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Geeks vs. Hipsters

Hipsters and geeks are both nominally outsiders, and both often find pleasure in similar things. Indeed, both tend to enjoy that which is “retro”. Yet there seems to be a fundamental difference between the two groups. In order to examine that difference, you first need to look at fashion…

Fashion and fads are, by their very nature, fleeting. We live in a disposable culture where what’s “in” one day is “out” the next—if you’re not playing the game and following the crowd, dahling, then you’re simply never going to make it!

Some people enjoy this pop culture rollercoaster, which is almost a kind of dialogue between producers and consumers. The trick is always to track the crowd’s tastes and both predict and define the trends, which are then dutifully followed by the public at large. It’s a feedback loop that is chaotic on the micro scale yet cyclical on the macro scale.

My personal observation is that fashions go through three phases in a cycle: in-fashion, out-of-fashion and then ironically-in-fashion, before becoming fashionable again. Think about flares for a second, if you don’t agree.

It’s the third phase of fashion where hipsters come in.

That’s right: all those hipster poseurs are part of the fashion cycle even as they attempt to eschew it. The pretense may be that hipsters are “indie” and outside the mainstream (and, indeed, that their sense of fashion is somehow deeper because of this) but in reality, they’re just as fickle and prone to trends as society in general. The contrarian position that something is “cool” as long as it’s underground is a kind of mirror-reverse parody of everyone who tries to keep up with current trends at all costs.

Hipsters mine the past, looking for that which has been discarded yet has matured long enough to hold ironic kitsch value. It’s the twilight zone between what is out of fashion and what will again be fashionable in the future: the irony is the only constant thread in hipster fashion trends, and so the unfashionable returns to favour through the backdoor, where the participant can claim plausible deniability in their lameness.

What does this have to do with geek culture? Until recently, hipsters were able to co-opt that which geeks treasured due to this same “ironically-fashionable” principle. Not that long ago, the childhood genre properties of the ’80s (Transformers, say, or Tron) were ripe for the ironic picking. Of course, now that there have been new Transformers movies, a Tron sequel, an upcoming Thundercats series, a new Muppets movie coming soon, a potential Dark Crystal sequel, etc., geek culture is returning to the mainstream—hipsters can’t go back to that well, at least for the time being. You can’t be ironic and mainstream at the same time.

It’s this irony that separates hipsters from geeks. Geeks love their franchises not because of how ironically fashionable they are but because of the subjective impression they left on the individual. I still remember what it felt like seeing Star Wars in ’82, Ghostbusters in ’84 and Back to the Future in ’85, for example. Geeks tend to be loyal traditionalists who genuinely (i.e. un-ironically) worship that which excited their imagination in the past: perfect moments preserved in amber—if new incarnations of old favourites don’t recreate the subjective impressions left by the earlier moments, disappointment is inevitable. Contrast this with hipsters who see the past as mere grist for the irony mill: laughing at something while ostensibly celebrating it devalues the very same sense of nostalgia that geeks cherish.

And so geeks and hipsters have purposes directly at odds with each other: hipsters look externally to current “anti-trends” (to coin a phrase) for what to follow, whereas geeks are guided by an internal sense of what they personally find meaningful. Hipsters see geeks as mildly pitiful sticks-in-the-mud (actually, they see everyone as mildly pitiful); geeks see hipsters as shallow, pretentious wannabes who are too busy sneering to find genuine pleasure in that which is earnest.

Geeks and hipsters: mortal enemies locked in an eternal struggle over irony versus earnestness.

Are you a hipster or a geek? Is there are difference? What do you think?

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  1. April 26, 2011 at 10:12 pm

    That was a great post!!

    • April 26, 2011 at 10:14 pm

      Do you agree with my observations?

  2. PrincessButtermug
    April 27, 2011 at 7:45 am

    There’s a potential Dark Crystal sequel?!?! <— not ironic joy.

    I agree with your assessment and call myself a geek (or, in my particular case, a nerd with a severe case of nan-ishness, since I enjoy things only the over 80's get keen on: crocheting, history and, of course, nanna naps). I think geeks are more honest – they like what they like. Hipsters are a caked-on facade of irony and will abandon anything that gets too popular. They're as fake as those Essex girls with so much slap on their face you can't tell if they're human or not… (in Essex gal's case, probably not :P)

    • April 27, 2011 at 7:57 am

      Yeah, see here.

      OK, so here’s a question: does anyone actually self-identify as a hipster? It almost seems pejorative.

