The Sociology of OkCupid

How my social theorist crushes might have talked about online dating

I’m writing this as a follow up to a presentation I (somewhat spontaneously) gave yesterday at BarCamp Boston. The idea was to lead discussion by teaching high-level, basic concepts from a couple of social theorists as a means of segueing into conversation about what online dating means. In this post, too, my goal is to offer a few different jumping-off points for thinking and conversing, rather than to commit to any one particular argument.

I started using OkCupid during my sophomore year at Tufts, back in 2008, out of frustration with the insular nature of the campus. It felt like a secret club: I never spotted anyone I knew in the listings. I mentioned my membership on the site only to a select few (although I was hesitant to confess at all) and was met with either repugnance, well-intended ridicule, or curiosity.

After a summer of a lot of online chatting and one or two in-person meet-ups, I took a hiatus for a few years, rejoining the site the summer after college. This time, I found myself going on a lot more dates, but still, nothing stuck.

As a woman seeking men on the site, I found that it was incredibly easy to dismiss men for the most minuscule “flaws.” Knowing that a whole network of “matches” awaited me with just a few clicks, and knowing that, as a woman, it would be very easy to set up a date whenever I felt like it, I fluttered from date to date, thoroughly enjoying the act of dating and catching a glimpse of someone else’s life, but never feeling compelled to meet anyone a second time.

And yet, I continued browsing. I had become strangely addicted to sifting through profiles, a novel exercise in self-presentation with a purpose. Sure, personal ads have existed for ages, but the format of a personal ad is quite limited compared to OkCupid (or your online dating site of choice, I’m just using OkCupid because it’s the only one I’ve used), which combines photographs, a qualitative profile, an extensive personality quiz, socially-assigned ratings, testimonials, and more. As a recovering sociology major (who will, in truth, never “recover”), I couldn’t help but try to make sense of OkCupid in the language of social theory.

Pierre Bourdieu & the judgment of taste

French theorist Pierre Bourdieu‘s Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste is a bit of a behemoth, but having read every word (with the notes, highlights, and scribbles inside my copy to prove it), I can safely cite it as one of the most perception-altering things I’ve ever read. I think about Pierre Bourdieu almost daily. To summarize the gist of the book, Bourdieu examines how we use taste to figure each other out:

“To the socially recognized hierarchy of the arts, and within each of them, of genres, schools, or periods, corresponds a social hierarchy of the consumers. This predisposes tastes to function as markers of ‘class’.” (2)

Essentially, Bourdieu argues that our tastes comprise cultural capital, the non-financial, social assets that enable advancement between classes.

Pierre Bourdieu, sociologist and serious dialectical heartthrob.

OkCupid’s choice to include an explicit section for book, music, movie and other tastes on their profile pages seems not only to encourage members of the site to list their own tastes, but also to put a heavy emphasis on taste in our search for suitable partners. And yet some of the healthiest relationships I know are between people whose tastes are vastly different.

Nearly-identical tastes seem to be most problematic in moments where small differences between those tastes become evident. Bourdieu highlights this in relation to the bourgeoisie and the petit bourgeoisie, as well as between the petit bourgeoisie and the proletariat. What’s at play here is something akin to Freud’s narcissism of small differences: the idea that more similar groups are more likely to feel greater hostility towards one another:

“I once discussed the phenomenon that is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and in ridiculing each other — like the Spaniards and Portuguese, for instance, the North Germans and South Germans, the English and Scotch, and so on. I gave this phenomenon the name of “the narcissism of minor differences”, a name which does not do much to explain it. We can now see that it is a convenient and relatively harmless satisfaction of the inclination to aggression, by means of which cohesion between the members of the community is made easier.” (Freud, Civilization and its Discontents)

Talking about taste can be an easy way to tease out core differences that might make a relationship unfeasible:

“Hence the astonishing harmony of ordinary couples who, often matched initially, progressively match each other by a sort of mutual acculturation. This spontaneous decoding of one habitus by another is the basis of the immediate affinities which orient social encounters, discouraging socially discordant relationships, without those operations having to be formulated other than in the innocent language of likes and dislikes.” (243)

However, I think OkCupid leads us to rely too heavily on taste as a signifier of whether we’d get along with someone, or worse, as a reason to dismiss someone altogether. There could be a lot of reasons for this. Is it simply because it’s listed on our profiles? Is it because we’re so reliant on this information anyway that when it’s so readily available we lean on it even more heavily?

