Postmodern subcultural theory and virtual identity
As David Muggleton and Rupert Weinzierl state in the introduction to their Post-subcultures Reader, “the era seems long gone of working-class youth subcultures ‘heroically’ resisting subordination through ‘semiotic guerrilla warfare’” (Weinzierl & Muggleton, 2003: 4). The authors put to question the romantic vision of symbolic rebellion through subcultural styles developed in the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS), and stress the need of a broader concept of subculture – one that could “adequately capture the experience of fragmentation, flux and fluidity that is central to contemporary youth culture” (ibid., 16).
A further set of questions is raised when we take into consideration the experience of online communication, where digital technologies additionally accelerate speed and reduce distances, increase the number of “multiple realities” (Schutz 1962) and eliminate restrictions upon the construction of identity, allowing us to leave our bodies behind when we enter the virtual space. It seems that virtual culture intensifies the fluidity of postmodern identity and multiplies the possibilities of parallel collective identifications with different groups.
It is seldom outlined that participants in online discussions may choose not to reveal their names or physical location, and thus interactions facilitated by the internet can remain anonymous. People can “reveal secrets, discuss problems, or even enact whole 'identities' which they would never do in the real world” (Gauntlett & Horsley 2004, Introduction). Online interaction thus offers the possibility of unrestricted “identity play”, a space where participants can build a virtual identity, not necessarily coinciding with their real one. The hypothesis of anonymity and identity play is grounded in a supposed distinction between the real and the virtual, hence the assumption that one’s virtual identity does not necessarily coincide with her/his offline self-presentation.
Virtual identity gives us the chance to invent ourselves by freely commuting between a number of online roles; by being anonymous to avoid social norms imposed on the presentation of self in real life and public behavior; by choosing between a variety of styles and traditions with no discrimination on grounds of age, sex, and race, ethnic or social background. Nevertheless, it has been emphasized that the easy transition between a variety of online roles in the virtual space (and sometimes also the simultaneous self-presentation with more than one identity), the quick replacement of one set of preferences with another can lead to losing one’s sense of reality (Turkle, 1995: 9-26). Communicating only through the internet (“I am talking to the machine”) can potentially substitute personal contact, and hence lead to establishing unsatisfactory or superficial social bonds. Online relationships are considered to be a form of weak ties forming a bridge between individuals who only share information and resources but preserve the difference in their points of view, as contrasted to strong, bonding, emotional ties grounded in the feeling of warm communities where we seek emotional support.
The assumption that because of its technological potential the internet can transform identities, making them more fluid and multiple, reflects upon youth cultures and activities. Whether it is technology that changes the world (as claimed by the followers of Marshall McLuhan) and identities are becoming more flexible, political associations – looser, and subcultural formations – ephemeral; or it is the practices of human usage and the existing institutional and social structures that accommodate newly emerging technologies (according to the followers of Raymond Williams), hence the new forms of association; in both cases we need to re-formulate the concept of subculture that we use in our studies of contemporary subcultural practices. A positive insight can be gained through the idea of virtual community – a notion adopted by researchers after it became commonly used in the language of the participants to make sense of their personal experience of online communication.
The term “virtual community” first appeared in Howard Rheingold’s book with the same title (1993) where he describes his personal experience with the WELL, an early version of a bulletin board system. According to his own account, Rheingold joins the discussions in the WELL in the summer of 1985, and the story immediately gets emotional – at first he is curious, then he becomes enthusiastic, then fanatic, and eventually logging in the system becomes a part of his daily routine and he spends about two hours a day in the WELL. The connection is via dial-up service, very slow and very expensive – the telephone bill for the first month exceeds $100.
He describes the WELL as an online meeting place where you can find freelance journalists, like himself, writers, artists, engineers and IT specialists, architects, academics and medical doctors – people who “share a mindset”, but also knowledge and information, in discussions arranged in topics, and set in categories and sub-categories (for example, the category on arts and literature includes topics on books, photography, design, cinema; there were categories devoted to education and personal planning, to “mind-body-spirit”, to computer technologies, a category for the fans of the Grateful Dead). The author describes it as a sort of socio-technological Petri dish populated with real creative personalities (instead of microorganisms), who are left to themselves to develop links and create communities.
