“Sneakerheads” as a Discourse Community
Nicholas S. Suen
The culture surrounding sneakers has emerged in recent years as a prominent part of street wear fashion and popular culture. Sneaker enthusiasts, also known as “sneakerheads”, invest large sums of money in buying dozens of pairs of shoes, more than they could wear in a single week. A discussion amongst sneakerheads usually revolves around information about shoes, such as information about what material is used to construct them, how available they will be when they release for purchase, and if there is any history or significant meaning behind an upcoming release. The sneakerhead community is a large one that encompasses members who are connected via their strong interest in sneaker culture, and by the genres of written discourse used in communication with each other. Although discourse communities are often described as a group that, “…actively share goals and communicate with other members to pursue those goals,” (Borg, 2003, p. 398), the sneakerhead community promotes more hostile and confrontational interactions among its members, while still sharing a series of language conventions. The sneakerhead community satisfies the qualifications of a discourse community through use of alternative language conventions in order to communicate more efficiently, while also facilitating the differentiation of subgroups within the community based on sneaker knowledge and experience.
Origins of Sneaker Culture
The spike in the popularity of sneaker culture correlates with the growth in basketball popularity, which can be attributed to the rise of Michael Jordan, a man often referred to as one of the greatest basketball players of all time. According to Pamela Grundy, Murry Nelson and Mark Dyreson (2014), “The effect of Jordan’s remarkable play, enhanced by stylish (and profitable) advertising campaigns, brought the game unprecedented popularity” (p. 148). Thanks to an effective advertisement campaign from the athletic wear company Nike, Michael Jordan’s line of signature shoes became some of the most desired material objects for basketball fans. Nike appealed to consumers through strong advertisements, meant to entice casual and amateur basketball players, by highlighting new and improved technology, materials, etc. After Jordan, a number of other prolific athletes earned signature shoes with other athletic wear companies resulting in a flood of new footwear entering the market. People who originally wanted to wear the same shoes as their favorite players developed an appreciation for shoes in general, which eventually evolved into the sneaker obsessed community that is prominent today.
An important factor in the development of sneaker culture was the recognition of shoes as a specific form or art, rather merely a part of something bigger (perhaps an entire outfit). As seen in Christoph Lindner’s “The oblique art of shoes: popular culture, aesthetic pleasure, and the humanities” (2014), there is an apparent “…connection between the material object and popular culture – a connection that does not require visual art to mediate the shoe, but instead enables the shoe itself to be both the site and the form of expression,” (p. 239). Viewing sneakers and streetwear as an art form allows sneakerheads to be appreciate shoes they see on the street or on their own feet. Similar to other discourse communities surrounding art forms (i.e. paintings, sculptures, graphic design, etc.), members of the sneaker community developed specialized terminology and language alternatives in order to discuss various artistic and stylistic aspects of shoes. This improved sneaker related discussion and contributed to the formation of distinct language conventions used to identify members of the community through recognition of artistic expression through sneakers.
Emergence of Sneakerhead Discourse Conventions
The “sneakerhead” community relies on a series of communicative conventions to facilitate effective conveyance of information, especially seen in online interactions amongst members of the community. Some of these written genres include advertisements, online forums, blogs, and Facebook “Buy/Sell/Trade” group pages, also referred to as “BST” groups. Major shoe retailers create nicknames for their products that are associated with various aspects of sneaker history and culture, in order to increase the popularity of their products by creating discussion. “Sneakerheads” also use specialized terminology regarding technology or aesthetics of a sneaker release, which in turn alienates non – members. However, there is further division within the community as members are divided by slight differences in the terminology they use, especially in the nicknames used to describe specific sneaker releases.
What Identifies a Sneakerhead?