I’ll close off this section on Bourdieu with a quote about self-presentation that segues well into the next couple theories:

“The interest the different classes have in self-presentation, the attention they devote to it, their awareness of the profits it gives and the investment of time, effort, sacrifice and care which they actually put into it, are proportionate to the amount of symbolic profit they can reasonably expect from it.” (202)

Herbert Mead & the social self

One of the biggest personal issues I’ve had with online dating stems from an issue that Herbert Mead summed up pretty well in his essay “The Social Self”:

“The ‘I’ of introspection is the self which enters into social relations with other selves. It is not the ‘I’ that is implied in the fact that one presents himself as a ‘me.’ And the ‘me’ of introspection is the same ‘me’ that is the object of the social conduct of others. One presents himself as acting toward others — in this presentation he is presented in indirect discourse as the subject of the action and is still an object, and the subject of this presentation can never appear immediately in conscious experience. It is the same self who is presented as observing himself, and he affects himself just in so far and only in so far as he can address himself by the means of social stimulation which affect others. The “me” whom he addresses is the “me,” therefore, that is similarly affected by the social conduct of those about him.”

Mead’s argument is that we construct our “self” moment by moment, in accordance with our social situation: the “self” is socially mediated. Therefore, you have good reason to be a bit suspicious of how any person is presenting him or herself to you and you alone, in a completely one-on-one interaction. It’s extremely likely, if not certain, that that person is catering how they act to what they think you would like, especially on a date, where both parties have a certain end goal in mind. This could also, perhaps, be tied to the Pygmalion effect.

That’s not to say there aren’t ways around that. The best way to ameliorate this situation, it seems, would be to bring additional people into the picture. We’re much more able, Mead would suggest, to get a read on people based on how they carry themselves around other people.

In my ideal world, OkCupid wouldn’t be a place to find people to serially go on one-on-one date after one-on-one date with, but instead to arrange intermingling between discrete social groups with an underlying understanding of openness to meeting new people, whether as friends or something more.

After all, it seems like it’s easier to detect a particular spark from someone (thanks Cori [@plainpioneer] and Tom [@tomcatkitteh] for the enlivening chat about this at BarCamp!) when, even in small ways that don’t have to replicate the rom-com meet cute, the encounter feels fortuitous. I guess my mushy side doesn’t quite want to let go of the idea of a pleasant surprise over a completely rationalized system of dating.

Well, this exists.

Symbolic interactionism & doing gender

The classical sociologist Erving Goffman is often affiliated with the same symbolic interactionist school as Mead, although others would argue he’s a bit difficult to sort. Unfortunately, I don’t have any of his books immediately on hand, and I want to get this written while it’s all fresh in my mind, but one of his major theories is a dramaturgical approach that breaks social life down into a front stage and back stage. In the case of OkCupid, we are expected to present our best, most desirable self on the “front stage” of our profile.

Doing Gender” by Candace West and Don Zimmerman describes the process of, well, doing gender, referencing Goffman in its definition of gender as “a routine, methodological and recurring accomplishment” and an “emergent factor of social situations”(126):

“Gender, in contrast [to sex], is the activity of managing situated conduct in light of normative conceptions of attitudes and activities appropriate for one’s sex category. Gender activities emerge from and bolster claims to membership in a sex category.” (127)

One thing that I find fascinating about OkCupid is that it doesn’t seem to ask for anything specific in terms of gender presentation—you can find people all along every spectrum, from heterosexual to homosexual, monogamous to polygamous, virginal to kinky, and everywhere in between—yet for some reason, at least in my experience as a heterosexual woman, it seems to reinforce and even amplify gender roles in dating.

On OkCupid, most women receive so many messages per day that it wouldn’t make sense even in the most bizarre universe for them to also invest time sending messages of their own. Men are, therefore, expected to do all of the approaching, while women primarily vet the messages in their inbox, overwhelmed with the flurry and consequently making extremely arbitrary choices along the way.

