Instagram is killing the energy of subcultures

Sydney Lima

Sydney Lima says you have to look far beyond conventional social media to find imaginative and rebellious tribes

22 November 2018 18:29

As a teenager – an experience that commenced a lot earlier than I anticipated – I decided I wanted to break from the social ‘norm’. As others barged me out of the way in the school corridors with their large Cath Kidston bags and jeggings, I stood the little ground I could in a pair of bronze brogues, ill-fitting ‘skinny’ jeans and trouser suspenders, resembling a cross between Larry King and Pinocchio.

But not for long. Not for me the life of an anarchist, a rebel, a revolutionary. Instead, I quickly aligned to the pack; the other contrived, gig–attending, Myspace-trawling, Morrissey-mimicking thirteen-year-olds also fleeing Geppetto’s workshop.

But this was not my first rodeo: my parents had by this point already endured a short-lived ‘Goth’ phase and a subsequent ‘Scene’ spell (for those who couldn’t quite commit to the former, but were equally emotional). Both involved fingerless gloves – but only one of them required the clip-in hair extensions that I would soon learn were highly flammable.

But change was coming, and in a short space of time – the few years it took to slide from the Millennials’ era into Generation Z (a time-shift also known as ‘Before Selfie’ and ‘After Selfie’). Social media has now taken absolute centre stage, playing a dominant role in how today’s teenagers define their identities, with very few making the same tribal mistakes I had.


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A mini fringe – the ultimate contraceptive

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Sophie in the year above is no longer an adequate idol when you have a window into the life of Emily Ratajkowski. With easy access to make-up tutorials and globally-accepted fashion, I am bitter to see my generational successors looking chic from the age of thirteen, as though ready to appear on The Jonathan Ross Show.

It wasn’t until I was 20 that I downloaded Instagram, an app solely dedicated to image- sharing, where people were less concerned with your thoughts, than the things you had bought.

Adapting to this new insecurity outlet didn’t come easily to me. My first post, featuring a can of Strongbow in the bath, captioned ‘This is the life’, suggested that I clearly hadn’t grasped the concept of the app. The Strongbow should have been Veuve Clicquot, the bath – an infinity pool in St Tropez.

Instagram has since been crowned the most effective social marketing tool, with 68 per cent of 18-24-year-olds saying they were more likely to purchase an item if someone they followed on Instagram shared it. The prospect of going viral and the instant gratification of accumulating ‘likes’ have helped to solidify a new series of social norms based on popularity. It tends towards the visually-inoffensive and is hostile to personal, eccentric or innovative ideas at variance with those of the larger culture. Visible subcultures seem to be on the decline, with teenagers opting for homogeneity over rebellion.

The New Capitalism has accelerated fashion, making trends more transient than ever, and, with the help of social media, easier to consume. Hashtags such as #OOTD (an acronym for ‘Outfit Of The Day’ – God forbid that a day’s outfit ever be repeated) encourage more people to appear ‘current’ and dare I say it, ‘on trend,’ than ever. These trends are as dispensable as the iPhone presenting them, ready to be upgraded as quickly as they were first adopted.

Sophie in the year above is no longer an adequate idol when you have a window into the life of Emily Ratajkowski.

The new Instagram shopping feature enables you literally to buy the clothes off someone’s back with the click of a button. However, there are limitations in such liberation.

Above all, the feedback loop intrinsic to Instagram’s algorithms ensures that content is prioritised based on what users are most likely to engage with. Seeing the same content, again and again, trapped in an echo chamber of familiarity, there is little room for meaningful discourse.

The mundane character of the New Normal recently came to light when an ‘Influencer Halloween’ costume went viral. Poking fun at the universal aspirations of plain leggings and a tight-fitting crop top, the look itself, a mockery of Kanye West’s own clothing line, lent itself to the anti-trend that is ‘Normcore’: the paradoxical obsession with appearing normal in order to express one’s specialness. But surely opting out of a distinctive visual identity can’t be a generation’s only rebellion? Or do teenagers today feel less concerned inclined to rebel than their parents’ generation did?

