Why do we sometimes feel uncomfortable when an item we enjoy gain popularity?
Like a niche band breaking into the mainstream or a previously unknown writer now appearing on late-night shows.
It appears like a threat to our identity.
Back in 1996, Jonah Peretti, who later co-founded Buzzfeed, wrote a postmodern essay called Capitalism and Schizophrenia addressing the topic of identity.
In the introduction, he writes:
Identity formation is inextricably linked to the urge to consume, and therefore the acceleration of capitalism necessitates an increase in the rate at which individuals assume and shed identities. The internet is one of many late capitalist phenomena that allow for more flexible, rapid, and profitable mechanisms of identity formation.
This idea echoes the Diderot effect, stating that the products purchased by a consumer tend to be cohesive with this consumer’s identity. Would this individual receive an atypical item, this event could trigger a buying spree to match this new object. Like how getting a really cool new lamp could push us to buy a new cool rug, new curtains and new chairs to match it.
This phenomenon applies to cultural artifacts - we use music, movies, books, social media content, slang and ideologies to define our identities, utilizing them as referential to arrange a coherent worldview.
Since we link our identities to the goods and content we consume and we pursue uniqueness through signaling, we have a feeling of unease witnessing some items we feel are part of us getting more popular.
Our identity becomes more universal, but a universal identity is not an identity anymore.
We feel as if we were diluted into the mainstream.