March 20th, 2015

SXSW 2015: The End of Techno-Joy

 

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Art by: Sue Zola

 

I used to be pretty excited about technology. I’ve worked in social media since before the term existed; I co-created an app, I wrote pretty rah-rah-tech essays that people liked, like “Why Iron Man is the First 21st Century Superhero” (hint: his relationship to tech). I, like you, side-eyed wet blankets like Evgeny Morozov and Sherry Turkle and Jaron Lanier, like, sucks to be them; glad I don’t have their problem. Until, one day, I did. It started when I was writing Objectionable, and it never really went away. But perhaps nothing has made it feel quite as immersive as going to South By Southwest Interactive 2015.

The first time I went to SXSW was 8 years ago. The social web was a wild west where new and interesting things were emerging, and, unless you worked in music at the time, you probably didn’t give a shit. (Myspace was still the social network running everything, so don’t even). Twitter didn’t take off until, in fact, SXSW that year, and Facebook wouldn’t do anything at all even remotely relevant to brands until a few months later. At the time this was all a ghetto called “new media;” I had a title with the words “electronic marketing.” Since then, the tech startup industry has become a major, entrenched, cultural establishment, disrupting and colonizing other culture industries like entertainment and music. The SXSW festival, because it spans Music, Film, and Interactive technology, has come to occupy a unique position on the venn diagram of these 3 main influences of contemporary culture. So here’s a few snapshots from where we are in 2015.

 

MUSIC.

Pretty much all the highlights of my third SXSW trip that are fit to print, involve music, so we might as well just get the fun out of the way first.

Before I even got to Austin, the coolest flight I’ve ever had happened to me. I was seated next to an awesome, come up rapper from Miami, called Enoch da Prophet, whom you should listen to immediately:

We talked for a bit about how the new generation of hiphop (J Cole, Kendrick, etc.), is rebelling against the violence, materialism, and other stereotypical “bullshit” of what’s become the established hiphop mainstream in order to define themselves and their own, new sound and vibe. If this is what the future of hiphop sounds like, I am soooo into it.

The moment I landed in Austin, my major evaluative criteria for which otherwise indistinguishable tech-sponsored parties to attend quickly turned out to be based entirely on music. There were parties with performances and / or DJ sets by Sir Mix-a-Lot, Busta Rhymes, Nas, The Flaming Lips, and more — all as part of Interactive. You could tell the difference between Interactive parties and Music parties because the former all had nostalgia-wave acts with name recognition among middle-aged marketing executives. By contrast, if the people on-stage and mostly everyone else are in their 20s and more interested in dancing than networking and the majority of the visible badges people are wearing around their necks have the word “STAFF” on them and the air smells like Swisher Sweets and hash, you can easily tell you’re at Music.

Mostly, the event that lived up to and exceeded the anticipation I had for it was Odesza at the Spotify House. It was their first time playing SXSW, and they were super adorable and excited and totally rocked the shit out of everything and got everyone goin’ up at 5 pm on a Tuesday.

Also fun was the party at the W with The Jane Doze, where my best friend, Jason, was managing a bunch of mermaids. Jason lives in Austin and co-runs Sirenalia, which creates custom, high-end silicone mermaid tails. The startup-sponsored party had hired a few of the mermaid performers to hang out in the pool and be generally Instagrammable.

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Jason and I spent a lot of time talking about parenting in the age of social media, since Jason had just become a father 8 days prior. There’s a lot to consider now, like what your general philosophy is going to be about how you treat technology and content sharing, when the subject of said content is your progeny. Kids don’t get to “choose to be online now,” Jason says, “any more than they got to choose to have a mailing address.”

In retrospect, Music (and also music) turned out to be a welcome, transportive reprieve from the relentless grind of Interactive.

 

INTERACTIVE.

On the plus side of what I got to see as part of the official Interactive programming was a talk by Martin Harrison, Planning Director at Huge, entitled,  “The Empathy Gap: Why Stalin Nailed Big Data.”

“One death,” Harrison quoted Stalin, “is a tragedy; one million is just statistics.” Basically, at a certain point the scope of violation becomes so massive that our minds kind of break at trying to comprehend it or calculate a just recourse. We literally can’t even. For example, in an experiment, people gave shorter jail sentences to food company executives who knowingly poisoned 20 people (4.2 years), than 2 people (5.8 years):

One of the most notable things about this talk was that it was so good even the questions asked by the audience at the end were legitimately interesting and extended the conversation (a phenomenon as unheard of as sitting next to someone relevant on an airplane). One of the questions was how can we institutionalize empathy within risk-averse organizations reliant on the dehumanizing safety-blanket of data? Harrison had some interesting thoughts about this, namely to do with having diversity among the decision-makers.

