February 9, 2021
We live in an age of constant narrative conflict. But today, not every battle is legible to the untrained observer. While some grifts are plainly perpetrated by would-be thought leaders, other battles for narrative control are hiding in plain sight, happening under the guise of intellectual debate. When these battles go unrecognized for what they are, even the best among us fall victim to meaningless conversations that waste the time of those involved. In this piece, I introduce the concept of "scissor labels," why they foment controversy, and how they're different from other linguistic debates. I then suggest how to engage with this phenomenon with a more fruitful, future-oriented mindset.
A specific shape of online debate caught my attention in 2020. As I've reflected on the past year, I've realized that this pattern is happening frequently but is rarely understood.
A standout example from 2020 was the rise of "Hyperpop." The term came about to describe a particular musical aesthetic associated with artists like A.G. Cook and SOPHIE, and gained momentum over the past couple years, reaching a peak sometime in early 2020.
The musical landscape of Hyperpop is interesting on its own, but equally powerful is the divisive power of the word itself.
Last year, the term served as a centralizing idea around which an entire movement built momentum. In this way, Hyperpop as a label possessed immense generative power, identifying a widely recognized trend, and providing a singular phrase around which a subculture for associated sounds and artists could congregate.
But what exactly Hyperpop is, no one has fully agreed on. If you ask around, you won't find a canonical definition for Hyperpop. Laura Les of 100 gecs, on The Pitchfork Review, said "Everybody draws the line in the sand at a different point" (22:40). Eli Enis from Vice calls it "a genre tag for distinctly genre-less music." This sense of ambiguity is what makes Hyperpop so divisive. Though the term initially served as a cultural magnet for a range of musicians and fans, its definition quickly became the object of repetitive debates.
Meme by u/hihiyo
Once the term reached a peak in popularity (likely around 100 gecs' takeover of Spotify's Hyperpop playlist in July 2020), it was most often heard in discussions about what does or doesn't count as being Hyperpop. This kind of binary categorization annoyed most people familiar with the term, including the very artists responsible for its popularity. But as we enter the new year, what counts as Hyperpop is still being debated.
In isolation, this dialogue feels unique to 2020. But what's happening with Hyperpop isn't a one-off. It's just one instance of a cultural phenomenon that's been happening for a long time, whenever a similar label comes about.
Hyperpop is an example of what I'm calling a "scissor label," loosely based on Scott Alexander's "scissor statement." While his original term, scissor statements, are truth claims engineered to create dissent, scissor labels are categorical terms that happen to be maximally divisive.
A scissor label is a word or phrase that, for the first time, establishes a widely embraced name for a trend without simultaneously establishing a canonical definition. It is a vague term masquerading as a specific one, where the missing definition is still up for grabs. Scissor labels aren't coined or engineered, nor formally initiated by an institution. Rather, they're discovered by accident, suddenly adopted en masse amidst a trend that's already in motion.
Once a scissor label is established, controlling its definition means controlling whatever the trend represents. A scissor label therefore represents the battleground for a power struggle. By nature, scissor labels have a peculiar divisive power, building energy and momentum around a trend while simultaneously bringing about controversy and debate.
Scissor labels trap even the most savvy cultural observer by disguising one type of conflict as another. At first glance, the debates around a term like Hyperpop come about due to the ambiguity of the word itself. It's unsurprising that people argue over the meaning of a category when its definition is unclear, and everyone has their own preconceived idea of what it is. But that doesn't explain why these debates continue for so long, or why they're so intense. Seen clearly, a conflict over the correct definition of a particular scissor label is just a distraction from what's actually going on.
Debates around scissor labels become so intense and perpetuate for so long because of one primary reason: there is something valuable at stake. The label is a narrative up for grabs, and controlling the narrative is a form of power.
Anyone who spends time on Twitter is familiar with the idea of popular narratives as an organizing force for online subcultures. Being part of a widely known trend offers legitimization, and an entire ecosystem has evolved for manufacturing, growing, and then utilizing narratives to fulfill the agenda of those involved. Toby Shorin alludes to this below.
