“For your hate-scrolling pleasure: Tumblr’s Bling Ring.” With those words three weeks ago, a whole new online subculture was shoved into the limelight: the shoplifters – or lifters, as they call themselves – of Tumblr.
The lifters came from all over the world, with users from Australia, the US and Britain. They congregated around Tumblr tags like #lifting and #five finger discount, posting everything from helpful tips on evading security to pictures of their hauls and general life updates. Some even kept a running tally of how much money they "save" by shoplifting – with a few running up thousands of dollars worth of stolen goods.
We-unhallowed, the Tumblr user who outed the community, was less than impressed. “I’ve heard our and their generations called ‘entitled’ but it’s articulated really well here when you read their text posts about how they steal because they ‘deserve nice things’,” she wrote, listing over 20 lifting accounts.
Within days, the media had picked up the story of the so-called virtual Bling Ring. Jezebel ran an exposé of the community. The BBC launched its own investigation on “the disturbing trend”. Sensing parallels with the bratty protagonists of the Sofia Coppola film, people leapt on the community as privileged, middle-class kids – teen girl horrors who epitomised everything disturbing about 21st century capitalism.
As it turns out, the truth is rarely that simple.
Stealer Moon was one of the bloggers named on we-unhallowed’s post, and she finds the Bling Ring outing infuriating. Not because of the fear that law enforcement could track them down – but because of the assumption that they’re all “white, well-off spoiled teens” who steal for fun.
“I think the amount of girls who are white in this community are maybe ten or less, if that,” she says, describing herself as a Hispanic art school student. “Many of us are young adults, many of us have jobs and work hard and still don’t make ends meet.”
By her reckoning, the lifting community has been around for two years. Other bloggers I spoke to estimate that there are only around one hundred active lifters in the community – the others are just curious onlookers.
For the past two years, Stealer Moon struggled to find a part-time job while her parents covered her college loans and housing. Stumping up the money for course materials and art supplies became a major problem.
“The lack of money really cornered me and I did the only thing I really could in that situation – I stole. From companies I was sure it wouldn't really hurt,” she says. “It's frustrating, because I really want to work for my money in a way that doesn't involve boosting clothes.”
Dodugoppa is another lifter who doesn’t match the ‘middle-class white girl’ stereotype. When his dad walked out on his family and his mother lost her job at a Laundromat, the Korean-American student began lifting basic necessities for his family – food, school supplies, even tampons for his little sister – before graduating onto stealing Barnes & Noble books to sell on to classmates.
“Maybe two months ago, a lot of the tag was underprivileged women who were battling poverty or mental illness,” he says. “Right now, there seems to be a lot more luxury hauls in the tag – clothing, make-up, higher-end skincare – they almost seem unreal, to be honest. But it definitely didn't use to be a Bling Ring of entitled white girls hauling whatever they could get away with.”
One 16-year-old lifter, Strelojamura, describes a “long, painful year” of living on the streets after her brother, who was also her legal guardian, went to jail. She needed to lift a coat to keep herself warm.
"Plenty of us are conflicted on it," she says. "I personally am, and if I had the ability to stop completely I would. Right now, I can't cover my basic needs (food, temperature-appropriate clothes) without shoplifting."
For some lifters, it takes one bad roll of the dice – a parent losing a job or a guardian going to jail – to transform shoplifting into a sometime adolescent habit into a means of survival. And not just survival: a viable source of income.
“Without being too dramatic... The only time I feel anything is when the money from eBay is deposited into my bank account”
Cashorcard, a 22-year-old from Australia, claims to have stolen $10,000 worth of goods. She eBays them for profit, a practice known as ‘boosting’. “I used to buy all this shit,” she tells me. “I would spend my whole paycheck on stupid things, and I'd have no money. Now I have all this stuff, boost it, still have my paycheck and the money I get from boosting.” Unlike Strelojamura, she says that she feels zero guilt: "Without being too dramatic... The only time I feel anything is when the money from eBay is deposited into my bank account."
