Being from a group of people has been coopted into another way to sell you stuff.
Frogs, Possums, Rats, and Pigeons
There’s a particular collection of animals that people love to see online, just not in person. Animals that are funny, a little bit charismatic (not a lot) and accessible, but only with difficulty. Associating one of these animals with your social media account in a specific way will signal to other people from this group that you’re under thirty, perhaps by a lot; online a lot of the time; hip; and generally steered towards positive content made to be cute or funny. You like possums? So do a lot of the Gen-Z and Millennial generations on TikTok and Instagram! Drawing these animals in cowboy hats or high heels is a great skate ramp straight into virality. The off-centered animals are getting their big day of publicity, with a flood of tattoos and clothing following closely behind. With it, so does the attitude that its what cool people get into, and if you want to keep up with the people you follow, you should invest in looking like this is what you like too.
What does it mean to invest in a meme? Hot Topic has plenty of shirts featuring the hot topic of the day. Pin stores aplenty on Etsy want to sell you stuff. It’s cheap to print and easy to acquire the rights to most modern memes. I still have a Doge shirt bought back when Doge was a representative of online meme culture and not the rocky cryptocurrency market. The shirt’s not in good shape, but it wasn’t made to last for years. Stores like Hot Topic assume you’ll get tired of the joke and toss or donate the shirt long before you have to start patching it. If you want the funny shirt with the frog cowboy on it because it signals to other people that you’re in their niche online community, you’ll spend the 20$ it takes to own such an item, and when that online community moves onto something else, you’ll do it again. And again. Clothing is seen as so disposable now that these ridiculously short-lived jokes give the shirt most of its value in the store, and when the joke stops being funny, the shirt’s not even valuable as a shirt anymore. Tattoos of cowboy animals are also starting to slide into the same territory as tribal tattoos did in the 2000s, albeit easier to cover and less potentially offensive.
On the other side of the longevity spectrum, even tough items that can’t justifiably be replaced often are used as flags. For example, Stanley cups. A Stanley cup is an insulated cup, much like a Yeti cup, designed with a small bottom and large top to fit into car drink holders but still hold more than 24 ounces of whatever it is you want to put into the cup. The Stanley cup is a bit pricey, and is meant (at least in theory) to keep your drink whatever temperature it was going into the cup for the rest of the day. It’s also tough, made of stainless steel coated for color. What does this cup signal? You need a drink holder that keeps your coffee warm or your water cold for an entire day – you’re a hustler who makes enough money to justify the purchase of a name-brand item like the Stanley cup that’s at its most useful when you’re out and about. You’re probably older than a teenager, because teenagers use Hydroflasks or drink their coffee straight out of the cup that their café gave them, because they don’t use the coffee brewer at home.
Collecting Stanley cups to match to outfits or cars is even more a sign that you’re very busy and very successful. Those cups ain’t cheap! There’s an almost competitive group of people online who make a point of showing off their collection any time they want to post a get-ready image set or video, because why have all these cups if the full extent of your investment isn’t visible?
How Did We Get Here?
A public consciousness that buying from bad brands with bad practices (think sweatshop labor or deforestation) should make you bad if you could buy something made more ethically has made it possible for brands to flip around and say that buying from good brands with good practices (think inclusivity and a promise to be eco-friendly) makes you a good person, or at least better than the next person who’s still buying stuff from bad companies.
Beyond that, there’s a bigger need than ever to feel like a part of a community, even if that community is still online. In-jokes are what friends share – showing that you get the joke means that you’re in. These flags make the gaps between us all feel a little smaller, even if they don’t turn into conversations or friend requests, and that eases the pain. Isn’t buying a shirt with a cowboy rat on it, or another Stanley cup in an exclusive color, worth the price if it simulates human connection?