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The hipster didn’t die (he just stopped drinking PBR)
Sam Kriss claims that we killed the hipster. He writes:
There are mass graves, still, just outside the major cities, places we don’t really want to think about: heaped thousands of hipster skeletons, each still wearing the tufts of its big lumberjack beard, sealed forever in artisanal wax. We lashed the hipsters to their fixies and herded them off a cliff.
We burst into the Vice offices in Old Street and hacked them to bits with machetes. We put botulism in all the PBR. We made the hipsters kneel down in front of a wall. Wait, the hipsters said, you don’t have to do this, I’m not really a hipster, there’s actually no such thing as a hipster. That’s great, we said. If you’re not a hipster, then this is not happening to you. And then we pulled the trigger.
And in a way, he’s right. Those people don’t exist anymore. Nobody thinks it’s cool to read Vice and write on your Macbook while drinking a flat white. Apple has the highest market capitalisation in the world, everyone drinks flat whites, and Vice sucks now: Sam Kriss writes on Substack, so I read Substack instead.
But Sam’s unique claim here is that the hipster served an important purpose that meant he would inevitably die out. In a world prior to Spotify and its algorithmic antecedents (remember Pandora?), we had to rely on people to find interesting music and films and other stuff you actually wanted to watch and listen to. But when we got the algorithms that could find the interesting stuff for us, we could kill the hipster without losing much. So the hipster existed merrily until 2014 or so, at which point he was replaced by The Algorithm.
The story is a compelling one, but I don’t think it works, because the model of the hipster is wrong.
Let’s start with some questions. Why were so many people hipsters, and why did everyone who was a hipster deny being a hipster? The answer to the first question is obviously not that hipsters dutifully wanted to provide a service to everyone else, wherein they wade through hundreds of obscure movies and tell everyone else which ones are actually good, all so that you have a good movie to watch. It’s that they wanted to signal how much better their taste was than yours, and how much more knowledgeable they are about film than you are.
‘You like [insert moderately well-known band here]? They’re okay I guess, but you really should be listening to [insert band whose most famous song has 3000 views on YouTube].’ And then it follows naturally that the reason that nobody wants to admit that they’re a hipster is that we don’t want to admit that we’re status signalling. The model where the hipster goes away because of algorithms doesn’t really work, because it relies on the idea that the hipster was genuinely finding obscure but good music/film as a favour to everyone else.
Sam’s model could work if we thought that finding obscure and interesting music/movies is no longer a costly signal. If new algorithms exist that let you listen to music that’s both good and obscure, then telling everyone about a new band nobody has heard of who are actually good wouldn’t mean anything.
But there are a few reasons why this isn’t right. The most obvious one is that these algorithms have existed for a while now. Pandora, the algorithmic music streaming service that made it easy to find music, peaked at the same time as the hipster. Spotify was founded in 2006! Hipsters used algorithms to wade through obscure music to recommend to other people at the same time that everyone else used algorithms to figure out which top 40 hit they liked the most.
The other reason is that I’m not sure that algorithms actually do make it particularly easy to find music on YouTube with 300 views. If they were recommending those songs, they wouldn’t have 300 views. It still takes a hefty effort to find the stuff nobody is listening to.
What’s actually happened is much more boring. There’s still a subset of people who signal that they have taste by recommending music that you don’t listen to, drinking beers that you don’t drink, and using products that you don’t use. But that music is not Arcade Fire, that beer is not PBR, and those products aren’t made by Apple.
If you go back to Sam’s original description of the hipster, you’ll note that none of the characteristics that he describes can actually be algorithm’d away. There is no Spotify for IPAs, nor Pandora for artisanal beard wax, nor TikTok for Fixie bikes. So how could The Algorithm be at fault here? Isn’t it more likely that the signals of taste and discernment just changed? It’s not cool to write at Vice anymore, it’s cool to have a widely-read cultural critique Substack.
There almost has to be a perennial hipster as long as signalling that you have better taste than other people is a thing, right? Maybe he doesn’t live in Williamsburg anymore and he doesn’t drink out of a mason jar, and most importantly, maybe he isn’t even called a hipster. But he still exists.