The Internet's Social Status Games Are Driving Us Crazy
It's a machine that runs on envy, humiliation and rage
Have you ever noticed that when cartoonists draw Trump supporters, they go with a very specific design?
Always obese, always with unkempt facial hair, usually in dirty t-shirts and baseball caps. But why?
“Who cares?” you might say, “they’re hateful bigots!” Okay, but then why not draw them as menacing, like supervillains or monsters? Why make them look silly? Isn’t that downplaying the threat?
It’s actually a trick: The artists’ goal isn’t to say their opponents views are wrong, but to lower their social status by making the audience subconsciously associate those views with a lower class. In this case, by portraying their opinions as those of “white trash”: the out of shape, unkempt and poor.
My point here isn’t that they’re being treated unfairly, but that it’s an example of a maddening little game that’s being played by virtually every bit of media you consume. It’s all about manipulating perception of social status to get you to do (or buy, or believe) something, and it’s a big reason why the modern world is making you miserable…
Before we continue, my next book is up for pre-order now! It’s called If This Book Exists, We’re in the Wrong Universe and you can get it at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Bookshop. Or any local bookstore! The audio version link will be up soon!
1. First, A Two-Minute History Of Social Status And Why It Drives Us Crazy
Some of my readers have already read dozens of books about this exact subject while others rarely, if ever, think about it. This is for the latter. In the USA, we usually only talk about social status or class in terms of income, but let’s say a wizard appears and offers you exactly two choices. You can,
A) Make $50,000 a year as a critically-acclaimed indie musician, or
B) You can make $100,000 a year as the face of a local ad campaign in which you grimace in a comical fashion while holding your buttocks and screaming, “My butthole itches!”
Those who picked the first would justify it with, “I want to be proud of my work!” or “I don’t want strangers screaming ‘itchy butthole’ at me for the rest of my life!” But what they’re really saying is that the extra cash wouldn’t be worth the loss in social status. And to be clear, many if not most people would take the lower pay; just look at how hard it is to get males to work as nurses/caregivers (only 11% are men, despite the industry relentlessly pushing more to apply). No matter how big the signing bonus, they see it as women’s work and, therefore, humiliating. If I stopped writing and got rich as a hedge fund manager (unlikely, since I literally don’t know what one does) my social circle of creative types would see that as a step down.
None of this is new, of course—humans have competed for status within groups for as long as we’ve been forming groups—but very recently, something changed. Most people through most of history only cared about their standing among the neighbors and their church; virtually none had to worry about the opinions of masses of strangers. You didn’t feel ashamed about your home’s lack of an indoor toilet (or whatever the new convenience was in your era) if your neighbors also didn’t have it.
But then along came mass media, particularly visual media, which found ways to make everyone ashamed of their lifestyle, all the time. Hollywood portrayed a world in which even the poor characters are depicted as living in large, spacious homes, purely because it’s almost impossible to film in a small one. Seriously, that’s the whole reason. There’d be no room for the cameras and lights in a realistically tiny New York apartment.
These characters also travel, go on adventures, eat at restaurants, hang out at cafes and their “fat” friends are thinner than your homecoming queen. The unspoken message: “If that’s not what your life looks like, either you failed (and need to feel ashamed) or someone cheated you out of it (and you should be angry).” If it seems like everyone you know is either constantly in a rage or taking a depression nap, this would be one reason.
When social media came along in the mid-2000s, it exploded because of a desperate unfulfilled desire: the need for social status on the part of those who saw a high-status lifestyle (as defined by mass media and advertisers) as out of reach. Here was technology to fill the validation void, in the exact same sense that one might try to fill it with, say, alcohol, or a fucking bullet.
2. What We Have Here Is A Diabolical Machine That Runs On Envy And Shame
Occasionally young people will discover the most acclaimed movies of 1999 and get baffled by the common theme: “I have a well-paying middle class office job, but I’m miserable and want this whole system to burn!”
“If only they’d known!” say the youth now, “how much worse things were going to get!” On one hand, they’re wrong about things having gotten materially worse (the point of those movies wasn’t “You have this and it sucks” but rather, “You’re aspiring to this, and it sucks”). But on the other hand, the status anxieties that caused these characters to run screaming from their lives have been cranked up a hundredfold. Today, it’s not enough to maintain a lifestyle that avoids low-status stigma; now your life is under around-the-clock scrutiny by everyone on the planet. The side effect of this relentless assault on your social standing is that our brains are full of a noxious cloud of envy, aka the side effect of shame (“I wouldn’t have to feel ashamed if this person didn’t have more than me!”).
