to actually go out every so often and dine at that trendy Thai restaurant, start every morning off with that esoteric drink from the locally owned coffee shop, and pick up your weekly groceries at Whole Foods. To score points as an outdoor enthusiast, you have to buy and wear the performance clothing, go kayaking, pitch a thousand-dollar tent at the local non-touristy park, and so on and so forth.
Persona striving is more about what you're like on a mental level, regardless of how often (if at all) that manifests in your habits and routines. It's about your beliefs, opinions, affiliations, preferences, and temperament. You "reveal" (project) these core traits to others by blurting them out, as well as by broadcasting your reactions to every little thing that goes on (your reactions stemming from your enduring psychological makeup).
I thought about calling this "identity" striving, but your identity could also be based on your career or your lifestyle. "Persona" gets more at the navel-gazing subject matter, and the fact that it is often more of a mask displayed to an audience or jury.
In persona contests, signals about your career and lifestyle are subordinate to fashioning the persona. You don't refer to your job as a freelancer to stake out a claim in the materialist competition, but to suggest the gypsy-like inner traits that are revealed by such a career choice. And you don't refer to your hobby of rock-climbing to imply that you're a more elite rock-climber than the others who are making that their lifestyle contest, but to suggest the ambitious and kinesthetic core traits that are revealed by such a choice of hobby.
In the career contest, it doesn't matter what your persona is -- if you've got the expensive house in the exclusive neighborhood, case closed. The same goes for lifestyle striving -- whether a rockclimbing enthusiast is a free spirit or a rigid disciplinarian, doesn't matter as much as the external measures such as how many places they've climbed, how challenging they were, how top-notch their gear is, and so on.
There is a heavy cosplay / LARP-ing aspect of persona crafting, so clothing and grooming do play a central role. However, it is not an end in itself, i.e. who has the most fashionable haircut (a lifestyle contest) or the most expensive shoes (material contest), but a means to an end of establishing the persona. It takes the form of an OCD approach to "getting the character right".
On social media, career striving has almost no presence, other than competing over who has the most impressive resume on LinkedIn, which still leaves out all the signs of material success (net worth, residence, etc.). Lifestyle striving has a decent place on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, with contestants submitting proof of having completed the outward tasks required to level up. But it's persona striving that takes the social media cake -- how else are you going to let the whole world know what your carefully cultivated inner self is like? Mass media are best suited to contests based on intangible qualities.
The demographics of social media sites back this up. LinkedIn is primarily a site for wealthy, educated Boomers, while Instagram is most popular with those who cannot pursue career or lifestyle contests -- poorer-to-middling, younger, non-whites. Annoying Twitter bios come in three flavors for each type of striver: "CEO. Investor. Guru." or "Mom to free-range kids. Foodie." or "Crusader. Vintage sweater-wearer. Unwelcome guest."
The Millennials have always been told that they're special snowflakes, and now they're making that the domain of status contests -- whose unique inner self is the most amazing?
Persona striving cuts across all other boundaries, though. For example, SJWs dress up in nerd glasses and sideways hair-dos, and Young Republicans dress up in preppy cosplay. Both are carefully constructed costumes to signal their beliefs, ideologies, and affiliations (weird costume = novel = progressive, staid costume = familiar = traditional). Both skinny and obese chicks attempt to carve out their own separate niches on Instagram (seeking thinspiration fame vs. plus-size positivity fame). And character-revealing reaction tweets are eagerly broadcast from all sides of the precipitating event. (What's unique to persona striving is not sharing your reaction to some event, but defining your identity through your psychological reactions rather than overt behaviors.)
Certainly this level of competitive persona comparing had not been seen before, so it is an unexplored niche aside from careers and lifestyles. And it sure does cost a lot less to participate in this kind of striving -- all you need is free WiFi, a smartphone or laptop that your parents bought (or that the public library provides), and a little spending money for costume selection.
However, the signals going on in persona contests are even less honest than those in lifestyle contests. How do other people really know you're a dreamer, a liberal, or a Seahawks fan? These inner traits tend to be more open-ended to verification, eschewing as they do the focus on external behaviors and routines.
Perhaps that's why competition here is even more ongoing and all-encompassing -- it takes a lot of convincing evidence to accept a character's reality. Once you have that desirable house in a desirable location, that's it. You don't have to publish multiple pictures of it throughout the day, every single day of your life. Lifestyle contest signals are in between for how ongoing they are. The behaviors are part of a regular routine, but not necessarily one that occurs daily or hourly.
There's plenty more case studies to detail, speculations about future directions, and what role the three types of contests will play in reversing the striving trend of the past 40 years. I'll post whatever follow-up observations strike me.