Today, a mother of three in Peoria, Illinois, is just as likely to have Pinterest-perfect taste in fashion, food, technology, and home design as a hipster graphic designer in Los Angeles’s trendy Silver Lake neighborhood. While the iconic 1975 film The Stepford Wives is a dark satire on conformism, social media has created a millennial version of “keeping up with the Joneses” as Gen Xers and Ys knock off lifestyle blogs, clone personal style, and hypercurate their social feeds in order to appear flawless. These days, perfection is attainable, affordable—and stale. And counterintuitively, what’s imperfect, ordinary, “wrong,” and nonreplicable is appealingly fresh.
Prior to roughly 2004, having great style, a cool home, or the latest gadget said something about who you were. Having bleeding-edge taste was a status symbol because acquiring—let alone knowing about—the hottest brands or products required diligence. Items had to be hunted down and earned, and the effort was only worth it to a self-selected few: the outliers, the tastemakers, and the trendsetters. There was a time, in the pre-Internet ’90s, when a trendsetter was so unique that he or she could be spotted from blocks away. (While it sounds antiquated now, some of our earliest marketing jobs required this sort of “cool hunting.”)
We begin to compare our own reality with the picture-perfect ones created on Instagram and Facebook, often finding that we fall short.Ariel, 28, Lincoln, NE
Today, Pinterest, lifestyle blogs, online retailers, and cheap manufacturing have converged so that anyone with minimal Internet savvy can have great taste—or at least look the part. Trends wash through the blogosphere in waves of flash mainstreaming, going from zero to omnipresent in no time: Today, it’s clogs; tomorrow, facial misting sprays, designer camping gear, and giant Kilim floor cushions. Take the avocado toast craze: Simple mashed avocado on (you guessed it) toast went from a virtually unknown snack—or at least an underappreciated one—to a hashtag on more than 10,000 Instagram photos, including those of the self-proclaimed lifestyle guru Gwyneth Paltrow, giving it a 30% boost in Google searches and earning it the designation “the most annoying food on Instagram” by New York magazine. In today’s era of widespread accessibility of information, it can feel like we’re living in the land of Generica, where everyone is fabulous—and no one is.
Avocado toast saturated culture in 2014: It was the subject of 62,000 tweets and more than 10,000 Instagram photos, and it saw an uptick of 30% in Google searches.
After speaking with Generation Xers and Ys across America, the source of this Stepford phenomenon becomes pretty clear: Social media has made it almost impossible to not feel compelled to keep up with the Joneses. In the 1960s, you peeked over your neighbors’ fence to catch a glimpse of their latest purchase; today we scrutinize our peers’ Pinterest boards and Instagram feeds. Says Ariel, 28, from Lincoln, Nebraska: “The biggest side effect of social media is that it creates false realities for those viewing it. We begin to compare our own reality with the picture-perfect ones created on Instagram and Facebook, often finding that we fall short.” Nate, 31, from Omaha, agrees: “My wife will be going through Facebook or Instagram and she’ll be like, ‘Why are we not doing this or that?’ It’s like, actually, you need to take a look in the mirror: We’ve been to Mexico three times in the last four years.” Says Kelsey, 34, from Boston, “After I spend an hour looking at Instagram, it’s impossible not to feel like I simply have to have that vintage Indian caftan or minimalist Scandinavian dining set.” Social media has become a pressure cooker for feelings of insecurity, anxiety, and competition, and it’s having a profound effect on people’s psyches—so much so that a full 57% of 18- to 49-year-olds report that if they could start fresh, they wouldn’t join any social media sites at all. As testament to this burgeoning social media shutdown, even the first generation of lifestyle bloggers—the most passionate of the online popular clique—is burning out on the monotonous churn of the new, with once-popular blogs reducing posts to biweekly (Bleubird) or ceasing altogether (Young House Love).
of Gen Xers and Ys agree that social media has created more conformity in culture.
While this might sound like snarky social commentary, Wired magazine’s editor in chief, Scott Dadich, has a term for where he sees culture headed next: Wrong Theory. In a recent article, he describes how after culture has matured to a point of uniformity, “intentional wrongness” and “bad” design become fresh again. Dadich sees wrong design at the crux of cultural moments throughout history, impacting, inspiring, and serving as reference for creatives thereafter—for example, Miles Davis’s intentional “wrong notes”; flower- power decor that shook up ’60s minimalism; Cindy Crawford’s mole, which sets her apart from the perfectly symmetrical faces of the modeling world; or Nirvana’s grunge in an era of MC Hammer–style coordinated dance. Yet all of these breakthrough moments happened before social media. Today, Crawford’s mole would have been the subject of a YouTube tutorial for Michelle Phan’s more than 7.5 million followers in seconds flat. Just consider Normcore, the 2014 “It” fashion trend characterized by dressing in bland generic clothes—the antithesis of cool and an ex- ample of Wrong Theory if there ever was one. It ultimately landed in Gap’s national “Dress Normal” fall ad campaign.
When everyone’s a hipster, no one’s a hipster. Instagram is the single biggest contributor to this phenomenon.Brennan, 25, Los Angeles, CA
At a time when even the most “wrong” ideas are posted, pinned, and tweeted en masse, is it possible to break free from Stepford at all? What’s clear is that shocking culture out of uniformity today will take more than just a jarring aesthetic shift: It will take products, lifestyles, and experiences that are inherently antisocial—so niche, exclusive, ephemeral, and nonreplicable that they can never reach a social tipping point (see How to Get It Wrong). After all, if everything tips, nothing’s really tipping at all. This isn’t to say that all things social will cease to exist (although, admittedly, we could live without the next avocado toast craze); there is still a place for big hits (for example, the viral phenomenon of the dress—obviously, white and gold!) and the long tail of social subcultures (see SoGloMos), but Stepford— the suburban middle class of social media— is fading fast. Already, 69% of Xers and Ys say they have reached a point of social media exhaustion. The result is that the new gut check for brands trying to break through will be: Is it social? If the answer is yes, you’re still in Stepford.
How to Get It Wrong
Finding what’s wrong is like finding what’s right: You know it when you see it. Here is our take on a few trends that could shake up our Stepford lives.
What if big companies went rogue for a season and made decisions that were decidedly off-brand? Imagine: Geico releases a “normal” insurance commercial; Starbucks ditches its signature Frappuccino lingo; and nothing coordinates at J. Crew (the horror!). Brands have become such well-oiled machines that corporate spontaneity—rather than calculated strategy—is poised to feel fresh.
Digital platforms have made documentation a cultural obsession, so much so that one-fifth (21%) of Gen Ys say they live their lives in status updates, and more than a third (36%) admit to hyperdocumenting their lives. Folklore, oral storytelling, and urban legends, on the other hand, reinvigorate storytelling with the now-rare elements of mystery, imagination, and the intimacy of Whisper Down the Lane—and will seem refreshing in an era of online broadcasts and social retweets.
What if online videos were made not to go viral and instead were in- tended as private screenings for a select few? For example: Jimmy and Justin’s next SNL digital short is invite only; HBO releases a Game of Thrones extra to its decade-long cable subscribers; and Bill Gates leads a private live coding tutorial for those who donate to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Social blockbusters are great, but there’s also room for indie online filmmaking.