We're living in a time where this narrative environment has matured quite a bit. Jockeying for narrative control happens everywhere, and semiotic land grabs are a significant part of the ecosystem. On tech Twitter, we see people peddling narratives like the future of communities, the creator economy, tools for thought, and the no-code "movement." Oftentimes, these people are simply performing land grabs of their own, hoping to claim more and more territory within the narrative they deem powerful. Once someone has established a strong position in this fashion, they can use their voice both to influence others and to legitimize other people and organizations, whether or not those entities are worthy of legitimization.
Luckily, this territory is well mapped by cultural observers. I assume most of my readers are aware of, and therefore immune to this kind of thing, and are not whole-heartedly buying into someone else's grift.
Yet when it comes to scissor labels, where the battle for narrative control is disguised as intellectual conversation, few can resist the pull of the debate.
A more legible example emerged around some of my own work in April last year, when I published my second essay on spatial software. The piece was mainly design exploration, describing different kinds of applications built around 3D space and real-world metaphors. I speculated that game-like applications would make their way into every niche of software, not just video games. What drew me to the topic was a sense of curiosity and play. This kind of software is fun to use, and I've continued to explore it through that lens.
However, soon after I published the piece, I noticed more and more founders and investors on Twitter announcing their own new spatial software apps. The term itself received more attention than any of the ideas in the piece, and notably, many of the spatial products being announced were not what I considered spatial software at all, despite my inclusion of clear definitions and descriptions in the original essay. The term took on a life of its own and became the object of mimetic competition between many participants in the Startup Twitter timeline.
This experience put the scissor label concept on my radar. Like Hyperpop, people started to debate "spatial software" publicly, questioning what was and wasn't spatial enough to justify use of the term. Within our chat server, a group of my own friends found ourselves in several conversations about the definition of spatial software that ended up leading nowhere, including one animated disagreement on the topic.
By every indication, "spatial software" is another scissor label, and it's a clear example that illustrates how these debates are more about incentives than intellectual truth-seeking: In a world where companies are funded based on whether or not they fit into the narratives that venture capitalists have bought into, being part of the spatial software narrative can determine a lot for an early stage startup. For a company hoping to raise capital, recruit employees, or even gain early user adoption, the founders have everything to gain by making sure the definition of spatial software includes their own app. Whether consciously or unconsciously, this is the motivational context for how these people engage with the term.
In the case of Hyperpop, different specifics are at play. Like any other trend, all of the same dynamics around legitimization are present: for an artist making new music, being labeled as Hyperpop means association with something new and exciting, and ultimately, the chance to gain a meaningful following. Laura Les and Dylan Brady of 100 gecs discussed this on the Pitchfork Review, including that they wanted to use their curation of Spotify's Hyperpop playlist to help lesser-known artists get more exposure. Laura mentioned this at 33:50:
It's this word that doesn't mean anything, but it does have power. It's like a symbol that you can be like, "Hey check this out this is Hyperpop." And people will be like "Hey I'm gonna listen to that."
"At its best, it produces a way for artists who might go unappreciated to be appreciated...who might not fit under a definition super well to have an audience and a community of people."
But with Hyperpop, there's something more important at stake than just popularity: preserving a special community. Long before the term's sudden rise, the Hyperpop genre grew around a strong community, one that skews young, and where a lot of the best known artists are queer or trans. This became a uniquely welcoming space for musicians and fans alike. For this reason, debates around Hyperpop are not just about definitions - they're inherently about fighting to protect and maintain a culture. For many, this is of even greater significance than the term's impact on an artist's visibility. This was most obvious last summer, when Youtuber pewdiepie revealed that his Recently Played playlist on Spotify included several Hyperpop artists, who promptly asked him and his millions of fans to stop listening.
Understanding what's at stake here reveals why the conversations around what is and isn't Hyperpop are never ending. Its definition can change for purely cultural reasons, adapting in order to preserve the existing scene. An artist's music may have all the markings of the Hyperpop sound, but if they aren't aligned with the values of the culture, their music can be excluded from the genre. When people argue over what is and isn't Hyperpop, the conflict is not just about the definition of the word, but about preserving what it stands for. This kind of debate won't end as long as there's a community worth defending.
Hyperpop and spatial software aren't rare examples, just the ones I noticed popping up in my field of view last year. Today, other terms like “digital objects" and "decentralization" are spurring similar conversations.
