Welcome to the bloggy home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Percolate and general internet tinkerer. This site is about media, culture, technology, and randomness. It's been around since 2004 (I'm pretty sure). Feel free to get in touch. Get in touch.

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T-Shirts and The Long Tail

If I had to boil my interests down to one sentence, it would probably be “The cultural implications of digital technology.” I love this stuff. I find it invigorating to think about the larger effects of technology on people: To try to understand what the world will look like five years from now as people take learnings from their interactions with computers and apply it to toasters and mops. (Maybe that’s a tough one, but you get my drift.)

With that said, it’s exciting to read articles discussing just these kind of ideas. While not necessarily looking towards the future, people are beginning to realize that a huge part of the impact of technology happens outside the world of the technology itself. I like to think that this type of thinking is actually a result of the internet reinforcing the fact that the world is interconnected and following the links is a worthwhile pursuit. With an endless amount of information at our fingertips, we are forced to become more selective, a process that trains our brain as a different kind of filter. Most people have noticed that filter show up offline, as they read the newspaper with a closer eye or question a conclusion in a Newsweek article. That’s what I’m talking about. Those are big changes in the way people think that come as a result of technological innovation.

Anyway, my real point here, and the reason I started writing this, is because I was reading a New York Times article about how popular limited edition T-shirts are at the moment. While interesting, the article was by no means revolutionary, rather, it was taking the usual New York Times task of covering a trend far after it has been established. Then on the second page, I ran across this paragraph which connected this offline trend to some online events:

These days, whenever two or more people gather to consider the future of consumer society, “customization” and “niche” are certain to be their most frequently uttered terms. Bored and satiated, consumers first took music dissemination into their own hands, via Internet programs like Napster, and then information, in the form of blogs, and, finally, even so-called hard goods, now that it is clear that anyone, more or less, can start a clothing company. As with garage bands and personal Web pages, a little alcoholic lubrication rarely seems to hurt at the point of conception; neither does a taste for unabashed amateurishness, communal expression and the exuberantly ad hoc.

The trend towards customization is a great example of people getting so accustomed to a digital occurance that it moves offline. On the internet, nearly anything can be customized to your specifications. That’s because everything’s digital and creating something that unique to you is as easy and rearranging a few bytes. Once people get used to that, however, they begin to expect it in other places, like their clothing.

This is where things get interesting. In the past customized or limited edition clothing was problematic because production in small quantity is so expensive and stores couldn’t afford to waste shelf space on goods that would only be bought by a few people. That meant that these short-run articles were either marked up to make it worthwhile to the store, or required visiting a manufacturer who works in single items (which again becomes an expensive affair). However, when you bring the internet back into the equation, all of a sudden limited edition/custom becomes a reality.

Thanks to the long tail (which basically says that because the overhead cost of shelf space is not an issue online, there’s a lot of money to be made by selling to niches), people can buy their limited edition t-shirts for a reasonable price and companies can actually make money off those shirts. Customers are happy. Businesses are happy. The world is now better off because no one ever has to deal with the embarrassment of walking into the party wearing the same t-shirt as someone else.

That’s not it, though. No, no, no. Now that the trend has been brought back online (remember we’ve gone online, offline, online), we can bring in other digital principles and ideas. Take Threadless for example. Threadless sells t-shirts. But not just any t-shirts, they sell t-shirts designed by regular people. That’s not even what makes them so exciting, though, those designs are chosen by regular people. Actually, their voted on by regular site visitors. As described on the site:

Threadless is an ongoing tee shirt design competition. Designs are put into the running to be scored for 7 days. After those 7 days high scoring designs are chosen to be printed and sold from our “SHOP” section!

So there it is, they take a trend of customization, add in a touch of participation and you have (what seems to be) a successful business. Viola.

Now wasn’t that easy?

July 25, 2005