According to Rheingold’s account, the relationships formed in the WELL are very emotional, participants provide knowledge and advice, but also emotional support and feelings that we usually relate to the warm community of relatives and close friends. As a whole, the virtual community for him is about sharing – sharing of information, thoughts, worldviews, feelings, the spirit of rebel.
His wife is at first concerned, then becomes jealous, and in a burst of anger she manages to spell out the origins of this fascination with the virtual community: “A bunch of intelligent misfits have found each other, and now you're having a high old time" (Rheingold 1993, Chapter 2). It was about old times in the company of friends. Where does this company come from and how do they use the new technologies to create new friendships?
The birth of virtual community from the spirit of the American counterculture of the 1960s
Founded in 1985 by Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant, two comrades from a previous cultural revolution, the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link is the digital successor of The Whole Earth Catalog – a publication bringing together consumers of countercultural styles, edited and distributed by Stewart Brand from 1968 to 1972, and with several interruptions during the 1970s and 1980s. It was the already existing audience of the print catalog that Larry Brilliant wanted to attract for his new technology of computer conferencing systems (Turner, 2005: 497). Later on, four more former members of the hippie commune “The Farm” joined in the organization and management of the WELL. In short, the new technological system (Bulletin Board System) was a new way of establishing communication within the old community of supporters of the hippie movement. Or, as Fred Turner, researcher of the WELL, puts it:
In that sense, the WELL represents the establishment of a countercultural ideal: a nonhierarchically organized social form in which scattered individuals are linked to one another by an information technology and through it the experience of a shared mindset. Yet at another level the WELL marks the failure of the New Communalist movement to escape the pull of America’s technological and economic centers of gravity. Thanks to the simultaneous rise of computer networking and networked forms of organization in the Bay Area, by the late 1980s notions of virtuality and community that once served to bond the commune dwellers of New Mexico to the hippies of Haight-Ashbury had come to support the integration of social and economic life on-line. (Turner, 2005: 512)
To sum up, the seminal version of an online forum is based on pre-existing connections between likeminded people. New technologies took advantage of the already existing communitarian spirit of the American counterculture.
This was at the beginning. No doubt, the virtual communities of the 1990s and in the beginning of our century were formed of people who did not previously form a community. They met online, and were not part of an existing movement, counterculture, and probably did not share a “mindset” or the spirit of rebel. How did they evolve and what did they share?
Fandom and subcultural communities online
The strong feeling of being connected to the online community is emphasized by two more scholars of fandom communities – Nancy Baym and Henry Jenkins. For Nancy Baym, who studies a variety of online forms of communication used by soap opera fans such as Usenet newsgroups, mailing lists, chat-rooms, etc., , when participants speak of a “felling of community” they might refer to the symbolism of the idea. That is to say that they are willing to identify with a community rather than form a collective. Therefore, she borrows Benedict Anderson’s notion of “imagined communities” referring to collective identities that go beyond the basic face-to-face relationship, and applies it to computer-mediated communication. In online communication people employ their ordinary knowledge, skills, conventions of social structures, and exploit these resources and the rules of the system to form “a dynamic set of systematic social meanings that enables participants to image themselves as a community” (Baym, 1998: 38). A community can be distinguished by its group-specific forms of expression, but also by relationships, conventions established in the group, its rules and structure.
Studying the forums of Survivor fans, Henry Jenkins takes a different stance. He interprets virtual communities from the standpoint of opposing producers and consumers of cultural industries, and in this theoretical scheme he sees communities of fans engaged in poaching, transfiguring and opposing the message conveyed by the producers. When television fans meet online they do not share a desire for belonging to an imagined community, but fan-specific knowledge about their favorite show. They are rather a community of practice, educating each other and collectively advancing in knowledge. These communities of knowledge, formed by the consumers of the cultural industry, have the advantage of being ahead of the producers of the reality show: sharing disperse pieces of information, they collectively manage to identify the names of the eliminated participants of the show, announce them in their forum long before the respective episode of the show is broadcast, and by doing this they sabotage the producers. “If old consumers were isolated individuals, the new consumers are more socially connected. If the works of media consumers was once silent and invisible, the new consumers are now noisy and public.” (Jenkins, 2006: 19) In Jenkins’ view, what is happening online is cooperation in the form of collective intelligence, and digital technology is used as tactical resistance to the dominant structures of cultural industry.
