It's pretty obscure, you probably haven't--wait, what?
November 16, 2014 8:34 AM   Subscribe

The mathematician who proved why hipsters all look alike

Jonathan Touboul is a mathematician and a neuroscientist. Recently, he has been thinking about hipsters. Specifically, why hipsters all seem to dress alike. In his line of work, there are neurons that also behave like hipsters. They fire when every neuron around them is quiet; or they fall silent when every neuron around them is chattering.

Because he is a mathematician, Touboul began to look for a way to explore this idea using equations. In other words, he constructed a mathematical model. His key insight is that people (and neurons) do not instantly perceive what is mainstream. There’s a delay. And in situations where the delay is large enough, the contrarians can inadvertently synchronize with each other.

“In wanting to oppose the trends, there actually emerges some sort of hipster loop,” Touboul said. A day before Halloween, Touboul put a draft of his paper on the arXiv, calling it "The hipster effect: When anticonformists all look the same.”
posted by Johnny Wallflower (43 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
 
I keep trying to remind people that Pabst hasn't won a Blue Ribbon since 1904, but they never listen to me.
posted by surazal at 9:06 AM on November 16, 2014 [33 favorites]


it's interesting, but since real fashion choices aren't binary, it doesn't actually explain how hipsters synchronize due to delays in learning about what's mainstream. If they synchronized when there were hundreds of fashion choices, *that* would be interesting. This may be useful when dealing with neurons, but not really people.
posted by Maias at 9:13 AM on November 16, 2014 [2 favorites]




Now to find out why all happy families are alike.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 9:32 AM on November 16, 2014 [9 favorites]


Never mind. It's been done. Extensively.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 9:34 AM on November 16, 2014 [6 favorites]


At the very end of the article,

But the beauty of Touboul’s model, which he sketches out in a meager four pages, lies in its succinctness. He doesn’t aim to explain everything. His goal is to express a single idea about how nonconformists might synchronize, and he does so in the most concise way possible. Touboul belongs to a breed of theoreticians who see themselves as storytellers working in numbers. They value tight pacing; a plot that’s boiled down to its essence.

Many economic theorists subscribe to the same view. Economic models often fall victim to the critique that they are insufficiently realistic. But to complain that a model does not reflect all facets of reality misses the point of model-making, which is to create tools for people to understand complex ideas. This is true whether the model is made out of wood, or out of equations.


So, with that in mind, maybe the author of the article should have titled this "Why Non-comformity In a Mathematical Models Happens in Waves" instead of doing exactly the opposite, and giving it the totally incorrect and intentionally misleading title, "The mathematician who proved why hipsters all look alike". Of course, headline one doesn't generate click-throughs and headline two does.
posted by codacorolla at 9:38 AM on November 16, 2014 [11 favorites]


I love navel-gazing about hipsterdom, so I'll bite the bait (along with a large grain of salt, because hipster-theory is all for fun anyway):

Aside from the total abuse of the word "hipster" (which,yes, it is impossible to use without abusing), where does this notion that hipsters are trying to "look different" or "look unique" or "avoid conformity" come from?

Back up. We know Hipsters are definable only relatively. We know this. And--whatever your definition--hipsters definitely do not all "look alike", as this paper weirdly claims. Though I doubt that this will be a useful road to go down, I'm going to motion to disentangle the Williamsburg/Portland "hipster" from the "anti-conformist" label this paper is actually interested in.

So: why is there an "anti-conformist" aesthetic? Well, (a) there isn't one, and that's pretty clear once you stop saying "hipster." Huh. Why are people so infatuated with the idea that if you don't conform to society, well, you're just stuck conforming to another arbitrary set of beliefs? Ah.

Plenty of subcultures have their own distinctive looks. Even if you hadn't worked out the equations, wouldn't you expect them to? They are defined by common interests, fashions and behavior much more than by some unswerving notion of "nonconformity".

Pick any one of those classic scenes your corporate-type would have pointed to and dropped the classic "Look at all these so called 'individuals', dressed up so 'uniquely' -- just like everybody else!" line: a metal concert, an EDM rave, phishheads, etc. The suit goes up to one of the "hipsters" there and snicker -- "you know, you haven't gotten away from conformity!" They're puzzled. They just wanted to get away from you, buddy.
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 9:39 AM on November 16, 2014 [46 favorites]


I love this!! I found this phenomenon so odd that to be a TRUE rebel I discovered I needed to wear granny sweaters and white keds-- FUCK THE CONFORMISTS I"M THAT FUCKING HARDCORE!!! I don't need your fashion trends to prove I'm mother fucking awesome!

