Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Fate of Subcultures

Subcultures are a fascinating phenomena of human social interaction. They arise seemingly at random and progress in all kinds of ways. Some grow quickly and are co-opted by mainstream society. Others stay small permanently, never growing beyond a few thousand members.

Subcultures develop for a number of reasons. In many instances they come from disaffection with the wider society. People who disagree with the generally accepted values of their society will often form a subculture around that disagreement. Membership in a subculture can often mark one as a subversive and even put one at risk of harm. For this and other reasons, subcultures are frequently formed by young men, particularly those who feel ostracized by their inability to conform to society's norms.

Paul Graham wrote a great essay related to this topic called "What You Can't Say." It offers a useful thought exercise about your own values and beliefs. Hippies, skinheads, punks - all of these subcultures arose from groups of people who had some fundamental disagreement with mainstream society. Gradually these groups grew ever larger as their leadership sought not only to band together like-minded people, but to also influence the wider society. Some succeeded and some failed.

But what happens to the subculture itself if it successfully grows? Below I lay out seven stages of growing subcultures.

1. Genesis

A few disparate individuals belong to a nascent subculture. There are no agreed upon standards or conventions; just random people with a similar interest. Depending upon society's view of this pastime, the individuals might have to pursue it in secret.

2. Coalescence

These first few individuals begin to form local groups and talk to each other.

Big cities tend to be the origin of most subcultures precisely because they make this phase much easier. Today thanks to the internet it is relatively easy for people with esoteric interests to find each other. Everyone from furries to red pillers can quickly find like-minded individuals. This makes it much easier for subcultures to form however there are also negative consequences.

3. Subculture

The disparate local groups begin to connect and a number of general themes and principles are agreed upon. This makes it easier for new people to join the subculture. More young people get involved. The atmosphere around the culture is lighter and becomes more focused.

A de-facto leadership is elected. This is the key difference from the 'Coalescence' stage. The subculture has standard-bearers and its own language for gauging authenticity. The culture is, at this stage, still very discriminating in terms of membership.

4. Identity

At this phase the subculture establishes an identity distinct from its particular interests or goals. It becomes possible to adopt the mannerisms, language, and look of the subculture without actually understanding the subculture's values and pursuits. People who do not fully understand the subculture begin to identify with it for the purposes of fashion. You might call them 'hipsters' - folks who want to distinguish themselves as unique by wearing the monikers of an underground scene as a kind of badge.

A rift tends to form at this stage between the old guard and newer members. The old guard are either indifferent to the hipsters or annoyed by them. The newer members by contrast argue for a "big tent" approach to the subculture. They believe that the subculture needs to grow bigger and eventually go mainstream. For political subcultures attempting to influence society, this can make sense provided growth doesn't require too much compromise.

5. Commercialization

Advertisers notice that the subculture is large enough to justify target marketing. They handle the initial sanitization of the subculture by focusing on the newer, Identity-stage members - the hipsters who joined for fashion purposes. These people are more likely to agree with all of society's values as is often the case with people whose core mode of rebellion is their clothes. Advertisers can easily target them without offending others.

Note that the commercialization phase is not defined by the mere existence of commercials for a related product. Consider gaming culture. Commercials for NES back in the 1980's were aimed at kids, not an adult gaming subculture. It wasn't really until the late 90's and the PS2 console generation that advertisers for non-gaming products began noticing the 18-35 'gamer' demographic.

6. Mainstream Adoption

Mainstream society creates its own version of the subculture that conforms to all of mainstream society's values and taboos. In some cases, mainstream society's own values are also transformed to some degree. One recent example of this would be gay culture.

I can't recall which it was, but one of the recent articles about the end of gamer culture made a comparison to homosexual subculture and its normalization. The author laments that, though on the one hand it is good that society has become more tolerant of gays, he misses the old days of underground solidarity. The relative lack of fear gays today have living openly and being able to marry in dozens of states, is to most a welcome trade for the sanitization of their subculture.

Which image do homosexuals want mainstream society to associate with gays?


or this?

Gays today are fighting to be seen as normal, boring, run-of-the-mill people who just want to get married and pay their taxes like everybody else. They don't want to be associated with the bathhouse culture of the 70's and 80's. That subculture certainly still exists (there are even phone apps for it) however it has been sanitized out of the mainstream definition of gay culture.

Mainstream co-option often requires rebuking the original smaller culture.

7. Schism

The old guard of the original subculture wash their hands of the mainstream version and go back underground. They focus on retaining and recruiting those who understand the spirit of the original subculture. The mainstream variant of their subculture continues developing separately.

How does one distinguish between adherents of the authentic subculture and the sanitized version? Easy. Authentic members are indifferent to the mores of mainstream society, at least in the context of their subculture. For example, an authentic member of a subculture may or may not agree with mainstream society's view on race, however he does not consider agreement a requirement for participation in the subculture. Society's view on race is only relevant if it is intrinsically connected to the subculture itself, such as in the case of Stormfront.

The adherent of the sanitized subculture by contrast does see fidelity to mainstream society's views as necessary. This is because unlike the original creators of the subculture, this individual never had any intention of renouncing or even disagreeing with mainstream society. Instead they see injecting mainstream society's dictates into the subculture as a necessary condition of their joining it.

One of the main reasons people enjoy participating in subcultures is that it gives them an outlet for escaping the demands and rules of mainstream society. They give people a chance to unwind, loosen their ties, and not worry about offending polite society's speech codes and HR policies. In the case of subcultures intent upon reforming society, such as ultraconservative Christians, this escape is essential.

The mainstream sanitized version of a subculture does not allow this. It does not want to let people escape accepted taboos and beliefs - rather it wishes to reinforce them. This is what makes the Schism stage necessary. Remember that many subcultures are not just hobbies - they are also a way for people who disagree with society's values to come together and work toward reform. This was the case for the abolitionists, suffragettes, and civil rights advocates . When society tries to assimilate that subculture to weed out subversives, a separation becomes necessary. The true members of the subculture will find each other and stick together while those content with the mainstream version will remain with it.

Example of the Seven Stages in Gaming Culture:

Genesis: Early arcade and tabletop gamers in the 70's. No particular identity; just random people having fun.

Coalescence: Local D&D groups and computer gamers in the 70's and 80's. This was before the spread of the internet and so was mainly confined to big cities. Society overall is either unaware of these groups or reflexively hostile (recall the religious fears about D&D back in the day).

Subculture: Console and computer gamers throughout the 80's and 90's. A lot of unique gaming lingo came about during this period and competitive gaming began to spread. The wider society is still not very accepting of adult gamers.

Identity: N64 and PS1 as systems with "mature" games like Goldeneye and Final Fantasy VII. Now it's not so weird to be a teen or 20-something who plays games.

Commercialization: "Bro" advertising in the 2000's when every college dorm room had a PS2 for watching DVDs. More and more people see that there is a lot of money to be made through the gaming 'identity'.

Mainstream Adoption: The Nintendo Wii, Big Bang Theory, and the Gamer Girl trends of the late 00's. Commercialization has created a version of the subculture that society can accept and co-opt.

Schism:  Society goes back to repudiating the original subculture and moves to redefine it to match the commercialized version. GamerGate is an example of this. Authentic members of the original subculture retreat to smaller more focused communities online and IRL.