March 30, 2014 30


By in Miscellaneous

Hello, all! So, things.

“The whole thing has become one glorified, ridiculous, narcissistic, nauseating selfie.”

I missed this Business of Fashion op-ed – ‘Are Camera Phones Killing Fashion?’ – when it first came out a few weeks back, but I found it via this post of Jacqueline’s and wow, that’s a lot of nails being hit on their heads. The article also touches on part of what I find so disappointing about a lot of fashion blogging and the blogger-at-runway-shows scenario (the writer of the article isn’t commenting on bloggers specifically, rather the whole circus of fashion and people engaging with it, but reading the article I was like “Yes! Yes, that’s what I find so galling”). Ok, so, everyone should be free to have an opinion and to use a platform of their choosing to communicate that opinion, but that’s just it – very, very frequently, personal opinions just aren’t that interesting. The article really gets at what I feel is the heart of the issue for me: there are people (including but not limited to fashion bloggers) who could be adding value to the fashion sphere, but they generally just don’t.

I think it’s important and constructive for bloggers to be involved in the fashion industry if they have some sort of particular knowledge or perspective that allows blog readers to understand the fashion they’re seeing in new and interesting ways. Does the blogger have knowledge of the history of fashion so that they can comment on how a new collection references things from the past? Do they have knowledge of technical construction, so they can comment on particular techniques and why they were used? Do they have knowledge of wider culture and history, so they can discuss how a collection might be a commentary on broader issues or themes? Do they, essentially, have something intelligent and informative to say? When I read a review of a fashion show or a collection, I want to learn something from it. Learning one person’s opinion, which is frequently in very basic terms of “I liked this thing about the collection, and I liked this other thing, and this other different thing was also a thing that I liked”, is not really that compelling.

But instead of being invited because of their unique ability to comment on a collection and convey a unique perspective that is built on some sort of scaffolding of objective knowledge that they worked to achieve, so many bloggers are invited to the show primarily for PR reasons, and when they attend the shows because it feels like a validation of their “contribution” to fashion, we don’t really get anything constructive out of it. A bunch of crappy photos (whether they’re taken with camera phones or with DSLRs, these photos are rarely anywhere near as good as photos by actual professional photographers), a blog post about what they liked about the show and what pieces they just can’t wait to buy – I feel like that doesn’t add anything into a wider conversation about fashion. So much noise, so little signal.

At the same time, there’s no harm in all the little blogs around the place where people just voice their opinions or document their own style or think about their own tastes and preferences. People need a space in which they can work through and discuss their thoughts and ideas. I think the problem is just when the whole fashion blogger juggernaut gets out of hand and people who don’t add anything to the conversation are put in positions of privilege when they don’t have any discernible ability or willingness to contribute something back from that position to others who aren’t in that position. Like, oh wow, u got invited to [city name] fashin week, u went to shows and liked some things, hmm very fashin, so style. (Isn’t the doge meme such a useful rhetorical tool?)

Phoebe Philo at the Vogue Festival – a masterclass in how to waste an interview opportunity

Ugh. Just, ugh. Yesterday, Phoebe Philo was interviewed by Alexandra Shulman, editor of British Vogue, as part of the Vogue Festival in London. I was there. I was there and it was awful. Not due to Phoebe, but due to the fact that interviewing is simply not Alexandra Shulman’s forte – so many generic questions, so many wasted opportunities to get some really interesting details or commentary from Phoebe. (And that’s not even considering the stilted segues or awkward pauses or unintentionally patronising comments or the mechanical movement from one question written on a set of cards to the next – I can forgive the form if the content is good, but the content was just so poor.)

