The Hipster Paradox: Collective Conformity And The Desire For Individual Distinctiveness


Bearded hipsters, with fix gear bicycles and hand-knitted beanies, seem to be everywhere. While they may strive to be individual, they have instead been caught up in one of the greatest mysteries of our time: The Hipster Paradox.  A paper just published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, has created a model of how the desire for individuality always ends up in ‘collective conformity’.  Image EMOTICON by Tom Estes, at DRHA

Do you know a hipster when you see one? Have you ever been in the company of a hipster and tried to bring up the subject? Talking about hipsters in front of hipsters is more taboo than you might think. The term is rarely lobbed in the presence of those who would fit the label. Most often it is used to describe other men in a disparaging way. At the same time, hipster has a different ring to it. It is calls the authenticity of one’s masculinity into question.

Sociological investigations about hipster identity—like Kathleen Ross and Dayna Tortorici’s What Was the Hipster? A Sociological Investigation—have primarily situated hipsters as identified by tastes. But, as Mark Greif wrote, “[S]truggles over taste… are never only about taste.” Beyond this, hipster masculinity is associated with a specific group of men: they’re young, straight, and white. But they are also different from other young, straight, white guys—at least they seem to want to believe they are. They have an evolving set of tastes that encompass an eclectic array of musical interests, hair styles, body types, grooming habits, clothing, literary and artistic curiosities, culinary and libation preferences, and more. As a group, hipsters have a reputation as counter-cultural, androgynous, intelligent, creative and independent but are also mocked for only superficially exhibiting any of these qualities.

Hipster culture is popularly presumed to be more gender and sexually egalitarian. In fact, both men and women can be hipsters. But the most recognizable image of the hipster is a slender white man in his 20s, 30s or 40s and a great deal of hipster style plays on a cultural nostalgia for masculinities of old—a “vintage masculinity.” These performances of gender involve an astounding collection of aesthetics taken from specific periods of  history. Hipsters don’t adopt these masculinities in complete form (or the gender relations from which they emerged). Rather, they borrow bits and pieces, like styles of facial hair or dress or very particular cultural artifacts. They’re into craft beer and microbrews, they deride others for their “pedestrian” palates, and they have strange hobbies that might have been professions a few generations ago. They seem insistent upon finding small—but significant—ways to stand out from the crowd. Perhaps ironically, hipster men might be best understood as standing out by fitting in (with other hipsters).

Hipster masculinities rely on a specific interpretation of their performances of gender. They rely on a sort of “when men used to be men” understanding. But, they also seem simultaneously interested in incorporating the form but denying the substance of the masculinities they perform with their clothing, beards, and interests. For all their posturing, hipster masculinities appear (at least symbolically) intent on being taken tongue in cheek. Yet, if we’re to believe reports of young white men going to plastic surgeons for beard transplants, it’s clear that whatever this new trend is, it may not be undertaken as casually as the hipsters might want others to believe.

Hipster masculinity is all about proof of authenticity. Similar to any identity category worth its salt, membership requires some kind of validation, sometimes institutional of some kind. Hipster identities are less “formal” than this. They are internally validated. Hipster masculinity seems to require proving that other men have failed in their attempts to be hipsters. While Greif does not mention gender, it’s significant that he uses the masculine pronoun. As an identity, hipster masculinity seems to simultaneously—if contradictorily—claim: “Real men don’t care about masculinity,” “I don’t care what people think of my masculinity,” and, more subtly, “This (practiced) indifference is why I’m more of a man than you!” If we take a moment, stand back, and look at them without their beards, bacon and beer, this sounds like a fairly traditional story about masculinity.

Hipster masculinity may be less “new” than popularly imagined, and borrowing more from the masculinities it purports only to cite than the hipsters themselves acknowledge. Now mathematicians believe they have developed an equation to explain why the phenomenon takes place. Professor Paul Smaldino, in a paper just published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, has created a model of how human behaviour always ends up in ‘collective conformity’.

