Significant Flavor

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With virtually all public gathering spaces closed by the coronavirus, it is tempting to declare (as in this Forbes article) that the “experience economy” — the merging of tourism and brick-and-mortar retail that marketing consultants James Gilmore and Joseph Pine first laid out in this Harvard Business Review article in 1998 — has been extinguished. If people can’t go anywhere, how can you sell them the “memorable” privilege of having really been “immersed” somewhere? How will the Museum of Ice Cream survive?

But while the places themselves will certainly be affected, the idea of commodified experience those places offer will persevere. Reified experience doesn’t require in-person gathering or the alchemic togetherness of the crowd; it is not a matter of buying the feeling of collective belonging. (This is the difference between "immersive experiences" and, say, events.) Instead, “experience” depends on atomized consumers being able to photogenically stage themselves for an audience, which is why the experience economy now goes hand-in-hand with social media. Those platforms make experiences fungible and legible in the form of posts to online profiles and story streams. “Having an experience” is a matter of circulating something recognizable and/or striking that has been appropriated for its familiarity, ingenuity, or aura of exclusivity. Even within the strictures of physical distancing, that kind of “experience” may be easy to replicate, because it doesn’t necessarily hinge on in-person crowds but information circulation and ready-at-hand structures of dissemination. “Being there” was always an alibi for something else.

In this essay, Emily Segal and Martti Kalliala, writing as the branding consultancy Nemesis, offer what seems to me a useful way to describe that “something else.” They put forward the idea of “umami” — the hard-to-describe taste category associated with “body” or “savoriness” — as a metaphor for what experience retailers have tried to capture and consumers have hoped to buy:

We believe that umami has been both literally and figuratively the key commodity of the experience economy. Umami, as both a quality and effect of an experience, popped up primarily in settings that were on the verge of disintegration, and hinged on physical pilgrimages to evanescent meccas...

“Advanced consumers” became obsessed with umami and then ran around trying to collect ever-more-intensifying experiences of it. Things were getting more and more delicious, more and more expensive, and all the while, more and more immaterial.

“Umami” corresponds to that elusive and ever-shifting quality of “Instagrammability,” which places it in the same orbit around the idea of the “authentic.” In marketing discourse, authenticity is a tautological term that typically points to something that is “trendy in a way that disavows trendiness.” It calls attention to itself as a thing worth paying attention to. Like “umami,” “authentic” is defined precisely by how it resists definition, how efforts to define it tend to merely elaborate its elusiveness.

“Authentic” doesn’t refer to integrity or fidelity but to a kind of conspicuous being. In The Tourist (1976), sociologist Dean MacCannell linked authenticity to tourism, arguing that “touristic consciousness is motivated by its desire for authentic experiences.” That formula could also be reversed: Consumers seek out “authenticity” to inhabit the touristic consciousness at any time and not merely when traveling. In our current situation, with travel largely forbidden, this property of “authenticity” becomes more salient and desirable: It conveys the gratifications of tourism — expressing identity through gathering souvenirs — without having to go places. Experiences purportedly transfer their “realness” — their conspicuousness, their notability — to consumers, giving them a sense of realness too.

The most notable purveyors of the substanceless substance, the experience-less experience, the flavor of significance that Segal and Kalliala describe, are “influencers,” who have proliferated to try to extract and market the “umami” from as many varieties of human endeavor as possible. What makes for “authentic” plumbing? There is almost certainly a plumbing influencer on a social media platform somewhere trying to give that notion some structure and imagery. Right now, coronavirus influencers are surely emerging and gathering followers and sponsors for demonstrating the “right way” to be in quarantine.

In this New York Times article about wellness influencers working to capitalize on the coronavirus crisis, Amanda Hess writes that “there is something disquieting about the slick translation of the crisis into the logic of branding. When a fleet of lifestyle bloggers turned a public health warning into a synergistic exercise — they each held up a sign in flowery influencer script, collectively informing their audiences to “Stay home for the people you love. Be kind! Wash your hands. Let’s flatten the curve!” — they probably thought they were using their platforms for good. But they were also helping to reaffirm the reorganization of community under their various cults of personality.”

That is a good way to approach “influencers” generally. They are human brands, which means they must assimilate the character of human relationships to the logic of brand equity and demonstrate how it all must be assessed in terms of economic value. Perpetual tourists of the everyday, they turn ordinary experience into authentic, which is to say commodified, “experience.” Influencers allow their followers to have the same “experiential” relation to a person (and to each other) that they have to brands, whose marketing incessantly flatters us for our discernment — that we can really taste the umami and that makes us special. Reducing “community” to “cults of personality” effectively conveys that the only reason to belong to a community is because it makes you feel good about yourself. It need not be experienced as anything more than self-care, a wellness initiative. The value or glamor of the product (or the human brand, the influencer or the celebrity) stands in for the mundanity of mutuality involved in localized communities. It entails no reciprocity, just a shared aesthetic that carries with it no burden of responsibility or mutual aid. It reduces community to a matter of signaling.

