I didn’t really understand the value of eBay until a friend showed me her Watch List. She scrolled through an archive of Junya, Comme and Dior as if she were sifting through her own closet of carefully curated finds. Now, when I’m tired or stoned or just thirsty for something new, I’ll hunt through streams of blurry images in search of Cavalli animal prints and vintage Galliano. I fav a $40,000 rhinestone encrusted Tom Ford for Gucci jacket and stilettos that won’t fit. It doesn’t matter. I’m not going to buy them anyway.
Once the domain of savvy collectors and aspirational housewives in search of affordable monogram, resale shopping apps like eBay and Poshmark have since become a two billion dollar industry catering to everyone from millennials seeking to tap into the growing gig economy, to Supreme junkies in search of the latest drop.
Across the web, the joys of recommerce are sold through creative copy in apps and on news sites like Forbes, who peddle the promise of neoliberalism with headlines like ‘Do You Have a Hidden Side-Hustle in Your Closet?’1 For the eco-conscious and Kondo-savvy, repurposing used goods is only natural, and so is making money online. But for the fashion-obsessed, resale apps offer more than discount designer. Aspiring stylists and archivists use sites like eBay to uncover lesser-known brands or rare items from established designers, utilising their discovery mechanisms as portals into more in-depth explorations of old trends or runway shows.
Curated apps, like Grailed and The RealReal, help buyers and collectors gauge the value of goods — like this season’s ‘must-have’ Margiela tabis2 — encouraging users to participate in circular economies of style: the incessant buying and selling of used goods as a means to consume more. But within these regenerative shopping networks there’s another, arguably more democratic, trend emerging, one that often eliminates the need to buy things altogether. It’s the practice of saving items to likes, carts, and online wish lists — what I like to call ‘virtual shopping.’
Like Instagram and Pinterest, resale apps can be used as mood boards, enabling users to virtually collect goods as a means to generate new identities on and offline. According to a 2013 study by consumer culture scholars Mike Molesworth and Janice Denegri-Knott titled Digital Virtual Consumption as Transformative Space, these temporary states of ownership, like saving a pair of Dr Martens on Depop, enable users to ‘initiate a journey of self-knowing through object knowing.’3 In other words, we no longer have to buy things to feel their impact on our sense of self; we can just save them to our wish lists instead.
For today’s shoppers, discovery is half the fun of online shopping, especially when it comes to searching for used items — things not everyone can find in stores. But just like vintage shopping IRL, virtual shopping can simulate longing, anxiety and a feeling of missed opportunity. But according to Denegri-Knott, it can also help enhance our self-esteem, promote ethical consumption and deliver new modes of enjoyment and pleasure.4 If we can participate in fashion in the same way that we play video games, then our opportunities for personal exploration via resale apps should be as vast as the sandbox worlds that mirror them.
In the world of recommerce, virtual shopping is the new consumerism that everyone can afford. But do resale apps really change the way we shop? Can they free us from our physical enslavement to consumerism? Or do they compel us to dive deeper into a cycle of buying and selling goods, rendering every image, object and aspiration in our lives as something to be consumed and resold?
Virtual shopping exists within a liminoid space, what cultural theorist Rob Shields defines as a meeting point of the imaginary and the material.5 Like window shopping, this in-between mode of consumption encourages fantasy and play, but it can also simulate aspirational desires, like the need to consume above your means. In his book The Empire of Things, historian Frank Trentmann describes how social innovation at the turn of the twentieth century resulted in the development of advanced technologies that triggered new modes of consumption, similar to the effects of online shopping today.6 In fin de siècle Paris, he says, newly constructed grand boulevards facilitated the orderly flow of goods and people, blurring commercial and public space with brightly lit storefronts that acted as extensions of main traffic arteries.7 For the first time, luxury items were on display for the masses, expanding desires for previously unattainable goods. Household objects, priced cheaper to encourage accelerated turnover, were no longer purchased solely for their utility, but also for their ability to signal wealth and status.
This surge in consumerism, defined as ‘conspicuous consumption’ by Thorstein Veblen in 1899, put new pressures on women, who were then responsible not only for the cooking and cleaning, but also for purchasing clothing and housewares that reflected familial status and smarts. For the average consumer, this included silk dresses, tapestries, and newly available knick knacks from overseas. For the elite, this meant sourcing antiques and hard to find collectables, luxury goods that weren’t yet available to the masses.
