The story of the biggest transformation of our time has a marketing problem: no one knows it’s happening.
There were many important events that happened in 2016. Some were deafening, trumpeting the seemingly inexplicable ascent of backwards-facing forces. But one event of great historical significance went largely unremarked upon.
In 2016 solar power became the cheapest form of new electricity on the planet and for the first time in history installed more new electric capacity than any other energy source.
Amid the sepia haze oozing from the past’s rusting, orange pipeline, humanity was placing a serious bet on a new kind of future. And you didn’t even know about it.
That’s a problem.
It was a bit like if you had a source of whale blubber in the 1840s and it could be used as fuel. Before gas came along, if you traded in whale blubber, you were the richest man on Earth. Then gas came along and you’d be stuck with your whale blubber. Sorry mate — history’s moving along.
— Brian Eno
“The beginning of the end for fossil fuels,” according to Bloomberg, occurred in 2013. “The world is now adding more capacity for renewable power each year than coal, natural gas, and oil combined. And there’s no going back…. The shift will continue to accelerate, and by 2030 more than four times as much renewable capacity will be added.”
The International Energy Agency’s Executive Director, Fatih Birol, said, “We are witnessing a transformation of global power markets led by renewables.”
“While solar was bound to fall below wind eventually, given its steeper price declines, few predicted it would happen this soon,” notes Bloomberg.
Later campaigns for the iPhone didn’t even show the product at all:
The product became the conduit to the experience. And the experience that solar has to sell is Future.
– Claim the Narrative of Future –
Two decades ago — back when it was still possible to talk about the future as anything but dystopia — a series of ads painted a striking vision of how that future was going to unfold. “Have you ever borrowed a book from thousands of miles away,” asked the ad voice. “Crossed the country without stopping to ask for directions? Or watched the movie you wanted to, the minute you wanted to?”
“You will,” said the voice, “and the company that will bring it to you: AT&T.”
Today I use a device to do basically 90% of what those ads predicted. (OK, I’ve never sent a fax from the beach, or tucked a baby in from a phone-booth, but you can’t get the Future 100% right). All of these things are so obvious and mundane now we barely even remember — some of us never knew — there was a time before. But, indeed, there was a point when this fantastical world was the future, and the future still seemed like a fantastical world.
There are no grand visions for the future now, no scenarios for humanity that don’t fill us with dread. A dying oligarchy tells us dissolution is freedom; regression is hope. It has disfigured our understanding of what’s happening in our world. The result is a gaping void in our collective vision when we look ahead. 17 years in to our new century there is a desperate hunger for a bright vision for the future, and at the moment arguably no one outside the world of clean energy has a legitimate claim to one. In the end, it’s not about utility bills or net metering laws or even solar panels for that matter. It’s about a vision of a Future worth demanding. Solar has the opportunity to be the voice of that vision for decades to come with a simple, cohesive, culture-focused messaging strategy.
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.
Remember back when I used to be a social media strategist?
I started before that term was even being used, and as late as this October the L.A. Times still hadn’t gotten the memo that I had move on, calling me a “social media expert” for my crimes (among them: 1, 2, 3).
So you’d be forgiven if you hadn’t realized that I’d become a product strategist. (Social media, it’s not you, it’s me. Well, it’s kind of you. But mostly, it’s me. Anyway, at this point everything is social, so let’s call it even.)
While 2012 has been the quietest year on Social-Creature since I started the site, elsewhere it’s been quite prolific. So as the year comes to a close, I thought I’d take a break to share some of what’s been going on.
reached #1 paid app in the photo and video category:
and #11 paid app overall:
Less than 2 months in, Mirrorgram now has over 300,000 users, there are nearly 45,000 images in the #mirrorgram feed on Instagram, and mirroring has become a cultural aesthetic trend:
You’re welcome / We’re sorry.
Anyway, watching hundreds of thousands of people use the product has offered visibility into some really fascinating behavioral insights around iPhone creativity, the mechanics of digital art creation, and the white space on the photo sharing landscape. More about what we’ve learned, and how these insights are informing further product strategy, including a truly exciting new direction in the app’s evolution — hint: what’s Instagram NOT for? (porn, aside) — in the new year, so stay tuned!
