Is the Media's "Hipster" Grifting Soon to End?

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Do you know what a hipster is? I've lived in New York for four years, and Williamsburg for one year, and I still don't know what's in a hipster. However: Media outlets do. Or at least act like they do. Salon does, as evidenced by a piece of theirs making the rounds today called "Hipsters on Food Stamps." If you do know what a hipster is, that must make you hip, right?

Well, here's what Salon thinks when they hear the magical word hipster:

Faced with lingering unemployment, 20- and 30-somethings with college degrees and foodie standards are...

You'd think we'd have come up with a better words for these kinds of occasions. Or just started calling young people "young people." Or in this case "young, educated people without gainful employment, who have strong tastes in food." Because that doesn't really sound like a hipster, per se, does it?

More importantly: At this point, does it matter?

Hamilton Nolan at Gawker condemned use of the word hipster in December, praying for it to end after they crowned their Hipster of the Decade award to the shadowy figure Carles who runs a website of inexplicably sincere, hysterical satire known as Hipster Runoff. Unfortunately, that hasn't stopped anyone from using the word, as you'll see below.

Via Google Trends, it's suggested that news references for hipsters peaked around May of last year....

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Google Trends for the word "Hipster" from 2004 - 2010. Searches on top, news references on bottom.

...and are creeping back after 2010's first solid "hipster" spike on February 23, 2010.

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Google Trends from March 2010 to March 2009 exhibit a post-spike decrease and slow spike-rebounding gain in the use of the word "hipster."

Why? Because media outlets have learned that anything with the word "hipster" in it is a pretty great ingredient in the murky dark potion-making of SEO, or search engine optimization, as evidenced by the rising number of search queries above. Long story short, news outlets (present company included) figured out over the last year or two that using words in headlines that people are more likely to search is better for their business than a great headline without those magical words. And one of those magical words is "hipsters."

Just so we're clear on the technicalities here, via Dictionary.com:

hip·ster /ˈhɪpstər/ [hip-ster] noun, Slang. 1. a person who is hip. 2. hepcat. 3. a person, esp. during the 1950s, characterized by a particularly strong sense of alienation from most established social activities and relationships.

But:

1. Rappers are hip. Kids are hip. I know some people's parents who're "hipper" than their grown children.
2. Nobody in Brooklyn would call themselves a "hepcat" unless they're being ironic assholes (in which case, they're anything but hip).
3. The hipsters most of these pieces are referencing are anything but socially alienated. If anything, they represent a strong advertising demographic.

But just like there are The Four Truths of Buddhism, there are The Two Truths of Hipsterism.

1. Hipsters don't like being called Hipsters.
2. Hipsters don't self-identify as Hipsters.

This operates much in the same manner that any supposed youth movement or artless categorization of something does. It's the same way Bob Dylan didn't like being called a protest singer, or kids who listen to My Chemical Romance don't enjoy being called "emos," the young simply don't like it (or really "get it") when you apply labels to them. So how can we ever know what a hipster is?

We can't. The truth is that "hipster" - which once only mostly signified only a superficial engagement of certain consumer habits, like tight jeans, Pitchfork-approved bands, and maybe an enclave in whatever part of your town is being gentrified by the moneyed children of baby boomers - has been used so much, it's now just an amorphous term for "young person doing interesting young person things, maybe even some of which could be considered 'cool' or groundbreaking in some way." In the same way we're all "emos" because we're all "emotional beings" who all listen to "emotional music," because most music is inherently emotional. Maybe now that the word has peaked, maybe if we say it enough, maybe if we just read better writing (or write better for our readers), it'll go away. But probably not.

Ideally, people strive to do even the smallest things better. Mark Twain once noted that writers should "use the right word, and not its second cousin." Well, get used to writers using the popular word instead of the one (or ones) that best articulate the matter at hand. There's got to be a better way to tell your readers that young people are on food stamps without patronizing them with a weak angle for being "cool," too. As for the fate of the word itself, it's trending upwards, exhibiting patterns we've already seen before. It might be here to stay. As far as words used to describe young people, at the moment, there's definitely not a more profitable one in sight.

[fkamer@villagevoice.com]


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