For eons, the concept of keeping up with the Joneses fueled people’s desires to acquire the markings of wealth and show them off. With the rise of the Internet, the Joneses aren’t just next door or around town—they’re everywhere. And considering how easy it is to create an identity online, the countless Joneses you’re subconsciously competing with may not even exist.
This, and the idea that consumerist tendencies rise due to the inflated alter-egos we present and try to live up to online—yep, among the Joneses we’re now trying to keep up with are concocted virtual visions of ourselves—is the thrust of a Psychology Today post from Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, a psychiatrist based at Stanford and the author of Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality.
A decade ago, it was thought that the Internet would make buying more rational by doing away with the marketing distractions of traditional stores, facilitating price and product comparisons, and freeing us from time pressure. Instead, we find ourselves in a virtual bazaar where we have out-of-control alter egos to contend with, and where buying transactions are so remote from handing over cash or even credit cards that it no longer feels like spending. And so we spend more.
Citing a 2007 study of online shoppers, he focuses on the 10% of those sampled who qualify as compulsive consumers, and explains one big reason why they seemed incapable of shopping rationally or controlling their spending:
Compulsive shoppers shopped online because they thought it got them closer to an ideal image that they were chasing.
Though Aboujaoude doesn’t mention it, the recent “haul video” phenomena, in which mostly young, mostly female shoppers show off their latest mall purchases on YouTube, seems like a pretty obvious way the Internet is changing the way consumers are showing off and keeping up with the Joneses, or keeping up with their own warped self-images. (There’s also the possibility that the consumers posting these videos have been paid or somehow compensated in exchange for showing off their latest purchases.)
Regardless, if you’re desperately trying to keep up with the Joneses—virtual or otherwise—I’d recommend following the advice given by an NPR writer when “haul videos” hit the news:
These girls desperately, desperately need to get a life, not another eye shadow.
(MORE: The Real Reason You’re in Love With Material Possessions: Loneliness)
Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.