Rainbow Loom: the craze that makes the internet look good

The rubber-band bracelet craze: ‘somehow digital feels better when it produces something real’

Column LAST UPDATED AT 11:11 ON Wed 4 Jun 2014

I was delighted to see the Duchess of Cornwall wearing a Rainbow Loom bracelet on her Canadian tour (pictured below). Since Camilla is the grandmother of a seven-year-old girl, my suspicions are that this was a present from her.

As the owner of approximately 40 of these bracelets, I am very familiar with the particular weave Camilla is sporting - it can be done on a loom, a fork, and if neither of these are to hand, your fingers.  

The Rainbow Loom concept is pretty basic - two plastic boards, a crochet hook, and as many coloured rubber bands as you can get hold of.  With it you can make bracelets, necklaces, earrings, backpack charms, even a suit.

The inventor’s story alone is inspiring.

Cheong Choon Ng, a Malaysian immigrant to the US with a degree in mechanical engineering, wanted to impress his daughters.  After watching them making bracelets with small rubber bands he realised his fingers were too fat to copy them so he created a wooden board with push pins to make more complex versions.  After a few iterations, his daughters traded their fingers for their dad’s board.

The bracelets they created become so popular amongst their friends that one of his daughters encouraged him to try to manufacture and sell the loom to others. Ng invested his entire savings of $10,000 to manufacture the looms in China (after finding his budget was too small for US manufacturers). After a year of making YouTube videos showing what you could make with the Loom, buying Google ads and trying to sell the product online, he finally sold 24 looms to Learning Express, a US toy store chain.  

In business jargon, Learning Express franchise owner Cindy O’Hara became the Rainbow Loom Evangelist. O’Hara’s enthusiasm for the product went from providing in-store demonstrations to customers to classes in her stores. And so it began.

 

Millions of kits have been sold in the past two years. The craze crossed the Atlantic last year and has now taken the UK so completely that Rainbow Loom bracelets are now banned in both of my kids’ London schools. I’m not surprised - my middle daughter could hardly bend her wrist for all of the bracelets she was wearing.

My kids are proud of the fact that they’ve spread the viral craze from London to Tyneside: a visit from a Newcastle-based friend resulted in a birthday present for her two girls.

So is this a craze like any other? Is the Rainbow Loom anything more than the Star Wars figure, Tamagotchi digital pet, Cabbage Patch Kid or Rubik’s Cube of today? 

There’s some great analysis of what makes a craze conducted by Method Design Lab. Price, size, colour variation and availability of accessories are all important. Also, does it update an older craze, does it carry a positive message, and is there an online component?

Rainbow Loom ticks all of these boxes. A bag of bands sells for between £2 and £4 in every colour you can think of. Weaving isn’t the oldest craze I can think of, but it has been around for a while. As for positive messages, there are plenty. Creating them encourages dexterity, creativity, and concentration and elicits “At least they’re not on an electronic device” comments from approving parents. Plus stepping on rubber bands is less irritating than stepping on Hama Beads.  

But the component that I think makes it work for me is the online one.  As Santiago Matheus of Method says: "More than ever, a craze is linked with some kind of online community whether this is created and organised by the distributor or the community itself. Some crazes go so far as to make the online component an integral part of the craze’s appeal.” 

My recent search for ‘Rainbow Loom YouTube’ videos with my kids at my elbows received 124 million results. My 11-year-old son and I became a fan of Elegant Fashion 360’s videos and - with the help of her dulcet Japanese tones - mastered a fish charm.  My daughter and I tried a Penguin charm, spectacularly failed but finally succeeded in making a Snowcone. Somehow digital feels better when it produces something in real life as well.

Jordan Shapiro puts this a little more elegantly at Forbes.com, praising Rainbow Loom for “the ability to mediate effectively between virtual and material realities.  After all, our digital tools are only useful and meaningful to the extent that they actually enhance the whole experience of being in the world.” 

As an entrepreneur, Ng faces rather predictable challenges. Copycats are aplenty and – as with all fads - my kids will soon move on to the next toy. But the flag that Rainbow Loom raised for me is significant.  I’ve personally moved on from the “should I allow my kids to use screens?” argument – their lives will be inextricably linked to the internet. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, and Rainbow Looms are an incredibly good reason why. · 

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An unusually long (for The Week) article on an exceptionally inane topic. Has Britain rilly, rilly come to this, a Bonfire of Banalities?