The Economy of Experience and the Digital Souvenir: A Love Letter
Let’s begin with my dad and his t-shirts. My father (his name is Brian) has a impeccable eye for souvenir t-shirts: he is a gift-shop aesthete, if you will. He’s known in our family for his uncanny ability to find tees that manage to perfectly straddle the line between humor and kitsch. The ideal shirt, like the man himself, expertly sidesteps any sort of self-seriousness without straying into ‘loudness’ or poor taste. Because I arrived after, I assume, he’d already been honing these skills for 40 years, I cannot say with any real conviction if my dad is so good at this because he buys so many souvenir t-shirts, or if the opposite is true.
Here’s what I do know: Brian has never NOT stepped in a gift shop, passed his curatorial eye over the selection, and made a purchase (or not - his critical standards do, to be fair, improve steadily). It’s important to note that his aesthetic judgement carries the weight of the experience the objects represents - the t-shirts true purpose is less sartorial than it is commemorative. And this is no selfish venture. Growing up, I had a lot of t-shirts emblazoned with places that I’d never been but that my dad wanted to share with me, in his way. Souvenir t-shirts may indeed be one of the many ways through which Brian expresses his love.
This is how I became one of those people who, in my truest of hearts, believes that the ideal way to commemorate an experience is with the purchase of a souvenir. It’s an impulse that I largely ignore, mostly out of an extreme sartorial pickiness and a healthy disdain for overconsumption (I’m really into like, stealing pens from my favorite bars though?).
When I was younger, though, and clamoring for whatever gift shop tchotchke had caught my eye, I was often witness to the argument that the experience itself was the thing of value I’d be taking home with me that day. And I do believe that to be true. Obviously. Still, I feel a certain impulse to possess some sort of talisman, an amulet that might summon the experience back to me. T-shirts (coffee table books, magnets, souvenir pens) are good. They are concrete. They’re right out where everyone can see: they are a spiritual ward against the intangibility, the fragility, the ephemerality of human memory.
And yet, getting to the point here, this impulse to purchase actually has largely weakened for me over the past several years, slowly but surely. I am nearly certain that the cause is Instagram. Instagram images - referred to by theorist Nathan Jurgenson as ‘social photos’, more communicative medium than photography per se - do not have physical weight, nor are they “tangible” in any real sense. Yet they perform all the social, semiotic functions that “real” objects do; they give freely the kind of possession and permanence that I used to have to pay for at the gift shop. And they relay the desired message (I was here, I was there, it was all real and part of me) in a far, far more socially efficient way than a t-shirt on my back possibly could.
Putting this otherwise: if objects, generally, serve a concertizing and indexing identitary function for those that interact with them and possess them, then digital objects (like Instagram images) perform this same semiotic function in an even more public, intentional way: the “Instagram Self” is expertly curated in a way my IRL, “actual” self is most definitely not. And thus what were once ephemeral, intangible experiences are now transformed, through the magic of the digitalization, into semi-tangible, interactive social objects that allow us to commemorate, communicate, and relay lived experience in a far more permanent and impactful way than physical objects ever could.
This brings me, then, to the “Experience Economy” which I’m going to present here really quickly but actually want to kind of reinterpret. Technically, it refers to the “experience as a service” business model that, lol, “radically disrupted” the corporate world in the late 90’s. That translated into an increased focus on branding and storytelling rather than mere transactional exchange, and has since become standard practice in a majority of markets. Officially, the term “Experience Economy” does not imply the replacement of objects by experiences - rather, the consumer purchases the object in order to access the experience, like a teenager buying basketball shoes to “transform”, as if by magic, into their favorite player.
So that’s the outset, but over the past decade or so, the peddling of experience has taken on a slightly different tone, I wanna say largely bolstered by the rise of social media (like Insta) and the rise of new social functions for digital objects. Maybe most obviously, AirBnB has that whole service called AirBnb Experiences, in which travellers can pay someone to guide them through the trendy neighborhoods, or cook a local dish, or a picnic in the park “as Real Parisians™ do.”
(And obviously, in the “traditional” sense of the “Experience Economy”, AirBnB’s business model has always been based on the sale of the experience of staying in a someone’s home as a “local” in a new place: the product for sale is one of authenticity and immersion).
There’s something different, though, about the sale of “Experiences” themselves - be it AirBnb or any number of services that propose outings, adventures, and more-or-less participatory packages. These services allow consumers to engage with the intangible: feelings such as authenticity, adventure, and belonging are the product. This isn’t new, per se, but it feels as though the sale is easier when digital objects permit, for the first time, the concretization and diffusion of these once-intangible emotions: indeed, through the social photo, they become perfectly present, and everywhere at once. And if that presence isn’t physical in a traditional sense, digital objects encourage a sort of interaction and engagement that “materializes” them in a very real sense.
