From “Where Consumers Diverge from Others: Identity Signaling and Product Domains” by Jonah Berger and Chip Heath, Journal of Consumer Research 34: 121-135.
Berger and Heath argue that (1) certain kinds of products are more useful for identity signaling for others and (2) we are not merely trying to signal our uniqueness through goods but also belonging to specific groups. Both of these things seem almost self-evident, but it’s good to have some empirical support. Yes, consumption is social communication. What is key is that signaling occurs on several levels simultaneously with any given good. Having an iPod signals belonging to a particular group, what’s on the iPod signals belonging to a more specific group, differentiating the owner from those other iPod people. The different levels allow for the coherence of certain behavior that can otherwise seem contradictory. The pursuit of conformity and individuality often occurs simultaneously, because we are placing ourselves in different groups at the same time, and those levels of identification are themselves hierarchical — some identities are more important to us than others, are more important socially than others, etc. What sort of music player you have is less important than what sort of music you play, even though the signals in the latter domain are harder to decode.
Although certain domains tend to be used in identity inference making, that does not mean that people cannot express identity in other domains. These identity signals are probably less likely to be picked up by the population at large, but they may be helpful in coordinating with other members of a highly sophisticated in-group. Buying a very high-end stove may not be a good way of signaling identity to most people because most people do not look to stoves for identity signals. But the high-end stove may be a good way to signal to interior designers or kitchenophiles. Even in functional domains, extremes — extreme knowledge, purchasing an extremely costly item, or attending to ﬁne details — may be good signals because they separate sophisticates from the general population.
The less obvious the signal, the more refined the identity, and the higher that identity domain is in the hierarchy of signification.
What I want to see researched is whether the kinds of domains that can signal identity are growing thanks to the way the internet makes them more salient. Berger and Heath claim that the product choices that are typically used for identity signaling are “publicly visible and made from a large choice set and take time or effort to make.” They also argue that “afunctionality” is associated with identity signaling. Certain sorts of variety in goods, that is, are free to be assigned to identity-making — these must be consciously designed into products (make them vary by color, etc.) Web 2.0 services seemed designed to make more of product choices more visible and thus more identity-signaling. Social networks also help define the groups that we seek to belong to through consumer goods — the networks produce and disseminate meanings for goods that need not be engineered in advance but that add value to the products. Web 2.0 gives us a field to display our identity in and a compendium from which to learn possible meanings that can be displayed. I suspect these are becoming more and more refined all the time, so that everything has an identity component, and everything must be “shared” in order for the consumer to realize that identity value in a good.
At this point our identity itself becomes a highly wrought, labor-intensive product. It begins to play as a status good, helping others signal belonging and uniqueness through association with it, and so on. This is what Web 2.0 is ultimately all about — making everything part of the code of identity and reifying away the autonomy of any of our choices. Instead they all mean something that we may or may not intend, we may or may not want to have to worry about.