How Micro-Communities Transform Aspiration

In the modern aspiration economy, status looks a lot like self-isolation

When disgraced Russian oligarchs make a hasty exit out of their country, they are often forced to leave their private planes behind. In a uniquely Russian entrepreneurial twist, these grounded Gulfstream G650 jets then became a coveted backdrop for Instagram photo sessions. The Moscow-based Private Jet Studio offers sanctioned jets rentals for two-hour photoshoots with a personal photographer for $191. Private Jet Studio’s Instagram features women in lingerie casually hanging out at the plane entrance (as one does), dreamily staring through the window (looking at the tarmac), or casually reading newspapers. Some are even sleeping, which, given the 2 hour rental limit, seems like a giant waste.

Renting a grounded private jet for the sole purpose of sharing images on Instagram is peak status affordance. It allows sharing the external codes of an aspirational lifestyle, minus the actual lifestyle itself. No matter, main purpose is to accumulate a social following, likes, and to maintain an online persona, in hopes that this social capital can be monetized.

Veblen described how aspirants mimic affluents in their habits. Trends start among the upper class and then trickle down. The modern aspiration economy is not only about the reversal of this trend, but about its erasure.

Once aspiration moved into the domain of intangibles, it became invisible. How does one register “elevating the world’s consciousness”? More from the WeWork files, Adam Neumann’s wife allegedly requested for an employee to be fired because she didn’t like their “energy.” In the modern aspirants’ world, where a person’s “energy” is something to be invested in, nurtured, regularly checked upon, and evolved, this makes a perfect sense.

As aspiration, invisibility is different than dressing down or downright shabbily that’s has historically been exhibited by the British Upper class. A lack of concern for one’s clothes and appearance and for “what people think” is still social signaling, and conveys confidence in one’s social standing and is expression of privilege of not caring.

This is the post-signaling time. The affluent today neither signal their status nor share on social networks their tangible and intangible capital. In its invisibility, and in its planned lack of social reach, modern status is like a self-quarantine.

If you think this is extreme, consider luxury bunkers and survival kits; in the age of emergency, which is increasingly becoming not an exception, but the norm, it’s the richest that survive. A side note: if I were in investor, I would be all over luxury survival kits, remote destination evacuation routes, and survival hideouts.

“It is so good that I DON’T want to tell anyone about it,” my Japanese facialist said about her new beauty routine. Monocle’s Tyler Brûlé recently wrote about NOT sharing the best of Tokyo nightlife with anyone but the Monocle team, and about recently taking a Zurich restaurateur and his wife on a secret private tour. Threat of the reverse network effects is real, and Mr. Brûlé has been avoiding it for years.

Japanese do secret and private well. There are more secluded, 3-seat, no-photos bars then anywhere else. These places are small worlds: hard to get in, local, intimate, curated, and private. It’s hard to see an economic rationale in having a 3 seat bar, but volume and scale is not the business they are in. Unlike the Big Luxury’s logic of producing more products to make more money, the business of the small and secluded is social distancing. Their value is in atmosphere, an experience, and a ritual. No wonder those who know about them protect their knowledge.

The other weekend I read a profile of a director of a major art show who talked, with pride, about her collection of snow globes: the tourist kind, not the high-end ones, although she can certainly afford them. Modern aspirants are Insta curators, Hodinkee community, Depop resellers, participants in menswear forums. Not always the richest, but the most plugged-in people around. They move in narrow, but influential circles where they get access and social standing thanks to their knowledge, interest, cultural participation, or expertise. Their status in these small groups may be invisible to anyone outside — and that is the point. Their social influence happens in small worlds, and from there trickles on to the wider culture.

The invisible and the small is rapidly spreading as a desirable, status-signaling social experience beyond Tyler Brûlé’s world, Japanese bars, and menswear forums. Two things are driving it.

First, consumers increasingly assume that what they are seeing on social media is not real. Physical appearance can be altered and filtered, a lifestyle can be fabricated.

Second, a carefully cultivated online persona is today the social norm. Having an uncultivated one is a way of conveying social distinction. Being one’s “true self” — or its near approximation — is more aspirational than blending into the mass of aesthetically and materially similar online profiles. It’s increasingly hard to tell the difference between, e.g. Arielle Charnas, Chiara Ferragni, her mother, her sisters and their countless lookalikes: the communication codes are all the same.

Many opt instead for a more real, meaningful, and uncultivated micro-network presence instead. In a micro-network, posing in a rented private jet becomes ridiculous, so different forms of social distinction take place, like closeness and belonging, knowledge and expertise, or talent and skill. Discreet and intimate social media groups are springing up everywhere, from finstas to selected WhatsApp groups, accompanied by the small-world apps (e.g. Kinship and Cocoon). Influencers also recognized the trend, and started charging premium for a more intimate follower interactions, via Close Friends and WeChat paywalls. Being oneself and freely sharing with a selected few seems to beat the effort of being a fake self with a mass. It’s the social media iteration of private clubs, and again, the intimacy and the quality of experience and the atmosphere are the draw.

Read the rest of this piece at The Sociology of Business, and subscribe there if you want to stay up to date.

Strategy Executive. Author of “The Business of Aspiration.” Doctor of Sociology. Forbes’ one of The World’s Most Influential CMOs.

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