Welcome to the age of mimicry. Thanks to the social web, the semantic web and the always-on mass mobility of personal expression, the gene pool of style and creativity is increasingly being filled by imitation rather than inspiration.
It all began with the end of subculture. Remember punks, mods, skins, ravers, skaters and grunge kids? Those social youth factions and the iconic signs and symbols associated with the musical and fashion styles they created were the driving force behind some of the most significant cultural movements of the last few decades. Then, along came the Internet. With instant access to the looks, rules and regulations of style, subcultures were exposed to non-participants, dumped into a melting pot and finally spit out a decade later as millennialism.
The millennial hipster has become one of the dominant youth cultures of our time. Remixing signs, sounds and symbols of their parents and older siblings’ subcultures, the millennial generation merged the pyramids of cultural inspiration to reform the rules and regulations of style. With the segmented and purposeful approach to membership in subcultures a thing of the past, the exclusivities of style were subjected to that most trendy of today’s tropes, democratization.
How do we keep it fresh in a perfectly connected world where mimicry seems inescapable, if not actually programmed into the system?
In this age of everyone can or everyone should be allowed to know, to contribute and to participate, quick connectivity, instant access to information and the value of sharing have exponentially increased the diffusion of style, breaking down the old walls of cultural inspiration and influence. The result is that most of us are attempting to manage style overload with mechanisms that are simultaneously shaping the content of that style.
Whether it’s Google’s algorithm, trending hashtags, personal Facefeeds, pins and boards, LinkedIn top stories or Instagram photos, our favorite online tools and platforms are fueling mimicry. Notice how every Instagram photo is starting look the same or how the style boards on Pinterest look identical? Wonder why virtually every cool, new restaurant in North America is serving the same fish tacos, pork belly bun, charcuterie selection and classic cocktail revived? Seeing the same ‘artisanal’ menu board at your local coffee shop that you’ve seen in every other city? Frustrated that so many boutiques in New York, London, Toronto and Stockholm are carrying the same five brands, including the so-called limited edition ones?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions then it’s time to seriously question the impact of some ‘governing’ bodies on the Internet, forces responsible for our go-to mechanisms for the diffusion, expression and sharing of style. Out of the 1990s era of corporate supply-side driven globalization and into our current consumer-driven demand side of cultural globalization – where Google’s top 10 results are the end of our searching and trending articles command our utmost attention – we’ve managed to take mimicry to new heights. We read the same articles, we look at the same pins on the same boards. We listen to the same top tunes. We follow the same people on Twitter as they read the same articles, look at the same pins on the same boards, and listen to the same top tunes.
Style is supposed to be about expressing our unique identity, yet we’re seeing, buying, sharing and talking about the same stuff over and over. So, how do we break free from this continuous cycle of sameness? How do we keep it fresh in a perfectly connected world where mimicry seems inescapable, if not actually programmed into the system?
One answer might be to force serendipity. Try using Bing to break free from the Google top 10 and its indexing algorithm. Put on alternative thinking hats to modify your search language. Skip the heavy rotations on Rdio and do random word searches to discover something new and unexpected. Ignore your Amazon recommendations and buy books in another language or in another genre that you’re not familiar with. Follow someone who has nothing to do with what you’re interested in. And take a long, hard look at your relationship with Facebook.
The problem with Facebook is homogeneity and a flattening of the style of self. Equipped with infinite scrolling that ends with the user’s date of birth, its Timeline feature captures all forms of multi-media inputs while providing easy navigation of activity through time. But the content of the Timeline is self-curated and, for many users, not much different than a dating profile. These are my friends. These are my accomplishments. These are my witty observations. This is what I made for dinner. These are my new shoes. This is my favorite brand. ‘Like’ me.
Few of us truly resemble the versions of our selves that we present to the world on social networks. As a platform for sincere personal documentation, discovery and the expression of our own sense of style. Facebook is a disaster. It’s a faux-chronicle, an illusory peek into the lives of others and a hotbed of comparison that, according to Tom DeLong in Flying Without A Net, “causes us to recalibrate our accomplishments and reset the bar for how we define success.” Success or style, that recalibration inevitably involves aligning ourselves (and our style) with others.
The Darwinian approach that currently shapes how we discover and deal with data on the Internet is the enemy of style. The fittest search results only survive because we keep feeding them with our attention. The biggest trends gather steam because they are trending. Pop eats itself.
If we continue along this path, species of style will become extinct. Survival requires a mutation in our selection of social platforms and how we use them to express our selves. As behavioral randomizers that break away from the normal structures of online systems, adopting new, different and disruptive techniques of searching and sharing can be the first step towards a new evolution of style. Only with a little serendipity can we break free from our current state of sameness.
This article originally appeared in MISC Winter 2013, The Style Issue.