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Imitation as taste
Why cultural sameness is a matter of social design
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Girlfriend Collective or Lululemon. Away or Muji. Zara or The Frankie Shop. Bagels or cronuts. Gucci or Louis Vuitton. Peloton or Tracy Anderson. Miami or Austin. Vegetarian or not. Taste choices we make reflect where in society we belong, or aspire to belong. They are valuable social signals, and in the post-everything world, perhaps the ones that matter most.
There’s been a lot of talk about the sameness of our taste choices — in music, fashion, interior design, entertainment, or physical looks. It’s easy to blame algorithms for this, but the real culprit is us.
Similarly as our ancestors had to, as a matter of survival, quickly decide if a fellow Neanderthal was a friend or a foe, modern humans use social signals to quickly orient themselves in the world. On a daily basis, they actively classify one another by lifestyle, values, interests, and projected and perceived social standing. Based on taste displays, they make snap decisions whether a person is like them or far away in taste space, and thus foreign. Feeling cozy in our own taste space is largely responsible for the 37 Avenger movies and the Top Gun reboots to look forward to. Burning Man outfits, family pajama sets, Halloween costumes, weddings, craft breweries and coffee shops all appeal to human tendency to revert to the recognizable and the familiar. Thanks to it, Spotify is now a music genre, one shorter and with memorable hooks in the first 30 seconds, in addition to being a streaming platform. TikTok is a music label. Amazon’s clothing line does little more than to mimic what’s currently popular.
In the past, it was easy to discern one’s social standing by display of their economic power. But with both inconspicuous consumption and the rise of “installment economy,” everyone can wear designer clothes and accessories, travel extensively, be an art collector, or have an interior decorator. Less affluent mimic behaviors, values, and tastes of the affluent, and the affluent mimic sand crabs, rendering themselves all but invisible.
Faulty as they may be, snap judgements overpower decision-making. Processing complexity of any person, choice, or a situation is time consuming and resource-draining. Snap judgements simplify the world. A very few people have the time or the mental bandwidth to sift through Forgotify.
Instead of learning about the world in every single situation, humans imitate what others are doing. Just like crickets or lightbulbs, albeit amplified with Instagram likes, Twitter hashtags and other performance metrics, out taste signals get harmonized, so all of us end up looking the same, dressing the same, liking the same things, and visiting the same places.
Nothing succeeds like success, the saying goes. With aggregate demand, success equals popularity: something becomes popular because a lot of people like it. Spotify, Amazon, TikTok, Instagram all recommend what’s already popular.
Regardless of how aggregate markets work, marketers love to assign every consumer choice with meaning and to provide infinite options to cater to consumer “uniqueness.” They seem to forget that, more often than not, consumers do not eat kale because they watched a heartbreaking documentary about the meat industry. They eat it because, by doing so, they send social signals of being enlightened, wellness-obsessed, and socially conscious. They do not watch “Succession” because they like it; they watch it because their friends watch it and they want to participate in the shared experience.
In addition to being a great mechanism in learning how to orient, belong, and present oneself in the world, imitation is responsible for social cohesion. Social media platform TikTok is both a great metaphor and an actual example of this: its Challenges establish a sense of community, in the same way that streaming of the same music or entertainment creates a temporary bond among strangers.
Combined, social classification and social cohesion move culture towards the world that’s harmonized and homogenous in taste (people need to know that they belong to the same community, and to know it quickly; they also need to know that their differences are not mortal.) Maybe in the U.S. today we do need Avengers to feel like we still belong to the same nation. Algorithms are made by humans, and they replicate not only their biases but also their interpersonal and group behaviors responsible for holding societies together. If algorithms tend towards the outrageous, the flashy, and the comforting, that’s because we do.