Today’s shoppers similarly perform mental and physical labour in order to achieve idealised luxury lifestyles both online and IRL. Buyers and sellers on resale apps act as entrepreneurial subjects, sifting through blogs, Pinterest boards, and influencer accounts in order to uncover the most compelling trends and the looks that mirror them. This neoliberal encroachment of production onto all facets of consumer behaviour has resulted in the proliferation of what scholar Elizabeth Wissinger refers to as glamour labour, ‘the body work to manage appearance in person and the online image work to create and maintain one’s “cool” quotient — how hooked up, tuned in, and “in the know” one is.’8
As our real-life identities become blurred with those of our online avatars, so do our notions of work and play, and nowhere is this more apparent than within social networks like Instagram and on the resale platforms that mimic them. In a recent blog post, Poshmark CEO Manish Chandra hailed ‘social commerce’ as the way of the future, citing community building as the key to driving engagement, building trust, and selling goods online.9 To Chandra, influencer markets are essential to selling clothes, and the best way to tap into them is by making shopping networks feel more like social media. But beyond likes, shares and friendly copy inspiring users to ‘join the community,’ social commerce isn’t really all that social.
Instead, shopping platforms mimic social media in other ways. On Depop, sellers are offered a handbook of tips to help them set up their own ‘bedroom empire,’ what amounts to a brightly coloured pitch deck that might also be used to explain how to get popular on Instagram.10 According to the handbook, the best way to make money is by taking ‘model shots’ — well-lit, full-body photos that show the item you are trying to sell styled into a look. But for sellers, listing items on Depop involves more than doing your makeup and setting up a selfie timer. Like an aspiring influencer you need to create a brand identity, grow your followers, and stay up-to-date with the latest trends — immaterial forms of work or ‘glamour labour’ that may seem stressful but for many, are actually fun.
‘The time I spend on the app is definitely worth it,’ one Depop seller told me on Reddit. ‘Every time I’m active it’s an opportunity to make money for myself doing what I enjoy.’
Virtual shopping can be social, though not necessarily in the way platform developers intended. Endless messaging boards and Instagram accounts dedicated to weird eBay finds and vintage collections act as alternative malls, offering thrifters new ways to share their hauls with larger audiences, sometimes without even shopping at all. For example, Instagram user Vivian Xe shares her watchlisted eBay items to a dedicated account called @lucky_jewel_iwanttt.11 Followers heart matching Miu Miu cowhide sets and third eye prosthetics, commenting their praise under pictures of vintage platforms or asking for links so they can buy them for themselves. ‘It’s like blurring the line between physically consuming something and just having it in some entangled web on the internet,’ Xe told me over the phone. ‘I’m getting rid of the potential energy that I’m holding.’12
Almost everyone I spoke to while researching this essay had some kind of relationship to virtual shopping. Like me, many of my friends confessed that scrolling through eBay or Amazon was for them a soothing distraction. But unlike the shameful confession of someone whose Instagram screen time exceeds two hours a day, my shopping-addicted peers seem to take pride in their practice, as if sourcing cheap Giorgio Armani is in itself an artform. I can’t help but agree. Surely snooping through a random Las Vegas stripper’s simulated closet on Poshmark is a better use of time than scrolling through pictures of skinny girls wearing I.AM.GIA on Instagram. Especially if you’re not buying anything.
In an era where trends proliferate faster than the seasonal shows that once spawned them, recommerce apps have the power to both dictate trend cycles and undermine them too. When fangirls buying out used Saddlebags leads to their re-issue at Dior, it’s easy to see how secondary markets can manipulate the fashion industry. But what happens when shoppers sit out trends altogether? If buyers can get gratification from simply browsing online, there’s no need to splurge on conspicuous consumption goods. If you keep that Balenciaga City bag in your RealReal wishlist for long enough, you might forget why you even wanted it, especially if you couldn’t really afford it in the first place.
Like giving up fast fashion, opting out of IRL shopping can feel like a radical act, but Janice Denegri-Knott, the co-author of Digital Virtual Consumption as Transformative Space, isn’t so sure. If collecting designer clothing in digital baskets contributes to a sense of ownership that causes one to abandon online shopping altogether, she tells me, virtual consumption could be considered radical. ‘But because our attention is the ultimate commodity in the digital economy, escaping market forces altogether is unlikely.’13
Like the streets of Paris at the turn of the century, resale applications are constructed to capture our attention and maximise the time we spend shopping. Auctions, push notifications, and emails announcing price drops get users to open their apps while explore pages and likes encourage them to stay and play. But in the age of big data, it’s not only our dollars that corporations are after. In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshanna Zubkoff argues that it’s not goods, but people and the data they generate that are the most valuable resources online.14 Not only can platforms use our data to sell ads to corporations, but they can also use it to modify our behaviour IRL.
