The Commodification of Sociability

Damien Babet has an interesting post, in French, on recent forms of commodification of sociability based on a NYT article on apartment owners using companies to manage the sociability of their renters. Take a look a webpage from one such company:

In these relatively luxury buildings in New York City, as Babet reports, one can find a swimming pool, pool room, movie theater, ballroom and reception room and social activities are handled by a life manager. All these activities are paid for through a mandatory annual registration fee. One of the rep from a life management company compares the building to the Love Boat, which should be enough to make one want to avoid them at all costs. But the general idea stands: one’s building as permanent cruise. Let’s call this the "soft" gated community for its comfortable and not-so-obvious form of social segregation. There is no question that the target population is the young and hip upwardly mobile with no need for permanent community ties but rather sociability that is easily built (because purchased) and easily discarded and replaced (because interchangeable as a product).

As Babet indicates, the commodification of sociability is not new. After all, that’s what bars, clubs, vacation clubs, cruises, gyms are for. This is not a new market where the people themselves are the product and the PR firm at the same time. What the site owners have to do is to make sure they have the right demographics for their target population, the socializing activities which might be functions of social classes, education and other social variables.

And as much as sociability is the message, social distance is the product. The companies offer the ability to socialize with one’s equals, in terms, mostly of social class, while easily avoiding especially those lower on the social ladder. Living in these residences is a form of social distinction where one does not have to interact outside of one’s select milieu. Avoiding a messy social reality thanks to living in a self-sufficient, socially homogeneous community is what is being sold. Indeed, it is something that Bauman noted before when he wrote about the cosmopolitan wealthy segregating themselves from the rest of society with no more attachment to national communities than they do to a neighborhood (only in so far as it provides certain amenities that can be offered in any world-city).

Babet takes it one step further. This form of in-group sociability-building is present in the workplace as well. After all, isn’t that what management is doing when it comes to team-building, motivation, cooperation and value-sharing, horizontal networks and so on? All these different management strategies that are supposed to flatten the hierarchy and liberate the creative energies of the workers through not more money but just the feel-good sense of being part of the team? It is indeed an interesting idea: that of personal life managed like a career. There is a limit to this comparison though, for Babet: power. No matter how much companies talk of shared values and cooperation, at the end of the day, power relations have not disappeared. That aspect of social relations is absent in the case of the renters in their love boat apartments. Or is it?

How much of this activity and lifestyle management is a form of control, first by selection and exclusion? And the lender-renter relations is not an equal one either. As Babet notes, renters, like any organization member have the strategies of "Exit", "Voice" and "Loyalty" to choose from in such an environment. Or they may be politely thrown out if they are deemed too critical. Social control indeed.

All this points to the lack of spontaneity in these forms of sociability, and their socially constructed and carefully managed traits as renters become as controlled and as subject to the processes of the surveillance society, through message boards, for instance, than workers and other subordinate categories.

5 thoughts on “The Commodification of Sociability

  1. Could this be an extension of having their lives tightly managed and scheduled since childhood? They feel secure having someone else direct their activities because someone always has?

    • Aha! Good question. However, people who can afford such rents in NYC are not your average worker. They are most likely highly-paid knowledge workers of the information economy. And studies have shown these professionals enjoy a great deal of autonomy in the workplace.

      So, they may put in a lot of hours but are not necessarily tightly controlled.

      However, a tight scheduled might mean that everything has to be clearly, not directed, but arranged for efficiency.

  2. Thank you for this text. I really like the way you put things. Oh, and I just noticed on the pic from the website you show “there’s plenty of room to be seen or disappear for a while”. Is it just me, or is it a clear invitation to “make out” in a corner of the roof. I’m interested in that, because “sociability” needs to have some content, and sex is clearly a very marketable one (if properly euphemized…)

    • Well, considering that the three words that appear on the flash animation when you go to the website are “stylish”, “sexy” and “energetic”, I’ll let you guess. 🙂

      There is no question that all the images on the website convey these three traits: all the models are skinny, sexy – read straight – (not a lot of kids in there), young and obviously wealthy all of which = success.

      It might not be so much sex that is being sold, but rather sex among peers. Again, I think the social distance / segregation aspect is reinforced over and over again on the website.

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