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Messengers of Cool
How new digital networks help hipsters around the globe hunt for the next big thing
By JEREMY CAPLAN

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Oct. 24, 2005

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Around 100 times a day, a message lands in Reinier Evers' In box, bearing the promise of something new and cool. Sometimes the sender is describing a product that's suddenly generating local buzz, like lipstick-size aromatherapy tubes in New Zealand or cone-shaped pizza in Italy. Other times it's an innovative retail concept, like customized-candy shops in Australia or American T-shirt "delis" where designs are personalized like sandwiches. The correspondence comes in from trendspotters everywhere--a coffee shop in Istanbul or a library in Taipei--all part of Evers' network of more than 7,000 volunteers, most of whom have never met--and will never meet--their boss. "I call this effect the global brain," says Evers, 35. "People all over are having this international conversation about what's next, what's trendy. Our role is to serve as aggregator and to provide context."

Evers and his Amsterdam-based staff share their discoveries via trendwatching.com, a free online digest of the freshest, most interesting trends that's tracked by in-the-know marketers, retailers, designers and consumers worldwide. Evers' Springspotters network, one of several global trend-tracking alliances, has more than doubled in size since last year, when there were just 2,500 volunteers. Today the spotters, ages 17 to 70, send information from more than 70 countries. They do it partly for the small rewards, like key-ring cameras, that they can earn but mostly for the street cred that comes with ID-ing a trend that appears in Evers' bible of cool.

The concept of cool hunting—tracking urban trends—dates back more than a decade, but the rules of the game are rapidly changing. Over the past three years, an explosion of blogs, podcasts, websites and newsletters has pried cool hunting from the grip of professional marketers, shifting it to the text-message-happy fingers of amateur trend trackers. Some independent sites focus on broad trends and generational shifts in consumer habits. Others home in on specific styles, foods, brands and gadgets popular among trendsetters. jcreport.com, for instance, focuses on fashion, gizmodo.com on gadgetry and needled.com on tattooing trends. The best hubs for travel buzz: superfuture.com and gridskipper.com

Yet while networks are flourishing, some cool hunters prefer to do the digging themselves. Roaming the streets of Copenhagen last June, Josh Spear, 21, repeatedly hit the jackpot. Looking for quirky, undiscovered gems, the cool-hunting blogger from Boulder, Colo., stumbled upon a renovated downtown hotel whose 61 rooms had been customized by 21 street artists from around the world. He also found—and blogged about on his site, joshspear.com—a chic shop called WoodWood that featured a wall of limited-edition sneakers. He says too many of today's cool hunters simply sift through blog posts, collecting other people's finds rather than discovering new trends on their own. That said, he concedes that he regularly combs through 300 blogs in search of appealing novelties to supplement his legwork.

Bill Tikos is another independent digital cool hunter. His website, thecoolhunter.net evolved from his Australian syndicated column on cultural trends. Tikos, 33, is currently in the U.S. trying to develop a television show featuring a quintet of globetrotting cool hunters—just call them the Fab Five. "I'm looking for the wow factor," he says. "I often spend eight hours searching for one interesting thing. A couple of years ago, I didn't even know what cool hunting was. Now it's my life."

Tikos' site has been buzzing recently about the intersection of technology and style. A recent post pointed out a slick new South Korean cell phone with fingerprint recognition; it can speed-dial 10 people by reading each of a user's fingerprints. The site keeps tabs on the latest hip iPod accessories, from colorful stickers from Germany's Shufflesome for the iPod Shuffle to a stylish new clip from PKOH NYC that keeps earphone cords from dangling.

What's next for those who want to be ahead of the curve? For Spear, one goal is to cut through the clutter of blogorrhea to create an all encompassing digital destination for people with discerning taste. "We're sick of mediocrity," he says, speaking for his cool-loving friends and colleagues. To sort through the growing mass of trendy tidbits, he's working with an international team of experts on a shopping, travel and socializing site called charlesandmarie.com, billed as the Web's first "lifestyle navigator" for lovers of all things cool. "Cities around the world are starting to look the same," he says. "We want to highlight what's unique."



                             Premium Content
The Quest For Cool [9/8/2003]
Predicting the future is hard work. Ask any professional trend spotter: it takes insight, dedication--and secret armies of superhip teenagers
Letters [11/1/1999]
The TIME/CNN 25 Most Influential [12/10/2001]

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