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Drink Seltzer, Live Forever

How the lightly carbonated refreshment of LaCroix and Polar became building blocks of online identity

Last summer, I was at the beach when I saw a plane towing a banner for Vintage seltzer, the stalwart bodega brand. Not long before that, I was accosted by photographs of Topo Chico bottles sweating so lasciviously that the pages of the magazine almost stuck together. And every time I went to the supermarket, the seltzer displays seemed a little more boundless, kudzuing from their roots down near the wine section into end-of-aisle structures vast enough to shelter a small city. That’s to say nothing of the inescapable LaCroix memes, customized LaCroix can generators, unaffiliated, slogan-emblazoned LaCroix t-shirts, self-referential Tumblr LaCroix flavor controversies, and, should one have stumbled upon the #livelacroix hashtag, lots and lots of crowdsourced content of beautiful millennial LaCroix drinkers doing beautiful millennial things, like eating breakfast in bed while wearing a hat. If we somehow didn’t reach peak seltzer then, we were close.

The seltzer boom seems unlikely, as far as trends go: Outside of Borscht Belt slapstick, seltzer has few cultural connotations, and the major brands don’t advertise through traditional channels. It consists of just three ingredients at most — water, carbon dioxide, and “natural flavors” — and the flavors are so muted that drinking, say, LaCroix’s “muré pepino” is more like having someone gently whisper “blackberries and cucumber” in your ear than tasting either a blackberry or a cucumber. What differentiates seltzer from plain old water are the ephemeral qualities of smell and texture, and they begin to dissipate as soon as you pop the tab. Like Swiss cheese, it’s a product that’s defined as much by what’s not there than what is: Seltzer is nothingness, bottled and branded.

The summer of seltzer ended starkly for me. My mother died in September. To cope in the immediate aftermath, I took strange comfort in responsibilities, in placing phone calls to the crematory and to the medical examiner, and in answering the same questions from her friends and neighbors, over and over again: How did it happen? Was she sick? Then, inevitably, I would answer the follow-up questions about her body. These came quieter and shrouded in apologies, but they always came. Where did they find her? How long she had been there? If it sounds morbid, it didn’t seem like it at the time. Death is a void; the body is a fact.

Here are the facts about my mom’s death: She was found on the back porch of the house she lived in alone. Some neighbors who noticed the newspapers piling up out front went into the backyard to investigate and found her in a chair, her dog by her side. It had probably been a couple of days. They called the EMTs, fed the dog, and put the chair out by the curb, then tracked me down. My mother was 72, so she wasn’t tragically young, but she hadn’t shown any real signs of ill health, either. Her death certificate states that the cause of death was “atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease,” which means heart failure. If there isn’t a reason to do an autopsy, that’s as specific as medical examiners get; technically, it’s always true.

This isn’t a story about death, not really. I just have to tell you about death so I can tell you about seltzer, because that’s how I can tell you that everyone you love is going to live forever.

Here are some facts about the seltzer boom: Between 2010 and 2015, sales of all sparkling waters in the United States rose by 89 percent. Much of that was due to LaCroix’s mercurial success, as sales of the semi-generic Midwestern brand jumped 247 percent over the same time period — a result, the theory goes, of some combination of savvy distribution and the millions of dollars of free advertising the company was gifted with as semi-ironic affection for its gaudy, blousy design became a true social media phenomenon. As a Vox article from 2016 noted, LaCroix’s marketing “highlights its fashionable users, who make it clear that it's popular to both drink LaCroix and talk about it. And so more fashionable people talk about and Instagram their cans of LaCroix, and more people find out about it, and the cycle continues.”

This isn’t a fact, but it’s true all the same: New England is a holdout against LaCroix’s viral hegemony, because affection for Polar Seltzer, whose logo is painted on the side of delivery trucks parked outside packies in Allston and corner stores in New Haven, runs deep. It’s as much a part of the local cuisine as Tastykakes or Golden Flake or It’s-Its; it’s Coors before Burt Reynolds could get it east of the Mississippi in Smokey and the Bandit, something displaced Bostonians seek out when they’ve moved to a place where people pronounce their Rs. You can find other brands in area supermarkets, but the overgrown seltzer displays here feature half-racks of Polar. For commuters on I-290, “Orson,” the inflatable polar bear that sits on the roof of the company’s Worcester factory, is as recognizable a Western Massachusetts landmark as the spherical Basketball Hall of Fame building in Springfield.

But peak seltzer, with all the pressure of carbonation about to burst beneath a bottle cap, forced Polar to expand, pushing its products into 40 states, pretty much everywhere except the West Coast. More than that, it has caught up to, and in some ways surpassed, LaCroix’s predilection for odd flavors, with oddball varieties like Vanilla Pear and Georgia Peach. Encouraged by listicles in local publications and drink menus at restaurants that have made use of their growing list of flavors, Polar has gone all in, first with “Seasonals” like Watermelon Margarita and Eggnog, and more recently with even more naked bids for viral currency.