But over time I actually realized that fashion statements which tell others about you-- how you think and what you value- can be a powerful tool in attracting and identifying people you could work together on THE CAUSE or advancing human understanding, compassion and well being- and finding those who are really willing to face their own false understandings and the bullshit we get taught by authority to accept down our throats unquestioning.

So now I am more tolerant of fashion as a communication and networking tool. It's hard because not everyone understands instinctively how to use this tool which means it will be an imperfect device at identifying where people are coming from. And it becomes it's own oppressive hierarchy of shaming non-conformity to non-conformity without any real compassionate or intelligent purpose behind it.


I actually know hipsters who look and act like hipsters but they actually grew up poor and have worked their asses off to choose sustainability and support local business and farming initiatives. Shaming "hipsters" for having fashion sense seems like a desire to break down the ideologies that the fashion is identifying and bring people together on... the very causes themselves become subject of mockery simply because there is a beer that goes with them.

If you're working on minority causes that not that many people are actively working on- it helps to find others working on the cause and sometimes fashion holds a lot of symbolism and communication about your experiences, learning, ideologies and goals. I have found that while I try NOT to be attracted more to hipster looking people and to give stuffy boring looking people a chance I am frequently disappointed to find their thinking and ideologies match their attire and fashion choices. It makes it harder for us to relate-- if someone is wearing a baseball cap and football shirt I know pretty quickly that it's highly unlikely we will share ideologies. Here in Texas being a Republican or Libertarian is an identity that also comes with fashion statements and trends that help people associate their peers and find each other among the freaks and weirdos of Austin who can more easily be weeded out. We separate ourselves from each other with fashion and while I once thought that was terrible, I not think maybe it's a practical human tool that makes things easier, but comes with limitations and problems if you don't make a conscious effort to give people a chance to be who they are and not what their fashion choices seem to tell you they are.
posted by xarnop at 9:42 AM on November 16, 2014 [14 favorites]


He's not modelling hipsters, but he did create an interesting mathematical model for non-conformity in social models.

I actually wonder if it might have more relevance for political affiliation in a two party system.

Imagine that instead of normcore and punk, you have republicans and democrats, and imagine that instead of choosing fashion based on a desire for non-conformity on a delay, you vote based on which party you think is working for your best interests (that is, the one that tailors its policies based on the needs of your minority interests) on a delay.
posted by empath at 10:09 AM on November 16, 2014 [5 favorites]


Fashion behaves more like a punctuated equilibrium than a gradual gradient.
posted by bonehead at 10:12 AM on November 16, 2014


Aside from the total abuse of the word "hipster" (which,yes, it is impossible to use without abusing), where does this notion that hipsters are trying to "look different" or "look unique" or "avoid conformity" come from?

It seems like the author is using the word "hipster" as a stand-in for any person belonging to a counterculture. If this were another decade he could have been writing about dandies, greasers, beatniks, hippies, punks, whatever it was the 90's had ("Alternative," I guess?). So the most convenient term for this article was Hipster, but it could have been renamed "Why all counterculturalists look the same."
posted by picklenickle at 10:17 AM on November 16, 2014 [3 favorites]


Seems a little unfair, to single out hipsters for dressing alike.

A better analogy, would be businessmen...
posted by littlejohnnyjewel at 10:25 AM on November 16, 2014 [2 favorites]


"Why all counterculturalists look the same."

Regardless of whether you use the term "hipster" or "counterculturalist," the problem with the model is still there: Members of a counterculture don't just look to the mainstream and express themselves to show their opposition to it; they also express themselves to show the membership in the counterculture.

It's a little annoying that a neuroscientist's model of a "counterculture"* fashion is taken as "proving" something when the work of social scientists who study subcultures and the myriad ways people express their social alignment (including fashion) are just overlooked. Bah, science journalism. Granted, I am only familiar with some of the linguistic research, but seriously, give non-sexy fields a chance, Washington Post.