On the other side of the spectrum, I also went to a panel called Culture Clash: When Marketing and Product Converge, which I had actually been really interested in, not only personally, as this is the exact intersection of disciplines I’ve found myself straddling since launching Mirrorgram / SparkMode, but also from a macro, inter and intra-industry perspective. For marketing, this is the next big step in the evolution of the agency model — as Deutsch’s VP, Invention Director, Christine Outram says, “from ads that are designed to die, to ads that are designed to live” as products that people use every day. And for the product side, marketing is a critical capability to understand and embrace. What the ad world (at its best) has done for the length of its existence is seek to understand and leverage insights about human behavior. (Happiness is a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing… it’s okay. You are okay.“) This human competency is necessary to surf the culture currents and capture lifestyle opportunities in a way that just features alone don’t.

Spoiler alert, the above paragraph is not what the panel was about at all. At least not the first 20 minutes of it, after which my friend, Rachel Rutherford, the Co-CEO of fashion startup, Pose, said we had to go. It was hard, she said, to listen to what marketing considered to be product successes.

 

@rachelaubrey's shoe game tho…

A photo posted by babiejenks (@babiejenks) on

 

“Welcome to how the other half lives,” I told her.

But that’s kind of how the whole premise of SXSW is flawed, though, isn’t it? Because so few things really are the kind of marketing or product successes we’re all claiming they are — in one day I managed to attend two different presentations that both referenced the now half a decade old, Old Spice Guy campaign. But you can’t sell a $1200 festival pass on the reality that most of what attendees are going to hear is aggrandized to sound amazing, to look epic, to seem important, to be Instagram-worthy. SXSW Interactive has a mass hallucination to uphold. And you’ve got an expense report to justify. One talk for real included a slide titled, “So what do I need to tell my boss I learned from your presentation so my expense report gets approved?” —

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Ppl photo’d the shit out of that.

 

CULTURE.

One of the most jarring things that happened at SXSW was at the start of the Flaming Lips show sponsored by Spreadfast, which was super cool-looking and also had the feel of being deliberately reverse-engineered for Instagram. At one point, Wayne Coyne literally stopped a song and restarted it because the audience participation on the lyrics call-and-response wasn’t up to par for the optics “for YouTube.” Later, when I relayed this story to my friends they insisted that Coyne’s way too punk rock for the whole thing not to have been a joke, and maybe they’re right, but here’s the thing…. no one in the audience got it. This is 2015. We do as many takes as it takes to get something share-worthy. It’s not a joke; it’s where we are now as a culture.

Everything feels inescapably more cynical now. One night at a party at the Handlebar, I was talking to a couple of guys from San Francisco. I mentioned that I’d used to live there, and they asked me the standard followup, “Where?” But I shook my head and said, “The question isn’t ‘where,’ it’s ‘when?'”

I lived in San Francisco in 2000. It was a totally different city then than it is now, 15 years later. One of the guys from San Francisco was working at a new mobile search app, or whatever. (The goal being to take away even just .5% of Google’s market share. #Innovation!) He was describing the environment in San Francisco now. “You go out to cafes or anywhere, and it’s just” — he hunched over, smushing his arms against his chest like a Tyrannosaurus, fingers manically typing from flaccid wrists. “Meep, meep, meep,” he said in a robotic voice, completing the pantomime. Then he lowered his hands and confessed, “I’m shitting on the situation, but at the same time, I work in this industry.” He shook his head, sighed into his drink, “I’m part of the problem.”

Earlier, at the W party with the mermaids, Jason was wearing a sailor hat to complement the aquatic motif. A guy walked up to him, his eyes darting back and forth shiftily, his voice so conspiratorially low I could barely make out what he was saying; a question that seemed too absurd and sketchy to be real. Jason smiled carefully, and shook his head.

“Did he just ask to buy your hat off of you,” I said as we walked away.

“Yes.”

“Jesus. I thought he was looking for drugs.”

“I know.”

There was a relentless, transactional quality to SXSW Interactive interactions. You could imagine people picturing price tags floating above everyone’s heads like Sims character diamonds. Is that for sale? Is he for sale? Are they for sale?

