Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is increasingly coming to resemble an all-year, urban Gathering of the Juggalos. It's hard to walk down Bedford Ave., Williamsburg's bustling main drag, without seeing someone dressed like an exploded taxidermist workshop or a steampunk pirate scientist. Now the entire internet can gawk at the real-time sartorial displays on Williamsburg thanks to Styleblaster, a new, slightly-creepy project that's part-street style blog, part-surveillance state.
This month, Jules Laplace, the technical director of New York City creative agency OKFocus, set up a webcam pointing out his window on Bedford Avenue. His roommate, the internet artist Jack Kalish, programmed the camera to snap a photo whenever someone walks by and instantly upload it to Styleblaster.net. Visitors to Styleblaster can click a top hat if they see something they like, and a popular page features photos that get the most votes. Think of it as a crowdsourced Sartorialist.
The algorithmic nature of Styleblaster makes the blog more democratic than the highly-discerning eyes of the street style bloggers that often troll Williamsburg. "There's more to Williamsburg than hipsters and rich ex-Manhattanites," LaPlace told us in an email. "Lots of normal people go out on a brisk fall day, expecting to be seen, especially on Bedford Avenue. Everybody has their own style, and our site celebrates that." Currently, the most popular photos on Styleblaster reflect the Web's eclectic tastes: The first is a couple of fashionable ladies that wouldn't look out of place in a New York magazine spread. The second is some dude with his hands down his pants.
Some people will be uneasy at the thought of random internet strangers judging them as they walk down the street, but LaPlace insists Styleblaster's intents are innocent. "Our site isn't here to judge people or make fun of them… there's enough of that on the internet already, thanks," he said. "This is really a positive thing that's about everyday fashion first. I think you'll agree — the weirdest things are some of the haircuts!"
And despite inevitable comparisons to the infamous "creepshot" forums of Reddit, LaPlace is right. Context matters: Taking photos of people in public is perfectly legal and, unlike creepshots of women, Styleblaster captures every single passerby, from a chaste, overhead angle. It's an innocent people-watcher, instead of a skeezy peeping tom. Every square-inch of Bedford is probably documented by dozens of Instagram users every hour, so the additional surveillance of Styleblaster is negligible. And LaPlace said he'd be happy to take down any photos if a subject complains.
There's a chance the Styleblaster camera will even "become a destination for New York City peacocks to traipse by and show off what makes the neighborhood hop," as LaPlace writes in Styleblaster's "about" page. People willingly hang out at the Levee on a Saturday night, so anything is possible. It would be a nice gesture, though, if LaPlace put a sign up warning people they were about to be splashed on Styleblaster so they could fix their hair.
In any event, we should get used to this sort of thing, because Styleblaster is representative of a larger movement towards blurring the boundaries of real life and the internet. LaPlace's project is an example of the "New Aesthetic," an amorphous movement/ scene/ trend/ something that's been the talk of the internet for about a year now. The New Aesthetic is centered on "an eruption of the digital into the physical," as sci-fi writer Bruce Sterling put it, a jumble of animated .gifs and QR codes, 3D-printers and 90s nostalagia that's been championed by young artists, designers and writers on Tumblr who came of age with Geocities and AIM. They're taking sensibilities born in the rough, raw cracks of the early internet and mapping them onto the real world. Sometimes they push too far, as when the artist Kyle McDonald installed spy cam software on computers at Manhattan Apple stores for a project and was rewarded with a Secret Service raid and a computer fraud investigation. Or when the fantastic Instagram photographer Daniel Arnold was banned from Instagram for posting a picture of a topless sunbather. A silly project like Styleblaster will hopefully not end in a similar fiasco. Much worse will come around eventually and the privacy police should keep their powder dry.
Just keep your hands out of your pants in public and everything will be OK. You should be doing this anyway.
Update: Judging from this picture, Williamsburg is now fully aware of Styleblaster.
[Image via Gothamist]