What the death of Skymall says about the rise of Internet culture

Farewell, Garden Yeti.

Mar 1, 2020, 11:47 am*

Internet Culture

 

S.E. Smith

Skymall is dead. The venerable airline catalog once picked up and listlessly flipped through by millions of passengers desperate for entertainment has filed for bankruptcy. Should a buyer emerge, the brand could be revived, but it’s unlikely, as the era of “retailers of novelty goods and gadgets,” as Tiffany Kary at Bloomberg put it, is over. Skymall blames its failure on the Internet, but the Internet’s not the problem: Our shift from the tangible to the virtual accounts for the lack of interest in Skymall, just like Blockbuster, Sharper Image, and so many more relics of the past.

Founded in 1989, Skymall reflected a brand new development for the jet age. Airline travel was finally cost-effective for many Americans and passengers were literally a captive audience, ideally positioned to be wooed into purchasing bizarre and sometimes quite expensive objects, like the infamous Garden Yeti. While ordering and delivery methods had to be tweaked a bit to reach perfection, and it took some time for Skymall to get off the ground, by the late 1990s, it had become an institution.

A delightful and beloved institution, as fans from the 2000s can testify. Hunting for bizarre and ridiculous things in Skymall became something akin to a spectator sport, and it birthed scores of parodies, because there was always something to mock in everyone’s favorite in-flight magazine. Skymall was distributed on multiple airlines including United, Southwest, and Delta, some of whom had terminated their contracts with the magazine well before the bankruptcy filing. As Chuck Thompson of CNN put it upon learning of the catalog’s demise:

SkyMall wasn’t just an annoying space eater in a seat-back pocket shuffled between airline propaganda, safety cards and barf bags—it was the one reliable punch line during those interminable delays on the tarmac, the one thing the airlines offered us that could guarantee five solid minutes of entertainment, the one thing in that stuffy cabin that wasn’t quite so stuffy.

Elise Hu at NPR wistfully remarked, “They say the only things certain in life are death and taxes, but for an estimated 650 million air travelers a year, the certainty was finding SkyMall in our seatback pockets.” At Wired, Emily Dreyfuss waxed poetic over the death of Skymall and the role it played in her childhood:

SkyMall was a tradition. An absurd, capitalistic embodiment of everything that was shallow and wrong with our lives, and yet it also brought us comfort. No matter if the plane was delayed, or we were stuck alone on a layover, missing whichever parent we were leaving, missing the friends and the life we were leaving behind each time we went between homes, it was there to make us laugh. To let us roll our eyes. To surprise us with a new level of novelty and frivolity.

And now, the mighty has fallen at last. Skymall’s future had been looking dire over the last several years, especially when stocks in parent company Xhibit Corp. fell drastically in 2014, and Skymall’s earnings halved between 2013 and 2014. Stockholders were clearly uneasy about Skymall and Xhibit, wondering if the catalog had hit bottom when it came to its offerings and its potential customer base. As evidenced by the lack of interest from buyers, their concerns were likely right—no one was reading Skymall anymore, and no one wants it now.

In a way, there’s something sort of sad about it for those of us who relished settling into our seats and reading Skymall on the tarmac while the engines spun up and the cabin crew demonstrated how to use our life jackets. But the death of Skymall has gone hand in hand with the death of other things as we shift into an increasingly digital culture, one where we are less likely to have tangible objects and more likely to have ephemeral connections and virtual belongings. While we do not live in a virtual reality, the virtual is beginning to surround us.

Where physical objects can be replaced by digital ones, they are, with new technologies appearing constantly to ephemeralize the world around us. We keep photographs in the cloud, albums on Instagram. Our data is backed up virtually or, for people who are old-fashioned, on flash drives rather than disc-based media. Video-rental giant Blockbuster fell to Netflix, but also to Amazon Instant, Hulu, and other streaming services. Books are read on a variety of devices while we order the few things we need online; we don’t need RadioShack or the local hardware store to pick up a USB cable or a new faucet.

If asked for a friend’s phone number, it’s likely you’d need to pull out your phone to look it up. Driving to a new place doesn’t require poring over a rustling map, and your navigation system will even tell you when there’s traffic and provide suggestions for an alternate route. The digital even replaces the human—Siri can make appointments and manage a schedule just like a real-world secretary, while automatic triage systems manage patients for optimum efficiency.  

It’s not just Skymall that is becoming irrelevant, but the entire world of location and object-based retail and living. Amazon succeeds by allowing customers to access it anytime, anywhere, lying on bed in their pajamas or, yes, thousands of feet above the Earth, with reliable and rapid delivery service (free for Prime members) to any possible destination. The work from home generation cannot fathom going into the office every day when they can use a VPN to connect just as easily. Most computers don’t even come with DVD drives anymore, while the growing market for televisions designed to connect directly to cable or devices like Apple TV again betrays the fall of the middleman. We are losing interest in objects and their fallibility—the scratched DVD, the critically needed files on another continent, or the cookbook accidentally left behind at the old house.

We no longer need to connect to each other in person to enjoy rich interpersonal relationships—what was once saved for the occasional meeting or rare reunion can now be said eye to eye over Skype, replacing not just letters and telephones but also email and chat. Our virtual presence can appear on stage—even after death, as in the case of Tupac at Coachella—or can give lectures at conferences and teach classes.

In this landscape, Skymall is little more than a symptom. It’s not even a harbinger, as we are firmly ensconced in an era where our relationship to the physical world is shifting dramatically. Skymall couldn’t adapt, Blockbuster couldn’t adapt, Borders couldn’t adapt, and we’re waiting for the next domino in the row of outdated cultural phenomena.

Skymall is dead, but a sense of fun, ridiculousness, and whimsy lingers on far past the time when the final issue will roll off the press. The digital world isn’t all seriousness and replacements for real-world objects and face-to-face interactions. It’s also a rich and colorful world of play, mockery, and cat videos—which, in the end, wouldn’t be possible without physical cats to star in them, just one example of the point where the digital world meets its conversion point, unable to replace something fixed in the real world.

Photo via Skymall

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*First Published: Jan 26, 2015, 11:00 am