The postmodern assumption that new media transform identities by making them more fluid and multiple, and collective identifications – ephemeral and transitory, is put to question in the study of subcultural groups online, and the goth scene in particular (Hodkinson 2003). According to this study the practice of internet by members of subcultures enhances and intensifies boundaries, and leads to even stronger and lasting identification with the group. The analysis of data, collected through in-depth interviews with forum participants, about their visits to internet sites and goth portals (electronic publications, fanzines, weblogs, personal pages and a Usenet group), shows that while browsing from page to page, users stick to their former and pronounced interests. Instead of freely changing subcultural styles, when navigating from link to link, they remain loyal to their initial tastes and references. Moreover, the identification with the group is reinforced in online communication by the so-called “conduct-correcting episodes”, when users who abuse the group’s style and shared meaning structures are met with aggressive rebuttals by other subscribers.
In contrast to suggestions discussed earlier that ‘virtual communities’ are characterized by cultural fluidity, the relative stability of goth discussion groups tended to be protected by internal normative pressures and external boundaries of exclusion. While in some ways the discussions were fairly diverse in subject matter, effective participation required sophisticated knowledge and experience about what kinds of opinions, topics and forms of behaviour were liable to be deemed worthwhile or acceptable by other subscribers. Furthermore, far from being dominated by anonymity and the invention of online selves, it tended to be obvious on goth discussion groups that many existing subscribers had got to know one another face-to-face as well as online – something that further enhanced the exclusive atmosphere. (Hodkinson, 2003: 292)
In short, participation in the online community of goth music fans requires knowledge of the shared meaning, accepted standards of conduct, and group boundaries, i.e. to benefit from a full membership in the group one has to invest time and efforts in developing her/his subcultural capital, comparable to those required to enter a “real” or offline subcultural community. Accessibility and shortening of the distance assured by online communication cannot make the process of acceptance in the group easier and unproblematic. And since to become an insider one has to invest time and resources, the candidate will be more motivated to remain in the group, once s/he is accepted, rather than switch to a different group and style. Seen from the point of view of actual participants in subcultural communities online, the boundaries are becoming stronger and the distance between the groups is increasing.
Subcultural forums in the Bulgarian web-sphere
In what follows I will present the results of a collaborative project on the forms of communication and cultural activities of youth in Bulgaria, entitled “New Media, New Causes, New Youth” – an ongoing project of the University of Sofia.1 One of the project’s lines of research took as an object of study the subcultural forums and discussion groups in the Bulgarian web-sphere. After an initial pilot survey on the presence of subcultures on Bulgarian language websites that outlined a variety of forms of expression on the web (individual and institutional websites and pages, online periodicals, blogs, newsgroups, forums and Facebook groups, etc.), the inquiry focused on forums. Our initial hypothesis was that forms of collective identification and online practices will more easily be found in forums rather than in other, more individual types of web expression such as blogs or individual profiles on social networks. Besides, forums were selected as forms of bottom-up expression as distinct from other web publications such as websites of organizations, online periodicals, or websites of radio-stations (and the discussion groups they support), taken to be the vehicles of top-down strategies of cultural production.
Moreover, adopting cultural studies as interpretative paradigm, we assumed that virtual identities and online communities do not have to be considered as a completely new phenomenon, originating from the development of new technologies (in the vein of the technological determinism of the followers of Marshall McLuhan), but as an extension of older cultural forms that re-appropriate means of online communication in their own way.