Whereas punks mutinied against social imprisonment, hippies against toxic institutions, perhaps Gen Z simply believe that they already have it good – and could have it even better. They’re content with the content – but aspire to what they see on social media. Updates on others’ wealth are no longer confined to magazines: they can now be seen scrolling endlessly on your phone, an unrelenting invitation into a world far from your own.

A recent study showed that 70 per cent of Americans now consider themselves middle class, when only an estimated 50 per cent actually fit the criteria. Whereas it used to hard to move through the class system, social divisions are much hazier than they used to be. With Insta-success, you can gain overnight recognition from a selfie at your best angle. YouTube turned the thirteen-year-old Justin Bieber into a multi-millionaire, while the apps Vine and Snapchat have spawned many similar rags-to-riches stories. Everything is possible, at least financially.

Do teenagers today feel less concerned inclined to rebel than their parents’ generation did?

Who needs to identify with a subculture or organise online, when you can curate yourself, alone? The rise of the individual is in full swing, but not in a creative or idiosyncratic sense. Divorced from any sense of gang or tribe, you are encouraged to be ‘you’ – or rather the most active consumer you can possibly be.

Discovering, embodying and maintaining the real ‘you’ will set you back quite a sum. In this commercial cyberworld, we prioritise lone action, tweeting and retweeting, asserting our individual needs and desires. And this is not just a western phenomenon – the culture of narcissism has now spread, with smartphones and the internet, far beyond the West and the First World.

Operating in a network as opposed to a collective – two very different things – we are self(ie) empowered. Subcultures themselves have been diffused and defused – their wholesale commodification by big brands a further deterrent to those who might once have been drawn to the campfire of the urban tribe. There’s nothing ‘punk’ in mass-produced leather jackets.

The current appropriation of LGBTQ+ culture by advertisers is a case study. At New York’s Pride Week, the activist group #NoJusticeNoPride protested against what they saw as a serious conflict of interest between the ethos of Pride and the interests of its corporate sponsors, who they believed were jumping on the bandwagon of fashionable diversity, purely for their own commercial gain. Mainstream consumerism, in other words, has absorbed and defanged subcultures, putting them where they never intended to be ‘IRL’. Which poses the question: where, if anywhere, are these communities now to be found?

Who needs to identify with a subculture or organise online, when you can curate yourself, alone?

Reddit, the self-professed ‘front page of the internet’ is currently the fifth most popular site in the US. This discussion website is a collection of niche forums, so structured that, if a topic isn’t already represented, Reddit enables you to make your own themed page, or ‘subreddit’. Among those communities that already exist are the 2,000-strong ‘/r/theworldisflat’, ‘/r/antinatalism’ a group of anti-natalists who mourn the birth of human life, and a whole range of sexual subcultures, exploring fetish and the BDSM lifestyle. The subreddit community has exploded in the last four years, with over 1.2 million subreddits now active online.

So it’s not that humanity’s taste for clustering, sub-divisions and exotic groupings has been lost in the homogenisation of mainstream culture. It’s just found different forms of expression. Self-definition has become more complex too, and often more ephemeral. Declarations of belief can be deleted as quickly as they are posted and fashions change constantly; there is an extraordinary fluidity to contemporary culture.

Increasingly, identity is less a matter of what you wear. The scene on the streets resembles something out of I, Robot (Alex Proyas, 2004): toddlers, mothers and grandparents all dressed the same, one look to rule them all. There are few signs that political belief or musical preference is defining our sense of who and what we are. You still see ageing teddy boys, skinheads and punks, but they are not being supplanted by new tribes of young people in extraordinary clothing, with fresh ideas and attitude.

That, after all, would involve adopting a look and sticking with it (at least for while). In the age of internet anonymity, you can pick’n’mix the identity that suits you according to mood and whim. Digital life has enabled multiple realities. But it has made us cultural cowards.

Maybe we’re all commitment-phobes. Maybe we’re all just too scared that our clip-in hair extensions might catch fire.