Internet Culture & Consumer Identity

This is one of my favorite shirts, I bought it for a very low price from while reworking my wardrobe a year and a half ago because most my clothes were from high school and either didn’t fit well, were falling apart, or just didn’t appeal to me anymore. I knew that Romwe is a fast fashion company out of China, and was under no illusion as to whether or not the business owners cared about racism, sexism or LGBTQ+ rights. So why did I buy it, and why is it still my favorite? I’ll get back to that later.

In Howard Rheingold’s Net Smart: How to Thrive Online he attempts to give the reader insights into how to intelligently and mindfully use social media tools. In the book, he brings together information from colleagues and other experts and narrows the information he gleams from them into chunks to the reader can use. Two of these chunks from our class’s assigned reading from this book this week stuck out to me as they related to ideas I formed while reading the other two readings. Both chunks were in relations to the research of Mizuko Ito studies internet cultures among teenagers. The first came from page 87, in the section about making internet searches, where Rheingold discusses how Ito found that youths were using search engines to find more information about their interests and were actually learning a great deal doing so. The second came up in the chapter on participatory culture, where more Rheingold reveals more information from Ito’s research, specifically highlighting the difference between those communities that are interest-driven and those that are friendship-driven. Essentially, friendship-driven communities are more so ones that exist on websites like Facebook or MySpace, consisting of people who know one another already and want to catch up, and interest-driven communities are more often on interest specific forums and digital spaces.

Rheingold emphasized that people more likely to be drawn in by interest-driven communities tended to be those who do not have a strong pool of real-life friends. This reminded me of the idea of consumer identity and how it plays into internet-based, interest-driven communities. People left alienated in their social lives turn to the internet to find people who like the same things as them, and then as they do liking and consuming, those things becomes an integral part to their identity and their community. These thoughts are not new to me, having grown up within fandom cultures on the internet I’ve spent a good deal of time in my young adulthood reflecting on whether or not those experiences were good for me. Much of my identity as a teenager was based around buying things about merchandise about those things. I proudly sported Marvel and BioWare tee-shirts to flag to other teens who might be interested in those things to maybe start a conversation. Businesses love that, fandom is essentially free and incredibly powerful advertising. The tiniest communities that can form online over the most niche of interests can be profited from in this way.

The Long Tail by Chris Anderson explores exactly how profitable these niche interests can be. Anderson explains that through features like Amazon recommendations, sellers are collecting information about what people like and connecting them to other things and in doing so increasing their profits and sales. Companies like Amazon terrify me because no matter how much I despise Jeff Bezos and abhor the company’s track record when it comes to treatment of their workers, the website is still where I’m going to publish my graphic novel when it’s finished because it will be the easiest way for me, the author, to get it out to the audience I’m looking for and profit off of it.

The business worlds’ interest in the communities that purchase their products was also apparent in The Cluetrain Manifesto, where the writers express to business heads that they need to speak with and be a part of those communities or they will become a thing of the past. To me, the entire document was alarming, because while the writer protests that advertising is no longer being paid attention to by consumers, the kind of response they’re asking for from businesses is the type of advertising landscape we live in today. Asking businesses to stand for something while also keeping profit as their goal brought to mind Pride themed vodka and snarky Denny’s and Wendy’s twitter accounts. With these ideals the line between consumption and culture continues to blur together in a frightening way.

Then why did I buy that shirt and why do I still love it? Well, for one it’s very soft and it fits me well. The other thing is that it does flag me as a safe person to those who I want to protect, and it flags to others I won’t tolerate their behavior. During the 2016 election, as bigots in my community were getting more vocal than they had been since I was a kid, I noticed how safe something as simple and commercial as a rainbow flag made me feel. Whether we like it or not consumer goods are part of the way we communicate with others, and they do relate to how we identify. However, I haven’t purchased anything from Romwe since that shirt, and I am much more mindful over the consumer goods I purchase and how they represent me.

I’ll leave you with a YouTube video that’s only about ten minutes long if you play it at double speed, that explores the idea of consumer identity becoming a type of identity actively cultivated by businesses.

Posted on September 20, 2020, in Social Media and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Kim Smith mccroryk0613

    I relate so hard to your dilemma of wanting to project sanity with that shirt while still worrying about contributing money to the ‘wrong’ place by purchasing it. When I shop online, I look for local businesses. This is easy to do with sites like Etsy and GrubHub. But, what is the cost to the local business of using such gigantic companies to sell their products? Am I really helping? In addition, I became focused on lessening my carbon footprint this year. I started shopping second hand for as much as I could, and shopping small businesses when I can afford it. But the underlying stuff – where are the materials from? How are the worker’s treated? What message am I sending, and am I weaponizing my position, or trying to (as you so well put it) come across as a ‘safe person’ in a genuine way. Commerce is a tangled web, and it’s compounded by shopping online.
    If you have any reliable places that you depend on for essentials, please share them with me.

    • For essentials, if you’re in Menomonie, the co-op is a great resource for groceries though it’s a bit pricy. As far as other products I just try to make sure I’m only taking as much as I need when I can. Fashion is a major part of this, the sheer amount of consumption and waste generated by it is absurd so I try to mend my clothes instead of replacing them when I can. I think it’s fair though to not be so steadfast with your self-policing as long as you’re being mindful about your consumption and consider what things you have power over. If I were rich all my groceries would come from the co-op and I’d only by artisan hand made local clothing and still have left for charity, but I accept that I barely make rent and I still need pants so some times Walmart has to be good enough.

