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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.