I remembered an article I’d read a few months ago in Fortune, The Age of Unicorns, that began, “Stewart Butterfield had one objective when he set out to raise money for his startup last fall: a billion dollars or nothing. If he couldn’t reach a $1 billion valuation for Slack, his San Francisco business software company, he wouldn’t bother. It wasn’t long ago that the idea of a pre-IPO tech startup with a $1 billion market value was a fantasy. Google was never worth $1 billion as a private company. Neither was Amazon nor any other alumnus of the original dotcom class. Today the technology industry is crowded with billion-dollar startups. When Cowboy Ventures founder Aileen Lee coined the term unicorn as a label for such corporate creatures in a November 2013 TechCrunch blog post, just 39 of the past decade’s VC-backed U.S. software startups had topped the $1 billion valuation mark. Now, casting a wider net, Fortune counts more than 80 startups that have been valued at $1 billion or more by venture capitalists. And given that these companies are privately held, a few are sure to have escaped our detection. The rise of the unicorn has occurred rapidly and without much warning, and it’s starting to freak some people out.”

On my last day in Austin I heard about Jumpolin, a local piñata and bouncy house store, that was torn down to make space for parking for a South by Southwest tech party:

The morning of February 12, 2015, Austinite Sergio Lejarazu was driving past his small business, Jumpolin at 1401 E. Cesar Chavez Street, on his way to drop his daughter off at school. That’s when he noticed something strange. Jumpolin wasn’t there anymore. He pulled over and quickly learned that his new landlords, Jordan French and Darius Fisher, operating as F&F Real Estate Ventures, had demolished the building that Jumpolin occupied for eight years. The building still had all the inventory, cash registers and some personal property inside. Sergio and his wife Monica say they were given no prior warning and were up-to-date on their rent with a lease good until 2017.

In the end, the sponsor wound up moving the party to a different venue anyway due to the controversy. (Although not before one of the landlords managed to make an analogy to cockroaches in regards to his tenants.)

Reading about this happening — for a festival, for a party for all of the entitled, out-of-towner assholes like me and you and everyone we know in our badge-holder echo chamber — I felt gross. We are all sighing into our free drinks now; we’re all part of the problem.

Beyond the impact of its output, undoubtedly the most pathological impact technology has already had on our culture is economic. The increasingly stratified division between the people who make a living in some technology-adjacent field, and everyone else. And worse — the way people in technology treat “everyone else.”

When you ask people if they’re from Austin, the real locals consistently add the phrase “born ‘n raised.” My best friend is one of these people. He moved back to Austin after a stint in San Francisco came to an end when he was no longer able to afford to live there. Now he sees “the Google glass people” moving to his hometown, “and they have nothing to contribute to the culture except money.”

It’s beyond a cliche now to talk about how San Francisco has changed. Living in LA (where we don’t have a non-exploitable culture anyway, ha ha ha), I’ve heard the conversation about San Francisco turning into Monaco humming away up north in the distance. But in Austin, it felt very real and present and metastatic — it felt like everywhere else would be next.

If he couldn’t reach a $1 billion valuation, he wouldn’t bother… How much for your hat?…  Is he for sale?…  20 people… 4.2 years….

One city gone is a tragedy. The rest is just statistics.

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February 12th, 2015

The Future of Brands and Social Media

We used to understand that brands were run by humans. But now, a decade in to social media, we are beginning to experience brands as humanAnd our technology is increasingly improving at executing the simulation. 

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In the future, it will have begun, like you knew it would, during the 2015 Super Bowl.

“The Coca-Cola Company spent a ridiculous sum of money during America’s No. 1 National Pastime on the evening’s most cynical advertising blitz: the “MakeItHappy” campaign,” Sam Biddle wrote on Gawker. “The premise was simple and also dumb: the internet is a mean place, and Coca-Cola was going to try make the internet a nice place. It was attempting to be the “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” for our modern digital idiot age: The company created a Twitter bot to take “mean” tweets and reformat their words into a cartoon rabbit playing the drums, or a cat. With this, the toxic web would be steam-cleaned, or something. So, in the hopes of making a minor point about the automated vacuum at the heart of Coke’s cynical anti-meanness push, we built a bot to tweet [Hitler’s autobiography] Mein Kampf through Coke’s automated positivity generator:

It has turned out fortunate for me to-day that destiny appointed Braunau-on-the-Inn to be my birthplace.

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For that little town is situated just on the frontier between those two States the reunion of which seems,

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at least to us of the younger generation,

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a task to which we should devote our lives and in the pursuit of which every possible means should be employed.

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German-Austria must be restored to the great German Motherland. And not indeed on any grounds of economic calculation whatsoever. No, no.

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There’s more of these, but you get the idea.

“We assumed that the response to our little stunt would be largely apathetic,” Biddle writes:

Not only was our point obvious and slight, but in tweeting hateful sentiment at @CocaCola, we were doing exactly what the marketing campaign had asked us to do.

