Online Subculture, Capital, and Constructionist Communication - 24 April 2019
From conception to transmission to interpretation, the procedure of communicating a concept to another person is a complicated task. An important function of successful communication is understanding your audience’s background and transmitting your message succinctly in language that can be interpreted by the receiver. Understanding how a cultural and historical context frames a conversation is fundamental to effective communication; interpreting our relationships through this lens is a social constructionist perspective of communication.
I believe this lens for interpreting communication can be extrapolated to help us understand less explicit forms of communication too. In particular, I find that it is a useful framework for understanding how our personal and subcultural interactions are projected into and interpreted by, society at large. So, how are these interactions taking place in a broader societal context? And why are the methods and structures of communication important? Before diving deeper, I’d like to first explore the idea of subcultures.
So, what is a subculture? American sociologist Milton M. Gordon, in his article “The Concept of the Sub-Culture and Its Application”, defined it as follows:
“[A subculture is] a concept used here to refer to a sub-division of a national culture, composed of a combination of factorable social situations such as class status, ethnic background, regional and rural or urban residence, and religious affiliation, but forming in their combination a functioning unity which has an integrated impact on the participating individual.”
What I appreciate about this definition is the observation of the “integrated impact on the participating individual.” While I certainly believe that it is important to understand how a subculture reflects and imposes change on the dominant culture, I’m particularly interested in how a social group can shape an individual’s choices. Subcultures often dictate apparel, behavioural norms, acceptable and unacceptable ideological positions to uphold, and heavily influence our speech patterns and methods of communication.
Something that I believe has transformed regarding the broadening definition of a subculture since this passage was penned in 1947, or at least has become more prominent, is that participation in subculture may no longer simply be a matter of circumstance, but a choice of expression of political or otherwise ideological affiliation. Subcultures are no longer a strictly prescriptive category, one in which your behaviours are assigned to you, but a descriptive one – a vehicle for self-expression. Note that this applies more so to the emergent group affiliations under hobbies or interests rather than identity pillars which are more rigid, such as race or gender.
No longer simply a tool for economists and sociologists to model and predict behaviour from, subcultural categorisation and the participation wherein reflects back at the dominant culture. Whether it be piercings and colourful hair, or MAGA hats and white nationalist iconography, we adopt attributes that we are comfortable being associated with by the people outside of the subculture.
This functions peculiarly on the internet. In physical presence, some aspects of your person are hard to obscure: gender presentation, age, ethnicity, body shape and general physicality, all of which have culturally associated implications. On the internet, however, you have a little more leeway to construct your persona. Some things are still inescapable (literacy levels, knowledge of the in-group specialist language, and the written and spoken languages which you communicate through are some that come to mind), but you generally have more choice in whom you present yourself to be. While the conscious construction of online identities may be perceived by some as specious, there is an authenticity to a constructed persona. Perhaps the perception of online identities as inaccurate or deceptive comes from a bias that an accompanying physical representation of abstraction, in particular, a person, is a limitation. I personally don’t believe that, and I think it has roots in a very conservative idea of what a person is, and what a person can be.
In certain ways, this abstraction from a physical representation of other people allows for more comprehensive self-expression. When I interact with someone online who has chosen to represent themselves as, for example, an anthropomorphised animal, I begin to associate and internalise that imagery with that person. If my primary mode of communication with them is social media or chat channels, their chosen features of self-expression, not features that they may or may not like about their physical presentation, quickly become features of identification. This is a form of transmission; they are communicating something about themselves to their friends and acquaintances.
The personas we construct are a projection of our identity into our communities. They help others identify us, as well as help us understand ourselves. Why is this an issue?
A Shopper’s Guide to Social Capital
To help understand what exactly is happening when we make decisions that align us to certain subcultures, it may be worth trying to identify what exactly our goals are when we construct these identities. Personally, I feel a sense of community when I interact with people in my cultural circles; I feel validated seeing my beliefs and interests reflected back at me by my peers. I also find purpose in the shared values of my community. In our interactions, we establish a philosophical canon which is applied to our broader interactions, and search for meaning, in wider society. I respect the views and opinions of the members of my community, and I want my views and opinions to be respected as well.
People who participate in these subcultures, as well as the people who mediate them, generally understand how these goals are important to the formation of communities. There are also a sufficient number of people who recognise how these desires can be manipulated to their advantage, though this is unlikely a particularly malicious intent. As subcultures are informed by the social dynamics of their dominant culture, all communities in our society are viewed through the lens of neoliberal capitalism – our interactions are commodities to be exchanged in a market, sometimes known as the marketplace of ideas. This is true of almost all subsystems under capitalism, to varying degrees.
