March 18th, 2014

Hardcore Norm

Because dressing different is such a cliché.

 

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art by Curtis Mead

 

“The kids are doing the normcore,” my friend Quang said, trying out the new phrase with a deliberate, old fart dialect.

Only a few moments earlier I had tossed off the word like common parlance.

“‘Normcore?’” he had repeated, making sure he’d heard correctly.

“Yeah,” I explained, “It’s exactly what you think it is. It’s us, now.”

A shockingly pleasant March afternoon had arrived in Boston that day, on the heels of a cold that had felt like osteoporosis. A decade in LA had turned me into a wimp. I had forgotten how I’d ever managed to live through this in my youth.

I had grown up here. In high school I discovered raves. By college I was throwing them in 20,000 square foot warehouses in Dumbo. After that, I moved out to the west coast and managed a vaudeville circus troupeproduced electronic music festivals, and worked with a bunch of bands, among other things. In the span of the past decade I saw the niche “electronica” genre evolve into mainstream “EDM;” I saw the circus subculture infiltrate pop performance acts, and the signature, post-apocalyptic, tribal fashion aesthetic originated within the Burning Man community become a major fashion trend.

But that day in Boston, in 2014, hanging out with friends who had come up through the rave, circus, and goth subcultures, you could hardly tell where any of us had been. What we wore now was nondescript. Non-affiliated. Normal.

The week before, at a craft beer tasting party at an indie advertising agency in Silver Lake, a sculpture artist was remarking about recently looking through photos of style choices from the aughts. “What was I thinking,” she said in bewilderment. That evening she was wearing a black tank top, and, like, pants. Maybe three quarter length? Or not? Maybe black jeans? Or not-jean pants? I couldn’t recall. Perhaps, I thought, this was just a symptom of getting older. There was some kind of sartorial giving a shit phase that we had all grown out of. But it turned out this, too, was a trend. Kids, too young to have grown out of anything, were dressing this way.

“By late 2013, it wasn’t uncommon to spot the Downtown chicks you’d expect to have closets full of Acne and Isabel Marant wearing nondescript half-zip pullovers and anonymous denim,” wrote Fiona Duncan, in a February New York Magazine article titled, “Normcore: Fashion for Those Who Realize They’re One in 7 Billion:”

I realized that, from behind, I could no longer tell if my fellow Soho pedestrians were art kids or middle-aged, middle-American tourists. Clad in stonewash jeans, fleece, and comfortable sneakers, both types looked like they might’ve just stepped off an R-train after shopping in Times Square. When I texted my friend Brad (an artist whose summer uniform consisted of Adidas barefoot trainers, mesh shorts and plain cotton tees) for his take on the latest urban camouflage, I got an immediate reply: “lol normcore.”

Normcore—it was funny, but it also effectively captured the self-aware, stylized blandness I’d been noticing. Brad’s source for the term was the trend forecasting collective (and fellow artists) K-Hole. They had been using it in a slightly different sense, not to describe a particular look but a general attitude: embracing sameness deliberately as a new way of being cool, rather than striving for “difference” or “authenticity.”

Oh my god, I thought reading this: this is me.

In Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture, published in 2004, cultural critics, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter examined the inherent contradiction in the idea that counterculture was an opposition to  mass consumer culture. Not only were they not opposed, Heath and Potter explained, they weren’t even separate. Alternative culture’s obsession with being different — expressing that difference through prescribed fashion products and subcultural artifacts — had, in fact, helped to create the very mass consumer society the counterculture believed itself to be the alternative to.

“To me, Nike’s famous swoosh logo had long been the mark of the manipulated,” wrote Rob Walker, author of  2008′s Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy And Who We Are, ”A symbol for suckers who take its ‘Just Do It’ bullying at face value. It’s long been, in my view, a brand for followers. On the other hand, the Converse Chuck Taylor All Star had been a mainstay sneaker for me since I was a teenager back in the 1980′s, and I stuck with it well into my thirties. Converse was the no-bullshit yin to Nike’s all-style-and-image yang. It’s what my outsider heroes from Joey Ramone to Kurt Combain wore. So I found [Nike's] buyout [of Converse] disheartening…. but why, really, did I feel so strongly about a brand of sneaker–any brand of sneaker?”

In response to Buying In, I’d written, “Whether we’re choosing to wear Nikes, Converse, Timberlands, Doc Martens, or some obscure Japanese brand that doesn’t even exist in the US, we’re deliberately saying something about ourselves with the choice. And regardless of how “counter” to whatever culture we think we are, getting to express that differentiation about our selves requires buying something.”

But that was five years ago. A funny thing happened on the way to the mid twenty-teens. The digital era ushered in an unprecedented flood of availability — of both information and products. This constant, ubiquitous access to everything — what Chris Anderson dubbed the “Long  Tail” in his 2006 book of the same name – had changed the cultural equation. We had evolved, as Anderson predicted, “from an ‘Or’ era of hits or niches (mainstream culture vs. subcultures) to an ‘AND’ era.” With the widespread proliferation of internet access, mass culture got less mass, and niche culture got less obscure. We became what Anderson called  a  “massively parallel culture: millions of microcultures coexisting and interacting in a baffling array of ways.” On this new, flattened landscape, what was there to be counter to?

“Jeremy Lewis, the founder/editor of Garmento and a freelance stylist and fashion writer, calls normcore ‘one facet of a growing anti-fashion sentiment,’” Duncan writes in New York  Magazine. “His personal style is (in the words of Andre Walker, a designer Lewis featured in the magazine’s last issue) ‘exhaustingly plain’—this winter, that’s meant a North Face fleece, khakis, and New Balances. Lewis says his ‘look of nothing’ is about absolving oneself from fashion.”

