Facebook, Forever 21, and the Hidden Hypocrisies of Capitalism

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Rob Horning of the always-awesome blog Marginal Utility has an essay at n+1 connecting the trends in fast-fashion retailers like Forever 21 to indentity formation on social media websites on the one hand and to perpetual uncertainty in labor markets throughout the world.

They have changed fashion from a garment making to an information business, optimizing their supply chains to implement design tweaks on the fly. Zara “can design, produce, and deliver a new garment and put it on display in its stores worldwide in a mere 15 days,”2 and this flow of information is by far the most significant thing the company produces…
Much as fast-fashion companies are routinely accused of pirating designs, Facebook continually oversteps once sacrosanct norms of privacy, opting users in to data-divulging mechanisms by default and backpedaling only when confronted with public outcry. It offers a space akin to the fast-fashion retailer’s changing room for the ritual staging of the self, inviting users to seize upon “stylistic elements” from wherever they can be grabbed. We become involuntary bricoleurs, scrambling to cobble together an ad hoc identity from whatever memes happen to be relevant at the time.

Horning concludes: “By seeming to mitigate the problems that neoliberalism creates by shifting economic risk onto workers, social media has been able to colonize the collective consciousness. Facebook, fast fashion, and the like provide new mechanisms of solace, quantifying our connections and influence (and thereby making them more economically useful to us) while enhancing the compensations of consumerism by making it seem more productive, more self-revelatory. Though we may be only one of a thousand friends in everyone else’s networks, that never seems especially important when we’re in the midst of posting new pictures. ” In other words, Facebook is the narcissist’s nirvana.

And when Horning says “And so we vacillate between anxious self-branding and the self-negating practice of seeking some higher authenticity: we have to watch ourselves become ourselves in order to be ourselves, over and over again” what he is talking about here is the “anxiety trap” that’s been discussed on Partial Objects since the blog started. Only here, rather than the producer setting the axiety trap through conventional advertising, they set up institutional structure in which we lay the trap for ourselves and each other. What is Facebook but a series of idealized representations of ourselves self-selected to make us appear more authentically happy than we are in real life? But Facebook pits our idealized representations against those idealized representations of others.

What Horning’s excellent article doesn’t touch on is the artifice at the heart of all of this.

The greatest critique of social media, shopping, constant rebranding–i.e. global capitalism in general–is that he people who run it, do not themselves participate in it. The people who own and run Google do not blog and Tweet incessantly. Zuckerberg does not have a personal Facebook page where he takes pics of himself at keg parties and posts them up. I don’t know What Larry page and Sergey Brin are watching, or when they get out of bed. That’s the stuff that you post on their sites that they exploit for money.

The man who who runs Forever 21, Do Won (Don) Chang, does not obsess over creating his personal fashion brand. He, and his family who run the company with him, do not obsess over having the latest clothes, or modelling their image after the trends they spot. They are by all accounts a traditional, typical Korean family. When he first emigrated to America, he held a number of jobs, one of them was as a janitor. On his Facebook page, he identifies himself as a devoted Christian, and includes some quotes from scripture. Does a guy who got his start working three jobs and scrubbing toilets strike you as the kind of person to encourage his children to chase fashion trends and buy new clothes all the time?

Take note of the fact that none of Mr. Chang’s work ethic, none of his worldview of sacrifice and hard work, is on display is his commercial creation. That outlook has enabled him to make sacrifices, endure hardship, persevere and build something massively successful. Instead his store promotes a lifestyle of perpetual youth and endless fun that engenders and feeds a ravenous and paranoid consumer mindset the he himself doesn’t possess and wouldn’t instill in his children.

