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Displays of Wealth: The Trouble with Online Profiles

Economies fall. Other ones rise from the rubble. We are navigating a new era, one where we walk in financial ashes yet fly in online worlds. The rich are truly becoming richer, the poor, poorer. The middle classes exist in the in between, striving not for wealth as they do in prosperous times but instead fighting desperately the slip into poverty.

Being in the middle means we straddle lines. What do we do with money when we get it; what do we do when we don’t have enough? Do we display the times of feast? Do we hide the times of famine? Evolutionary rules (or if you are so inclined, celestial dictates of fates) are skewed in the suburbs and even in the great democratic illusion of the Internet. What do our instincts tell us about power and social standing?

We post. We post. We post. We share our good fortune. But is that all we share?

When I peered into the gift bag today my children and husband brought me for Mother’s Day, I saw another bag inside. Later, my husband told me that our 5-year-old had inquired why they were wrapping my gift like this, putting a small bag into a larger one. My husband had told the children that the surprise, mostly, is seeing this particular bag, and it almost (almost!) doesn’t matter what’s in it. Just seeing the bag, he told them, was where most of the excitement would be.

Indeed, when I saw the iconic blue and white of the Tiffany’s trademark, I was quite surprised! We aren’t the type of family that has fine jewelry. Until today, I’d owned nothing from the luxury jewelry brand. Merely entering the store just to browse was well outside the narrows of my experience. I mean not to brag of my humble origins, as seems to be required of all the bootstrapping CEO’s and wildly successful writers of this world. I do, in fact, have humble origins… mostly. Some of my heritage is not as humble. But culturally, I was raised in the lower classes and knew nothing of the upper crust. I mean to say that this was a special moment.

I pulled out the Tiffany’s bag. Waves of guilt, curiosity, wealth, power, wonder came over me as I pulled out the silver necklace with a key and a heart charm dangling off of it. I was relieved to see something “affordable,” as much as Tiffany’s can be called that, but I was also amazed at the feeling of now being an owner of something from Tiffany’s. I’m wearing my necklace now and I am obviously still struggling a bit with the idea.

Don’t fret, though; I won’t struggle long. I will wear the necklace with pride and be reminded of the love of my little family (When I balked at the expense and my husband said, “You deserve to have something nice,” I responded, “I have many things that are nice.” He replied, “You deserve to have nice jewelry.”). I am a woman and a mother whose family wants to honor her. I will wear the necklace and will love doing so.

But then came my next question. Post or not post? I was tempted to take a lovely photo of the bag, the box and the necklace and post it on one of my many social networking sites. In the end, I decided against that and instead I am sitting here writing this article.

Recently there was a bit of a scuttlebutt in the UK over the cost of Prince William’s marriage to Kate Middleton. “In these tough economic times,” as papers are wont to phrase, the question of the propriety of a lavish royal wedding was raised. As an aside, I must say that I’m sure the licensing and tourism generated from the wedding more than paid for any money spent on it. As a venture, I’m sure it was profitable and will continue to be so. But the idea was not around the money spent as much as the fear of the public relations repercussions of ostentatious display of wealth. It isn’t looked kindly upon, understandably, in these said “tough economic times.”

This makes sense. Of course one should not gloat wealth or power in a civilized society. Our societal rules are complex and varied, but the etiquette surrounding displays of wealth are understood in each class structure. In my current middle class existence, I could safely “get away” with posting a picture of the Tiffany’s packaging and the necklace, but it may offend some and invoke jealousy in others. I didn’t post for fear of that, but don’t assume I’m innocent. In writing this post, I’m inadvertently telling you I got a major luxury brand gift while I wax existential about getting it; I suppose there is a darker side to me that wants to invoke the jealousy, to show power, to increase my social standing. But I’d like to think that my natural drive to record our days of foot and flight, our ashen walks and our virtual soaring, wins out over my instinct to gloat (but again, I cover both bases, here, don’t I?).

I’m more concerned with the tendency we have to post only good things online. Rumblings have sounded amongst the psychologist and sociologist crowds that we are all creating super-selves online. We are trending toward a mean of portraying only the good news, the best news, the wittiest and funniest things. The good-natured cynicism, the sky-topped optimism, the cute overheard words, the passionate politic, all overpower, statistically, the hard realism, the daily struggles, the major destruction. Even Death itself is tempered; we see in sincere but only softly sentimental announcements on Facebook: “May my father rest in peace. We will miss you, Pop.”