The economist Guy Standing dubbed our age the time of the ��precariat’: a growing underclass of people living and working precariously. Their jobs, if they have any, are chronically insecure. They see little to no career prospects, only a series of dead-end jobs that barely covers living costs.
Migrant labourers and temp workers are all part of the precariat. But increasingly, so are young people. Global youth unemployment among 15 to 24 year olds reached 13.1 per cent last year. You almost certainly know someone in the precariat – you might be part of it yourself. Most of the lifters on Tumblr are under 30, and came of age in a global recession and amidst widening social inequality – just as, paradoxically, private wealth became more publicly visible than ever before (see: Rich Kids of Instagram).
Most of the lifting community isn’t too concerned with politics of the act, though they do subscribe to a loose ethos of sorts. As Dodugoppa puts it, “There seems to be a widespread agreement to never steal from individuals or mom and pop shops.” Instead, lifters hit up chain stores like K-Mart, Macy’s, TK Maxx or Target, believing that these outlets rarely dock staff pay or fire employees when goods go missing.
“The only reason an employee would be fired would be because they are allowing theft, actually stealing or helping others steal,” Cashorcard insists. “Employees that argue they lose jobs are brainwashed by their company to believe that their shelf-filling job includes them needing to tackle shoplifters.”
The relative anonymity of Tumblr allows marginalised or niche communities to flourish – but users also dwell in an echo chamber of positive feedback, allowing otherwise unhealthy behavior to go unchecked. Just look at the pro-ana community, which Tumblr still struggles to police.
The difference is, pro-ana Tumblrs aren’t breaking the law. To circumvent discovery, lifters use anonymous proxies, erase geotagging data on their haul photos, and put up sarcastic disclaimers claiming that they’re just online role-players. So far, it seems to have worked.
Why even bother putting in so much effort? Aren't the best thieves the ones you've never heard of? But Tumblr doesn't just provide a platform to brag about their hauls (although, to be clear, there is plenty of bragging). More than one lifter describes stealing as a form of therapy, with Tumblr providing a "safe space" to work through feelings of depression and anxiety – regardless of the fact that lifting can sometimes tip into full-blown kleptomania.
“Lifting fills the void for me,” says Olivia*, a 19-year-old Canadian who works part-time in retail. “I honestly don't think there's anyone in the lifting community who can say they don't have any type of problem, psychologically or in their personal life. I definitely think most of us use lifting to cope in one way or another.”
But while therapy and medication are expensive, shoplifting and making friends on Tumblr aren’t. “I genuinely believe that the support from our community is the only thing stopping some lifters from harming themselves,” Olivia says.
Of course, none of this mitigates the fact that the lifters are committing a crime, though their blogs exist in a grey area of legality. As one lifter puts it, “For all anyone knows, I could just be taking random items from around my house and putting them together to stage photos”.
“Posts depicting potentially illegal activity may not, in and of themselves, violate our policies,” Tumblr told the BBC, adding that they would still cooperate with police if any investigations are launched. That doesn’t seem to have happened yet, although people have threatened to dox some of the lifters and expose their real identities.
For some lifters, it isn’t worth the risk – Stealer Moon, for instance, has deleted her account entirely. Others, like Dodugoppa, simply benefit from a change in circumstances.
In his case, a family friend caught on to his habit and found him shifts at the restaurant they worked at. Then his mum got a job at another Laundromat. “Sometimes I still lift food or soap,” he says, “especially if things are tight before my mum gets a paycheck. But I try to buy as much as I can.”
“I lifted because I didn't see an alternative for my family,” he continues. “Some people in the tag lift instead of committing self-harm or abusing alcohol or drugs. Some lift because they're addicted to it. Some lift just because.”
*Name has been changed
Follow Zing Tsjeng on Twitter here @misszing