Young-Girls in Wikiland

Niche aesthetics, the kind that end in -wave and -core and often exist mostly online, are the bread and butter of Aesthetics Wiki, a user-edited, visual and text glossary that began in 2017. The goal of the project, which has four administrators and 3,778 contributors as of November 18, 2022, as well as an associated Discord server where users have robust (but mostly civil and democratic) conversations about what differentiates balletcore and ballet academia, is to become “a comprehensive encyclopedia of online and offline aesthetics,” according to the website—essentially, Wikipedia but with a very specific mandate. Looking at the Discord server together with the Wiki, though, it becomes clear that the project is documenting something else, too: American culture’s changing concept of the purpose and meaning of aesthetics.

In some ways, the newer connotation of aesthetics developing online continues conversations rooted in the eighteenth-century development of aesthetic philosophy, notably the taxonomic impulse demonstrated in the Wiki. Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment, to name one particularly famous example, defines kinds of aesthetic judgment, distinguishing a judgment that something is beautiful from one that something is merely pleasurable.[1] Similarly, aesthetic philosophers and critics have long categorized and defined particular styles or movements, developing a vocabulary to distinguish, say, brutalism from midcentury modernism. Broadly speaking, though, the Aesthetics Wiki subordinates questions of aesthetic judgment to focus more on categorizing kinds of styles. Exercising aesthetic judgment has always been bound up, to some degree, in practices of identity or self-fashioning: even Kant’s notion that we can occupy a disinterested position from which to make aesthetic judgments implicitly imagines the disinterested aesthetic subject[2] as a particular kind of person, and Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of an aesthetic disposition[3] similarly illustrates how aesthetic experiences participate in the cultivation of classed subject positions. As contemporary weak aesthetics cohere on digital platforms, they bring some of the latent connection between judgment and identity to the fore, with some aesthetics, like Dragoncore, rooted in “values . . . connected to the traits and personalities that are usually attributed to dragons in legends and modern media” and others, like Vaporwave, emerging as an aesthetic rooted in social critique of consumerism.[4] Aesthetics Wiki continues to draw energy from the dialectical relationship between judging and embodying kinds of style, but it also helps cultivate a relationship to aesthetic experience wherein users seek a wholesale, predetermined aesthetic to embrace and identify with. 

The impulse to characterize a style or type (baroque, minimalist, kitschy, camp) continues in the Aesthetics Wiki, where contributors taxonomize aesthetic subcultures and offer defining characteristics according to a robust set of guidelines. The Wiki’s pages are organized into categories and must include a description of visual features of the aesthetic and a gallery of images that exemplify it; optionally, pages can include sections describing the aesthetic’s history, philosophy, fashion, related media, and controversies surrounding the aesthetic. Guidelines for the creation of wiki pages reflect the broader goal of Aesthetics Wiki to be a comprehensive, objective, and reliable resource for users hoping to learn about an aesthetic. A page delineating what constitutes an existing aesthetic states: “To meet our requirements for notability, an aesthetics must be found and exemplified repeatedly online in communities on Tumblr, images on Pinterest, and various other sources. What the wiki will consider ‘existing’ is that searching up the name brings up multiple Pinterest boards, tumblr posts, instagram posts, etc. If the name does not bring anything up, it will largely be assumed to be nonexistent.”[5] Aesthetics Wiki thus documents, rather than defines, aesthetic subcultures and categories. But existing materials on image-sharing social media sites are not equivalent to subcultures that develop around shared activities or interests.

Just as the project carries on the work of defining and categorizing, so does it emphasize the central role played by emotion in the experience of aesthetic judgment. As the site’s FAQ page puts it: “Aesthetics have now come to mean a collection of images, colors, objects, music, and writings that creates a specific emotion, purpose, and community.” Having developed largely but not exclusively on digital platforms where users curate, assemble, and share elements to cultivate a consistent or specific mood, aesthetics in the hyper-contemporary sense are importantly defined by the emotions they provoke. For example, the Liminal Space aesthetic, which relies primarily on visuals and music in its expressive forms, relies upon those forms’ evocation of “the unique feelings of eeriness, nostalgia, and apprehension.” The feelings uncanny images of empty school hallways and parking lots at night evoke in the viewer are in fact part of the aesthetic itself. To garner an entry in the Aesthetics Wiki, an aesthetic must have an existing community around it, whether on the internet or in the material world; whether or not an aesthetic merits mention is typically mediated through the Discord, creating a sort of secondary, macro community to discuss the legitimacy and the characteristics of these aesthetics.

