Bad DTC brands / Good online novels

New Yorker column, New Republic review

Hello, I’m very proud to say that I’m now officially a Contributing Writer at The New Yorker! I updated my Twitter bio, of course, and changed my avatar to the one the magazine commissioned for me, an awesome digital souvenir. Whatever I say about this will be an understatement; the opportunity to be on staff there and work with amazing writers and peerless editors, copy editors, and fact checkers is a career highlight. My new column and another new review for The New Republic are below.

Programming note: I’ll be using this newsletter to alert you about my columns on a weekly-ish basis and give some more context to the stories, as well as post updates on my in-progress book, Filterworld, on algorithmic culture. 99% of my non-book writing will be for the column, with a few diversions.

Great Jones Cookware and the Illusion of the Millennial Aesthetic — The New Yorker

A great investigation in Insider revealed that the very Instagrammable kitchen brand Great Jones was something of a mess internally: last year, one of the co-founders and all of the employees left the company. I expanded on that report and wrote about how the branding of so-called direct-to-consumer startups is a facade: Products like Great Jones pots, Onsen towels, or Parachute sheets are usually a veneer of Internet-friendly design on top of quite mundane products.

There’s this gap between the marketing message — these new Instagram brands are made just for you, a millennial consumer! they’re adapted to your needs! — and the reality of small startups using readymade factory and shipping infrastructure with a sprinkling of digital advertising to look like they’re much bigger than they are. That leads to some quite dissatisfying products. Here’s my recent-history summary of how DTC startups actually work:

The direct-to-consumer wave began in the twenty-tens as a new generation of startups promising to “disrupt” traditional industries for consumer goods. Instead of leaving the market to century-old stalwarts like Gillette, for example, a company like Dollar Shave Club, founded in 2011, would set up its own supply chains to manufacture razors; add clean, millennial-friendly branding and marketing gimmicks; undercut its competitors with the help of a cushion of venture capital; buy enormous volumes of online advertising to reach digital-native consumers without the intermediary of big-box retailers; and then hope it grew big enough, fast enough to become attractive as an acquisition or for an initial public offering. 

The Rise of the Very Online Novel — The New Republic

I reviewed Patricia Lockwood’s first novel, No One Is Talking About This, but also took in the scope of recent “internet novels” — fiction, often autofiction, that engages with how the internet and social media shape our lives. I think often the internet is seen as un-literary, like not worthy of being fully represented in fiction. Novels aren’t just long text-message threads, after all, and being on the computer or iPhone is not usually that exciting. Many talked-about contemporary writers of novels — Olivia Laing, Kate Zambreno, Ben Lerner — portray the internet very negatively, a source of distraction and abstraction rather than real experience. Lockwood, a poet and memoirist, instead uses the native language of the internet to heighten her literary voice, embracing the memes and inside jokes of two decades of being extremely online.

Lockwood’s approach is more authentic to the way many of us experience life on the internet, I think — we’re there for a reason, and the turbocharged exchange of language and images with as many people as possible at once is enjoyable. Whether authentically embracing online life makes a novel better is another question. I’m reading the new Sally Rooney novel Beautiful World, Where Are You now, and Rooney lands somewhere in the middle, fully incorporating the tics of digital communication and ambient social media without being too pejorative either way: It’s just how we live. Here’s a paragraph:

Should a novel be molded by the same forces as tweets? In some ways, autofiction presents itself as a form of resistance to the digital content feed: austere, plotless, and self-referential, it can be inaccessible or alienating. Yet some of the same qualities can also make the genre ideal for the social-media era. The author is free to offer up small fragments of self, like well-produced Instagram selfies or front-facing camera monologues, and the reader gets the frisson of guessing which are true and how accurate they might be. The short, angular paragraphs—as in Zambreno or Lockwood—and the seemingly diaristic nature of the content—as in Rachel Cusk or Karl Ove Knausgaard—are well-suited to internet-shortened attention spans and a collective appetite for reality television–style, low-stakes drama. Many of these books are surprisingly entertaining and gossipy, contrary to their forbidding reputation as the literary avant-garde.

Endnote

Not much else to report right now; it seems people are traveling abroad and posting on Instagram about it, which I can only wonder at. The pandemic seems to have killed my ability to imagine life a month ahead of time. Instead I buy piles of books that I haven’t started reading yet and contemplate moving apartments, because another side effect of the pandemic is a certain nausea in contemplating the stuff that surrounded us in quarantine: buy new clothes, change the furniture, inhabit new spaces.