A new definition of hipster
|April 2, 2012||Posted by Sophy Bot under Hipsterdom, Identity|
When was the last time you heard the word hipster being used? For most of us, not more than a few days pass in between encounters of the commonly used insult – and, for the most part, it is an insult. Yet despite its exceedingly common and widespread usage, publications continue to release articles declaring the hipster phenomenon over. Last week, Flavorwire published an article asking, “What Comes After the Hipster?,” with various experts chiming in on what hipsters might have been and what is likely to follow. In late 2010, n+1 magazine held a panel asking, “What Was the Hipster?” and later released a book by the same name. But before we get too carried away declaring the hipster dead, there’s something I’d like to point out.
This chart shows the amount of people searching Google for the word hipster (top), and the amount of news articles that mention the word hipster (bottom). Now I’m no mathematician, but it’s pretty obvious that this is hardly the moment when we should be declaring the hipster dead. Far from leaving our vocabularies, the word hipster is becoming more and more common with every month and every year that passes. So rather than asking what comes after the hipster, I suggest we take a step back and ask what is the hipster.
Even the dictionary is confused about hipsters
Ask a few people what they think a hipster is and you’ll quickly realize that we don’t have a single accepted definition of this exceedingly popular cultural phenomenon. While the most popular definition on Urban Dictionary skews towards the positive, that same definition is also the least popular, with 71,000 upvotes and nearly 18,000 downvotes. Classical dictionaries are still using the definition of the 1950s hipster and the Oxford Dictionary states simply that the hipster is “a person who follows the latest trends and fashions.” Yet none of these definitions even mention the things we associate with hipsters most: skinny jeans and PBR, wild outfits and fixed gear bikes, ironic mustaches and American Apparel. Without a single, shared definition of the word hipster, each of us is creating our own definition and – given that the common usage of the word is pejorative – our self-created definitions usually err towards the negative. I was recently sent a blog post likening the current usage of the word “hipster” to the 90s usage of the word “faggot” as a catch-all insult aimed at anybody who looks or dresses differently, which I believe is a fairly accurate assessment of the actual usage of the word. Until we can all agree on a single definition of the word hipster, that negative usage is only likely to increase. So let’s take a look at why we have such trouble defining them in the first place.
The hipster “subculture” is not anchored by a single aesthetic
When you think of a punk or a goth or a hippie or a raver, a very specific image is likely to pop into your head. These previously popular subcultures each rallied around a set of shared values and, more importantly to the outsider, a set of shared aesthetics. When I was in high school, goths tended to be shunned, but it was clear that in social environments outside of school, their wild form of dress served as a code to help them find one another in mixed surroundings. That shared code of aesthetics was the outward manifestation of a shared set of values, giving goths an easy way to identify and meet other members of their own subculture. Hipsters don’t share that single set of values or that single set of aesthetics; hipsters are, in fact, focused on individuality.
Whereas previously prevalent subcultures focused on group differentiation, hipsters focus on the individual. The hipster isn’t necessarily about finding other likeminded souls out there. It’s more about expressing yourself and doing your own thing, no matter how wild that may appear to others. As more and more modes of self-expression have made their way into popular culture, fueled largely by the wide-open nature of the internet and the vast amounts of content we now consume on a daily basis, we’ve come to adopt more and more iterations of style at a breakneck pace. And because we’re adopting so many different styles so rapidly, we don’t have time to create a shared set of meanings about trends. Instead, what’s going on now is that we’re creating our own meanings for each particular style or object. Classical meanings have been lost somewhere along the way; though half of the people in a room may be wearing thick-rimmed glasses, odds are good that each of them has a different reason for doing so. We, as a society, assume this to mean lack of authenticity, but in many ways it is at the very heart of authenticity – it is choosing for yourself exactly how you want to outwardly express yourself, imbuing each object with your own personally created meaning rather than using off-the-shelf cultural symbols.
The hipster as the scapegoat
One thing is sure about hipsters – you’re not one of them. Right? We use the word hipster on people who express themselves more eccentrically than we ourselves do. It has become a term of comparison. The girl in the used sedan thinks the guy on the Vespa is a hipster, the guy on the Vespa thinks the girl on the fixed-gear bike is a hipster, the girl on the fixed-gear thinks the guy on the unicycle is a hipster, and on it goes. We know that hipsters have something to do with uncommon modes of self-expression, so we assume that what we consider common can’t possibly be considered “hipster” – it’s that guy buying mustache wax over there whose style is uncommon. When we encounter an uncommon style, we project a negative set of personality traits onto the wearer, making it OK to call them a hipster and, in so doing, protecting ourselves from being judged as hipsters. We often use the word hipster as an insult due to our own insecurities. We are afraid of being judged as being hipsters ourselves, so we set the bar higher to shield ourselves from that negative judgment. That’s why, no matter how many times you’ve been called a hipster, you refuse to identify yourself as such. What is common to you cannot possibly be outlandish or outrageous – it’s that guy who’s the real hipster. And on it goes.
A broader definition of the word hipster
Until we come up with a set definition for the word hipster, each of us will continue to raise the bar above ourselves to make sure that we don’t get associated with those types. And so, I’d like to humbly suggest a new definition for the word hipster. I think the Oxford Dictionary got it right in trying to set such a broad definition, but I also think it neglects what’s at the heart of the hipster phenomenon – individuality and self-expression.
Hipster: somebody who self-expresses in a way that doesn’t fit into previously accepted social or subcultural categories.
That’s it. The definition of hipster varies from person to person because the notion of what is and isn’t acceptable varies from person to person. By defining hipsters as those who express themselves outside of what we consider to be socially acceptable, we acknowledge that hipster is a relative term, difficult to define in isolation. In coming to an understanding of what the hipster really is, we can better understand our knee-jerk hatred of them and move beyond the insulting nature of the word to appreciate why it is that hipsters seem to be everywhere and nowhere at once. Only when we get beyond the hatred can we address how and why this extremely widespread phenomenon is affecting our culture – and make sure that it does so positively.
Check out my new book The Hipster Effect: How the Rising Tide of Individuality is Changing Everything We Know about Life, Work and the Pursuit of Happiness for a more in-depth analysis.
Photo credit: Newtown graffiti
Hat tip to @drawmedy for the Life is Posers post