The sneaker community distinguishes members from non members through usage of alternative language conventions that are not understood by non-members of the community. However, the sneaker community is very inclusive in that anyone can be a part of the community as long as they understand the language used by members. In an interview with Austin Myint, a long time sneakerhead, he explained “You don’t even have to wear nice shoes to be a part of the sneaker community. It’s all about the love and appreciation of [shoes], as long as you know your stuff you can be a part of the culture,” (Austin Myint, Personal Communication, March 5, 2017). This means that in order to be considered part of the sneaker community, in order to be considered a “sneakerhead”, a person must learn the language of shoes. In an interview with David Zheng, another active member of the sneaker community, he discussed how new members learn the language conventions necessary to participate in sneaker culture. David expressed that “The best thing is to read blog posts to see a more standardized version of what kinds of words and expressions are used. Next, you [got to] read forums or Facebook groups to see the more common stuff used by everybody,” (David Zheng, Personal Communication, March 17, 2017). Reading examples of how the language is used allows non-members of the sneaker community to gain exposure to different terminology associated with sneakers, thereby allowing them to become a part of the community.
Member Exclusivity in Facebook Sneaker Groups
As sneaker culture began to gain momentum and a community following, accompanying slang followed creating terminology frequently used among members. This is particularly evident in the usage of slang in Facebook sneaker groups pages where members engage in various “Buy/Sell/Trade” deals with sneakers in the “aftermarket”. A highly desired shoe can easily sell out in less than a minute when released for online purchase. Sometimes the only way to get a particularly popular shoe is to buy from “resellers”, or people who bought the shoes initially for retail and are then selling the shoes in the aftermarket for a marked up price. In order for sellers and buyers to communicate quickly and effectively, members of the sneaker community post in the Facebook groups either asking for shoes or stating that they have a pair of shoes for sale. In their posts, members utilize a series of acronyms in order to convey information that can be read very quickly. The usage of acronyms instead of their empirical word meanings is an additional form of written language that developed based on a need in the community (the need for effective communication). This is further accentuated when considering how members of the community perceive the language conventions used.
When asked about their opinions about the types of communicative language directly associated with the sneaker community, many members maintained mostly positive feelings. “I appreciate posts that are short and to the point” (Austin Myint, Personal Communication, March 5, 2017). “I also like that the posts are almost written in a different language, one that only me and the homies can read.” Below is an example of a post in a prominent Facebook sneaker group called “Bay Area Sneakerheads,” which boasts more than 48,000 members. This post included a picture of sneakers that the author was looking to trade for other shoes.
“Not for sale.
Green Hu size 9.5 ds
Bred v2 worn 2x Size 10
Glitch camo nmd suze 9 ds
Want to trade for wing 12s, snakeskin 4, 01 royal 1, doernbecher 3, lightning 4, am1 atmos, bred 11, dmp 11, kobe ftb Xi, yeezy v1 pb 2016. Sz 9-9.5 only. Ds or vnds is ok. Thanks !” (Ryan Bui, Personal Communication, March 19, 2017).
As seen in the above post, a series of acronyms and abbreviations are used to describe what shoes the author was looking for, and what he was offering. Acronyms such as “DS” (meaning “deadstock, or never been worn) or “VNDS” (“very near deadstock”, shoes that been lightly worn but look brand new) are common in sneaker exchange groups. Abbreviations such as “am1 atmos”, or “yeezy v1 pb 2016” are used to the specific colorway of a specific shoe model. Sneakerheads are able to read these abbreviations and understand what shoes they are referring to. Non-members of the sneaker community who attempt to read these language conventions are seldom capable of understanding the terminology and are therefore excluded from the community.
Putting Names on Shoes
With new shoe models and multiple color schemes for each model (referred to as “colorways”) releasing so frequently, shoe retailers needed to find ways to distinguish one pair of shoes from another. This was especially popularized by Nike, through advertisements surrounding Michael Jordan’s first signature sneaker, the “Air Jordan 1”. The shoe consisted of a primarily black and red color scheme on the upper portion of the shoe, which the National Basketball Association (NBA) did not approve of. The Association believed the shoes were too colorful and subsequently banned them from the league, while also threatening to fine Michael Jordan for every game he played wearing the shoes. Nike paid the $5000 fine every game that Jordan played, and built an advertising campaign around the whole fiasco. They named the shoes the Air Jordan 1 “Banned”, based on how the NBA attempted to ban the pair of shoes. This nickname instigated a lot of conversation about the shoe, relating to the colorway, the player wearing them, and the meaning behind the shoe. This was a significant point in time for sneaker discourse communities, as new terminology was introduced to sneaker culture, especially abbreviations used to identify and distinguish shoes that are brought up in discussion. Nicknames that are associated with popular sneaker releases are either created by retailers or coined by consumers to allow members of the sneaker community to distinguish one shoe from another, especially in conversation. According to the work of Taylor-Leech, Starks, & Willoughby (2015), “The meaning of names and nicknames is, in many respects, central to stylistic interpretation” (p. 60). The nicknames of shoes contribute to how they are perceived by the public. Shoes with nicknames relating to some sneaker history (i.e. “Banned” Jordan 1) will generate more conversation based on a reference to a historical event, and will therefore have a greater chance of becoming popular.
