March 10, 2019

Why anti-conforming "hipsters" always end up looking the same

MIT Technology Review Hipster

Hipsters often pride themselves on strong opinions, but do they all end up looking the same? We all know a hipster, and if you don’t, it could be you. Taking part in countercultures in order to distinguish oneself from the mainstream is not a new thing, but recent years have seen the rise of the archetypal “hipster.” The butt of many jokes and meme pages, the hipster is a universally understood and mocked character, but do we really understand them? And why do they always wind up looking the same?

“Propagation Delay”

Touboul, a mathematician at the Brandeis University of Massachusetts, conducted a study on anticonformist and concluded that the hipster population undergoes a phase transition. During this transition, members become synchronized with each other, this is an inevitable outcome of the behavior of large numbers of people. In Touboul’s study, the time taken to detect societal change is taken into account: people don’t react instantly to developments, information (like the release of a new shoe) is spread over a period of time, some find out early while others take longer to discover.


By creating a computer model that simulates how agents interact when some follow a majority and the rest oppose it, Touboul investigates how hipsters become synchronized and how this varies as the propagation delay (mentioned in previous paragraph) and number of hipsters change. This model generated complex behaviors, but in general, the population of hipsters initially act randomly before experiencing a phase transition into a synchronized state.


This study is one of the studies you see while scrolling and wonder who took the time to follow it through and why they thought it necessary. Who took the time? Jonathan Touboul. Why was it necessary? It wasn’t. Hipsters are used here as a light-hearted example of a more significant broader picture. Touboul’s model can be applied to much more important cases like understanding synchronization of nerve cells, investment strategies in finance, or emergent dynamics in social science. Perhaps the study would have been more interesting and relevant if he had published the results for any other of the possible applications of the model.

Proving a point

A point was proven when somebody reached out to MIT Technology Review under the belief his image was used for the piece. He mentioned:

“You used a heavily edited Getty image of me for your recent bit of click-bait about why hipsters all look the same. It’s a poorly written and insulting article and somewhat ironically about five years too late to be as desperately relevant as it is attempting to be. By using a tired cultural trope to try to spruce up an otherwise disturbing study. Your lack of basic journalistic ethics and both the manner in which you reported this uncredited nonsense and the slanderous unnecessary use of my picture without permission demands a response and I am of course pursuing legal action.”

MIT and the team went through the checks via Getty to verify the model release and stumbled upon something fascinating. The model had misidentified himself when his name didn’t match that of the model’s name.

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