And then Coca-Cola, slow-witted and cowardly like all global megabrands, killed its bot, and suddenly countless people across the internet were aghast. We hadn’t thrown a tiny wrench into the slickly oiled workings of a $3 billion marketing operation, we’d embarrassed someone’s pal. Someone’s pal who was just trying to do some good online! We’d brought negativity into the positive sphere of Coke-swilling. For something totally devoid of humanity, Coca-Cola—a brutish company that condones slave labor and anti-union kidnapping and murder and whose CEO netted $30 million in 2012—was able to muster levels of smarmy cybertears not seen since Kony’s reign of terror with its Twitter stunt.

Actual flesh-and-blood humans felt bad for a corporation, in public. Real people poured the kind of empathy and anguish that’s historically been reserved for other real people upon a multinational conglomerate worth billions of dollars that sells liquid fructose poison and has a history of literally enslaving impoverished workers.

Human beings—including journalists—flocked to Coke’s side. The Verge sobbed that we’d “ruined” Coke’s “courage and optimism,” AdWeek called our work a “debacle,” and Coke itself feigned dismay: “It’s unfortunate Gawker made it a mission to break the system, and the content they used to do it is appalling.” “Have a Coke and a—frown,” bleated some dunce at USA Today. Coca Cola’s rough approximation of humanity had made an enormous impression, and its drinkers and friends took a stand. No more, they tweet-chanted in unison, no more unkind words for this maker of sweet liquid toxins.

“On Facebook, the button to ‘like’ a brand (like a brand!) is functionally identical to ‘liking’ another person.” Biddle writes. And more than 34 million people have “liked” Pepsi. “More than a million people have made a similar life decision with Mr. Clean, more than 300,000 people are Facebook friends with Jimmy Dean Sausages and Kleenex.” What has happened in the “friendification of corporate brands” is that advertising messages now co-exist in the same newsfeed, as “mom and bae and Brian from hockey practice.” News from brands and people we care about has blended into the same stream. And at this point, not only are there are a lot of people using social media who don’t really remember or relate to the time before this happened, there are a lot of brands using social media that are starting to forget, too.

Increasingly, the way brands (try) to sound is less and less like brands, and more and more…. like just actual people.

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“This was [the] year of galumphing attempts of consumer brands to curry favor with #millennials on their #social networks with #memes designed to go #viral,” Annie Lowrey wrote in December in New York Magazine. “A new, horrible-brilliant Twitter account distills the trend down to its essence. It is called @BrandsSayingBae. It is comprised of brands tweeting the word bae or other trending neologisms. And it is, as the Verge puts it, just what “we’ve needed in 2014.”

“You can almost hear the white-collar conversation leading to tweets like these if you listen closely enough,” Lowrey adds, patomiming: “’Jones, the youths have adopted new phraseology again! This time it’s bae. Pronounced like the Chesapeake, spelled like babe with one letter missing!’ Sometimes, the results of such corporate-think are really funny. [For example] Denny’s stoner-Dada Twitter account.”

Why are brands doing this? Lowery attempts to explain:

They [saw] lightning get captured in a bottle once, on the evening of February 3, 2013. The San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens had just kicked off the second half of their Super Bowl matchup when a power outage hit the stadium. Fans went crazy on Twitter — had Beyoncé rocked the halftime show so hard that she blew a fuse? And a few canny companies capitalized on the mania, including Oreo:

It was perfect — funny, sweet, timely, on-brand, apropos. It went viral, with a suit at Oreo’s parent company declaring that the tweet “not only shows the power of real-time engagement, but also the sheer importance of understanding the overall media ecosystem.”

People retweeted it. They wrote about it. They talked about it. But I doubt that they purchased or consumed more cookies because of it. And I doubt that they thought more positively of the Oreo brand, either.

It was perfect. It was also pointless.

But was it?

Because, elsewhere in the Turing Olympics “Tinder Bots Have Evolved to Mimic the Girl Next Door,” as Steven Melendez explains, on Motherboard.

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Spammers took to ​Tinder soon after the matchmaking app went mainstream in 2013, setting up automated accounts to message lonely bachelors with ads for porn and webcam strip shows, according to ​reports from security firm Symantec.

“It’s usually, ‘Hey, if you want to talk further, go to this link on this website, and you can see all my pictures there,’” Satnam Narang, a senior security response manager at Symantec who’s ​written about the phenomenon, told me.

But lately, many Tinder spammers’ approaches have grown subtler. They’ve migrated from lewd photos and explicit language to more plausible, girl-next-door-style pictures. And they’ve programmed their bots to try to mimic a normal conversation.

