What Niche Magazines Can Teach Us About Taste
The meaning of taste in the modern aspiration economy
Rostro is a coffee shop near Yoyogi park. Sit down at a bar, and you are faced with an option of different flavors (sweet, nutty, fruity, tart) and different strengths, depending on the grounds-to-water ratio. Make your selection, and you are in for a carefully choreographed ritual. It starts with hand-grinding the coffee beans with a device seemingly dating from the turn of the last century that I last saw in my grandmother’s house, followed by a lab-like system of syphon tubes. Each step is done with a lot of care, skill, and technique. The coffee, once it arrived, was great, as was the members-only feel surrounding it, but the nuances of its flavor and texture were lost on me. I am not a coffee connoisseur.
There are a lot of those who are. There are also foodies, audiophiles, vinyl lovers, fitness junkies, sneakerheads, fashionistas, soccer fans, global nomads, wellness aficionados. In each of these self-identifies taste groups, taste is an activity that engages them on more than a casual level. Coffee, food, travel, or exercise are not passive leisure activities. Instead, they require investment of consumers’ attention, time, and money. The more time, attention, money, and skill consumers spend on them, coffee making, cooking, traveling, become more enjoyable. Specific techniques and rituals emerge. Community is formed. A vocabulary emerges (“beaters,” “deadstock,” “upotwns”) Those obsessed with their vinyl collections, sneakers, or fitness regiment can speak for hours about it.
In the modern aspiration economy, taste is not given. It’s not a passive play of social differentiation. It’s an activity that is continuously developed, cultivated, and refined.
It’s an activity that includes objects (e.g. sneakers, coffee beans, food), other participants (e.g. sneakerheads, menswear forums, friends, a local coffee barista), specific ways of doing things (e.g. syphon or drip coffee, getting info on sneaker drops), written materials (e.g. reviews, magazines, Instagram), history (e.g. a specific tradition or role playing), tools and devices (e.g. cooking and fitness equipment), and attention and sensibilities (e.g. expanding one’s wine or coffee or food palette).
All of the above - objects, community, methodology, history, technique, and tools - increase, argument, and give feedback on taste. We develop our taste by absorbing social and cultural capital around us. For example, through its content, conversation, products, techniques, reviews, and um, devices, GOOP increased and refined our individual and collective sensibilities around self-care.
Historically, taste has been linked to aesthetics or class. For French sociologists Pierre Bourdieu, who wrote the book titled “Distinction” on the topic, social class determines creation and expression of taste (“nor quite our class, darling”). For Veblen, taste acts as a social barrier: upper class uses it to distance itself from the lower class. The moment that lower class adopts certain tastes, upper class abandons them and moves towards the new ones.