The Hipster Effect » self expression Identity, society and work in the age of perpetual connectivity Tue, 26 Mar 2013 00:35:43 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Hipster Effect at TEDx Gramercy /2012/04/30/the-hipster-effect-at-tedxgramercy/ /2012/04/30/the-hipster-effect-at-tedxgramercy/#comments Mon, 30 Apr 2012 16:32:37 +0000 Sophy Bot /?p=668 more]]> In March 2012, I was invited to speak about the hipster effect at the inaugural TEDxGramercy event. Without further ado, here is a video of my TEDx talk: on identity, personal transformation and the hipster effect.



I highly recommend checking out some of the other talks from TEDxGramercy. Quite enlightening all around.


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A new definition of hipster /2012/04/02/a-new-definition-of-hipster/ /2012/04/02/a-new-definition-of-hipster/#comments Mon, 02 Apr 2012 18:43:52 +0000 Sophy Bot /?p=647 more]]> 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.


Google Trends: Hipster (4.2.12)


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


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Book excerpt: Translate my outfit /2012/02/29/book-excerpt-translate-my-outfit/ /2012/02/29/book-excerpt-translate-my-outfit/#comments Wed, 29 Feb 2012 22:49:45 +0000 Sophy Bot /?p=567 more]]> “The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize.” – Steel Magnolias

Well, that and walk-in closets. After all, is there any better indication of the modern obsession with personal appearance than our need to have an entire room dedicated to housing our threads, kicks and baubles? There’s clothes for work, clothes for working out, clothes for going out, clothes for staying in, clothes for fancy occasions, clothes for going to the beach, clothes, clothes everywhere. Different types of situations require different types of clothing, and at a time when pretty much everybody around you is carrying a camera-enabled smartphone in their pocket, your poorly chosen outfit could very well follow you long after the day is over and the last of the wine has been poured.

More than just a carrier of social norms, what we wear is an outward demonstration of who we are. Before you even utter the words, “Hi, my name is,” your outfit has already sent a message. Clothing, in that sense, is not only a tool for covering ourselves up; it is a tool for communicating who we are. Wearing gold lamé to a funeral communicates just as loudly as showing up with a boombox blasting ABBA. Showing up to your office job dressed in hot pants and a tube top does the same. It’s loud. What we wear shows who we are and how we want to be perceived. No wonder The Container Store has become so popular; when clothing is communication, it’s important to have a closet full of the right things to say.

Provided you’re not living in a nudist colony, there’s a certain set of daily rituals you use to prepare yourself before leaving the house – grooming, dressing, preening, pruning and otherwise priming yourself for public appearance.  Where you’re planning on going dictates the social norms required for your outfit, but the rest is up to you. Do you want to fit in or stand out? Are you going for classic chic or a modern conversation-starter? Underlying these questions is a basic fact of identity: how do I want to be perceived by others? Whether consciously addressed or not, how we dress is a way of telling people who we are and how they should think about us. But what happens when the signals get crossed and the meanings confused?

At a time when each of us is exposed to more cultural and personal options than ever before, misinterpretation of intent has become a common problem. I might think that this giraffe-print polyester vest shows that I’m open-minded and fun-loving, but to you it may appear childish and – dare I say it – hipster. Similarly, you might think those big ol’ diamond earrings you’ve got on show that you’re classy and sophisticated, but to me they might just be plain old pretentious. Though each of us is now exposed to more ways of dressing, more modes of fashion and more types of personal style in a single day than our grandparents were in an entire lifetime, the norms governing those different iterations of self-expression have not yet been agreed upon. You may know how to judge which type of blazer is appropriate for a tenured professor, but assuming that you know how to judge a particular type of mustache that has just reentered the cultural zeitgeist after years of obscurity is far less certain.

Just a century ago, nobody owned more than a few basic outfits for a few basic situations. Their options were limited and the message sent by each outfit was obvious and widely understood. Now that our options have increased exponentially – and on-demand 3D printing technology is on the horizon to increase those options further still – our clothing still talks, but we’re all speaking different languages. This is not the conformist, jumpsuit-wearing future once imagined by Star Trek and Logan’s Run. This is a full-on express-a-thon, only without the benefit of a Douglas Adams-inspired babel fish to translate what each of us is trying to say. We’re confusing each other in the name of expressing ourselves. Thankfully, the confusion can be easily corrected. All we need to do is recognize that our wires are crossed. We’ve progressed too quickly, picking up too many stylistic iterations and losing their meanings along the way. Until we can all agree upon what exactly it means to wear a pair of Wayfarers, we ought to just lay off of the judgment and realize that what I think it means doesn’t necessary match what you think it means, and let’s just agree not to even ask Auntie Mabel from Nantucket for her opinion quite yet. We’re confused enough as it is.

The above is an excerpt from 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.”


