There are two kinds of people in the world. You know how it goes. Northerners and Southerners. Realists and dreamers. People with curly hair and people with straight hair. “Every classification throws light on something,” said Isaiah Berlin, the political philosopher and elucidator of the distinction between fox people, who know many things, and hedgehog people, who know one big thing.
Ways of classifying people have proliferated on the Web. If you are a fumehead, you may hang out on perfume blogs, shop at FragranceNet.com and believe that all the world can be divided into people who do and people who don’t like the smell of cumin. But if you are hearing of fumeheads for only the first time and confine your Web ramblings to sports sites and Ticketmaster, you may think that people can be divided into those who do and those who don’t care about perfume.
An online group becomes formally classified when it comprises an advertising category. That’s the magic point in e-commerce: when the members of an online group turn eager to purchase, say, tank tops or bottles of sauvignon blanc as badges of membership in communities like the ones that flourish at Burton.com or Wine.com. The voluminous content that these sites produce — blogs, videos, articles, reviews, forums — becomes the main event. To sell actual products, the company then “merchandises” that content, the way museums and concert halls and, increasingly, online newspapers hawk souvenirs, including art books and hoodies and framed front pages.
At the moment when content can be seamlessly merchandised, a group has generally developed robust forums in which the members (hoarders, mothers of twins, bodybuilders) develop codes and hierarchies and a firm notion that this is a place where they can finally be themselves. For most nameable idiosyncrasies, there are places online that will position you in a symbolic order that can, if you commit, double as a nation-state, in which all citizens have in common your idiosyncrasy, your badge of honor, your sin.
Consider the wonderfully successful NaturallyCurly.com. NaturallyCurly styles itself as a rialto for people with curly hair, and the vigorous participation of advertisers on the site suggests that it has carried off this aspiration. The secret to its success is the elegant and surefire story of lost-and-found souls at the center of it. Many sites that effectively convene subcultures ride this narrative, as the Web, with its seemingly secret and infinite byways, is a perfect place for people who conceive of themselves as marginalized to find homes.
On NaturallyCurly, the lost-and-found story is Blakean: a grand tale of curls repressed, along with the wildness, innocence and ethnic origins those curls stand for. Thanks to the site, the curls are then dramatically regained — though “managed,” it must be said, with a mix of glazes and chemical relaxers and Brazilian blowouts. The site has fun with the contradictions. Curly-headed people, long compelled to straighten their hair to conform to stifling ideas of beauty, now let their freak flags fly . . . or, rather, straighten and “defrizz” them with more enlightened products.
One section of the site asks users to “share your hair biography.” Share they do. Conforming the intimate details of their hairstyles to a given template, they supply a litany of arcane hair stats: curl pattern, texture, porosity, density, elasticity. Under “Techniques that don’t work and why,” a user named SouthernMoss writes: “Icequeen makes too many tangles; extra water in Super Soaker pulls out waves, plopping with heavy materials or for longer than 5 minutes flattens hair and creates weird waves and curls.”
Hair texture, for the site’s many members, defines them as much or more than social class, income, race or even gender. Comb through the site, especially the CurlTalk forums, and you’ll find a vocabulary that seems either startlingly alien or like home. If, in other words, you’ve never thought about your regional dew point and its capacity to cause bad hair days or about whether, in troubled economic times, you can in good conscience do cholesterol treatments — then NaturallyCurly is like another planet. If all this has crossed your mind, Naturally*Curly will seem like a refuge from a callous world.
What a perfectly susceptible state of mind for advertising. Customers come to Naturally*Curly for “information and support,” in the words of one of its founders. But they stay for reviews of hair products and — eventually — purchases from companies that have partnered with the site.
By subduing frizz and taming unruliness, products advertised on NaturallyCurly mediate between the site’s utopian pro-curliness and the demands of the real world. They become a way to stand out and to conform — both irresistible commodities. Every organization willing to radically reconceive itself for the Web should look at NaturallyCurly.com.
My best regional dew point is Los Angeles weather. My hair looks it's best in LA whichever month I visit.
The Medium - Online Marketing - NYTimes.com