  2. My initial thought is, “I like that sweatshirt.” My second thought is, “people who I wouldn’t want talking to me would talk to me because of that sweatshirt.” I’m of course not thinking people who would agree with the statement on the sweatshirt, but those who would want to debate me because at their core, they disagree and have freedom of speak – or whatever argument they want to project that day. I don’t mind confrontation, I just don’t seek it. This is what I love about online communities, we can invest in them while still finding a comfortable level of distance. In the participatory culture found online, and as highlighted by Rheingold (2012), a large group of collaborators can bring together their strengths to achieve bigger goals. This is also a beneficial example of the long tail, as discussed by Anderson (2004). Having the ability to find online communities who support similar beliefs, ideas, creativity, and more, is a powerful and socially beneficial commodity. I have a broad range of hobbies, social and political beliefs, and lifestyle choices. Thankfully, I can find communities on Reddit who share similarities and so I don’t feel like I’m alone or weird in my lifestyle choices. That being said, I think I feel more comfortable finding people online who share my interests than in real life. I don’t know why that is. It’s like my desire to wear the sweatshirt and at the same time not wanting to wear the sweatshirt. It goes back to this place for me of privacy and space. When I choose to open up about my ideals, believes, or stances on… anything, I tend to do it online. Not on Facebook or anything, I’m not an argumentative social media user. Instead, I support organizations, social movements, or charities. I do this by sharing their content, collaborating with their efforts offering my design skills, and monetary donations. I’m as bold online as the sweatshirt is in person, I’m just private about it. Maybe there’s something wrong with that – I don’t know.

    So here’s the question: when you wear the sweatshirt, have you ever had any negative encounters?

    • I’ve never had any negative encounters in this sweater. I’ve gotten looks sure, but honestly wearing the shirt is no more dangerous for me than holding my girlfriend’s hand outside, which I did have a very negative encounter with recently. We were walking towards the co-op, minding our business and two men sped up in their truck and one yelled outside at us, very directly “That’s not okay!”. As funny as that statement was (it’s so vague, is it not okay to be gay or is it not okay for me to have this haircut? be more specific), it was also very scary. A woman came up to us afterwards and asked if we were alright which made me feel infinitely safer. That’s why I have clothes that are “flagging”, my shirt, a love is love hat, anything with a rainbow thrown on it, they’re ways of communicating that are lesser than what that woman did for us but still useful.

      Typically when I wear the shirt people who I suspect disagree just stare and give me a wide berth, they don’t want to talk to me as much as I don’t want to talk to them most of the time. That’s the weird thing about homophobia, it is in ways a fear. What they fear isn’t gay people though, it’s confrontation and change.

      I think a lot of people are more comfortable online because there’s safety in knowing you’re either anonymous or in a group of like-minded people. Hate groups use social media for the same reason actually, you and I have our communities and organizations and they do too. To communicate to them in real life I keep my values and my identity visible and refuse to hide.

      • That’s not okay? What a waste of breath! Just like your sweatshirt say – just be quiet. I have had people yell at me as they pass by in their vehicle before as well. When I was in college earning my undergraduate, America’s Next Top Model was all the rage. There was a model who had short hair which she styled into a faux-hawk. I thought it was so chic and so I cut my long brown hair into a faux-hawk and within a week someone yelled a homophobic slur at me from a moving car, just because I had, in my opinion, a super chich androgonous haircut. It was odd and felt wrong, but, I moved on with my day because, as Ru Paul says, “unless they paying your bills, pay them b*tches no mind.”
        Ok, so that’s in a setting where someone yells as they drive by and then they’re gone. Online comments are so much more perminant. They sit there in an inbox or below a post calling for a response. Rheingold’d (2012) Introduction discussed that feeling of anxiety that can creep in with email. I get the same anxiety that creeps in with social media comments. Even on my Instagram story, people respond and it can feel like a drive-by shout and I’m like, “ok, do I respond to this or was this just a statement made at me?” Sometimes social media etiquette is so hard to understand.

    • Emily, I feel the same about keeping things private and quiet, perhaps also because as a state employee we aren’t allowed to use our work email to contact others about political issues, etc.

      Also, and I don’t know why because I’ve never said or done anything to lead to this, but my biggest fear these days is going viral or being cancelled online. Just the other day I saw a tweet from a student at Emerson College that included screenshots of a professor’s email response to her over the selection of books for a course. The tweet received over 5k RT and nearly 37k likes.
      As a professor, I felt his response to her question was sound (well, up until the final 2 paragraphs), but that course’s topic is also not my field. But did this have to be shared on Twitter? It just seems like everyone loves taking to a social media platform to complain about something and I don’t think all of those things need to be handled this way. See also the Bette Midler effect

  3. I love that you wrote about this because I indirectly had the same thoughts in my response to the readings as well. While our main focuses were different, we both shared an underlying concern about the treatment of workers from long tail businesses. I see so many advertisements on social media for the fast fashion sites, and they’re so tempting because who wouldn’t want that cute top for super cheap! But, I think it’s important that while they are convenient and trendy, consumers are aware of the dangers behind the business practices of the company. Above Kim mentions shopping locally even if it means spending a little bit more, but some consumers aren’t as conscious of those decisions and instead are looking for instant gratification. Like Kim, I would be interested in hearing about some other companies you’ve come across since ordering that sweater! I would love to hear about some of the businesses that you’ve found that have offered products that allow you to convey your identity in a safe way, while also protecting the rights and safety of the workers of the company.

    • I try harder these days to save up for a garment and then look for the creators themselves. Etsy can be a good source though they’ve had some issues with how they treat sellers’ accounts. I find a lot of creators just through twitter. Other than that I just try to buy second hand as much as I can.

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