That is how normcore happened to me, too. When I quit the circus, leaving behind its sartorial regulations, I realized that difference wasn’t an expression of identity: it was a rat race.

“Fashion has become very overwhelming and popular,” Lewis explains in New York Magazine. “Right now a lot of people use fashion as a means to buy rather than discover an identity and they end up obscured and defeated. I’m getting cues from people like Steve Jobs and Jerry Seinfeld. It’s a very flat look, conspicuously unpretentious, maybe even endearingly awkward. It’s a lot of cliché style taboos, but it’s not the irony I love, it’s rather practical and no-nonsense, which to me, right now, seems sexy. I like the idea that one doesn’t need their clothes to make a statement.”

“Magazines, too,” Duncan writes, “have picked up the look:”

The enduring appeal of the Patagonia fleece [was] displayed on Patrik Ervell and Marc Jacobs’s runways. Edie Campbell slid into Birkenstocks (or the Céline version thereof) in Vogue Paris. Adidas trackies layered under Louis Vuitton cashmere in Self Service. A bucket hat and Nike slippers framed an Alexander McQueen coveralls in Twin. Smaller, younger magazines like London’s Hot and Cool and New York’s Sex, were interested in even more genuinely average ensembles, skipping high-low blends for the purity of head-to-toe normcore.

One of the first stylists I started bookmarking for her normcore looks was the London-based Alice Goddard. She was assembling this new mainstream minimalism in the magazine she co-founded, Hot and Cool, as early as 2011. For Goddard, the appeal of normal clothes was the latest thing. One standout editorial from Hot and Cool no. 5 (Spring 2013) was composed entirely of screenshots of people from Google Map’s Street View app. Goddard had stumbled upon “this tiny town in America” on Map sand thought the plainly-dressed people there looked amazing. The editorial she designed was a parody of contemporary street style photography—“the main point of difference,” she says, “being that people who are photographed by street style photographers are generally people who have made a huge effort with their clothing, and the resulting images often feel a bit over fussed and over precious—the subject is completely aware of the outcome; whereas the people we were finding on Google Maps obviously had no idea they were being photographed, and yet their outfits were, to me, more interesting.”

New media has changed our relation to information, and, with it, fashion. Reverse Google Image Search and tools like Polyvore make discovering the source of any garment as simple as a few clicks. Online shopping—from eBay through the Outnet—makes each season available for resale almost as soon as it goes on sale. As Natasha Stagg, the Online Editor of V Magazine and a regular contributor at DIS (where she recently wrote a normcore-esque essay about the queer appropriation of mall favorite Abercrombie & Fitch), put it: “Everyone is a researcher and a statistician now, knowing accidentally the popularity of every image they are presented with, and what gets its own life as a trend or meme.” The cycles of fashion are so fast and so vast, it’s impossible to stay current; in fact, there is no one current.

Emily Segal of K-HOLE insists that normcore isn’t about one specific aesthetic. “It’s not about being simple or forfeiting individuality to become a bland, uniform mass,” she explains. Rather, it’s about welcoming the possibility of being recognizable, of looking like other people—and “seeing that as an opportunity for connection.”

K-HOLE describes normcore as a theory rather than a look; but in practice, the contemporary normcore styles I’ve seen have their clear aesthetic precedent in the nineties. The editorials in Hot and Cool look a lot like Corinne Day styling newcomer Kate Moss in Birkenstocks in 1990, or like Art Club 2000′s appropriation of madras from the Gap, like grunge-lite and Calvin Klein minimalism. But while (in their original incarnation) those styles reflected anxiety around “selling out,” today’s version is more ambivalent toward its market reality.

In a post Hot-Topic world, where Forever21 serves up fast fashion in processed flavors like, Occupy:

and Burning Man:

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we’re realizing that alternativeness, as a means for authentic self expression, is futile.“Normcore isn’t about rebelling against or giving into the status quo,” Duncan concludes, “It’s about letting go of the need to look distinctive.”

In our all-access, always connected, globalized world, obscurity is scarce. When everything is accessible, nothing is alternative.

“In the 21st century,”  Rob Walker wrote back in 2008, not recognizing the quickly approaching end of counterculture, “We still grapple with the eternal dilemma of wanting to feel like individuals and to feel as though we’re apart of something bigger than ourselves. We all seek ways to resolve this fundamental tension of modern life.”

In 2014, normcore is one solution we’ve found to resolve it.

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October 14th, 2013

Objectionable

Our technology is turning us all into objects. And it doesn’t matter how you treat objects, does it?

 

I have been responsible for more selfies than most people.

I didn’t take them. They’re not of me. But I launched an app which allows users to easily create mirrored images. So the leap from this:

The Tonight Show with Jay Leno - Season 21

To this:

Was almost instant.

In the year since our app launched, our users have created over 5 million images. By now you’ve seen this mirrored selfie trend all over Instagram, not to mention throughout the greater popular culture.

To be fair, mirrored selfie-grams are far from the only way people engage with the app. They also use it to create stunningly beautiful, painstakingly crafted, kaleidoscopic works of abstract art:

 

But it’s the selfies — mirrored or otherwise — that have been on my mind a lot lately.

 

Selfies.

Right now, there are 50 million images on Instagram with the hashtag #selfie, and nearly 140 million tagged #me.

