Why we do it

Becoming a professional coolhunter isnŐt the only reason for keeping up with--or ahead of--the hip young Joneses these days, however. "The number of people wanting to project an image of being on the cutting edge indicates that these people believe that those around them place an importance on embracing the new," (Besser, 1988) and this is demonstrably true in modern professions. The modern workforce is increasingly young--not just in age, but in temperament. The seamless transition from school to college to professional life, the abandonment of apprenticeship, and the increasingly casual working environment are all contributing to a sustained youth culture within the workplace. Trends are almost religiously followed among young professionals, particularly those who work with or have access to new technologies. A plugged-in twenty-something with all the latest gadgets and product knowledge brings a special skill to the interview, brighter plumage to the freelance mating dance. The inspiration of envy works as a self-marketing tool, as other will more than likely be "impressed with the status of the one in their number who procured the object," (Slaton, 1999) and for the time being that one in their number shall have an edge. Pecuniary beauty gives way to perceptible scarcity, and each has its value in the complex process of status maintenance.

What's more, we are continuing the social tradition of display and observance, choice and judgement that arose so long ago. The acknowledgement that social classes have broken the boundaries of rich and poor, "in" and "out," has not relieved us of the obligation to select and display that which we feel best reflects who we are--and advertising, which is simply everywhere, gives us a rough language through which we can speak to one another. In Tom Vanderbilt's words, "the old credit card ad began, 'you may not know me,' but the brand dispels such anonymity: I smoke Merits. I drink Pepsi. I drive a Pontiac. You do know me." (1994, p 150)[12] We need to know one another in this world, and the faster the pace of daily life gets, the more grateful we are for this sort of social shorthand.

This isn't to say that our selection of a single brand of pants or cola defines us entirely; rather, it is to say that we're a construct. We're the pants and the cola, the car and the vodka, the t-shirt and the paperback in our coat pocket. If you say that you reject the very idea of this, and dress and act and buy without concern about what your choices "say," it doesn't stop others from looking and judging. Edith Wharton's subjects could claim not to care, but they couldn't deny the chilling effects of ostracism when the unmistakable signs of rebellion were detected. Again, if you don't choose to state your self-definition, someone else will define you for you.

Collaborative filtering, which is the principle on which an increasing number of companies are founding their "if you like this..." personal shopping features, is based on the idea that grouping people by common combinations of choices is more meaningful than grouping people by single decisions. That is, if you liked "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure" better than "Miller's Crossing," a database at your local video store can match you up with others who felt the same way, and determine with a fair degree of certainty that you're all likely to find Drew Barrymore's latest romantic comedy touching and funny. If you don't agree, you end up in a subset of the original group, and eventually you're way out on a branch of the tree, a tribe of one. On a personal level, we're all coolhunting for that tribe of one; we make certain decisions about how long and far afield we want to pursue the rare and new, based on how much we feel it will say about us. If you give up the chase, that's not likely to be the end of the world, but it could mean that you end up with entirely the wrong kind of junk mail.

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