Maybe unsurprisingly, at the moment, the most popular aesthetics are wildly different but united in an expression of deep nostalgia. Often, teens and 20-somethings are styling themselves in the image of past subcultures they may or may not ever have participated in. A Windows 95 culture is bubbling up on Tumblr now, Brennan told me, as is “scene” culture, a return to the pop-punk days of MySpace and Warped Tour. There’s even an aesthetic based in nostalgia for Tumblr culture of the early 2010s, when American Apparel and indie pop were still ascendant—a high point for physical touch in crowded spaces.
Online, figuring out who you are entails a constant search for “inspo,” as well as an accurate assessment of one’s ideal look and attitude, which is habitually pursued by taking BuzzFeed quizzes, scrolling through feeds, compiling mood boards, and bookmarking color schemes. Morgan, the 20-year-old creator of a honeycore Tumblr, explained “an aesthetic” to me as “something you find beautiful that you want to incorporate and embody within your own life.” (She asked to be referred to by her first name for fear of professional repercussions.) Asked how she practices this in daily life, she told me that mostly she buys yellow clothes and body wash, and “strives to be kind and warm.”
It’s easy to dismiss aesthetics, particularly some of the wackier ones, as superficial and frivolous. But Alexander Cho, a digital-media researcher at UC Santa Barbara, told me that they can be “really important, especially for young adults in terms of creating or fashioning a self.” If you have a hunch about who you are, it’s incredibly easy now to search for images and ideas that help you refine that sense of self. Seeking out nameable aesthetics helps you present that image clearly to the world, and to find people who identify similarly. In adolescence and young adulthood, there’s “a strong drive to articulate one’s identity,” Cho said, and in the social-media age, a natural and significant way of doing that is through choosing and arranging images.
Under bleak circumstances, when many of us are alone and wired constantly into the internet, young people are sifting through the archives and remixing what they find. Their platforms are places for them to browse and select new identities—often very literally, which is likely why, according to an Aesthetics Wiki contributor, the highest traffic day of 2021 so far was New Year’s Day. The site’s visitors are narrowing in on the question of who they are, a little bit at a time, as they decide between pastelgoth and vaporwave, cottages and seascapes, ravens and crows.