They used to pretend to be prostitutes. Now, Tinder spam bots ​pretend to be football fans.

“Social media will always be an incongruous and gross place for brands to mingle, because a company does not have feelings. It will never love you,” Biddle writes.

But how far away is a point where….. we can’t tell the difference?

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“Spend some time to make your bot more personal,” Melendez quotes a user named cygon from a marketing forum where spammers trade tips for steering clear of Tinder’s spam detection systems and not raising users’ suspicions. “Your conversions will skyrocket. Once a guy gets feels a little emotionally involved he will go above and beyond to get a date. Remember—most your leads/conversions will be from beta guys who are desperate to get their dicks wet.”

In a time when people think of themselves as objects more than ever before, our technology is creating objects that seem more humanoid than ever.

Right now primitive AI bots are retweeting Mein Kampf in the shape of balloon animals and making death threats credible enough for police attention and selling waterproof speakers on dating apps and simulating boyfriends:

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But how long will it take before branded social media experiences are created by programs overseen by linguists and mathematicians and programmers writing AI code? How long before a major tech vendor sells in an artificial intelligence operating system to Coke?

How long until people are actually having relationships like the one depicted in the movie Her… with brands?

Anyway, back to getting approval for that social media editorial calendar.

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January 17th, 2015

Page Me

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John Waters’ agenda appears to finally be working.

Books are suddenly cool (not that they ever weren’t, but, like pizza, books are very hot right now.)

I first noticed it right before New Year’s eve, when this post by Austin Kleon was making the rounds:

It ended up in my feed, retweeted by my business partner, (whose grandmother just so happens to own a bookstore), but I’d wager , at 2,200+ retweets, this may be among the most popular things Kleon has written.

Then, just a week later, this appeared:

Because, on January 2nd, Mark Zuckerberg announced that his annual challenge for 2015 is to read a new book every other week. Every year Zukerberg takes on a new challenge to broaden his perspective and learn something about the world beyond Facebook. Last year’s challenge was writing a daily thank-you note, and the year before it was meeting someone new every day. This year’s challenge was crowd-sourced, and resulted in something bigger than just Zuckerberg’s own personal growth — an open challenge to anyone interested in reading 26 books in 2015, and discussing them in the Facebook community A Year Of Books.

At the same time, before the new year was even a week old, Céline launched their Spring 2015 campaign with Joan Didion as its poster girl:

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As Alessandra Codinha wrote on Vogue.com:

Let’s talk about Céline’s just-debuted ad campaign featuring none other than immortal intellectual-and-otherwise dream girl Joan Didion. Did you just feel the collective intake of breath shared by every cool girl you know? Did you feel the pulse-quickening vibrations of every recent college grad and literature fan? Did you sense the earth trembling beneath your feet? Do you have two eyes and a heart?

Of all the celebrity fashion campaign appearances, who better to represent Philo’s ideals—a certain ease of wear, simplicity of line, clothes that are assured, structured yet fluid, decidedly for the woman on the move—than Didion, the original chronicler of heartfelt experience, both her own and others’? One whose perpetually Tumblr’d and tweeted packing list famously includes “2 skirts, 2 jerseys or leotards [and] 1 pullover sweater,” (an ethos Philo, who proudly advertises her own reliance on a personal “uniform,” would clearly understand); who understood fashion while relying on clothes that didn’t draw attention as much as prepare her for the task at hand.

We’ll be buying whatever Joan’s wearing.

In this unusual twist, Facebook found a 15th-century medium to champion, and Vogue breathlessly embraced an 80-year old literary icon as the new fashion It girl — all as part of the same trend.

See also: Ikea’s 2015 catalog campaign extolling the virtues of an analog, “bookbook” (TM) like it’s the next breakthrough in touch technology:

And digital graffiti artists hacking an LED street sign in Downtown Los Angeles, of all places, to tell people to:

Maybe it kicked off last summer, with Reading Rainbow’s $5.4 million Kickstarter. Or maybe the idea was planted in the niches of our cultural subconscious by Jim Jarmusch’s preternaturally sex vision of Tilda Swinton’s bibliophile vampire floating through eternity on an indulgence of books in Only Lovers Left Alive.

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Maybe it’s something we’re learning about our new reality — books are the last, tangible refuge in a hypermediated world. In an age when everything is accessible, books are the most exclusive place you can go: it’s un-Instagrammable. Outside of a dog, as Groucho Marx said, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read — or selfie, or tweet, or anything. Inside of a book, you are absolved of the ever-escalating rat race for self-individualization through self-broadcast. You’re on another planet. Beyond GPS. You’re unfindable, unreachable. And yet, we read to know we are not alone.

