Hot Topic's social network: like Facebook for goths and Buzzfeed for kids who grew up eating emoji french fries and Snapchat for Americans who’ll never live in Malibu.
Before the social web imploded pop culture, our adolescence came packaged with Bob Marley Beefy Ts and witchy tights, and it came from the mall. And it probably came from Hot Topic. Faced with ever-stiffer online competition, the mall goth behemoth recently made a bid to purchase GeekNet, a company that once had among the biggest tech IPO of all time. In today's future fiction dispatch, writer and former Facebook product manager Kate Losse imagines a world in which the teenpunk titan makes a move into tech. -The Eds
In East Los Angeles, in the office park headquarters of Hot Topic, America's largest purveyor of meme t-shirts, the company's chief executive stands in front of a whiteboard before a skull-shaped table, surrounded by executives dressed in an on-brand mix of Southern California goth- , rock- and pop- casual. The light in the room glows a slight red, dimming in the corners. A mellow underworld vibe.
On the board, she has drawn a down-sloping graph depicting the only trend Hot Topic can't monetize: the year-over-year decline in American mall traffic.
"Nobody goes to the mall anymore," the CEO says, gazing out the window into the parking lot, where trucks enter and exit packed with boxes of t-shirts printed with the month's hottest memes. "No Chill" in strikethrough font. "Nah." And every variant of skull sketched on every variant of merch, all headed for regional malls across the fifty states. She is wearing a chill-goth look of loose black blouse and black high-end cargo pants, her hand twisting the stylized skull pendant hanging from a chain on her neck.
"In 1996, when we IPO'd, we owned the mall. When teens wanted to know what the trends were in California or New York, they came to us. The rest of the stores in the mall were just places to buy stuff. Hot Topic was where you came to become relevant—where you came to be," she says.
"Glory days," says Hot Topic's VP of Online Ops, Zane. He takes a sip of coffee from a mug printed with tiny daggers and the Hot Topic logo. "Where did it go wrong?"
"Snapchat," she answers, deflated. "The internet, too. But mobile is a disaster. Teens don't have to go to the mall anymore. They can just consume memes in their phone. They have 24 hour access to the latest trends and they don't need us."
"Hmm, why don't we make a Hot Topic mobile shopping app? Sell 100 kinds of skull-print through the phone," says the camo-clad V.P. of Sales, Eric, sitting at the mandible side of the boardroom table.
"Hot Topic was never just a store, Eric," the CEO says emphatically. "Hot Topic IS—or (audible sniff) was, if we don't do something—the very culture, in motion. We don't just supply the memes, we make them, pushing product until it takes off and changing course on what isn't catching on. Since 1992 we've had our employees do 'fashion reports' from concerts to identify trends and we have the merch in store in 24 hours."
"Move fast, break trends…we were the original Facebook algorithm," Eric replies.
"So when Zuckerberg built Facebook he was basically building a Hot Topic?" interjects a product lead wearing a onesie cleverly designed to make her look like R2D2.
"Exactly. But—" the CEO's nose wrinkles a bit— "he went to Harvard. He probably never even had a skull bandana or a pair of Doc Martens. It's like he wasn't even a teen in America."
Everyone in the room nods, imagining the dreary world of Harvard-track boarding schools, where students sport consulting-firm t-shirts and there is no of-the-moment meme merch in sight. Gloom descends on the room as people sip from cherry Slurpees brought in for the meeting from the 7-11 down the street.
"No wonder Facebook is having a hard time with teens," Zane says. Then he brightens. "Wait. Why don't we flip it back around? Make a social network. Get the teens back. Think about it: the teens are suffering—they need us. We need to serve them where they are."
The CEO gazes out the window again. In the blinding SoCal sun glinting off of the cars she sees a vision coalesce: customizable social network skins with skull print, daggers, studs, and emojis, a cacophony of personal expression, anonymous chat rooms and portals to different meme-themed worlds, a wild release from the strictures of the modern, uniform social network. A place where, just as when you step through the Star Trek-inspired plastic portal leading into a mall Hot Topic, users become memes become users become memes in a glorious melding of human and trend.