Image credit: Alaskan Dude


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Book excerpt: Mr. Bro /2011/12/05/mr-bro/ /2011/12/05/mr-bro/#comments Mon, 05 Dec 2011 20:46:57 +0000 Sophy Bot /?p=469 more]]> “What’s ‘dude?’ Is that like ‘dude ranch?’”
“Dude means nice guy. Dude means a regular sort of person.”
– Easy Rider, 1969

“Let me explain something to you. Um, I am not ‘Mr. Lebowski.’ You’re Mr. Lebowski. I’m the Dude. So that’s what you call me. You know, that or, uh, His Dudeness, or uh, Duder, or El Duderino if you’re not into the whole brevity thing.”
– The Big Lebowski, 1998

When Captain America got onto his motorcycle and rode off into the sunset in the 1969 film Easy Rider, he was off to pursue the dream of a life worth living, one outside of the mainstream and decided upon by his own terms. Similarly, when The Dude ditched all responsibilities to go bowling in 1998’s The Big Lebowski, he was following the unspoken rule of cool: do what you want to do and don’t worry what other people think. Each film was pivotal for its generation, defining a cool aesthetic and providing a hero who lived life on his own terms and did his own thing despite any nay-saying. But in the three decades that elapsed between the two films, a lot had changed. In Easy Rider, our heroes meet a tragic ending as a result of their subcultural lifestyle. Much of the film is spent defending themselves against regular folks who just don’t get why they have long hair and ride motorcycles. They are seen as a menace to be avoided. Although The Big Lebowski took a decidedly funnier approach to the subcultural David vs. mainstream Goliath story, the message was largely the same: the lead character was a rebel trying to live his life outside of the confines of day-to-day society – only this time, The Dude ran into conflict because of a random coincidence, not because he was shunned by everybody around him for his appearance.

Life in the 21st century is casual in a way that life in the 1960s never was, particularly in the United States. Back then, you wore a suit not only to go to work, but to go to a restaurant, to go to a theater, to get on a plane, or to do just about anything else that required leaving the house. You addressed your neighbors as Mr. and Mrs. Jones and they addressed you the same way. Jeans were meant for farmers and physical laborers. You did not share the intimate details of your life with anybody but your nearest and dearest, and you definitely didn’t share them anonymously or with strangers. Proper etiquette was vital and the fork always had to go on the left, even if you were eating one of those newly invented TV dinners. Rules were unspoken and social conventions dictated your actions depending on whatever situation you found yourself in. And you most certainly did not ask anybody to call you Dude.

Fast forward to present day and it doesn’t take a Julia Child to tell you that everything has changed. Although many jobs still require you to wear a suit, increasing amounts of billionaires run their companies wearing jeans and a t-shirt. You are on an instant first name basis with every telemarketer and store clerk you meet and would probably be considered stiff if you tried to introduce yourself to neighbors by last name only. Etiquette is reserved for fancy restaurants and business luncheons. We blog, we tweet, we update our statuses, and we share a remarkable level of detail about our lives with complete strangers. We speak in slang and we write in abbreviations. Having a nickname is cool and being able to go to work in your sweats is a sign of privilege, not of slovenliness. The omnipresence of camera phones makes it easy to catch you off-guard and immediately share your image online with your friends, family and colleagues. Being formal is boring and stuffy. Being artfully informal is the new name of the game.

To be cool in previous eras meant to brazenly show off your informality. It was a sign of rebellion against societal norms and it took a lot of guts to so openly defy proper cultural conventions. These days, there’s just not as much to defy. Even though social norms still exist and cause great amounts of judgment and gossip, people are no longer shocked as easily. Nonconformity becomes more and more difficult as conformity becomes more and more casual and has more and more iterations. Once, we sought to have freedom from doing what was required of us. Now, we want freedom to do what we want. The Captain America of Easy Rider would hardly be noticed today, nor would The Big Lebowski’s Dude turn many heads. In an age when we have every choice in the world constantly laid out before our eyes and can join as many microcultures as we want to based on whatever our interests may be, we do have the freedom to do what we want. And even if we can’t do it in person, we can always head over to the internet and do it all anonymously.

The above is an excerpt from 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.”


Image credit: Screenshot from The Big Lebowski


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Happy transforming /2011/10/28/happy-transforming/ /2011/10/28/happy-transforming/#comments Fri, 28 Oct 2011 22:46:44 +0000 Sophy Bot /?p=382 more]]> So what are you gonna be for Thanksgiving this year?

Wait, that doesn’t sound right.

Who are you going as for July 4th?

Nope, that’s not it either.

Have you figured out your Christmas costume yet?

The one and only holiday* where we ask who you’re going to be rather than what you’re going to do is, of course, Halloween. It is the holiday of transformation, one in which it becomes socially acceptable to step into another’s shoes and to become somebody completely different for a night. From Lady Gaga to Frankenstein and from Charlie Sheen to Jesus, your Halloween costume is limited only by your imagination and your budget. The more complete your transformation, the more respect you’ll garner. But try and wear your costume on November 1st and suddenly the respect turns into laughter. Halloween is over and it’s time to be yourself again.

