November 9, 2015

Persona contests: The next development in status competition

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.


  1. Do you think persona crafting gets people laid?

  2. Thanks for the new insight. This has been going on for awhile, coinciding with the invention of the Facebook status update back in 2006 or so.

    One reason why this is becoming popular is that lifestyle competition has become overloaded. Not just eating out at fancy restaurants, but also volunteer efforts or becoming an advocate - most activism opportunities are being snatched up by Boomers.

  3. that may explain the rebellion against liberal arts colleges - that, more and more, they are failing even as lifestyle training, as lifestyle competition becomes harder and harder.

  4. One example of what you're talking about might be a trend I've noticed over the last 4 yrears in NorCal - walking in the street rather than using the sidewalk. The only problem is that it doesn't seem to be limited to any particular age group. I confronted a couple in their late '60's about it and tgey claimed that the street was easier on their knees, LOL. But whites around 70who didn't get rich, and live in a suburb dominated by asians, must be feeling a lot of status anxiety.

  5. "Do you think persona crafting gets people laid?"

    That's the basis of the whole pickup artist thing.

    The PUA phenomenon shows the shift away from wealth-and-career striving. Back in the '80s, the advice to young single guys was to convince women that you were upwardly mobile. Probably because that's what Boomer women were turned on by.

    By the mid-2000s, that was no longer the form of status contests that young men and women were paying attention to. "Oh God, another red Ferrari driver with a micro-penis..." The game had shifted to lifestyle contests -- did you hang out at the hippest bars and order the fashionable foodie drinks (try saying "mojitos" without lisping).

    The PUA crowd was pushing for persona crafting somewhat earlier than the rest of youth culture. But by now, its assumptions are totally mainstream -- obsessive-compulsively rehearse the key facets of your personal brand for the jury, particularly on social media (Tinder).

    It's telling that a disproportionate share of the PUA crowd these days are poor-to-middling, young, non-whites, just like the membership of Instagram and other persona striving sites.

    They don't have the high-status careers to provide for women, and they don't know how to play the lifestyle game whose coolness rules were written by white people for white people. So instead it's about how to fashion a persona that mimics what a one-night-stand slut is looking for.

    In fairness, back in the day, the PUA crowd was mostly a backlash against the feminazi brainwashing of the '90s, and reminding young guys how to not act like a faggy dingus around girls, and how to carry yourself more like Steve McQueen would have.

  6. Random Dude on the Internet11/10/15, 7:25 AM

    I know these persona strivers. They've been around for a while.

    I'm in my early 30s and these were the people who graduated college but did not find full time work when they graduated college. They post constantly on Facebook about anything and everything. They will even joke that they post on Facebook about anything and everything.

    They've been doing this for 10 years now but there are cracks forming in the facade. There's a twinge of bitterness in their posts now but it is directed towards socially acceptable targets (capitalism, Trump, etc.) The men are balding and paunchy, the women look 10 years older than they are and they're getting a spare tire too. They're pretty forgotten and forgettable. I used to think they posted constantly so people were aware they existed but persona striving makes more sense. I can't help but wonder what happens anytime they see one of their Facebook friends posting about getting a promotion or having a baby.

  7. That is too harsh. They are getting squashed by inequality, and its only human nature to try to stay in the game any way you can.

  8. Is this why Tumblr has gotten so popular? "Liberal Arts Nerd living in his parent's basement priced out of the job market" can't be considered anything but a loser, but "Enlightened Member of the Rationalist Brigade Fighting Against Ignorance on the Internet With a Trilby and a Smile" actually sounds like someone who might be somebody. "Overworked Barista Still Living At Home So She Can Make Her 700 Dollar a Month Student Loan Payment" doesn't sound like anyone with anything meaningful to contribute to society, but "Otherkin Dragon Royalty from the Planet Vespiria" or "Blazinghair the Transexual Crusader Smashing the Patriarchy With the Hammer of Justice" sound like veeeerrrrrry important people. I also notice a lot of these Tumblr Zombies base their identity around promoting sexual deviance. Could this be because a lot of them realize they're not going to put forth the effort (or not going to have the opportunity) to live traditional American Dream lives? If a man goes without sex for too many years, he could just say "F' it!", put on a dress and try his luck as a woman. Creating an atmosphere where he can do so with with minimal repercussions would seem, to him, to be in his best interests. Ugly femihags with spare tires might turn lesbo when the alpha male of their dreams fails to materialize (and all of the beta males who ARE interested in them turn their ample stomachs. Better, she figures, to date a decent looking woman than a hideous manboobed manchild.)