“Selfies,” Elizabeth Day reports in the Guardian, “Have become a global phenomenon. Images tagged as #selfie began appearing on the photo-sharing website Flickr as early as 2004. But it was the introduction of smartphones – most crucially the iPhone 4, which came along in 2010 with a front-facing camera – that made the selfie go viral.”

A recent survey of more than 800 American teenagers by the Pew Research Centre found that 91% posted photos of themselves online – up from 79% in 2006.

But the selfie isn’t just a self-portrait, it is a self-object.

“Again and again, you offer yourself up for public consumption,” Day writes. “Your image is retweeted and tagged and shared. Your screen fills with thumbs-up signs and heart-shaped emoticons. Soon, you repeat the whole process, trying out a different pose.”

“The selfie is about continuously rewriting yourself,” says Dr. Mariann Hardey, a lecturer in marketing at Durham University who specializes in digital social networks. “It’s an extension of our natural construction of self.”

But what is it we are constructing our selves into?

 

Porn.

Before we go any further, let’s get this out of the way: unless you are a teenager right now, you do not understand what it means to grow up in a world where porn and Facebook are equidistant — in case you don’t know, that proximity is one click away, and apart. If you’re curious to understand what, in fact, this experience is like — in teenagers’ own words — you should read Nancy Jo Sales’ recent Vanity Fair article, “Friends Without Benefits.” But not until after you’ve finished reading this one because I’ll be drawing on it quite a bit.

If you are, at this moment, older than at least your mid-20s, whatever it is that you think you can draw on to relate to 2013 from an analog adolescence frame of reference, just put that away, because it is not a parallel to what is happening right now. What is, according to Gail Dines, the author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, is “a massive social experiment.” Here are some results from that experiment so far:

According to a 2008 CyberPsychology & Behavior study:

  • 93% of boys and 62% of girls have seen internet porn
  • 83% of boys and 57% of girls have seen group sex online
  • 18% of boys and 10% of girls have seen rape or sexual violence

But that was five iPhone versions ago at this point, so, you do the math.

“In the absence of credible, long-term research, we simply don’t know where the age of insta-porn is taking us,” writes Peggy Drexler on TheDailyBeast, but that we are in it, and that it is pervasive, is undeniable.

“What does this do to teenagers,” Sales asks in Vanity Fair. “And to children? How does it affect boys’ attitudes toward girls? How does it affect girls’ self-esteem and feeling of well-being? And how is this affecting the way that children and teenagers are communicating on these new technologies?”

In the the Guardian, Day describes one typical answer to that last question: “The pouting mouth, the pressed-together cleavage, the rumpled bedclothes in the background hinting at opportunity — a lot of female selfie aficionados take their visual vernacular directly from pornography (unwittingly or otherwise).”

“Because of porn culture,” says Dines, “Women have internalised that image of themselves. They self-objectify.”

“The girls I interviewed,” says Sales, “Even if they’re not doing it themselves, it’s in their faces: their friends posting really provocative pictures of themselves on Facebook and Instagram, sending nude pictures on Snapchat. Why are they doing this? Is this sexual liberation? Is it good for them? Girls know the issues, and yet some of them still can’t resist objectifying themselves, as they even talk about [themselves]. As the girl I call ‘Greta’ says, ‘more provocative equals more likes.’ To be popular, which is what high school is all about, you have to get ‘likes’ on your social-media pics.”

 

Spring. 

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Harmony Korine’s, Spring Breakers, originally released in March, 2013, “Horrifies and entices in equal measure,” wrote NPR music critic, Ann Powers:

Flattening the hierarchies that separate trash from art, porn from erotica, and moral justice from exploitation by any means necessary, Spring Breakers… embraces and elaborates upon the prevalent suspicion that nobody lives on the stable side of reality any more.

“Pretend you’re in a videogame,” says one of the film’s female anti-heroines as they begin their spree of rampant self-abuse and crime. That’s what Miley Cyrus does, trying on new aspects of performance and sexual self-expression in her new persona. It’s also how the vulnerable models that Robin Thicke ogles [in the music video for his song, Blurred Lines] make it through the gauntlet that the video’s scene creates.

The childlike goofiness Katy Perry expressed with California Gurlz in 2010, or the sweet hope of Carly Rae Jepsen’s smash of last year, Call Me Maybehave intensified into something more unsettling. In this strange summer of too much heat, so many precariously excessive songs and videos now play on that line between healthy catharsis and chaos.

 

Summer.

The summer would get stranger still. Punctuated in its final days by what may just be the most controversial MTV Video Music Awards performance of all time, featuring a duet by Cyrus and Thicke.

I would write about it:

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From its very first steps, Cyrus’s performance felt, unmistakably, like watching a GIF happen in real-time. The act was speaking the native tongue — stuck all the way out — of the digital age, its direct appeal to meme culture as blatant and aggressive as the display of sexuality. The source material and its inevitable meme-ification appeared to be happening simultaneously. The  Internet was inherently integrated within the performance. It was no longer a “second” screen; it was the same damn screen. All the performances before it had been made for TV. This show changed that.

What I learned from the 2013 VMAs is that owning your sexuality is passé, but owning meme culture by exploiting your sexuality is now. Whatever you think of it, Cyrus’s performance was a deliberate reflection of where we are as culture.

 

A burner had been left blindly on. Something invisible and pervasive had accumulated. Watching the VMAs, a giant fireball exploded in our faces.

We were unprepared.

This, ultimately, would be why everyone freaked out. Cyrus became a highly visible target for embodying this shift on a mainstream stage, and exploiting it to increase her fame and drive her record to #1, but all she was doing was deftly surfing the cultural current.

