Price tags have been clickbait for a long time. The last 10 years are littered with sticker-shock stories: Paris Hilton’s $325,000 “dog villa,” Nicolas Cage’s $276,000 (stolen) dinosaur skull, Kim Kardashian’s $23,000 diaper bag, every celebrity’s multi-multimillion-dollar home. But implicit in most of those stories was not only covetousness, but judgment: how wonderful, how out of touch. In the age of influencers, though, the judgment has all but disappeared. You celebrate and contribute to your fave’s flexing, or you’re a hater.
Flexing, if you’re unfamiliar, is flaunting your wealth. You may have encountered it in meme form: In early 2018, “weird flex but OK” was the only appropriate response to bizarre social media boasting. Sometimes the bragging methods were questionable, but the impulse to brag was never taken to task. Why? Over the last few years, flexing has become a social media genre of its own—and a popular one.
Flexing videos play out kind of like a zero-irony version of Paris Hilton’s The Simple Life that only cares about Paris Hilton. A few recent examples from YouTube’s trending page: YouTubers buying out entire stores, buying entire towns, walking through stores blindfolded and buying everything they touch, learning to drive in cars they really want you to know cost $250,000. Haul and “get ready with me” videos have transmogrified into videos that scream their cost in the title ($30,000 Gucci Haul!) and the $10,000 outfit challenge. Spending their wealth extravagantly has always been something celebrities do, but now letting people watch you spend extravagantly is almost enough to make you a celebrity.
Influencers aren’t the first celebrity group to embrace consumerism. It’s what happens every time companies realize they can monetize a popular form of entertainment. There’s a wide gulf between Nas rapping about social issues and Lil Nas X rapping about his cowboy hat from Gucci and the Wrangler jeans on his booty. That doesn’t make “Old Town Road” any less of a bop, and it doesn’t make influencers who indulge in these five- and six-figure flexes bad people. It’s just important to notice how brands singing the song of themselves have convinced people to sing along.
The supremacy of vlogging and “lifestyle” content has made that job especially easy online. “When I ask digital influencers what their expertise is in, the answer is almost always ‘lifestyle,'” says Carla Abdalla, who teaches at the Armando Alvares Penteado Foundation in Brazil and studies consumer behavior and marketing strategies. “When I ask them which kind of lifestyle, they talk about the consumption of designer clothes, gourmet restaurants, high-tech gadgets, trips around the world, and so on. Their expertise is the consumption.”
“After over 200 studies, we know that the more people endorse materialism, the worse their well-being. They’re less empathic, less prosocial, more competitive. They’re less likely to support environmental sustainability. They’re more likely to endorse prejudicial and discriminatory beliefs.”
Psychologist Tim Kasser
According to Tim Kasser, a psychologist at Knox College and author of The High Price of Materialism, selling what he calls materialist values (the focus on wealth, status, image, and possessions) became commonplace in advertisements of the 1950s. The American dream wasn’t freedom anymore, it was freedom with a two-car garage and a fancy refrigerator. The trend ramped up through the 1980s, which should surprise zero Madonna fans, and has continued apace despite countermovements like punk or grunge or early hipsters. Nowadays, commenters sometimes carp about the fakeness of sponsored reviews, but YouTube’s Kurt Cobains, people who eschew and look down on sponsorships and brand deals, have mostly faded to quaint, old-internet obscurity. You can see the shift in YouTube channels like Mr. Beast: Two years ago channel frontman Jimmy Donaldson was watching Jake’s Paul’s “Everyday Bro” music video for 10 hours straight, but now he’s buying whole stores. Four days ago, he spent thousands of dollars tipping waitresses in gold bars and televisions and laptops.
In part, that’s because he’s richer and more popular now, but it’s saying something that the YouTubers who can count on getting more than 10 millions views per video are also the ones who can literally hand out chunks of gold with the help of sponsors like Honey, an app that scours the internet for coupons to reduce your online shopping bill. “To be cynical, it’s a very savvy way to advertise,” Kasser says. According to him, the typical 30-second television ad costs about $115,000. Funding Mr. Beast’s gold nugget habit is about half as costly, and lasts over 13 minutes. Plus, it likely works better: “When you click on a sponsored video, you’ve made a choice to watch it,” he says. “Everything I know about human motivation suggests that you’d pay more attention to the YouTube video, and be more receptive to its message.”
For skeptics, these hyper-consumerist displays are shocking, and maybe a little gross. (I haven’t been the same since I, along with 17 million other people, watched YouTubers Jeffree Star and Shane Dawson throw away one million dollars worth of expired makeup on a casual Friday this March. Is it better or worse that much of it was sent to Star for free?) Psychological research suggests that even ostensibly charitable displays, like Mr. Beast’s, are usually viewed negatively. “What’s queasy about it is that it’s a very showy means of being generous,” says Lara Aknin, a social psychologist who studies altruism at Simon Fraser University. “People who stand to gain from a kind deed are seen as worse than people who do nothing.” Mr. Beast is also effectively asserting power over his giftees, who would probably have preferred to be tipped in legal tender, another thing Aknin says should turn people off.
But this kind of influencer isn’t really going for popularity, though they get it. They’re going for status. If you are a fan, these videos might look very different—more how-to manual than late capitalist cautionary tale, especially if you’re young and/or live in an economy with a wide gap between the haves and have nots. “The influence of YouTubers and Instagramers in Brazil is greater than the ‘traditional famous people,'” Abdalla says. Her research shows a positive correlation between “wanting to be someone” and splashing out on luxury goods. It also suggests that, in the developing world, digital materialism might not even be good for brands.
Emma Grey Ellis covers memes, trolls, and other elements of Internet culture for WIRED.
“Some retail and e-commerce stores have started to receive a lot of refund requests for fashion clothes by consumers who cannot pay for them and only bought them for taking Instagram photos or shooting YouTube videos,” Abdalla says. She has lots of sad anecdotes to share, like a woman who vlogged from the Apple Store and edited the footage to make it seem like she was in her living room, and low-income teenagers who thought they needed to buy designer clothes before they could be accepted in a mall.
Income inequality is also alive and well in the United States. “You’re more likely to see this behavior in places where there’re gross disparities of available goods,” says Aknin. Abdalla suggests that, like so many other aspects of millennial psychology, the culture of ostentation in America could be the result of the financial crisis of 2008. Many of YouTube’s biggest flexers—Star, the Paul brothers, Tana Mongeau—seem to not have been rich when they began their YouTube careers, so there’s also a bit of “started from the bottom now we’re here” in play. Maybe that’s why fans love them, despite their ostentation. Social media makes influence seem attainable by anyone, even the viewer at home. So, rather than hating Jake Paul for giving his fiancé Tana Mongeau, who cannot drive, a car that’s worth $124,000, they imagine what lavish gifts they’ll be able to give the people they love. It’s very human, and almost nice, when you think of it that way.
That is, it would be nice if the psychological toll wasn’t so high. “After over 200 studies, we know that the more people endorse materialism, the worse their well-being. They’re less empathic, less prosocial, more competitive,” Kasser says. “They’re less likely to support environmental sustainability. They’re more likely to endorse prejudicial and discriminatory beliefs.” And you know, that sounds like what’s wrong with YouTube.