The most obvious advice to make this better would seem to be to encourage women to send more messages, but this, too, can be problematic: “when I experimented with sending messages, men assumed I was desperate or that something was wrong with me,” a friend lamented (sorry, @pixelr8r, I non-consensually paraphrased you here. Which seems like a good time for a non-sequitur reminder for everybody that consent is cool).

All in all, the interface and experience of OkCupid can’t really be blamed for this trend; instead, just like we’ve sometimes seen in online comment threads, OkCupid replicates the patterns of real life behavior. And other interfaces don’t seem all that much better: a French couch-surfer who stayed at my house told me about an app that locked women into the position of choosing and men into the position of being chosen. Which raises the question: what would an app that subverted these norms look like? Is it possible to create something like this that achieves the same (increasingly) mainstream appeal of OkCupid?

Homosociality & collective activity

Now for a quick diversion from classic sociologists to a couple of contemporary essays. In Michael Flood’s “Men, Sex, and Homosociality: How Bonds between Men Shape Their Sexual Relations with Women”, he does a good job of summarizing some past literature on the topic:

Homosociality refers to social bonds between persons of the same sex and, more broadly, to same-sex-focused social relations (Bird 1996, 121). Masculinity studies argues for powerful links between homosociality and masculinity: men’s lives are said to be highly organized by relations between men. Men’s practice of gender has been theorized as a homosocial enactment, in which the performance of manhood is in front of, and granted by, other men (Kimmel 1994, 128-29).

This is true for most of us, I think. In a qualitative study I did in college that collected data through interviews of men in their twenties, I found that almost every person I talked to expressed that what they were looking for in their romantic life was strongly influenced by how their friend group framed their own romantic lives. Men whose friends all had girlfriends yearned for a similarly steadfast connection, while men whose friends played the field like a bro’d out Ash Ketchum tossing pokéballs into the wilderness to “catch ‘em all” sought the same variety-sans-commitment.

Yeah, bro, I caught so many Pokémon at the club last night. U?

When I started using OkCupid and no one else I knew was on the site or even mildly interested in trying it, it felt like a strange dating vacuum. It was only as I snuck out of the house for my first OkCupid date, which I hadn’t talked to a single friend about, that I realized how reliant I normally was on casual chitchat about my (generally incredibly awkward) romantic escapades.

Now that OkCupid seems to be a more acceptable means of seeking love, how do we engage with it collectively? How is it similar and different from the realm of real dating (which has also changed a lot since the advent of social media, etc.)?

Wrapping up: Walter Benjamin’s aura

I couldn’t write this article without bringing up Walter Benjamin, whose concept of the aura in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility” was intended to be applied to works of art but which I can’t help but apply to just about everything I encounter. Benjamin writes that technological reproduction takes away the “here and now” from a work of art, that je ne sais quoi of unique existence:

“In even the most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking: the here and now of the work of art—its unique existence in a particular place … The here and now of the original underlies the concept of its authenticity, and on the latter in turn is founded the idea of a tradition which has passed the object down as the same, identical thing to the present day. The whole sphere of authenticity eludes technological—and of course not only technological—reproduction.” (21)

In creating an OkCupid profile, we, like the film actor examined by Benjamin later in the essay, are expected to “operate [our] whole living person, while forgoing [our] aura” (31).

For me, Benjamin’s concept of the aura summarizes everything I’ve talked about above: in attempting to condense our entire “self” into an online profile for the purpose of attracting “matches”, we lose what makes us most special, the difficult-to-describe qualities that underlie the development of chemistry between ourselves and someone totally unexpected.

One could go on to argue that OkCupid removes the “aura” from the very act of dating; it’s easy to lose the sense that dating is something special sui generis, in and of itself, in the rat race of online dating. It may be difficult to give a romance time to develop when you know you can summon new contenders just by logging in, but now’s as good a time as any to suggest that we could all probably benefit from being a bit more mindful about love.

