March 2, 2019


The hipster effect: Why anti-conformists always end up looking the same (Emerging Technology from the arXiv,  February 28, 2019, MIT Technology Review)

You've probably seen this effect--perhaps you are a victim of it. You feel alienated from mainstream culture and want to make a statement that you are not part of it. You think about wearing different clothes, experimenting with a new hairstyle, or even trying unconventional makeup and grooming products.

And yet when you finally reveal your new look to the world, it turns out you are not alone--millions of others have made exactly the same choices. Indeed, you all look more or less identical, the exact opposite of the countercultural statement you wanted to achieve.

This is the hipster effect--the counterintuitive phenomenon in which people who oppose mainstream culture all end up looking the same. Similar effects occur among investors and in other areas of the social sciences.

How does this kind of synchronization occur? Is it inevitable in modern society, and are there ways for people to be genuinely different from the masses?

Today we get some answers thanks to the work of Jonathan Touboul at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. Touboul is a mathematician who studies the way the transmission of information through society influences the behavior of people within it. He focuses in particular on a society composed of conformists who copy the majority and anticonformists, or hipsters, who do the opposite.

And his conclusion is that in a vast range of scenarios, the hipster population always undergoes a kind of phase transition in which members become synchronized with each other in opposing the mainstream. In other words, the hipster effect is the inevitable outcome of the behavior of large numbers of people.

One of the things that has most bewildered the vast majority of Americans who reject Trumpism is the way otherwise normal conservatives who supposedly reluctantly accepted him came to sound just like him.  It's just hipster conformity. MAGA hats are their flannel.

Posted by at March 2, 2019 12:12 PM