The pilot study showed that the forums of the heavy metal fans are the most numerous: we detected more than ten independent heavy metal forums, and a couple more supported by online magazines and radio-stations (e.g., Radio Z-Rock); there are separate independent metal forums in different cities of Bulgaria – we monitored a forum from Rousse, but there are more in Plovdiv and Bourgas; the average number of registered members in the metal forums is about 1000. The most frequently visited are the forums of the hip hoppers with almost 30 000 members in just one independent forum. The most unpopular are the forums of goth music fans (we detected only one with 68 registered members, visibly not active nowadays). Only one emo forum with about 400 members was found in our initial study.
The internet inquiry covered a total of eleven forums and one Facebook group of the following subcultural groups: punks/ska/hardcore, hip hop, freerun, heavy metal, gothic and emo. Forums were monitored for five months, and forum archives were analyzed in order to collect data, arranged in the following subtopics: self-identification; “poser” and “true” subcultural behavior; boundaries of the group and attitude to newbies; attitudes to the “other” (or negative identifications); personal trajectories and transitions between styles.
Forum members do not use stylistic identifications when they speak of themselves. They do not identify themselves as metalheads, emos, or hip-hoppers, neither do they use the word “subculture”. They don’t take themselves to be a distinct social group, but a bunch of users sharing the same interests for music, sports, lifestyle, etc. Users are upset when this is put to question (when someone posts a question related to their individual identification or identification as a group). They take this to be a provocation. There is a shared understanding of the regularity of online meetings, of a bunch of people hanging out together, a certain feeling of community that is undermined by such provocations.
Though it is definitely not common to use the term “subculture”, one of the virtual groups stands out in this respect – the “alternative subcultures”, as they call themselves. The forum in question is described as the meeting place for different “alternative subcultures” such as Punk, Oy!, RAC, Reggae/Ska. It is in this forum and another punk forum that we find the most animate political discussions, alongside sharing information about music and forthcoming concerts. Members express the idea that their subcultural identification makes them adepts of a certain ideology, which is both social (related to their origins) and political (“left” or “right”). It seems like their self-identification as a subculture is related to the understanding that this is a collective form of resistance. As we have already said, it can be suggested that “true” or “alternative subcultures” share the old romantic vision of the symbolic rebel, inherent in the neo-Marxist theory of subcultures.
But punks and “alternative subcultures” are rather an exception. The most widespread idea of subcultural identity is of the -do-it-yourself type. According to forum participants, “subcultures” in their contemporary form have progressively evolved into a commercial version of what they once were, in a form of “poser” behavior which is looked upon very negatively. The “subcultural blend”, defined as essentially consumerist, is presented as the reverse of any attempt at maintaining one’s own “unique style”. This “unique style” is the opposite of the “poser”, who is totally subjected to fashion trends and unable to construct an identity of his own.
Anonymity and identity play
When we think of the fragmentation of the subcultural groups and the fluidity between them in the real world, we might suppose that this trend will be overemphasized online, thanks to the possibility of anonymity and identity play. This hypothesis, however, was not confirmed in our research.
In the first place, when a new user enters the discussion boards, if he wishes to stay in the community and is eager to achieve full-fledged membership, the first thing he needs to do is sign up. From this moment on he is building up his forum identity under the user name he has chosen, be it a fictive or a real one. In both cases he invests time, effort, social competence, communicative skills, knowledge about the group and its values, a whole set of cultural and social capital that he is already in possession of in his real life. Moreover, he can develop new skills and competences through online interaction – “virtual” skills and competences that might influence his real-life identity. In short, although we are free to invent ourselves online, we do so from a limited scope of features (skills and competences) we already have in our real life, and vice versa.
In the second place, the subcultural forums we have studied are definitely not closed worlds. On a number of occasions we found evidence that participants provide links to their online expressions in other “online worlds” (other forums, a personal weblog, Facebook profile or YouTube channel), where they participate under a different nickname or with their real names. It is not unusual by following a chain of links to find a picture of the user (a photograph used as avatar), her/his e-mail, or even a mobile phone number. In the topics dedicated to new users, where newcomers usually post for the first time, new participants may choose to direct to their previous achievements in another virtual community. The user thus states who s/he actually is (“See who I am, you might already know me, now you know who actually stands behind that nickname”). By capitalizing on previous virtual achievements the user is more easily accepted in the new group.