Society has a lot to say about what we should want, who we should be pursuing, what end goals we should be aiming for, but I can’t think of many pursuits that don’t benefit from enjoying the process, and dating is no different. <3

Next Story — Finding body harmony on the dance floor
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Finding body harmony on the dance floor

I remember the first time I wondered whether my body was good enough. My dad was about to start one of his stints on the Atkins diet. I was around 13, and more sedentary than I’d ever been (thanks to a new preference for Ragnarok Online and Livejournal communities over real-life play in the woods around our house). Innocuously, my parents suggested that I join my dad on the diet; they were concerned that I was beginning to put on a bit of extra weight.

On the second day of the diet, I woke up dizzy, but begged to go to school, because I’d had perfect attendance for the last four years, and damnit, I would make it to eighth grade graduation with that distinction intact. But I didn’t, because instead, I fainted on the couch and my mom ordered me a pizza. That put a stop to the whole crash diet, but it didn’t put a stop to the new doubts bubbling up in my brain.

When it comes to food, I’ve never felt the need to hide my excesses. It’s endearing, and emblematic of the ever-appealing “chill girl”, to be able to eat whatever, whenever, never to think about what you’re putting in your body, never to question it. There’s a certain charm to casually talking about your binges. The self-deprecating confession that you ate an entire pint of ice cream makes you relatable; we’ve all been there, after all, right?

But the truth of my life after my 1.5-day Atkins diet wasn’t so endearing.

Things were at their worst in college. It seemed, in every respect, like my body was working against me. I decided to start taking birth control, in hopes that I wouldn’t end up curled up in bed for 1–2 days a month as a result of my painful periods.

The pill put my appetite on some sort of weird turbo drive, and I was suddenly ravenous all the time. To counter this ravenousness, I began strictly logging everything I consumed. I found an online calorie tracker and set my daily calorie goal to 1300. I monitored my macronutrient ratios. I even monitored my sodium consumption, and I still forget to salt anything I cook, even though my blood pressure is consistently low. I spent a couple years as a strict vegetarian, for no reason other than to impose an even stricter sense of control.

I began exercising in a formalized way, logging all of that, too. I bought a heart rate monitor that told me how many calories each workout burned. I trained for half marathons twice — the first time, I caused pretty permanent damage that still sometimes flares up to one of my knees. The second time, I pulled it off. I lifted weights, but it was less about building a strong, functioning body, and more because the forums I was spending so much time on told me that lifting was the best way to burn fat.

When friends asked me to come out to eat, I often cited frugality and declined. When I did join in for these plans, I would make sure not to eat anything else that day, and sometimes imposed further restrictions on the next day, too.

My weight never really changed much as a result of these efforts; in retrospect, I was more concerned about the sense that I was taming this strange vessel than actually changing its shape.

As if I wasn’t already feeling enough body dysmorphia, things became worse during my junior year of college, when I switched birth control methods in hopes of decreasing my appetite. The new method I began using caused my face to erupt in severe acne, a new problem to obsessively treat. Skincare forums joined dieting forums in my daily roster of websites to skim, and I tried technique after technique to quell the terror that had overwhelmed my face. Strangers gave me unsolicited advice on how to fix the issue, as if I hadn’t been spending hours each day online researching every possible method. There was one summer where I almost never left my bed except to go to work and the gym; I was completely paralyzed by the idea of being seen.

My body was actively working against me, or at least that was how it felt. It was something to be restricted, disciplined, cleansed, subdued. Its appetites and impulses frightened me. I blamed my body when I lacked things that I yearned for, like a romantic relationship. I told myself everything would be okay once I fixed my container, that everything else in my life would fall into place once my weight and skin were perfect.

Unsurprisingly, given my disdain for my body, I was never much of a dancer. I always felt awkward, gawky, clunky. I would bob my head at indie rock shows, or flutter through the room at college parties if I had enough to drink, but that was pretty much the extent of my “dancing.” It never felt natural, and it certainly never felt like my body was on my side.

One of my first times getting physically lost in music was at a Rusko show. Yeah, sorry, I came into dance music primarily through the “brostep” of Rusko, Nero, and others. The sounds were aggressive, fitting for someone who essentially wanted to beat her body into obedience, but the heavy basslines and vocal samples also lent enough of a sultry, emotional undertone that it wasn’t all about flying fists; even the most self-consciously hyper-masculine members of the audience found themselves swiveling their hips.