  3. April 27, 2011 at 2:51 pm

    It’s only acceptable to identify as a hipster if you do it ironically. They’ve been around for a while now so by calling yourself a hipster you get to be a bit retro.

    “Irony vs earnestness” really captures it. Hipsterism is just endless name dropping. Not only can the geek be stodgy by being earnest about whatever the hipster is ironically referencing but they can fail by not knowing anything about some other name drop the hipster does.

    • April 27, 2011 at 3:46 pm

      I see the hipster in perpetual eye-rolling mode.

  4. justdisa
    May 2, 2011 at 10:02 am

    I am a geek. You know those heavy black plastic framed glasses that a lot of hipsters wear? I have some of those, too, but mine have real -13 diopter corrective lenses in them. “Irony versus earnestness” is a really good description. They geek refrain is, “Look at this! It’s cool!” while the hipster refrain is, “Look at me! I’m cool!” See the difference in focus?

    • May 2, 2011 at 2:40 pm

      Of course, you’ll never hear a hipster admit to it. But yes, you’re absolutely right.

  5. Dustin
    August 11, 2011 at 8:32 am

    So I’m a geek as society would probably identify, and I’m a social/extroverted geek as much as that seems like an oxymoron (does it?). I have been so confused about this whole “hipster” phenomenon, about as much as I was with the “emo” thing in the previous decade. I never knew what *made* something “emo”, as opposed to something that’s emotional for the sake of emotion. A year ago, while trying to get along better with people I did look up hipster on wikipedia and focused on “connections”, the same connections you’ve identified in this article. But no one openly saw these connections. They were offended when I asked if they wanted PBR when I worked at a convenient store, they would get tense when talking about hipsters, when I’m only trying to UNDERSTAND. haha After reading this article I think I shouldn’t be so worried about understanding as much as being understood maybe. Are all my friends that hate hate hate hipsters probably hipsters?

  6. BigJake
    May 26, 2014 at 5:09 pm

    Dion, a friend of yours posted this on a forum where I’m a resident. I posted a reply to her there, but I’ll repost it here, a little reworked.

    Basically I’ve come to regard anything written about the “hipster” under the premise that this entity is primarily defined by “irony” or “kitsch” and is in opposition to other entities that have no truck with such things as more or less bullshit. Or to put it more kindly, proceeding from an erroneous premise.

    The fact of the matter is that the hipster as purveyor of “irony” is, on the whole, an image fifteen years out of date. “Irony” was basically the hipster of the Nineties, and hipsters got more or less sick of that shit and embraced authenticity and being non-ironic in the Noughties. (Which is why hipsters are still sniping at each other over who is still doing the “irony” thing, which is now the mark of losers.) That’s why it became fashionable for “hipsters” in Brooklyn to take up a trade, that’s where indie “twee folk” came from, that’s the history of the last decade in hipsterdom. Rocking a Transformers or Maiden t-shirt in the Noughties was not an “ironic” “kitsch” statement, it mostly actually meant that you were really into Transformers or Iron Maiden. At least that’s what it meant to the guys I knew who did this and were on the club scene and could reasonably be called “hipsters.” There’s still appreciation of kitsch humor and culture to an extent — because THAT’S A GENERAL THING IN POP CULTURE TODAY and in fact people from any and all subcultures and walks of life can do it — but it’s nobody’s primary axis of identity.

    I’m guessing the whole obsession with “irony” is either

    a) The construction of the hipster as a receptacle for mass culture’s failings real and imagined, because there’s a general feeling of malaise in certain quarters, of everything being a sequel of a reboot of a copy of a reference, and that’s discomfiting at a certain level and it would be nice to have Someone To Blame for this, or

    b) (almost as common) It’s a posture that hipsters strike against other hipsters but that really reflects their internal fears about whether their pursuits and hobbies are meaningful (much like, say, Trekkies who live in a constant state of anxiety about the world supposedly seeing them all as obsessive Aspie losers).

    Your post seems like an example of a).

    For my money, geek vs. hipster, like the “fake geek girls” controversy, is a patently false conflict ginned up around largely imagined hobgoblins. I don’t buy it for a second. The fact of the matter is that a great many hipsters are (like the mythical “fake geek girl”) actual geeks. Indeed “hipsterism” is what frequently happens to geeks as they grow into their twenties and develop broader interests, but it doesn’t mean they stop being geeks. There’s no inbuilt dichotomy, they aren’t mutually exclusive categories. So… stop that.

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