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Lithium Are tastemakers the new influencers?

Oct. 13, 2021

What’s the point of posting a song you like on your Instagram Story? Is it simply a mindless act of self-expression, or are you secretly hoping for someone to swipe up and compliment your taste?

Social media has turned us all into curators. We share what we’re watching, reading, wearing, and listening to, cultivating our own digital museums of things we love. Curator, a word that once evoked pale gallery walls and ivory towers, now applies to anyone with an Instagram account.

Curation itself isn’t a new phenomenon—bookstores, record stores, and boutiques are all curated expressions of taste. People have been sharing things they love online since the days of MySpace and AOL Hometown. But the recent rise of Instagram moodboards, Letterboxd influencers, and consumerist newsletters has created a new type of influencer: the tastemaker who shares hand-picked, personal recommendations, and gains a cult following that loves their curations.

People have always been able to curate online, but online fame and notoriety usually required some degree of creation as well. Nowadays, one can gain influence simply by curating content, with little to no creation needed. Good taste is now a currency for clout. began as an Instagram moodboard sharing images of outdoors-inspired garments and activities. Its content is of the “gorpcore” aesthetic—named after the trail mix acronym short for “good ol' raisins and peanuts”—that takes cues from hiking gear. Patagonia fleeces, North Face puffers, and Arc'teryx windbreakers have infiltrated streetwear in recent years, bringing gorpcore to the mainstream.

The anonymous curator behind Organiclab now has a Patreon page, charging patrons up to $30 per month for access to exclusive databases and recommendations. Last year, Organiclab collaborated with legacy outdoor brand Salomon to design a limited-edition version of the XA-PRO 1 hiking shoe, and worked with menswear marketplace Grailed to curate a collection of obscure tech-gear. Organiclab illustrates a new path from internet clout to industry success: Share things you like, gain followers who also like them, then monetize your taste through paywalled content and branded products.

On a smaller scale, internet communities have emerged around curation and personal taste. Perfectly Imperfect is a biweekly newsletter sharing culture recommendations from influencers and creatives, from podcasters to journalists to independent designers. It also features occasional recommendations from the newsletters’ cofounders, three regular dudes who have day jobs. With Comic Sans-heavy graphics and an unpretentious voice, Perfectly Imperfect intends to push back against algorithms defining the zeitgeist and bring back personal, authentic curation.

“These days, it's so easy to stay in your own hyper-personalized algorithm bubbles and just throw on whatever Netflix thinks you’ll like, or buy the rug Instagram keeps putting on your feed,” says newsletter cofounder Tyler Bainbridge. “So we think it's pivotal to break out of your day-to-day autopilot and challenge yourself to try something different.”

But why do Perfectly Imperfect’s thousands of subscribers anticipate receiving recommendations like David Lynch cooking quinoa or sailing (the sport) in their inboxes? “I think folks enjoy PI recommendations because they come from real people,” says cofounder Serey Morm. “It’s really refreshing for our readers to hear from people from so many different perspectives with varying tastes.”

Mainstream celebrities have also dabbled in tastemaking. The independently-run Blackbird Spyplane newsletter publishes interviews with celebrities not about their work, but their most rare and cherished possessions. It’s perhaps the only place you can find Lorde discussing her collection of friends’ teeth and hair, or Ezra Koenig sharing his favorite Grateful Dead parody t-shirt from 1995. People love what people love, and the newsletter’s cult following—some of whom pay up to $100 a year for exclusive “under-the-radar finds mined from the depths of the internet”—reflects this genuine interest.

“Similar to what you can see with the rise of Patreon and OnlyFans, people are more than willing to support independent creators who provide them with valuable, unique, curated content,” says Perfectly Imperfect’s Alex Cushing. “This indicates to me that it could be more than just a niche movement.”

Curation has been adopted by the big players in fashion, too. In 2020, streetwear blog Highsnobiety ran "Special Report: Creativity Is Dead, Long Live Curation," highlighting how luxury fashion brands like Acne Studios, Telfar, and Kapital are shifting toward a curatorial strategy. In addition to producing consumer goods, brands are distinguishing themselves by curating store experience, magazines, playlists, and performances. They pull from external sources like historical archives and independent artists to establish an enduring, multidimensional identity. As the article ominously notes, “Bankrupt department stores and downsized mass brands are a cautionary tale of what happens in the absence of any curation.”

Likewise, curation has helped online retailers "cut through the noise" via hand-picked collections of products packaged into box-style offerings. Human curation has been employed by tech giants in recent years to "clean up AI’s messes": Netflix introduced curated “Collections” selected by the company’s creative experts, Apple employed editors to handpick featured apps on its App Store, and Facebook hired journalists to select top stories for a curated News section. 

According to journalist Jared Newman, the introduction of human recommendations is Big Tech’s attempt to rectify algorithms that have helped spread misinformation and inappropriate content. “We’ve realized that recommendation algorithms aren’t as infallible as tech companies once made them out to be,” Newman wrote for Fast Company. 

The rise of curation in all echelons of the cultural hierarchy results from the problem at the heart of digital consumerism: people don’t trust algorithms and are overwhelmed by choice. Curation, therefore, is the counterculture movement that restores meaning to content and products. 

But can handpicked curation feed into the cycle of hype and consumerism? Organiclab helped popularize the outdoorsy gorpcore aesthetic that informed Gucci’s latest collaboration with North Face. Blackbird Spyplane dropped a limited run of 200 merch shirts that sold out within hours. Tastemakers run the risk of infusing objects with conceptual value and turning their curations into collectibles, repeating the culture of gatekeeping and exclusivity that plagues high fashion and art. 

The concept of “good taste” itself also invites criticisms of elitism. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu saw taste as a tool for class distinction, as the legitimate taste of the society is the taste of the upper class. The acceptance of “dominant” forms of taste is, Bourdieu argues, a form of “symbolic violence” that denies the dominated classes the means of defining their own world, which leads to the disadvantage of those with less overall capital.

The internet, however, has opened doors for people outside of dominant classes and industries to define “cool.” It has fundamentally transformed how cultural hegemony operates, democratizing curation and tastemaking. Quality is no longer dictated by record label executives and art critics; it can be defined by individuals without connections or capital.

In a world awash with content and product, we need curators to sort through this overabundance and point to what’s meaningful. Online tastemakers can shed light on low-key craft breweries or up-and-coming musicians that might get lost in the abyss otherwise, countering the hype cycle of Supreme drops and Yeezy resales. This leads us to a more diverse, inclusive cultural zeitgeist that embraces individuality and personal style.

Personal curation may not replace algorithms completely, but the proliferation of handpicking reminds us that there is still value to the human touch. “Recommendations can be an intimate glimpse at how someone lives their life, while offering an opportunity to change yours,” says Bainbridge. 

A book, film, or song recommendation from a friend will always carry more meaning than any algorithmic pick, because there’s a story behind it. The twinkle in someone’s eyes as they ramble about their new favorite show is something robots can’t yet replicate, and for that reason, curation is here to stay.