The point is this: the people who make these things don’t really use these things. Paris Hilton doesn’t watch reality TV, but she wants you to watch her reality TV show. Larry Page and Sergey Brin don’t read or click Adsense ads, and Zuckerberg–who reads ancient Greek and Latin–doesn’t spend his time telling Facebook “what’s on his mind today.” Don Chang doesn’t want his daughters turning over their wardrobe every two weeks shopping at Forver 21. These people make things that they themselves would never use in the way that they want you to use them. This is the hypocrisy at the heart of capitalism, and it has been this way since the beginning, but it has never been so nakedly obvious.

Consumerism is a carny hustle. A game. Ask yourself why it is that the people who run the game generally don’t play the game. Ask yourself who is really winning the game. 

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22 Responses to Facebook, Forever 21, and the Hidden Hypocrisies of Capitalism

  1. Guy Fox says:

    Very good point, but you seem to be conflating capitalism with consumerism. They’re separable. A market is a great way to manage very complex allocation problems. What is a truffle worth? What is the value of soy milk relative to pasteurized cow milk relative to the powdered milk in cheap chocolate? You’d be stuck without a subjective theory of value, which also gives you a price system, which also gives you different strategies to profit from it. That will to profit is all you need for capitalism, and in itself, it’s benign.
    Consumerism is capitalism with desire being manufactured just as much as goods. It’s making people want things for which they have no use. It’s hard to blame a guy who risks a lot, works his @$$ off and wants to be compensated for building a better mousetrap (whether this refers metaphorically to a cure for cancer, cold fusion, automatic abortion machine, or pederasty simulator), if there are people who will also profit from buying the thing or access to it. The guy who induces a need for something useless or harmful deserves to be the thorax of a human centipede.

    Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    • cliche says:

      Can you blame a guy who won’t fund research for potential cures/vaccines because it wouldn’t be profitable?
      Can you blame any competitors that come to the same conclusion?
      Of course you can’t. There are more important things to spend money on, like company representatives and drug conferences.

      • HR says:

        No, you can’t blame that guy. Profit in a free market means that you are correctly responding to, and satisfying, an area of high demand. Like it or not, hiring people to work for your company and participating in relevant conferences are just a couple of ways results are achieved.

        To expect “a guy” to sacrifice himself by squandering his resources recklessly, on the other hand, is just ridiculous. Nobody benefits when a smart guy who knows how to do research withdraws from the market after bankrupting himself building horrendously expensive things that only a couple of people want.

        • JohnJ says:

          Why wouldn’t finding vaccines and cures be profitable? I know a lot of people who would pay a lot of money for those things.

        • cliche says:

          My point was more about capitalism then the hypothetical ‘guy’.
          The system puts potential profit above potential loss of life.
          You can spin that whichever way and say “what about the workers/shareholders/poor starving researchers” etc…but at the end of the day, such a system is inherently evil.

          I have a rather crazy friend who is into conspiracies.
          The one he most often talks about, is Nikola Tesla coming up with a way to harness and distribute free energy way back in 1901. The CEO of General Electric apparently cut the funding on the project, because free energy wouldn’t make him any money.
          Now, while it is hard to imagine that some guy might have come up with a solution to the world’s energy problems over 100 years ago, it is not hard to imagine that the head of one the largest companies of the time would have responded in such a way.
          It’s even easier to imagine a CEO of today doing the exact same.
          Why is that I wonder?

  2. Lopt says:

    Your line about Facebook being “the narcissist’s nirvana” was perfect, in terms of the way the syllables actually work together, the way you echo both a certain 90’s band whose singer was pretty tortured about public image/branding and because nirvana is supposed to be the complete obliteration of self achieved after lifetimes of ab/oblation.

  3. Hey look, Forever 21 ads on the right.

    I agree with Guy, confusing capitalism with consumerism. Capitalism is what allowed him to create a business. Consumerism is what made Forever 21 a store for 40 year olds.

    He does participate in it, he just doesn’t understand that he is participating in it. He’s not naked. His teen kids aren’t wearing Sears. Not wearing Forever 21 is a brand signal, and whatever he is wearing or driving is a signal of some other kind. Just because it’s not ostentatious or slutty, doesn’t change the significance as a personal brand.