By the end of August, she was exposing us to the new normal.

 

Fall.

“In news that’s not at all surprising, yet another tech event was disrupted by a sexist joke,” Lauren Orsini wrote on ReadWriteWeb, within days of the VMAs:

“Titstare” was the first presentation of the TechCrunch Disrupt 2013 hackathon. Created by Australians Jethro Batts and David Boulton, the joke app is based on the “science” of how sneaking a peek at cleavage helps men live healthier lives.

The opening salvo cast an ugly shadow over the event, reminding attendees that, just like at PyCon and other technology conferences, “brogrammer” culture is still the norm.

Perhaps most disconcerting is the fact that Batts and Boulton presented immediately before Adria Richards, a programmer who rose to the national spotlight after she witnessed sexist jokes at PyCon 2013. Her gall to disapprove of the offensive jokes earned her death threats.

 

In the wake of the VMA article, I kept tweeting over and over, “Everything is changing….but into whatttttt?” By the early days of Fall, the culture had undeniably shifted. I kept kept seeing an escalating, atavistic gender warfare. Why is this happening, I thought.

Why is this happening?

Spinnin-Pioneer

 

Why is THIS happening?

pax

Why is THIS happening??

Susie

That all happened in one day.

That week I was approached to speak at a women’s startup conference and felt, reflexively, offended. The idea that there should be segregated events seemed insulting and damaging — to everyone. I began to feel self-conscious that I had an app startup with a male business partner. I texted him, “What is happening???” and “Can’t we all just get along?” We laughed, but we began to feel like an anomaly.

 

Pretend you’re in a videogame.

“When we listeners find ourselves taking pleasure in these familiar but enticingly refreshed acts of transgression,” Powers writes, “Echoing the Michael Jackson-style whoops that Pharrell makes in Blurred Lines, or nodding along to the stoned, melancholy chorus of Cyrus’s arrestingly sad party anthem, We Can’t Stop, are we compromising ourselves? Or is it okay, because after all, it’s just pretend?”

And when the technology that I, you, and everyone we know use on a daily basis gets developed to the sound of this same, blurry, pop culture soundtrack (figuratively or literally), what happens then? How are the creators of objectifying technology supposed to know it isn’t cool — if all of our technology is used for objectification?

In Vanity Fair, Sales talks to Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus co-directors of Sexy Baby, a documentary about girls and women in the age of porn. “We saw these girls embracing this idea that ‘If I want to be like a porn star, it’s so liberating,’” Gradus said. “We were skeptical. But it was such a broad concept. We asked, ‘What is this shift in our sexual attitudes, and how do we define this?’ I guess the common thread we saw that is creating this is technology. Technology being so available made every girl or woman capable of being a porn star, or thinking they’re a porn star. They’re objectifying themselves. The thinking is: ‘If I’m in control of it, then I’m not objectified.’”

In October, Sinead O’Connor — whose video for Nothing Compares 2 U inspired Cyrus’s look in her video for Wrecking Ball – wrote an “open letter” to Cyrus, beautifully capturing, “in the spirit of motherliness and with love,” the generational disconnect at the heart of the cultural shift. “The message you keep sending is that it’s somehow cool to be prostituted.. it’s so not cool Miley. Don’t let the music business make a prostitute out of you,” O’Connor wrote, not getting it.

The familiar, analog, 20th century relationship in between objectification and commercialization has eroded. In its place, a new, post-Empire dynamic has arrived, built on a natively digital experience that O’Connor and an entire population still able to remember and relate to a world before the internet and mobile technology, can’t wrap their heads around.

“The blurred messages Thicke, Cyrus and others are now sending fit a time when people think of themselves as products, more than ever before,” Powers writes.

In the attention economy, self-exploitation is self-empowerment. We are all objects. We are all products. We are all selfies.

And we can’t stop.

“Social media is destroying our lives,” Sales quotes a girl in Vanity Fair.

“So why don’t you go off it?” Sales asks.

“Because then we would have no life.”

The ubiquitousness of digital cameras and social media platforms to share their instant output has not only turned  the idea that objectification is violation into an anachronism, but self-objectification is now, as Powers, writes “part of today’s ritual of romance.”  Nearly one in three teenagers is sending nude photos, after all.

Like the girls in Sales’ article, who tell her that “presenting themselves in this way is making them anxious and depressed,” but continue to do it anyway, we do not self-objectify because we’re in control. We self-objectify because it is the norm.

We self-objectify to rationalize, to placebo-ize that we had control in the first place.

 

We Can’t Stop.

“Both young women and young men are seriously unhappy with the way things are,” says, Donna Freitas, a former professor at Hofstra and Boston Universities, who studies hook-up culture on college campuses in her new book, The End of Sex  (which Sales suggests, “might as well be called The End of Love.”)

Sales writes:

Much has been written about hook-up culture lately, notably Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men (2012) and a July New York Times article, “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game Too,” both of which attributed the trend to feminism and ambitious young women’s desire not to be tied down by relationships.

But Freitas’s research, conducted over a year on seven college campuses, tells a different story.

She describes the sex life of the average college kid as “Mad Men sex, boring and ambivalent. Sex is something you’re not to care about. They drink to drown out what is really going on with them. The reason for hooking up is less about pleasure and fun than performance and gossip—it’s being able to update [on social media] about it. Social media is fostering a very unthinking and unfeeling culture.”

College kids, both male and female, also routinely rate each other’s sexual performance on social media, often derisively, causing anxiety for everyone.

