Are you cool? Senior Editor of The Atlantic Derek Thompson could probably tell you. He’s hardly The Fonz, but he’s established a definition of cool that holds up in a sociological way. He posits that coolness is a measured rebellion against an established mainstream, or societal norm. A good way to think of cool is how creative some kids could be by rebelling within the rules of a school uniform—it would be silly to show up naked, for instance, but how cool was the kid who popped his collar and wore sunglasses between classes? Super cool. Derek Thompson defines “cool” as bending the rules as far as they’ll go without necessarily breaking them, and his talk with us is as fascinating as it is concise. Derek Thompson’s latest book is Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction.
Derek Thompson: It’s an interesting question: what is coolness? And it’s sort impossible to define, but sociologists have tried. And their definition I think is really useful. Their definition is that coolness is a measured positive rebellion against an illegitimate mainstream.
And thinking of that all in one big pile is a little bit complicated, but when you disentangle it it makes a lot of sense.
It is a measured small rebellion—a little difference or distinction—from a mainstream that is considered illegitimate or bad. Coolness is a response to a mainstream.
It is in many ways very similar to the sociological definition of a cult. A cult is also a measured rebellion to a mainstream that is considered illegitimate.
Maybe the best way to think about this definition is to think about it through the lens of dress codes for high schools.
Lots of high schoolers, when they attend a school that has a dress code, they try to break from that code, but only in ways that are measured and positive.
So if the dress code says you have to wear a coat with a tie and a buttoned-up shirt, maybe they’ll undo the tie a bit or wear a hat or undo their buttoned up shirt, they’ll have measured rebellions to that illegitimate mainstream.
But it’s not cool to go to school naked. It’s not cool to go to school dressed like some sort of weird superhero for Tuesday.
That’s not a measured rebellion, that is outright rebellion, and that is not considered “cool”.
So you need a measured rebellion, number one, but number two, the mainstream has to be considered illegitimate in the first place in order for the action to be considered cool.
So in one study these researchers did something really clever: they told a bunch of students who were departing from the mainstream dress code in various ways, they told them the dress code was initiated to honor a high school graduate who had died overseas in a war.
Now, suddenly that dress code wasn’t illegitimate. It was a completely legitimate way for people to honor a fallen soldier, and fewer students considered departing from that dress code to be “cool”.
So it’s very important to think, when defining coolness, that you need two parts: first you need a mainstream that is considered bad—people need to agree that the mainstream is bad—and two, you need the rebellion to be positive and measured. It can’t be crazy. It can’t be insane. And when you have those two things together you have cool.
The difference between that which we consider cool and that which we consider cultish—because they’re relatively similar things they’re both departing from a mainstream—is essentially degree.
Cults are all designed around this idea that most human beings or most people in society “don’t get you” or they don’t get this important thing: They’re not religious enough; they’re not thoughtful enough, they’re not environmental enough; that has to be sort of the first principle of that cult.
But we reserve the word cult for essentially groups that are too far away from the mainstream to be considered a measured rebellion from it.
And so I think that’s exactly the right way to think about coolness versus cultishness, is that we’re all part of cults, we all disagree with some aspect of mainstream social or political thought.
But whether or not other people consider us cool or cultish essentially depends on whether they think that we are departing from that mainstream in a way that is measured and positive.