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Perfectly Imperfect and the Growing Currency of the Personal Recommendation

Throughout the early years at W magazine, the In & Out column created by editor John Fairchild was a favorite, much-copied recurring feature for the winkingly unforgiving binary into which it sorted various cultural touchstones. A list from January 1987 proclaimed Elizabeth Taylor, bosoms, and being naughty at lunch to be in; Sean Penn, charity balls, and pasta salads were out. The semi-seriousness of these decrees echoed the ironicand now iconicdicta of Diana Vreelands Why Dont You? column, first published in 1936 and continued throughout her 26-year tenure at Harpers Bazaar, which handed down aphoristic endorsements for everything from peanut butter to a hue she declared pig white (The colour of baby pigs, not quite white and not quite pink!), and recommended one rinse blond childrens hair with dead Champagne (to keep it gold, as they do in France). What the golden age of magazine-making understood was that it wasnt enough to simply recommend the right goods to buy; it also became the medias job to issue rulings on whatever constellation of cultural products, opinions, experiences, and trends that, at any given moment, constituted good tastea life with style, as defined by a specific time and place (and by a certain type of institution).

Flash forward to 2022, where our cultural landscape remains awash in recommendation media, where the genres necessity as a revenue driver sometimes comes at the expense of personality. Traditional ties to advertisers aside, capital-m media (not excluding Vanity Fair) now heavily relies on the business of directly endorsing consumer goods thanks to affiliate linking, which monetizes every successful rec and has led to the building and branding of entire new verticals in hopes of realizing Wirecutter-size dreams. Across social media, influencers regularly participate in the kind of corporate-sponsorship machinery once only available to bona fide celebrities; you want those abs, that hair? Heres the coupon code. To discover the right cultural products we should be consuming, most of us depend on what a few sophisticated algorithms decide is worth our time (see: Netflix, but also whichever social platform that surfaced this article to you).

Just as soon as we got used to living suspended in a permanent state of ambient shopping, it now seems were perpetually swimming in suggestions as well. Consider last winters gift-guide mania as the most recent apex of our recommendation obsession. Amid the ongoing affiliate-marketing gold rush, holidays have turned into a media blood sport of shopping roundups and deal-scouting (and during the slow months, plainspoken Amazon marketing). On TikTok, the rise of hyper-specific gift guides created by users cosplaying as influencers were inescapable during Q4. And lately, even your Instagram Stories havent remained safe from the general expectation of exhortation: The writer Brandon Taylor recently decried the way followers predictably responded on DM whenever he posted a picture of a book or passage on social media. People mostly just want to know where you got a passage or a sweater or a record player or whatever, and they dont actually want to engage with what it is youre sharing, he noted of the experience this month in his newsletter. I think its kind of weird that we dont stop to ponder why it is that the first thing we do in response to someone sharing something is to seek to acquire it for ourselves.

The commodification of recommendation has blurred the lines between taste-making and shilling, tacit endorsement and obvious sponsorship. No wonder indie media and Twitter personalities alike responded in kind with their own niche guides, picks, and the occasional viral Google Doc as a means for asserting cultural authority and minting a kind of social currency for audiences who are overwhelmed or turned off by the mainstream deluge of recs. Whats fascinating about these purposefully scrappier endeavors is the return to the form of lifestyle recommendationsimilar to The New York Times Letter of Recommendation and The Cuts Turns Out Its Pretty Good seriesmore spiritually akin to what the likes of Vreeland and Fairchild pioneered, where encouraging a sense of nervy discernment, not mere product filtering nor essayistic super-earnestness, is the primary concern.

Take, for example, the newsletter Perfectly Imperfect, where the entire premise revolves around featuring one guest and a handful of their personal recommendations per issue, under the pretty unassailable rationale that cool people like cool things. But as with any niche project, the specificity is the point: The majority of Perfectly Imperfect guests hail from creative or media-adjacent fields, and are often attached to the downtown New York scene in ways primarily legible to a subset of 20- and 30-somethings, or at least the extremely online (Vanity Fair readers may most easily recognize Hari Nef, Alison Roman, SNLs Sarah Squirm, HBOs John Wilson, and our own art columnist Nate Freeman among its recent slate of guests).

Compared to the rest of the internet, each edition of Perfectly Imperfect offers a charmingly low-fi reading experience, offering a few sentences of introduction to the guest and then handing them the mic to make five or so recommendations. Much of it is your expected micro-influencer fare: limited-run garment brands, obscure coffee table books, high-end pepper mills that have already sold out. But theres a delightful high-medium-low mix achieved through shout-outs to everything from Cherry Coke Zero to Hanes intimates, ferry rides and the new single woman. It gets weirder. The actor and screenwriter Madeline Quinn espoused the hand-feel of her Glock 19; writer and Canal Street darling Honor Levy recommended God, full stop. The resulting effect is one of cheeky provocationsometimes to the readers sensibilities, more often to our reigning definition of what a good recommendation should be. Its a little ironic and subversive, and undeniably fun in the vein of suggesting Champagne-centric hair regimens. Across the newsletters Substack and Instagram audiences, its creator, Tyler Bainbridge, says each edition racks up close to 20,000 views. Amazingly, you cant find an affiliate link anywhere.

Thats by design. Perfectly Imperfect grew out of a group chat between three 20-somethingsBainbridge, Alex Cushing, and Serey Mormwho met as UMass Lowell students bonding over their shared interests in music and menswear. The newsletter was conceived as a space to facilitate a slightly broader taste exchange among their social circles, unadulterated by algorithms and advertising. I saw so many people in my life mindlessly putting on Spotify radio or playing whatever Netflix told them to watch, and I wanted Perfectly Imperfect to feel like a cool older sibling or friend that really gets it, Bainbridge told me over the phone. Someone whos recommending things for the sake of sharing a slice of their taste, not for the sake of selling. Even the newsletters graphics, which involve a near gleeful deployment of Comic Sans and internet blue, is an intentional split from your typical branded polishthe antithesis of the Kinfolk home type of vibe, according to Cushingand a litmus test to screen out anyone who might mistake this for a wannabe Strategist.

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