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The pandemic is changing how human beings think about status

During lockdown, the rich and famous look less heroic than scientists, medical experts, front-line workers, and folks who just have a little tech savvy.

The pandemic is changing how human beings think about status
[Source images: AVRORRA/iStock; Wikimedia Commons]

Do you have a freezer? How about a well-stocked bookshelf? What kind of mask and gloves do you have? Do you know how to hack a website to get priority delivery slots? How fast is your internet? The answers to these questions may say a lot about your status during lockdown.

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The concept of social status has been around since humans have been around. We live and work within a group context, and status is the way we rank each other in a group. It’s our pecking order. While status in the past may have been indicated by how much land people could farm, or whether or not they had oxen or horses to plow it, or even if they had land at all, status evolves and changes over time. We are in the middle of such a status change right now.

Just a few months ago, people might have awarded the highest status to those people with the most money, or to those who wear the biggest diamonds or drive the most expensive luxury cars. Celebrities and athletes have held high status in society due to their wealth, fitness, beauty, and performances. Industries have sprung up over time to monitor and rate their moves and choices. The media industry has profited from publishing photos and videos of these people—because we like to look at others in the group, and we like to see how we measure up.

For some time, people who work in tech have also been awarded a higher social status. This has been due to a mixture of factors, including both the financial success people attribute to those who work for technology companies, and the reputations and wealth of the companies themselves.

People without as many resources as the very wealthy can emulate them through buying things they might wear or use and going to places they might go. While not everyone can keep up with the Hiltons, Bezoses, or Musks, many people have been able to “play along at home” through purchase choices that either are made by those with more resources or are endorsed or in some way connected to those with higher status. People copy them, to be like them and improve their own status in their local groups.


Related: COVID-19 has changed celebrity culture, and it may never go back to normal


The status given to people of wealth has been changing. This has been particularly noticeable with COVID-19, while everyone has had to self-isolate and stay home. Suddenly those celebrities people have been obsessed with are out of the spotlight, their roots are showing, and they don’t have the vast teams required for them to present as the stars we expect. They’ve become much more human.

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About a decade (or 8 weeks ago ????) being on television from home was a crazy notion, and the idea of doing my own hair and makeup for @fallontonight was inconceivable. And yet: ????. In a last minute dash to get ready, I called @hairbyadir. As he talked me through the process, we made my hair work. And we made an #accidentalad for @virtuelabs— the incredible hair care product line Adir works with and I fan-girled about until he just said come on, let’s do it together. And, although Virtue products are miracle workers, I was reminded that there is no substitute for 20 years of sitting in someone’s chair, letting them make you pretty while they listen to your day-to-day nonsense. . To everyone who cuts hair or colors hair or does nails or makeup—we miss you and we love you and we can’t wait for you to make us feel pretty again. Adir—get ready for the hug of a lifetime. As soon as we can hug. ♥️????

A post shared by Jennifer Garner (@jennifer.garner) on

Celebrities have been making some efforts to keep up with online performances and interviews, but many of those have been falling flat, as people have come to expect high production quality and good scripts, most of which are not present in celebrity homes on lockdown. We’ve seen grainy “makeup” tutorials, bad Zoom video conversations, interviews with terrible lighting, and the usually clothed “emperors” in pajamas. We’ve seen it all, and since much of it is kind of what we are doing ourselves, it isn’t as interesting.

Brands are trying to continue to sell their wares for the latest instantiation of our online lives too, but it feels tone-deaf. If there’s nowhere to go, and a concern for well-being, there’s not much of a reason to purchase unessential goods. The Real Real, an online luxury clothing reseller, recently sent out an ad showing pairs of earrings including a large diamond and emerald pair, suggesting we purchase “Exquisite Earrings” because they are “Perfect for a Virtual Party.” Without good lighting, no earring is going to sparkle during a videoconference. Additionally, for many who are at home and not working, gemstone purchases seem frivolous, though the very rich are still buying them to wear alone in their homes.

The new status symbols

With COVID-19 and quarantine, though, there are new status markers. What you do, how much tech prowess you have to help survive these months of sheltering in place, whether or not you can be home, and other factors are changing people’s status in the eyes of society. We are awarding status to epidemiologists, doctors, nurses, and other front-line healthcare workers. Makers, inventors, scientists, and others who are truly helping others in the pandemic are also in the spotlight, as are delivery drivers, sanitation workers, and those who keep infrastructures functioning. Unsurprisingly, these individuals are even being given high status by previously higher-status celebrities. Brad Pitt not only played Dr. Anthony Fauci during his cold open on SNL but also removed his wig and glasses at the end of the sketch in order to express heartfelt thanks to front-line healthcare workers.