I’m not sure I learned any new information about Phoebe or Céline or Phoebe’s approach to her work or her creative process or her influences or anything. I’m sure Alexandra and Phoebe can sit in private and have a fascinating chat with each other, but in a forum of hundreds and hundreds of people in a theatre – kind of a very awkward trainwreck. Anyway, if you’re desperate for further coverage of the interview, god there were a lot of people live-Tweeting it, and the place was crawling with fashion bloggers (I recognised various bloggers who regularly materialise on my Pinterest home page, but the only one for whom I could put a face to a blog name was Hedvig from The Northern Light who was a few rows in front of me with her enormous DSLR) so I guess plenty of posts will be appearing about it soon, if not already. I’m sure they’ll mostly have a more positive take on the interview that me (so cynic, much jaded, wow).

Anyway, I daresay it was almost totally a waste of a £40 ticket. Like, how many cronuts Cocodoughs™ cronuts could I have purchased from Cocomaya for £40? (The cronut trend lives on forever in my heart/arteries.) (The answer is I could purchase 12.31 standard cronuts from Cocomaya for £40.)

Why y’all not talking about Sézane?

I’m generally very reluctant to talk about brands or purchasable items of any sort on this blog, just because there are a million other forums telling you what brands to buy or what items are great, which is why I like writing about research papers instead. People don’t need more fuel for the consumption fire, I figure. However, I’m kind of baffled that people in particular regions of the blogosphere aren’t writing more about Sézane, the French brand by Morgane Sézalory that makes – let’s face it – really freaking nice clothes. Sézane seems like a similar operation to Everlane, and you can’t move an inch for conversation about Everlane, but I can only find a handful of bloggers (either anglophone or francophone) talking about Sézane. (Maybe heaps of people are writing about Sézane and I’m just failing to locate them – that’s actually a pretty likely possibility.) According to the Sézane values page, they seem to give a shit about things like garment quality and ethical working conditions during manufacture (although I would probably need to contact them directly to get an adequate level of detail about how they achieve that).

A few weeks back I bought a sweatshirt from their previous collection and when it arrived and I unwrapped it, it was like a revelation – oh god, that’s what decent quality looks and feels like! Seriously, the Sézane sweatshirt makes my A.P.C. sweatshirt look like a piece of crap made out of scratchy cheesecloth intended for people who hate themselves and want to abrade their skin and deny themselves nice things. The Sézane sweatshirt is something you want to stroke like a little rabbit because it’s so lovely and soft, and it actually does its bloody job of being warm and insulating (seriously, A.P.C. sweatshirt, what are you even for?). ANYWAY, the point is, I don’t want to add fuel to your consumption fire, but if you need to buy something, you could do a lot worse than buying something from Sézane. So, like, try not to buy things, but if you need a thing, Sézane seems to make good things.

#nofilters #noexpensivecandles

Miss Sophie asked me a while back if I was on Instagram and no, I wasn’t, but I also wasn’t sure why I wasn’t. I mean, I take a lot of photos of nifty things (you know, IMO) that then never see the light of day again, so I may as well try sharing them. So I have an Instagram. Feel free to follow me, or post yours here in the comments and I will probably follow you (as long as your Instagram is comprised of less than 70% photos of Diptyque candles and bunches of flowers in Mason jars).

January 20, 2014 10

Opinions in this post are 100% my own (is that meta?)

By in Brain/mind

“Opinions in this post are 100% my own.”

That disclaimer and variations thereof, stamped at the bottom of blog posts in which a blogger writes about a product they received for free, is seeming more and more like a rabbit-hole to me – its possible meanings or interpretations are deceptively deep and convoluted. Given the number of bloggers getting free stuff and writing about it – even bloggers with relatively tiny readerships can get free stuff, because it’s still a pretty cheap way for a company to get their product message across to people with relatively little outlay – that little disclaimer has a lot wrapped up in it. I realised I’m not even sure what it means when I read it, and it could very well be the case that bloggers using it aren’t sure what it means when they write it (or copy and paste it).

My implicit understanding of the disclaimer that opinions are the blogger’s own was that the blogger felt that they had not been influenced by the item they had been given for free, and were therefore offering an unbiased, unmitigated opinion. I realise now that there are a lot of other potential interpretations, however – that the blogger’s opinions are in their own words and aren’t just copy that has been provided by the company, for example, or that the post isn’t sponsored. I’d be interested to know what you guys think the implicit terms of “Opinions in this post are 100% my own” are.

