May 14, 2014 § Leave a comment
Now that the semester is over and I’ve graduated from college, this is the final official CraftCvltvre entry. A few bonus interviews will go up after this, but this academic project is complete. (A note on the #craftcvltvre hashtag: although hashtags can never really “retire,” I am no longer using or monitoring it on any networks.)
I’ve learned a number of things through working on CraftCvltvre, not the least of which is just how incredible the people are in the community of dark handmade fashion. I want to thank my interview subjects for their participation in my project – not only did their answers to my questions give me rich insight about both their lives and the world around us, but their patience with my constant emails and generosity with their time and resources are things I’m grateful for too. I also want to thank everyone who read the blog, liked my Facebook page, followed me on Twitter, favorited my Instagram photos, or in any other way supported CraftCvltvre.
Anyway, here is the final paper I wrote for CraftCvltvre!
The Internet, along with other modern technological developments, is fragmenting us into a society made up of countless niches. In The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More, author Chris Anderson writes the following: “The… forces and technologies that are leading to an explosion of variety and abundant choice in the content we consume are also tending to lead us into tribal eddies. When mass culture breaks apart, it doesn’t re-form into a different mass. Instead, it turns into millions of microcultures, which coexist and interact in a baffling array of ways” (183). People are going online to participate in these microcultures, interacting with others who are interested in the same subjects.
This fractalization of the collective consciousness doesn’t only encompass the digital distribution of media and communications, however – it can also take a more concrete form. Enter handmade, and the small, independent businesses that specialize in it. When combined with a pre-existing subculture/counterculture like Goth (and/or similar aesthetics) that has always operated outside of the mainstream and self-constructed from ground level up, the result is a vibrant community with individuals – not corporations or other large culture producers – creating goods both digital and material as well as an aesthetic and cultural presence on both sides, in a many-to-many social structure.
As the crafting of fashion and beauty products is one of the most tangible methods of expressing subculture-related creativity and the subcultural self in the offline realm, I was interested in seeing the ways it manifests in this vast and intricate new online world, and how those physical and digital manifestations interact. Thus I created CraftCvltvre, a blog about dark handmade/independent fashion and culture, where I interviewed makers of clothing, accessories, and cosmetics as well as writing introspective essays and compiling resources. Over the course of working on CraftCvltvre, here’s what I learned: making, branding/marketing, and selling handmade fashion online bridges the gap between digital and material presence while creating relationships between people, of networked individualism, that transcend the material/digital divide.
Although I used the word “Goth,” and indeed it is a primary source of inspiration for the visual style and the people I’m writing about, there is a strong sentiment all across this network of wanting to move past that label and the restrictions and perceptions that come along with it. First and foremost among these is that my subjects are a close-knit community, even if “community” is another word I’ve been using (interchangeably with “crowd,” “group,” “network,” etc.). There do appear to be a number of small, tight-knit circles of friendship in this field, but the scope of CraftCvltvre is to cover a loose grouping of people who only have one thing in common: they enjoy a dark aesthetic and culture – and even that is very diverse. There are substyles inspired by historical romanticism and the natural world, others inspired by minimalism and cyberpunk, and yet others inspired by concepts in between.
Upon closely examining the web of relationships within this crowd on social media, along with poring over what I’ve gleaned from interviews, it appears that the system in place here is one of networked individualism. In other words, “we can now treat culture not as one big blanket, but as the superposition of many interwoven threads, each of which is individually addressable and connects different groups of people simultaneously” (Anderson 183), which creates what Anderson calls “a massively parallel culture” (183) made up of “tribes of interest” (183). This is different from the Goth scene Paul Hodkinson describes in his book Goth: Identity, Style, and Subculture, in which participants had ardent feelings of identity and commitment towards Goth, creating a substantial and bounded subculture. In fact, what I observed is closer to the theories of subculture Hodkinson identifies early in the book in a section titled “Fluid Collectives” – concepts like Richard Jenkins’s and David Chaney’s “lifestyles,” Paul Willis’s “proto-communities,” and David Muggleton’s “postmodern subculture” (19-23). People do bond with each other over this shared interest in black, morbid fashion, but they form branching, interconnected clusters of one-on-one connections rather than dividing themselves and each other into “Goth” and “not-Goth” and associating accordingly.