That’s it? Where is the pain, the fear, the panic? Rarely seen are the posts of deep devastation. We build these avatars online that portray ceremonial suffering as a simple passage through a kid-gloved gauntlet of life. Funerals, divorces, cancer diagnoses, are all diminished under the white-washed weight of the back-lit, austere online network design.

Is this what we want? I realize this post has more questions than answers. I don’t know if this is what we want. I do know that I feel uncomfortable when I see an acquaintance displaying raw emotion online. Accusations pile up in my head: they are unprofessional; they are weak; they are “a mess.” When I pull myself back I can find perspective and realize that perhaps this person is doing the equivalent of screaming out for help as they would if they were injured on the street. I then try to add a comment or two of encouragement. But I must admit, if I find myself repeatedly feeling obligated to encourage the same person, I run quickly and solidly into compassion fatigue. I will stop commenting, I perhaps may even grow resentful that the person has not yet healed.

A friend of mine that I don’t see often lost a baby in childbirth last year. I have to say that was the most heartbreaking, ruinous, utterly devastating funeral I’ve ever been to in my life. I mostly concentrated on not vomiting up all my insides due to the grief that day. Even thinking about it makes my stomach lurch. For months after, I closely watched my friend’s Facebook stream. She was quite polite in her posts, although, translated through the sterilized walls of Facebook, you could see the raw pain of loss: “My baby would have been 3 weeks today;” “Not having a great day;” “Could use your prayers this morning.”

Those simple words are polite and portray little. They would especially not mean anything much at all if I hadn’t been to the funeral. It makes me wonder for my friends that are in far away lands: can I really know their grief from posts like this?

The dictate of modern etiquette is that we are expected online to share Tiffany’s but not terror, birthdays but not beasts. We are losing ourselves to perfect profiles, one genteel update at a time.

For me I think this means I have to make more of an effort to see people in person. When I feel lazy, I must get up and go out. When I feel like keeping to myself, I have to reach out in person. I’m not saying I must attend every social event. On the contrary, I’m saying that I can skip the social media meet-ups where I am just looking at a walking, talking versions of a people’s online identities. Instead, I should concentrate on taking some road trips to see real friends, to live with them even for just a moment in and amongst their real lives. I should video conference more with my foreign friends not just on big occasions, but let them into my world when I am burdened heavy with boredom, stressed to pulling out my hair with parenting, or just ambivalent to the point of indecision about my employment situations. I have to remember that the more we keep telling ourselves that we are connected to our friends because we see their updates online, the more we are fading away from them. If we don’t make the effort to see them in real time, in the end all we will have left of them are pictures of products and chronicles of consummate characterizations.

I hope you are holding your friends close, and your families closer. Reach out to me in the comments section. Let me know your thoughts.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Nicola 8 May 2011, 2:30 pm

    First of all, happy Mother’s day 🙂

    I suppose that it is human nature that you don’t show weakness, a professor once told me that a sick animal is turned against at worst, ignored at best and that humans do a similar thing. Sharing pain or grief are things that most people actively try and ignore on a daily basis. To reveal this opens you up to someone turning away from you.

    I suffer from chronic pain and rarely mention it on Facebook or Twitter. While my old school friends have careers, children and ‘success’ , I spend my days celebrating small victories of having a shower, or not taking the maximum amount of painkillers. While sometimes you don’t want to share it because you are sick of hearing yourself complaining, let alone sharing it with the world, on the other hand, you don’t want to become your illness, gradually fading away.

    I have a small circle of people who also suffer from chronic pain and we talk about it to each other, but not freely. I was DM-ing a man on Twitter who I was getting on well with, so I decided to reveal (in a light hearted way) that the reason why I didn’t respond quickly because I was suffering from a bad pain day. What happened? He de-followed me.

    For many people in my situation, the price of ‘normal’ human contact on the internet and often in real life is to keep the darker part of my life hidden.

    • PurpleCar 8 May 2011, 2:45 pm


      I am so sorry to hear of your chronic pain. I’ve heard about how mind-numbing and soul-draining that can be. I am not a constant pain sufferer; I can’t imagine how hard it is. 

      The online friendship frustration, though, I totally understand. You think you are making steps, making connections, then one day you get unfollowed or blocked, no explanation whatsoever, and you are left wondering what it was you said to piss that person off. It is so difficult to have a tough skin with this stuff. I don’t even know if humans are meant to have a tough skin in social situations. If we were standing in front of someone and they didn’t like what we said, we would get over the disappointment quickly because we would have an answer to the “what did I say exactly that pissed them off.” When we lose online connections, we have no closure.

