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Hello, I’m Special: How Individuality Became the New Conformity

by Hal Niedzviecki

Looking around North America these days, it’s hard not to conclude that much of what was revered as independent culture is suffering from a major identity crisis. Publications that once thrived on “alternative” issues, for instance, still hang onto those issues for dear life, even though they’ve long since passed into the mainstream.

Likewise, Toronto über-indie guy Hal Niedzviecki is undergoing his own dilemma. The co-founder of Broken Pencil magazine, co-author of The Original Canadian City Dweller’s Almanac, and author of We Want Some Too began to ruminate on a book about being special after he began to fear that he was no longer special himself. Niedzviecki has spent most of his life avidly trying to be a non-conformist, but when he saw that masses of other people had begun to pursue their individuality along similar lines, he wondered if he had anything left to rebel against.

Hello, I’m Special is his way of analyzing what those burgeoning individuals are really up to, whether they’re creating their own religions, backyard wrestling federations, pop idol personas, food appreciation movements, blogs, or serial murder sprees. Not surprisingly, he finds they’re actually being not individuals at all, but imitators or pseudo-individuals.

Niedzviecki never comes out and says that this realization makes him feel better. But it’s pretty hard not to conclude that it does, since a strong tone of disdain runs throughout the book – with the exception of the final chapter, a sort of feelgood wrap-up that seems out of place.

This is not to say the book doesn’t contain any interesting discussions. But since Niedzviecki’s own worth is so obviously at stake, a lot of his observations and analysis seem suspect. And there are some pretty basic questions that aren’t addressed. For a start, why is it so clear that individuality – true inherent individuality, that is, the kind Niedzviecki likes – is always preferable and positive? The process of seeking true individuality can often be pretty isolating and difficult. And do we really have to worry about what genuine rebels will do with themselves in an age obsessed with individuality? They’ve always seemed to find something interesting to do before.

Surely it’s better to just get on with it than to spend so much time exposing the shallowness of other people’s pursuits. It might be painful to watch people putting their hearts into Canadian Idol tryouts and imitations of fake wrestling, but indie snobbery isn’t very attractive either.