For example, when Instagram was new, the joke was that it was an app for people to take pictures of their lunches. “I just wanted to share my experience!” said the Instagrammers. But the viewer doesn’t get to eat the food. So what was the goal? The answer: to inspire envy in others. “Look at what I have, and how much better it is than what you have. I get to eat this, you don’t.”
Now, I don’t think the above thought consciously manifests in your brain—it doesn’t feel malicious. You’re doing it because something about the activity makes you feel better about yourself, but the actual feel-better mechanism is you boosting your social status (fancy meals are the oldest status signifier) and the easiest way to measure status is in envy, as in, the amount of envy it creates in others. Though just to be clear, every time I post a picture of my dog on Instagram, it is in fact a conscious attack on the viewer. “My dog makes your dog look like a big pile of shit.”
This creates a cycle: You see something that makes you envious/ashamed, so to make yourself feel better, you must make someone else feel the same way. Why else would we have these constant moral panics about the corruption of our kids? “Look how I successfully protected my child from getting abducted by Qanon traffickers, a thing that definitely exists, and that I should be congratulated for avoiding! What have YOU done today?”
“Now hold on,” some of you are saying. “All of my posts are about how my life is a disaster! How can that be inspiring envy?” You never dress up your posts to make it look like your life is more dramatic and dangerous than others? Like your problems are more dire, your challenges more extreme? Like you’ve had to overcome more than they have? Like your engagement with social issues is more heartfelt and personal, like you care a little more?
3. Envy And Humiliation Will Always Become Rage
Now note how the machine is constantly evolving. Social networks pivoted from text-based platforms (where anyone could pretend to be anything) to image-based (where attractive faces and lifestyles dominated) to video-based (where success requires a perfect body, face, personality, lifestyle and opinions). If you attacked a blogger’s words in 1997, who cares, that wasn’t them, it was just some stuff they wrote. But if you’re living your life on-camera in 2022, everything about your being is open to attack, from your weight to your diction to the quality of your friends/family/pets. The audience has total access to your soul and is brutal with their judgments. That kind of mass scrutiny never existed for the common person in all of human history. How much time and energy are we wasting just building up an acceptable façade?
This is why I can’t imagine being a young girl in 2022, or raising one. TikTok and Instagram seem, to a large degree, to simply be thin, conventionally attractive young women kind of vaguely dancing on camera. There’s no point beyond, “Look at how much thinner and prettier I am than you.” Just an endless parade, millions of examples. It’s no surprise that young girls get the worst of social media’s mental health affects.
And those effects are more subtle and maddening than you think. It can hollow you out, until you wind up in a twisted place where what you value in life is based entirely on what strangers envy. Are you upset that your partner/friend/family member took a low-status job, or voiced an unpopular opinion online or (gasp!) gained weight? If so, are you really just worried about how being with them makes you look to the crowd? This can be a particular kind of madness, where the fickle moods of nebulous strangers becomes your only guiding moral principle. I suspect this is why so many celebrities seem mentally unwell, and now they’ve spread their illness to commoners who don’t have the swimming pools and cocaine to soothe the symptoms.
Even worse, everyone quickly realizes that in a social status game, there are two ways to win: By raising up your own status, or bringing down someone else’s. There are experts who believe societies relieve this pressure by unifying against some scapegoat and tearing it to pieces (this is known as a mimetic crisis) and if you want to see this in action, you can either open a history book to any random page, or browse Twitter for an hour.
Every day on that hell site we declare one person to be a monster (we call them the “main character”) and ritualistically destroy them. Thousands and thousands of people screech the most vile insults and death threats they can imagine, until the main character finally deletes their account, experiencing online social death. All status they’ve accumulated online is ground into powder, every online relationship severed. Everyone gets a cruel little thrill of joy and then we do it all over again the next day, with someone else.