Where the emerging concept of aesthetics differs from more widely-accepted definitions, then, is in how the self is conceptualized and imagined to play a role in aesthetic experience. The heart of contemporary aesthetics might be the affective experience of sensing the particular mood conveyed by an image—you know: vibes. This exchange between the subject who experiences and the object of their aesthetic attention is a core mechanism of aesthetic experience, wherein some aspect of form provokes emotional response that initiates the experience. Contemporary weak aesthetics reflect a change in how people understand the role of aesthetic experience in subjectivity. Aesthetic experience is increasingly mediated digitally, and in addition to the ways social media can encourage users to present an ideal, aestheticized version of themselves as an image to be reacted to, the broader algorithmic logic of taste is reshaping aesthetic experience. Any engagement with internet aesthetics is mediated through both the “feedback loops” that predict our preferences based on previous activity and the “computational systems” that shape “our essential aesthetic vocabulary.”[6] As evidenced by how the Aesthetics Wiki offers readers ways to embody a specific aesthetic through self-presentation, aesthetic experience is increasingly routed through capitalist consumption and experienced as part of neoliberal logics of the self. Neoliberalism, as we use it here, describes not only our current cultural hegemony that believes society should be organized following the logic of free economic markets,[7] but a more pervasive ideology in which “all aspects of subjective experience are organized by economic rationality, so that some people see themselves as stocks to be invested in.”[8] Or as Jia Tolentino puts it: “always be optimizing.”[9]

The rise of “aesthetic” as part of contemporary speech—especially for very online Gen Z and millennials—indicates both ongoing interest in the questions of beauty and taste that date to the Enlightenment and a flattening of those questions into the individualized self-cultivation rewarded by neoliberalism. Indeed, Aesthetics Wiki is part of a larger ecosystem of platforms and algorithms where the tension between authentic development of a subculture and recuperation by the market unfolds. In the twenty-first century, the collapsing distinction between art object and commodity makes an aesthetic more like a product that can be purchased—by literally purchasing products like clothing, books, music, cosmetics, streaming subscriptions, or foods—but also by relating to aesthetics not as something to be built, interrogated, and explored, but as itself a product off the rack. While curating and collecting are part of the appeal of participating in an aesthetic, the driving logic of the Wiki also repackages curated, bespoke aesthetic practices as ready-made, complete styles. The relationship participants have to the aesthetic can blur the boundaries between labor and play,[10] even if participating in an aesthetic offers an individual a form of self-concept or subjectivity that disrupts neoliberal logics of the self, if only temporarily.


Aesthetics in Crisis


The proliferation of contemporary weak aesthetic commitments documented on the Wiki, we argue, is bound to the weakness of aesthetic judgment in the present moment. Marginal subcultures that take shape around shared cultural references, practices of taste, and online communities proliferate; the social significance of aesthetic judgment weakens. Indeed, Aesthetics Wiki, the most visible institution of contemporary weak aesthetics, exploded in usage during the COVID-19 pandemic—an apt metaphor for the ways aesthetic commitments might flourish when our sense of blocked political agency is felt most acutely.[11]

“At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a lot of interest in Cleancore but… I think as the pandemic roared on, Cleancore got a little too close to everyday reality so the interest shifted in the exact opposite direction (which is why Cottagecore wound up becoming the aesthetic juggernaut of 2020 that it was),” Sean Strife, one of the moderators of Aesthetics Wiki, said via Discord chat. People stuck at home, rife with anxiety about leaving the house and being with other people—much less engaging in the kinds of activities that defined them and shaped their lives pre-pandemic—could feel some sense of self-expression, community, and agency through aesthetics. People interested in cleancore (also known as safetygoth) could, perhaps, feel that they were actively doing something to protect themselves. Prior to the development of effective vaccines and as disinformation-fueled arguments over wearing face masks and large-scale lockdowns raged, the impotence and impossibility of any kind of engagement or effort toward change in the face of the pandemic came into sharp relief. But wearing respirators and safety goggles was an understandable mode of comfort and play, a way to deal on the individual level with the brokenness of the collective and political chaos.