Dance music isn’t about drugs or alcohol at its core, but admittedly, some of my youthful experiences benefited from insobriety. I forgot about my disdain for my body, and found harmony with motion. I let myself dance with my friends, our bodies touching in the crowded room, euphoric, dissociated entirely from our problems outside the club.

I found myself craving these intense musical experiences with or without chemical aid; in fact, my most profound nights have been the sober ones, amazed at how possible it is for music alone to break down my most complex mental barriers and hangups.

People I know are often surprised by how often I go out, and how often I make these club excursions alone. Dance music is a spiritual practice for me (as I know it is for many others). It’s helped me in my most anxious moments. It’s helped me work my way through periods of deep sadness. It’s helped me fully appreciate my peak times of joy. The dance floor is as much as place for reflection as it is a source of escape. The dance floor is my self checkup. Am I feeling: Graceful? Frenetic? Timid? Sensual? Precise? Hostile? Static? Assertive? Meek? Because of dance music, my mental and physical states have found unprecedented harmony, and I appreciate my body for what it’s capable of.

Next Story — An ode to asynchronous communication
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An ode to asynchronous communication

In both professional and social contexts, I find few things more satisfying than knowing I’ve written an email that clearly conveys everything it needs to convey, does everything possible to help the recipient help me, and explicitly defines what I expect in return. And I’m just as excited to receive emails from others that do the same. Every personality test I’ve ever taken has confirmed that I like it when the people communicating with me do their homework. Perhaps this makes me a bit neurotic or old-fashioned, but I’m constantly thinking about communication and the different ways that we engage with one another, I love having time between messages to gather my thoughts, and I’m equally appreciative of others who invest time and care into their communication with me.

Slack is the current object of my communication disdain, but many other forms of online communication have moved in an increasingly synchronous direction in the last couple years. Facebook “messages” became “Facebook chat” became “Facebook messenger,” essentially an iMessage clone. Read receipts all but demand an instant reply. OkCupid messages used to be paragraphs long with hours or days between responses — now, the Tinderficiation of pretty much every online dating UI pushes us towards the same “chat” paradigm.

With tech companies pushing to “move fast and break things,” perhaps it should be unsurprising that we expect instantaneous communication and instantaneous responses. But I find that without explicit definitions around when tools like Slack are actually useful, they aren’t just detrimental to focus — they’re detrimental to the very communication they’re trying to improve.

I think we’d all get better use out of chat tools like Slack and HipChat if we made some changes to how we use them.

Don’t make yourself available all the time

FOMO is a powerful force, so it can be tempting to remain signed into Slack 24/7. What if someone makes a decision without me because I wasn’t in the #marketing-magic chat room?! What if I miss out on a fun outing plan? A few weeks ago, I spent a day working from home, and turned off Slack for all but a couple random hours of the day. I found the hours in between to be much more focused, and I actually didn’t miss that much by catching up with Slack at designated times. I still checked my email regularly, and if something was urgent, I replied both as quickly and more thoughtfully than I would have on Slack.

Don’t assume everyone will see what you post

Whether it’s an article you think your entire team should read, or a question that will lead to an important decision, it’s difficult to keep track of everything that’s posted in Slack. Things get lost in the stream, and it’s very possible that that person who appears to be “online” is actually in deep thought working on something else and won’t be able to weigh in on your question. If there’s anyone who you think could be upset to be left out of a decision or feedback round, it’s probably better to send your inquiry via email or to arrange a quick meeting.

Place a high value on others’ attention

It’s a well-known adage among programmers that it takes around 15 minutes to return to a “flow state” after an interruption. I don’t think this is exclusive to programmers; if anyone is deeply working on something, it can be very difficult to get back into that mode after an interruption. Slack feels less rude than poking someone on the shoulder, but in fact, it can be just as difficult to ignore that red dot. If you need some quick help with something, it can be tempting to send a quick chat and get that answer right now.

Ask yourself: do I really need this answer right now? If you don’t, email might be a better way to communicate. It can also be helpful to ask, “Is this a good time to ask you about ___?” “Do you have a couple minutes right now?” By providing some context and an estimate of how much time you need, you give the person on the other end the opportunity to decide whether to delve into this interruption now or defer to later.