Belonging to a “brand community” or a “fan community” or a “influencer community” of some sort makes community appear as a matter of unilateral individual participation in a vicarious relationship. It restores a sense of normality in which the consumer is sovereign, making all-important choices of where to pay money or attention, as an expression and proof of their existential freedom. This kind of pseudo-community is always tempting, but perhaps especially so now that further obstacles have been placed in the way of collective practice. Influencers’ function in the current crisis is to sustain the logic of consumerism while social distancing strictures militate against it.

Because they are structurally incapable of not instrumentalizing every aspect of their persona, influencers inevitably translate everyday life into a series of scams, even when they are not as explicitly corrupt as the schemers described in this Wired piece about wellness influencers selling snake oil and miracle cures.  “Influence” itself is a scam. The logic of “becoming an influencer” marks out the master scam of vicarious participation in which the cult of personality offers apparent shortcuts to aspirational goals. They can’t help but be “key distributors” of misinformation about the coronavirus (or anything else) because their function is to warp the function of information toward the goal of attention for attention’s sake.

Segal and Kalliala take for granted that people have an “inexhaustible appetite for umami,” which I translate as a desire for a particular kind of misinformation about how to live “meaningfully,” that is, in such a way as to command attention. Why would we want that particular kind of “experience”? It seems to resemble what David Shields called “reality hunger” — a demand for "reality" as coalesced in appropriated fragments. Umami, in Segal and Kalliala's analysis, describes qualities of density, of “synergy,” of a whole superseding the sum of its parts. It is a kind of “deliciousness” that is encoded by a juxtaposition of signifiers but coalesces into a distinctive brand. Food dishes that convey literal umami promise that the different (and perhaps arbitrary) bits of things can be seamlessly blended into a whole. Umami experiences promise that you can similarly assemble a coherent and convincing identity out of stray salient bits.

In practice, this boils down to vicariousness. But that appetite isn’t natural and given so much as it’s a response to the cruelties of capitalism — its fetish of competitiveness, its determination to put price tags on care and belonging, its dependence on exploitation and exclusion. A taste for the “authentic” mitigates these cruelties through their conversion into relatable, aspirational goals and accessible yet ineffable luxuries. This mode of consolation may be more persuasive under the current conditions of isolation; there appear to be fewer alternative consolations and many more reasons to be worried.

For Segal and Kalliala, using chef David Chang’s Momofuku as an example, “metaphorical umami makes the combination of the food and the authenticity of the space somehow culminate in a desire to pay prohibitively expensive rent in a postindustrial wasteland.” Chang claims in this Wired piece that he was determined to make food worth waiting in line for, but in practice that becomes hard to distinguish from food that seems good because you waited in line for it. The line precedes the consumption and establishes its context, pre-certifies that evanescent taste of popularity that people who wait in lines to eat expensive food are generally after.

Chang asserts that deliciousness is, borrowing a term from Douglas Hofstadter, a “strange loop,” which is to say it is a tautology, like authenticity itself. It is what it is, and the trick is to make people see that as a process, and then sell that noticing itself as a commodified “experience” of flavor. "Flavor is a strange loop" seems like a strange euphemism for “flavor is marketing”: marketing can create the lines at the restaurant that create the aura of popularity, which in turn creates the subjective experience of flavor. You eat the trend. Influencers are those people who do that sort of marketing, who have the social media numbers to prove that there is a line of sorts, a crowd around their content that becomes a self-fulfilling proof of its relevance. They can turn even a crisis into a series of benignly marketable and manageable moments.

Though we can’t gather as crowds in physical space, we will still gather on screens and in platform metrics. People will still want the same charge that participating in a moment gives, and they’ll still want those moments to be fungible, to be collectible, to feel personalized and exclusive. The “experience economy” isn’t over because we have more reason than ever to turn our experiences into media and look for ways to translate that into social recognition, into acceptance.

The gravity of the situation the world is facing would seem to make the frivolity and pretense of the experience economy instantly evaporate, but the coronavirus is not peeling away the layers of illusion to reveal an unquestioned authentic reality we all must share. The quarantine hits everyone differently; different people face vastly different risks and are expected to bear vastly different burdens, despite the superficial similarity of confronting widespread closure. What seems significant may have shifted, but it can still appear as a flavor, a seasoning amid the crowded channels on which we're broadcasting.

Rob Horning is an editor at Real Life, an online journal about technology and everyday life.