As the literary critic Michael Dango has recently argued, contemporary aesthetic styles often do the work of imaginatively repairing an experience of ongoing crisis. The aesthetic strategy of the filter, for example, names a phenomenon of digital media and a stylistic strategy of responding to a pervasive crisis of recognition. This feeling of crisis is the other side of neoliberalism’s coin: while one response to neoliberalism might be to fully relate to oneself as an economic prospect to be optimized for participation in capitalist exchange, another response is to seek the increasingly rare social spaces that might “enable individuals to feel themselves recognized as people outside an economic or market context.”[12] Just as choosing a filter for an Instagram post is an action that entails a choice—to make an image sharp and bright or muted and nostalgic—trying on an aesthetic is one way to carve out a sense of who one is outside of their relationship to work or their strategies of optimization that emerge from the economic rationale of neoliberal ideology. However, the filtering act of seeking an aesthetic also continues or participates in neoliberal concepts of the self as a commodity to be invested in and displayed in the market. It is increasingly difficult to understand oneself without recourse to market logics, Dango argues, and it is also increasingly difficult to access a public sphere in which one can occupy a social position not defined by the market.[13] At a moment when young people might be just beginning to more thoroughly participate in neoliberal economic subjectivity, and at a time in life when the crisis of recognition and political agency can feel particularly acute, social media and the internet offer a public sphere in which to present a self—or find one.


That’s so aesthetic!


In fact Dango’s theory seems to speak acutely to the large base of Aesthetics Wiki users who are teenagers; on the Discord server, people as young as 13 introduce themselves to the community with the caveat that they don’t yet know their aesthetic but joined the community to find it. For many, it seems to be a project of great import, as identity formation has been for young people for decades. But to Aesthetics Wiki’s founder, a 21-year-old undergrad from the UK named Ella, the young people using the site “seemed to be using aesthetics as tools to define their entire selves, kind of like secondary gender identities or star signs,” as opposed to the “pure catalogue based on visual evidence” of the nostalgic, 2010s-era Tumblr aesthetics she initially set out to create, she said in an email interview.

In her teens, as she describes in a Substack post, Ella was an online creature, knit into it as many of her generation are by the vast and overwhelming architecture of the corporate internet. “I’ve been what might be considered a heavy [internet] user since the age of ten, when my family bought an unlimited data plan—I had my first social media, Facebook, by 11, and at 12 I upgraded from a pay-to-browse almost-brick phone to my first ever smartphone, at which point I simply watched as my previous reading habit died by the wayside,” Ella explained in a March Substack post. Her understanding of aesthetics and the role they could play in her life, Ella said in a post from her since-deleted WordPress blog, was informed largely by the writer, actress, and fashion savant Tavi Gevinson and her now-defunct online magazine Rookie. “It was at her beckoning that I listened to my first Hole album, read and watched The Virgin Suicides, and learnt to make moodboards, to identify some visual element from some bygone period that I liked and stick with it,” Ella wrote in a 2021 post titled “I Created the Aesthetics Wiki. No, It’s Not Easy Being Really Cool.”

The rise of Rookie coincided with Tumblr’s heyday in the mid-2010s, and Ella was a devoted user of the microblogging site. “I spent New Year’s Eve on Tumblr in 2013 and 2014, and lived my life on the site up until 2020; I saw Cottagecore and Lovecore and Dark Academia and Pastel Grunge erupt in real time,” she wrote in 2021. That, she explained in her writing and in an email interview, was what she wanted to pin down with the Wiki, what she wanted to preserve—what she observed in a space, a world somehow both material and not, where she had spent her own adolescence. “I still have a 2010s-Tumblr conception of ‘aesthetics’ as visual ideas which are all-encompassing + communally created, but still mostly confined to images and videos on the internet and social media,” she said via email.