If we assume for the time being that intention of the disclaimer is that the blogger wants to say that they have not been biased or influenced by their free gift (which may or may not be what they actually want to say, for all I know), that’s something that could do with a bit of examination. Given the power of product recommendations in coaxing people into purchasing, is it really possible for someone to be totally impartial about something they’ve been given for free? If they try really hard to be unbiased, can they be unbiased? Well, I’d bet that anyone who’s familiar with cognitive biases would be shouting “hell, no” right now.

If you have been given something for free, it is very likely that your opinion is no longer what it would have been. As much as you swear blindly that you are being absolutely objective, that you have not been influenced by the fact that the item was a gift, that you are independently minded and won’t be biased by free stuff – you are now biased. That’s just how the brain works. To what extent are you biased? It’s pretty much impossible to tell. But you are biased.

One powerful driver of this bias is likely to be the reciprocity norm. This is a product of your socialisation as a human being participating in society, so I don’t think you’re special enough to be unaffected by it (unless you are literally a sociopath, but I’m not sure how many sociopaths are into reading blogs about thoughtful consumption). The reciprocity norm is the impulse, the pressure, the compulsion you feel to reciprocate when you have been given something. It is an incredibly powerful effect. I remember learning about it in undergraduate social psychology, my lecturer illustrating the phenomenon with a scenario he observed at an airport, involving a man encountering some Hare Krishnas.

The Hare Krishnas have a practice of handing out flowers for free. They put the flower into your hand and give it to you as a gift. Then, they invite you to make a donation to their cause. This particular man at the airport was given a flower. He tried to give it back, but the Hare Krishnas insisted that he keep it – it’s a gift. He kept protesting and trying to give the flower back, but they wouldn’t take it. The man was hugely frustrated and just wanted to get rid of the flower because he knew what was coming. And it comes – the Hare Krishnas proffer him a bucket, asking for a donation but telling the man he doesn’t have to donate anything if he doesn’t want to – it’s his choice. The man was visibly angry, still holding the flower in his hand. Eventually, with a look of exasperation on his face, he put his hand into his pocket, pulled out some coins, and threw them forcefully into the bucket. He then turned and stalked off, throwing the flower in the first bin he passes.

Knowing about the reciprocity effect doesn’t help you much either – I know full well about it and I still ended up paying money for a pamphlet I didn’t want when I was walking down the street in Toronto. I knew exactly what was happening but I just couldn’t summon the wherewithal to pull out of that social bargain, so I paid for the pamphlet then went straight back to my hotel, tore the pamphlet up and put it in the bin, since I was so annoyed with the situation.

I was also reading this New York Times article recently about how drug companies are changing their marketing tactics of ADHD medications in attempts to build a bigger market – to get more children and more adults onto these medications by saying that once a child has ADHD, they have it for life, or that 10% of adults have ADHD but most are undiagnosed and need help. My PhD actually involved testing some ADHD medications, so I know that the research says that the prevalence of ADHD in children is somewhere around 6%, and that only 30% of those kids go on to have ADHD symptoms during adulthood, so that’d be about 1.8% of adults who have ADHD, at a rough estimate. The advocates of this idea that 10% of adults have ADHD and might be going undiagnosed and untreated tend to be ones who have, at some point, received speakers fees or funding from pharmaceutical companies that manufacture ADHD medication. And those advocates offer a familiar disclaimer:

“He said that concern about abuse and side effects is ‘incredibly overblown,’ and that his longtime work for drug companies does not influence his opinions.”

“Those companies also paid him $1.6 million in speaking and consulting fees. He has denied that the payments influenced his research.”

“… said that he was paid several thousand dollars to oversee the course by Medscape, not Shire directly, and that such income did not influence his decisions with patients.”