Gather began as a hip, little boutique, beloved by Racked LA and LA Weekly for carrying all local L.A. designers. Now this idea has evolved into what I, and my partner, Katie Kay Mead, see as the future of hyper-local design discovery and retail.
While shopping has moved online, the discovery of locally-created design is still trapped by brick-and-mortar, and coincidence. The new Gather site, relaunched this Fall, is designed address this gap, allowing visitors to easily discover cutting-edge design just around the corner. As the L.A. Times put it in their recent Sunday feature on Gather:
More to come on the arising cultural behaviors and beliefs that have laid the foundation for Gather’s new direction — including why flash sale leaders are desperate to reposition themselves as purveyors of special (rather than discounted) things, and the emerging local trend, bolstered by campaigns like AmEx’s “Small Business Saturday” and Millennials’ proclivities.
In the meantime:
And there’s other bright news as well, but I’ll tell you when I see you in 2013!
This morning I was on WBEZ Chicago, talking on Eight Forty-Eight about the ways our ancient, social instincts play out in contemporary culture. Thanks to host, Tony Sarabia, and fellow guest, Rabbi Adam Chalom, for a great discussion!
(My part starts at 12:20)
[audio:http://social-creature.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/120418-seg-b_1.mp3|titles=“Tribalism in the modern age” on WBEZ Chicago|width=60%]
Jewelry-makers and hairstylists have been snatching up the premium chicken feathers used in standby trout-fly patterns, creating a sudden run on a market that’s ill-prepared for significant fluctuations of demand.
“Supplies are just decimated,” said Jim Cox, co-owner of the Kingfisher fly shop in Missoula, [Montana]. “We just can’t get the premium feathers. Even the (sales) reps for the suppliers can’t get them for themselves.”
What began a couple of years ago as a scattered interest in feather jewelry has erupted into a full-on fad for hair extensions made out of long, slender feathers — the exact same feathers used in the vast majority of traditional dry-fly patterns.
The feathers most valued both by fly-tiers and, lately, fashion mavens come from specific types of roosters that are selectively bred to produce long, slender feathers. Such chickens typically take almost a full year to raise before slaughter. What’s more, they’re rare: Only a few dozen commercial breeders exist in America, and most are small operations.
The situation’s getting so dire, American Public Radio’s Marketplace reports, the American Fly Fishing Trade Association is lobbying lawmakers about conservation. Tom Whiting, owner of Whiting Farms in western Colorado, one of the world’s largest producers of fly tying feathers, a third of whose sales now go to fashion, says, “We have orders far in excess of what we have in our system.” With the demand, the prices are skyrocketing. Last week the Oregonian reported a rooster neck of feathers that would have normally cost $29.95, is now selling for $360. A 300% – 700% jump in rooster saddle feather price is now typical.
In fashion parlance, feathers are in. Steven Tyler has been wearing the avian accessories as he judges American Idol contestants. Pop singer, Kesha, rocks feathers, too, even sticking one in Conan Obrien’s hair during a recent appearance on his show. Between Los Angeles’s mercantile meccas of Melrose Ave. and the Beverly Center you can get feather hair extensions, earrings, necklaces; feathers on boots, shoes, tops, skirts, hats, bras, anything. In the summer of 2011, feathers have become a staple of every sartorial and tonsorial aspect imaginable.
The other day I was asked my opinion as to where this current ubiquity of feathers has come from. But as it turns out, I happen to have something better than an opinion: I have an explanation.
Our story begins almost 12 years ago, in a little town in Oregon, by the name of Ashland, where a group of kids came together to start a circus performance troupe called, El Circo. The group would gain recognition within the Burning Man culture for the extravagant parties they threw at the festival, featuring lavish fire performances, a large, geodesic dome venue, and a top-notch sound system that attracted world-renowned music acts to perform there. In a 2005 San Francisco Bay Guardian article on the effect that the various groups within the Burning Man community have had on San Francisco nightlife — an impact which now extends to the entire west coast’s, and arguably global, dance culture — the writer paid particular attention to the influence of El Circo:
El Circo has fused a musical style and a fashion sense that are major departures from the old rave scene. [They are credited] with creating the postapocalyptic fashions that many now associate with Burning Man. Most of the original El Circo fashions, which convey both tribalism and a sense of whimsy, were designed by member Tiffa Novoa.”
