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All Things D-Versified

The Curve, America Now, 2015 – All-things-d is fueling a long tail of diversity, giving rise to a powerful class of outliers, oddballs, misfits, and Mipsters that is collectively becoming America’s new mainstream.

The Others

The U.S. Census Bureau segments the population according to two gender types, male and female; Facebook offers 58 gender choices to choose from, along with a fill-in-the-blank option. The reason for this shift: All-things-d. Bubbling up from Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram, Kickstarter, SoundCloud, and more are voices, opinions, passions, images, skin tones, shapes—even genders—that many of us didn’t know existed before. In some cases, it’s because they didn’t exist before. Digital has cracked open the traditional top-down gatekeeping of culture, ringing in an era of new voices—often radical and provocative—that will ultimately form tomorrow’s critical mass.


60% of adults say that digital platforms have led to more diversity of thought than criticism of differences (40%).


Consider just how much of a boon digital has been for women, a societal segment traditionally underserved by mainstream media outlets: We’ve seen an explosion of by-us-and-for-us female-oriented blogs such as Jezebel, The Hairpin, Rookie, xoJane, and others, while self-publishing platforms such as Tumblr and Medium have become vanguards for fourth-wave feminism. As Anna Holmes, the founder of Jezebel, told us: Jezebel is and was a response to the narrow definitions of femininity that women’s media, for a very long time, communicated to women young and old. Certainly women are interested in fashion and they want to read about lifestyle stuff but they also want to read about politics and they don’t all want to get married by a certain age. And dieting is not the first thing on every female’s mind.” Or take, for example, The New Inquiry, which was launched in 2009 as an independent online-only magazine and a space for writers and thinkers to hone provocative ideas. “TNI was a hack for smart women,” the cofounder and publisher Rachel Rosenfelt told Brooklyn Magazine about its genesis, “Eventually, as our collective grew and the political moment shifted, I began to see the platform we had built as an opportunity to take risks on young writers, bold work, and radical thought.” The magazine became a launchpad for increasingly innovative projects, like Sarah Nicole Prickett’s Adult, an artistic porn magazine—which itself launched an entirely new genre of niche and cutting-edge intellectual art-porn publications (including the New York–based 25, the Paris–based Irène, and the Rotterdam–based Extra Extra).

 

Advanced Style, created by Ari Seth Cohen, offers proof from the wise and silver-haired set that personal style advances with age.

While those ventures might sound a little edgy, Kickstarter has helped to launch tens of thousands of niche-interest projects—from literature to films to potato salad—that, while decidedly more mainstream than art porn, would probably not have otherwise come to light. As the former Gawker editor Emily Gould, who recently co-launched a Kickstarter campaign for her feminist e-publishing imprint, Emily Books, explains in her fund-raising video: “We founded Emily Books so that more people could read the books we love but couldn’t find anywhere else…We wanted to make these transgressive books available to more people.”

Before this starts to sound like some sort of sapphic bohemian movement straight out of Bushwick, Brooklyn, consider how all-things-d-verse has brought a level of visibility to the senior population, once deemed culturally irrelevant after age 65 (or is it 35?). The blog-turned-book-turned-documentary Advanced Style became an online phenomenon for its portraiture of older women and men who regularly dress in flamboyant, eccentric garb (their personalities are no less colorful). The street-style site StyleLikeU has gone viral with its What’s Underneath Project, featuring videotaped interviews with enigmatic-yet-ignored members of society—including albinos, overweight people, and those age 65-plus—answering intimate questions about their own body image and self-worth. These digital initiatives have even led to an appreciation of senior style among more mainstream media, the ultimate culmination of which may have been the fashion brand Céline featuring the 80-year-old writer Joan Didion in a recent ad campaign (chic as ever in a simple black turtleneck). As Danielle Feinberg, the director of photography at Pixar Animation Studios, told us, “With the Internet, suddenly all kinds of things become possible. You have a much broader scope for what is happening in the world and who else is out there.” (See The Girl Code.) While some may argue that the Internet has also exacerbated bullying and made intolerance “viral,” a majority of Americans see the glass as half full: 60% of 18- to 54-year-olds say that digital platforms have led to more diversity of thought than criticism of differences (40%).

