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The Cult Newsletter Perfectly Imperfect Asks: Can Everyone Be a Tastemaker?

If you wanted to explain the way a certain kind of very online tastemaking works in 2024 to an alien, or a 45-year-old, you could do a lot worse than showing them Perfectly Imperfect.

Since starting early in the pandemic, the Substack newsletter, along with its popular Instagram account, has become a kind of Debrett’s for a clout-chasing universe of Lower Manhattan influencers, podcasters, “it” girls, artists, scribblers, memesters, scenesters and a ubiquitous young man named Zack Bia. (There is also the occasional bona fide celebrity.) Each entry consists of a guest recommending stuff: books, films, records and clothes, but also states of mind, courses of action, exercise routines.

It’s the ne plus ultra of a thriving online recommendation culture that emphasizes subjective personal taste and limited (by internet standards, anyway) distribution over Consumer Reports-esque standardization and mass dissemination. It has inspired imitators, like Dream Baby Press’s Love/Hate lists, which feature a similar range of pseudo-celebrity guests. And now, Perfectly Imperfect is starting a social network that’s open to anyone, whether or not they have ever had a martini at the River.

“Everyone wants to feel like their taste is important,” said Tyler Bainbridge, one of the site’s editors.

Perfectly Imperfect recommendations work two ways. First, there are the actual, often cheeky endorsements put forth by the guests. Ayo Edebiri, star of “The Bear,” has touted medicinal nasal swabs. The comedian Kate Berlant suggested luxurious Italian mints. Matthew Gasda, the “Dimes Square” playwright, sang the praises of Duraflame logs. Mr. Bainbridge says he receives an endless stream of pitches from publicists, friends and random strangers, all of whom want to put their faces and their favorites on his website. For the most part, though, he reaches out to people he wants to feature.

Perhaps more important is the meta recommendation of appearing on Perfectly Imperfect. If the site — started by Mr. Bainbridge, 28, with two college friends, Alex Cushing and Serey Morm (Mr. Morm is no longer involved) — initially relied on the buzz of its guests to build its social cachet, now it often works the other way around. Appearing on Perfectly Imperfect has become a coveted credential in itself; the recommendation is the recommender.

Sean Monahan, a Los Angeles trend forecaster who helped coin two of the defining cultural concepts of the past decade, “normcore” and “vibe shift,” said that the world of internet tastemakers had grown “large and impersonal” because of the enormous scale of social media. Perfectly Imperfect — which has featured Mr. Monahan — has shrunk that world back down, he said, in a way not totally different from what glossy magazines did before the era of the big platforms.

Once upon a time, a self-respecting cultural gatekeeper might aver that, in fact, not everyone’s taste is important. But Mr. Bainbridge, a former Meta engineer, had a different impulse: to build a social network, allowing anyone to make recommendations.

In August, he started coding PI.FYI, the social media counterpart to the newsletter, and its app. And this week, after two months on an invitation-only basis, the site is open to the public.

Mr. Bainbridge said he thought the network could be a tool for coalescing scenes around the world, like the one that has sprung up around Manhattan’s Chinatown over the past several years.

“You can find pockets of people who are like you or who you think have cool taste,” he said.

PI.FYI does not look or feel very much like a modern social network, borrowing the retro-internet aesthetic of the newsletter. Beyond text and static images, there isn’t any media. There are no ads. Users can choose the background color of their profiles. There is a prominent, charmingly retro directory of everyone using the site.

Really, it’s just a big prompt to enter “What Have You Been Into?” and then a long scroll of recommendations. (Users can also ask for specific recommendations.) These range from “The Curse,” the popular new Nathan Fielder show (praised by one user for calling out “the repulsive aesthetics and politics” of generic hipsterdom that are “legit ruining this country”) to “beautiful women” (“enjoyable for all,” per another user) to the color brown. Many of the recommendations are funny. A few are poetic. (“I love the metallic smell of the fountains, and estimating the amount of change thrown there,” reads one recommendation for malls.)

Mr. Bainbridge’s elevator pitch for PI.FYI is “Letterboxd meets Myspace” — the film-review site where amateur film buffs do their best Pauline Kael impressions, and the aughts social network that functioned, among other things, as a way to find new music in the days before Spotify Discover.

Perfectly Imperfect gazes back nostalgically to an era when corporate algorithms didn’t control cultural discovery, and websites like The Strategist hadn’t streamlined product recommendations. If the modern internet has democratized access to culture and commerce, it has also, some critics say, devalued qualities like discernment and idiosyncrasy in taste.

“This is the internet as a medium coming full circle,” said Zizi Papacharissi, a professor of communications at the University of Illinois Chicago and the editor of the academic journal Social Media & Society. “It was built around small communities structured around niche markets and niche tastes.”

In this context, PI.FYI is an attempt to build a social network that rediscovers the internet’s early promise of connection, without the creeping sense of homogeneity that has resulted from years of algorithm-driven growth.

“The other platforms have become much too commercialized,” Professor Papacharissi said. “The more commercial they feel, the more they lose their authenticity. They have no sense of place or connection.”

In an interview at a Brooklyn bar near his home, Mr. Bainbridge said that his newsletter had made a small amount of money from subscriptions, but that he was funding PI.FYI with savings. The social network doesn’t have affiliate links or sponsored content; it’s not monetized at all, he said, beyond some special features reserved for paid subscribers to the newsletter.

“It makes the recommendations come across as more authentic,” Mr. Bainbridge said. “Hopefully, Perfectly Imperfect feels like there is a soul or a sensibility behind it.”

In this skepticism of scale for scale’s sake and money for money’s sake, Mr. Bainbridge — who is also a D.J. — may have rediscovered an ancient but proud ethos, thought to be lost to time.

“Maybe it’s some fear of selling out,” he said.

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