And researchers are now seeing an increase in erectile dysfunction among college-age men—related, Freitas believes, to their performance anxiety from watching pornography: “The mainstreaming of porn is tremendously affecting what’s expected of them.”

 

Or as ThoughtCatalog writer, Ryan O’Connell, (oh, hey, sup, a dude), put it, “This is how we have sex now:”

Porn has killed our imaginations. We sit and try to fantasize. We shut our eyes tight and think, ‘Wait, what did I used to masturbate about before porn? What image is going to turn me on right now?” But your brain gets tired and your genitalia isn’t used to working this hard so you open your reliable go-to porno and get off in two minutes. Later, you have trouble maintaing an erection during actual sex because your partner doesn’t look like a blow up doll from the Valley.

Our sex lives are having less and less to do with actual sex. Intimacy has morphed into something entirely more narcissistic. What used to be about making each other feel good and connecting is now about validation.

When sex does happen, when we finally make it through the endless hoops of text messaging, planning a date and actually sticking to it and you discover that you like this person (or could like them for an evening), it feels like an old faded photograph that’s been sitting in a shoebox at the bottom of your closet. “This orgasm feels like a vintage ball gown! Is this how people used to do it in the olden days?!” It’s terrifying!

In 2013, our phones are getting to have all the fun. They’re getting laid constantly while we lay naked in the dark, rubbing our skin, trying pathetically to get turned on by the feel of our own touch. We scroll through our camera and see a buffet of anonymous naked photos we’ve collected over the last few months for us to jack off to. Somehow, this has become enough for us. Getting off has become like fast food. It’s accessible, cheap, and most likely going to make us feel like shit after.

We are actively participating in the things that keep us from what we want. Feel good now, feel bad forever later. Stomachache stomachache, junk food junk food.

 

In a pervasively mediated culture, where porn primes our perception of ourselves and others, and our technology reduces us to selfies, objectification is inevitable.

And the trouble is — it doesn’t matter how you treat objects…. It’s not like they’re people.

What people want today is “to hurt one another” and “get back at the people that hurt them,” Hunter Moore, the founder of IsAnyoneUp.com, told Rolling Stone last October.

In a September article on The Verge titled, The End of KindnessGreg Sandoval writes:

And Moore ought to know. He’s one of the pioneers of revenge porn, the practice of posting nude photos to the web of a former lover in an attempt to embarrass, defame, and terrorize.

While minorities and homosexuals are often targeted, experts say no group is more abused online than women. Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland lays out some of the numbers in her upcoming book, Hatred 3.0. The US National Violence Against Women Survey reports 60% of cyberstalking victims are women. A group called Working to Halt Online Abuse studied 3,787 cases of cyberharassment, and found that 72.5% were female, 22.5% were male and 5% unknown. A study of Internet Relay Chat showed male users receive only four abusive or threatening messages for every 100 received by women.

Moore has sold his site but scores of wannabes are cropping up. A check of these sites shows that victims are almost always women. At Myex.com over 1,000 nude photos and new pictures are added nearly every day. Each post typically includes the name of the person photographed, their age, and the city they live in. The posts come with titles like, “Manipulative Bitch,” “Cheater,” “Has genital warts,” “Drunk,” “Meth User,” “This girl slept with so many other guys,” and “Filthy Pig.”

The Verge contacted several women found on some of these sites, including Myex.com. While all of them declined to be interviewed, they did acknowledge that the photos were posted without permission by an ex-boyfriend or lover. One woman said that she was trying to get the pictures pulled down and had successfully removed them from other sites because she was not yet 18 years old when they were taken (if her claim is accurate it would make the snapshots child pornography). She pleaded that we not use her name and asked that we not contact her again.

If the woman was upset and afraid, she has a right to be, says Holly Jacobs, 30, who has started a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending revenge porn and supporting its victims. Jacobs knows firsthand that these sites are killers of reputations and relationships. Three years ago, Jacobs was studying for her PhD in industrial organizational psychology and working as a consultant at a university when a former boyfriend began posting nude photos of her online. The embarrassment and terror was just the beginning. Jacobs’ ex sent copies of the photos to her boss and suggested she was sexually preying on students. Jacobs’ employers, fearing bad press, asked her to prove she didn’t upload the photos herself. She finally felt compelled to change her name (Jacobs is the new name).

In July The Washington Post published a story about men who post phony ads to make it appear as if their ex-wives or girlfriends are soliciting sex. One man, Michael Johnson II of Hyattsville, Maryland, published an ad titled “Rape Me and My Daughters” and included his ex-wife’s home address. More than 50 men showed up to the victim’s house. One man tried to break in and another tried to undress her daughter. Johnson was sentenced to 85 years in prison. His victim was physically unharmed but these ads can be lethal. In December 2009, a Wyoming woman was raped with a knife sharpener in her home after an ex-boyfriend assumed her identity and posted a Craigslist ad that read, “Need an aggressive man with no concern or regard for women.” Her ex and the man who raped her are both serving long prison sentences.

 

Winter.

While people, trapped as we are by our digital avatars, are increasingly being reduced to objects, our technology seems to be benefitting from a transference of humanity.

Spike Jonze’s new movie, Her, due out in December, is being called “science fiction,” but the “future” depicted in the trailer looks essentially indistinguishable from the reality we all find ourselves in today. In it, a melancholy man, played by Joaquin Phoenix, and a Turing test-approved virtual assistant program, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, fall in love.

“Unlike the science fiction of yesteryear,” writes David Plumb on Salon.com, “Her is not about the evolving relationship between humans and artificial intelligence. Instead, Samantha appears to be essentially a human being trapped in a computer. Her thus appears to be about programming the perfect woman who fits in your pocket, manages your life, doesn’t have a body (and thus free will), and has an off switch.”

