Dear CMO:
Spend half an hour in public and you, too, will be confronted with the reality that social media is alive and well in America. Unfortunately.

No, this isn’t about blogging. Or podcasting. Not even about Twitter or YouTube or Facebook, MySpace, or anything nearly as trippy or hip as all that. It’s about the rise of the snarky t-shirt. And it’s all about self-publishing.

You may disagree, but I’m standing firm that the rise of the snarky T – the one with the vaguely insulting reference, the arrogant self-reference – is a direct off-shoot of modern day self-publishing. The snarky T is self-publishing for the digitally illiterate. CafePress has become a real company thanks to this underserved need for self-branded underwear.

After walking the streets of Monterey a week ago with my family, I noticed the staggering number of seemingly normal looking tourists wearing messages proudly on their bodies that would have otherwise got them in a fist fight in another time and place. Is this the unhappy nexus of reality TV and blogging, where public humiliation for the enjoyment of others meets the ability to craft your own “I’m with stupid” wearable? Is this the post-Simon Cowell-esque world we live in, where we can unconsciously insult random strangers on the street? Fantastic. Another leap forward in culture.

However, taking a different view might help us think through this trend. The evolutionary development of self-publishing looks like this in modern day America:

I’m a writer
I blog
I comment on other people’s blogs
I belong to a social network
I forward along chain emails
I wear snarky t-shirts
I have an opinion
I don’t have an opinion

I don’t equate being higher on this axis is good or bad, frankly. I don’t associate Twitter with the forward progress of our culture, nor do I frown upon wearing T-shirts in general. I usually have an opinion, unless we’ve hit upon a subject that I just don’t care enough about. Each, however, is a step along a continuum of content creation and distribution.

We’re a T-shirt culture in America. It’s been said that while the British fight for God and Country, Americans fight for souvenirs. This is probably true. Americans like to collect things that show where they’ve been and what they’ve done, probably because it gives us all great points of invidious comparison with our friends and co-workers.

Further, as discussed before, wearables are yet another way of promoting and showing how strongly or weakly we identify with branding. Wearing a Harley T projects your own self-image of a rebel and a biker. Wearing a Mister Stay-Puff Marshmallow T projects your own self-image of a guy who doesn’t believe in strong brand associations and who looks down on those who do. Wearing an “I’m With Stupid” T to the mall says, well, that you’re with stupid, I guess.

For better or (more likely) for worse, our wearables reflect the state of our culture and our conscious thought.


PS: Greg Verdino’s post was the catalyst that pushed me over the edge here. The Ad Age article he links to speaks to the long lasting positive branding effects of a good t-shirt, which is all fine and which I agree with completely; it’s the self-publishing angle that makes me laugh, though.