Indulgence, indeed.

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January 12th, 2015

Hello, SparkMode!

Created by The Glitch Mob’s Justin Boreta, and BRIGHT, Inc., SparkMode is the first artist-owned app that lets you create, edit, & share digital art and design your own custom art products, from prints to decor, and beyond…

 

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Get the free app.
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You may have noticed the crickets here at Social-Creature for most of 2014 (eeesh 160x160x85-see-no-evil-monkey.png.pagespeed.ic.dCoZ8IyrSj). I was a little bit busy. Justin Boreta and I were cooking up a new creative project, called SparkMode.

If you haven’t been to a music festival recently, Boreta is —

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We’ve made some things together before that you’ve watched and clicked and played with. SparkMode is the next step in the evolution of Mirrorgram, an app we launched in the Fall of 2012. More than 2.5 million people created 10 million pieces of digital art with the app, igniting a pop aesthetic that took over music, fashion, and advertising for a bit.

But since those early days when the idea for Mirrorgram was first conceived (on the Glitch Mob tour bus; rock ‘n roll \m/), a lot has changed….

 

The iPhone has completely revolutionized how we make art.


You and I take this for granted now, but it’s become insanely easy to make art. It used to require really complicated image editing software, and the whole learning curve that came with it. And before computers, you needed years of training and practice to get your creative skills to match your artistic intent.

Now, you can get an app that’ll let you create cool stuff with a few taps in seconds. It’s a totally new relationship to the process of making art. It’s simple, it’s effortless, it’s fun. It’s an instant jump from inspiration to execution.

But why stop at the screen?

As Boreta says, “I love the feeling of getting art made into tangible things you can feel with your hands.”

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SparkMode allows you to create art with app simplicity in a new medium — physical space.

In SparkMode you can layer multiple image effects to create kaleidoscopic patterns, trippy, abstract art, and beautifully symmetrical photo edits; and you can design physical art to make your offline world more beautiful, too. Order your creations through the app, and get them shipped to you anywhere in the world. We’re starting with canvas art, stickerbooks, and prints, and plan to expand into new creative mediums in 2015.

A video posted by The Glitch Mob (@theglitchmob) on

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BRIGHT, Inc. makes products, experiences, and brands people love. Find out more: brightincorporated.com

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  • Product Strategy & Roadmapping
  • UX Strategy: Mobile, E-commerce, Web
  • Growth, Community, & CRM Strategy
  • Brand Strategy
  • Content Strategy
  • Multi-Channel Communications Planning

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January 9th, 2015

The Possibly Real Trend of Possibly Real Trends

What’s current when nothing is certain.

 

Health Goth.

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“Somewhere in between normcore, cyberpunk, goth, and sportswear chic exists the possibly real trend known as “Health Goth,” wrote Allison P Davis in New York Magazine’s The Cut blog back in October. “It’s been kicking around since spring, actually, but it seems to have entered the mainstream this week.”

The source for this possibly-real trend’s possibly real tipping point was an article in Marie Claire the week prior, titled, likewise dubiously, “Health Goth: The Latest Trend You’ve Never Heard Of.”

After which “came the inevitable cavalcade of follow-on articles,” wrote Jay Owens in the Hautepop post, The Week That Health Goth Broke. “Rather poetically,” Owens added, “many trend pieces are declaring it stillborn, dead before it arrived”:

Meanwhile, Health Goth may or may not be the new “Street Goth.” Which itself is not to be confused with “Goth Ninja.” And there are also the lesser-known, possibly-real trends, dubbed, Pastel Goth, and Beach Goth. Because goth, apparently, never dies:

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Lumbersexual.

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Ushered in by appropriately uncertain headlines like, “Are you a Lumbersexual?” (Gawker); “Are you dating a Lumbersexual?” (Cosmopolitan); “Who Is the Lumbersexual and Is Anything About Him Real?” (Jezebel), another possibly-real trend arrived in November. As Tom Puzak explained in Gear Junkie:

Today, the metrosexual is a disappearing breed being quickly replaced by men more concerned with existing in the outdoors, or the pseudo-outdoors, than meticulous grooming habits.

He is bar-hopping, but he looks like he could fell a Norway Pine.

Seen in New York, LA and everywhere in between, the Lumbersexual is bringing the outdoor industry’s clothing and accessories into the mainstream.

Whether the roots of the lumbersexual are a cultural shift toward environmentalism, rebellion against the grind of 9-5 office jobs, or simply recognition that outdoor gear is just more comfortable, functional and durable, the Lumbersexual is on the rise.

Possibly.