However, Ella failed to predict the ways others would interact with her creation—how it would have its own life, distinct from her vision. It’s not just the influence of other users and editors that has changed the Wiki; Ella points to the primacy of another, post-Tumblr social media platform that’s shaped the way the Wiki works now. “After the rise of TikTok it turned into a kind of extended ‘what’s your aesthetic’ quiz, as well as a forum for arguing (but not astutely) about the political implications of certain visuals,” she said. In a previously deleted WordPress post, Ella describes these kinds of political arguments over aesthetics: “Cottagecore is for Nazis, they shout, unaware that rural living has been romanticised for millennia by everyone from Tibullus to Mao to the second-wave feminists. No, it’s very special to lesbians, others reply, having no concept of what a lesbian actually is beyond someone who is annoying on Tik Tok.”

If you are older than 18, perhaps you’ve noticed the way young people today tend to use the word “aesthetic.” The Merriam-Webster definition of the word in its noun form is “a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty, art, and taste and with the creation and appreciation of beauty.” Coinciding with the rise of TikTok, the explosively popular video-sharing app, young people now use the word as an adjective to describe an outfit, a makeup style, a coffee shop, or any other number of socially mediated images and experiences. What they mean is actually something different than the standard definition; it’s something like “aesthetically pleasing” or “well-composed and designed” or “fully realizing a style.” Following this logic, the word itself seems to be taking on a new set of meanings that describe an object of aesthetic judgment rather than the act of judging or the study of aesthetic experience. In this sense, it also refers to an object or scenario—the perfect That Girl athleisure, intricate latte art, a sun-filled japandi-style breakfast nook—that has already been seen, mediated through a screen.

It’s a gut instinct for many adults to complain about misused words, but really, we know that language is dynamic, and if this new definition of aesthetic is bubbling up, it’s because something’s brewing. Sianne Ngai’s theory of contemporary aesthetic categories anticipates and helps make sense of the rise of Aesthetics Wiki and the cultural formation of weak aesthetics. Minor or weak aesthetics “play to and help complete the formation of a distinctive kind of aesthetic subject,” one that takes shape through intersubjective engagement.[14] What Ngai calls the “aesthetic subject” is someone who exercises aesthetic judgment and has aesthetic experiences; the aesthetic object is the site or source of those judgments and experiences.[15] Weak aesthetics, and the intersubjective dynamics of Aesthetics Wiki, blur the distinction between aesthetic subject and aesthetic object: to participate in an aesthetic is to make yourself over as an aesthetic object aligned with a style. The appeal of becoming an aesthetic object comes from a desire to imagine yourself being experienced aesthetically, to live in—or live like—an Instagram post or perfectly-curated Tumblr feed.

To arrive at the desire to cultivate oneself as an aesthetic object, though, comes through the experience of aesthetic subjectivity, of judging and preferring, then, typically, entering a conversation to find one’s aesthetic—to look to others and ask what category one fits in. Individuals’ relationship to the aesthetic that draws them in can vary widely, but whether its participants merely look at a few TikToks or align as much of their lives as possible to the aesthetic, the relational logic of aesthetic judgment shapes the dynamic.

Wiki pages vary in completeness and quality, but it’s worthwhile to explore one to see how they can be understood as both a documentation of a particular aesthetic and a tool to use one’s aesthetic subjectivity to create oneself as an aesthetic object. The nymphet page describes the controversial (and resurgent, if the tens of thousands of Instagram posts tagged “nymphet,” “nymphetaesthetic,” or some variation thereof, are any indication) Tumblr-era aesthetic. It was defined on that platform by stills from the 1962 Stanley Kubrick and the 1997 Adrian Lyne film adaptations of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita, as well as Lana Del Rey lyrics. Characteristic visuals associated with nymphet aesthetics include the “heart-shaped sunglasses and red lollipop” of the Kubrick film’s advertising campaign, cherries “due to their connotations with innocent femininity, nostalgia, and sexuality,” and “Lips, blowing bubblegum, lip cosmetics, and images of biting down on food or flowers.” The Wiki expands upon the visuals of the aesthetic, recommending music (Del Rey is at the top of the list), films (ditto the film versions and novel Lolita), clothing items (tennis skirts, high-waisted shorts, sundresses, rompers, lace, bralettes), accessories (heart-shaped sunglasses, candy or bubblegum, cute hair accessories, small earrings), and activities like “eating fruits and certain sweets, fashion or shopping at thrift stores, going to parties, and maintaining a carefree and childlike demeanor.”