Self(ie)-Published

One of the most powerful results of the rise of digital is its capacity to empower anyone to “lean in” to the cultural tapestry, regardless of how wacky, weird, faddish—or just plain overlooked—his or her point of view is. Consider the selfie. Some Xers and older Ys denigrate the phenomenon as narcissistic, frivolous, and self-involved, but there are plenty of teenagers, artists, and academics lauding the selfie as a revolutionary tool of empowerment that enables anyone to own his or her narrative. The Stanford University art and English professor Peggy Phelan, for example, told Time magazine, “Selfies make possible a vast array of gazes that simply were not seen before.” And the actor-director-writer-artist and prolific selfie-holic James Franco (Paper magazine published his 2015 selfie calendar) wrote in a New York Times article, “In our age of social networking, the selfie is the new way to look someone right in the eye and say, ‘Hello, this is me.’”


A rising crop of online communities has created visibility for a largely untapped demographic in the trillion-dollar travel industry: hip, urban African Americans, who want to globe-trot on a budget—an image many of them hadn’t seen represented before.


Selfies—and, more notably, the culture of all-out honesty surrounding them—are allowing people to see themselves, their peers, and even their heroes in more diverse terms; a majority (55%) of respondents admit that they are more honest in their online posts than in what they say in real life. Last year, rather than simply pumping out scantily clad press shots, the then-17-year-old Grammy-winner Lorde posted a “real” photo of herself on Instagram with a messy topknot and white splotches on her face (captioned: “In bed in Paris with my acne cream on”), earning 100,000 likes in 24 hours, along with glowing comments from fans such as “RESPECT,” “Love u,” and “Finally a celeb who doesn’t have seemingly flawless skin.” And once-ignored individuals, from stylish seniors to stay-at-home fathers, now have the power of selfie-expression to tell their stories in their own words and on their own terms.

Nouveau Niche

While outliers have always existed, opportunities for them to find support and inspiration were often limited or at least urban-centric. Who knows, for example, if Robert Allen Zimmerman would have become Bob Dylan if he hadn’t found his way to the Gaslight Cafe in Greenwich Village and received encouragement from his folk music peers? Today, however, creatives don’t need to uproot to urban centers to get support and gain traction; they can just log on to Instagram. A full 80% of respondents in our study reported that because of the Internet and social networks, it’s easier to find people who are “like me.” Digital has created unparalleled opportunities for a new breed of global citizens to connect with like-minded people who are different from the norm. The result is an unprecedented proliferation of niche subcultures.

Take, for example, the new global travel movement among black millennials. A rising crop of online communities has created visibility for a largely untapped demographic in the trillion-dollar travel industry: hip, urban African Americans who want to globe-trot on a budget—an image many of them hadn’t seen represented before. Nomadness Travel Tribe, founded by the 30-year-old three-time expat Evita Robinson, is a private Facebook group of nearly 11,000 people, ages 25 to 40, with thousands more on a waiting list. Robinson shares wallet-friendly travel hacks and glitch flight deals with her Nomadness community of followers (recent trips include Abu Dhabi, Johannesburg, and Nairobi, each for less than $400), who scoop up tickets by the hundreds, then travel in groups to exotic locales where they meet up in person, obsessively post on Instagram, and even get matching tattoos. Robinson told us, “When we’re in India and we’re the only black people in Jaipur practicing Holi [the Hindu festival of colors], when we’re in Tokyo running around doing karaoke and Sakura festivals and we’re the only black people they see, there’s a dynamic and an exchange.” Members of Travel Noire, another online community for travelers of color, racked up half a million travel miles in 2014—having one’s travel photos reposted by the site’s 147,000 Instagram followers comes with major bragging rights. Not surprisingly, brands including luggage and bag makers Lo & Sons and Delsey are tapping Travel Noire to connect with this new market of black travelers.

 

Nomadness Travel Tribe, created by Evita Robinson, is an invitation-only online platform and urban travel monument that includes nearly 11,000 members in more than three dozen countries.

Meanwhile, bloggers, Instagrammers, tweeters, and other online commentators have forced the fashion industry to notice and cater to people that were considered outsiders in the past, giving rise to lucrative new niche markets. Mipsters, or Muslim hipsters, are carving out their own fashion clique online, where they post street-style shots of their modest outfits, along with matching hijab head coverings. The Kuwaiti American Instagrammer Ascia Farraj, who has more than 1.2 million followers, is now sponsored by several Kuwaiti brands, and has even designed a line of headpieces for Halston. And Melanie Elturk and Ahmed Zedan have launched a designer-hijab fashion line, Haute Hijab. But Mipsters aren’t the only new entrants to the burgeoning, digitally led movement of fashion “mods.” The New York-based stylist Adi Heyman launched the Jewish lifestyle website Fabologie to promote her own modest styles which reflect her faith as an Orthodox Jew.

