Craft beers + beards + bicycles = what? Solving hipster maths

Tattoos, bow tie, sunglasses = Hipster. giorgiomtb

Hipsters are so mainstream now that they’re the subject of mathematical papers. Jonathan Touboul, a mathematical neuroscientist from the Collège de France, claims to have answered one of the great mysteries of our time: why hipsters all end up looking the same when they aspire to be unique, non-conformist individuals.

In a similar vein, biologists from the University of New South Wales warned earlier this year that we have reached “peak beard”. Apparently a phenomenon known as “negative frequency-dependent selection” suggests that the bigger the proportion of men with fancy facial hair, the less status they give the wearer. Clearly crisis time for the hirsute hipster!

But while science is brilliant at explaining a wide range of phenomena, it’s arguably of limited use for aiding an understanding of people’s cultural preferences. Yes, subcultures tend to demand an internal conformity – you know what a goth or a mod looks like. This is part of their collective rejection of mainstream values and aesthetics, and is well substantiated by research. But the premise of the Touboul article seems to be based on the less than solid intellectual foundation of a Huffington Post article. I suspect in this instance a hot trend was appended to otherwise rather arcane research to lend it a veneer of newsworthiness.

Beard crisis. cmichel67, CC BY-NC

What is a hipster?

But the question of exactly who or what constitutes a hipster remains unanswered and, indeed, unasked. What are the defining characteristics of a hipster? Is it where they live, what they wear, what they do for a living, how and where they spend their leisure time, or is hipster a “state of mind”? It’s a word much bandied about, but hard to pin down.

Certainly the current meaning of the term would seem to have little in common with the original hipsters, a subculture of zoot-suited, jive-talking small-time hoods and working-class dandies who carved out an identity on the fringes of American urban life in the years before World War II.

Today’s hipsters appear closer to a phenomenon identified by the American journalist David Brooks, that of the “BoBo”, or Bourgeois Bohemian. They are the heirs to the legacies of the 1960s counterculture, the consumers of “ethical capitalism”: fair trade products, organic vegetables, craft beer, artisan coffee, “upcycled” furniture, and all. They enjoy “a way of living that lets you be an affluent success and at the same time a free-spirit rebel”. They reconcile “anti-establishment style with the corporate imperative”. In the era of digital technology, they’re always plugged in. They are embodied by Nathan Barley, the archetypal “Shoreditch twat” as created by Charlie Brooker and Chris Morris.

Not a subculture

But unlike hippies, or punks or mods, hipster is not a self-defining subculture, and perhaps not even a subculture at all. Arguably it amounts to little more than a pejorative epithet attached to anything deemed to be pretentious, elitist, arty, symptomatic of a nefarious creeping gentrification, or merely younger and more fashionable than the accuser.

In this respect we find an odd kind of mirror of the hipster in the “chav”, the Burberry-clad bogeyman of Benefits Street. Although at different ends of the socio-economic scale, both became “folk devils” of the internet age, stereotypes fashioned from a ragbag of characteristics deemed to embody a particular version of cultural decline – and systematically subjected to “stranger shaming” and incoherent vitriol on websites with names like Hackney Hipster Hate.

Ironically hipsters are criticised both for being too alike and too different – from each other and everyone else. See for example Hipsters taking it way too far, which lumps together behaviours as diverse as riding a camel in a built-up area, using a typewriter rather than a laptop, and men who dare to wear lurid leggings (aka “meggings”) on public transport.

In turn, these sites have given rise to a rash of hand-wringing op-ed articles in broadsheets and on blogs about whether “hipster hate” is acceptable (after all, they hardly constitute an oppressed minority) and if it in fact constitutes a form of self-loathing. Unlike the “chav hate” websites, it seems quite feasible that the authors of these, professedly satirical, attacks would be vulnerable to accusations that they are themselves hipsters. Will Self’s recent diatribe is a notable case in point. It’s clear that almost no one would describe his or her self as a hipster, or at least not without the liberal use of “scare quotes”, even if they recognise in themselves elements of the stereotype.

Other articles, perhaps keen to display their hipsterish credentials, take a slightly different tack, heralding the demise of the hipster. Those who feel themselves to be genuinely in the vanguard of popular culture assert that the hipster is very “last season”. The hipster’s appearance in an academic maths paper might be regarded as evidence of a death knell or alternatively, the ultimate in “geek chic”.