Performative shopping and “hauls”

Marisa Meltzer has an interesting piece at Slate about teenage girls who make “hauls” — videos of the stuff they bought on shopping trips. Meltzer compares hauls to tech-unboxing videos; they reminded me of when I freelanced at Lucky.

Making haul videos probably seems entirely natural, like it might have seemed to form a garage band in past decades. The consumer society’s great achievement is turning shopping into the viable medium for creativity and social connection. It seems natural, inevitable even, to relate to other people that way. Meltzer makes her own haul video and concludes, “With a camera on me, everything I bought felt inherently important.” The way to intensify our feelings is to film them and launch them into the world, imagining someone will watch and care enough to judge us. That fantasy is not new, but the means for seeming to fulfill it are (you don’t have to, say, start a band, practice, and try to book gigs at the VFW), and they are of course going to be commercially exploited. That’s one way to interpret the long-term game plan of Facebook and YouTube.

It was predictable that hauls should start happening, considering the commercial inflection of online sharing — and also because shopping is always getting harder and harder. There’s inherently a vague dread in making the commitment to spend, considering the way that consumerism relates to identity, and these sorts of decisions are being logged permanently online. It’s a semiotic jungle out there; the meanings are multiplying and teens especially want advice on how to buy what will send the messages they want to send in the appropriate way. Adults have more leeway in inventing their own meanings, or have come up with disassociative strategies about what we all have to do in terms of self-presentation. Teens have fewer defenses.

The sample that Meltzer provides is pretty polished; the girl shows the pieces she bought, models them, and explains why she pulled the trigger on them. I imagine there are less polished versions, that are more desperate or more ostentatious. Bourdieu-style analysis could break such videos down by class; you’d predict that as you move up the hierarchy, the more pretenses at being disinterested in the presentation there would be, the more likely the discussion would be couched in aesthetic terminology.

The rhetoric in the video is straight out of Lucky, in fact, and reminded me of the weird admiration I had for the copy there, the quixotic optimism in all products, that there was something unique and redemptive to say about everything if you were ingenious enough and mined the thesaurus thoroughly enough for new adjectives. I enjoyed the way the editors there would heedlessly and inventively transform nouns and verbs into adjectives to invent entirely new criteria by which to evaluate boots and jackets and lipstick shades. Here’s a more or less random example that gets at what I mean: “The structured sweetheart neckline combined with the blousiness makes it super flattering–and the unusual mosaic pattern is so cool. To offset the girliness I’m going to wear it with some thick gray tights, these futuristic BCBGMaxAzria platforms and Diesel’s oversize boyfriend blazer.” (Before I worked there, I never had heard of “boyfriend” clothes.” The paradoxical conundrum implied by that appellation — clothes for women made to simulate clothes for men that women would borrow under intimate and cozy conditions? — made me want to break out my copy of Barthes’s The Fashion System to figure out what it meant. But I think this Sociological Images post shows how the phenomenon has reached dizzying ironic heights well beyond interpretation.)

Lucky taught me how shopping could be a vector for unfeigned enthusiasm strong enough to entirely mask the underlying cynicism. People who love shopping are not in bad faith, and they seem to honestly want others to experience the joy and confidence it can intermittently bring them. That same hopeful tone animates the haul video; she’s not out to exclude anyone, though that could certainly be the effect. Instead, she is aping the mass-media tone of inclusion and eager solicitude. She’s not doing anything wrong; she seems successfully well-adjusted. Meltzer notes that girls like the one in the video “resemble the popular girls at any high school, which is precisely why they are so appealing to other teens.” The popular girl doesn’t have to snub you, she can just make you a follower without following you back.

Anyway, that’s what is so disheartening about online sociality to me: the likable girl in this shopping video is the face of marketing’s future. Marketers will seem more well-intentioned than ever; they will be our peers. And we won’t notice that our peers talk like a commercial because we’ll be using the same idiom ourselves.