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E-cigarettes have become a smoking-hot topic. They’ve sparked a variety of debates, about everything from how they are marketed to where they should be allowed to be used.

But something’s been lost in the haze: E-cigarettes are fascinating technological objects. Blow past the big names like NJoy and Tru and you’ll discover that e-cigarettes have spawned a “vaping” subculture. The movement revolves around electronic devices that deliver nicotine but otherwise hardly resemble cigarettes at all.

Devoted users tweak existing e-cigs endlessly. They fiddle with atomizers to control the release of custom-blended juices. They adjust the heated coils to deliver cleaner nicotine “hits” or maximum clouds of vapor (a practice sometimes called “fogging”). And in some cases they go pro and produce gorgeous limited-edition objects that sell for hundreds of dollars.

E-cig “modders” congregate online or at vape-store meetups, showing off their latest “builds,” like hackers or hot-rod enthusiasts. But this is more than a geeky sideshow to the larger public health debate. These e-cig hackers may just influence how the emerging gadgets are thought of by politicians and policymakers in America.

 From “Korean/Filipino collaboration” Deus Mods

The history of electronic cigarettes is relatively short. The first examples, created in China about a decade ago, involved a battery-heated coil that converted liquid nicotine into vapor. They looked like cigarettes, they were used like cigarettes (suck in, blow out), and they overtly aimed to be cigarette substitutes.

Markets developed for e-cigs in Asia and Europe. But as recently as five years ago, when Mathew Dryhurst, an active figure on the art-and-technology scene in San Francisco, first heard about vaping, choices in the U.S. were still quite limited. Most of the information — and all of the online sellers — seemed to be coming from middle America. He settled on a Joyetech 510, a cylinder with replaceable cartridges, a push-button controller and a light-up tip.

“It looked kind of future,” he recalls. And he found that useful: “If I make this part of my look, it motivates me to use it,” instead of smoking.

Aaron David Ross, a New York-based musician, met Dryhurst a couple of years ago. He, too, was trying to quit smoking. By then Dryhust had upgraded to a more sophisticated — and futuristic-looking — JoyeTech device called the eGo, with a changeable atomizer system. Ross was into it — and his enthusiasm for the technical side of vaping drew him into the modder scene.

A big part of the attraction was finding something that wasn’t attempting the impossible task of replicating the “analog cigarette” experience, he explains: “It doesn’t feel like a cigarette in your hand, it doesn’t feel like one in your mouth. You don’t hold it the same way. Your lips aren’t in the same position. It’s a different thing. It’s about modifying the ritual in a way where you could get excited about the differences, as opposed to the similarities.”

That basic attitude, actually, may be the core element of vape-world. On the one hand, there are super-DIY manifestations like RiP Trippers, who can get more than 100,000 views for an 18-minute YouTube video about a specific “coil build.” On the other hand, Instagram accounts like VapersReview feature slick product shots reminiscent of the fashion world. 

The common ground is that this subculture is not about a cigarette stand-in. In fact, cigarette stand-ins are seen as kind of lame. This is about a whole new (cool, creative and better) solution to feeding a nicotine craving.

In other words: Vaping isn’t aping.

Planet of the Vapes: A Look Inside the Emerging World of E-Cigarette Hacking

Instagram: VapersReview

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 T-shirt at Vape NYphoto courtesy of Aaron David Ross. 

This Saturday night, both Dryhurst and Ross will be among those involved inan “E-Cig Summit” at New York’s New Museum, organized by tech-art organization Rhizome, examining “E-Cigarette Technologies and their Cultural Implications.” Dryhurst and Brian Rogers will deliver a “performance” lecture on e-cig history; they have also put together a “Mix Tape” of music to vape by. (See the full schedule here.)

That kind of attention strikes Oliver Kershaw as good news. Kershaw is the founder and CEO of E-Cigarette Forum, co-founder of the policy-oriented E-Cigarette Summit and a full-throated advocate of e-cigs’ public health potential.

He founded ECF back in 2007, when the only choices were “cigalikes” — objects meant to be tossed when spent. It’s only in the past year or two that he’s witnessed e-cigarettes becoming “trendy” in a way that may be useful to the broader category. That’s largely because of the modders, inventing new iterations that offer more control, efficiency and longer lives. “It’s a proper subculture,” Kershaw says. “It really is.”

The effectiveness of cigalikes for anyone really trying to quit smoking, Kershaw and others maintain, is limited by small batteries and often-inconsistent performance. Turns out that as a nicotine-delivery system, the efficiency of a traditional cigarette sets a formidable standard.

The newer generations of e-cigs are far more effective. But it’s understandable that the cigalike persists, particularly now that traditional tobacco companies are moving aggressively into this market: “These things have got to appeal to smokers,” Kershaw points out.

“I wonder,” he concludes, “if that will start to change as people become more familiar with the ones that don’t look so much like cigarettes.”

It’s an interesting question not just for e-cig enthusiasts, but also for the e-cig opposition. Not long ago, two public health academics from Columbia University recently argued on the op-ed page of The New York Times that e-cigs “are undoubtedly less hazardous than tobacco cigarettes.” The piece drew vigorous rebuttals, and there’s no doubt that e-cigarettes have highly vocal opponents.

One of the critics’ arguments involves the re-normalization of smoking as an activity, via e-substitutes that look just like “the real thing.” That concern is ramping up as ads for e-cigarettes pop up on television in the U.S. and UK.

But spend a little time talking to vapers, and you’ll find that a borderline-preachy opposition to tobacco and smoking is a recurring theme. Nobody involved in this scene has a high opinion of cigarettes. To many, burning sticks of rolled tobacco is antiquated — and vaping through high-tech devices is the (healthier) future.

The bottom line is that the design and engineering of these devices, and the form they ultimately take, is arguably being shaped by the vaping subculture in ways that could prove crucial.

“It’s all about the artistry for form and function, and what people are prepared to carry in public,” Kershaw says. “And changing opinions.”

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