Polar treats its small-batch flavors like a television studio guarding the plot of a season finale, keeping them from the bulk of its staff until the cans make their debut on store shelves. The flavors range from the relatively obvious (an Irish Coffee flavor released on St. Patrick’s Day) to the willfully mysterious. Lisbet Crowley, Polar’s “brand activation manager,” told me that its “Unicorn Kisses” flavor tasted like “hopes and dreams.” In the days after a new flavor’s release, the company’s social media accounts begin retweeting hardcore Polar drinkers filling their shopping carts with nothing but liters of seltzer, which lead to furious threads on Boston Reddit telling stories of finding the last liter of a sold-out flavor tucked in the back of a shelf in “a Shaw’s in Eastie.”

The viral culture responsible for the seltzer surge is physically borderless, but Polar, despite its recent meme-chasing, never manages to lose its sense of specificity or New Englandness. While LaCroix’s aspiring Instagram models use seltzer as a component of a Hollywood story, a blank screen for its drinkers’ dream-factory self-projections, Polar’s #feelgoodmoment hashtags tend to lead to shots of BU undergrads posing in a Star Market. The bar pairings and flight menus still happen within walking distance from a T stop. And Polar’s dorky affectations are so blatant that they don’t seem like affectations at all; they’re weirdly personal. Crowley told me that the company uses social media to take information from its customers rather than dictate a view of the product from the top down, which she said helps Polar approximate what she called its “local connection” on a national scale.

What I think this means, translated from marketing speak, kind of makes sense — Polar’s online aesthetic isn’t determined by its most fashionable users, but by its most enthusiastic ones. This means that while people interacting with LaCroix seemed to be doing so based on an outward-facing projection of themselves, their photos were hashtagged to reach into some dim view of nebulous celebrity. Polar’s followers seemed like co-workers or cousins or that guy down the hall, exchanging shots of cold, rocky beaches with the company like a friend.

While it’s obvious what the company gains from these interactions, it’s a bit tougher to see what the real benefit is for the consumer. Why would anyone want to have a conversation with a product in the first place, if your goal doesn’t involve extending the conversation into some idea of a personal brand?

Maybe because when you speak into a void, it’s rare to hear anything back.

I stayed at my mother’s house for a few days after her death, and occurrences that spiritualists might classify as “phenomena” kept happening, often enough that my family and I began to talk about them to diffuse their eeriness. Securely hung pictures fell from the walls; doors slammed shut in empty rooms without drafts; and a bell that my mom had hung from a hallway ceiling, a folk superstition meant to alert the living to the presence of passing spirits, spontaneously dropped on my wife’s head. Of course, there are logical explanations for every one of these events, but it’s like the joke about how many Vietnam vets it takes to change a light bulb: You don’t know, you weren’t there, man.

At some point in the following weeks, my family and I also realized that her last online interactions — which all occurred within an hour or so of each other — were curt and rife with nonsense, misspellings, and grammatical errors, all of which were pretty out-of-character for someone who did the Saturday Times crossword in pen. A reply to an involved email from my niece simply read “no.” She posted the phrase “port richmond ,,” [sic] to Facebook, which, besides being a departure from her usual screeds about what were then still the gathering clouds of fascism, is the name of a neighborhood in Philadelphia to which, as far as I knew, she had little connection. This all made a stroke seem likely, and I began reconstructing a scene not of her body being found, but of these last minutes of her life in which she could still try to communicate. I wondered about when she had this stroke, and about how clearly she recognized what was happening to her. I wondered if she knew she wasn’t saying what she wanted to say.

These posts and emails were made online, so I didn’t think they bore much weight at first. I thought that their meaninglessness and ephemerality made them relevant only to what they revealed contextually about her last moments; the posts themselves were nothing. But there are two ways to think about nothing, and this is where I tell you how social media is a rehearsal for death. We generally think nothing means a lack of accumulation, something lost or never there. But there’s also the esoteric tradition of nothingness, in which it’s valuable — even holy — because it contains infinite potential; think of the Buddhist concept of sunyata or of the tarot’s Fool, assigned the number zero in the major arcana, who exists in a perfect, pre-big bang world of unregulated ecstasy. The digit “0” is a pictogram of this paradox — the circle shows completeness, the space inside, emptiness.

This paradox is at work in seltzer, too. One reason it was so easy for LaCroix to gain social currency is that it once had a profile so generic you might not even know what the can contained (it was described in the New York Times Magazine as looking like it should be filled with self-tanner or Axe Body Spray). This meant it could shed its Midwestern roots and be claimed from Florida to California. It wasn’t just nothing, it was a placeless nothing, so LaCroix was free to be anything to anyone, anywhere. In an age of personal branding, online self-realization, and individualized versions of truth, LaCroix could take on any qualities of its consumer. It became a mirror.