“20 years ago, Mark Simpson coined the term ‘metrosexual,'” reads the Telegraph headline from June 2014. “But now a new, more extreme, sex- and body-obsessed version has emerged.” Simpson calls it the “Spornosexual.”

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The term is a portmanteau to describe “these pumped-up offspring of those Ronaldo and Beckham lunch-box ads, where sport got into bed with porn while Mr Armani took pictures,” Simpson explains. “But unlike Beckham’s metrosexual ads of old, in which his attributes were possibly artificially enhanced, today’s spornosexuals have photoshopped themselves in real life. Glossy magazines cultivated early metrosexuality. Celebrity culture then sent it into orbit. But for today’s generation, social media, selfies and porn are the major vectors of the male desire to be desired. They want to be wanted for their bodies, not their wardrobe. And certainly not their minds.”

“Spornosexual” didn’t take off in the zeitgeist quite the way Lumbersexual has. Perhaps for being a little bit too foreign-sounding. And perhaps for being a little bit way too real to be possibly-real.

While I was writing this post, “Highsexual” happened. “What spawned the new psuedo-identity,” Michael D’Alimonte writes on MTL Blog, “was a slightly scandalous question posed to the reddit community, which basically can be summed up by a guy asking: I’m straight when I’m sober, but when I’m super high, I wanna bang guys, is this normal? And that is the crux of “highsexual,” a guy (or girl) that only ponders/enacts in gay sexual activity when stoned.”

While it’s true, as D’Alimonte notes, “You can apparently tack on -sexual to any word and create a new stratum of society,” (Goth too, evidently), in this particular case, the term pertains to sexuality directly rather than a fashion or aesthetic trend. Nevertheless, it’s still worth asking, as D’Alimonte does, “Is being a highsexual a real thing?” The answer? “Well, now that it’s an internet-used term, it kind of is.”

 

Normcore. 

Perhaps the most notorious of 2014’s possibly-real trends, and no longer an anomaly so much as a harbinger, is Normcore. I wrote about it at the beginning of last year. The jury never really came back on whether Normcore is a real fashion movement or an Internet meme that the mass media fell for and self-fulfilled into becoming real. As Alex Williams put it in The New York Times:

A style revolution? A giant in-joke? At this point, it hardly seems to matter. After a month-plus blizzard of commentary, normcore may be a hypothetical movement that turns into a real movement through the power of sheer momentum.

Even so, the fundamental question — is normcore real? — remains a matter of debate, even among the people who foisted the term upon the world.

The catchy neologism was coined by K-Hole, a New York-based group of theoretically minded brand consultants in their 20s, as part of a recent trend-forecasting report, “Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom.” Written in the academic language of an art manifesto, the report was conceived in part as a work of conceptual art produced for a London gallery, not a corporate client.

As envisioned by its creators, “normcore” was not a fashion trend, but a broader sociological attitude. The basic idea is that young alternative types had devoted so much energy to trying to define themselves as individuals, through ever-quirkier style flourishes like handlebar mustaches or esoteric pursuits like artisanal pickling, that they had lost the joy of belonging that comes with being part of the group. Normcore was about dropping the pretense and learning to throw themselves into, without detachment, whatever subcultures or activities they stumbled into, even if they were mainstream. “You might not understand the rules of football, but you can still get a thrill from the roar of the crowd at the World Cup,” the report read. The term remained little more than a conversation starter for art-world cocktail parties until New York magazine published a splashy trend story on Feb. 24 titled “Normcore: Fashion for Those Who Realize They’re One in 7 Billion.” The writer, Fiona Duncan, chronicled the emergence of “the kind of dad-brand non-style you might have once associated with Jerry Seinfeld, but transposed on a Cooper Union student with William Gibson glasses.” An accompanying fashion spread dug up real-life L-train denizens rocking mall-ready Nike baseball caps and stonewashed boyfriend jeans without apparent shame.

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Even so, it was difficult to tell if anyone actually believed the hype. For one thing, the normcore brain trust started to circle the wagons. Christopher Glazek, a journalist and friend of the K-Hole founders took to Facebook to blow holes in the “trend.” “It doesn’t really make sense to identify normcore as a fashion trend,” he wrote. “The point of normcore is that you could dress like a Nascar mascot for a big race and then switch to raver ware for a long druggie night at the club.”

 

 

The Trends They Are A-changin’.

Last year, some friends of mine accidentally became health goths. They didn’t mean to. It just happened. They were goths who grew up and got too old to keep going out to clubs the way they once had, so they got into crossfit, and that was that. Unbeknownst to them, they’d become classified into a whole new, possibly-real style.