The art of the braindump

One of my ultimate Slack abhorrences is the unsolicited brain dump. Someone opens a chat window with you, and suddenly, you’re being assailed with a one-sided brainstorm. I don’t think that this is always a bad thing: I have one or two friends who text or chat me occasionally and ask if they can hash something out. But for whatever reason, on Slack, people will just start typing. And they won’t stop. Until they answer their own question, having effectively destroyed your focus.

Something that I love about email is that you have space to edit before you send. Once I start typing an email, I often figure out that the original question I had wasn’t what I really wanted to ask at all, and I’m able to erase what I’d written and send the recipient a question that’s actually worth their time. If your own thoughts aren’t fully formed, maybe spend a few minutes more with them before shooting off that impulsive Slack message.

Because I don’t want to just take a big dump on a tool that lots of people love, here are some things I think that Slack is great for!

Enabling remote work and flexible schedules

Sometimes, I find that I’m able to focus better outside the office, but it’s also nice to be able to check in with people directly and quickly, or have a remote catchup. I’ve spent days working in other cities, and Slack meant I could be present enough in discussions that people forgot I wasn’t in the office!

Having dynamic conversations

One really cool thing about Slack is the ability to pull media assets from across the web into real-time communication, something that can be difficult in an in-person meeting. Slack’s integrations make conversations around tools and media really easy.

Expanding your feedback circles

When I’m working on something, I usually have a really clear idea of who needs to see it. I think email is the best way to make sure everyone in that group sees an article, video, etc. However, sometimes someone from a totally different team has a fresher set of eyes. Slack can be a great way to get quick, opportunistic feedback from different people at your company than you usually turn to.

Sharing real-time feedback and humblebrags

Slack is a great way to give visibility to internal and external feedback, whether from a support inbox, social media, or in Wistia’s case, an online community. Typically, specific team members are tasked with monitoring these areas, so when something deserves more exposure but isn’t quite worthy of an email, Slack is a great way for them to share it.

Next Story — URL & IRL Lessons from the first Internet Age Media Weekend
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URL & IRL Lessons from the first Internet Age Media Weekend

I spent the last 5 days in Barcelona, Spain at Internet Age Media Weekend with the awesome Elise Ramsay — my first travel outside of North American borders, and also my first real foray into a more creative/media-centric internet conference (versus something more software or marketing oriented). It was a really refreshing change of pace.

Here are a few things I’m thinking about as I return to reality!

People are everything

This proved to be a major theme across many of the weekend’s talks and workshops. Jeremy Tai Abbett of Google suggested that we respect technology too much, when what we should be respecting is what we can create with it. Observing people — especially children — and how they take tech for granted can be a telling experience. At daily video channel NOWNESS, Anne Bourgeous-Vignon and the team focus on being mindful of who they’re connecting when they choose crews to collaborate on video projects. The first video on Vimeo, Staff Picks curator Ian Durkin shared, was a selfie video of the founder, exposing the humans behind the website.

Perhaps most poignantly, Tim Nolan of Huge talked about the importance of “net-working” (as in, collaborating) over simply “networking”. “Respect your social feeds,” he advised — social media can be an amazing tool for finding others to collaborate with if you surround yourself with awesome.

Decades of experience breed wisdom

Sometimes, I worry that in such a young industry, where I spend time primarily with people under 40, we spend too much time “reinventing the wheel” and not enough time learning from the mistakes and tribulations of people with decades of experience. Hearing Taschen’s Julius Wiedemann’s talk at IAMW was refreshing for this reason: although he joked that he was the “grandpa of the speakers,” his talk was one of the most insightful of the bunch. It inspired me to seek out more of that kind of wisdom — both for events that I help organize at Wistia and within my own life.

One big takeaway from Julius: “The amount of time we have is the most stable time in our lives, and increasingly, we’re dividing it.” Instead of doing more, more, more and dividing our attention across a million things, perhaps we should seek deeper focus. I also loved his point that in this chaotic attention economy, our products don’t just compete with products within our own space — they compete with literally everything for attention.

