New York’s nightclubs are the particle accelerators of sociology: reliably creating the precise conditions under which exotic extremes of status-seeking behaviour can be observed. Ashley Mears documents it all in her excellent book Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit. A model turned sociology professor, while researching the book she spent hundreds of nights in New York’s most exclusive nightclubs, as well as similar parties across the world. The book abounds with fascinating details; in this post I summarise it and highlight a few aspects which I found most interesting.

Here’s the core dynamic. There are some activities which are often fun: dancing, drinking, socialising. But they become much more fun when they’re associated with feelings of high status. So wealthy men want to use their money to buy the feeling of having high-status fun, by doing those activities while associated with (and ideally while popular amongst) other high-status people, particularly beautiful women.

Unfortunately, explicit transactions between different forms of cultural capital are low-status - it demonstrates that you can’t get the other forms directly. So the wealthy men can’t just pay the beautiful women to come party with them. Instead an ecosystem develops which sells sufficient strategic ambiguity to allow (self- and other-) deception about the transaction which is taking place, via incorporating a series of middlemen.

Specifically, wealthy men pay thousands at these nightclubs for table charges and “bottle service” - already-expensive alcohol marked up by 5x or much more. The nightclubs pay “promoters” to scout out and bring along dozens of beautiful women each night. Those women get access to an exclusive venue with many wealthy men - but by itself that’s not enough to motivate regular attendance, at least not from the prettiest. And most are careful not to ruin their reputations by actually accepting payments from the promoters. Instead, in order to bring enough girls, promoters each need to do a bunch of emotional labour, flirting, relationship-building, and many non-cash payments (food, transport, even accommodation). I’m strongly reminded of Michael Sandel’s book What Money Can’t Buy - the intuitions about the corrosive effects of money are the same, they're just applied to a much less high-minded setting.

Some interesting features of this system:

  • At a top club, a promoter might get paid $1000 a night to bring out a dozen models or women who look like models. Notably, model-like beauty is much more highly-prized than conventional beauty - e.g. the clubs don’t allow access to women who aren’t unusually tall. Everyone selects for models even when they don’t personally find the model look as attractive, because the fashion industry has established this as the Schelling look for high-status women. (For more on how this happens, see Mears’ other book, Pricing Beauty; and the responses to my tweet about it).
  • The markup on increasingly large champagne bottles is determined less by the amount of champagne, and more by how ostentatious the purchase is. The biggest purchases, costing over 100k per bottle, therefore come with incredibly elaborate fanfare: all music stops, spotlights shine on the buyer, a whole train of staff bring out the drinks, etc.
  • The nightclub profits by creating an atmosphere of “suspended reality” where a large group of people who all individually believe that buying status in this way is tacky can still convince themselves that all the other people don’t think it’s tacky. Most of the profits don’t actually come from the biggest spenders, but rather the next tier down, who are inspired by the atmosphere, and anchored by stories of the biggest purchases.
  • In contrast to the predominantly-white clients and models, promoters are disproportionately black. Mears talks about them having “colour capital”, and using some stereotypes to their advantage in order to catch attention. They need to be very charismatic and attractive in order to consistently convince girls to come along with them while not making their relationship seem too transactional.
  • In some sense the whole system is grounded in the models’ sex appeal, but I think that the models’ prestige is just as important - as mentioned above, models are preferred to women who most men find more attractive, as well as preferred to women who have more transactional attitudes towards sex.
  • Basically the same dynamics play out internationally as well - promoters offer girls free flights, food and accommodation in exchange for attendance at nightclubs in St Tropez, etc. On those trips the transactionality is usually a bit more obvious.
  • How can promoters afford to regularly wine and dine so many girls? Often they have deals with restaurants who give them leftover food in exchange for making the restaurant look more glamorous. Other times, wealthy men will host the dinners before the parties start. At the nightclub itself, they all drink for free.

If I were a bit more cynical I might also say that the “fun” part of high-status fun is also mainly a strategic ambiguity which helps facilitate the status transaction - if people couldn’t convince themselves and others that they were having fun, their attempts to seem prestigious would be much more obvious. Perhaps it’s worth considering what differences you’d expect in a world where this is true vs false. (For example, might you expect that the highest-status men actually don’t spend much time dancing, drinking, or even socialising?)

The same might be true, to a lesser extent, of other types of high-status fun - which, in my circles, often involves quick-witted exchanges on arbitrary topics. Overall, though, after reading this book I do feel much luckier that silicon valley is largely disdainful of conspicuous consumption and other negative-sum status games; long may it stay that way.


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I added an image of the book cover to the top, because... for some reason my brain really wanted it to help me think that this is a book review. Feel free to revert.

I like this change. Not all book reviews need images, but this review feels much better to me with it.

[-][anonymous]3mo 1

This is actually quite nice of a change, and got me to read the post when I may not have otherwise. If you believe changes like this to any of my future posts would be possible I'm going to give you ahead-of-time permission to make them.

In Miami there absolutely are explicit payments for models to join tables. This can lead to all of them leaving on the dot at let's say 3:00 AM, since that's how long they were required to stay at the club to earn their pay. NYC has a different dynamic.

might you expect that the highest-status men actually don’t spend much time dancing, drinking, or even socialising?

Wait. Shit. Have I been high-status this whole time, and no-one even told me?