4. Politics is Almost Entirely Status-Seeking Bullshit Now
This brings us back to the Trump supporter caricatures at the top. Substack seems to be mostly a place for contrarians to scream opinions for people to get angry at, so here goes:
My unpopular belief is that most regular people don’t care about politics all that much. I think most are just using it as a bludgeon in these petty online social status wars. I think it’s just high school all over again, the cruel nicknames and gossiping, the bullying, the obsession with being in the coolest friend group and knowing all of their inside jargon. We just frame it a little differently, making the conflicts sound more grandiose than they are so that any level of pettiness is justified.
For example, conservatives proclaim from the rooftops that Hollywood is “attacking their values”, promoting sexual deviancy and godlessness. I fully believe that what they’re really upset about is that movies and TV shows make their own way of life look deeply uncool. What badass action protagonist rejects profanity, alcohol and sex outside of marriage? Hollywood can literally make a cancer-stricken meth dealer look so awesome that people dress as him for Halloween, but if a character takes the Bible literally, they’re usually portrayed as a secret hypocrite or an outright villainous creep.
I don’t think conservatives believe movies can turn kids into killers or addicts; I think they simply hate that pop culture sets the social status scoreboard and always slots rural Christian conservatives at the bottom.
Now listen to anyone who complains that government benefits for the poor are too generous, and note their examples. Ronald Reagan based his entire campaign on the “welfare queen” who wore furs and drove a Cadillac. Local news will occasionally blow the lid off of a panhandler who was later spotted driving a Mercedes. The model of car is all-important: the beggars can’t be climbing into a sensible Volkswagen, it has to be a high-end brand. A status symbol.
No one actually believes that people living off disability or welfare are living better than the plumber or mechanic. The rage comes from the fear that the poor are able to project an unfairly high status, that they’re not shamed enough. So, they’ll insist that certain people stay poor because they blow all of their money on gold chains, branded clothes/sneakers, tattoos and expensive rims for their car. Do you see it? “They’re able to make themselves look cool to their peers, despite not working as hard as I do! It’s not right!”
5. And That Brings Us To The Stupid, Stupid Future
NFTs, if you’re fortunate enough to have somehow never heard of them, are just digital images (or other files) that you can own as collector’s editions. “Wait, can’t I just right-click and save an exact pixel-for-pixel copy?” you say, as a normal person. Sure, but the collector’s copy has a specific, totally invisible mark that verifies it’s the unique special one that only one person owns, and people pay huge real-world money for them.
You can see how this is the ultimate endpoint in the status economy: It’s creating envy over something that literally isn’t anything. It’s so perfectly dystopian and symbolic of the problem that you couldn’t make it up. Only you totally could! Because I did!
As some of you know, I write a sci-fi series about what society’s pressure-cooker of social status games looks like in the future, specifically, a future in which social networks are all-seeing and technology can turn even the biggest dipshit into a superhuman. The last novel, called Zoey Punches the Future in the Dick, involves the protagonist’s chaotic conflict with a powerful man who is supported on the ground by a loose organization of Incels. Our hero’s goal in these novels is to prevent conflict instead of winning it, which means she has to get, let’s say, creative with her methods…
NOTE: This is a spoiler in the sense that it tells you generally what happens at the climax, but it in no way “spoils” the experience of reading the book—it does not reveal the fates of specific characters and, let’s be honest, knowing what happens really shouldn’t be enough to ruin any story that isn’t built on some cheap twist.
Zoey buys off the villain with her stake in a company that provides what I thought was the most ridiculous service imaginable: It prevents people from having imaginary video game items. For a fee, it verifies the authenticity of in-game loot to artificially enforce scarcity—it literally charges the item owner a fee to deprive others of that item, to create envy in them and thus grant status to the owner. I wrote that scene 2018 and, three years later, NFTs would become a national obsession and an actual element of video game economies. Novelists beware: You can’t out-stupid reality.
“But Jason,” you might be saying, “that technology made headlines in 2021 but it has existed in some form since 2012, long before you ‘invented’ your version.” Sure, but I’m the kind of sci-fi visionary who successfully predicts trends that already exist but that I was too dumb to know about. It’s actually more impressive, if you think about it.
The point is, I agree with Zoey that keeping things from falling apart means giving people some meaningful, non-corrosive way to feel good about themselves and we’re currently watching a series of frantic, often clumsy attempts by the market to fill that need. But there’s one sure-fire way to make everyone feel good, but uniting them under the umbrella of national pride: You simply need a new Cold War.
I’d personally prefer we find something else but, looking around, I think I’m in the minority.
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