Here are some of the El Circo costumes from their 2005 shows:
Traditional forms of the tribe, like the village, have almost completely disappeared. Fewer and fewer people live in small communities where their daily interactions bring them in contact with the people they are deeply connected to, either spiritually or economically. Workers in modern corporations are replaceable and no longer bound to each other by the experience of a shared interdependence. The modern individual is preoccupied simultaneously by isolating, immediate concerns of personal survival and the larger, often intangible concerns of war, terror and economic change as transmitted by a now-seamless global media network. The intermediate space of community is not easily reached.
Not by accident, many of the newer, emergent forms of culture include a specifically tribal aspect. A return to tattooing, sacrification, fire performance and drumming, as well as a renewed interest in ritual, has occurred side-by-side with the formation of intentional (if temporary) communities such as the Rainbow Family gatherings and Burning Man festival.
It was at these kinds of festivals, in clubs and at underground raves, that alternative circus acts began appearing in the early 90′s. The performers were young, crazy “freaks” without any formal training who used circus costumes, skills or themes as performative means for expressing their own exaggerated personalities. Many went on to gain formal training or to study the history of the genre, but essentially their relationship to conventional circuses resembled that of outsider art to mainstream art circles. They didn’t really relate to the modern-day circus. They took their cues from something much, much older: the caravan-pulling gypsies.
The phenomenon of alternative circus performance can be seen as the theatrical dimension to one generation’s wholesale rediscovery of the concept of tribe.
And the inexorable feather trend is inextricably linked with this trajectory.
Novoa co-founded El Circo along with Marisa Youlden, a jewelry designer whose pieces accompanied Novoa’s costumes from the beginning. Youlden first used feathers in her pieces in 2000 and recalls this was when Novoa began creating elaborate feather headdresses for the performers. “At first, this was all costuming,” The 2005 Bay Guardian article quoted Matty Dowlen, El Circo’s operations manager, and performer, “but now it’s who I am.” The aesthetic Novoa first envisioned for the El Circo performers evolved into the prêt-à-porter of the circus subculture and became its signature style. Feathers, which had come to define El Circo costumes, became an integral component of the subculture’s street fashion:
Yup, that last one is me. You can’t see the feather in this shot, but trust me, it was there. In the early to mid-aughts (when the photos above were taken) the feather was as de rigueur a cultural signifier within the circus scene as the safety pin was for punks in the late 1970s and early 80s. In fact, back before it was so commonplace as to lose meaning (or induce a national feather shortage), condescending terms for those sporting the look sprang up within the subculture: “Feather mafia,” was one I heard thrown around; “Trustafarian peacock” even made it into UrbanDictionary.com. And then, something else began to happen.
In 2005, Mötley Crüe picked circus as the concept for their comeback tour:
The next year, Panic! At the Disco won an MTV Video Music Award for their circus-themed, “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” video:
A theme they then extended into their “Nothing Rhymes With Circus” tour:
And in 2008, the reigning queen of pop herself at the time, Britney Spears, came out with an album titled, Circus, and ensuing tour of the same theme:
Throughout pop culture, traces of circus’s influence would keep surfacing. The same year as Britney’s Circus album, this was the ad for that season’s America’s Next Top Model:
Or take this ad for the launch of Microsoft’s short-lived Kin mobile device from last year:
The proliferation of circus within pop culture has been directly tied to its growth in underground culture, and being in an underground circus troupe during the height of this infiltration offered backstage access to the proceedings. For example: The circus featured in the Kin ad is March Fourth Marching Band. The circus performers in the Panic! At the Disco music video and tour were members of the troupe I managed. The performers who went on tour with Mötley Crüe would become Lucent Dossier members, as well. Last year, Miley Cyrus’s “Can’t be Tamed” music video featured a winged Cyrus alongside a troupe of be-feathered backup dancers inside a giant birdcage:
In 2005, Haley went on to form a new label, Skingraft Designs, with Jonny Cota, and later Katie Kay, who was a partner from 2007 – 2010. All three had circus pedigree. Cota and Haley had performed with El Circo, and Kay was one of the original members in Lucent Dossier, for which Haley and Cota would occasionally moonlight. Some of Skingraft’s early work is pictured below.