Point being, it’s very easy to say your opinion is not influenced or biased, even in extreme situations where it simply must be patently untrue to some extent (come on, you are either a robot or maybe a billionaire if you aren’t influenced one iota by being given $1.6m). But if you stop and think about it for a minute, and think about the complexity of human psychology, and the fact that the brain is very, very good at coming to very, very convenient and self-serving conclusions – your opinions are always biased, even when you are trying your hardest to be objective. And I think it must be the case that a decent amount of product reviews of items gifted by companies are positive either because the blogger would like to encourage further freebies, or simply because of something like the reciprocity norm. I think people who do reviewing for a living and review huge numbers of products can achieve a higher level of objectivity because the influence isn’t the same (e.g. Christine at Temptalia is still going to have free stuff sent to her even if she gives things a C- rating), but most people writing reviews on their blogs aren’t anywhere near that level.

I think it’s sufficient for bloggers to simply declare that the item they’re reviewing was given to them for free (which, indeed, I believe is a legal requirement in the US, and possibly elsewhere). Any promises of impartiality beyond that are simply impossible for the reader (or even the blogger) to judge.

Random housekeeping note – if you’ve posted a comment in the past few months and it hasn’t been visible, it should be visible now. The blog got swamped with spam (the other day I got over 1000 spam comments in 24 hours, ugh) and I ended up missing a bunch of comments from new commenters that needed approval. All sorted now.

January 7, 2014 2

“Secrets of the Sales” – sigh

By in Miscellaneous

There’s a documentary called Secrets of the Sales on BBC iPlayer at the moment (if you’re outside the UK, you can view it using something like TunnelBear) that aims to offer some insights into the psychological and business strategies that retailers use to push sales and encourage purchasing. It’s not particularly critical nor particularly detailed, and the attempts to be sciencey (the heart rate and skin conductance monitoring, the eye-tracking) are pretty lame, but if you’ve got 60 minutes where you don’t mind a bit of distraction going on, maybe have it playing in the background while you do something else.

My favourite part is when a software analyst goes for a personal shopping session at Topman. That entire situation is just ripe for critical analysis – the male personal shopper’s language and the way he frames the potential purchases, the female personal shopper whose job in this instance seemed to be to do nothing except pay the customer lots of compliments (even when he was wearing a block-striped Hawaiian shirt and an ivory-coloured jacket that looked like it was out of Miami Vice), and when the £600+ bill gets rung up at the end and the Mr. Software Analyst looks rather nonplussed (his budget was £100), the male personal shopper assures him with something to the effect of “you’ve got a lot of good items here, and you won’t have to go clothes shopping again for, like, 6 months”. At that point I decided the whole thing would make a lot more sense if it was actually a mockumentary, right?

December 30, 2013 16

Blog conversations (or lack thereof)

By in Miscellaneous

This post over at The Closet Feminist – ‘Fashion blogging is not dead. Our conversations are.’ – hits the nail on the head, in my opinion, regarding how fashion blogging seems to be changing and becoming something more reductive, less discussional, and more driven by capitalism and consumption. The issues touched upon in the post are some of the reasons I ended up feeling too fed up to write here at Empty Emptor for quite a few months – it’s kind of deflating to write about taking a critical eye to consumption and its driving forces when the overall, overpowering trend across thousands of blogs seemed to entail the exact opposite. As always, the disclaimer is that everyone can feel free to write about whatever they like in their blogs, and as a reader I just need to not visit the blogs I find displeasing (as opposed to visiting them and rage-reading them and exclaiming “Can you believe this?!” to anyone within earshot). But it’s still interesting (if rather dispiriting) to take a step back and try to evaluate these qualitative shifts in blogging and why they’re occurring.