Is it human or is it meme? Is it R2D2 or a woman wearing an R2D2 onesie? What if it didn't matter? What if you could be everything at once, shapeshifting from one trend to another, beholden to none? What if you could be your true internet self online, refracted and multiple, expressing all your selves at once? What if, just like in a Hot Topic, it was normal not to be normal?
"Hot Topic Dot Net," she says with finality. "The future of social. Like Buzzfeed and Facebook and Snapchat combined into one superfast juggernaut, combining personal expression with the latest memes. Like Facebook for goths and Buzzfeed for kids who grew up eating emoji french fries and Snapchat for Americans who'll never live in Malibu. The world's first pure-meme social network."
The room vibrates at a higher intensity, the mission of Hot Topic suddenly seeming to have burst into a brilliant new universe, everyone imagining the retail experience spun out into a million digital and personal galaxies. The lighting in the boardroom suddenly glows redder, as it does whenever the company mood feels right.
"Zane, where do we get a social network?" she asks.
"Last I heard Snapchat is worth 3 Billion, so I don't think we can afford that. I mean, we did sell a ton of commemorative Korn t-shirts last year, but…"
"Snapchat is too…doesn't the CEO wear upturned-collar polos? We need something more down-to-earth, more pop, goth, something the average American can relate to."
"My friend's company from the 1990s who made obscure Linux software and recently joined with a gaming merch company is on the market. Only thing is: their name is super 90s. ThinkGeek."
"90s is on-trend! We'll buy them! I sense synergy already. I'm going to make some calls. Meeting adjourned." The boardroom turns a warm pink. A Panic! at the Disco song begins to play over the room's speakers as the executives exit for lunch.
Only a few months later. Hot Topic has acquired GeekNet, the parent company of ThinkGeek, for $120 M, installed its hackers in its City of Industry headquarters and released a next-generation network. Contrary to Wall Street's projections, which forecast the continued dominance of incumbent social networks over the reborn, upstart Hot Topic, the uptake is swift and the scaling is epic. Social network users flock to the digital Hot Topic, where they no longer have to hide their true selves in a mist of perfectly filtered, sepia-toned wedding albums. Instead they paint themselves in temporary dagger tattoos and buy wearable emoji jewelry from the Hot Topic InstaStore and create Incubus easter eggs that deliver the lyrics to "Drive" to their crushes when they click on the right combination of photos.
They feel happier than they've ever felt online.
Several years later, from the hovering platform over the Bay where Hot Topic has moved its operations in order to expand as fast as coders can arrive, the CEO explains to shareholders the reason for the latest recent surge in user numbers and engagement. "We've built out a new suite of Goth-Tuscan skins and virtual environments for the retirement set," she says. Vines meet wine meet skulls—it's very hip, kind of medievalwave goes Olive Garden, very memento mori. You see, our innovation secret at Hot Topic is to disrupt the concept of class; to free people from good or bad taste, and we are executing incredibly well. What would you do if you weren't afraid to be your inner mall goth?"
That evening, as the sun begins to set red over the Bay, she turns to Zane, who is drinking a signature Hot Topic Slurpee in swirled organic cinnamon and licorice flavor from the building's bespoke 7-11, installed after the company surpassed its last relevant rivals.
"We saved us, Zane. If we hadn't become a social network, we would have been left to dust in some mall somewhere, a monument to dead memes. Instead we've accelerated the meme cycle so fast we've become the meme cycle, just like we always were, before the internet threatened to make us obsolete."
"I know. It's the most beautiful irony in the world, better than pentagram print tennis shorts at a Menlo Park country club. No one at the old malls would have believed it: Hot Topic, America's monument to trends, lives forever."
"At least for now."