 

Pretend you’re in a videogame.

 

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October 9th, 2013

Make More Ads Like This

It’s not that fucking hard.

 

Yesterday I was served this ad as the pre-roll in front of a TLC music video on YouTube and kind of freaked out. It was such a profound departure from the typical ad aimed at women, it felt like I’d seen a unicorn. I then proceeded to devote way too much of my day trying to find it afterwards. I reloaded “Creep” at least 50 times to try to get the same ad again. I finally ended up tweeting at @SecretDeodorant to help me track it down. (Thanks, Secret!)

“Did you know, striking a confident pose for 2 minutes can leave you feeling fearless all day?”

Did you know that this is actually true?

 

As social psychologist, Ann Cuddy, explains in her Ted talk, this is actually true whether you believe it or not! Our body language affects not only how others see us, but it can also change how we see ourselves. She goes on to show how “power posing” — standing in a posture of confidence, even when we don’t feel confident — can alter testosterone and cortisol levels in the brain (all things that affect perspiration, by the way) and may even have an impact on our chances for success.

When people feel happy they smile, but conversely, holding a pen between your teeth, which forces the facial muscles into a smile, will actually make you feel happier. So you can stand there doing the “Wonder Woman” and feel silly the whole time you’re doing it and it doesn’t even matter. Our minds change our bodies, and likewise, our bodies can change our minds. Posture can become power. For a product so intimately tied to the mind-body connection, this message is a no-brainer.

Oh, hey, sup, creative directors and brand managers: MAKE MORE ADS LIKE THAT.

Make less ads like this:

 

You can either have your intended target associate your brand with a message that depicts them as clowns, and experiences that make them feel foolish — the kinds of things we all try to avoid, forget, and deny. Or you can associate your brand with experiences that LITERALLY make people feel assertive, confident, and powerful — a sensation we all crave like a drug fix, and cling to with all our might in the face of an uncertain world.

The choice is not that fucking hard.

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August 30th, 2013

Violate Me

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Here is what I can tell you. When I was in New York a month ago and one night someone suggested we go to an MTV party, the first thought I had was — wait, MTV still exists?

But I guess it does because this week I’ve spent a lot of time talking about MTV. Well, not really so much MTV as the MTV Video Music Awards. Well, not even that, so much as Miley Cyrus’s performance. Yeah, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about Miley Cyrus’s performance at the VMAs. And so has the rest of America. Not only was a story about her performance the main event on the CNN homepage the next day, I then saw The Onion’s fictional op-ed, ostensibly written by the managing editor of CNN.com, with the headline, “Let Me Explain Why Miley Cyrus’ VMA Performance Was Our Top Story This Morning” (CNN spoiler alert: ad revenue), retweeted in my feed no less than 9 times in a matter of hours (The Onion spoiler alert: ad revenue).

For a culture that has become desensitized to multi-million dollar celebrity media empires built off the backs of sex tapes, something about Cyrus’s performance nevertheless managed to strike a nerve.

Here’s what we saw:

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Afterwards, I don’t think any of us were quite sure exactly what had just happened to us.

It wasn’t just the raunchiness or the shock value. This is the VMA’s, after all, where Madonna kicked things off 30 years ago by dry humping the stage in a punk wedding dress; where Britney sang “I’m a Slave 4 u” while dancing in a green version of Cyrus’s flesh-toned 2-piece, with a live python draped around her body, and later where Madonna and Britney and Christina all made out, and then after that, where Lady Gaga hanged herself. The controversial VMA performance is now pretty much a traditional rite of passage in the transition from Disney child star into adult entertainer.

Wait… what?

Anyway, we expect this. We’re  practically inured to it at this point. But this show, Cyrus’s show, got under our skin. And not in, like, a good way.

“It seems everyone hated whatever it was Miley Cyrus was doing at last night’s VMAs,” Neetzan Zimmerman wrote on Gawker.

Whatever it was she was doing…. we couldn’t even be sure. The next morning we woke up in turns “stunned,” “shocked,” “outraged,” outraged by the outrage. From the moment Cyrus first stuck out her tongue, things felt weird. We’re so used to performers adhering to a strict code of conduct of media training — gliding through precise sequences of polished, camera-ready choreography. You want this to wind up being the image that follows you around the internet tomorrow, we thought to ourselves watching Cyrus gag.

Little did we know.

Then the performance began in earnest, Cyrus singing and dancing to her summer jam, “We Can’t Stop,” and we tried to relax. But 90 seconds in, as Jody Rosen writes on the Vulture blog, “pausing to spank and simulate analingus upon the ass of a thickly set African-American backup dancer, her act tipped over into what we may as well just call racism: a minstrel show routine whose ghoulishness was heightened by Cyrus’s madcap charisma.”

Awkward.