A recent Tumblr called “Halloween or Williamsburg” mocks the very essence of what it is to attempt a transformation outside of the socially acceptable boundaries of Halloween. Williamsburg, as we all know, is considered to be the birthplace of the modern hipster. It is a neighborhood where it is not at all uncommon to see people pushing self-expression to its farthest limits, whatever the time of year and without any particular reason. “Halloween or Williamsburg” shows photos of people in costume and out of context, pointing out the oddity of dressing up in otherwise normal circumstances. Then again, without the context, who’s to say that these people aren’t on their way to a costume party (of which New York has many, whatever the season) or a performance (at least two of the photos show local performance artists).

So here’s the thing: what’s the big deal with dressing up for no reason? Why can’t people have fun with self-transformation? Why must we be limited to one day of the year when it’s considered ok to put on a costume? As kids, we dressed up all the time for no other reason than the amusement it gave us. If people are honestly gutsy enough to put on some of these costumes and wander around one of the biggest cities in the world, I say let them do it. It amuses us as observers and they know we’re staring anyhow. The Halloween spirit is a healthy one, and one we ought to keep in mind long after the candy corn is gone and the Jack-o-lantern candles have melted: Have fun and be yourself… even if that sometimes means being somebody else instead.


*with the possible exception of Purim and Mardi Gras

Photo credit: Clinton Steeds


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Friend me, judge me, love me /2011/10/19/friend-me-judge-me-love-me/ /2011/10/19/friend-me-judge-me-love-me/#comments Wed, 19 Oct 2011 23:09:29 +0000 Sophy Bot /?p=358 more]]> I have a confession to make: I watched Jersey Shore and I liked it. Big budget Hollywood thrillers? Love ‘em. Supernatural horror flicks? Yep, I love those too. But if asked to list my viewing preferences on a social networking profile, I’m far more likely to write about my favorite art house directors, foreign films and independent dramas. The reason is simple: you’re going to judge me based on what I write. I’d rather you judge me based on the sophisticated side of my preferences, and not on my guilty pleasures.

But we all have our guilty pleasures.

When it comes to social networking, we’re presenting a certain part of ourselves to the world. Here’s a picture I look really good in. Here’s a cool event I just attended. Here’s a great link I just found. We filter our lives to show the best possible elements of ourselves, leaving out the 90% that makes up the rest of our lives. Here are a bunch of pictures where I look really tired or blinked my eyes. Here are the other six nights of the week I spent at home watching movies and surfing the internet. Here are the 100 links I had to click through before I found that really good one I just shared.

When we filter ourselves and hide our guilty pleasures from the public’s eye, what we’re doing is presenting ourselves in the way we want to be judged. Every morning when you wake up, you choose what you want to wear based on how you want to present yourself. Online, you choose what you’re going to share for the same reasons. The problem is, the barriers that previously separated the different parts of our lives have collapsed as visibility has increased and personal privacy continues its downward spiral.

Here are the sweats I wear on the weekends.

Here is the Backstreet Boys song I like to play when I’m alone.

In a recent talk at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco, 4chan founder Christopher Poole (alias “moot”) accused Facebook and Google of doing identity wrong. While these sites would have us believe that we are mirrors, Poole argues, in reality we are more like diamonds. “Look from a different angle, and you see something completely different.” Poole went on to say that there is a need for occasional anonymity. In essence, we may want to associate with those who share certain guilty pleasures, but we don’t necessarily want to identify with them publically.

Here is the cheesy romantic drama that makes me tear up every time.

Here is the popcorn I eat while I watch it.

The underlying problem here is not that we’re unable to present ourselves anonymously when talking about our guilty pleasures; the problem is that we’re so afraid of being judged in the first place. Sometimes, I want to listen to Michael Bolton. Sometimes, I just want to stay in my baggy pajamas all day. Sometimes, I want to forget that the world is watching and just do what I want to do. None of us can deny having these moments – so why are all of us so afraid of others seeing them?

As the world continues to log onto social networks and people share more and more about themselves, we must inevitably come to the point where we stop judging them for doing so. We all have our guilty pleasures, yet we’re all afraid to reveal them. Only when we stop judging the occasionally banal taste of others can we stop being afraid that they’ll do the same to us. Until then, please don’t judge me for being amused by the antics of a bunch of over-tanned Jersey kids bickering about trivialities. This is what I watch when I think nobody’s watching.


Watch Poole’s full talk here

Photo credit: Evil Erin


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Sharpie and the self-expressing life /2011/09/20/sharpie-and-the-self-expressing-life/ /2011/09/20/sharpie-and-the-self-expressing-life/#comments Tue, 20 Sep 2011 15:14:42 +0000 Sophy Bot /?p=30 more]]> A new TV ad by Sharpie asks a simple question: what would life be like without self-expression? Maybe a better question is this: at what point in our cultural evolution did self-expression become such a big part of our lives? Sharpies were originally reserved for architects, advertisers, businesspeople, artists… specialists, in other words, often in creative fields. The new ad implicates that we’ve all got something of the artist in us, and we now have the need to freely express as much.



So, according to Sharpie, what would the world be like without self-expression?

“There’d be no purpose. No passion. No putting it out there for everyone to see.”

Now pardon me while I go find a bathroom stall so I can express my passion.


Thumbnail photo credit steakpinball


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