* Is "hipster" fashion really a counterculture?
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 10:31 AM on November 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


Dave Berg, 1971.
posted by freakazoid at 10:38 AM on November 16, 2014 [5 favorites]


Every subculture has a uniform.
posted by Grumpy old geek at 10:57 AM on November 16, 2014 [2 favorites]


Man this is the weirdest paper.

a) It doesn't have anything to do with "non-conformity in social models" or any sort of uh human decision level choice. This is the most distressing (and, in implications, disgusting) sort of science, the sort that begins--in the third paragraph, after the sort of Huge Implications For Society opener that TAs are supposed to crush out of you in undergrad--with "define a hipster as an antiferromagnetic bond in a spin bottle." But this doesn't explain shit about humans, it just uses the word "hipster" so you'll read it; it certainly doesn't suggest anything about, uh, patterns of reader reaction w/r/t Pitchfork. If you want to know about reader reaction and crowds, go read some anthropologists or historians or lit scholars who've actually thought about it; don't try to justify thinking about actual people with this experiment.

b) It's weird that he named the starting non-hip state "normcore" when, like, well, you know, that makes no sense.

There should be like eight hundred warning signs on any sort of mathematization of human society models.
posted by The Bridge on the River Kai Ryssdal at 10:57 AM on November 16, 2014 [4 favorites]


I think the difference between the current state of hipsters, which began about a decade ago, and what came before that was the distinction between the subcultures. Hipster aesthetic seems to have largely overtly influenced other subcultures rather than dominant aesthetics growing out of those cultures.

If I were to look for an answer to this I would probably take a very close look at the way the internet has grown and the influence it has had on fashion in the past ten years or so. And then I would add some random stuff about mirror neurons in my explanation.
posted by P.o.B. at 11:16 AM on November 16, 2014


The only hard scientists qualified to study hipsters are quantum physicists who have determined any attempt to identify one has an effect on its quantum state: hipsterism is merely those phenomena that you are not directly observing, especially those found in the observer!
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:22 AM on November 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


This is funny, but hardly any surprise given his model. Also, note the simplicity of that model, which seems to think that "style" is basically a one-dimensional continuum (at least, given my quick skim of the summary of the paper).

The "urge not to conform" hasn't always lead "hipsters" into the same clothing styles. The "hippie" styles of the 60s are really a whole bunch of separate unrelated styles often not worn by the same people - African-derived styles, European "peasant dresses", repurposed "Army surplus", Edwardian second-hands in the UK, or styles derived from "new clothing technology" like tie dye and artificial fabrics.

Even if you grant him the basic model, there's still a big feature of the system that his model ignores - which is that the delay, the key variable that he's manipulating to get results, is by no means constant over the entire population - those very hipsters are the ones who have their ears to the ground for new fashion and have a "short delay" whereas the bulk of the population are "on a much longer delay".

If he put that in, my intuition tells me that those bands in the visualizations would simply vanish - because they're a harmonic of his fixed delay. Instead, you'd see a system a little like flocking, except that unlike flocking there would be a smaller group of "hipsters" making a random walk "away" from the rest of the group, and then the vast bulk of people following behind them with various delays of months, years or even decades.

> There should be like eight hundred warning signs on any sort of mathematization of human society models.

All science papers come with that warning implicit in them.

I read each and every science paper assuming that it's completely wrong and trying to understand it enough to poke holes in it. It's the scientific method - we should be skeptical and the researcher needs to convince us beyond reasonable doubt. This is the only way to even know which questions to ask and it's how I manage to keep my head above water as a generalist in specialist fields.

Oh - a note to the Washington Post proofreaders - it's not spelled "populaiton". I suspect that was on the original graphs (bad!) and then the Post copied them verbatim without noticing (worse!)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 11:28 AM on November 16, 2014 [5 favorites]


If I were to look for an answer to this I would probably take a very close look at the way the internet has grown and the influence it has had on fashion in the past ten years or so.

I think this is a very important point - and not just regarding fashion. The Internet has made it so much easier for anyone, anywhere, to wear "cool" fashionable clothes, listen to obscure bands, read any book they want to, know what famous people are thinking, and so on. You don't have to live in a big city, have the money and time to travel and come back with items you can only find in the Outer Islands of Far Away, or else Know The Right People or Know Where To Shop. Knowledge is no longer precious - anyone with a smartphone can find just about anything, anywhere, or go to Wikipedia to look up just about any obscure fact, or go to Google Earth or websites to see faraway places even if they have no money to actually travel. There is far less social capital in being a "hipster" - however you define it - and far fewer opportunities to be a big fish in a small pond and wow people with how you always manage to be so well-dressed, or get the coolest most obscure CDs in your music collection, or whatever.

I think that there is still value in fashion as signifier, as Xarnop says. People use the "they dress like me" or "they dress in a way I like" as a way to find the like-minded - especially if people who think or act a certain way really do dress alike.