If that’s the case, it’s no wonder that apps like Poshmark and eBay promote the virtual consumption and collection of goods. The more time we spend online, the more apps know about how and what we consume. For example, if you make a purchase in the early evening on a Wednesday night, the next time you’re feeling tired and stressed at the end of a work day, you might find an email in your inbox announcing a discount on an item you previously liked. These small modes of behaviour modification might seem trivial, but when we take into account all the ways in which our actions are tracked throughout the day, like at the coffee shop when you use your debit card, or when the Instagram app overhears you saying you need new underwear, the opportunities for targeting become unlimited, increasing the pressures to buy.
But virtual consumption has its benefits, too. For example, ‘If we see consumption as enabling us to achieve goals that are important to us, searching for collectables on eBay shouldn’t be seen as detrimental,’ says Denegri-Knott. ‘Collecting may be something that we enjoy with our loved ones, or be an activity that allows us develop skills and knowledge.’15
Those that hit the ‘buy now’ button produce value too. Real people make real money selling on apps like Poshmark and eBay, and buying used clothes frees woke consumers from the guilt of buying new. What’s more, alternative economies have emerged from ‘sharing’ platforms. On Depop, users have found innovative ways to trade items with those who have similar tastes, while virtual communities like @lucky_jewel_i_wanttt have turned into pop ups IRL. And while extensive packaging and air shipping might not scream sustainability, the growth of resale platforms has made buying used the norm for a whole new generation of people who thought thrifting was just for hipsters. ‘I was that weirdo whose parents couldn’t afford to buy trendy name-brand stuff,’ one Depop user told me on Reddit. ‘To have people buy and wear my thrift selections and handmade pieces is very validating, like… I knew I had good taste!’
For those who can manage to save up enough money for a pair of Yeezys from Goat.com, the question then becomes whether or not buying them is worth it. In the 2018 essay Kinky Labour Supply and the Attention Tax, Venmo co-founder Andrew Kortina and designer Namrata Patel speculate that for young men in America, buying conspicuous consumption goods isn’t worth the trade-off.16 Most people shop to show off their goods online, and while it’s easier to find like-minded people on the internet, like in the case of Vivian Xe, standing out among the noise is harder than ever. Instead of working more to buy expensive goods, Kortina and Patel argue, young men are more likely to spend time consuming the content available to them for free online. Put simply, unless you’re already rich and famous, the amount of likes you get for posting a photo in a ‘GUCCY’ sweater isn’t worth the cost. Investing in a new Fortnite skin is a better payoff.
Of course, not everyone is keen on making avatars and scrolling through eBay. For those with IRL jobs, how we dress is often as important as our physical and mental abilities, especially for women. Still, it’s not hard to imagine a future wherein our daily lives are lived in uniform and our consumer identities are fulfilled online. Social media already allow us to create fantasy worlds where we can post pictures of places we never went, photoshop our waists to be smaller, and even pretend to be someone else altogether, so why not do the same with clothes?
Whether or not we will consume digital goods in the future isn’t really up for debate, but just how we’ll pay for the use of these objects is yet to be seen. It’s easy to envision a future dominated by monopolistic platforms that keep us confined to algorithmic content tunnels, but we can also consider a less sinister one wherein people can exchange their data in fair, transparent ways for the use of online goods and services. This might include subscription networks or blockchain-based tokens that can be used to represent virtual garments or artworks that can grow in value and scarcity over time. Whatever the method, the future is virtual, and if people want to create new realities as a means to escape the mundanity of their real life ones, so be it. After all, fashion is a creative endeavour and if we want to express it online, we should be able to, especially when everything else feels like it’s outside of our control.
Taylore Scarabelli is a New York-based writer whose work focuses on fashion, feminism and technology. She is fond of Ed Hardy and fist-size hoops.
This article was originally published in Vestoj On Capital, available for purchase here.
R W. Belk and R Llamas, The Routledge Companion to Digital Consumption. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2013, p.230. ↩
Email interview with Janice Denegri-Knott ↩
R W. Belk and R Llamas, The Routledge Companion to Digital Consumption. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2013, p.225. ↩
F Trentmann, The Empire of Things. New York, NY: Harper, 2016 ↩
Ibid. p.455. ↩
E Wissinger. ‘#NoFilter: Models, Glamour Labor, and the Age of the Blink,’ Theorizing the Web, Vol 1, Issue 1: 2014 ↩
Phone interview with Vivian Xe ↩
Email interview with Janice Denegri Knott ↩
S Zubkoff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, New York, NY: Public Affairs, 2019 ↩
Email interview with Janice Denegri-Knott ↩