Over the years since Tiffa first put feathers on the bodies of circus performers, inspiring others to follow suit, hundreds of thousands, if not millions have been exposed to the style at Burning Man, and the E3 gaming convention where El Circo would perform; at Coachella, and the Grammy’s afterparty, where Lucent Dossier performed; at countless night clubs stretching from the depths of Downtown L.A. up the length of the Pacific coast. Hollywood stylists partying on Saturday night woke up on Monday with new inspiration. And circus costumers became famed fashion designers. In the end, this cross-pollination laid the foundation for the exact kind of tipping point Malcolm Gladwell describes in his seminal, 2000 book exploring the social mechanics that lead trends to “tip” into mass, cultural phenomena. The Tipping Point begins with the words:
For Hush Puppies — the classic American brushed-suede shoes with the lightweight crepe sole — the Tipping Point came somewhere between late 1994 and early 1995. The brand had been all but dead until that point. Sales were down to 30,000 pairs a year, mostly to backwoods outlets and small-town family stores. Wolverine, the company that makes Hush Puppies, was thinking of phasing out the shoes that made them famous. But then something strange happened. At a fashion shoot, two Hush Puppies executives — Owen Baxter and Geoffrey Lewis — ran into a stylist from New York who told them that the classic Hush Puppies had suddenly become hip in the clubs and bars of downtown Manhattan. “We were being told,” Baxter recalls, “that there were resale shops in the Village, in Soho, where the shoes were being sold. People were going to the Ma and Pa stores, the little stores that still carried them, and buying them up.” Baxter and Lewis were baffled at first. It made no sense to them that shoes that were so obviously out of fashion could make a comeback. “We were told that Isaac Mizrahi was wearing the shoes himself,” Lewis says. “I think it’s fair to say that at the time we had no idea who Isaac Mizrahi was.”
By the fall of 1995, things began to happen in a rush. First the designer John Bartlett called. He wanted to use Hush Puppies in his spring collection. Then another Manhattan deisgner, Anna Sui called, wanting shoes for her show as well. In Los Angeles, the designer Joel Fitzgerald put a twenty-five-foot inflatable basset hound — the symbol of the Hush Puppies brand — on the roof of his Hollywood store and gutted an adjoining art gallery to turn it into a Hush Puppies boutique. While he was still painting and putting up shelves, the actor Pee-wee Herman walked in and asked for a couple pairs. “It was total word of mouth,” Fitzgerald remembers.
In 1995, the company sold 430,000 pairs of the classic Hush Puppies, and the next year it sold four times that, and the year after that, still more, until Hush Puppies were once again a staple of the wardrobe of the young American male. In 1996, Hush Puppies won the prize for best accessory at the Council of Fashion Designers awards dinner at Lincoln Center, and the president of the firm stood up on the stage with Calvin Klein and Donna Karan and accepted an award for an achievement that — as he would be the first to admit — his company had almost nothing to do with. Hush Puppies had suddenly exploded, and it all started with a handful of kids in the East Village and Soho.
How did this happen? Those first few kids, whoever they were, weren’t deliberately trying to promote Hush Puppies. They were wearing them precisely because no one else would wear them. Then the fad spread to two fashion designers who used to shoes to peddle something else — haute couture. The shoes were an incidental touch. No one was trying to make Hush Puppies a trend. Yet, somehow, that’s exactly what happened. The shoes passed a certain point in popularity and they tipped. How does a thirty-dollar pair of shoes go from a handful of downtown Manhattan hipsters to every mall in America in the space of two years?
Right now, the roosters know, but they’re not telling.