The aesthetic is separate from but deliberately reminiscent of Nabokov’s Dolores Haze, an ordinary suburban child kidnapped, abused, dehumanized, and mythologized by a very unreliable narrator with a gift for purple prose. But the philosophy and the feeling associated with the aesthetic—evoking the liminal space between girlhood and adulthood, using one’s sexuality to assert a degree of power, even if that power is imagined—speaks directly to the tension of occupying the roles of aesthetic subject and aesthetic object at once. That is, followers of the nymphet aesthetic as defined by the Wiki engage with an identity as a judging subject specifically to produce themselves as an object (a nymphet), to be consumed in a very specific manner (by an older man or sugar daddy), thus subjecting themselves to capitalist heteropatriarchy.

Cannily enough, this is reflected in a passage from the novel in which the narrator, Humbert Humbert, describes Dolores’s consumerist American habits with disgust:

She believed with a kind of celestial trust, any advertisement or advice that appeared in Movie Love or Screen Land—Starasil Starves Pimples, or “You better watch out if you’re wearing your shirttails outside your jeans, gals, because Jill says you shouldn’t.” If a roadside sign said: VISIT OUR GIFT SHOP—we had to visit it, had to buy its Indian curios, dolls, copper jewelry, cactus candy.

The words “novelties and souvenirs” simply entranced her by their trochaic lilt. If some café sign proclaimed Icecold Drinks, she was automatically stirred, although all drinks everywhere were ice-cold. She it was to whom ads were dedicated: the ideal consumer, the subject and object of every foul poster.[16]

The dynamic diagnosed here by Nabokov, though, does not indict Dolores so much as the culture that produced her as the ideal consumer who in turn is most valued as an object for consumption. Nor was the dynamic of making oneself into an object for aesthetic judgment created by Aesthetics Wiki. Rather, the Wiki reflects the constrained possibilities for self-making in neoliberal, digitally-mediated society.

In addition to the social media sites where Aesthetics Wiki members might go to demonstrate their newfound aesthetics, the Wiki itself is also subject to the corporate internet via Fandom, the website which hosts it. By its own definition, “Fandom is a powerful ecosystem of sites, tools and experiences that can help brands reach fans as they’re exploring their personal passions across thousands of movie franchises, tv series and games. We help brands figure out how to navigate fans’ inner circle with our trusted content, experiences and environment, all created by fans, for fans.”


Wiki power struggle


The narrative of the Wiki itself mirrors the radical shift from aesthetics as judgment and study to the contemporary, socially mediated understanding of the word; in fact, that seems to be the reason for the nearly-existential power struggle over the control and identity of the site that occurred over several months in 2020 and 2021.

As she said in an email interview, Ella left the Aesthetics Wiki community for six months sometime in 2020; busy with school and work, she had neither the time nor attention to interact with the website or its users. What happened when she logged back on differs slightly depending on whom one asks. Ella’s recollection is that “there were literally hundreds of articles about totally unrelated pre-internet youth subcultures copy-pasted verbatim from Wikipedia” on the site, which she decided should be removed from the Wiki. “It looked a lot more dramatic than it actually was. I made an Excel spreadsheet ahead of time with pages I wanted to delete and showed other mods, so did consult others—but misinterpreted a tentative yes to most articles as a more definite yes to all articles.”

Ella’s decision put her at odds with other moderators who also work to maintain the site. Being a Aesthetics Wiki moderator, at least as it plays out on the Discord, is akin to being a camp counselor and archivist—on the Discord, they answer questions, help users categorize different images into particular aesthetics, troubleshoot, and mediate misunderstandings. Current moderators of the Wiki like Strife and Graviphantalia, also striving to pay due attention to the site, “are unfortunately preoccupied with a lot of other things, such as a college entrance for one and a 9-5 job for another mod,” Graviphantalia said in a Discord interview.