LaCroix’s over-filtered Instagram models and Polar’s fluorescent-lit college students show two different types of artifice in the service of creating a personal brand. It’s easy to make fun of social media trend-hopping, but these criticisms take as a given that there’s an essential depth to identity, and that a disconnect between your identity and your soul means there’s something wrong with you. But social media represents products, not souls. You can tell by how aesthetically flattened the platforms are: Your Facebook page, if you stand a few feet back, is virtually indistinguishable from LaCroix’s or Coca-Cola’s or your elementary school best friend’s or Kendall Jenner’s. A Twitter feed looks basically the same whether you’re stanning for Beyoncé or Lady Gaga. When a dictionary tweets a sick burn at a pedantic journalist, the underlying joke is that whoever runs @MerriamWebster is, shockingly, a human being. To use freshman-year Marxist terms, social media replaces interaction between people with interaction between objects. All content, from a selfie to my mom’s last words to this article, is nothing; it only becomes something when it’s seen by someone else.

If all these nothings only become something when they’re perceived, it makes a hashtag the essential tool of online interaction. The fact that you never know who a hashtag is going to hook makes it something more than a way to interact with brands — a hashtag is a seance, mediating the space between constructed identities. It’s a way of reaching out, in hope and longing, into the ether. In this way, it performs the same function as art or prayer, linking tangible worlds to transcendent ones, an invisible line cast out with the hope of connection and of becoming whole, if only for a moment, right before the bubble bursts.

I now see the connection between my mom’s last interactions and the strange occurrences that I’d experienced in her house. In a tangible sense, both of these attempts to communicate, the supernatural and the technological, were nothing. But whether you believe ghosts exist or are just constructions to make fears and emotions tangible, the logic behind them is the same as the logic that grounds the projection of identity through internet content. Content may be nothing, but nothing has two faces, emptiness and infinite potential, facts and ephemera. This duality shapes ideas of the afterlife, too. If we can’t quantify the difference between the medical definition of life and the spiritual concept of the soul, at least we know when there’s no good reason for a lamp to fall off a table.

When nothing becomes something, it defies death. It puts to rest our fear that all that awaits us is a void. This is the essential appeal of social media, that each of the internet’s billion hashtags is a tiny cri de coeur, a yooooooooooooo into a mirror world that we cannot touch, a door slamming in a draftless room.

It’s inevitable that every trend, especially those borne by the internet, will dissolve. The LaCroix backlash has already begun, most predictably in memes that depict its earnest hashtaggers as vapid, self-absorbed, and maybe worst of all, basic. One depicts a doctored nutritional label, assigning numerical percentages to ingredients as “Liberal Arts Degree” and “Live Tweeting Your Break-Up and Full Emotional Meltdown” — literally quantifying the nothingness of the upper-middle-class. But Polar’s attempt to outlast the valley that will inevitably follow peak seltzer might somehow represent something more: By putting specificity, locality, and (not to be corny) family in the context of hashtagged, aspirational identity, it validates those things in a context where they’re usually trivial. The immaterial world created by Polar’s marketing is linked to the potential of nothing, and wraps you up in it like a warm blanket, turning it into something accepting and unironic.

We held a memorial service in my mom’s backyard toward the end of September, a couple weekends after she died. I had to rent chairs for the community activists and retired teachers who attended. The rental place was in Port Richmond, the Philadelphia neighborhood my mom had referenced in her last, inscrutable Facebook post. It was obviously a coincidence, but it didn’t feel like one; it felt like I was saving what might have been her last words from some infinite digital ash heap and making them real, even if I was turning them into something as banal as a hundred folding chairs.

I don’t remember much of what I said at my mother’s service. I know I tried to say that she was still a part of me, that she was alive where we all keep the people we love alive inside ourselves, but wasn’t able to get much of that out. This piece is how I finally said what I wanted to say. Maybe once it’s shot into the ether of the internet, it’ll take its place there with all the ads and memes and YouTube comments and every other bit of flotsam that’s thrust out with desperate apathy and the unspoken prayer that someone, anyone will notice. It, too, will be nothing, but by being nothing, it can be a point of momentary connection, a ghost that fades from view when it’s no longer in the corner of your eye. Like memories of the people you love, the act of willing these points of connection into being can exist long after the tangible things that put them into the world have disappeared.

port richmond ,,

Liam Baranauskas currently lives in New Haven, Connecticut, and prefers Polar’s Ruby Red Grapefruit and Cranberry Lime flavors.
Kaye Blegvad is an illustrator, designer, and general maker-of-things currently living in Brooklyn.
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter

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