The term ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ refers to the human condition of keeping up with our neighbours through conspicuous consumption or put bluntly, buying and doing things to show off our social status. The term dates back to the nineteenth century but it was popularised in a comic strip in the newspaper the New York World which depicted a typical American family, the McGinises, who struggle to keep up with and match the lifestyle of their neighbours, the Joneses. It was so popular that it ran from 1913 to 1940 because many Americans’ could identify with the humorous irony between their lives and the situation. The readers never see the Joneses and only know them through the fretting of the McGinises.
Until fairly recently like the McGinises, we only had to deal with fretting about keeping up with the social accomplishments of our immediate neighbours, work colleagues and close friends. Admittedly there was the perennial obsession with the glamorous lifestyles of the movies stars and the social elite as portrayed by glossy magazines but this was more voyeuristic, a subject for gossip, rather than something that people felt pressure to really emulate. We were only required to ‘keep up’ with a fairly small and intimate circle of people.
This has all changed over the past decade with the advent of social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. The average adult in the UK is now estimated to have in excess of 200 Facebook friends but research suggests that most people can only rely on about four of these ‘so-called friends’ in a crisis. So these people are mostly like an extended group of neighbours and acquaintances rather than our close friends.
In the past our neighbours needed to be in our ‘neighbourhood’ to get noticed. Nowadays they no longer need to catch us in the street to brag about their latest social achievements or notice us twitching the curtains to see their expensive purchase, rather they just need to click ‘post’ and they are in our face bragging. They can carefully select the photos that show them having a great time and they have access to some awesome technology like photo editing that allows cropping and enhancing of the images. Unlike a conversation with a real neighbour, each post can be carefully scripted to exaggerate their achievements, be they exotic holidays, fantastic jobs or just how many great parties they go to. Our extended social media neighbours have now got this unparalleled access to our fragile self-esteem.
As well as ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ on our iPhones we also have reality TV shows like ‘Keeping up with the Kardashians’. We are now able to eavesdrop on the cleverly scripted and edited ‘real lives’ of super rich and audacious people. We inevitably make negative comparisons with our own lives and situation to further dent our self-esteem. Whether it is keeping up with our social media friends or keeping up with the Kardashians, the effect is the same. We are often sucked up in a tornado of keeping up with each other’s exaggerations and feeling that everyone else is winning the competition to have a better life than us.
It is debatable if any of the newer platforms like Snapchat will be any different or if they will further distort our fragile sense of what is important. The alternative is that we refuse to join in the undermining of each other by appreciating that our worth comes from how we treat each other not our social accomplishments. If we were to complement each other more and brag less there might be less stressed and insecure people in the world and we would be acting more like friends rather than like the Joneses.