In any community, some individuals will be more prominent and visible. These are people who have invested in their communities and established their reputation, also recognised as social capital. By spending time in these communities, by understanding and engaging in the aesthetics and social norms set forward by these subcultures, people establish their ideas as worthy of respect. It is worth noting that these dynamics are likely to be reproduced in any society or subsystem, whether the act of doing so is intentional or not. It is not necessarily malicious, and I’m not positing that all ideas are worth giving equal attention to or shouldn’t be filtered in some way. I do believe, however, it is useful to understand how and why those who have obtained social capital have done so in the first place.
By presenting as a part of a certain subculture, it is possible to gain some social capital within that subsystem by default. As you are perceived to already share some values within a particular in-group identity, your contributions to that community are seen to more likely enrich the ongoing ideological discussion taking place. The implicit ways you communicate your participation in this subsystem can be understood as a form of commodification – your identity is produced in such a way that it can be consumed by others in exchange for social capital. This is an example of the market framework when applied to a community. I want to be clear that I don’t believe participating in this is immoral; we are all encouraged to behave in this way. I just want to better understand the phenomena and how it impacts us.
People who have garnered the most social capital are subjected to different roles, and as such, different pressures within the subculture. By establishing themselves and their ideas as “merit-worthy”, they have effectively demonstrated that their ideas can and “should” shape the ideological frameworks of their community, and with this comes the power to influence and shape subcultural norms. In my observation, when people find themselves in this position, whether they purposefully sought it or not, they are encouraged to mould their communities into a cult of personality of sorts. This can be done by encouraging their peers to engage in memetic language trends, associate themselves with an in-group title of some sort, or dress in a certain way. When their personal brand becomes synonymous with a subcultural identity, they have positioned themselves in such a way as to encourage all people who interact with the subculture to interact with them, or a crafted representation of them, allowing for further accumulation of social capital.
This is already an established marketing technique. To quote from business2community.com’s article “Can You Create a Consumer Subculture”:
“The first step in creating a subculture is in changing attitudes within your industry. You need to ensure that everyone in the company buys-in to the notion that the customers can be in control… You also need to provide your fledgeling subculture with some means of identification. This can be a badge or be identifying clothing. Your members need to “stand out” and look different to other kinds of buyers of similar products and services. Having a simple loyalty scheme or an online membership group is not enough. Members of a subculture are seeking to use their membership as part of their self-identity. They need to stand out and look different to “the rest”. If you can do something to help that, you can stimulate the development of a subculture.”
When we emulate these systems of capital, we reproduce a hierarchical environment in which those with more social capital have more power to influence, and I believe this is detrimental to the goals of combating institutional oppression. This is exemplified in the observation of groups that do embrace capitalist socialisation – ideologies that depend on competition and exclusion thrive in the existing societal frameworks. It’s important that we ask ourselves, “What can we do in our communities to prevent the reproduction of these hierarchies?”
Overcoming Capitalist Socialisation
In a capitalist society, it is difficult to untangle the existence of subcultures and their internal machinations from broader, norm-enforcing hierarchies. No matter what communities we choose to engage with, none will be completely untouched by the perverse hand of neoliberal capitalism - depending on the subculture, interactions that take place within may or may not strongly replicate capitalist hierarchies, but all subcultures, to some extent, require the commodification of our interactions. I don’t have all the answers to this problem or really many at all, but I still think it’s worth the discussion.
The first step in overcoming our socialisation is being aware of it. Subjecting all our interactions to perfect scrutiny is a tiring, impossible task, but being aware of how the interactions we involve ourselves in replicate capitalist structures is a stepping stone to undoing them. Try to identify what aspects of the communication channels you use encourage you to “reward” other users with a liking or sharing functionality. How do using these make you feel? Do you care about how many people follow you, and if so, why? Is your primary income tied up in these metrics? What members of your communities stand out, and how do they interact with you, and their platform? I want to stress that engaging in social media and interacting with your friends online is not immoral. I do not want this to appear as some kind of condemnation, but I do think it’s important to be aware of how this interaction affects us and those around us.
Potentially experiment with open source social media projects like Mastodon, Pleroma, Riot, and diaspora. Obviously, platforms that are directly competing and intentionally replicating the functionality of capitalist communication platforms aren’t perfect, but I do believe engaging with communities derived from the intentional efforts to combat capitalist monopolies is helpful.
Try to be aware of what interactions in our lives we view as transactional. Do we do favours for others with the intention of capitalising on it later? Does our circle of friends have a hierarchy of popularity, and does it affect us or others negatively?
It is important that in our pursuit of self-expression, shared experience, and meaning, that we attempt to not replicate capitalist modes of communication and socialisation. Instead, we must forge relationships and communities that have a foundation in, and structural support for, cooperation, mutual aid, and kindness.