Every Thursday in LOL Interwebz, Luke T. Harrington explores the quirks and foibles of Internet culture from a Gospel perspective.

I wonder if Amazon understands that hipsterism is essentially performative.

I’m not here to go all Judith Butler on it, but it seems to me that a lot of the reason people like unpopular things is so that they can be seen liking them. A fixed-gear bike has no clear advantage over a multi-gear bike; beer is all the same, regardless of what we tell ourselves; no scientific study has ever proven that vinyl sounds better than digital. You don’t get into those things because you’re serious about bicycling, or beer, or music—you get into them because you want people to think you’re serious about bicycling, beer, and music.

The point is that Amazon will never be cool.So it goes with books. Ebooks may or may not be transforming the world, but studies have found that my generation overwhelmingly prefers print books. And at the risk of losing all my hipster cred: you’re a bunch of morons, my generation.

Okay, maybe I’m not cool. But what real advantage does a print book have over an ebook? They’re heavier, they’re bulkier, they require external light to read, and they’re awkward to hold. If I’m reading a print book in bed, I either have to turn on the bedside lamp (which lights up the whole room), or I have to clip on a book light (which never stays where I put it). And every time I switch from an odd-numbered page to an even-numbered page, I have to readjust my posture.

Print books are the worst. We all know this.

Now, do me a favor: log onto Facebook, and count your friends who post proclaiming their love of the smell of paper, glue, and ink to the world, and compare that to the number of friends who post about how great their Kindles are. I’m not sure what the ratio will be, but probably something-t0-zero, right? But, like I said: hipsterism is performative. The people loudly proclaiming their love of reading aren’t the people who love to read; they’re the people who love to have people thinking that they love to read. They doth protest too much, as it were.

And there’s a good chance that Amazon doesn’t “get” this.

Remember Amazon? The online book-and-everything-else-selling Leviathan that put all of the little corner bookstores in the world out of business? It turns out that, after all that, all they really wanted was to be a little corner bookstore.

Or something.

You can now visit Amazon Books, a little corner bookstore in Seattle, because why not? It’s not a big-box store like Barnes & Noble; it’s only 5,000 square feet, like a corner boutique, and it features only the books that Amazon’s mountains of online data have told them will sell the best. Each display features a review from the site, and they also have a demonstration area for Amazon’s tech products: Kindles, Fires, Echoes, etc.

There’s a good chance you just read all that and went, “Um…why?”

And I could definitely hazard a guess—or rather, I could point you in the direction of someone else who’s hazarded a guess, because this way, if you think it’s a stupid guess, that’s on him and not me. According to this dude over at Forbes, the impetus is the aforementioned revelation that my fellow Snake People don’t care much for ebooks. Amazon is a way to reach out to them: they get to go to a bookstore if that’s their thing; they can buy print books, if that’s their thing; maybe while they’re there, the ’Zon can talk them into buying a Kindle. I mean, it’s not impossible.

But…

This is where I think Amazon kind of misses the point. How many hipsters would continue to proclaim their love of vinyl if Walmarts across the nation started opening vinyl music sections? Or how many hipster friends do you have who liked Blue Moon until they found out it was a MillerCoors product?

The point is that Amazon will never be cool (sorry, ’Zon). There’s just no overlap between the categories of “hip, urban brand we want everyone to see us using” and “online store we use to buy our romance novels and deodorant when we don’t feel like putting on pants.” Being seen walking out of an actual independent bookstore full of cats will get me a lot of clout with certain people; walking out of Amazon Books will get me clout mostly with Jeff Bezos.

What I’m trying to say here is that it’s less about the product itself than it is about who sees us using it and what they think of us for doing so. Part of consumerist culture is radical individualism (I can do whatever I want with my life!!!), but the flip side is social performativity (Everybody notice what good taste I have!!!). There’s an obvious contradiction between saying that we exist only for ourselves, but that we also exist to get noticed by others, but, well, that’s how sin works, right?

So, sorry ’Zon. I hope that brick-and-mortar bookstore works out for you, but I’m not holding my breath.


4 Comments

  1. As a twenty-something, I do love my ereader, but my stash of print isn’t going away just yet. Real advantage #1: No batteries required. #2 Non-standard sizes (particularly with images embedded in the text) I’d regret having to go without either.

  2. Maybe the solution to the incessant worrying about being an inauthentic hipster is to just like the thing, then. It’s obviously branded, corporate, and all other uncool things. It’s mixture of modernistic design with postmodern concessions to traditionalism is disconcerting. But at some point, you have to just like what you have in this world, or everything will always be fake and terrible.

    You can choose to go to the Amazon store to buy real books instead of to be seen associating with its aesthetic. Being at home and looking at the same screen all day sucks. Sometimes going outside to find somewhere to sit for a few minutes helps with mental health as much as anything. Call that being a hipster, if you’d like. If you did everything 100% authentically you’d have no friends and would barely ever leave your house.

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