But with the advent of the internet, being in fashion, or non-conformist, or Having Really Cool Obscure Interests And Wearing Really Cool Thrift Shop Clothes (is this what the author means by hipster?) isn't really a source of social capital anymore, because it's accessible to many, many more people. I don't know if "hipster" is a useful term anymore.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 11:37 AM on November 16, 2014


Kutsuwamushi: It's a little annoying that a neuroscientist's model of a "counterculture"* fashion is taken as "proving" something when the work of social scientists who study subcultures and the myriad ways people express their social alignment (including fashion) are just overlooked.

This is an important point. Let's not forget that there was a book written about this by a guy who actually studied people!
posted by Dr. Send at 11:51 AM on November 16, 2014


Can someone please break this down for a lay person - what exactly is a "hipster?" The author defines it several paragraphs in as someone who doesn't "go with the flow," but I'm having trouble picturing exactly who he means. So again, I ask of my fellow MeFites, please do me this act of charity and define "hipster" so that I can better understand this natural phenomenon.
posted by univac at 12:12 PM on November 16, 2014


Can someone please break this down for a lay person - what exactly is a "hipster?" The author defines it several paragraphs in as someone who doesn't "go with the flow," but I'm having trouble picturing exactly who he means. So again, I ask of my fellow MeFites, please do me this act of charity and define "hipster" so that I can better understand this natural phenomenon.

Hipsters are what happened when a bunch of people decided to do a bunch of different things and then somebody more boring looked at those people and was like "Oh holy shit this is a MOVEMENT"

Many people who do silly colorful interesting things happen to be young. Young people happen to be kind of silly and ignorant and stupid. Thus it was declared that to be a hipster is to be shallow and empty and disinterested in deeper aspects of culture or some shit, which is the worst possible thing.

Then a bunch of these people doin' things heard about hipsters and were like "oh my goodness yeah, hipsters got to totally suck" so you had a bunch of people who were all doing the same thing eyein' each other suspiciously, like Oh Whoops maybe THIS person who enjoys knitting and colorful hats is DOING IT ENTIRELY WRONG

At that point hipsters were seriously ridiculous, but boring people will never stop existing and so accusing people of hipsterdom will continue forevermore.
posted by rorgy at 12:21 PM on November 16, 2014 [2 favorites]


Google images.

(In answer to "what is a hipster")
posted by jpe at 12:22 PM on November 16, 2014


what's hilarious is that "hipster" styles range from everything to everything else, so like the rule is that if you enjoy wearing:

— tank tops
— t-shirts
— plaid
— corduroy
— sweaters
— an ordinary button-down shirt but are standing next to somebody wearing something different

then you are clearly a hipster because who even WEARS, like, clothing
posted by rorgy at 12:24 PM on November 16, 2014 [4 favorites]


^ hipster
posted by jpe at 12:26 PM on November 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'm still not getting it. I clicked that Google image search link, but all I saw was a bunch of normal people.

On my to-do list for a long time now: make a Twitter bot that responds to any tweet containing the word hipster with "What's a hipster?"
posted by univac at 12:33 PM on November 16, 2014 [3 favorites]


This is one of the stupidest things I've ever seen. His terms are extremely poorly defined and worst of all, he's talking about a completely non-binary process (fashion choice) as if it had a binomial outcome akin to neuron activation. The possible outcomes of fashion choice are absolutely not simply "hipster" and "non-hipster," that's totally ridiculous and only defensible if you have no clue what you're talking about and are operating purely on stereotypes. His choice of "normcore" as a comparison is especially stupid since that's actually a subgroup of hipsters, at least in my experience.

Besides, his core assumption - that hipsters only partake of their subculture to separate themselves from everyone else in some binary fashion - is absolutely 100% incorrect. It's a subculture just like any other, where people who share interests and values tend to be similar to each other and do similar things, resulting in some sort of loose community.
posted by dialetheia at 12:42 PM on November 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


He just made an interesting mathematical model. It has nothing to do with real hipsters and that's okay.
posted by empath at 3:01 PM on November 16, 2014 [5 favorites]


Being a TOTAL non-conformist is too damn hard; the clothes NOBODY else is wearing are almost impossible to find. So, you fall back into styles that are kinda-outside-the-norm but end up being part of another "norm". Try finding a neuron that 'behaves' like THAT.
posted by oneswellfoop at 3:20 PM on November 16, 2014


Why hipsters all *look* alike? Or Why hipsters all *dress* alike?

These are two different questions. The article addressed the second question, but I think the first question is equally interesting. Humans have a tendency to judge outgroups as being less variable than ingroups (so-called out-group homogeneity). And judging from comments on thread and past threads, it certainly seems to be the case that hipsters are less likely than non-hipsters to agree with the statement: "hipsters all look alike".