  9. you can take any kind of view you want. The reality is that a lot of young people are prevented from meaningful advancement, and that many of those who do have jobs aren't contributing much, because of overproduction of the elites.

  10. OT:

    Any idea who this is? Odds this "straight" actor is a closet homo?

    PAPER: Superstar womanizer has HIV...

    Hollywood rocked...

  11. "Is this why Tumblr has gotten so popular?"

    I haven't looked at Tumblr since it originally came out, and back then it was just people posting random stuff, or examples of a type. What you're describing now does sound more like persona striving.

    Video games rely more and more on letting the player craft a persona... not just "letting," more like it's the central reason for playing the game. Nobody played Nintendo to customize an alter-persona back in the '80s.

    And from what I hear about modern games, they introduce sexual deviance of one kind or another, too. And not just bawdy humor a la Leisure Suit Larry from the old days, but making a main character gay, making you talk to / flirt with / catch AIDS from a homo or tranny character, etc.

    Persona striving seems to promote deviance per se -- if you're trying to carve out your own distinctive character brand, it can't be like what everybody else is already like. You have to move a little farther away from normal -- and if you're looking to "get rich quick," as far as persona points go, you're going to depart from the norm more strongly and more rapidly.

    The whole point of holding status contests in this persona domain was to find a place where the field had not been saturated, and therefore where getting high-status quick was still a possibility. So most entrants in the persona striving contests will show this rapid progression of deviance, of one sort or another.

    I'm sexually awkward -> I'm tranny -> I'm a hermaphrodite dragon vampire

    I'm a societal misfit -> I'm a political rebel -> I'm a Thor-worshiping* neo-Nazi

    * Does not actually worship, i.e. in practices or rituals, since that would be a lifestyle thing. More like affiliating with, thinking highly of, etc., as part of my persona.

  12. Get-high-status-quick - love it. Reminds me of the cooking boom from 2007-2014 (I think it's dying off) where suddenly anyone could look like a sick genius just by reading the right blogs. Fields tend to become prey to status competitions when knowledge opens up and is widely communicated - it used to take years of experience and work to have any idea what you're doing with a meal, but now just by reading a few Kenji Alt-Lopez blog posts you can leap far ahead. Of course, all get-status-quick competitions eventually become saturated by losers and you're back to square one before you know it.

    I do think this also has something to do with how the conceptual distance between dilettantes and experts has shrunk. A guy who was in the top .1% of a locally popular sport would be pretty impressive to his local community and have a nice hobby but now you're a Google search away from being compared with the world's best.

  13. "Any idea who this is? Odds this "straight" actor is a closet homo?"

    Here are the guesses at Blind Gossip:

    The best guess seems to be Colin Farrell. The post says that he's been heavily into drugs before, and if it's with a needle, that is one of the few ways that straight men can get it.

    The Irish -- giving fags a run for their money in the degeneracy sweepstakes.

  14. I should emphasize that it's not just human detritus who compete over their persona rather than over a lifestyle or a career. With both of those arenas being fairly saturated by now, even otherwise normal young people are joining the persona competition.

    Some shy cute girl wants to craft a persona as a muse to a Bohemian photographer, so she focuses her OCD on vintage-inspired clothes from Urban Outfitters, finds quirky places around her neck of the woods to shoot a few selfies from her iPhone, and uploads them to Instagram, where they form part of an ongoing persona-shaping project.