      I suppose you are right about the human animal, how we have no time for pain, not even our own pain, let alone anyone else’s. We need to find some other way to communicate online, though. It isn’t acceptable that we become less and less human in our updates. I just read through an article that said that writer’s groups are looking at the Facebook update as “memoir.” I told this very thing to a memoirist years ago at a local writers’ conference and they looked at me in total disbelief. But updates are memoir, even if they are the type of memoir that gets you called out as liar and thrown out of Oprah’s book club.

      Anyway… I hope you can break a cycle with your online support group and find a way to really connect and support each other. Maybe someday soon I’ll write up something on compassion fatigue and how to fight it off. It seems like we all need a little help in that area.
      Peace and painless days to you, Nicola, soon.
      -Christine Cavalier

  • D.L. 8 May 2011, 11:37 pm

    Christine – fine food for thought; that’s what I love about your column.

    Is it a bad thing that we want our lives to be nice, pretty, about the best things, happy? Real life can get messy: death, bad relationships, jobs lost, rude people. Now that you’ve helped me be a little retrospective about my online life, I think I like the fact that I can escape to a nicer world. Where I get a little baby endorphin rush when someone I was ‘live’ friends with 30 years ago now “Likes” a comment I made. Where the lives of my friends and me all are good, fun, funny. Where I can get intellectual stimulation orders of magnitude more than when a curious 10 year old me would pour through the encyclopedia. Online I’m wealthy, popular, a pretty fascinating guy. I’m actually doing pretty well in the real world, too (I’m not an asocial nerd by any means), but how nice that online things hardly ever get messy.
    I once told a friend that the internet was a drug. You’ve helped me see why that’s true: pop a blue “internet,” down a “social media” tab, drink a few glasses of “email,” you feel pretty good. I even feel pretty good if I can rejoice with a friend about her new Tiffany necklace. But if my drug has terror, has beasts, has death and despair: “Unfriend.”

    • PurpleCar 9 May 2011, 8:06 pm

      Thanks, DL! Well written comment, you. I’ve been thinking about this all day today… yes, online life doesn’t get very messy for most of us. … I suppose you’re right, that having a social face that is always clean and happy online serves a purpose. I have this habit of putting on more make-up when I feel poorly; I carefully do my eye make-up, I don’t skimp or cut corners for time on foundation, etc. People sometimes will ask me “why I look so nice.” The answer is, I have errands to run and I feel like shit but don’t want anyone to know it. There have been many comparisons to Facebook and a real life marketplace. It’s not very WASPY to complain to your fresh grocer about your bad knees… I know other cultures, though, where it is expected that you complain a little so it doesn’t seem like you are gloating about your charmed life. Perhaps I should be looking into the WASPY-ness of the Web instead of personal profiles. Maybe I fell into a cultural trap there.
      But whatever. I have a necklace from Tiffany’s.

      (how WASPY is THAT, by the way?! LOL We’re not even WASPS.)

      I’m going to think about this perspective you’ve laid out. Maybe I’ve got it all wrong and you’ve got it all right. Thanks.

  • Bklynebeth 10 May 2011, 8:31 am

    Whether you have an ‘open’ social media life or you edit it to those you know IRL (in real life) your followers will run the gamut of family, co-workers, friends, ex’s, grown-ups you knew when you were both kids but haven’t seen in thirty years, people who find you that you say, “What the heck, why not,” to. People you find that do the same. What then happens when you speak to this motley assortment of folk is you FILTER. “What can I post that I don’t mind everyone seeing?”

    • PurpleCar 10 May 2011, 9:02 am

      Thanks B. for commenting. You’re right, “The Filter” is what happens to me online too. Maybe the real point is that there is a lack of intimate social networks. I’ve been playing around with starting a newsletter to send just to family and close friends to keep them up to date, instead of trying to use Facebook, where too many acquaintances can read the updates. Shouldn’t technology help us? Isn’t it meant to improve our lives? There’s a ton of anthro and sociological research about how new technology changes expectations, and in turn makes even more work for us. One great example is the clothes-washing machine. Before the machine, clothes were expected to get a bit musty smelling, as no-one was crazy enough to wash them all the time. Clothes also lasted a lot longer and people had much fewer pieces of clothing. Introduce the washing machine, and then it was clear who was too poor to buy one, because they were still living with the musty and same old
      clothes. Now sheets, underwear, dresses, socks, etc., were all expected to be clean and fresh all the time. So now, people do more laundry more often, all because the washing machine changed our expectations. This expectation-change/more work cycle happens almost universally with the introduction of every new technology (cars, electricity, cell phones & texting, etc.)