In other words, if you think hipsters all look alike, then chances are you're not a hipster.
posted by tybeet at 4:41 PM on November 16, 2014


On the subject of hipsters and math modeling:

Q. How many hipsters does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
A. It's a pretty obscure number, you probably haven't heard of it.
posted by damehex at 5:03 PM on November 16, 2014 [6 favorites]


I'm surprised nobody's mentioned Conway's game of life yet. This feels much more similar to it than anything else, albeit as a global function with delay or whatever he's using.

If being used to actually model social structures, my hunch is that a digraph structure would be the best bet, with some modification of his functions. It's not even close to accurate that we have perfect information, no matter the time delay.
posted by Lemurrhea at 6:14 PM on November 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


He just made an interesting mathematical model. It has nothing to do with real hipsters and that's okay.

Yeah, it's okay, but framing it in the way it is really makes it so that most everyone will either discuss: 1) hipsters/what ever ARE hipsters/jokes about hipsters, or 2) how this model doesn't match the headline. No one's going to talk about the interesting model about how counter-culture trends emerge. (or will they?)
posted by 23skidoo at 8:04 PM on November 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


I found it an interesting study on how binary choices move through a population. The key, to me, was when he programmed a delay of information into the system - and saw patterns develop.

Are people getting thrown by the word 'hipster?' It's not even germane to the actual model. I think he uses the term 'punk' far more.

The general topic was on my mind a lot this summer - I went to P-Town for the first time, and all the young gays, and most of us adults, arrived with the same style: solid color mid-thigh shorts, a fitted and patterned tank-top, & a high-cut fade with a sharp part and lots of product. Only the amount of facial hair and body hair varied. And the big mystery was: how the hell did everyone decide on the same fashion that season?

I like this model; it gives a partial answer.
posted by kanewai at 8:06 PM on November 16, 2014


> I found it an interesting study on how binary choices move through a population.

It's not a "study" - that's data gathering from the real world and there's zero real world data here. The best you can say is that it's a model, but it's a crappy one, because what real world binary choices also have the property that one group tries to agree with everyone and one group doesn't?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 8:33 PM on November 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


lol smdh if u didnt kno Schelling's segregation model
posted by ecmendenhall at 9:27 PM on November 16, 2014


Here's an interactive ipython notebook.
posted by signal at 3:58 AM on November 17, 2014


I actually met a PBR sales rep who fit the visuals to an eye-watering degree.

PBR meshback cap; skinny guy with scruffy salt-and-pepper beard (an obvious stage-costume prop), skinny jeans, Keds high-tops, etc.

THEN he pulled out his laptop and order book and began taking orders for kegs and for cases of PBR 16-ouncers. All this in my local faux-dive-bar in the TenderNob District of S. F. CA.

Cheers, StephenDouglasKan (please vomit in your lap, not on the bar).
posted by StephenDouglasKan at 5:11 AM on November 17, 2014


> I found it an interesting study on how binary choices move through a population.

It's not a "study" - that's data gathering from the real world and there's zero real world data here. The best you can say is that it's a model, but it's a crappy one, because what real world binary choices also have the property that one group tries to agree with everyone and one group doesn't?


It doesn't really matter if there are any real world applications. Math doesn't work that way.
posted by empath at 5:21 AM on November 17, 2014


MetaFilter: Math doesn't work that way.

I realized recently that my dressing patterns seem to imitate a perennial second banana, very resurgent-hipster style.

But I also wore thrift store duds before they were cool again ...
posted by Buttons Bellbottom at 1:10 PM on November 17, 2014


It doesn't really matter if there are any real world applications. Math doesn't work that way.

The point wasn't about applications, it was about whether his model was based on empirical data, which is what constitutes a study (which is shorthand for observational study in science & statistics, as opposed to an experiment or theoretical model). This is a theoretical model, not a study, that's all that was being pointed out.

I'm an ecological modeler and I don't object to models at all. What I do object to is applying models outside of their domain (like taking a neuron model and applying it to human behavior without any rigorous basis or thought behind it) and, even worse, applying models for one type of process to another type of process (like taking a model for a binomially distributed process and applying it to something that does not actually result in binomial outcomes, like human fashion choices).
posted by dialetheia at 2:54 PM on November 17, 2014


But he's not applying it to anything, he was just being cute with short hand.
posted by empath at 3:21 PM on November 17, 2014


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