We're Trapped in an Online Fashion Bubble — Here's How to Escape

We're Trapped in an Online Fashion Bubble — Here's How to Escape

A jean jacket has been stalking you for months. Not from your closet, where it hangs peacefully, but online. It lingers next to your friends' posts on Facebook, banners itself across news sites and nestles in the corners of the blogs you visit.

Being stalked online by something you already own is a particularly 21st century problem. So, it turns out, is turning up at a party wearing the same shoes as someone else — a sticky situation you would think the Internet would help us avoid.

But these two common experiences are clues to the limits of the Internet when it comes to clothes. Our online experience has become a series of what Upworthy cofounder and author Eli Pariser calls "filter bubbles," our own personal online ecosystems that serve us stuff we're likely to enjoy. There's a "kind of invisible, algorithmic editing of the Web" happening, Pariser said in his 2011 TED Talk, which works to feed us more of the same.

The sacrifice is serendipity. The result is existing in a bubble.

"When you're online, you're in a bubble — you're exposed to the same faces, the same fashion direction and the trends are being dictated. It's a very one-dimensional view of style," Karen Blanchard of street style blog Where Did U Get That told Mic.

Is the Internet actually making it harder to discover new, exciting fashion?

Want to buy a new bag? Instagram has a ton of ideas for you — er, one idea, nine times over. Meet the Mansur Gavriel bucket bag, an Insta-favorite of the moment.  Instagram

The Facebook feedback cycle: There's an obvious benefit to being served content catered to our tastes: We know we'll like it. But when social networks like Facebook harness information about us, they end up spotlighting the things we've already shown an inclination to buy.

It's called retargeting, and it's the most obvious way most of us experience the fashion filter bubble. Almost 90% of marketers use the technique, according to Digiday, in which a shopper who visits one website is tracked around the Web so ads for whatever she first visited follows hers.

Unsurprisingly, shoppers find these omnipresent ads — which pop up on Facebook and Twitter and even in our inboxes — intrusive, annoying and creepy.

"Targeted ads freak me out. It feels like companies are stalking me with less than subtle reminders of the stuff I probably shouldn't be buying, and it bothers me that they have such comprehensive profiles on me that they can predict what stuff I will actually go for," Julia, 24, from Washington D.C., told Mic.

Retargeting removes the possibility of coming across something unexpected but wonderful that we might get flicking through a magazine or walking past a billboard. 

And given that we're on social media more than ever (63% of Facebook and Twitter users rely on social media for their news, according to the Pew Research Center), these sites function as our doorway to the Internet — and increasingly, they're leading us to what we already know.

Just one example of Facebook's targeted ads.  Mic

Seek online and you shall not find: Of course, people passionate about fashion don't just passively consume it via Facebook. But searching doesn't always lead to new discoveries, or ones particularly unique. Forget stumbling across the fashionistas of Tokyo's Harajuku district, or finding a denim brand you didn't know existed — Google's sophisticated algorithms mean that searching isn't quite serendipity. 

Details regarding the algorithms are scarce and ever changing, but you can assume a site's popularity, size and similarity to content you've browsed before can all impact what turns up on a Google search. Search for "best jeans," and it's no surprise you'll get results from the big, mainstream fashion magazines and retailers, like Zappos and Lucky Brand. 

Try hunting down indie brands or bloggers, and you'll find that commerciality has seeped into once independent places, further padding our filter bubble walls. Fashion blogging, once a niche for fashion misfits and label obsessives, has gone entirely mainstream, and bis business has come calling, especially on Instagram.

As Mic's Theresa Avila reported, "A brand — say, Lancôme — will pay a blogger to feature their item in a photo, often labeled in the caption #spon, for 'sponsored content.' Some bloggers might get $500 from a brand for a single image, according to Harper's Bazaar.

A cleverly disguised sponsored post, looking ready for "likes."  crystalinmarie/Instagram

Lack of transparency around sponsored content casts the occasional cloud over the industry, which stricter rules haven't totally fixed. With brands spending over $1 billion on sponsored posts a year, only a handful of bloggers attracting millions of followers and Instagram's Explore page treating you to "top posts" as the first seach results, power again remains in the hands of the few — and the fashion variety shrinks.

It doesn't help when stores are also consolidating, making big brands even more powerful. Gap Inc. owns the Gap, Old Navy, Banana Republic and Athleta, for example, and H&M is behind fashionistas' favorites Cos, & Other Stories and Cheap Monday. The announcement in March that Yoox would buy Net-A-Porter shrank the pool of online shopping power players. Of a Kind, a destination for "emerging designers," was just bought by Bed Bath & Beyond.

"The Internet should have democratized fashion. However, I think the opposite has happened — the big names have become even more dominant and it's become even harder for smaller brands and labels to break through," said Emma Diskin, founder of independent boutique Number-22.

It's no surprise, then, there are certain items and certain brands — a leather purse, or a band T-shirt— tend to dominate our clothing-filled feeds... and, ultimately, our wardrobes. And it applies to both women and men (see: that J. Crew gingham shirt).

"It's like we are an army of zombies, we are all wearing the same brands, the same trends," Mimi, a 33-year-old fashion blogger in Vancouver, told Mic

Notice anything?  Imgur/Twitter

How to pop the bubble: There are some upsides to the practices that contribute to our bubbles, of course. Smaller selections, based on what we already love, help ease the hunt for nice clothes.

"Maybe having cute shoes is worth living in a dystopian nightmare," said Julia.

But for those who really want to wear something different, to find a brand that isn't sold at Macy's or an outfit without H&M doppelgängers, there are ways out of the bubble — and they're pretty simple. 

"It's worth looking beyond your comfort zone and beyond those who just take pictures of themselves on zebra crossings sporting the latest Celine bag," said Number-22's Diskin.

Certain small sites are becoming destinations. Nicole Giordano, founder of StartUp Fashion, a community for independent designers, recommends online outlets Not Just a Label and Young and Able for original finds and suggested taking a look at blog Second Floor Flat's independent label directory.

"It's easier than ever to find the new talent if you want to and designers do their jobs as their own brand marketers," Giordano told Mic.

But the real key might be leaving the bubble altogether, aka going offline into the scary real world.

"The big takeaway from people on the street is that anything goes," said Blanchard of Where Did U Get That, who has been asking New Yorkers, "Where did you get that?" for years.

By getting out on the street, she said, "you can escape that bubble." You might find lots of other people wearing J.Crew and H&M, but at least you can find out what else is occupying their bubbles.