    Guy followers, all thirsty as hell, fawn over her looks, and the fact that she seems cool to hang out with, unlike careerists, and unlike the porno girls they're used to watching.

    Girl followers wish they could look as cute and chic as she does -- and all while non-sexually presenting herself, with no guys in the pictures.

    The audience has been drawn in by her persona more than just her looks. They know she isn't a professional model, and so probably doesn't have much income or wealth. And these persona selfies usually don't show her engaging in specific activities, which would establish a lifestyle to emulate. We don't know if she eats a vegan or a paleo diet, whether she drinks normal beer or craft beer, etc. It's the persona itself that has attracted so many followers.

    In other cases, the persona is not "shy, cute girl serving as muse to Boho photog" but "ratchet skrippah who don' let da haterz bring down her triumphant diva-ness".

    The Instagram celebrities are all models of one kind or another.

  15. YouTube is another persona-striving site worth mentioning.

    Some celebrities are clearly "doing" a character for entertainment. But others are not behaving as though their videos are just a performance of a role.

    They aren't successful in the career world. Nor are they lifestyle gurus -- sharing the secrets of how to make Thai meals, how to find cheap apartments for travel so you don't have to stay at a touristy hotel, etc. That stuff is on YouTube, but no one pays it much attention, and it's not a source of swarms of followers and status points.

    It's more about their knowledge, opinions, preferences, affiliations (both who their allies and enemies are), and so on. If they can hit all the right buttons with these traits, their persona is exalted to special snowflake Valhalla.

    PewDiePie, the most subscribed YouTuber, is a clear case of persona striving. You could blame it on how obsessed with video games today's kids are, but his appeal is not that he talks about video games -- he and every other Millennial guy on the internet -- it's that he makes it seem like the viewer is part of the social world of their favorite persona. Conversing with them, referring to them as his army, etc.

    Laci Green is another case (not at the top of the subscriber list, but still over 1 million). She bills herself as an "activist," as though it were based on actions, but she's just a personal brand promoter. She's that random girl with no filter in your dorm who you can converse frankly about awkward stuff with. Key word: converse, since the viewers feel like they're part of her informal social world, not just listening to some aloof educator drone on and on. And she has a costume -- geek chic -- instead of a drab unthought-about look that practicing psychologists wear.

  16. It's no coincidence that both PewDiePie and Laci Green are Millennials... in fact, they're born within one week of each other in 1989. Uncanny.

    Boomers are career strivers.

    Gen X are lifestyle strivers.

    Millennials are persona strivers.

    There is some overlap, but not very much when you look at it. VERY FEW members of Gen X have ever been careerist yuppie types. Millennials either, who expect the top part of the job pyramid to remain out of reach. "Thank you, sir, may I have another unpaid internship?"

    These differences are important to keep in mind whenever looking at social phenomena. Whatever it is, Boomers will try to make a job or wealth contest out of it, X-ers will turn it into a lifestyle contest, and Millennials will try to make it about how my persona ("identity") is so much awesomer than yours (without acting or doing or behaving).

    I'm thinking in particular about political movements. Say, a conservative one. What does it mean to be a committed conservative?

    Boomer: "I fundraise to eliminate the capital gains tax!"

    Gen X-er: "I go to a church with traditional services!"

    Millennial: "I wear vintage preppy sweaters!"

    Naturally I'm going to spin my generation as having the least wrong with its approach. But it really is worth thinking about -- is each generation of conservative equally bad (or good), or is there something about one that makes it the most likely to effect change.

    More importantly: what each generation considers the ideal to change toward will be different. Boomers want low taxes, Gen X-ers want to see more people going to church and eating dinner as a family, and Millennials want to see SJWs destroyed by shitlord trolls on Twitter. Again, call it generational bias, but it should be thought about.

  17. "There is some overlap, but not very much when you look at it. VERY FEW members of Gen X have ever been careerist yuppie types. Millennials either, who expect the top part of the job pyramid to remain out of reach. "Thank you, sir, may I have another unpaid internship?""