This is something that didn’t used to happen. You didn’t just accidentally become hiphop. You didn’t one day trip over yourself to discover you were unwittingly wearing 30-inch bottom raver pants. Your clothes weren’t punked out and ripped to shreds for no particular reason that you were aware of until you read a New York Magazine trend piece about it. Now, a lifestyle neologism goes viral and you discover you’ve contracted a trend.

Alternative fashion trends used to be representative of a larger lifestyle or subculture emergence. The fashion brands that defined these aesthetics were often overtly and inextricably linked to these cultures.

“I was messianic about punk,” Vivienne Westwood, the High Priestess of Punk fashion said, in 2002.

The Kikwear brand’s history reads: In 1993, one of our key accounts in San Francisco asked us to make them a 23″ bottom for their store because the Rave scene was beginning to emerge in Northern California and the kids were walking into the store with their homemade “wide leg” pants. We moved on this tip and sure enough those denim pant sold out immediately! We quickly realized that this Rave Movement was starting to come on strong throughout Southern California and we started launching wider leg pants known today as “phatties.”

The late designer, Tiffa Novoa, was one of the founders of the seminal, circus subculture performance troupe, El Circo. In designing the troupe’s costumes she also created the postapocalyptic fashions that became associated with the Burning Man style, and carried over into an aesthetic that spanned west coast underground dance culture of the mid aughts. In a 2005 SF-Bay Guardian article, Steven T. Jones describes the personally transformative effect the fashion aesthetic Novoa defined had on its adherents, changing the way they conceived of themselves. “At first, this was all costuming,” The article quoted, Matty Dowlen, El Circo’s head of operations. “But now it’s who I am.”

Meanwhile, aggregating the de riguer health goth brands for the requisite The New York Times article on the subject, Meirav Devash listed: “Mainstream brands like Nike, Adidas and Under Armour, or gothic streetwear from Hood by Air, Cottweiler, Whatever 21, Nvrmnd Clothing, Adyn and Skingraft.”

When I asked Jonny Cota, the owner of Skingraft, about health goth, last year, his response was skeptical amusement. Like everyone else’s.

Perhaps that is what makes possibly-real trends so dubious: the lack of intentionality. Fashion choices used to have specific and unironic meanings. Hippies, punks, ravers, goths — these were cultural philosophies that spread through adoption, not (solely) aesthetic replication. Now, we don’t claim participation, we are simply colonized by memes, unwitting bystanders, just sort of swept up in cultural trend redistricting.

In the days of slow-moving, 20th century media, emergent cultural expressions had time to incubate below the radar before they tipped into mass awareness. Pre-Tumblr, the only way to find out about a new cultural emergence was through the unassailably real channel of one of its actual practitioners. There was no need to wonder about veracity. Now, a nascent trend doesn’t really have the time to mature into something legitimate before the trendhunting hyenas descend upon it, exposing it to a sudden burst of scrutiny. What remains becomes neither niche enough to be authentic nor mass enough to be indisputable. Maybe no new trend seems quite real because it hasn’t had the chance to become real before we’re looking it up on urban dictionary and just as swiftly are click-baited on to the next dubious dopamine hit of meme culture.

Or perhaps, this is what happens now that subculture doesn’t exist. Back in analog days, you wore the clothes you did to express your identity as a participant in the lifestyle they represented. Now that there’s simply no unimpeachable way to really know what is or isn’t “real” at all anymore, possibly-real trends are the reflection of this new, post-certainty reality.

Then again, maybe it’s all just Pizza.

 

Pizza.

The Chicest New Trend Is Pizza” (New York Magazine, September, 2014):

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Much like any other “It” girl, pizza’s popularity was ignited by internet fascination and possibly endorsed by the Illuminati.

Tumblr and Twitter memes dedicated to pizza’s power appeared, among them the Twitter account Pizzaminati.

Loyal followers still carry on the work via usage of #Pizzaminati on Twitter and Instagram. As such, “pizza” quickly took on new meaning — for example, pizza as a substitute in romantic relationship. The phrase “touch her butt and give her pizza” became a widely accepted way to keep your bae happy and “Pizza Is My Boyfriend” the new “Single Ladies” rally cry.

Then came the various pithy pizza message tees at clothing retailers like Forever 21 and Asos and Urban Outfitters.

However, almost as quickly as the Pizzaminati emerged, it disappeared. This, a screenshot of a funny tweet — “shots fired in the club over the last slice of pizza” — is all that remains. Where did you go, Pizzaminati? Were you really a sect of the Illuminati, destroyed once the pizza takeover was initiated? Yes, probably.

 

Or, you know… possibly.

 

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