(No you're affirming the consequent)

Even after reading this post I still find it odd that the night club status racket functions. It sort of seems like everyone knows it's not real status and it will collapse the second the money stops flowing, yet people (okay, in this case specifically rich men) are so desperate for social status that they'll go to great lengths to buy just the simulation of social status to satisfy their desires. I wonder if this isn't a legit time to appeal to simulacrum levels: the people pay to prop up the night club system are operating at level 3 or 4 and have lost all concern for 1 and 2.

I wouldn't say it's completely fake status as some of it can be converted into real status. For example, if you go to one of these ridiculously expensive clubs and you meet or even just see someone famous, then that gives you a story to tell. Also, if you heard that I'd been to one of these super expensive clubs you might be interested to know what it was like, plus the photos probably look pretty impressive on Instagram.

Seems like night club status works the same way that junk food or pornography do: you're (often) not optimizing for status (or nutrition or sex) directly, instead part of your brain is optimizing for rewards that another part of your brain provides when it detects certain correlates of status (or nutrition or sex).

I can recommend Primates of Park Avenue, which is about status signalling among high-class Upper East Side moms in 2005, by a sociologist who ran in those circles.

This isn't really much different from life outside the club. Social forces are often not aligned with majority personal preference and can even be in conflict. For example, people want to make friends or hook up but seeking those goals explicitly tends to be perceived as low-class and / or strange. 

I think there is a social equivalent of "(not) hiring the top 1%".

(In the linked article, the author questions what really happens when you invite 100 people for an interview and only hire the best 1. Naively, it seems like you are hiring the top 1%. But actually, some kinds of people are overrepresented at job interviews, namely those who can't get a job, and those are exactly the ones you want to avoid. And okay, most likely the 1 best out of 100 is not like this, but because the sample is skewed, they are neither the top 1%. Maybe top 10%, or top 50%, or top 99%, depending on how strongly the sample is skewed.)

I assume a similar effect might happen if you had a official place made explicitly for the purpose of finding friends, open to everyone. It would disproportionally attract people who for some reason can't find or can't keep friends, and yet they want some. And I don't mean merely "people who are somewhat clueless about how to find friends, or whose jobs and other duties leave them too little free time to socialize", but also smelly homeless people, or people who are obviously crazy, drunk, stoned, violent, and otherwise dysfunctional. Then you would realize you are actually not that desperate to have a friend; that you actually only want someone who is kinda like you, or better.

And if it seems like "no big deal, I would just avoid the obviously horrible ones, and try to approach someone who seems normal", well, the problem is that those horrible people would of course try to approach you. (If there is a social norm that approaching others at that place is okay, then obviously this rule applies to them, too.) Either you would run away screaming, or quickly aproach someone and say: "hey, you look normal, let's get out of here and talk outside". Then, most likely you would find out that they also have some undesirable trait that was not obvious at the first sight. Unless you are really desperate, you would probably not come back. Which of course would make the desperate people even more overrepresented there.

But... there are many places where you can find friends, which are absolutely not like this.

Yes, and there is some kind of filtering. Most likely, you have to pay to be there; sometimes the place is difficult to find and not advertized (so you need to be told about it by someone); and there is often an official activity you are supposed to be interested in, and attempts to merely socialize without doing the activity are frowned upon. Also, annoying people can be kicked out, either formally by the owner of the place, or informally by other guests.

These all are the necessary tools to filter out the least desirable kind of people. For a person who identifies as egalitarian, it is unpleasant to think about it explicitly; it is preferable not to think about it at all. And... let's admit that there is some similarity with the people described in that book. It's a difference of degree, not substance.

A large part of stigma against people looking for friends (or dates) explicitly is probably just stigma against environments where desperate low-value people are overrepresented. If you could set up a friend-matching website that would almost never set you up with a low-value person, I believe it could become popular. But it would require a lot of honesty, which many people would find offensive, because obviously admitting certain traits would automatically filter you out of most people you would like to meet. There would be a strong incentive to lie, so the question is whether we are going to trust people, or verify their questions somehow (and maybe remove the ones that cannot be verified, because they in effect act as an asshole filter -- remove the honest ones, keep the liars). You would need to do this reliably enough so that if you have 1000 low-value users, and 2 average ones, the algorithm will clearly match those 2 together.

I assume a similar effect might happen if you had a official place made explicitly for the purpose of finding friends

This shook loose a memory of my primary school trying to institute exactly that; a bench adjacent to the playground with signage declaring it to be a "find-a-friend bus stop" (may not have been the exact wording), with the idea of it being a rallying point to link up with some other loner and go play together.

Crazy homeless drunks thankfully weren't a problem. But even at a young age I think we were able to instinctively recognise that there could be nothing more tragic than to be sat visibly alone on the "got no friends" bench, so I don't think it saw much use.

Might have occasionally been made part of a game, where we tried to push each other into sitting on the bench, on the basis that sitting there was for losers. But I'm not 100% confident of whether that's a real memory.

Either way I have to assume the organiser behind that idea either didn't really think it through all the way, or had an overly optimistic take as to how merciless/vicious kids can be.

Low status losers might have a small role to play, as high status persons could use their exclusion and public humiliation at the outer periphery to help boost their own social position. 

and the responses to my tweet about it

The link doesn't point to twitter and doesn't work for me.