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Howling on the Internet

May 28, 2009|MEGHAN DAUM

Something extremely weird, and a little bit wonderful, has happened in the world of Internet retail. A black T-shirt bearing the image of three wolves howling at the moon has become a sensation.

Manufactured by the Mountain, a New Hampshire-based company, the shirt is available on Amazon.com, where, last November, a New Jersey law student named Brian Govern posted a tongue-in-cheek customer review about its magical powers. The shirt, he explained, had helped him woo a woman in a Wal-Mart.

He summed up his appraisal with this: "Pros: Fits my girthy frame, has wolves on it, attracts women. Cons: Only 3 wolves, cannot see wolves when sitting with arms crossed, wolves would have been better if they glowed in the dark."

The review went mostly unnoticed until earlier this month, when a couple of websites picked it up, including the content-sharing site Digg. More effusive appraisals of the shirt soon emerged.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, May 29, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 27 Editorial pages Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Internet reviews: In Meghan Daum's column Wednesday about Internet customer reviews, the average rate of sales of Three Wolf Moon T-Shirts was incorrect. The shirts are selling at about 100 an hour, not 100 a minute.

"I have been wearing this shirt for about 15 weeks and I have not needed to wash it! You don't put this shirt on your torso you put it on your soul."

"Most shirts like this only contain one wolf. This shirt has three wolves, plus a moon. You are basically getting three wolves and a moon for the price of one wolf."

"This is the T-shirt God would wear. If He wanted to look AWESOME."

Since May 19, the shirt -- whose official name is Three Wolf Moon T-Shirt -- has been Amazon's top-selling apparel item. The story has been reported all over the world, including in this paper on May 22 and in the New York Times on May 25, where it was noted that the Mountain used to sell two or three of the shirts a day but is currently averaging about 100 a minute. There are no fewer than nine Facebook pages devoted to the Three Wolf Moon T-Shirt, though that might not be as odd as it sounds, considering there are several more pages celebrating wolf shirts in general.

As is the case with almost anything that goes viral, it's difficult at first glance to figure out what exactly is at the center of all this. One troubling possibility is that it's become a conduit for snarky social class commentary. The reviews are rife with references -- often delivered in acid-tongued hipster-eeze -- to guns and NASCAR and, of course, the visceral pleasures of wearing the shirt to Wal-Mart.

This trope was so pronounced, in fact, that a spokesman from the Mountain posted a review on Amazon: "We appreciate humor as much as the next company, but we don't approve of some of the Classist remarks that are being generated here."

There's no denying that the wolf shirt craze is, in many ways, the cyber manifestation of cool kids snickering at Dungeons & Dragons enthusiasts in the school cafeteria. But is it a class thing? Maybe some reviewers see mystical-looking animal renderings as signifiers of red states or the working class, but obviously they never peeked inside the closets of my New Jersey hometown in the early 1980s (tigers were big too).

In other words, to attribute this frenzy to the glee some people take in making fun of others is to miss what's most interesting about all the online lupine chatter. Namely, that it's satirizing the very medium it occupies: online customer reviews.

Spontaneous bursts of creative product reviewing are now common enough that online reviews are starting to become a literary genre -- albeit an underground one.

Back in 2006, an Amazon grocery listing for a gallon of Tuscan brand whole milk prompted a spate of satirical testimonials, many taking the form of poetry -- "the milk comes/on little cow feet." The reviewing made milk into something else entirely. The page is still up, though now the Tuscan brand appears to be available for prices that range from $77.76 to $2,500 a gallon, and it belongs less to the realm of grocery shopping than public art.

The Three Wolf Moon T-Shirt is like that, but different. It's got one sleeve in the arch world of comment on comment and another in the rag trade. It's real meta and real retail. Moreover, despite the Wolf T's iteration as must-have ironic accessory, there are undoubtedly some people buying it un-ironically. All of which makes the wolf shirt phenomenon as captivating as the shirt itself evidently is.

As for the reviews, as anyone who's shopped on the Internet knows, it's nearly impossible to buy something as basic as a slotted screw without getting sidetracked by what is essentially the online version of bad fluorescent lighting in a dressing room: feedback -- much of it nonsensical, irrelevant and grammatically challenged -- of random nitwits who also purchased that screw. The Three Wolf Moon T-Shirt reviews -- at least the ones that stay away from name-calling -- are genuinely funny, well-written and paradoxically well worth the time usually wasted reading such things.

Meanwhile, the Mountain is making a mountain of dough. Talk about having your cake and savagely masticating it too.

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