To Strife and Graviphantalia, the purge was more significant, particularly given that Ella had been absent for so long and the deletions hadn’t been democratically approved. “Our only notice was a very vague ‘clean-up,’ where I thought she was gonna delete like a handful of abandoned pages,” Graviphantalia said via discord chat. According to Strife, Ella “got caught lying to Fandom [the Aesthetics Wiki’s host site] staff about the level of involvement she had with the Wiki,” allegedly implying that she was active during her hiatus, though according to Graviphantalia, Ella had actually ceded control to another moderator, Avereo, during that period.  “I was pretty much the one stuck having to clean up the messes when she was nowhere to be found whatsoever and just conveniently popped back up after the interview with The Atlantic and finding out [the Wiki] was actually getting attention,” Strife said. “I was actually ready to walk away, but democratically, it was decided she should be stripped of power by Fandom (our manager at the time even commented that they don’t take the choice to strip creators of their power lightly, but felt there was enough evidence to justify it in this instance).”

To add insult to injury, Strife said, Ella’s own blog “made mention of the fact she hadn’t organically thought of the Wiki in over half-a-year and also attacked the community, which came back to haunt her when she tried to turn the community against us when she got stripped of power due to getting caught lying.”

“We also saw her blog, which included a lot of disparaging comments at us in particular,” both moderators and users, Graviphantalia said, referring to a post on Ella’s deleted WordPress blog. In the post from 2021, Ella describes the Wiki as filled with “ramblings from twelve-year-olds who have been allowed to spend too much time online,” or “by older people who should know better.”

As she said in an email interview, Ella has no qualms about being forcibly removed from the thing she created, although that did not seem to be the case shortly after she was defenestrated. “I had such major differences with the mods that I couldn’t imagine it turning into anything I would be proud to put my name to, so just decided to write about web aesthetics using my own domain/resources”—namely her own Substack blog, which doesn’t require input from anyone else. Ella did not elaborate via email about what those differences are, though they appear to be primarily regarding the purpose of the Wiki and indeed, the purpose of aesthetics.

Also in the deleted WordPress post is Ella’s summary of exactly what went wrong with the Aesthetics Wiki. According to her, “it […] exists as a fashion advice repository, because our users love to define themselves by what they buy. Thousands flock to our forum and comment section, listing totally irrelevant information in a bid to discover what ‘their aesthetic’ is. Gone are the days of free exploration or experimentation, or even very basic cultural context!”

“Basically, I think she had this image of what the community should be, and the reality was not matching up to that image (alluding to the fact we tend to have a younger user base) and making fun of them for their age and trying to figure themselves out,” Strife said.


The Young-Girl in the Wiki


If we have a picture in our minds of a segment of Aesthetics Wiki users, perhaps it looks like this: a person in their teens, a Gen Z digital native, who seeks both an identity and specific guidelines about how to perform that identity. But is an aesthetic an identity? To what end and in what way do these users intend to practice that aesthetic or identity?

For many Wiki users, despite the traditional understanding of the word “identity,” the answer to the first question seems to be yes, one is defined by the clothes they wear, the music they listen to, the books they read, the images and objects they are drawn to. As for the second question, the answer is informed by Theory of the Young-Girl, the 1999 text by French collective Tiqqun. Tiqqun describes the concept of the Young-Girl as “simply the model citizen as redefined by consumer society since World War I, in explicit response to the revolutionary menace. As such, the Young-Girl is a polar figure, orienting, rather than dominating, outcomes.”[17] The Young-Girl need neither be young, nor a girl, Tiqqun argues; the Young-Girl within the neoliberal Empire exists as a subject only in order to consume, and consume that she might then turn herself into an object for consumption. Her subjectivity exists only for the purpose of curating and forming herself into the sellable, the consumable, redounding to the benefit of Empire.

