Why Facebook is more important to the environment than solar panels.The growth of social networks indicates a fundamental shift in patterns of human behavior. The unsustainable practice of ever-increasing consumption of physical goods, and expressing oneself through what one purchases and displays, is being replaced by increasing consumption of virtual goods through virtual channels. This is good news for the sustainability of our economy.Thorstein Veblen, in his groundbreaking work The Theory of the Leisure Class, published in 1899, posited that humans use displays of wealth to broadcast status to society. Veblen argued that, since the beginning of history, once basic needs were met, elites have "conspicuously consumed" to reinforce class. This has not been without consequence. As illustrated in Jared Diamond's controversial book Collapse, this seemingly inevitable behavior of the ruling classes led to cultural demise.Throughout the last century conspicuous consumption meant buying cars, boats, larger houses, jewelry, art, and meals in restaurants. Keeping up with the Joneses required a lot of energy-and produced a lot of carbon and waste. More and bigger became our mantras. The average size of the American home leapt from 983 square feet in 1950 to 2,080 in 1990, increasing roughly 20 percent per decade. The number of cars per U.S. family saw a similar 14 percent growth rate per decade over the same period.Just over 100 years since Veblen introduced the idea of conspicuous consumption, however, the practice appears to be losing steam. The rates of growth in average home size and family car ownership in the United States have both roughly halved since 1990. The square footage of an average U.S. home peaked in the second quarter of 2008, and is now back down to pre-2004 levels. The average number of cars per household is following a similar trajectory.Are people becoming less conspicuous? Hardly. Is this a response to the recession? Partially. A conscious effort to curb the environmental crisis? Unlikely. It may be, in fact, that houses, cars, clothes, and other traditional means of distinguishing oneself are no longer the best tools for the job.
Much has been said about how Facebook, Twitter, and blogging have revolutionized social networking and connectivity. But just as importantly, these channels for self-expression represent a new way to be conspicuous without the consumption. Take Twitter, for example, which expanded at a rate of almost 1400 percent in February 2009. Its sole purpose is to facilitate conspicuousness, allowing users to provide followers, many of whom are strangers, with minute-by-minute updates.Professional thirtysomethings spend more time polishing their LinkedIn pages than pruning their front lawns. Prospective singles-men and women-focus more on tweaking their Match.com or eHarmony profiles than they do searching for that perfect convertible. An entrepreneur friend in Silicon Valley recently told me he sold his BMW because he was embarrassed to show up in it for meetings with younger software engineers in the coffee shops of Palo Alto. The car detracted from-instead of reinforced-his identity.For many under the age of 25, a considerable portion of identity is shaped online-through friends listed, photos posted, causes supported, videos uploaded, and opinions shared. This may change with age, but the comparable activity of older people on other sites indicates it may not: the fastest growing demographic on Facebook is users over 35.This shift from material goods to self-expression and social capital is heartening, but the real story is not in the coffee shops in California, but in villages in India and small towns in China that are just beginning to get online. Jared Diamond notes that Easter Island's fatal fad for giant stone effigies-one well-known example of conspicuous materialism-didn't travel well at all. But the newest form of conspicuousness is instantly transferable across geographies and cultures, and is spreading much faster than consumerism did.Like cell phones in India, social networking will have a tremendous impact in the developing world. People in emerging economies already have real live social networks, of course, but social capital represents a much higher percentage of their net worth than for those who live in richer countries. A tool that can help them make the most of this asset will take on meaning and roles no one has anticipated.One hundred years on, both here and in the developing world, the "conspicuous" portion of Veblen's theory is as strong as ever. But "conspicuous consumption" is being replaced by "conspicuous expression" as the driver of identity. This new paradigm emphasizes the conspicuousness of ideas, interests, and opinions rather than accumulating more stuff than your neighbor. This is not insignificant. How billions choose to distinguish themselves from one another will be just as important to global sustainability as how they power their homes, what they eat, and how they commute to work, making online social networking a critical "leapfrog" technology in the developing world and a surprisingly powerful source of behavioral change in the developed world.As with any transformation, this shift will not occur without costs. Some new sectors will emerge while others will disappear. People will still need food, clothing, and shelter, and will consume in quantities beyond necessity, but the record stores in our neighborhoods will continue closing in the face of downloadable competition, and economies that rely heavily on manufacturing consumer goods will be forced to retool. Not everyone wins in the short term. But the good news is that, in the long run, so much economic growth will be in the developing world, this new form of conspicuousness will be as much about meeting new demand in a new way as it will be about replacing existing patterns of consumption. What at first looked like a replacement for record stores has attracted thousands of entrepreneurs, from all over the world, to profit by developing additions to a single line of consumer products. iTunes' App Store just added its 30,000th application, before it was even a year old. Welcome to conspicuous expression.The environmental challenges we now face will not be solved by doom-and-gloom prognostications, the U.N., large national governments, or a heroic private sector. A mindset shift is needed, leaders say, but we speak as if that shift is ephemeral or distant, beyond the mist. That new mindset is just a few clicks away.Guest bloggers Stephen Linaweaver, Michael Keating, and Brad Bate are consultants with GreenOrder, a sustainability strategy and management consulting firm that is a part of LRN.Illustration by Will Etling.