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Everyone's a critic
010. On subcultures, tastemakers, and ideas
Hey, friends—welcome back to online/offline, a weekly newsletter about culture, technology, and the future. This week, I share some thoughts about the devolution of culture. This newsletter is meant to be a conversation, so do reply/DM me with your thoughts/questions. And if you haven’t already, make sure to subscribe below.
Culture is dead.
Okay, that’s a bit dramatic, but it was my sole thought when I saw a particular Tweet this weekend. For a while now, I’ve been trying to reconcile my love for living online with a growing concern for what it means for our shared consciousness.
In today’s connected world, there is an infinite stream of information; this abundance of knowledge necessitates curation, whether by technology or by people. The two reinforce one another, sometimes leading to less than ideal results.
What happens when algorithms are mimetic machines? When they’re designed to encourage existing behaviors instead of promoting the discovery of new ideas? To me and maybe a million people on Tik Tok, New Body is the most popular song this month. Yet, the unreleased Kanye song has barely hit a million views on YouTube. The 7-second, 240-character online storytelling we’re exposed to reinforces our beliefs, rarely challenging us to discover foreign concepts or communities that may appeal to us. In a way, the subcultures we click into have become the new culture, supplanting what used to be mainstream culture into fragmented pockets of online paradise (or not). Before, you had to be in the NYC drag scene to understand what “shade” meant; today, your favorite creator or brand will unironically Tweet and misuse it. Yikes.
What happens when we’re overwhelmed with information? We look to creators, tastemakers, and voices of authority who are shaping the subculture. People like Demna, who is redefining luxury fashion at Balenciaga, or Latasha, an artist who is defining music in web3. These two understand their craft and the way it may reach people, and that’s apparent in the way they communicate their ideas and engage with their communities.
But when subcultures don’t evolve organically, the loudest voices can co-opt a movement. The abundance of information means anyone can masquerade as a voice of authority. One quick YouTube search and you can learn the minimum viable opinion for subculture in 10 minutes and launch a platform. If you’re early, you can appear to be a connoisseur quickly and you can be a critic even quicker. In one of my favorite essays, David Chapman describes these artificial connoisseurs as people who quickly become best friends with selected creators. “They dress just like the creators—only better. They talk just like the creators—only smoother. They may even do some creating—competently, if not creatively.”1 If you look closely, you can identify these posers by their shallow motivations. On the opposite side of the spectrum, many people will decide they don’t like the new thing and it’s easier (and more of a dopamine rush online) to criticize it than to create. The mute button is great here.
With so much noise, it’s difficult to know who or what to trust. That’s why it’s important to zoom out and realize that our closely-held beliefs are esoteric. Sometimes that’s okay and the subcultures will come and go.2 But to weave a fabric between communities of people and arrive at a movement that challenges the 1960s ... Creators and tastemakers need to pursue new ideas. For Demna, that meant appropriating mass culture into Vetements, a luxury brand he launched with friends in 2016. At the time, many fashion critics called the brand ugly, low-brow with extravagant pricing, and overhyped. Now, its influence is living through Demna’s work at Balenciaga (if you haven’t seen the stiletto Crocs yet, please Google it) and will soon be mainstream via the YEEZY x Gap x Balenciaga collab.
Culture may be dead, but the persistence of subcultures is enough motivation for us to keep exploring new ideas. If you think an idea is crazy—take it another inch or two.3 If you have critics, then good. Let them scream into the void. Keep going.
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I can help here, feel free to email/DM me your crazy ideas!