    Zuckerburg may not be posting pics about himself on his fb page, but he is most certainly posting stuff about himself in the medium that matters to him, which in his case is the popular press. Hence, I now know he kills his own food, and spent a year wearing a tie just to try it. He doesn’t use fb to promote that because the audience he wants to know that isn’t who he targets.

    It is a great observation that you’ve made about people and their products,but no one alive gets off Scott free. We’re all branding ourselves, and many of us domit by NOT being something else. It’s all fine, as long as it is not an all consuming behavior.

    • qubitman says:

      It seems a good sign is when none of this nonsense is of any great importance to you. I enjoy reading this communities’ writing, but it’s not my cup of tea to work that hard at the research y’all seem to do. As Ze Frank said: you’re thinking so I don’t have to.

  4. cat says:

    pb, thanks for the link to Rob H’s blog and the article – lots of interesting stuff there.

    According to the New Yorker, Zuckerberg does have a FB account , but it’s set to private (I imagine he knows up ahead when the privacy settings will change…), and he does post personal pictures. He’s just not your friend, so you can’t see them. He constructs his public persona elsewhere…

    And the Forever 21 guy cannot wear his brand’s clothes, since the brand is not for him. (If you’re not wearing it, it’s not for you). If he did wear them, imagine what would happen to the brand’s value? He wears another brand, that’s targeted to his age and income bracket.

    • Pastabagel says:

      I understand that Z has a private Facebook account, but the whole point of Facebook is not to make it private. But he doesn’t use it the way most people use it, and that type of use is the type that facebook wants to encourage. Likewise, Chang’s children may wear the brand, but it is unlikely that they hyperactively shop there (or anywhere else) they way the company wants most girls to. My point was about the cycle of consumption, not instances of it.

      • cat says:

        I take your point about Z and it would be interesting to know if anyone has ever asked Z in an interview why he does not use his FB account the way he encourages others to use it.

        About Chang’s daughters – I don’t know what they wear, but I it’s almost impossible not to be part of the cycle of fashion consumption. They’re wearing something, some brand, and that have chosen that brand to say something about themselves.

  5. Cambyses says:

    Regarding cat’s comment, I’d extend this to Zuckerberg. His Latinism is a slogan. I’ll offer you a motto quoted from him: Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit, or, loosely translated, “Maybe one day we’ll look back on all this shit and laugh.” This is rather convincing when seen in print: it’s roman letters and Latin words… but it’s not proper Latin. I could parse it for you but that would be boring. What this is is a slogan (the translation) put through a filter (a dictionary or an amateur) and passed off as proper Latin. This is a guy using Latin like thick-rimmed glasses, to appear sophisticated. And it works (think Baudrillard’s third-order simulacrum). What’s more interesting is that it doesn’t work when the reader is classically educated. This is characteristic of the disappointments of living among simulacra. Someone dorky like me hears, “Latin,” enthusiastically responds… and is disappointed. As for Greek, the number of misspelled tattoos in the community is staggering, and they serve the same purpose. I’d challenge you that Zuckerberg is also caught in the machine… as was Greenspan.

    • LatinNerd says:

      I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude or pedantic, but I have to disagree with you. “Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit,” is perfectly fine Latin. The clunky, overly-literal translation is, “Perhaps at one point it will be of benefit to have remembered even these things.” It’s a quote from Virgil, Aeneid 1.203.

  6. tgrisfal says:

    Hubris is funny to watch.

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  10. harryh says:

    Aren’t you cherry picking your data? Ev, Jack, Dick, and nearly every other twitter employee use twitter. Jobs uses Apple products, Bill G uses Microsoft products. Just because you can come up with 1 or 2 examples that go the other way doesn’t mean you can rest your argument on that.

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  14. FreeSocrates says:

    It appears that Mark Zuckerberg does use facebook and I can confirm that one of his favorite bands is Nirvana.