Eugene Wei on Social Media Platforms as "Status as a Service" Businesses
Warning: this post is only indirectly related to watches, and therefore might actually make you smarter. The horror.
Eugene Wei is one of the most thoughtful and prolific technology bloggers out there, and his blog is full of insights. But his latest piece, Status as a Service, is the most insightful he’s posted in a long while. “We would have a better understanding of many social networks if we regarded them as Status as a Service (SaaS) businesses. Not al network effects work the same way. Status is a powerful motivator but inherently volatile,” he writes in his tweet linking to the article. His observations are not dissimilar to things I’ve written about in relation to the rise of “affordable luxury”, though he defines a framework in a way no one else has to date.
‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a person in possession of little fortune, must be in want of more social capital.’ - Jane Austen.
This is how Mr. Wei starts his piece. So we’re off and running, quoting the most quotable author for our status-starved times. He starts with two principles: (1) people are status-seeking monkeys, and (2) people seek out the most efficient path to maximizing social capital. If you can’t stand to read the entire article, at least check out Wei’s tweetstorm summary.
How does this relate to watches? Well, I’m willing to bet if you’re reading this you have an Instagram account dedicated to your collection, or at least follow more than a few watch-related Instagram accounts. Instagram has undoubtedly been great for the watch industry, making it all-to-easy for users to quickly snap and post a picture of their latest snag (#newwatchalert #incoming). This follows directly from Wei’s first two principles. We’re status seeking monkeys, looking for the most efficient path to maximize social capital. There’s also a subtlety to bragging about your new watch that Instagram is perfect for. You can’t just whip it out on your watch on a colleague’s desk on Monday morning. You’re just sitting there, hoping they notice it and pay you even the slightest of compliments (they won’t). So, we turn to strangers on Instagram.com to validate our new purchase, as well as learn what we need to purchase next to climb the ladder of social capital, racking up followers and likes along the way. Instagram (and the internet more generally) is particularly well-suited to this sort of humble brag: it grants us a sort of total or pseudo-anonymity we need to feel comfortable bragging, while still showing off the entirety of our #SOTC.
I’ll close with some more closing thoughts from the Wei’s article:
In the immortal words of Obi-Wan Kenobi, ‘Status is what gives a Jedi his power. It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.’
That many of the largest tech companies are, in part, status as a service businesses, is not often discussed. Most people don't like to admit to being motivated by status, and few CEO's are going to admit that the job to be done for their company is stroking people’s egos.
From a user perspective, people are starting to talk more and more about the soul-withering effects of playing an always-on status game through the social apps on their always connected phones. You could easily replace Status as a Service with FOMO as a Service. It’s one reason you can still meet so many outrageously wealthy people in Manhattan or Silicon Valley who are still miserable.
This piece is not my contribution to the well-trod genre of Medium thinkpieces counseling stoicism and Buddhism or transcendental meditation or deleting apps off of your phone to find inner peace. There is wisdom in all of those, but if I have anything to offer on that front, it’s this: if you want control of your own happiness, don’t tie it to someone else’s scoreboard.
Money and status are two of the only remaining taboos in American life. It’s still uncouth to ask someone what they earn or what they pay in rent (unless disguised as the cocktail chatter “I only ask because I’m in the market for a new apartment”). And no, I’m not counseling you to pull yourself away from your Instagram feed either. Just to think about what’s happening around us, and how some of the biggest companies in the world are handing out virtual status tokens and then turning around and cashing those in for billions of dollars.
But please do stop scrolling through your Instagram feed for a few minutes to read the entirety of Eugene Wei’s post.