Though published in 1999, Theory of the Young-Girl is particularly prescient about social media. Its “textuo-political style,” or “characteristic formal and affective manner through which it animates political subjects and the formal and affective mannerisms of the responsive political subjects it participates in bringing into being,”[18] is particularly well-suited to the era of social media, where its iterability makes it resonant and meme-like, an echo moving into ever new spaces.[19] The Young-Girl as theoretical concept resonates with the development of Aesthetics Wiki. Certainly, the cultivation of a legible aesthetic is often a neoliberal practice of the self, one that requires buying lots of stuff. But the Young-Girl’s ideological portability and resonant movement through multimedia space also illuminates dynamics of Aesthetics Wiki, particularly its emanation of “resonant affectivity.”[20] One’s connection to an aesthetic is often sparked by the affective pull of an image, and the communal or intersubjective development of a particular aesthetic is shot through with the affective resonance that might drive an individual to create a moodboard or playlist.

The mythological figure Echo has helped Tiqqun’s interlocutors theorize the cultural reverberations and theoretical movement of the Young-Girl, but she also helps us theorize the coalescence and movements of aesthetics. Echo is the figure who responds, belatedly and incompletely, to Narcissus, and Echo offers a model for how a formal quality or rhythm might migrate via such belated and incomplete repetition. This theory draws on Marshall McLuhan’s invocation of Narcissus as a figure that reflects dynamics of the electronic age, and the uneven exchange between Narcissus and Echo also offers a metaphor for the Young-Girl’s “transmission, appropriation, and adaptation over the internet.”[21] Echo, who offers a technique of dissemination, who finds “some kind of power, however compromised”[22] in the mobility of dissemination, also helps us understand the affective reverberations that pulse around Aesthetics Wiki. Not Narcissus, an individual looking to find her own beautiful reflection in the black mirror, but Echo: a girl repeating back, asking for affirmation: what is my aesthetic? While certainly not all users of Aesthetics Wiki comport with this framework, the Discord server often fields the question, “What is my aesthetic,” followed by a list of the user’s preferences—favorite colors, musical tastes, and so forth. Identifying one’s aesthetic—or asking to have one’s aesthetic identified—is so common on the Discord server that there’s a page on the Wiki devoted to helping users find their aesthetic.

For Ngai, contemporary weak aesthetics reflect broader societal changes of late capitalism: the blurring of boundaries between labor and play; the proliferation of information networks as routes for experience and discourse; and commodification and consumer culture.[23] Ngai theorizes three central aesthetic categories of the contemporary moment—the zany, the cute, and the interesting—and explores how these aesthetic categories participate in social change. We cannot neatly slot each aesthetic documented on the Wiki into one of Ngai’s categories, but her framework anticipates and illuminates how weak aesthetics have developed in the 2020s. Indeed, the digital ecosystem of #aesthetics evidences the ambivalent status of aesthetic judgment in late capitalism. Participating in an aesthetic feels like play and can build community, but participating in the digital network of aesthetics is also necessarily to contribute to the attention economy of social media, to create data and value for corporations including Fandom, where targeted ads populate the pages of Aesthetics Wiki. Because the digital arena is where people go to participate in aesthetics, however, they do not have much choice in how to participate. An aesthetic may be grounded in anti-capitalist politics, but its documentation on the Wiki is mediated through the corporate internet.


What’s parallel, what’s underneath


But to look at the Wiki as only a document of and tool for the perpetuation of the Young-Girl—the epitome of the neoliberal necessity to consume for the purpose of being consumed oneself—is an incomplete view. The Wiki’s parallel text is the Discord, a place where conversations about “what is my aesthetic” and “what aesthetic category does this fit into” and “what things comport with this aesthetic” happen. But it is also a place where community members grapple with what aesthetics are valid for inclusion, and conversations about the morality of different aesthetics occur (i.e.. do we remove a page because we know the aesthetic and ideologies associated with it are reprehensible?). The Discord is vital to understanding the Wiki users, and to understanding the Wiki itself. Indeed, it might be understood as the space where we can see “dialogic expertise” unfold in real time. It is also the place where these tensions—what the Wiki is, what aesthetics are, why they are, and why they are important—are playing out in an observable way.

