Math Proves It: Hipsters All Look the Same

Photograph by Alys Tomlinson/Getty Images

Jonathan Touboul is a mathematician at the College de France who models the behavior of neurons in the human brain, but he recently became curious about a topic outside his area of expertise: hipsters, and why they all look alike. If the ethos of the hipster is to reject the mindless conformity of the mainstream, why do so many of them make the same aesthetic choices, from the clunky glasses to the skinny jeans to the work boots and fixed-gear bicycles? Or, as he puts it in his new, as-yet-unpublished paper (PDF), “The hipster effect is this non-concerted emergent collective phenomenon of looking alike trying to look different.”

To answer the question, Touboul, as he does in his neuroscience research, built a mathematical model—a network of hipsters instead of brain cells. The “hipsters” in his model were programmed to always choose the opposite of what the majority were doing—they weren’t nonconformist, they were anticonformist. If the mainstream was drinking Bud Light, they turned to craft beers. Once the mainstream started drinking craft beer, they picked up Pabst Blue Ribbon, with or without an irony chaser.

Touboul observed that if he set the model up so that the anticonformist actors were immediately aware of the decisions of the mainstream, their choices didn’t follow any particular pattern. But if he built in a lag to how long it took the anticonformists to find out what everyone else was doing—if, as in the real world—they only knew what people in their immediate environment were doing at first, and only gradually learned what the rest of the world was doing, then their choices started synchronizing. In other words, they started doing the same thing as the other anticonformist hipsters.

Touboul concedes that this is a greatly simplified model of human behavior: “It’s not a deep study of the sociology of hipsters,” he says. He’s more interested in using the hipster model to understand how randomness and synchronization work in networks, whether those are people making aesthetic choices, or neurons in a brain.

But are hipsters really anticonformists? Are they even nonconformists? I don’t think they are. Touboul takes hipsters at their word. There’s an alternate explanation, however, for the hipster look: The uniformity is not an accident, it’s not even unintentional, it’s exactly the point. It identifies a person as a member of a self-selecting fraternity. This is what the writer and cultural critic Marc Greif argues: “[T]he neighborhood organization of hipsters—their tight-knit colonies of similar-looking, slouching people—represents not hostility to authority (as among punks or hippies) but a superior community of status where the game of knowing-in-advance can be played with maximum refinement.” It’s simple, really.

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