Instant Messaging and Social Media as Commodifying Communication


Drew Vandergriend

When examining any culture, during any historical era, it is important to study its ways of communication. Communication leads to interpretation between people, between places and now even between things. Communication is everything when it comes to language, activities, recreation, social norms and the other facets that make up a society.

In the United States, for the last fifteen years our communication has been changing exponentially. The explosion of consumer-based technologies such as cell phones and desktop/laptop computers has forever changed the way we view our relationship to the world around us. Cell phones with their many apps have produced a large-scale inclusion of people into social media, which has warped the ways from which see each other and have influenced the ways from which move from place to place. Online shopping centers is changing the way our culture buys and distributes goods to the average consumer, minimizing transactions, destroying storefronts, and further pulling us from human connection.

Technology has pushed gentrification, a negative term for the supposed reformation of troubled neighborhoods and areas deemed intolerable to the average middle-class American. Technology has also saved many lives, given people information they may never have had and has brought subcultures together while in addition making it possible for individuals to participate in a global community. So what is consumer technology really doing to our society and our cities? How is the use of smartphones and their many applications affect how we spend our time as well as affect those produce them? Are we more connected?

Consumerism and Communication

The invention of the telephone not only marked a new era of communication but also served as the first form of instant communication to be commodified. The invention of the cell phone in 1973, and its official consumer release during 1983, did not necessarily create a significant supply and demand. Although the technology was new and exciting, mainstream society was still progressing slowly when it came to communication-based consumer technology, leading to a lack of market for a piece of technology that originally retailed at an astounding $3,995 per cell phone (Prezi).

Youtube/PBS Inventors
Credit: Youtube/PBS Inventors

Fast forwarding to 2007, when the first iPhone was released, cell phones had embedded themselves as a cultural tool commonly used in the everyday lives of many middle-class Americans (press tool). There are two terms that have have a special resonance: convenience and consumerism. Consumer items are commonly created to serve a minimal purpose, most products rarely being built to last, that is, if new technologies do not make them obsolete first. Large amounts of waste are  being added to already ever growing landfills in the United States. As Colby Lenz and Dean Spade state in their article “Can You Hear Me Now?,” “Cell phones are a new consumer luxury item now masquerading as a need.” They reference our society’s lack of reliance on cell phones in previous eras as recently as a decade ago, “where we survived flat tires, street protests, non-profit jobs, family illness and our social lives without Blackberries and Razors” (Lenz & Spade). In 2017, the market for cell phones is massive and many careers or job paths require the possession of one. Quite simply, the social requirement that people who live and function within U.S. society should possess smart phones, desktop/laptop computers and other pieces of technology to find work, pay bills or even just order a pair of jeans is a attack on the poor who cannot afford these technologies.

Communications and Capitalism

The production of cell phones, laptop computers, and other socially common forms of technology go far beyond the social impacts that mainly affect Americans and others in the Global North.  The problem of extraction affects people in the Global South.  Coltan, a key material that allows smartphones to function, is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo under horrendous conditions resulting in 3.2 million deaths since 1998 (Lenz & Spade). Deforestation and violence has increased dramatically in these extraction areas, continuing the connection that capitalism, consumerism and western technology has with exploitable labor and impoverishment. 

Roland Hoskins/ TheDawn-News
Credit: Roland Hoskins/ TheDawn-News
Roland Hoskins/TheDawn-News
Credit: Roland Hoskins/TheDawn-News


Tech Boom and Gentrification

The Tech Boom is an anomaly that has touched many cities throughout North America, and is changing our communities faster then ever before. Gentrification is defined by the process of renovating and improving a house or district so that it conforms to middle-class taste. It has had a devastating affect on cities such as San Francisco, whose housing situation is far from simplistic or easily answered. Other metropolitan areas, such as Seattle, have very similar struggles when it comes the Tech Boom and gentrification. San Francisco is built atop a thumb-shaped, 49-square mile penninsula, so the city has nowhere to expand. Silicon Valley, where much of the Tech Boom originated and continues to grow, its influence has increased evictions by 115 percent in the past year (Kloc). In response to San Francisco ‘s Tech Boom the anti-gentrification movement grew in the Bay area in response to the devastating changes in neighborhoods.

Gentrification pits new arrivals against long-time residents and furthers the questions of housing rights, and how do these rights conflict with each other, when it comes the housing crisis in San Francisco.  Dan Raile observed,

“Gentrification is a big word, a loaded academic concept and an impersonal, observable force acting upon urban centers around the globe. Despite its ubiquity and its many ideological opponents, there is no known antidote.” (Raile)

Jennifer Rosedail/Paragon Retail Group
Credit: Jennifer Rosedail/Paragon Retail Group


Credit: Wired



Brooks, J. (2013, March 22). Smartphones and consumerism. Prezi.

Kloc, J. (2016, February 16). Go East, Young Renters. Newsweek.

Lens, C., & Spade, D. (n.d.). Can You Hear Me Now? Enough is Enough.

Lutzky, J. (2017, February 2).  How I escaped the Black Hole of my Phone. Vice.

Raile, Dan. (2015, February 17). The “Anti-Tech Backlash” is over, now let’s talk San Francisco Housing. Pando.