Taken together, the Wiki and Discord participate in and reflect changes to the meaning of aesthetics in a digitally-mediated age where more and more of our lives are aestheticized. In one way, these changes evidence how the aesthetic disposition has been democratized and flattened. For Pierre Bourdieu, the aesthetic disposition is a way of seeing everything through the lens of aesthetic judgment and not just its use or practical value for consumption.[24] This is a classed position and is unified around fairly consistent principles of good taste. Indeed, we might note the formal echoes between Bourdieu’s complex charts tracking the preferences of his French survey respondents by class and the detailed lists of clothing types, bands, books, and media associated with an aesthetic on the Wiki.[25]

Aesthetics Wiki evidences a distinct kind of aesthetic disposition that is more rhizomatic, non-hierarchical, and diverse—but this is not to say that participating in the new discourse of aesthetics offers a respite from or resistance to capitalism. As the Wiki’s “How to Define Your Aesthetic” page puts it: “aesthetics cost money.” Moreover, the impulse to articulate one’s identity not just through taste practices, or judgments made by an aesthetic subject, but by fashioning oneself as an aesthetic object, reflects the ways digital media encourage us to “see[] ourselves through technology.”[26] The allure of becoming an aesthetic object reflects how aesthetic experience can be remade through the media in which it unfolds—the pleasure of losing yourself in a Tumblr or perfecting a moodboard is an aesthetic pleasure, but it also supports the attention economy. Though the Wiki documents and even enables this tendency toward self-objectification, it also makes some effort to push back on it via the “How to Define Your Aesthetic” page. Seeming to speak to those young users seeking the precise category into which they fit, the page cautions against the all-encompassing self-objectification of aesthetics, and it encourages users to take up (and take off) aesthetics however they choose. As it is taking shape online, documented via Aesthetics Wiki, aesthetic subjectivity is more thoroughly interwoven with making oneself over as an aesthetic object. Echoing this phenomenon, the linguistic movement of “aesthetic” is not just youthful malapropism, but a way language is tracking these shifting dynamics as they unfold. 


Editor’s note: Anna and Ellen Ioanes are sisters and this is their first joint written project.


[1] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans.Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1987 (1790)), §3, 47.

[2] Kant, §5, 52.

[3] Pierre Bourdieu,. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), 3.

[4] Luke Cartledge, “All That is Solid Melts into Air: Ten Years of Vaporwave,” Loud and Quiet,  September 22, 2020,

[5] One Aesthetics Wiki member, Angela Yin, echoes the distinction between “existing” and “created” aesthetics in an interview at Screenshot. Malavika Pradeep, “What Are Internet Aesthetics and Subcultures? Two Aesthetics Wiki Members Explain” Screenshot, January 25, 2022,

[6] Ed Finn, “Art by Algorithm.” Aeon, September 27, 2017,

[7] This definition draws on David Harvey’s Brief History of Neoliberalism as it is invoked in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry for “Neoliberalism,” 

[8] Michael Dango, Crisis Style: The Aesthetics of Repair (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2021), 110.

[9] Jia Tolentino, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion (New York: Random House, 2019), 63.

[10] Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 3.

[11] Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 345-6.

[12] Dango 109.

[13] Dango, 23.

[14] Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories, 4.

[15] Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories, 8.

[16] Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (New York: Vintage, 1997 (1955)), 148.

[17] Tiqqun. Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl, (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2012), 13.

[18] Heather Warren-Crowe and Andrea Jonsson. Young-Girls in Echoland: #Theorizing Tiqqun (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2021), 38.

[19] Warren-Crowe and Jonsson, 24, 44.

[20] Warren-Crowe and Jonsson, 24.

[21] Warren-Crowe and Jonsson, 23.

[22] Warren-Crowe and Jonsson, 23-4.

[23] Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories, 13.

[24] Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories, 3.

[25] One representative chart tracks “the aesthetic disposition in the petit bourgeoisie by ranking objects that individual groups concluded would make a beautiful photograph”—for “Primary Teachers,” the top three items include “sunset,” “woman breast-feeding,” and “girl with cat” (See Bourdieu, 59).

[26] Jill Walker Rettberg, Seeing Ourselves Through Technology (London: Palgrave Macmillan 2014),