How Did Social Media Change Fashion Consumption?

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21 December 2015 By Kam Dhillon

How Did Social Media Change Fashion Consumption?

The dominance of social media has totally changed the fashion industry but how do these technological developments impact fashion in immaterial ways? It has had a profound effect on the fashion industry from a business perspective and on a cultural macro scale but how does social media impact the way we dress ourselves day-to-day and consume trends?

It’s hardly overzealous to suggest that social media’s rise has reinvented the very fibre of fashion. Once an industry wholly fabricated by material, today’s technological milieu assures that a modern fashion industry is equally as immaterial. If we collapse the effects of social media to simply consumerism, the fashion industry is just another corporate entity using social media networks as target-rich environments to place advertising directly in front of people who are most likely to respond. Yet this raises the question of how social media’s capacity for constant surveillance in real time affects the way we purchase? Do we dress ourselves directly in response to a veiled sensation that we're always seen on an infinite scroll? NJAL investigates human behaviour in the age of the selfie. 

Social media might just be the most powerful consumer marketing machine in existence, relying on data which isn’t just airy, astral matter that’s abstract and anonymous but very personal dossiers of our entire digital footprint. However, social media's excessive power is awarded by our very own primal behaviour and a cognitive capacity or urge to constantly ‘share’, ‘connect’ and remain ‘plugged-in’. It’s exactly this passive submission of our personal lives to social media networks that solidifies their iron grip. In turn, aggregating data from billions of users around the world has yielded these social media platforms so incredibly powerful and ripe ground for brands to practise smart marketing. 

By making no distinction between lifestyle and marketing, social media is now ubiquitously interwoven into our everyday lives. Though the machinations of modern marketing might seem immaterial, they remain intensely physical processes, relying on huge data centres and a solid amount of material resources. Yet, what remains more elusive is the strictly immaterial effects of social media, which remain wholly contained to our cognitive faculties. 

While targeted ads certainly push us to buy more, it’s the addictive architecture of social media platforms and their overwhelming socialisation and sensationalism that induces a sense of dependancy for an entire generation of society. These social media platforms are places to display, curate and manicure our lives accordingly, under a strict dictum that what we share is being always being looked at, ‘liked’ and aggregated in #hashtag solidarity with other micro-communities of like-minded friends and strangers who share a particular aesthetic affinity or niche sensibility. 

By nature, fashion is a consumerist industry constructed on the very notion of aesthetics, presentation and outward perception. So, how exactly does social media’s capacity for constant surveillance in real time affect the way we purchase? If everyone knows what you wore two and a half weeks ago, can you wear the same outfit tonight? Interestingly, biological research has shown Facebook usage may be associated with a specific psychophysiological pattern. This research suggests that there is a core flow state present when browsing Facebook that is significantly different from stress and relaxation on a number of indices of somatic activity. Being on a social media site is a positive experience – it feels good – and this is why we enjoy using it, so social media naturally becomes a site to mark and map our aesthetic aspirations. 

In an interview with The Independant, Camille Charriere, a 27-year-old fashion blogger who runs the website Camille Over The Rainbow, said she had first noticed the change “long ago” when people started to share photographs of their style on Facebook. “From the moment that people started uploading pictures of themselves or having people tag pictures of them, they started to pay more attention. There is a trend of people thinking ‘I don’t want to wear this, because I’ve already been seen in that’,” she said. 

In a contemporary networked society, the high fashion industry has had to grapple with the unrelenting pace of fast fashion and the industry as a whole has become entirely predicated on both forecasting trends and identifying them quickly. That’s why photo-sharing platforms like Instagram are so necessary in perpetuating this maxim. Instagram is where big brands, emerging designers, tastemakers and fashion conscious consumers participate in a dedicated discourse of stylised commerce; sharing style tips, mood boards and aesthetic details of daily life with unapologetic product shots. Unlike traditional advertising, such content bears no instructive call to action, which in turn feeds a more aggressive urge to buy, especially if consumers are seduced by a sense of exclusivity, aspirational luxury or specialist subcultural alignment. 

According to new Forrester research, social media platforms show the highest rate of consumer engagement with brands, including Facebook and Twitter. Instagram currently boasts nearly 60 times the engagement of Facebook, to be specific, and instantaneous real-time views of street style and emerging trends, uploaded and curated by a style-conscious public, means that big brand behemoths can react quickly and realise street trends to shop floors very quickly. 

In the age of the selfie, 39% of women are more likely to engage with brands via social media and, in the context of fashion consumption, it means young women are under the most pressure to stylise their social media output with fashion pieces that they have not previously been seen in. If real-time social media rests entirely on newness and nowness, then more young people have to to mix and match clothes to cope with the problem of 'overexposure' in the Instagram era. Interestingly, it is a phenomenon that is driving sales of skirts, tops and accessories and is having a profound effect on the fashion industry. A staggering third of women consider clothes to be “outdated” after wearing them less than three times, according to a study published last month. One in seven charge it to the effect of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, saying they were embarrassed and uncomfortable to be seen in the same outfits more than once.

These are some of the immaterial and indirect effects of social media and the human psyche, and how it all propels and sustains our capacity for consumption, with very material consequences. Yet, what remains more interesting is the gender imbalance of such activity. A global survey of the world's selfie-taking habits has revealed women are significantly more likely to take pictures of themselves than men. Michael Litman, a tech strategist based in London, told The Telegraph that he was not surprised that Instagram was more popular amongst women than men. “Females are typically more open about expressing themselves online and are more conscious about their appearance, in photography in particular,” Litman said. “Males are less confident about expressing themselves online in the same way.”

As the sun sets on 2015, Instagram remains the larynx for an entire generation of youth's voice but the platform's architecture for consumption remains in its infancy and it will be interesting (and admittedly worrying) to see once the Instagram ad design is fully rolled out whether the gender shift will change.

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