While not mod in the sense of modesty and covering up, the retro-fashion enthusiast and plus-size blogger Nicolette Mason is designing ModCloth’s first plus-size line—a match made on Instagram, after connecting with the fashion site’s co-founder Susan Gregg Koger over their shared love of pugs. Mason told Fashionista: “My platform has never been just about advocating for plus sizes, it’s been about saying that everyone, regardless of race, or economic status, or body type, or body shape, or gender expression, should be empowered to wear great clothing.” According to James Nord, the founder and CEO of Fohr Card, a fashion influencer directory that connects social-media mavens with brands, today’s digital influencers come in all shapes, sizes—and followings. He defines the most influential people in culture today as those who speak to an exceedingly tight niche: for example, a Japanese beautician who specializes in cat-eye makeup, a Swedish death metal musician, a Japanese athletic-wear start-up that only makes that perfect pair of running shorts, and a fashion blogger who is less than five feet tall. Nord says: “In that space—women under five feet—you are the Elle, you are the Vogue, because mainstream fashion magazines aren’t talking to you. You are influential because you can give information that people can’t get anywhere else.” While Nord defines influence as having the ear of as few as 10 people, engagement levels are through the roof since these niches speak to otherwise-ignored factions.

Culture Club

These minorities, misfits, and, yes, Mipsters will not only change the way that businesses look at their consumers but also how the next generation will look at, connect with, and come to understand one another. Whereas previous generations had to seek out art-house movie theaters and indie publications to tap into the cultural vanguard, Gen Ys simply scroll through Instagram. Regardless of geographic location or socioeconomic status, today anyone can culture sample. Emily, 28, of Austin, Texas, for example, has cued up her Instagram as a survey of the “ridiculous amount” of healthy lifestyle niches: gym rats, yoga moms, bodybuilders, spandex stylistas, CrossFit junkies, virtual personal trainers, ultrarunners, fruitarians, clean eaters, and more. Millennials are leading this charge: 74% of Gen Ys—versus 61% of Gen Xers and 47% of boomers—have learned about a niche subculture online that they wouldn’t have known about otherwise, and two-thirds (66%) are friends with someone from another country online, as compared with just 51% of Xers and 39% of boomers.

Jenny, 34, of Chicago, is so deeply involved in her online knitting community that it’s become a major part of her identity and social life in the real world as well. She explains: “I joined Ravelry thinking it would be useful, and it turned out to be so much more than a functional library of knitting tools. We talk about childbirth, veganism, and so much more. They are my tribe.” Meanwhile, the digital lens is having a profound effect on young people’s perception of society. It has made diversity the rule rather than the exception, and it has also fueled a new wave of empathy: 83% agree that digital platforms are creating a worldwide humanity movement and more tolerance for difference. Wardell, 41, of Los Angeles, says: “I use Instagram as a voyeur. It’s a platform that enables me to look into people’s lives and see what they are up to.”

With more diversity of thought accessible to nearly anyone, simple demographics—race, age, gender, and socioeconomics—are far less powerful indicators of who people are and what they’re all about. Just consider the myriad fashion, music, art, and foodie subcultures that have taken root online in the last couple of years and brought people together, from seapunk, soft grunge, and witch house music to the health goth movement. While admittedly eccentric, this development does make you wonder what cultural movements of the past would have taken hold if only they’d had the right platforms on which to flourish?

Brand Opportunities

CELEBRATE THE OUTLIERS REPRESENTING A NEW BREED OF GLOBAL CITIZENS.

In the age of d-versity, novel, far-flung, and original points of view have gained a new level of prestige.

LOOK OUT FOR NEW, D-VERSE, EMERGING MARKETS.

From black travelers to senior trendsetters, digital platforms are highlighting and giving rise to entirely new consumer groups and marketplaces.

DON’T BE TOO SELFIE-CONSCIOUS.

Gen Xers and Ys are embracing peers, celebrities, and brands that offer an all-out level of honesty—even oddness.

TAP INTO TRIBES OF 10. 

Forget quantities of Twitter followers, Instagram friends, Facebook fans and “likes,” and LinkedIn networks. Instead, cultivate niche influencers who serve small specific audiences—they might ultimately hold the most sway.

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