      How is Facebook changing our expectations? How is it changing our actions? What is the expectation-change/more cycle here? I fear that The (necessary) Filter we use on social networks is actually taking us farther and farther away from enriching, intimate relationships. Do you think so too?


  • Tony Davies 11 May 2011, 3:50 am

    Hi Catherine, as DL said, food for thought.

    I am what you would call a passive user of the whole social network thing. I signed up to FB about 4 years ago and didn’t really bother with it at all until the whole FB thing exploded into (seems like) everyone’s (with a computer) lives.

    Since then I have used it to catch up with friends from school that I haven’t seen in years, and family and checking out people’s photos. But in all that time I very rarely update my status (someone told me to change my status from “still in sunny HCMC” after I had been in China for a couple of months) or add comments.

    That said I find it interesting to see what other people are doing, and (I think it was DL again) it is like an addictive drug in the sense that, whilst I do not check daily, or sometimes even weekly, I will eventually get the cold sweats and need my fix.

    I wouldn’t say that I avoid adding comments due to a fear of offending, more like embarrassment. It is ironic or is it hypocritical that, whilst I find other peoples mundane activities interesting I can’t imagine that anyone would be interested to know if I was going out on Saturday, or spilt soup on my tie.

    I guess I’m just not a 21st century kinda guy.

    • PurpleCar 11 May 2011, 2:23 pm

      Most of the men I know don’t update FB, and just like you, simply lurk. I think this makes sense, as social interaction rules are different for men vs. women. If you don’t want to share, don’t share. People may like an update or two but I think the expectation of posts or posting is truly low, especially for men. In other words, although people would love to tease you about spilling soup on your tie, they don’t really expect you to share.


  • Mike_S_Htown 24 May 2011, 6:18 pm


    “But I must admit, if I find myself repeatedly feeling obligated to
    encourage the same person, I run quickly and solidly into compassion

    Me, too.  I share a lot of stuff online, as you know.  But, I never share anything that makes it look like I want  sympathy for my troubles.   Partly b/c I don’t — but mostly b/c I figure everyone has some issues they’re dealing with.  I figure that sharing my problems doesn’t help me — or them.

    [I’m sure there can be exceptions — and perhaps I will share a problem at some future time.  Fortunately, I don’t have any major problems right now!]

    Thanks for your thought-provoking post!

    • PurpleCar 24 May 2011, 8:05 pm


      Thanks for coming and making a comment, you know I appreciate it!

      It’s funny. Sympathy is like death. I know quite a few people who are looking for work, and many mention that they feel censored from saying this online or asking anyone for a recommendation or a LinkedIn connection. What have we come to, really? The online social morés are getting a bit oppressive, more oppressive than offline rules. Do you think this is the case? 


      • Mike_S_Htown 24 May 2011, 9:23 pm


        Online social mores are a work in progress (offline, too, for that matter).  I’ve been using e-mail and Usenet since 1980, and have seen the slow evolution of ‘Netiquette.

        Some of the people who won’t post job search info on FB or ask for a LI recommendation are the same people who won’t talk about it f2f w/ anyone other than a close friend, either. 

        My advice to the unemployed is to talk to everyone they can find!  A job search is like sales — the more volume, the more opportunities. 

        Hmmmmm.  Are we LI friends?   I’ll have to  check.  Might be asking you for a job or rec someday!  🙂

        • PurpleCar 24 May 2011, 10:22 pm

          Oh yeah, since I wield all this power now, as a Library Trustee. They are even printing up cards for me. Probably not as cool as the branded polo shirt that is coming my way, though.
          I’d love to hear your insights about the evolution (or not) of netiquette some day.


          • Mike_S_Htown 25 May 2011, 10:18 am

            Well, the major perq is being able to get your overdue book fines “fixed.”  🙂

            As for ‘Netiquette, I am so yesterday.  Teens are the future — they’re rewriting the rules almost daily as we speak!  According to your babysitter, I’m clueless about the dos and donts of proper Internet discourse (and, apparently, I am also very not cool).

            • PurpleCar 25 May 2011, 2:35 pm

              Well I think you are quite cool. And what about online discourse are we not getting, by the way? I mean, I no da grmmr thing & no punctuation but is there anything else? 

              And they offered to fix my fines yesterday but I said I’d just pony up the 20 cents.