Call it the "hipster effect." Despite the efforts of so-called hipsters to buck the trends, we can all recognize their type. In their attempts to be anti-conformist, most hipsters just end up conforming to an alternative set of counter-norms. Ultimately, it's just conformity to anti-conformity; a counterculture is still a culture.
Hipsters are easy to poke fun at, sure. But the curious phenomenon of the hipster effect does raise some rather interesting sociological questions. Can humans, who are fundamentally social creatures, ever truly escape conformity? Does our innate need to coordinate and organize in groups make us all inherent conformists?
Although we like to think of ourselves as individuals, scientists can study and even quantify the behavior of human groups in surprisingly mechanical terms. So long as we're operating in a group (and, if you're reading this, that includes you ... even if you're a hipster, and even if you reject the label of "hipster"), you're subject to these forces that influence your behavior too.
One of the authorities on this subject is mathematician Jonathan Touboul at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, and a recent study of his looks specifically at the hipster effect. His conclusion? Hipsters are no different from the rest of us. Even in their attempts to oppose the mainstream, they too undergo a kind of phase transition in which members become synchronized with each other, and this can be represented in a fairly simplistic mathematical model, reports Phys.org.
In fact, you might say that hipsters and everyday conformists are actually two sides of the same coin.
For the study, Touboul created a computer model that simulates how agents interact when some follow the majority and the rest oppose it. What he found was that while the population of hipsters initially act randomly to oppose the mainstream, they always eventually succumb to a synchronized state. This appears to be a mathematical inevitability.
Part of this result stems from the fact that hipsters are only acting randomly within a limited set of parameters, namely the set of parameters that are counter to what the majority is choosing. Apparently, this influence from the majority is enough to eventually pick away at hipster diversity. But it's not the whole story.
Touboul also installed a delay to the model, whereby all individuals require time to detect changes in society and to react accordingly. This delay turned out to be extremely important, because not all individuals are effected by it equally. For instance, imagine that some of the individuals in the model are more "connected" than others. Maybe some of them follow fashion blogs religiously, while others rely exclusively on word of mouth.
This added complexity to the model appears to fog the behavior of hipsters, who are always trying to oppose the majority, but aren't always equally aware of exactly what the majority trend is.
The synchronization effect even applied to hipsters when they were given non-binary, complex choices, indicating that there's no escape from group conformity, even if you complicate the model. It's not entirely clear why synchronization is inevitable — that's something Touboul is still working to articulate — but the fact of it appears to be established, at least within this model.
"We will study in depth this question in a forthcoming paper," said Touboul.
And so there you have it, hipsters. Society is like a black hole. You can try to escape, but the speed at which you're getting sucked in is always greater than the speed at which you're running away. It's so ironic.
As Shakespeare might have put it: To shave or not to shave, that is the question.