And that was all before Robin Thicke got onstage and Cyrus snapped out of her teddy-bear teddy, down to a nude, vinyl bikini, to duet Thicke’s own controversial summer hit, “Blurred Lines,” and the REALLY uncomfortable shit happened. The most disconcerting thing about their performance was Thicke’s consistent lack of….. engagement. While Cyrus twerked all over his body, Thicke seemed barely aware she was there. The New York Times described Cyrus’s behavior as a “molesting” of Robin Thicke. Behind his shades you couldn’t be sure whether he was even making eye contact. Of course, what Thicke was doing was reenacting the Blurred Lines video. Directed by Diane Martel, who’s also responsible for the video for We Can’t Stop, the video features basically completely naked women dancing next to, strutting past, facing away from, and engaging in a host of other activities that in general involve pretty much anything except actually acknowledging the presence of Robin Thicke. Or of T.I. or Pharrell Williams. The non-interactions between the fully-dressed men in the video and naked women seem so unaligned and asynchronous and non-sequitured they might as well be SnapChatting them in. “I directed the girls to look into the camera,” Martel explained on Grantland. “This is very intentional and they do it most of the time; they are in the power position. I wanted to deal with the misogynist, funny lyrics in a way where the girls were going to overpower the men. Look at Emily Ratajkowski’s performance; it’s very, very funny and subtly ridiculing. I find [the video] meta and playful.”

Whether the end result really succeeds in its intention is debatable (“Is meta-nudity a thing? Is there such thing as ‘ironic objectification?’” Callie Beusman asks on Jezebel), but this conceit at least makes sense in the context of a music video — and, by the way, subconsciously speaks to all of us and our modern experience of hyper-mediated, asynchronous connection. But you know where it doesn’t actually work? Live, on stage, as a visual to support a 20-year old former child star’s transformation into a woman claiming her sexuality.

“Performing near-nude on the VMA stage 10 years earlier,” Daniel D’addario writes on Salon.com, “Christina Aguilera was singing an ode to her own empowerment and desire to get sexual satisfaction on her own terms. Last night, Miley was singing a song about how good Robin Thicke is at sex.” And in this context, Thicke’s lack of engagement in the proceedings made Cyrus’s relentless hypersexualization look desperate, or worse yet, depraved. At first Cyrus came across like that girl you knew in college, drunk at a party, looking to fuck for validation. If you happened to stop to factor in the 16 year age difference between Thicke and Cyrus, a whole other kind of psychological issue could, conceivably, have seemed to be spilling itself out all over MTV. But the real cringe-worthy element of the experience was that, in the absence of active participation — and its implicit consent — from anyone sharing the stage with her, Cyrus’s agrosexual zeal very quickly began to look kinda….uhm…. predatory.

In one singular moment, Cyrus appeared to us as victim and predator. The violated, and the violator. No wonder we weren’t sure what we were even looking at. Cognitive dissonance, haaaaaaaay! Miley Cyrus had roofied us all. You could understand why, the next morning, MSNBC’s, Mika Brzezinski would call her “disturbed.”

Perhaps the problem is that “no one has apparently said ‘no’ [to Cyrus] for the last six months,” Jon Carmanica, suggested in The New York Times.

But it sure did  make for some great GIFs tho, amirite?!

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ku-medium (2)

ku-medium (1)

From its very first steps, Cyrus’s performance felt, unmistakably, like watching a GIF happen in real-time. On the Atlantic, Nolan Feeney called this “the most GIFable award show ever,” and, indeed, Cyrus’s performance felt like the first one truly made for the age of the Internet. The act was speaking the native tongue — stuck all the way out — of the digital age, its direct appeal to meme culture as blatant and aggressive as the display of sexuality. All the performances before it had been made for TV. This show changed that. The source material and its inevitable meme-ification appeared to be happening simultaneously. The  Internet was inherently integrated within the performance. It was no longer a “second” screen; it was the same damn screen. If you go to watch the performance now on MTV.com, a bright pink button, set in stark relief against the site’s black background, blares, “GIF THIS!”

You want this to wind up being the image that follows you around the internet tomorrow? 

Yes. That was the whole point.

It’s our party we can do what we want
It’s our party we can say what we want
It’s our party we can love who we want
We can kiss who we want
We can sing what we want
- “We Can’t Stop

Six years before Cyrus was even born, a trio of dudes demanded you had to fight for your right to party. But that’s not what We Can’t Stop is is about. This song is a rallying cry for the right to be your own person. Something the human collateral of the Disney industrial complex, and the daughter of a Hollywood dad, would know something about, no doubt. (“It’s my mouth; I can say what I want to.”) But it’s also something that any adolescent can relate to, especially now.

“It’s like a giant, fucked-up selfie,” Martel said, explaining the concept behind the “We Can’t Stop” video, on RollingStone.com. “She’s absolutely taking the piss out of being in a pop video.” Even if you haven’t had to shoulder the weight of a multi-million dollar entertainment franchise since you were a child, everyone growing up now is saddled with the responsibility of managing their mediated identities. So how do you rebel against that responsibility? How do you subvert the expectation to maintain your put-together, meticulously edited persona? Maybe you have a video of yourself doing a Salvia bong hit at a house party on your 18th birthday end up on TMZ. Maybe you fuck your image up. You don’t try to look good. You grimace and stick your tongue out and take a photo and post that fucked-up selfie for the world to see.

Because if you don’t do it on your terms, the Internet meme hive force will do it for you. Here’s a pic that made the Internet meme rounds in the wake of Beyonce’s Super Bowl performance earlier this year:

Superbowl XLVII - Baltimore Ravens v San Francisco 49ers  - Mercedes-Benz Superdome

 

And here’s Cyrus fucking the shot up on purpose, before you could do it to her:

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If you think Cyrus was trying to look good for you, if you think that no one was telling her “no” as she was putting the VMA performance together, that she herself wasn’t scrutinizing each frame of rehearsal video, and keenly understanding just how wrong it all looked, you’re completely missing the point.

We live in an age of violation. From News of the World hacking the cell phones of celebrities and bombing victims, to PRISM hacking everyone, everything, all the time. From doxxing to TMZ, from Wikileaks to Kiki Kannibal to Star Wars Kid to so many victims of online harassment driven to suicide, to Diana dying in a car crash in a French tunnel while being chased by paparazzi, to “Sad Keanu.”