“Few would dispute that we humans make appraisals of our individual ‘distinctiveness’, that we differ in our needs to appear distinct, and that we take actions (e.g. we alter our appearance or expressed opinions) to attain our distinctiveness goals. Furthermore, preferences for distinctiveness and the associated remedial adaptation strategies are at work in the formation of social groups and networks, and in other cultural dynamics such as assimilation or polarization. However, in the broad literature on the psychology and sociology of distinctiveness, there is little mathematical precision in defining ‘distinctiveness preferences’, and little explicit modelling of the individual behaviours adopted to satisfy them or the collective dynamics generated by these individual adaptations.”

He put values in an equation for the ‘position,’ or expressed taste of a person. The mathematician then added in ‘information,’ which is a person’s knowledge of the reaction caused by expressed taste and ‘ideal position,’ where they wanted to be in respect to average. Creating a model using these assumptions, Professor Smaldino ran simulations where individual preference for uniqueness varies between rebel and conformist.

“Most formal models dealing with individual preferences for differentiation posit strict anti-conformity, in which agents adopt whatever position constitutes the minority at a given time. Such individual behaviour of course endogenously alters the distribution of positions and can produce interesting social dynamics. But it precludes the emergence of conformity, our core concern. Relatedly, Smaldino et al. modelled individuals with preferences for membership in groups with different degrees of numerical predominance but this model was not concerned with individual differences or distinctiveness within a population.”

According to a blog in Discover magazine, the University of California professor discovered our common desire to be different means we will always converge toward conformity. The only exception is when our definition of ‘different’ varies widely from one person to another. In this case, everyone splits off from each other other time, with no conformity taking place. In one version of the equation, Professor Smaldino looked at what would happen if only conformists and strict nonconformists lived on Earth. If there were only a few nonconformists, nothing would happen in society. But he identified a tipping point of eight per cent in which they would cause a division in what was considered the normal – creating a larger group with one identity. 

Last year, Professor Jonathan Touboul, a mathematical neuroscientist at the Collège de France in Paris developed a similar equation to explain the ‘hipster paradox.’He claims there is always a delay between the time a trend begins to gain traction, and the time hipsters begin following it. This delay is caused because people can’t be aware of what others are deciding, in real-time. As a result, hipsters gradually realize that the trend, and the decision has been made while making the same decision separately. This leads to them gradually conforming towards what then becomes the mainstream.

A true hipster, by comparison, would need to be constantly changing and adapting their style, personality and ‘authenticity’ as an immediate response to the trend, which the study suggests is impossible, and too difficult to maintain. Professor Touboul used a theory known as Hopf bifurcation. This theory looks at how oscillations, which in this particular case involved swinging between trends towards the mainstream and how hipsters track these trends, change over time. Put simply, the collective delay in recognizing a trend causes stronger oscillations and as time continues, the oscillations become larger.

The full mathematical theory is available from Professor Touboul’s ‘The Hipster Effect: When Anticonformists All Look the Same’ paper.

‘If you take large sets of interacting individuals – whether hipsters, stock traders, or any group that decides to go against the majority – by trying to be different, they will ultimately all do the same thing at the same time,’ said Professor Touboul.

‘The reason for that is the time it takes for an individual to register the decisions of others.

‘You cannot be aware of what other people decide in real time, it takes a while.’

He added that uncovering what causes this paradox ‘goes beyond finding the best suit to wear this winter.’

‘[It has] implications in deciphering collective phenomena in economics and finance, where individuals may find an interest in taking positions in opposition to the majority – for instance, selling stocks when others want to buy. Applications also extend to the case of neuronal networks with inhibition, where neurons tend to fire when others and silent, and reciprocally.’



About Art Selectronic

Art Selectronic is an artist-led initiative, that supports grass-roots contemporary art that remains unswayed by fashion, trends or the whims of government funding. The project involves ongoing research into the placing of contemporary art, it’s audiences and it’s relationship to the everyday. We place great emphasis on context. Our mission is to support new works of contemporary art and foster an audience from a wide range of backgrounds.
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