The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hipsters all look the same, man inadvertently confirms

A man mistook this stock photo for himself after it was included in a story about hipsters all looking alike. According to Getty Images, the man pictured here is "a handsome young man in trendy winter attire against a wooden background." (Yuri Arcurs/Getty Images)

Let’s say you come across a photograph in a magazine of a bearded man walking down a sidewalk in a flannel shirt and a beanie.

You’re looking really closely at this photo, because somehow it looks familiar. So you ask yourself, who is this guy? Is he:

A. A total stranger, probably a model.

B. A caricature or a stock image of a hipster, because no one really uses that word non-ironically anymore.

C. You.

Oh, God, you think. It is you. So after your friends and family agree, you promptly decide to write to the editors of the magazine, MIT Technology Review, where the photograph appeared above an article from last month headlined, “The hipster effect: Why anti-conformists always end up looking the same,” to complain and threaten to sue them.

The use of the photo, you assert, is “slanderous,” given the Feb. 28 article’s subject matter. It’s about how a newly published mathematical theory may explain why “hipsters,” or nonconformists if you prefer, in their eternal quest to defy mainstream trends, end up conforming to a trend themselves. They all just end up looking the same, the study by Brandeis University mathematics professor Jonathan D. Touboul concluded.

You begin your Feb. 28 email: “You used a heavily edited Getty image of me for your recent bit of clickbait about why hipsters all look the same. It’s a poorly written and insulting article, and — somewhat ironically — about 5 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.”

Gideon Lichfield, editor in chief of MIT Technology Review, received the accusatory email that same day, and immediately he launched an investigation, the findings of which came to light this week. He started by asking, Would his magazine really misuse this bearded man’s photograph without his permission and without a Getty Images license? No way — his art team would never do that, Gideon thought, as he told The Washington Post in an interview Wednesday. Was this even the same guy? (The Post is not identifying the man who sent the email, which was provided by Lichfield.)

And also, had “hipster” really become such a bad word that you could now sue someone for slander over it?

“My first response was: ‘Did we do anything wrong?’” Lichfield said. His next thought: “I also don’t think you can be sued for slander for implying somebody’s a hipster.”

To be fair, when MIT staffers pulled up the man’s Facebook page, he really did look like the man pictured in the photo on MIT Technology Review’s article about look-alike hipsters. But with the threat of legal action dangling in the air, the magazine contacted Getty Images and the legal team before taking any action, such as removing the photo.

Getty Images completed its review Tuesday. Its response was decisive: Definitely just a model — a different bearded, beanie-wearing guy.

“Wow, I stand corrected,” the litigious bearded man wrote back to the Technology Review after learning his mistake this week.

“In other words,” Lichfield wrote in a widely shared Twitter thread Wednesday, “the guy who’d threatened to sue us for misusing his image wasn’t the one in the photo. He’d misidentified himself. All of which just proves the story we ran: Hipsters look so much alike that they can’t even tell themselves apart from each other.”

Lichfield said it was “an extraordinary coincidence,” given the research that was the subject of the article, the “hipster effect.”

Touboul’s hipster-effect theory revolves around a few basic questions: How do you know what you’re wearing right now is fashionable? What is it that makes you realize it’s no longer fashionable? And what makes you so sure?

People have been asking these questions for decades, of course, usually just in the mirror. Take Mark Twain’s 1901 essay “Corn-Pone Opinions”: “A new thing in costume appears — the flaring hoopskirt, for example — and the passersby are shocked, and the irreverent laugh. Six months later everybody is reconciled; the fashion has established itself; it is admired, now, and no one laughs. Public opinion resented it before, public opinion accepts it now, and is happy in it. Why?”

It’s simple, Twain wrote: “The instinct that moves to conformity did the work.”

What Touboul did was try to turn this phenomenon, one we all know in our own lives, into a mathematical equation.

His research splits a hypothetical world of people into two groups: the mainstreams (conformists) and the hipsters (the anticonformists). The mainstreams have a “strong incentive” to constantly switch their styles based on what they view to be, well, the mainstream fashion of the day — they like to sense an obvious “consensus.” But the hipsters “will feel compelled to keep their originality,” Touboul wrote, and so they may only switch their style when they sense that too many people are catching on.

Of course, how you sense the fashions changing depends on how much you pay attention to various factors — fashion magazines, Instagram influencers, style vloggers. Maybe you don’t care about any of it. In any case, the degree of your exposure to these “trends” will influence how slowly or quickly you decide to transition to a new style. Using these numerous variables, Touboul created a computer model that, as the Technology Review put it, “simulates how agents interact when some follow the majority and the rest oppose it.”

What Touboul found is that the hipsters ironically end up “synchronizing,” sensing the transition away from a conformist trend at roughly the same time, then abandoning it altogether before starting a new trend — that the mainstreams will inevitably encroach upon again. And so on and so on.

The result: They “conform in their nonconformity,” Touboul wrote, quoting a HuffPost blog written a decade ago that “seems to stand the test of time,” Touboul said.

“Despite (and actually, in response to) their constant efforts, at all times, anticonformists fail being disaligned with the majority,” Touboul wrote. “They actually create the trends they will soon try to escape.”

He gave beards as an example.

“For instance, coming back to the case of hipsters, if a majority of individuals shave their beard, then most hipsters will want to grow a beard,” Touboul wrote, “and if this trend propagates to a majority of the population, it will lead to new, synchronized, switch to shaving.”

Touboul noted some limitations of his study, perhaps that its binary nature (mainstreams vs. hipsters, clean-shaven vs. beard) may be too simplified. He said he plans to broaden his equations to tackle more of these complexities in another paper.

Touboul couldn’t immediately be reached for comment late Wednesday night regarding whether he believes the case of mistaken hipster identity may comport with his hypothesis.

In the bearded man’s email reply to legal representatives from Getty, he stressed that even family members and a childhood friend thought it was the same man, a “mildly photoshopped picture of me.”

“I even had a very similar hat and shirt,” he said. Though upon closer examination, in full color, he said, he realized his mistake.

More from Morning Mix:

Bismarck, a town’s beloved crocodile with a ‘gentle soul,’ was found dead. Residents say he was shot.

An experimental Swedish art project will pay you to do nothing for the rest of your life

Who is Alex Trebek? How a mustache and correct pronunciation created a TV legend.