Actor and singer Randy Rainbow has built a strong independent following by creating political satire videos. Recently, he created “Andy,” a fan video for New York governor Andrew Cuomo set to the tune of the ballad “Sandy” from the musical Grease. Rainbow has a clear advantage over other celebrities making home videos: he has been honing his production skills for years. He understands lighting, makeup, and video, has the appropriate equipment, and knows how to create high-production pieces that connect with his audience. While he may have to stay home, his excellent quality hasn’t changed. But higher-profile celebrities are often behind the technology curve, which now means that their status is lower in a new way.

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Mastery of technology—and an understanding of how to present oneself in the phase we’re now experiencing—has become an important currency, promoting a higher social status. A recent survey showed that “88% of Americans surveyed have more appreciation” for the role that technology has played during the coronavirus crisis. Technology connects us to everything now. We’ve suddenly had to plug into the internet in the same ways that celebrities have, but we have to perform as part of our lives in addition to our job—not as a job.

How we look and sound when we present our ideas in a virtual workplace matters. If our videoconferences have good lighting and sound, and the luxury of an appropriate background such as a real bookcase with interesting and relevant books showing, we can “zoom ahead” (so to speak) in our work packs. If we don’t, well, we might get a note from our boss to up our game. Or worse, end up featured on a Twitter account that critiques our Skype background setup and rates us.

In this social and physical shift, the highest status goes to those who can access supplies in innovative ways.

In addition to video presentation, many of us have needed to learn a variety of new skills at home. For the past several years, startups and phone apps have gradually trained us to offload household tasks to gig workers or service providers via the internet. We rode in cars that picked us up and delivered us precisely where and when we wanted, and we relied on housekeeping and shopping services. Our homes and lives became pit stops between activities, maintained by a portfolio of human-powered, semi-automated relationships and labor.

With COVID-19, we suddenly found ourselves confined to small spaces, without much storage, and without the basic homemaking skills our ancestors had. In a small apartment without a garage, we can’t store weeks or months of food, and we have less access to safe transportation and less reliable deliveries. However, those of us who do have technical skills are better positioned to weather the supply chain storm.

In this social and physical shift, the highest status and advantage goes to those who can access supplies in innovative ways. The technical elite can manipulate the current web infrastructure more easily in part because they built some or all of it, potentially giving them a knowledge-map advantage, while the rest of us must use what they built to acquire supplies in more limited ways. Suddenly, for our best survival advantage, we need to know all about the network and how to get access to the supplies it provides. We need much more technological competency to survive in networked isolation and stay competitive with others.

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For example, access to a delivery slot with a vendor one likes and trusts is a link to survival. Mere mortals have to stay up late clicking buttons and refreshing their screens to get a time weeks in advance for a delivery, but tech masters have automated this process by creating bots that can get delivery slots more easily. While these bots were created to serve those in need, less ethical bots create uneven access. Access to food delivery is a survival advantage, and at the core, that is what status helps us to do: survive. Stocking up on toilet paper before a shortage creates status, but so does knowing who has it and where to get it online when it runs out. Finding the things one needs online, such as canned goods, can make heroes.

Personal protective equipment (PPE) is both a type of technology and a new form of status. Some people had scarce supplies at home as part of their disaster prep kits and chose to donate them to medical workers who were on the front lines without protection. Now that masks are mandatory in many areas, what sort of mask one has can convey status as well. Early preparers and adopters might have cool-looking masks made from a modern neoprene or nylon spandex fabric that hugs the face with built-in air filters. Some of these came in designer colors and were marketed through websites after previous disasters. Those in the know ordered these early.  Higher status goes not to the branded Chanel and Gucci masks we’ve seen people wear, but to masks that effectively use technology to keep out the virus.

Back to basics

As COVID-19 waxes and wanes through our future, many businesses we’ve relied on may not survive the financial strain or the change in status we accord to them. After months of unemployment, many Americans may elect not to support the wealth inequality of celebrities and industry titans and may instead support measures to tax or otherwise diminish their resources. Celebrities and the businesses that rely upon them to earn a living may find themselves needing to reinvent themselves.

Many of us will need to learn plumbing, electrical work, haircutting, sewing, cooking, canning, pickling, and other home and home repair skills, as well as greater digital mastery. We will learn how to light our Zoom calls and meetings to make them more flattering. We may find that our homes will be our new offices—forever. The gaps where bankrupt businesses used to be may give way to smaller, more directed, hyperlocal ventures that are based on fair-value or barter systems.

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On the other hand, those of us who survive may never wish to order online or stay home again—if we can help it. We may prefer to be out in the community, touching textiles and tasting well-prepared meals—all within safe constraints, if such scenarios are even possible. Much is unknown. 

However, there is one thing we do know for certain: Those of us who make it through this pandemic, celebrity or not, will have the highest status of all—our health.


S. A. Applin, PhD, is an anthropologist whose research explores the domains of human agency, algorithms, AI, and automation in the context of social systems and sociability. You can find more at @anthropunk and PoSR.org.

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