Analysis: our likes and brand behaviours tend to be more genuine when our online followers are true friends

Economist Thorstein Veblen coined the term 'conspicuous consumption' over 100 years ago to explain the behaviour of consuming to flaunt one’s wealth and cement one’s status in society. There are two aspects to conspicuous consumption: the item publicly displays wealth and status to others, and there is a superiority attributed to the owner by others who do not own the item. This social recognition may drive conspicuous consumption.

Today, social media accounts on Facebook or Instagram are forms of self-presentation as our profile is visible to our followers. If we choose to, we can present a curated self, where everything that we associate with signals a particular version of ourselves. These signals can include selfies, comments or even what we choose to like. When we like a brand on Facebook, for instance, that brand appears on our news feed. In this way, liked brands can become part of an extended virtual self, adding to our image, and forming an impression with our followers.

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Sometimes, this expression of ourselves is intended to show other people who we are (the 'real' me). Other times, if we are honest, we express an ideal self through our likes, which may be a form of virtual conspicuous consumption. The main difference between conspicuous consumption in the offline world and liking a brand on social media is that we don’t have to buy anything for the brand to make an impression on social media – we simply have to click like.  

Like buttons are known as paralinguistic digital affordances. They are one-click digital feedback cues that facilitate communication through an icon such as a thumbs-up or a heart.  Although high-status goods are expensive, likes are free. What's more, online followers may not know us well enough to verify whether what we like is an honest reflection of ourselves. We can gain image and status by associating our virtual selves with a liked brand without ever having to own it.

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So is there a relationship between what people like and what they actually consume offline?  In our study, we surveyed Irish consumers who liked brands on Facebook, and we asked them about their offline brand behaviours. The brands they liked were mainly in the fashion and sportwear categories. We asked them to consider whether the brand they liked reflected their inner selves and their true personality (the 'real self'); or an image they wanted to project (the 'social self’). 

We then asked them whether they would recommend the liked brand through word of mouth.  We also asked participants whether they would accept wrongdoing by the brand. We considered that people who like as a form of impression management might be less concerned about the ethics of the brand’s activities: it would not matter what the brand did in the real world, as long as it added to their image. 

We found differences between people who like brands that reflect the ‘real self’, and those who like brands to show a ‘social self’. The first group are likely to offer word of mouth for the brand, and they would not forgive the brand for wrongdoing. On the other hand, people whose likes reflect a ‘social self’ will not give word of mouth, and they are more accepting of wrongdoing. 

Those who like brands that express the ‘real self’ may have more genuine relationships with those brands. The other group engage in virtual conspicuous consumption, connecting with the brand to display a ‘social self’, without caring about the brand’s behaviour, and without offering word of mouth.

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In another study, we explored whether our likes are influenced by our social media followers. Social media friendship networks can be comprised of weak or strong ties. A strong tie is usually someone who we also know offline, we interact with them regularly and we trust them, while weak ties are mere acquaintances. 

We found that people who have strong ties tend to like brands that reflect their ‘real self’. Our study also showed that those people are more likely to have greater brand loyalty. When our online followers are true friends, our likes and brand behaviours are more genuine too.

We feel more social competition when likes are visible, making us more unhappy

One goal of social media users is to achieve a large amount of likes for a post. Instagram conducted a trial to hide users’ likes from others, partly to reduce competition for likes. In an experiment, we asked Instagram users how many likes they would expect to receive for a post, and we randomly assigned participants to four scenarios: they received far more or fewer likes than expected and their followers could or could not see how many likes they received. We then measured their loneliness and negative affect (feelings such as being upset or ashamed). 

People who received more likes were less lonely, but they also experienced more negative affect. This outcome was exacerbated when followers could see their likes. Just as Veblen recognised that people who buy conspicuous goods are aware that others notice their consumption, social media users are acutely aware that others can see how many likes they are getting. We feel more social competition when likes are visible, making us more unhappy. Our wellbeing might be improved if our likes were less conspicuous.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