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The Mid
Artwork Leïth Benkhedda

How did everything get so mid?

Today, culture is algorithmically optimised for mass appeal, serving up platters of pre-packaged cool – whether that’s a Deftones tee, a Fred Again mix, or a wavy mirror via your TikTok feed

Want to find out more? Listen to the inaugural Logged On: The Dazed Podcast, a monthly podcast exploring all things internet culture, from memes to emerging trends, deep web conspiracy theories and beyond

Sadly, we now live in a mid-ocracy. As I write this, news of media layoffs at VICE and Buzzfeed News is sweeping across social media, Hollywood screenwriters are striking, fighting what they say is an ‘existential threat’, while people are lazily churning out increasingly banal images using (the aptly named) Midjourney and label it art. “Mediocre consensus-building culture deserves to fail,” tweets Dean Kissick – and however much I want to resist the reductiveness of this statement (surely, we should be pointing fingers at the late capitalist greed of these corporations, not the actual writers), he has a point.

Today, culture is both flattened and gamified. Content is overstimulating and numb, algorithmically optimised for mass appeal. Arguably we are more hyper-individual than ever, or so claims The Business of Fashion, citing Gen Z’s diverse and gender-fluid values: we have diverse casting and it’s no longer taboo to be neurodiverse. But culture feels so homogenous – boring ahh even – and there’s not been anything remotely interesting online since psyops, except maybe the Mschf boots. I sip my oat milk cappuccino and let out a depressed Wojak sigh.

Despite all the crises we face – the cost of living, climate change, AI – any of which should surely be enough material to inspire real and meaningful art, the overwhelm of information paired with exhausting post-capitalist forces has created an atmosphere that is nihilistic and excruciatingly mid. There’s a sense that society is running in circles, and regurgitating the same trend cycles ad infinitum, while Big Tech churns out increasingly big and scary technology that has the scope for infinite creativity, but instead (bar a select few) has resulted in the same homogenous AI-generated slop that has people sharing anime watercolour renditions of themselves on Instagram. I’m reminded of a painting by British artist Richie Culver that reads “Make Something So Average A Gallery Wants You” – if the message is the medium, then today’s medium is mid.

In their 2015 book The Age of Earthquakes, Shumon Basar, Douglas Coupland and Hans Ulrich Obrist coin the phrase ‘smupid’ to describe the idea that we’ve never been smarter as individuals, and yet somehow we’ve never felt more stupid. Like the 600 likes v 15 likes meme, mid is mass appeal, while anything un-mid is devalued – “the mid is elevated to the esteemed level of excellence,” elaborates Basar. Mid is market value, beauty without substance. It’s the weaponised clout of late capitalism’s little warriors, the kind who would rather sit in Soho House and attend inner-city day festivals with Fred Again than make anything even remotely inspiring. This isn’t to say that everyone should strive to un-mid themselves – it’s entirely unrealistic to demand that we step away from all things market powered and unexceptional. Besides, just because something’s mid doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad. We just need to understand that mid is the epicentre of the Overton window of taste, and we shouldn’t pretend it isn’t.

We also need to accept that mid is an illusion of cool, sold to you on a search engine-optimised plate. Pre-packaged into commercial, UI-friendly bytes, it drip feeds social cachet by way of Instagram’s Explore Feed, whether that’s a Rat Girl tee or a pastel-coloured bubble mirror. It’s like a horseshoe with cool on one end, basic on the other, and everywhere in between in The Mid. There are of course nuances here: there’s upper mid (Marc Jacobs Heaven, avant-basic, A24) and lower mid (hipster aesthetics, Veja trainers). But there’s also an interplay here: what’s cool (aka that which scares the normies) will always become mid – even the most bizarre, unfriendly Backrooms content will eventually get the A24 treatment.

The last month has seen several publications comment on the phenomena, which are also ironically mid in their approach. We’re told that the fashion pendulum is swinging away from the performativity of post-internet statement wear and back towards minimalism – or stealth wealth – and that it’s no longer possible to be cool because internet culture has made everything accessible all at once. While it’s certainly true that it’s now easier than ever to buy into these social cachets – algorithmic models tell you what to listen to, how to dress, who to dress as (today it’s Gabriette, tomorrow, who knows) – the distinction between pre-packaged and actual cool isn’t anything new. There have always been mid-dle men in managerial class jobs shopping at Goodhood and attending watered-down parties. What has changed is the economic conditions that created such a mid atmosphere to begin with.

The conditions that gave birth to the freewheeling creativity of working-class collectives in the 90s, like Throbbing Gristle or designers like John Galliano and Alexander McQueen, are very different today. We are at what theorist Francis Fukuyama coined the “End of History”, a terminal plateau of free market liberalism, where the death of social mobility and political potential has created an atmosphere so miserable it feels impossible to see an alternative. At the same time, we live in a cyberculture where social and capital are inseparable, and everyone is subject to market powers. To be mid is therefore inevitable: a symptom of the post-capitalist now. 

But there’s more serious implications in our search for mediocrity beyond fashion trends and badly generated AI art. The middenning of information, as tailored towards the biggest majority, is particularly concerning for the health of democracies. If the most attention-grabbing, sensationalist content is the most effective (as demonstrated by the popularity of reactionary figures such as Joe Rogan and Andrew Tate) in reaching the widest pool, information is incentivised towards the extremes. This is something we saw with the 2016 elections, and more recently Elon Musk’s Blue Tick chaos. As trolls and conspiracy theorists spread fake images and misinformation for maximum click-payoff, it becomes increasingly difficult to discern what’s real or not. This will no doubt be turbo-charged with the rise of AI: next year’s elections in Britain and the US could be swayed by a wave of AI-powered disinformation, as propaganda bots generate viral images, text and deepfake videos – it’s already interfering with elections in Turkey and India.

Searches for ‘mid’ currently has 2.8 billion views on TikTok. The term has become a catch-all for anything neither based nor cringe. Not cool or basic, but a third more sinister thing. Basar suggests that cool is the lightning, mid is the thunder. He’s right, do any one thing long enough and you will inevitably be given the mid treatment – that is if you weren’t already playing the game to begin with. Perhaps anything un-mid isn’t a thing at all, but a state of mind. While the irony of publishing on a media platform (we’re all mid now, too) isn’t lost on me, we live in a society that is all too mid.

Want to find out more? Listen to the inaugural Logged On: The Dazed Podcast, a monthly podcast exploring all things internet culture, from memes to emerging trends, deep web conspiracy theories and beyond