    Thank you, modern medicine. Silents and Boomers are going to dominate the upper echelon of government, the corporate world, academia for perhaps decades to come. Though it does seem that the stresses of hedonism and combative careerism (Silents established themselves in the gentler world of the 50's-70's) are catching up to Boomers, so there is that.

    By the time the baton is handed off (via attrition) to X-ers, most X-ers will be well into elderhood. How will they handle it? Being demoralized and on the margins for so long, etc. One thing Strauss and Howe never tackled is that this octogenarian domination is unprecedented in human history. If Silents want to hog all the benefits and security, uhh, fine, if they'd die off quick enough. But they ain't dying.

    Boy, what timing.

    An equitable environment to grow up in, a soaring job market, abusing the kindness and naivete of society as you age. Take Take Take, but where's the giving?

  18. It seems to be made much worse by the cocooning. You had inequality in the '00s and '10s and the beginning of the '20s, yet from what I remember from history class you didn't have lifestyle or persona striving back then, or maybe you did but in different forms.

  19. Really enjoyed that. Great insight.

    There is one logical flaw though: if SJW's are just status-signalling to rise above the competition, then it could be argued that Steve Sailer is status-signalling too? (which, in ways, i guess he kinda is wielding his intellectual prowess for all to see).

    Do SJW's actually believe what they say is 'true' and 'just' and 'right' in the exact same way as we believe what we communicate is 'true' and 'just' and 'right'.

    Or are we all just status signalling in a world with limited resources?

  20. They believe that its right for themselves, not necessarily right for everyone though. SJWs tend to dehumanize their opponents, by labeling them racists(potential Nazis) or by saying they will destroy the environment. In this way, SJWs can believe that what they preach is good for humanity, since their opponents are subhuman.

    We're not "all in it together", and each group wants to weed out the other groups. The question is who really represents a majority of people, vs. who represents a minority that will screw over most of the public.

  21. 'He is bisexual too - he would pay girls to bring him transsexuals to have sex with.

  22. Agnostic,

    You notice how important the relationship of money is to your three types of striving, (career=rich old people, lifestyle=middle aged not-real-rich people, lifestyle= poor millennials), I wonder if you have considered the possibility that these are not characteristics of different generations so much as they are characteristics of different social status?

    For example, Miley Cyrus has the money of a careerist CEO but could anyone imagine her beyond the level of a poor millenial? Her Instagrammed photos are telling, in that she never has the kitschy posts of shopping for kale juice or whatever nonsense. Nor is she pictured sitting in ivory towers shaking hands with record label CEOs.

    Color me skeptical that this is a generational phenomenon. The likely explanation is that you and I are ageing to understand our own place in the social pecking order (or our lack of place in the pecking order). We simply don't have the money to get a seat at the starbucks table and/or have too much sense to wear that mask. The social dilemma is that the table exists nonetheless and we must participate to level up.

  23. It seems more generational to me. Poor Boomer women did not turn to lifestyle pursuits that suited their budget, or crafting elaborate personas of "who I am as a mother". They're still workaholics, just ones whose career-oriented striving didn't earn them great wealth.

    There are also career-striving Silents and Boomers who reach the top of their field without earning tons of income, such as professors. They won't leave their high-status position even if they haven't published anything major in two decades. Hell, even if they're caught engaging in fraud like Marc Hauser, they shuffle themselves into a second-best academic position, regardless of the income it pays.

    Miley Cyrus, Kendall Jenner, Justin Bieber -- all these Millennial celebrities are not really striving in their careers, which they seem to view as a means toward the end of winning the persona competition. They want to attract the largest following of fans (song sales, concert attendance, Instagram followers) by crafting a persona that is cooler than anyone else's.

    It's similar to the Gen X investment bankers and BIGLAW drones, who are well aware that they won't be running the banks or law firms (which are being squatted on by careerist Silents and Boomers). Even though they make huge incomes, they treat it as fuel for their lifestyle striving -- getting into the right nightclub, ordering bottle service, and generally living the baller lifestyle that was satirized on The Leveraged Sell-Out blog.


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