Plenty more scissor labels from the past come to mind once the concept is familiar. In his interview with Charlie Rose (6:30), David Foster Wallace describes the popularity of David Lynch in the grad school environment he was part of, and dives into what is and isn't "Lynchian." In his article for Premiere on the subject, he writes: "...like postmodern or pornographic, Lynchian is one of those Porter Stewart-type words that's ultimately definable only ostensively-i.e., we know it when we see it."
In their own time, words like "normcore," "hipster," and "vaporwave" were scissor labels as well. When I think of all these terms, I remember the arguments that happened around them, but I don't remember any of them being particularly edifying. The details have faded in my memory, and the only impression I have is that we debated these terms for no reason other than that the term was trendy, and some cultural cache was at stake.
People aren't debating these topics in the same way today, but that just reveals a corollary to the scissor label definition: Scissor labels are only scissor labels as long as something is at stake. When their definitions fade in importance, scissor labels become categorical terms like any other, but with a cheap feeling left behind that makes it hard to take them seriously. This is the mark of scissor labels from the past.
Recognizing and successfully navigating this phenomenon is no longer optional for those meaningfully involved in any online subculture. It's necessary to have an understanding of when to participate in these discussions and how to do so productively.
In order to do so, the first step is being able to recognize a scissor label conversation as it's happening. The telltale sign of such a conversation is that it's rooted in a strictly binary orientation, primarily about what is or isn't part of trend X. When this happens, X is most likely a scissor label, and the answer likely isn't binary.
These conversations build upon themselves, and most people involved jump in immediately, without realizing the incentives behind the scene. They believe their definition is the right one, rather than an interpretation of a trend, and fight accordingly.
When we find ourselves in this kind of situation, the first thing to know is that it's a case-by-case decision whether it's worth getting involved at all. But when we do decide to engage with scissor labels, we might as well cut through these dynamics and get to the root of the matter.
To do so, we must make two main moves. First, we need to identify what's at stake in the discussion, ignoring binary questions and identifying what people are really debating. We can then bring this to the forefront of the conversation instead of debating the scissor label as a proxy. In the case that the scissor label is purely a stand-in for something else, this presents the opportunity for everyone to shift away from a pointless discussion and towards the thing they were really discussing all along.
If the scissor label's definition is actually of import, we can make a second move: to cut the binary nature of the discussion and introduce a spectrum, or subcategories within the label. This shifts the conversation towards a much more curious place, focused on getting to know the rough topology and boundaries of the label instead of fighting over one definition. This isn't just more accommodating, but often more accurate to the ideas a label describes.
This is the playbook for engaging with scissor labels productively, but honestly, most of the time, this strategy just isn't worth it. This is because there's a much greater opportunity behind each scissor label, and no matter how strategically one approaches the debate, getting too caught up in these conversations means missing out on that opportunity.
This core reality remains: Scissor labels pop up when something exciting has emerged organically, recognized by everyone who sees it. Though much else may be at stake as a result of its popularity, a scissor label most often has its origin in something honest, artistic, and interesting.
If we want the ideas that inspire us to evolve instead of turning into cheap fads from the past, we need more people who are unambiguously oriented towards the future, and not stuck debating the present moment. These people, like SOPHIE, remain focused on the same spark that preceded a scissor label's existence — even after a scissor label comes about — and keep pushing it towards the future. They pursue the thing for its own sake, not for clout or success. In doing so, they reinvent a category over and over again. They don't just ponder or debate the scissor label, but influence it through their own work, intuiting that the category itself is dynamic, and shaped by those who keep creating. They too may recognize the scissor label debate for what it is, but they don't have time to get stuck arguing over what's here today; there's always something more exciting in the future.
When we get caught up in land grabs, labels, and grifts, we anchor ourselves to the present and miss out on the chance to create what comes next. Though every scissor label needs more people to bring clarity into these conversations, the greater opportunity is often found in this future-oriented approach. Now more than ever, let's recognize this phenomenon and engage only when we need to. As much as possible, let's seek out the exciting idea behind each scissor label and carry that thing forward. Not because we want to win, but because doing so is worth it - for its own sake.
Two weeks ago, Hyperpop lost one of its most pioneering artists, SOPHIE, whose music pushed the boundaries of pop over and over again. I hope this piece has done justice to SOPHIE's work, and that it might encourage more of the same.
This post was originally published on Mirror, through a unique crowdfunding mechanism. Thank you to the 63 backers who backed this essay. Your support really changed the piece.
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