Maybe it’s just my idiosynchratic voyaging around the internet, but there seems to have been a proliferation of blogs that are literally just photos of outfits, often with links to where you can buy the same or similar items as in the outfit. If there is text included in the post, it’s usually pretty perfunctory – a description of the outfit, where and when the blogger bought a particular item, where they went while wearing the outfit, etc. And increasingly the outfits seem to be assemblies that look like checklists derived unironically from Shit Bloggers Wear. It ends up feeling like flipping through a catalogue – items are presented simply to be admired and desired and potentially purchased, and the majority of the fashion blogging juggernaut can now be boiled down to a rather anaemic exchange:

Blogger: *posts outfit photos*
Commenter: Great outfit! Love the way you’ve put it together!

At which point the blogger perhaps then visits the commenter’s blog and the exchange is reciprocated. The whole thing doesn’t seem to add much value to anything or enrich anyone’s knowledge through discussion or analysis or deconstruction or criticism. (Maybe I’m just naively romantic or ridiculously silly to expect those things of people spending their time on the interwebs. It’s not like I don’t spend a decent amount of time looking passively at things like this, which is definitely not enriching the world in any way but is keeping me incredibly amused.)

On the other hand, there is probably a decent amount of value to be gained from partaking of a scrupulously chosen set of fashion blogs, even if they’re heavy on the images and light on the commentary. They can offer people a way to visually explore what sort of style aesthetics they like and identify most strongly with, what styles they like on similar body shapes and sizes to theirs, or people might just like to appreciate an outfit (in terms of its colours or its proportions or its historical influences or whatever) that they never intend to replicate themselves. But is that what most people are likely to be doing when they read through fashion blogs? Or are blogs more likely to be having a more pernicious influence? Or both? (As I’ve previously written, it certainly seems that blogs are likely drivers of consumption, maybe even when they purposefully try to not encourage consumption.)

Anyway, I don’t really know where I was going with this post, except that the post at The Closet Feminist really struck a note with me, and that I think that there would be so much to be gained from people trying to blog more critically rather than just posting photos of their purchases, but then again, people are entitled to do that if they want, even if it’s just to get endless “love your outfit!” platitudes, but then again, it’s interesting to look at this overall blogging trend and think about what societal and cultural beliefs it reflects. It’s a complicated, fascinating, bewildering mess.

P.S. I saw perhaps the absolute pinnacle of the fashion-blogging-for-capitalism approach on thePurseForum a while back. Someone started a thread saying that they wanted to start a fashion blog, but they had some questions that they wanted answered first. Questions were to the effect of “How soon will I start making money from blogging?”, “How do I get companies to send me their items for free?” and “If I buy luxury items to wear for my blog and say that my blog is a business, will the items be tax deductible?”. An unsurprising set of enquiries, given the currently pervading attitudes, I guess…

December 26, 2013 26

Ownership, loss aversion, the endowment effect and all those forsaken lava lamps

By in Brain/mind, Theory/research

Do you ever see things for sale on eBay with prices that kind of make you guffaw in amused astonishment? I get daily emails of newly listed items containing my saved search terms (I really should just delete them but then the very stupid and very irrational fear of missing out on something I never knew I ever wanted hits and I refrain from deletion, ugh) and sometimes the prices are just hilariously optimistic. Not only that, but the items turn up again and again and again, re-listed and re-listed and re-listed, often at the same price. I know that some of the items will be from consignment sellers who have probably agreed with a client on a set price and to re-list indefinitely until the item sells, but a lot of the listings are just from individuals clearing out their wardrobes and offloading the things they don’t want any more. Just, you know, at prices so insane that the items don’t sell.

Seriously, there’s this one Erdem dress that keeps turning up in my saved searches and it has been relisted every 10 days for literally the past 2 years, but the seller seems absolutely convinced that someone’s going to eventually want it so badly that they’ll pay US$750 for it. I mean, sure, that’s a good price as far as Erdem dresses go, but my god, that seller has some patience in the face of the mounting evidence that perhaps no one is really willing to pay that amount for the dress.

What might be responsible for some of these crazy prices is the endowment effect, a psychological phenomenon in which people typically demand a lot more in order to relinquish an item they already own than they would be willing to pay for the item if they didn’t already own it.

