Starter pack memes and the class politics of Apple’s AirPod: a love story

What started out as a joke about Apple’s new wireless earphones has morphed into an online joke about the bourgeoisie.

March 29, 2019

AirPods are everywhere. If you haven’t seen them, you’ve definitely seen the memes. But the question remains: what actually makes them cool? Are these wireless buds simply a practical choice for cold winter days and running on the treadmill, or a conscious class choice designed to signal your “wealth” to your friends, neighbours, and colleagues? Retailing for a cool $219 , the answer might be a mix of both.

What started out as a joke about Apple’s new wireless earphones—and how ridiculous they look— morphed into an online joke about the bourgeoisie. For the most part, the internet collectively agreed on a handful of tropes about the tiny bud users: people who are self-aware of their product choices, self-assured about their financial position, and more than happy to tell you about it.

Despite the original reviews and Apple’s rapid decline in global markets, analysts have projected a long-term increase in sales . This comes after Apple announced lower projections at the beginning of 2019 as a result of declining interest in iPhone upgrades, and decreased sales in the Chinese market. Nothing like a bout of viral memes to up your street cred, right? Ironically, the meme format, created to mock and critique this form of electronic classism, ended up bringing more attention to the trend, and maybe even increasing the Apple product’s popularity.

If you’re old enough, AirPod memes can seem like the revamped version of old memes against “green text users” which were, essentially, an elitist joke referring to socio-economic differences between non-iPhone users and their iMessage-using counterparts. But the online trend was backed by numbers that seem to indicate some truth to the memes. In 2016 the National Bureau of Economic Research published results of a survey which showed that owning an iPhone was a reliable predictor of wealth and income status. Half a decade later, and now 20 models in, the iPhone has become ubiquitous and financially accessible. In the wake of the newly obsolete perception of iPhone users, AirPods have stepped up to signal a new wave of technological exclusivity, following the lineage of Blackberry for business executives in the early oughts, before that, the PalmPilot, etc.

Considering the fact that other hardware technologies can retail for as much as the cost of an iPhone (the Google Pixel and Samsung Galaxy phones are on par cost-wise with the latest iPhone models), and that other, cheaper, wireless earphone technologies are on the market, the AirPod trend is weird. The fact is, Apple has managed to both market and sell itself as a “class signalling tool,” especially to young people. By phasing out auxiliary-cord compatible headphones several iPhone models back, Apple pushed users looking to both upgrade their phones and swap their listening habits to include wearable headsets. And a few months into 2019, it’s not just the “meme’d” using AirPods: plenty of new iPhone users have them, there are teenagers who just got them for Christmas, and waves of people who just decided they’re useful to have. Talk about effective marketing.

The phenomenon sheds one of those occasional rays of light on our collective understandings of wealth, new technology, and the way members of different socio-economic classes build and signify their class position through technology.

While the AirPod memes are great party fodder and a good way to poke fun at your friends, the phenomenon sheds one of those occasional rays of light on our collective understandings of wealth, new technology, and the way members of different socio-economic classes build and signify their class position through technology.

The entire meme operation functions off of a collective understanding of the “type” of consumer who uses the product. As the web 2.0 internet generation grows up, the propagation and popularity of “starter pack” memes (niche hyper-specific meme accounts that describe particularities of university disciplines, occupations, neighbourhoods etc.) make clear our strongly held views on differences relating to identity, class, and self-awareness.

Class signalling is not a new phenomenon. Societies have used how people dress, the products they use, and the places they live as mental shortcuts to both understand and signal social position. For centuries, these distinctions have influenced how we socialize, network, and even find our partners. Headphones and hardware aside, in the 21st century, we now use everything from social media and affiliated apps to flaunt our social status which are all shaped by a developer’s knowledge of what consumers consider to be “elite.”

New research into social media use reveal that you can identify a user’s socio-economic status almost entirely based on their online behaviours. Machine learning algorithms for platforms such as Facebook and Instagram develop a single user profile which can essentially predict all of a user’s preferences online. As a recent blackout of Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram highlighted to many users, Facebook has plans to make this profile even more integrated, moving data from all three apps to a single platform.

Getting back to Apple, it’s no secret that Apple products are designed to work together, with their own hardware and operating systems, as a package—in some ways very exclusionary to other players. On the user-end, the seamless and attractive experience is enough of a draw to continue to buy in to Apple.  As consumers, it’s easy to forget that our opinions on what is attractive, classy, and useful are heavily influenced by what we see online, and that both ads and memes which reinforce our collective attitudes on trends, class, and social dynamics.

The subconscious socio-economic classism involved in navigating online spaces should push us to ask a pivotal question: what aren’t we seeing? Do we know what we’re missing? As the digital divide increases, are we even able to recognize these gaps, or recognize our complicity in perpetuating these digital divides? These are some heavy questions. Luckily, we have memes as a tool to continue to be self-aware and questioning the system. That is, until the next trend comes along.

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