Branded content & responsibility

Kai Brach of Offscreen Magazine closed his workshop on indie-magazine making on a refreshing note on his hatred for native advertising: “We don’t talk enough about the responsibility that comes with having an audience. It’s okay to work with brands, but stay true to yourself.” Brach uses brand sponsorships to keep Offscreen alive and makes a living himself through the cover price.

Filip and Alex of Creative Applications Network talked about the importance of building an invested audience, releasing quality, niche content to build reputation and trust. CAN developed HOLO Magazine as a way to spend more time taking deeper dives and reflecting compared to the blog format, which got me wondering how we can replicate that kind of permanance and examination in digital formats, too.

Pernille Raven, of, emphasized quality and transparency in branded content. People don’t care about who made a piece of content when it comes to winning their attention, so being relevant and useful is the best way to get more eyes. On the other hand, it’s also ethically essential to be transparent if a brand is behind a piece.

Get out of your disciplinary comfort zone

“Work with people who hate you,” said Filip Visnijc of Creative Applications Network, in an extreme manifestation of a sentiment that came up over and over again. A slide from Joe Coppard of Protothon summed it up quite well: “Perspectives are the shit.”

Coppard argued that we should strive to specialize and collaborate, rather than trying to be good at everything (for example, not everyone should learn to code for the sake of it). I also loved the whole concept of New Inc., the New Museum’s incubator, and Julia Kaganskiy’s talk about the importance of new perspectives, particularly in technology, and fostering cultural value, provocation, and play alongside capital value.

Space to reflect

Across both the talks and the format of the event itself, I realized I don’t give myself nearly enough time to reflect or work deeply on one or a few things at a time. I related deeply to Wolf & Wilhemine’s Heidi Hackemer’s “frenetic yesness,” and loved her summary of what creativity needs: space, in the form of new inputs, nature, and sleep.

Tim Nolan talked about side projects, like, and how they’ve helped him connect with others. It feels a bit contradictory, but I feel ready to both do a lot more, work on side projects, and try crazy things, and to spend a lot more time thinking deeply.

Takeaways for content

  • Always clearly label “branded” content, but don’t be afraid to work with brands as long as you’re still true to yourself.
  • Move faster, experiment more, get weird.
  • Focus more on deeper thinking and pushing limits across mediums.
  • Focus on quality, relevant pieces for a particular niche: win attention first, then trust and loyalty.
  • Expand what we feel willing to write about — relevance isn’t about you, it’s about the people you’re talking to.
  • Get really good at what you do, surround yourself with awesome people who are good at different things, and collaborate.

Takeaways for events

  • Location and space design are really important! Hanging out in the Disseny Hub between talks was a great experience, and the fact that the conference collaborated with a design school to do portfolio reviews with students was a great way to give back to the local community.
  • Don’t overschedule! Give attendees time to reflect and explore, both their learnings and their environment. IAMW did a great job with this and it was much more enjoyable as a 3-day event than trying to cram everything into 2.
  • Feel comfortable inviting a wide range of speakers, across ages, disciplines, genders, and expertise. If you guide them right, the lessons can still feel relevant to everyone.
  • Interactive art is never a bad thing. Jeff Hamada’s interactive pencil sculpture helped bring people together.

Big thanks to Andres Colmenares and Lucy Esperanza Rojas for putting together an amazing conference!

Next Story — Why I’m dropping “basic bitch” from my vocabulary
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Why I’m dropping “basic bitch” from my vocabulary

Bros as a construct of behavior vs. basic bitches as a construct of taste

“Nrmls” (ner-muls) is a term my friends and I have been mindlessly throwing around for ages. During one heated conversation last summer, I recounted a party to someone, telling him I didn’t have fun because there were too many “nrmls.” He told me he didn’t think it was nice to call people “nrmls.” At the time, I defended the term, but struggled to explain what I meant when I said it.

Upon further reflection, I realize that “nrmls” isn’t the word I should have chosen to describe why the people at the party annoyed me. I was bothered by the partygoers’ behavior (the people I interacted with were extremely entitled and sort of sexist), and “nrmls” implies that I was bothered by their tastes.