In short, connecting between different forms of online expression (weblogs, forums, Facebook, etc.), and linking between them instead of multiplying the number of identities one and the same person uses to participate in different online worlds, on the contrary, reaffirms her/his unique virtual “me”. And the virtual “me” may not necessarily be distinct from the real “me”.
Real and virtual identities
Apart from linking between worlds in the virtual space, evidence can easily be found of linking between the online community and “the real world” (offline communication and forms of association). Our internet inquiry into subcultural forums showed that members know each other and often meet physically on special occasions (monthly forum meetings, Christmas meetings, picnics and excursions, music gigs, street performances, etc.). There are also members who state that there is a group of close friends in the forum, and that it is through the forum that they came to know each other and became close friends.
Free-runners, for example, use a nickname to post in the forum but do not hide their real names which can be found in the course of discussions. There are also avatars with an actual photo of the user or his crew. Postings link to the Facebook group, where the same participants use their real names. As a whole, the hypothesis that under the cover of anonymity members can avoid social sanctions typical for subcultural groups (like shame and mockery) did not confirm. “Conduct-correcting episodes” were also found in the collected data from the forum of the free-runners. The same users meet offline, participate in jam sessions, exercise together, demonstrate skills, and share techniques.
For free-runners and metalheads, but for anime fans as well, meetings in the online forum become a reason for a real-life acquaintance. The first contact is in the forum, but the relationship is built through personal contact in real-life meetings of the members.
Therefore our conclusion is that members of subcultural forums do not necessarily wish to remain anonymous at any rate. The reasons for the loss of anonymity may be various: the capitalization of previous virtual me’s can grant an easier access to the group, or participation in online forums is seen as a bridge to future offline contacts with other fans. Whatever the reasons are, from the point of view of the participants, anonymity is not necessarily an asset. And there can be no clear-cut distinction between the “real” and the “virtual” identity (or such a distinction is not desirable). The subcultural forum could be a separate world, but in most cases it is used as another option for establishing contact. In this case it is not a separate reality, but simply another means of communication, just like the mobile phone (but also like e-mail, Skype, Facebook, etc.).
Subcultural communities: weak or strong ties
What kinds of relationships are built in forums of subcultural groups? Is online communication prone to forming weak ties, or does bridging to real-life contacts stimulate the development of strong feelings of support that we take to be strong ties? And as a consequence, what kind of a group is the online community?
Forum posts are public in their character, and as such they can offer little to the understanding of the intimate relationships between forum members. The forum discussions create an idea of an ever growing network of users, attracting more new members, and with persistence in time, older participants gaining more popularity and prestige. It is difficult to talk about a community of 900 and more members, based on strong emotional ties. Still, it is clear that there is solidarity and engagement in the group, and members care for each other. But this solidarity is not to be found on the online discussion boards. It is found offline, in their meetings, concert-going, picnics, Friday night get-togethers, protest “actions”, i.e. somewhere in the outer world. The regularity of signing in to the forum, the devotion to the forum, the will to provide information, help and advice to other forum members – all of these support the proposition that online forums build up emotional ties of support. Back in 1993, when Howard Rheinghold introduced the term “virtual community”, he characterized it as a collective based on strong emotional ties, no matter how many members it has.
But we have to bear in mind that the word “community” itself has a positive value. Its usage by the respondents and forum users might be symbolic. This is to say that when they speak of “community”, they actually want to create (or reproduce) the feeling of community, of strong emotional ties. This is also the reason why it is so difficult to say whether online forums, or subcultures as a whole, can be defined as forms of community – because the term “community” itself does not have a descriptive, but a normative usage. When used by the participants, all it describes is their lived experience of what it is like to be in a subculture.
1. The project is funded by the Ministry of Education of the Republic of Bulgaria, and headed by prof. Ivaylo Ditchev. The internet inquiry was held in September 2009 – January 2010, with the help of our students Vassil Vassilev, Assia Pissarska, Anna Georgieva, Iveta Tzvetkova, Elitsa Martinova, Tzvetomira Ivanova, Yana Pargona and Vassilka Ganeva.
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