In the classic study of the endowment effect (by our good friend, the very famous psychologist and Nobel Laureate in economics, Daniel Kahneman, plus colleagues), research participants were given a mug and were then offered the opportunity to sell it or to trade it for something of equal monetary value. However, once the participants were given ownership of the mug and felt like it was theirs, they typically expected twice as much money in order to be willing to part with it than they were willing to pay for the mug when they didn’t own it. So when they don’t own the mug, maybe they think it’s worth $5, but when they do own the mug, they expect someone to pay them $10 for it.

One explanation for the endowment effect is loss aversion – owners of items expect the pain of relinquishing the items to be greater than the enjoyment of acquiring the items, so they need extra financial compensation to soften the blow of parting with the item. However, an alternative explanation is related simply to ownership and the possibility that owners might associate the items with themselves, so they are reluctant to part with an item because of this personal connection – not necessarily because they expect to feel any pain from the loss.

Morewedge and colleagues investigated the endowment effect in terms of the loss aversion account versus the ownership account, to see which was more likely to be the real explanation. The problem, of course, is the fact that sellers are usually owners, so even if you just want to look at whether loss aversion occurs when someone considers selling an item, you’re kind of incidentally looking at ownership to some extent too. You need to add some extra factors in to get a clear picture of what’s going on.

Firstly, what if you create a new type of person – someone who’s a buyer but also an owner? Does such a person, i.e. one who is selling a mug but also happens to own another identical mug that they aren’t selling, behave more like a owner-seller (because they are an owner too) or more like a non-owning-buyer (because they are a buyer as well)? The researchers found that owning a mug actually resulted in buyers valuing the mug as much as sellers, which suggests that the high value that sellers place on the mug isn’t because of loss aversion – for instance, a seller might think a mug is worth $10, but someone who wants to buy that mug and already owns an identical mug also thinks the mug is worth $10. It appears to be the ownership that increases the mug’s perceived value; it can’t be loss aversion, since the buyer isn’t losing the mug.

Another clever way to tease apart the issue of loss aversion vs. ownership is to introduce additional parties – brokers who do the bargaining and dealing on behalf of the buyers and sellers. The researchers got some of the research participants to act as brokers to do a deal (on mugs again) on behalf of clients, so these brokers were buying or selling a mug without owning it. The researchers also gave some of the brokers identical mugs to the ones they had to buy or sell, so some brokers were buying or selling a mug they didn’t own but they also happened to own an identical mug. If the loss aversion account of the endowment effect is true, then sellers’ brokers should value the mugs more than buyers’ brokers, since sellers’ brokers will see their client’s sale as a loss and buyers’ brokers will see their client’s sale as a gain. However, if the ownership account is true, then buyers’ brokers and sellers’ brokers should value the mug more when they themselves own identical mugs to the one being bought/sold, compared to if the brokers don’t themselves own identical mugs.

The results showed that, again, owning the mug was the key factor here, and that buyers’ and sellers’ brokers valued the mug that they were buying or selling more if they themselves owned an identical mug. Again, it looks like ownership is the key factor in how valued an item is, rather than loss aversion. So maybe when those items turn up on eBay with crazy prices attached, what we’re seeing is the price for someone to be willing to relinquish something they connect with themselves. You might say it’s a bit like severing a tiny part of their identity, hence the premium price placed on the act.

Also, I just want to congratulate the study’s authors for getting what is tantamount to an existentialist ode to lava lamps into their paper, questioning the very nature of the human connection to lava lamps in language so imbued with poetic imagery and faint melancholy:

“Because the people who own lava lamps demand more to give them up than the people who do not own lava lamps will pay to get them, deals go unmade and storage lockers remain filled with lava lamps that are destined never again to glow. [...] We do not know if people store their lava lamps because parting with them is such sweet sorrow, but we do know that they store them because they like them and that they like them because they’re theirs.”