Mirror mirror: Superimpose Studio on the problem of mimicry in the creative industry

10 May 2017

Ollie Olanipekun and Toby Evans, the duo behind east London creative agency Superimpose Studio recently launched Services Unknown, “an open-ended project that facilitates new ideas, discussion, events and product in an effort to push culture and the industry forward in ways that make a difference.” With total freedom from client restraints, Services Unknown is a platform from which Superimpose Studio can speak eye-to-eye with the world. Here, we republish the studio’s first article for Services Unknown, in which the duo discusses the affect of repetition in the echo chambers of social media on the creative industry.

By definition, social media allows for connection and communication. There’s no question that those are great – we need those things more than ever – but it could be that we’re all doing them wrong.

A great deal has been said about the echo chambers we exist in online; ideas and beliefs are reinforced or amplified by repetition to an audience who were always going to agree with them anyway. Inside the figurative echo chamber, sources go unquestioned and different or competing views are completely nixed. 

These echo chambers have been blamed for the societal polarisation that resulted in the twin nightmares that defined 2016 – Trump and Brexit – but do we have a similar issue when it comes to art and the creative communities? While we should all probably address that much more pressing political situation before anything else, at a point in time we should take a look at the state of creative culture after ten solid years of social media. 

For the longest time, creative culture incubated itself in unseen networks, pockets and geographic communities because information couldn’t travel very fast. Media was expensive to create and distribute, non-local phone calls cost a fortune and magazines only published once a month. 

The model of cultural locales reimagining, developing or subverting initial broad ideas has historically worked pretty well – rap from Houston has a sound all of its own that came about because it is a long way from New York, all those Swedish crime dramas you hear about in The Guardian are nothing like CSI: Miami because Swedish culture is not Floridian culture (CSI: Miami is a great show though – we’re not snobs guys) and Russian kids left unchecked for decades turned sportswear into something completely their own.

The internet let us share information, but social media has allowed us to truly engage with other people and their creative practices. We can see what everyone’s up to, we can see why they’re doing it and we can see how they’re doing it. We want to know, because why wouldn’t we? What kind of person doesn’t want to learn? 

Pre-social media, you did at least have to snoop around online for what you wanted to know, but there are none of the old barriers to information now, which means everyone is up to speed on everyone else all the time. Ideas, techniques and styles are shared immediately and then reflected/refracted across the world. How many times have you sent something to a friend only for them to exclaim, “Oh shit, I was JUST about to send you that exact thing!”? It was probably weird the first few times it happened, but now it seems pretty normal, right?

Everyone’s in the same place, moving at the same pace. We only want the freshest, dankest memes and the algorithms won’t allow us to see anything else because they only want to give us what we want. It’s fast, and it’s definitely a kind of progress, but it can’t allow for a diverse creative culture, it’s a mirror culture – we’re seeing ourselves and everyone else at the same time.

We’re painting in broad, hyperbolic strokes of course: the end of culture isn’t nigh, but it’s concerning that the happy accidents and idiosyncrasies that came from creative isolation and making-it-up-as-you-go might get replaced with mutual backslapping and mirror culture. If outsiders are hidden by algorithms there’ll be no one around to keep us on our toes.

Equally, it’s hard to progress when you’re questioning how much ground has been covered before – with so much work out there and so many people with ideas that seem so similar, it’s disheartening to imagine that you might never make a meaningful impact or create anything truly original. You’ve lain awake and thought about that, haven’t you? Admit it.

But if connection and communication is causing homogeny, the solution is absolutely not to become less connected – “unplugging” is for the yuppies who were never plugged in anyway (those retreats they go on sound like the worst, don’t they?) and the aforementioned Trump/Brexit situations are both in a sense about forcible disconnection, so to forcibly isolate our creative practices for the sake of keeping our ideas “pure” sounds pretty dirty and retroactive in light of those two gross moments in recent human history. Being a luddite almost never works out and shutting down Instagram is a terrible idea. 

The thing is, there’s no quick fix for this – the answer, from our point of view, is also the answer to many problems that life presents: work harder. Dig deeper and, crucially, dig in more than one direction. Going to the library and hitting the actual, physical books is a worthwhile break in routine, engaging in culture that you don’t expect to like is always worth doing. It’s hard to fight against your own taste but that’s the point, and we believe it’s very important to be as open as you can be: make an effort to meet people from all kinds of cultural viewpoints and backgrounds, talk to them. 

But what about you? How do you discipline yourself to avoid unconscious appropriation? How do you navigate the social media circle-jerk without relinquishing connection? How do you develop creative solutions when in your darker moments you might feel like everything you do will eventually become a starter pack meme? 

Superimpose Studio has reached out to thought-leading figures from across the industry for their response. Get in touch and tell them what you think.

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