Sneakers are often designated nicknames by the manufacturing company, usually in reference to the inspiration for the colorway. However, these “official” nicknames can be rejected when the sneakerhead community has already established another nickname that is so frequently used in discussion that it becomes the accepted name. Unofficial nicknames diffuse rapidly among members of the sneakerhead community through extensive usage within various modes of online communication. Usage of different names for shoe releases allows sneakerheads to distinguish differences among members of the community, often in a condescending manner. The type of conflict mentioned above is most closely associated with “retro” sneaker releases, or sneakers that have released previously, and are being brought back for sale. Sometimes shoe companies will make slight changes to a sneaker they are re-releasing, such as different material, slight color hue changes, or even the designated nickname.
A recent example of this phenomenon was the retro release of Michael Jordan’s eleventh signature shoe, the Air Jordan 11 in the “Columbia” colorway. “Columbia” has been the nickname for this white and blue color scheme since its initial release in 1996. However, in the 2014 retro release of this same colorway, Jordan Brand decided to rename the sneakers as the “Legend Blues”. This resulted in significant conflict and confusion within the sneakerhead community as many of its members were unsure of what to call these sneakers. The different nickname usage among members of the community aided sneakerheads in identifying new from old members. Older sneakerheads used the name “Columbia” because that was the original nickname that they were used to, while younger/more recent sneakerheads often used “Legend Blue” as the nickname because that was the first name they had ever heard of in association with the shoes. According to Rachel E. Smith (2011), “It is not that we should do away with meaning, just that we must understand these language ideologies as historically situated and politically constructed” (p. 47). Understanding the historical context behind language conventions can contribute to a stronger understanding of the feelings associated with specific terminology, such as the nickname associated with a particular shoe.
When asked about what was the difference between people who used either nicknames, Austin Myint (a long time sneakerhead) replied, “I call the shoes the Columbia’s, cause that’s their name. People that call them anything else just don’t know their history,” (Austin Myint, Personal Communication, March 5, 2017). As seen in the above quote, older sneakerheads often have a negative view of sneakerheads who are new to the community and are less knowledgeable about the origin and history behind older sneakers. Although members share a common goal of finding and possessing sneakers it is more individualistic and competitive than other discourse communities, resulting in more confrontational interactions amongst members thereby inhibiting the community from working together.
The sneakerhead community uses alternative language conventions through various genres of written discourse and exhibit most of the factors that are used to classify a discourse community. The specialized terminology associated with sneaker culture separates members from non-members into those who understand the “language” and those that do not. However, the sneakerhead community does not completely satisfy one facet of discourse communities, that members of the community work together toward a common goal. Although members of the sneaker community share a common goal (to have the best and rarest shoes), the community is more focused on individual accolades as members compete with each other. This competitive environment is highlighted by the polarization of the community into subgroups based on differences between long term members and newer members. Antagonistic interactions imply less collaboration amongst members, but should be recognized as an aspect of interactions within a discourse community. Through understanding how discourse attributes to the identification of members of the sneakerhead community while also contributing to the division of members into subgroups, we can create a more accurate description of discourse communities and how they are affected by their associated specialized written language conventions.
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Lindner, C. (2014). The oblique art of shoes: popular culture, aesthetic pleasure, and the humanities. Journal for Cultural Research, 19(3), 239.
Smith, R. E. (2011). Urban dictionary: youth slanguage and the redefining of definition. English Today, 27(04), 45.
Taylor-Leech, K., Starks, D., & Willoughby, L. (2015). Adolescent nicknaming as a rich linguistic and pedagogical resource for teachers. Australian Journal of Education, 59(1), 60.