An irate, bearded man threatened to sue the MIT Technology Review this week after he read an article on their website called "The hipster effect: Why anti-conformists always end up looking the same." The man claimed that the photo accompanying the article — which showed a bearded man in a beanie and flannel shirt — had been stolen from his social media profile, used without his permission, and was tantamount to slander.
The reader was wrong. The man in the photo wasn't him at all, it turned out, but rather a model dressed as a hipster. The two men just happened to look exactly alike, as editor Gideon Lichfield explained in a hilarious Twitter thread yesterday (March 7).
This legal kerfuffle inadvertently tested the hypothesis of Brandeis University mathematician Jonathan Touboul, whose study on the double-edged sword of non-conformity was the subject of the original article. In his study, published Feb. 21 to the preprint journal arXiv.org, Touboul questioned what he called "the hipster paradox." If non-conformists — or "hipsters" — define their behavior as opposing mainstream culture, he wondered, why do so many of them end up looking, dressing and thinking alike?
Touboul wrote an equation to try to find out. In his study, he decided to model the emergence of a trend — say, growing a beard — as it spread through a society made of two distinct groups: "mainstreams," whose decisions tend to follow the majority, and "hipsters," whose decisions tend to oppose the majority.
To better simulate the way that trends spread through an actual culture, individuals in Touboul's model learned about the trend little by little over time as the information trickled down through various sources — the way a trend might spread first to "influencers," then to blogs, mass media and word of mouth, reaching various audiences along the way.
When a trend first emerged in the model, Touboul wrote, individuals in the hipster set acted randomly, periodically switching from adopting or rejecting a trend as new individuals learned about it. Inevitably, though, as more and more mainstream conformists adopted the trend, the hipsters became synchronized in their behavior, suddenly deciding to oppose the majority en masse.
In the beard-growing example, the cycle might look like this:
"If a majority of individuals shave their beard, then most hipsters will want to grow a beard," Touboul wrote. "And if this trend propagates to a majority of the population, it will lead to new, synchronized switch to shaving."
Once hipsters and conformists were both making decisions as a block, the "hipster paradox" became inevitable. Eventually, the number of individuals defying the majority became the majority itself; being a hipster became so cool that mainstream conformists decided to switch their positions and do what the hipsters were doing. From there, the hipsters had no choice but to switch their own positions in the name of anti-conformity, suddenly choosing to behave how the mainstream previously had. On and on the pattern continued, with entire hipster and mainstream populations randomly switching their behaviors back and forth as the trend played out its life cycle.
"Despite (and actually, in response to) their constant efforts, at all times, anti-conformists fail being disaligned with the majority," Touboul concluded. "They actually create the trends they will soon try to escape."
Touboul's model is, of course, a simplified version of the way life works. In reality, conforming or non-conforming seldom boils down to one binary choice (to shave or not to shave?). Touboul hopes to explore the more complex reality of trendiness in a future paper. Hopefully, no one will get sued over it.
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Originally published on Live Science.