The study of all art, plastic, graphic, musical, and literary, is supposed to cultivate good taste. In a broad sense, it infrequently does so." So declared a op-ed in The New York Times on March 13, 1908, the lead-in to a story regarding the employment of a chair for the cultivation of good taste at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. The Times editor, though cautious, agreed that the proposal was a solid one. "The requirements for the professorship will be exacting," he warned. "The trouble will be to establish a correct and immutable standard of good taste."
It doesn't appear that Northwestern ever followed through with a course directing its students on how to live with exacting aesthetic standards, and the notion of a taste-making authority slowly faded away over the 20th century. "In the old days, taste was definitely more strongly demarcated in terms of where our signals or information were coming from," says Tom Vanderbilt, author of You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice, which arrived in bookstores in May. "Later we had democratization, the emergence of a stronger consuming class, and people became, in a way, more alike in that they could afford many of the same things."
There's no better evidence of the democratization of taste than on social media, where the shift towards a culture of self-made tastemakers is most obvious. Between interior design blogs that spawn book deals and self-taught chefs whose viral YouTube videos illicit thousands of gushing comments, the digital age has reset who we look to for advice and inspiration in the world of style.
It helps that there's an ever-increasing pool of stuff to flick through, like and repost. More than 80 million photos and videos are posted daily to Instagram by over 400 million users; the microblogging platform Tumblr hosts more than 280 million bloggers who upload, on average, over 54 million posts per day; Pinterest, the "visual bookmarking tool," currently hosts over 100 million monthly active users who curate collections from Art Deco-inspired fonts to vintage candy tins. What's more, the quality of the images we see has become increasingly polished, suggesting that the average user has a firm grasp on how to make their selfies, lattes, pets and plates appear, well, more likeable.
For Vanderbilt, the question of why we like what we like isn't just about access to more – or better looking – content; it's also about the very public ways we now broadcast our personal preferences online and are exposed to the opinions of others. "We're just swimming in this morass," he says. "I started to wonder what might be behind some of that."
What's behind some of that, it seems, is a lot less simple than clicking the "like" button. Using findings from across sociology, biology, neuroscience and anthropology and delving into topics as diverse as craft beer competitions, Netflix algorithms and how we experience art in museums, You May Also Like explores the extraordinarily complex psychology at work as we navigate the shifting sands of personal taste.
One major factor, it turns out, is social validation. "The word 'social' in 'social media' is so important, right," Vanderbilt points out. "So many of our tastes and preferences are driven by what anthropologists would call social learning or social imitation." This phenomenon helps explain not only the virality of certain trends, but also how what we 'like' on social media can help us gain access to specific groups and distinguish ourselves. "It's curation – what you like, but also the way you present what you like, how you frame it," Vanderbilt says.
For Maggie Fost, creative director for the Durham, N.C.-based Merge Records label and professor at York University's Department of Design, our newfound adeptness at self-representation through gorgeously crafted Instagram feeds and Pinterest boards is less about the possibility that we've developed a more refined aesthetic sense than about the current craze for curation. "I think our collective taste in North America has swung toward something more visually pleasing and sophisticated in the last 10 years," she admits. "[But] without critical dialogue, I'm not sure we're more aesthetically educated."
Still, in a world of easy thumbs-ups, Vanderbilt thinks the tastemaker role will endure. "We don't like the top-down, 'arbiters of taste'-type language anymore," he says. "But we can still use these people to navigate through a huge range of consumption experiences."
So, I ask Vanderbilt, if we're armed with a better understanding of how, and why, we like what we like, can we then use that knowledge to make more personally meaningful and satisfying choices?
"Ooh, good question!" Vanderbilt laughs. "There's probably not a single takeaway, because this is one of the slipperiest experiences we all have." He pauses, reflecting. "Don't let someone else's taste get in the way of something you might really like, because those things are always shifting. What people thought was great a hundred years ago is now…well, current popularity is rarely a great guide to future respect."