People like being part of a group. We like using terms with ease and sophistication. We like knowing that we can transmit an incredibly specific emotion to another person with a single cryptic phrase or glance. We like being able to identify others like ourselves via physical markers (most often clothing).
Likewise, we want to be able to identify members of disparate groups. This goes back to reptilian instincts for self-preservation. Your caveman ancestors would’ve wanted to recognize which people were on their side–in their tribe, as we’ll call it–and know which people to run from. Though our world is careening in the exact opposite direction of such direct dangers (we’ll revisit that soon for exciting reasons), we still divide and categorize this way: just think about all the cliques and labels that exist in schools (and even into college and beyond). Sure, the high school geek/jock dichotomy is caricatured and exaggerated, but isn’t there a particle of truth in there?
People often make friends based on common interests, which act as a filter to bring similar people together. One nerdily-inclined person is likely to act even more nerdy whilst in the presence of a second nerdily-inclined person, as there’s compounded nerdiness to build and expand upon. (Things just get cray-cray when you bring in the third nerd.)
Here’s what we’ve got so far: people find other people like them, then embody whatever identity they happen to fit with even more around said tribe. There’s a lot of overlap between tribes, but feelings of compatibility are reinforced by shared specific tastes in music, films, books, poetry, webcomics, telenovelas, and so on. You can end up with a checklist of sorts for each tribe, comprised of the most popular media: My Chemical Romance as the poster boys for emo, The Cure as quintessential goth music, etc.
For as long as I’ve been aware of cliques and labels, there’s been a bit of a cycle with singling out groups. I remember emo’s turn at that vividly: the music and style emerged in the 1980’s, and picked up speed in the early 2000’s (which I’ve heard was in part because of the 9/11 attacks) only to become the object of mass ridicule.
Hipsters are the new emos now, with surprisingly similar style (thick-rimmed glasses, vintage clothing, stripy shirts, asymmetrical haircuts) but totally divergent music (emo music is a variation on punk, while ‘hipster’ music is basically indie rock). They’ve brought our disdain upon themselves with their insistence that their exceptional sensibilities are a function of their personal taste alone, and claiming that once a piece of media has become popular, it’s lost value. The funny thing about hipsters is that we look down on them for being pretentious, but the very act of our derision echoes that which we assign to them. And with both hipster and emo (others, too), the usage of the term to categorize reaches the point where it’s just a go-to insult, whether or not the object fits the original stereotype.
That’s why it’s hard for me to take the use of the word ‘hipster’ seriously; it’s already fast approaching meaninglessness, despite having maintained the ability to conjure up a pretty specific image. If that’s any indication of its imminent decline, we’re all potential targets for the next designated other.