Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Food fans

Online Fandom reports: "Retailers: the new rock stars." Fans used to cluster around their favorite bands, movies, or sports teams. Now it's also stores like Trader Joe's. After linking to a gaggle of TJ's fansites, OF analyzes the phenomenon:
Fandom has jumped the shark from media products to companies. Trader Joes is one example, but there is much more of this going on. Media companies are used to thinking of customers as fans, and even they are facing more challenges than they can count figuring out how to make the most of what fans do online while protecting their intellectual property and creative control. Companies that have never thought of customers as “fans” before will have even greater challenges ahead. But if retail customers can become engaged enthusiastic proponents in the same way media fans have, there’s a gold mine waiting for the companies that figure out how best to work it. Trader Joes couldn’t buy better online advertising.
This discussion seems to rely on a different notion of "fan" than I remember from my younger days. It used to be that anyone who followed a team was their fan. I was a Blue Jays fan, a Maple Leafs fan, even once upon a time a Toronto Blizzard fan. When I liked Duran Duran I was a fan and all I had to do was buy a cassette of Rio and listen to it a hundred times. Now to be a fan means to be invested in active participatory experiences with other fans beyond just watching television and listening to the radio. Now to be a fan one must get drawn into online discussions, blogging, convention-going. It's not enough to buy the t-shirt; a real fan sports tattoos.

All of this seems particularly relevant to me as I write because today marks the much anticipated opening day for our Milwaukee Whole Foods. I'm hoping to make it over there later. When I visit and perhaps blog my WF experience, will it be as a fan? I suppose I'm a food fan but the idea of worshipping at the altar of a corporate chain makes me queasy. I know that Star Wars is essentially a movie version of a corporate chain and I don't get queasy at the thought of Star Wars fans. But there's a difference in there somewhere. (Also, half of me wants to hate the place.)

While on this topic, I recently came across a reference to TJ's at LA.com that described it as an "indie grocery chain." That is telling. TJ's appeals to the same kind of anti-mainstream sensibility as various forms of culture commonly called indie (movies, music, clothing, games, etc.). But TJ's is part of the German Aldi chain that owns hundreds of Aldi discount supermarkets in the U.S. in addition to hundreds of TJ's stores and an empire of retail in Europe. Its annual global revenue is $37 billion. That ain't indie change.

More:
-Wikipedia TJ's entry.
-Whole Foods Market Vision Day 2005, a YouTube video in which employees of a WF in SF talk about changes to the store. I would so love to see videos of supermarkets from 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago.
-Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture, a book by two Canadian philosophy professors about how anti-mainstream rebellion is often an empty form of defiance that consumer society exploits to sell people more stuff. It's written in a breezy style to appeal beyond an academic readership, so parts of it reduce complex phenomena to glib descriptions in a way that might send you into a rage. But the basic argument is quite convincing. On the marketing of organic food to upscale consumers: "A more perfect example of the convergence of hippie and yuppie ideals would be difficult to find." (306) That sums up my feelings about Trader Joe's pretty well. (This book owes much to both Thomas Frank and David Brooks.)

WF previously [1], [2]

6 Comments:

Anonymous Nancy said...

Interesting thoughts. I just want to clarify that I don't think online participatory experience is now required in fandom. Buying a t-shirt or watching the show every week is still enough. But the internet has made being a fan more participatory in interesting ways and with interesting consequences. People who would never dress as a Clone for a Star Wars convention will gladly read a discussion group online.

Did foodies organize and label themselves as fans before there was an internet? I ask because certainly media fans did, but I have no idea if there were people who would have used the label 'fan' to describe what they were in regard to a grocery store or other food source before.

Also, fear not, fans don't have to worship at altars. We also get to nitpick and attack every little thing that's not done right.

If you're curious about participatory fandom, I recommend Henry Jenkins's new book "Convergence Culture."

5:07 PM  
Blogger mzn said...

Hey Nancy,
Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment.

I don't know what foodies did before the internet. The explosion of foodies and the web were concurrent. But I don't think that internet foodie communities generally use the term "fan" to label themselves, so even if they/we are doing the same kind of thing as media fans, the terminology is different. I also don't know to what extent foodie culture sees itself as subculture. This is, as they say, a topic for further research.

As for worship at altars: I always thought nitpicking was a labor of love. Why would you care about the ridges on a Klingon's forehead if not because you care so dearly for the Trekiverse? Can you be a fan of something you don't like, or for which you have mixed feelings (as I have for TJ's and WF)?

And thanks for the Jenkins reference. I have that book on my desk. Believe it or not, I study media when I'm not busy ranting about Whole Foods.

5:26 PM  
Blogger zp said...

Have you no respect for tradition, mzn?!

"I don't know what foodies did before the internet. [fine] The explosion of foodies and the web were concurrent. [how does this follow?]"

From where you stand, maybe. (See Tim Burke on oral sex and history.)

What about local cookbooks and recipe exchanges? Contests and bakeoffs, including national ones. Schools and classes. Reviews for restaurants and products. Markets. All of this is participatory, creative and consumptive.

For me, the question is, what happens when, in a long trajectory of participatory experience, cooking and eating become primarily characterized by or organized by relationships to national or international brands and corporations.

What this has to say about fandom, or what concepts of fandom have to say to this, I don't know. But a discussion of subcultures and indie cultures and mainstream cultures is not far off . . .

8:13 AM  
Blogger mzn said...

zp, your question is excellent. I think I meant foodie culture as something distinct from recipe exchanges and bakeoffs, something rather more upscale and elite, but I don't know how one would really go about distinguishing. I'll admit to being presentist in assuming today's foodie culture to be like nothing that came before it. Touché. BUT--and this might be semantics, but still--would anyone have described the participatory food & cooking culture of yesteryear using the term "fan"?

2:29 PM  
Blogger zp said...

the strands of elite/popular culture preceeding and within current foodie culture i think is almost overwhelmingly complicated.

i'm going to ask lindy and chocolate lady and everyone else who reads my blog about that. keep an eye out.

5:36 PM  
Anonymous Rebecca said...

I had no idea that TJs was owned by Aldi; my favorite part of the Wikipedia entry was that a newly promoted TJ crew member is known as a "novitiate". Is it just me, or does the TJs culture remind anyone else of the hoopla surrounding Southwest Airlines and what it must be like to work for them?

7:40 AM  

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