Things that will get you accused of being a basic bitch, exhibit A: expressing desire (usually via the internet) to consume cupcakes, froyo, or cronuts.

What I called “nrml” has come to be referenced in the universe’s cultural lexicon as “basic,” most frequently seen in close proximity to “bitches.” “Bros” are the closest masculine equivalent I can think of to “basic bitches,” but there’s an important distinction here, which is that in general, “bros” are defined by their behavior. Much like “hipster,” “bro” has become a pretty vast term, encompassing everything from “EDM bros” to “tech bros” to “stoner bros” and even “hipster bros.” “Bros” are allowed a pretty wide swath of identities with which to align themselves.

The term “bro” can be dismissive and demeaning, too, and therefore, I try to reserve it for when it’s deserved. When a dude acts like he’s entitled to touch your butt because he just negged you and he has huge biceps, that’s a “bro.” When a large group of dudes strives to “rage” as hard as possible without consideration for anyone else’s good time, those are “bros.”

Bro Tank.

However, I can’t bring myself to dismiss a dude altogether just because he wears tank tops, bench presses a gajillion pounds, or sometimes listens to Avicii. I’ve met lots of “bros” with plenty of philosophical and/or emotional depth who, once engaged in one-on-one conversation, were totally insightful people and happened to be into hobbies not typical of your average “bro,” like analyzing Latin American films, dancing in a burlesque troupe (how’s that for heteromasculine?), or parsing regex for fun.

Basic bitches are rarely permitted the luxury of a more complex identity, because once you’re identified as a basic bitch, it’s not worth learning anything else. Being a “basic bitch” has nothing to do with how considerate you are of other people’s feelings. Being a basic bitch is completely unrelated to whether you have mean intentions or whether you’re a bad person.

Sure, the most basic of basic bitches is probably a little bit boring, and creating a caricature of a person, male or female, who is average to the point of hyperbole is a funny exercise. But as use of “basic bitches” has proliferated further and become more widely applied, I’ve become less and less comfortable with it.

“Basic bitch,” at its core, is a term built almost entirely on distinguishing ourselves via hierarchies of cultural capital. A woman who only heard a hip musician’s radio single before coming to the concert? Must be a basic bitch. That chick gets excited about pumpkin spice lattes? Ugh, that’s so basic. Your friend bought her dress at Forever 21? Basic. Bitch.

Things that will get you accused of being a basic bitch, exhibit B: drinking cocktails on the beach.

In any of these examples, we’re dismissing someone as a person based on her depth of cultural knowledge. Maybe concert girl just hasn’t had time to delve deeper into the artist’s work, or only discovered them a couple days before the show. We’re asking pumpkin spice latte girl to invest time (and money) learning about more “edgy,” “authentic” coffee (or worse, to have grown up in an atmosphere where she’d have been taught about them, an aspect of her life entirely outside of her control). If Forever 21 girl wanted to spend a bit less on her wardrobe and feels good about what she’s wearing, why do we care that she’s not wearing a brand with more cache? We’re asking other people to be as invested as we are in our tastes.

In Carl Wilson’s Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, he makes an argument I’ve heard many times now, and one that I generally agree with: “Middlebrow is the new lowbrow—mainstream taste the only taste for which you still have to say you’re sorry.” He argues that the reason Celine Dion is so universally hated is her sentimentality, and that today, subversion is what validates cultural objects:

“Subversion” today is sentimentality’s inverse: It is nearly always a term of approval. To show the subversiveness of a song, TV show or movie is tantamount to validating it, not just in pop criticism but in academic scholarship.

What’s less subversive than a basic bitch, whose identity is formed around all that is average and middlebrow? Why do women in particular feel the need to define ourselves in opposition to “basic bitches”?

Is it because we are desperate to believe that we aren’t average? Are we convinced that if we are average, we have somehow failed as interesting members of society? Why are we so centered on being interesting anyway? Why does good behavior elicit such venomous reactions? While I’m generally in favor of subversion and shaking things up, shouldn’t we also appreciate meticulousness and self-control and everything in between?

I reserve the right to judge both men and women who strike me as shitty, selfish people, but I won’t be calling anyone a “basic bitch” anymore.

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