We might argue that the “New Experience Economy” is fueled not so much by generating emotion for consumers, but rather on its promise of digital souvenirs, non-physical objects whose primary use-value is as a brick in the construction and expression of a platform-specific social self. These digital souvenirs are as useful to us as t-shirts once were, perhaps moreso: they allow us to create publicly-accessible tableaux of ourselves over time.
The uniting factor, however, is the uncanny sense that each of these experiences has been designed to create the perfect social media simulacra: not real experience, not real emotion, but expertly orchestrated to give the impression of it on the Internet.
If I can get into the “theory” behind this for like thirty seconds, I’ve been really engaged with Russel Belk’s model of “self-extension” these past couple months (we just use what we’re working with over here). Here, though, it’s actually pretty relevant. Essentially, we’d argue that the human psyche distinguishes between “that which is of me” and “that which is not of me” through a sort of orbital structure - like the sun at the center of the solar system, those objects that fall closer in our orbit, as a function of our intimate engagement with them, become increasingly pertinent to the perception and communication of identity as expressed through consumption. This is why the loss of a treasured family heirloom can feel like the loss of a a part of ourselves: in some ways, that’s very much the case. The self “extends” through a network of semiotically communicative objects that form our conception, and expression, of “that which is of me.”
So then in like the mid-2000’s this dude called Ahuvia expanded on this concept to explain why specific objects get integrated into the closer circles of our identitary orbits: both because they relate to specific aspects of our identities (which may serve a reinforcing mechanism, “I am a guitarist and thus my guitar is a part of myself”), and because these items enable us to concretize these different identities over time through their material presence (“That is my first guitar, that is who I was when I began”). So the important takeaway here is that for Ahuvia, objects aren’t just useful for constructing single, fixed identities: they both recount and reinforce broader, continuous identity narratives over time.
This is important to the whole “experience economy” deal on two axes: first, because I appreciate that it gives me a socio-scientifically grounded excuse for being so into souvenirs in the first place. The reason Brian is so into t-shirts is because these items allow him to make tangible certain otherwise-invisible aspects of his identity: where he’s been, where he’s going, and to keep these memories as “part of himself” overtime. And with time, as certain objects - certain memories - become more important to him, the closer they approach to the center of that identitary orbit.
The second reason I’m telling you all this is because it allows us to understand how and why digital objects can replace these traditionally physical manifestations: social media, specifically, has become such an essential - I would even say central - manifestation of the “social self”, in the sense that our identities as expressed in the public sphere are now largely digital productions. I think it’s kind of easy to “shit on” Instagram and “taking pictures for the gram” and whatever, but that would be ignoring the fundamental social power of these platforms. When we talk about the “postmodern self” native to digital platforms, we make reference to the fact that identity, having never been fixed, is now dissimulated and reimboded in different ways through all of these digital spaces: our “Instagram selves” are ourselves, in a certain way.
And so these digital objects, these social photographs, they find a very intimate spot right in the center ellipses of these identitary narratives; indeed they are the identitary narratives, a primary tool through which we communicate ourselves to the world. There is no opt-out button: presence on these platforms is necessarily communicative, the absence of discourse as powerful as its presence.
That’s why I find it so compelling that companies have been so handily able to not only offer experiential products that allow consumers to take advantage of the increased curatorial semiotic power which they now possess, but indeed to so expertly adapt these products to the “language of the Internet”. Coming back to the idea of these digital simulacra, the practice of the Instagram self (done typing quotes for this now) has lead to the development of a set of cultures and behaviors native to the platform: the photos that we post there are necessarily adapted to communicate in the most efficient manner possible.
In that sense, the “experience” being sold by AirBnb or whatever is perfectly constructed to give you the tools you need to add little blocks of “authenticity” or whatever to your lil’ digital identitary quilt. And I think that’s a good thing: I’m not really in the business of making judgement calls on like social media or whatever because I think we’re social beings and we’re adapting, as best we can, to a new world that gives us this insane amount of communicative power but relatively little history and guidance for understanding it.
Which is why, then, I actually think it’s all sort of sweet, this idea of capturing fleeting, ephemeral moments of lived experience: isn’t that what purchasing was always sort of about, anyways? And I find that I’m less direct: put down the t-shirt, capture the sun through the trees or the genuine laugh or whatever and seal it in time (as you do with photography). Post it and concretize it and let it be a part of a public you, until you decide to delete it. Of course, that’s an idealized view of the whole thing. “Doing it for the ‘gram” is real, communicating in that native IG language is real. And if I need to post a cocktail in front of a pool to tell y’all how cool and trendy my summer experience has been, I’m ready to do that for you.