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The Math Behind the Hipster Effect

Why everyone who wants to look different ends up looking the same, according to math.
Image: Shutterstock

If everyone always wants to look different than everybody else, everybody starts looking the same. At least, if you use a recently published mathematical model describing the phenomenon. And looking around here, it seems pretty accurate. Let me enlighten you with some math.

"The hipster effect is this non-concerted emergent collective phenomenon of looking alike trying to look different," in the words of Jonathan Touboul, mathematical neuroscientist at the College de France in Paris, and author of the paper.


Before we dive deeper into the model we've got to set some ground rules: everyone is sick and tired of the word hipster, and has been for years. It's a meaningless word, like 'like' or saying 'let's grab coffee some time.' You can't blame Touboul though, he told me he only used the term because the definition made a great analogy to better explain his model.

I therefore propose we replace the word 'hipster' with 'lovers of small goats' in this article. Why? Because I feel like it, that's why.

Ok, let's go.

According to the model, the similarities in the fashion worn by lovers of small goats is a consequence of two factors: the first is that lovers of small goats always want to dress differently than other lovers of small goats. The second factor is the reaction time of the lovers of small goats. In other words: it takes a little while before they notice that having a long beard and drinking expensive coffee is a trend, and decide to do the opposite and shave. That last part is important, and the novel part of Touboul's theory.

Because of the delay in reacting to trends and the formulas that Touboul uses, a balance is reached at a certain point in time in which all lovers of small goats do the same thing, until they notice they're all doing the same and switch to the opposite. The diagram below explain this better than I can in words:

I know it looks complicated, but hang on. In the figure under the letter C, there is no delay. As you can see that the picture looks like TV static, the opposing trends–let's say owning a fancy bicycle (white) or not having a bicycle (black)–are not matched, making the pattern completely random. But that's not how people in real life work.


In figure D there is a delay, and you can see the anti-conformist attitude leading to a balance in which most people own a fancy bike during a certain time period, and most people don't own one during in the next time period, exactly because everyone wants to be different.

The delay makes it possible for a spike to form in the amount of people opposing the last trend, and only notice they're part of a new collective trend when many people are doing the same thing.

As you can see, a clear tipping point is recognizable in which all lovers of small goats suddenly see that everyone is wearing Clarks, after which it takes a while for the lovers of small goats to all wear Timberlands. Until they notice that, and switch to something else, et cetera, until infinity.

All right, it might be a kind of complicated way to explain something that everyone has known for years, but that's not what I think is important about this paper. What I do think is important, is that Touboul effectively uses an analogy to make a relatively complicated mathematical model more transparant and interesting, even for people who give zero fucks about mathematics.

The thing is, you want to know how it works, because it's something you recognize. And it makes you curious to learn what the exotic language of mathematics has to say about it. Usually, I wouldn't have written about this paper, first of all because I wouldn't have understood what the thing was about if it had "Sherrington-Kirkpatrick spin glass system" or "Hopf bifurcation" in the title, and second of all because abstract math is only interesting for mathematicians. Unless people understand what it's about. And can relate that to something they know. Something like lovers of small goats.