Hipsters as a Community of Practice

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

I’d like to think I’m on to something with this hipster stuff.

Over the last few weeks, Andrew Sullivan, a blogger for The Atlantic Monthly, has posted extensively on hipster culture, proffering reflections on christian hipsters (new window)and black hipsters (new window), also known as “blipsters.”

Personally, I think it’s counterproductive to organize hipsters into various sub-categories based on race and religion given that hipsters organize themselves around the same shared goal: to appear alternative to the masses. In fact, once could aruge that the posts promoted by Sullivan serve as further evidence of how ubiquitous the hipster culture has become.

With globalization and the inevitable expansion of companies offering the same choices to a larger net of consumers, hipsters see their movement as a rebellion against homogenization. The use of irony and self-awareness in their consumer choices thus serve as a sort of “wink-and-nod” to the world, showing that while hipsters may participate in capitalism and consumerism, they are wise to and disapproving of its ills.  Yet, in working to create a cohesive subculture, based on self-aware consumption, hipsters must collaborate as a group in order to establish shared cultural taste and the means by which to represent themselves to the world.  With unintended irony, hipsters must themselves become conformists against conformity.

For a shared representation to be possible among such diverse, global participants, an infrastructure must exist to guide and bound what constitutes a hipster.  This kind of boundary work is fundamental to a subculture like hipsters who are, more than anything, a kind of consumer tribe. As a subculture defined through what I call “alt” consumption, hipsters must constantly monitor trends in the mainstream to maintain divergence, and they often innovate when one of their cultural artifacts or status symbols becomes adopted by the mainstream.

As I wrote in my last post (new window), simply browsing through definitions of “hipster” on urbandicitonary.com, one can see how quicky artifacts of hipsters can become mainstreamed. The keffiyeh scarf is one example of this trend.  Originally a symbol of Palestinian Nationalism (and some argue the anti-war movement), it was a popular fashion accessory among hipsters a couple of years ago, until it started being sold at places like Wet Seal and Forever 21, at which point it was quickly abandoned by hipsters.



As the keffiyeh scarf example shows, in order to maintain the boundaries of their subculture, hipsters must become a community of practice.

In their article, “Globalization, Developing Countries, and the Evolution of International Standard Setting Communities of Practice”, Garcia (new window) and Burns (2005) describe communities of practice as akin to standards-setting bodies, which “establish rules, norms, meaning and identity over time based on ongoing interactions and negotiations that accompany participation in a shared enterprise” (1). While their article investigates how standards-setting bodies function in the technology sector, the arguments apply to any community in which members participate and negotiate toward some shared goal. Like a firm, made up of various organizations and actors, hipsters are a subculture with a global presence and a shared ethos – to appear alternative, progressive, edgy and outside the mainstream. Hipsters may not always agree on how these themes come to be represented through cultural products and taste. But with all members interested in being associated with the general ethos of the movement, they participate in negotiating the overall identity of the group alongside the commercial actors who supply the resources they need to maintain their identity.

This network of commercial actors includes indie bands, “alt-cultural” magazines like Vice (new window), Paper (new window), and Nylon (new window), blogs like LOOKBOOK (new window), Street Peeper (new window), email subscription lists like Flavorpill (new window), clothing stores like American Apparel, and events like the South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival that acts as a physical place to bring many of these actors together.  Naturally, this network also includes consumers, the people buying the products created and promoted by these organizations, and these consumers negotiate the boundaries of the community with their dollars. Together, all of these actors serve to support one another toward a shared goal: maintaining a subculture that is always one step ahead of the mainstream.

Vice is a major actor in the hipster movement, credited with helping to invent the hipster aesthetic. As a magazine that currently boasts over 900,000 readers in twenty-two countries, Vice was originally founded as the Voice of Montreal by Suroosh Avi, Shame Smith and Gavin McInnes.  Vice features articles covering the independent arts, pop culture, and more recently political topics such as the war in Iraq, written with an air of sarcasm and irreverence (“Vice Magazine”, Wikipedia).

A popular and controversial part of the site is the Dos and Don’ts (new window) page, where photos of everyday people, captured on the streets, are uploaded and labeled according to whether they succeed or fail at “looking cool.”  To me, this serves as a perfect example of how members of a community negotiate and set  the boundaries of their culture to create a standard. Commenting on these photos is a common practice among readers, showing that users are as much participants in the process of establishing norms and rules as they are spectators. This kind of participation helps define “who’s in and who’s out” within the community, creating a set of standards that readers can use to guide their consumption choices.

All this to say that if I had to place myself into any category it would likely be as a hipster.  I share the same criticisms of capitalism and see alternative consumption as a comfortable means by which to represent myself to the world. While people may turn their nose up at hipsters, a subculture defined exclusively through consumption, we should see hipsters as a natural fact amidst a global community consumed by consumption.  We all, to an extent, represent ourselves to the world through the products we consume.  As individuals among many other individuals, we use representational objects to bypass complexity and create heuristics for identifying like-minded people.

Thus, I find websites like http://www.latfh.com/ (new window) kind of icky. What explains this fervent dislike of hipsters? is it merely because hipsters have found a representational aesthetic that is more salient than any other?

More (in defense?) of hipsters…coming soon!