Deconstructing the Hype: Interacting with the Abstract to Empower Sneakerheads

Nike Air Yeezy 2 by Julian Body

Secondary Research: Defining hype

In order to ground the thesis, I continue to define and distill a working definition of hype. Exploring its constituent parts enables me to obtain a firmer grasp on this amorphous subject matter.

Meaning

Looking at how humans derive meaning from everyday objects and artifacts became my starting point. A work in particular that I consulted was The Meaning of Things by Halton and Csikszentmihalyi. Examining studies on object-self relationships, objects of action vs. contemplation, and the second order effects of these dynamics grounded my study in an elemental understanding of ordinary possessions. Extending these concepts to consumer behavior and experiences, studies by Gilal & Zhang elaborate on consumers’ appreciation of the embedded symbolism of our possessions. In sum, the object itself translates meaning to the social environment.

Influences

My subsequent step involved a consideration of the forces that inform consumer behavior. I was repeatedly directed towards Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Coolhunt.” Gladwell delightfully chronicles grassroots vanguards who establish cool, the corporate hunters who track them, and the mass consumers who are ultimately influenced by the cat-and-mouse game. Now fueled by social networking platforms and mega-influencers, I’d argue the amplitude and wavelength of hype cycles have significantly warped in recent years.

Nike Dunk SB Low Staple NYC Pigeon via StockX

Context

Hype has tangible manifestations and acute consequences. Storied instances of sneaker hype gone too far include Jeff Staple’s Nike Dunk release in 2005 and Air Jordan’s Concord XI pre-Christmas release in 2011. With mobs and riots caused in Seattle, Atlanta, Oakland, and NYC, these moments live in sneaker hype infamy. On the other end, businesses have tried to control the system as best they can. For instance, distinguished retailer Bodega partnered with Shopify to build custom defense software to eliminate bots from spoiling their releases in 2019. Finally, I’d be remiss to overlook ways in which these behaviors negatively impact other stakeholders, including nonhuman ones. In particular, sneaker hype has fueled environmental pollution, exploitation of natural resources, and unethical labor practices that violate human rights.

Primary Research

Expert interviews

I conducted expert interviews with a footwear designer at Reebok, a former material designer at Nike, an art curator featured in The Design Museum of London, and a shoe store owner in Seattle. Some upcoming interviews that were unable to fit within this timeframe will be with a former longtime director of marketing at Nike.

Semi-Structured Interviews

To learn more from the sneakerhead point of view, I conducted semi-structured interviews over the course of 5 weeks. I interviewed 4 individuals, diverse in age and geographies, who have been active in buying and selling sneakers. Additionally, I had more casual conversations with consumers in sneaker shops to get a general sense of the current landscape. These interviews revealed patterns of information gathering that sneaker enthusiasts conduct as well as idiosyncratic habits and rules that guide their purchasing behavior. Some of the more powerful content came from introspective frameworks of hype as well as stories about grail sneakers, or pairs held in highest esteem.

Insights

  • A few noteworthy mechanisms and patterns emerged after conducting preliminary research. Firstly, the participants I talked to expressed an opt-in or opt-out mentality to sneaker hype. Being a casual collector seems increasingly unattainable for them. Specifically, I heard patterns of getting bots (computer software to obtain sneakers released online), joining cook groups (exclusive Discord groups that advise on sneaker acquisition), or reselling to continue to participate in their passion. All of these measures were in stark contrast to behavior they participated in when first taking interest in sneakers.
  • Despite subscribing to sneaker trends and movements, these enthusiasts unmistakably identified as outliers. They almost always described ways in which they were different from other sneakerheads via their mannerisms or purchasing practices. Even though they’ve been forced into the mainstream in some respects, they’ve expressed subtle means to stand out.
  • One interesting framework came from an interviewee who described two categories of hype (Hype vs. hype). Uppercase Hype applies to limited, expensive sneakers that few people could acquire. They likened these sneakers to a Ferrari automobile. On the other hand, lowercase hype characterizes popular sneakers whose quantities were so numerous that they neutralized extreme behaviors (analogy: the Apple iPhone). The interviewee expressed displeasure when hyped shoes become Hyped, most recently observable with the Nike Air Force One.
  • Finally, these sneaker enthusiasts looked externally for remedies to hype. Expressing concern for other individuals, they cited “the other’s” need to change behavior detrimental to the culture. They voiced relief in seeing these individuals develop authentic passion and style.

Poster show

One of my deliverables involved the creation of a visual for the MDes fall poster show — it’s intent was to articulate the problem statement, background, and primary research. I found value in expressing my ideas within a bounded space, and the act of arranging content on the poster helped eliminate unfruitful directions.

Fall 2021 Poster

Opportunities

Given the lack of design focused studies covering the domain, a formal documentation and analysis of sneaker hype culture appears timely and could greatly enrich academic discourse.

Conclusion

I end this quarter weary yet inspired by the direction my thesis will take me. I strive to push boundaries, investigate with more granularity, and confront my own assumptions with this thesis over the next six months. My work is just beginning, but I am proud of my efforts in engaging different perspectives and overcoming — to put it mildly — unexpected challenges. Here are a few of my takeaways from the quarter:

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