Law in Contemporary Society
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My Leisure is More Conspicuous Than Yours! (Facebook as a Vehicle for Pecuniary Emulation)

-- DanielButrymowicz - 04 Apr 2008


The incredible popularity of social networking websites among young adults can be explained by their utility as a means of publicizing one's leisure activities. Taking as a start Veblen's theory that the durability of economic institutions depends on their ability to facilitate conspicuous consumption or leisure, this paper analyzes as an example of how networking sites enable users to make their consumption and leisure activities more conspicuous.

Conspicuous Leisure Among Young Adults

Facebook was originally conceived as a means of allowing college students to network with their peers. Although it now includes non-college students, Facebook's origins and focus inextricably tie it to higher education. Even at this basic level it is a tool for conspicuous leisure. In contemporary American society, just as in Veblen's time, attending college is generally a mark of pecuniary power. When one searches for a user on Facebook, the search results display the user's name and the schools s/he has attended. College affiliation is also the first information that appears in a user's profile. Facebook therefore provides a public forum for users to showcase the pecuniary power that inheres in attending college.

However, since most Facebook users (and certainly most college students' peers) are college students themselves, simply attending college is not enough to make a favorable invidious comparison. Further, since college students typically do not have a significant income, they are generally not able to engage in pecuniary emulation through buying expensive cars or houses. Instead, college students engage in pecuniary emulation through conspicuous leisure activities. Facebook allows users to "keep up with the Joneses" by keeping a record of the time they waste and the activities on which it is wasted.

Given the age group that most frequently uses Facebook, it does not take much imagination to suspect that the motivation behind all this conspicuous leisure has a distinctly biological basis. Here, as with the examples of conspicuous leisure provided by Veblen, a major goal of the consumer is to appear more sexually desirable by using conspicuous leisure to create a favorable invidious comparison with his peers. To make this even easier, Facebook doubles as a rudimentary dating website. Users can list their relationship status and what they are “looking for” with regard to the opposite sex.

Facebook as Conspicuous Leisure

Facebook is conducive to conspicuous leisure because the website itself provides numerous opportunities for the public unproductive use of time. When users join the site, they create profiles that reflect their interests and personalities. Users carefully sculpt these profiles and update them frequently. Simply having a Facebook profile reflects a certain amount of leisure time invested in making and maintaining it. Further, Facebook acts as a messaging device. Users can send private messages to one another, or they can write publicly on another user's profile "wall." The redundancy of the "wall" function highlights its conspicuous leisure value. It allows users to publicly display their social conversations.

Facebook has also recently expanded to include third party "applications," of which there are now over 20,000. These applications allow users to engage in a number of interactive activities through the Facebook site itself. Some allow users to challenge one another in games like chess or Scrabble. Others are longer, multi-person games that involve enlisting friends to complete the Oregon Trail or fight in a virtual pirate war. Some applications are more basic, and allow you to create "stickers" or "graffiti" to put on others' profiles. Significantly, each of these applications keeps and displays a detailed record of users' activities. Facebook's value as a vehicle for pecuniary emulation is due in large part to the fact that it publicizes how much time one spends using it, thus facilitating conspicuous leisure and inviting invidious comparisons with other users.

Facebook as a Marker of Other Leisure

Facebook provides a public means of recording how users wasted time spent off the site. User profiles list favorite books, movies, TV shows, and music. Users attempt to convey that they have spent their leisure time in ways that highlight their taste. Pecuniary emulation takes the form of having read the right books, listened to the right bands, and generally subscribed to the canons of taste that dominate the user's peer culture. Profiles are meticulously crafted to reflect the proper taste. Facebook serves no direct function in enhancing one's external leisure. Instead, its value is in its ability to make the user's normal leisure more conspicuous. Social networking sites elevate unproductive activity that would have otherwise gone unnoticed to the status of highly conspicuous leisure.

Facebook also serves as a medium for documenting the social leisure time of users. One of the key features of the site is that it allows users to network by adding other users as their "friends." Each user's profile has a highly visible list of that person's "friends," complete with a numerical tally. Additionally, users can post photo albums on their profile as evidence of parties, trips, or other leisure activities. The number of photos in which a user appears is displayed prominently in his profile. Social time is unproductive time, and Facebook allows users to make their leisure time more conspicuous by publicly posting a record of it.


Veblen's thesis is that the vitality of economic institutions is a function of their ability to facilitate conspicuous leisure and consumption. Facebook is a near-perfect tool for publicizing leisure. It is incredibly popular. The site has over 65 million users, and the average user spends 2.5 hours per day on the site. Facebook itself does not cost users anything. It is therefore not direct pecuniary consumption. Instead, it acts as a surrogate for conspicuous consumption for a particular demographic (young adults, specifically college students). The site allows people without significant pecuniary strength to make direct invidious comparisons with their peers in the area of conspicuous leisure. The power to spend money lavishly is replaced with the power to spend time unproductively in ways that conform to accepted canons of taste.

  • Which brings us to the second point. The CIA and Mark Zuckerberg may feel differently about the fact Facebook's turning out to be a fully-instrumented singles' bar, rather than the more comprehensive wired social network that could be data-mined to make predictive models of other kinds of people than young people with hormones to work off. Zuckerberg was supposed to be producing a dating site, after all, when he eloped with his partners' idea, while the CIA put money into his so-called business hoping that they'd be able to spy on you for the rest of your lives, and many more people than just you, rather than winding up with a system that would help them find their targets if their targets were sex- and status-obsessed twenty-somethings.

  • You know that Veblen's purpose is to explain why practices last, not why practices arise. Therefore, as far as you're concerned, you're not writing about what Facebook's features are for, in any intentional sense. But this may be a serious mistake so far as the effect of the essay is concerned. You could perhaps have let your readers known that the purpose of the Facebook system is privacy invasion. Facebook-like technology could be created that would give everyone a web page that worked like the existing Facebook page, with all the same feeds and ridiculous PHP "applications" made of the computer programming equivalent of compressed-rubbish particle-board, but in which there was no centralized logging of who's doing what and to whom. Those logs, which are the artifact rather than necessary outgrowth of Facebook's existence, are a moment by moment record of everything 65 million people do with an average of 2.5 hours per week of their time: that is, a completely spied-on social world that contains 162.5 million hours a week of human behavior, the equivalent of completely bugging, in every room of every home and business, the tenth-largest city in the United States. Facebook's investors and managers believe that the effort to climb inside all those lives can be made to pay money. Those who are fools enough to use the service are getting crappy free web hosting, and a little software that is not as good as what is freely available, in return for destroying pretty much all their privacy, pretty much forever. But you don't say anything about that, being apparently uninterested.

  • Eben- I agree with your take on Facebook's dubious purpose and role in college life. However, incorporating an analysis of the "why" into my paper would have required a significant shift in the essay's focus. Ultimately I decided to leave it as a clear, though limited, analysis of how Facebook illustrates Veblen's thesis regarding the durability of economic institutions.



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r7 - 23 May 2008 - 22:47:25 - DanielButrymowicz
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