The buying power of social media

Image from Dribbble

The prevalence of social media amongst the youth is nothing new. As of last year, almost 80% of young British people have a YouTube, WhatsApp, Instagram, or Facebook account. As we enter the second year of a pandemic that has all but killed off in-person socialising, the influence of networking apps is more staggering than ever. 

As young people’s lives are increasingly entangled with social media, online companies are progressively prioritising the buying power of their users over their interpersonal experiences.

In November 2020, Instagram added its new ‘Shopping’ tab, an entire section of the app dedicated to connecting with ‘brands and creators’ and to help users ‘discover products [they] love’. This tab replaced the ‘Activities’ section, the primary means of interacting with comments, likes, and followers. It has now been demoted to the corner of the home page. 

“Instagram is capitalising off the fact that influencer culture makes it very easy to turn ‘I want that’ into ‘I can have that.”

Similarly, last year Facebook announced that it was ‘pushing back its decision to limit the number of ads each page can run’ until early 2021 – something yet to be announced. According to Hootsuite’s Digital 2020 report, Facebook’s advertisements reach 1.95 billion of the company’s 2.5 billion monthly users. These astounding figures highlight the digital platform’s incentive to prioritise e-commerce in systems ostensibly designed to connect people.

I spoke to 19-year-old Instagram user Katie Chalk. She highlighted that much of the platform “is about being jealous of something someone is wearing, owning, using etc.” Indeed, data suggests the more time people spend on social media, ‘the more likely they would believe that others have better lives [thus] reducing their self-esteem’. Katie felt this manipulation of young peoples’ need to fit in: “Instagram has recognised this, and is capitalising off the fact that influencer culture makes it very easy to turn ‘I want that’ into ‘I can have that.”

“The apps, plastered with infinite scrolling and bright, stimulating colours are designed to be deliberately addicting.”

Not only do social media platforms enforce engagement with e-commerce through the overwhelming presence of advertisements in the apps’ structure, but groups formed on these networks revolve around purchasing too. For example, Facebook trading groups can boast thousands of members, all of whom make a niche and welcoming communities. These range from centring on the purchasing of vintage fashion finds to buying and selling models and collectables.

Robert Gray, a 20-year-old trading group member, highlighted the interplay of friendship and commerce in the community: “If you know the people in the group you’re more likely to buy stuff from them.”

He also emphasised the impact of the causality of these trades: “The way it’s structured on Facebook, for example, you have to PM [personal message]. But you don’t know who else has PMed, so you have to rush in and you don’t get to think about buying it. It’s not a proper auction, it’s all about personal negotiation.”

The personal quality of trading groups that strengthens the connection to social media platforms has bolstered through relentless advertising between socialising and purchasing. 

While the conflation of community and commerce is morally ambiguous, the addictive quality of social media adds a layer of manipulation. This latter is common enough to be a documented phenomenon. The apps themselves, plastered with infinite scrolling and bright, stimulating colours are designed to be ‘deliberately addicting’

More than ever, young people are relying on social media to make any connection at all. When this is tied up in spending money, whether through persistent advertisements, via anxiety-inducing influencers, or as part of a community- money seems to be the increasingly common and prioritised factor. 

Article by Kate Bowie