When MIT’s Technology Review published an article called ‘The Hipster Effect: Why Anti-Conformists Always End Up Looking The Same’ based on Jonathon Touboul’s paper of the same name, they got a rather unexpected response from one of their readers.
The website had used a picture of a white man with the trademark beard, beanie and flannels of a run-of-the-mill hipster. One of their readers sent them a message threatening to file a suit for slander against them for using his picture without even trying to get a permit.
Editor Gideon Lichfield took to Twitter to explain that they’d just used a stock image of what is described on Getty images as a ‘Shot of a handsome young man in trendy winter attire against a wooden background’. They’d checked the license and they could use it for anything that wasn’t unflattering or unduly controversial to a reasonable person. Implying that he’s a hipster can’t be controversial right?
Well it then turned out the person in the image was in fact a different person to the complaining hipster – they just happened to look so similar that he thought it was himself.
But whatever the reader might have felt, he did manage to prove the original hypothesis postulated by Jonathon Touboul albeit unwittingly. Hailing from Brandeis University, Touboul’s study dealt with the hipster paradox – if hipsters are supposed to be people who don’t conform to the norms of society, if they are supposed to be living outside of the mainstream, then why are they all so similar to each other in their appearance and their thought process?
Originally published in arXiv.org, Touboul’s paper contains an equation which attempts to solve this fascinating puzzle. He picked up on certain trends, like growing facial hair, and studied the way the trend penetrated through both ‘mainstream’ people who went with the crowd, and to ‘hipsters’ who make a conscious choice to be different.
In order to keep it as close to real life as possible, the people in Touboul’s study gradually got more and more information about the trend from ‘influencers’, social media, other people, etc. As they learned more about it, they also spread the word about the trend to others.
Touboul observed that hipsters initially had random reactions to emerging trends. They’d oscillate between acceptance and rejection based on how many people they thought were following it. As the trend grew in popularity and entered into mainstream culture with most people adopting it, they hipsters would instantly become unified in their opposition to it.
Of course, hipsters stopped being non-conformists at that point because they’d start acting as a group. Then there is no escaping the hipster paradox.
As more and more people start rejecting the mainstream, they tend to become the mainstream themselves. Since many starts thinking that being a non-conformist is the cool thing to do, they move out of the majority and join hipsters thereby making it seem like the hipsters were the majority. This leaves the actual hipsters with no other choice but to move back to the trend that they had previously rejected. This becomes a cycle of people moving back and forth on their positions until the trend itself dies a natural death.
This study actually explains to us in more scientific terms how life works. Once all the jargon is stripped away, it all comes down to choosing between two options.
Like Hamlet says, “To be or not to be? That is the question.”
Touboul plans to study the complexities of trends further. Let’s hope nobody else takes offense to his work.