Sneakerbots, The Ultimate Betrayal

The Gentrification of Sneakers Is So Fake It’s Real

  • Text: Whitney Mallett

By now, most of the internet is bots. Spambots, feed fetchers, web crawlers, and the like, make up more web traffic than human beings. That the majority of data ricocheting across the web’s networked servers is triggered by automated scripts, most of the page views only seen by machine eyes, is an eerie reality mirrored in the microcosm of coveted online sneaker drops. As far back as 2011—before Off-White existed, when Yeezys were still made by Nike—sneakerbots have been “copping grails.” For a key release, according to Akamai security’s research, the traffic from bots designed to click “buy” faster than you, far eclipsed human traffic. But the larger story behind these bots is maybe more dystopian, indicating how commodification has transcended the material—the physical shoe is now a means to a virtual end.

Sneaker aficionados know how to spot a fake. When it comes to Jordan 1s, if the inside orange stitching runs the whole way down instead of just partway, it's a tell that the shoe isn't authentic. With any given model, stick your nose under the tongue and the stink of a chlorine-based glue used by replica makers is another tell-tale sign of a counterfeit. Similarly, online retailers have their own ways of telling fake from real, bot from being, like software that tracks bounce rates and page load times. Or they try to stump the bots with CAPTCHA puzzles at the checkout.

But it’s a cat and mouse game. A software arms race where each side keeps improving. As quickly as retailers come up with ways to block bots, their creators innovate new strategies to evade detection. Proxies generate unique IP addresses for every purchase to get around one-pair/customer limits. Programmers pre-record human mouse movements and typing patterns, engineering the bot to act natural and slip under the radar.

“The larger story behind these bots is maybe more dystopian, indicating how commodification has transcended the material...”

Some sneakerheads blame bots for encouraging another kind of fakery. Like ticket scalpers, sneaker resellers use bots, proxies, and optimized servers to scoop up as many pairs of a new shoe as possible during a limited edition release, and then flip them on the secondary market at an inflated price. It’s virtually impossible for a regular, add-to-cart customer to compete. Unless you want to buy a bot yourself, increasingly the way to cop the hottest sneakers is through online marketplaces like eBay, Flight Club, Goat, and Stadium Goods. And a pair of Yeezy Boosts that might have retailed for $220 can go for as much as $1,700 on the resale market. For those preoccupied with distinguishing true heads from wannabe chumps, the problem is that more and more the only people who can afford the sneakers when they hit four figures are rich kids, and rich kids, they protest, aren’t real sneakerheads.

This resentment towards bot-aided buyers and the $1-billion-dollar resale market they help to drive is part of a broader bitterness towards the gentrification of sneaker culture and the white consumption of black style. Over the past decade, sneakers have gone both mainstream and luxury. Instagram, which launched in 2010, offered the subculture more global exposure, resulting in exponential growth but also easier initiation and a kind of flattening where a hype hivemind encouraged systematic sameness. Brands started doing more and more endorsement deals with non-athletes. Sneakers hit the runway and fashion houses began tapping streetwear talent. While there’s constant think-piece speculation that the sneaker bubble seems poised to burst, it’s been almost two years since Bella Hadid, talking like a narc, told us which “dope” sneakers “homeboy” could wear to “get it” and we’ve seen no sign of things slowing down.

And it’s proving sneaker freaks will pay a lot for the bots too—whether they’re using them to cop shoes for themselves, to resell, or both. Bots can cost up to $1,500, with hundreds in monthly maintenance fees on top of that. Imitating the exclusivity of the products they’re designed to scoop up, their tech savvy creators limit how many licenses they make available. For instance there are only 100 people each month given access to CyberAIO, a popular all-in-one bot—that’s sneakerspeak for its versatility in handling different kinds of online retailers, in contrast to bots specialized just for Nike or Shopify-supported sites like Kith, Bape, and Alife.

So we have our sneaker manufacturers and distributors making money selling shoes on the primary market, we have resellers making money flipping the sneakers at whatever prices the secondary market can stomach, and we have programmers making money licensing out bots that give resellers (and some self-serving consumers) a vital advantage. On top of that, there’s an economy of information like cook group subscriptions—to cook means to cop with bots—where for a relatively low fee like $30/month you can gain access to news about when drops are happening, speculation on what sneakers might go for on the secondary market, tips on troubleshooting technical issues, and intel on the newest specialty software.

“The only people who can afford the sneakers when they hit four figures are rich kids, and rich kids, they protest, aren’t real sneakerheads.”

Even though sneakers—made up of foam, rubber, leather, and nylon mesh, their collectors obsessed with keeping them deadstock, tags on, laces tied, packaging intact, underscoring the shoe’s thingness—seem to exemplify commodity fetishism, this new wave of sneakerbots and cook groups suggests the evolution of capitalism, from commodity-based to information-based. In their latest book Capital is Dead, McKenzie Wark explains, “Commodification now means not the appearance of a world of things but the appearance of a world of information about things.” As capitalism transforms, the commodification of information produces new class relations that don’t replace the old ones but exist simultaneously in addition to them. So there are still sneaker factories, capitalists who own them and workers who stitch and glue together the shoes inside them. But now also, in addition, there are programmers and resellers who spend their time mostly staring at screens processing information about sneakers to instrumentalize it all into something recognizable as intellectual property, but they don’t own the means to fully realize the value of this new info they generate. Wark calls them the hacker class while he designates the owners of the infrastructure through which the information travels, the vectoralist class.

In a way, Virgil Abloh’s tongue-in-cheek labeling, where parts of the sneaker announce themselves “FOAM” or “SHOELACE,” intuitively suggests this translation of the commodity object into abstract information. And then there’s the possibility to buy with real dollars virtual adidas sneakers and other gear branded Supreme and Gucci in massive multiplayer online games like Roblox, which further underlines the way materialism is being mapped onto our data-centric era.

More than foreshadowing a dystopian a-human internet, where shopping is another task overrun by machines, sneakerbots reveal something about the state of capitalism—increased precarity and aspirational luxury have driven us to extract as much value as possible from our interests and passions. If sneakerculture has haves and havenots, then it also has a middle class of resellers for whom access to the restrictively priced goods comes only at the expense of turning their hobby into a side hustle, spending late nights and early mornings monitoring multiple screens, simultaneously shepherding bots and making manual moves. And even when all this virtual activity manifests in the flesh and blood shoe, it’s then translated back into data, pixels, 0s and 1s, an unboxing video on YouTube or a pic to stunt on the gram. I don’t want to say it’s hypebeast serfdom for the information age, but if the shoe fits...

Whitney Mallett is a New York-based writer and filmmaker. She currently has a video about universal basic income on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

  • Text: Whitney Mallett
  • Date: September 12, 2019