Perhaps the current architecture of the web helped to enable this state. In the early days of the Internet, there were forums, mailing lists, and other types of standalone services, dedicated to single topics, of which a person either was or was not a member. The boundaries were clearer then. Now, massive social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram exist that huge masses of people sign up for regardless of what their hobbies are. There are tools like hashtags, Twitter lists, and Facebook groups to help people find each other, but there is much more fluidity and overlapping of groups. Rather than being an either/or situation in which it’s obvious if one is a member of a group because one has an account on a certain message board, one follows the individuals they wish to follow rather than the topic itself.
During the months in which I worked on CraftCvltvre, I myself experienced how contemporary social networks shape cultural niches when I created, used, and monitored the #craftcvltvre hashtag on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. I included the hashtag in links to my blog posts, photos I took of dark handmade fashion products, and links to other pages on the web I found relevant and interesting. In addition, I encouraged my audience to do the same, but no one besides me ever participated. Based on the failure of the hashtag to gain any traction, it is clear to me that the Internet as a social medium depends on people reaching out to other people individually.
It is these kinds of one-on-one relationships that handmade goods cultivate, between maker and owner. In fact, Richard Sennett argues in The Craftsman that “the craft of making physical things provides insight into the techniques of experience that can shape our dealings with others. Both the difficulties and the possibilities of making things well apply to making human relationships. Material challenges like working with resistance or managing ambiguity are instructive in understanding the resistances people harbor to one another or the uncertain boundaries between people” (292). This is apparent not just in the metaphorical way that Sennett describes, but also literally in the interactions between someone who makes something and the person they are making it for. Small-scale crafters often communicate directly with their customers, especially if the transaction involves a custom-made item. But even more important than that is the emotional connection created when one holds an item that someone else poured care and skill into. Wearing, say, a necklace made by hand isn’t just a demonstration of taste in necklaces or ability to spend money, it’s a show of support and admiration for an artist who creatively expresses themself in physical form. None of this is to say, of course, that material goods are a replacement for human contact, nor that the pursuit of material goods should be the focus of one’s life. The point here is simply that when there’s such a strong human element in the creation of a tangible object, one feels a bond with that person and their ideas.
The processes of creation and distribution by a crafter, and what they represent, are also important elements in the handmade equation. These practices incorporate the physical space in which crafters work – the organization of studios or offices for the most efficient workflow and inspiring environment – the schedules they keep, the physical and digital tools they use, and other practical necessities, as well as the use of mental and emotional energy to express themselves and their ideas. In addition, handmade is a way to express and capture the abstract things floating around in the digital ether. Much of the branding and marketing efforts made by small handmade fashion businesses, such as lookbooks and other promotional photography, exists only online. Not only that, but crafters themselves often maintain a highly visible presence on the Internet. Their handmade goods are, in a way, a distillation of the ephemerality and intangibility of the digital world and the content they post on it. In this way – making things offline, then branding, marketing, and selling them online – a bridge is created between digital and material presences.
Being a participant in the “post-Goth” handmade niche is not simply about having cool stuff. It’s about the people – their ideas and their power to build and create, rather than passive consumerism. Imagine a future in which all physical goods are handcrafted in small batches for niche markets, and makers and consumers form close relationships with each other. In fact, in this hypothetical future, people can be makers and consumers simultaneously, not only of handcrafted physical goods but also of digital content, creating a highly participatory culture of people connected by interests and values rather than geographical constraints and scarcity. This is the material and digital future that online niches and their material manifestations can create.
Anderson, Chris. The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More. New York: Hyperion, 2006.
Hodkinson, Paul. Goth: Identity, Style, and Subculture. London: Berg, 2002.
Sennett, Richard. The Craftsman. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.