This morning I wrote a toot about cosplay. I knew it would be unpopular, but it spawned a lot of discussion based on a number of unintended readings.

What I said was:

If you didn’t make your cosplay costume, you’re cheating.

What I meant was not that only expert tailors should cosplay. Instead, I was trying to criticize the encroachment of commerce into fandom spaces.

I don’t mean to say commerce in fandom spaces is new. It’s not. It presents a unique kind of toxicity to fandom spaces, however — one I’d like to unpack here.

Costly signalling

I consider the function of cosplay to be costly signalling. That is to say, the feeling of belonging and comunity that cosplay can create is caused by the shared perception that the cosplayer has sacrificed something for the group.

Costly signalling can take all kinds of forms. Sometimes, the cost is in money. Other times, the cost is in lost opportunities, social status, damage to the physical body, or the accumulation of blackmail material. The power of hazing comes from costly signalling, as does the power of fashion movements, internal gang solidarity, and music subcultures.

Cosplaying, in the sense that it would be considered embarassing by a normie, constitutes a form of costly signalling by itself: by dressing up in public, you have sacrificed social status with the outgroup in exchange for social status with the ingroup. There’s a second cost associated with cosplay: what is put into the costume itself.

Scaling and marginal cost

Most forms of value sacrificed in costly signalling are more or less stable. Embarassing yourself in public (as in hazing rituals like streaking) applies more or less equally to everybody — even to people who would be immune to first order embarassment (since social stigma is also involved). While access to medicine isn’t universal, costly signalling related to bodily mutilation tends to be relatively low-risk (amputation of the pinky is used as costly signalling in the Yakuza but trepanation is not; tattoos are commonly used but scarification is rare).

The big exception to the general rule that the cost of costly signalling scales is when the cost is in the form of money: the amount of dedication indicated by making a purchase is based on marginal cost, so its meaning is inversely proportional to the size of the bank account of the person producing the signal.

As a result, stable communities don’t tend to center around signals that can easily be gamed with money. Communities whose signals can be bought tend to become divided based on net worth: after all, the poor can’t afford signals that would be meaningful to the rich, and the rich cannot distinguish between signals within the budget of the poor. And, of course, those who benefit from these monetary signals (charities, clothing brands, country clubs, media conglomerates) will try to cater to the rich fans, since the rich fans have more money to blow on signalling.

The cosplay expectation treadmill

How does this relate to cosplay? Well, cosplay is a domain where the norm was originally the creation of costumes by those wearing them. When everybody has approximately the same budget, the quality of a costume is a good indication of dedication to the group — outside of a handful of outliers (people with unusually high or low skill), the association is linear.

The emergence of semi-professional costumers in the cosplay sphere has disturbed this mechanism. It is now possible to pay for a costume that is better-looking than what you could make with an amount of effort equivalent to the marginal value of the money you paid — in other words, by paying for the costume, you’ve gamed the quality/dedication axis. Because high quality costuming skill is rare, purchases of costumes center on a relatively small number of semi-professional costumers. The costumers with the highest quality are able to benefit from volume discounts, so that at the same cost they can use superior materials, making their quality to cost ratio even higher.

Over time, the association looks less and less linear — even assuming everybody starts off with the same budget, those who have bought costumes from the best costumers have much higher quality costumes than you would predict from their dedication level.

While the appropriate interpretation is a sub-linear association, the way people actually interpret this is a linear association shifted downward: if people with hollywood-quality costumes are only casual fans, then people whose costumes actually look home-made mustn’t be fans at all! This interpretation is stupid, but common.

The situation gets worse when you consider that real fandoms are economically diverse. There are Evangelion fans who can’t afford to subscribe to Crunchyroll and other Evangelion fans who can afford to buy the entire figurine line (or fly to Japan to visit the museum). Painting a leotard like a plugsuit could bankrupt the former, but the latter could have a walk-in closet full of professionally made plugsuits. Cosplay says a lot more about the dedication of the former than that of the latter.

The punk connection

If you want to see what happens when commercial interests infiltrate a DIY space, you need look no further than Hot Topic.

Punk fashion has a lot in common with cosplay. Both are forms of costly signalling; both developed in the 70s; both were associated with a subculture centered around media; both were primarily DIY; both were blown up in the media as indicators of a dangerous, embarassing group of undesirables.

The big difference is that punk became fully commercialized much earlier.

Commercialization has side effects other than substitution of effort for money. Once someone is making money off an ingroup signifier, it makes sense to maximize how many people purchase that signifier; the easiest way to do this is to lower the non-monetary cost of that signifier (i.e., to make the signifier socially acceptable to the outgroup). This kills the utility of the signifier, and turns it into a meaningless fashion statement.

Sometimes, rather than maximizing the number of people purchasing the signifier, the company producing it tries to maximize the return on each unit. In other words, the non-monetary cost stays the same and the monetary cost skyrockets.

Typically, both happen — leading to the subculture fracturing into a “casual” portion full of poseurs and a “hardcore” portion accessible only to the very wealthy. This is how we get hipster subcultures: the idolization of overpriced items like vinyl records, the normalization of ten dollar cupcakes.

Fixing the cosplay signalling axis

There’s an easy way to reduce the degree to which the abovementioned factors affect the cosplay subculture: aggressively devalue ready-made cosplay while aggressively affirming the value of low-effort cosplay. Treat a green t-shirt as more impressive than a store-bought Ninja Turtle costume. Affirm the importance of creativity and dedication while treating the exchange of money as taboo.

This is an up-hill battle. Much like the maker community, the cosplay community has already become heavily dependent upon semi-professionals, and has already expanded significantly through the normalization efforts of commercial concerns. We haven’t reached Hot Topic levels of selling-out, but we’re going in that direction, and the inertia is substantial.

If we want to put the breaks on the commercialization (and thus dissolution) of cosplay-as-community, we need to bring out the big guns. This means considering the exchange of money as shameful in cosplay communities, to a degree in excess of the actual target level of shame.

Written by

Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software.

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