The meme hive force is the digestive system of our networked world, capable of gleefully devouring its victims — or at least its objects — alive. Cyrus doing it to herself is “disturbed,” but the violating, exploiting meme hive force doing it to her is just another Tuesday on the Internet? And we’re totally cool with that. But, see, Cyrus thinks this is her song. And she can sing if she wants to. Her performance, crass, lewd, uncomfortable, disturbing, whatever, turned the hive force dynamic on its head. The meme object rolled out of a giant teddy bear, landed on stage and screamed, “GIF THIS!” It stuck its tongue out at all of us and belted, FIRST! at the top of its lungs and memed itself. Before anyone else could. The show got the upper hand by turning itself into the object of its own violation.

Because when we’ve already been titillated in every way imaginable, what else is there left to do? Cyrus basically didn’t do anything on the VMA stage that hasn’t been simulated there in one way or another before. So how else is there for a female pop star to traffic in her own sexuality in any new way, except to make us all feel like she was coercing us into violating her?

It was a new one for me. Was it weird for you, too?

“The Internet is fickle,” Martel said on Grantland, “But if a video is strong and entertaining, it is going to get massive hits, so of course strong work is going to have an effect on record sales. As I said, I’m mega-focused on selling records right now, so I’m doing that. I’m only taking jobs where this is a possibility. There is a new generation of kids that are overstimulated as viewers and you have to address that somehow. I’m just paying attention to the audience and their movements.”

What I learned from the 2013 VMAs is that owning your sexuality is passé, but owning meme culture by exploiting your sexuality is now. After all, in the attention economy, self-exploitation is self-empowerment. (Miley Cyrus spoiler alert: ad revenue).

Whatever you think of it, Cyrus’s performance was a deliberate reflection of where we are as culture. Calling it a “commentary” may be an overstatement, but it’s definitely a comment: 

R U NOT ENTERTAINED?????

942064_641_5YfeVAd

 

Oh, and guess what else? MTV, it turns out, still exists.

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August 5th, 2013

Music & Mirrorgrams: Lessons Learned From Working in Apps

musicandmirrorgramsMirrorgram by: bobdoran

 

This weekend I was invited to a salon-style dinner organized by Tim Chang and Les Borsai, hosted at the home of Steve Rennie. The event turned out to be a fascinating gathering at the intersection of digital media, technology, and music.

I have an art app called Mirrorgram. We launched it last October, and just this past month we crossed a million users! But I ended up in apps kind of by accident. I come, as did nearly everyone at the dinner, from music. For a long time, I used to produce music festivals. I’ve worked with Live Nation and House of Blues, and for years I was the marketing director for the Do Lab on the Lightning in a Bottle Festival. That’s actually how I met my Mirrorgram co-founder, Justin Boreta, who’s part of a band called the Glitch Mob. In fact, he came up with the concept for Mirrorgram while on tour, during the hours spent bored on the bus between shows, nerding out with iPhone photo apps. And it was built by the team at StageBloc, whose platform is designed to specifically support the unique  content and community needs of musicians and performers. So when Tim asked me to come to the salon with a few minutes worth of lessons learned from working in apps, the first thing that came to mind for me was how much we draw on what we’ve internalized from our experiences in the music world to shape the way we approach what we do in the app world:

1. Fans vs. Users.
Before we ever started thinking about “users” our reference point was always “fans.” Of course, now we’re incredibly concerned with usability, and how people actually engage with our product, but beyond the app itself, we have a deep understanding and respect  for the importance of nurturing the kinds extended social narratives and interactions that get created around it. Like what happens with a band people love, or an annual music festival that they revisit every year. We’ve seen so many Mirrorgrammers create connections and forge friendships and even artistic collaborations with one another through this shared love that they have for the app, and the art they create with it. And we’ve always understood that drive through the lens of fandom.

2. Choose your own adventure.
Coming from a world of creating real-life experiences we have a natural inclination to approach what we’re doing in the digital space with that same sensibility. It’s about creating a platform with a certain amount of structure — a concert set list, a festival lineup, an app feature-set — but then also leaving a ton of room open people to create their own experiences within that structure. When we look at the kind of art that people create with Mirrorgram, it consistently blows us away. Half the time we don’t even know HOW people are creating the images they are with it. We’re just watching the feed, mesmerized. It’s pretty unbelievable. Coming from music, that experience of creating something and putting it out into the world and then seeing people take it into directions you could have never imagined or expected is very familiar.

3. More than the sum of its parts.
There’s something really interesting in approaching the evolution of an app, or any product, the way a band thinks about the new music it releases, or the way a music festival builds on what came before, year after year. A band doesn’t think about its next album like an “update.” It’s about a journey that we want to take our fans or our attendees or our users on with us. The day we went live with Mirrorgram, we referred to it (kinda jokingly, but kinda not) like the start of “The Symmetry Revolution.”

We still reference it in a tongue in cheek kind of way, but people in the iPhoneography world have really gravitated to that idea of it being about something bigger, of the app as an entry-point into a larger creative movement or community. To us, Mirrorgram has always been much more than just the sum of its features — it’s part of an ongoing, shared, cultural and aesthetic experience we’re creating and evolving together with the people who use it.

It’s still fairly early days for Mirrorgram, but hopefully you might want to come on that trip with us.

And thanks again to Tim, Les, and Steve, for hosting such a wonderful evening!

 

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