For as long as there have been groups there have been insiders fighting to protect the cultural values of their group, and outsiders trying to join, borrow, or steal what it is that makes those groups special. While every subculture has different ways of doing this, the practice of establishing systems to measure the ‘Realness’ of subculture members is a universal social self-defense mechanism. But this idea of “realness” is a complicated one, it’s an abstract concept that at its core is about both being honest and transparent but also about being accepted by others as legitimate for group membership. It’s a way of pleading your identity in the court of public opinion, hoping that you’re found “Real.”
At the advent of the internet, it would have been conceivable to imagine a future where these subcultures slowly broke down thanks to the level of interconnectivity being offered us— social network fluidity was being dramatically increased. It was easy to find these sort of utopian pontifications about what our future held in the ‘90s. But as we learned from commerce to content, more than anything, the internet enabled the long tail. This meant that subcultures flourished in the digital age. This growth came with a whole slew of new issues, because the free and open nature of the internet makes it difficult to protect and control the values of a subculture— groups are perpetually susceptible to interlopers and charlatans. However, like is often the case with systems under pressure, subcultures have evolved several behaviors in the digital world that help keep them alive and strong, and keep group members connected.
First, let’s look at how subcultures have been maintained in the real world.
Punk and Hip-Hop
The Punk subculture created an identity system as tough as the second hand leather that defined much of its style. Central to Punk’s identity were DIY, anti-establishment, anti-commercial, pro-individual, and artistically expressive values. As it rose to prominence in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Punk’s fashion, music and ‘attitude’ would become a target of commercial appropriation and infiltration. However, punk was obsessed with the concept of “realness.” The complex codes of speech, art, humor and gender roles that punk informally developed were aggressively, even violently, enforced. This allowed the identification and shaming of posers, those who were purely interested in punk to be cool, and not for it’s idealistic virtues. This obsession with “realness” as a core value of punk protected it against the attempts at appropriation by outsiders, allowing it to survive and eventually splinter into sub groups like Metal and Grunge.
Hip Hop went through many of the same challenges that punk did. Self proclaimed status, calling out rivals, socio-political activism, and straight up partying were all authorized subjects of exploration and expression in hip-hop. What was unique and special about the idea of “Realness” in hip-hop was that the idea became an integral and articulated part of the artform itself. This was particularly evident as hip-hop grew increasingly aware that its stylings, identity, and creative direction were being devoured by mainstream cultural and corporate interests. ‘Realness’, through the ideal of “Real Hip Hop,” became a resistance movement by MCs and rappers to preserve the autonomy of their culture and it’s heritage. Realness was a device, albeit somewhat intangible, to share and preserve the oral history of the experience that shaped their identity and the values of the culture.
At some point the idea of realness hit an almost paranoid level; the fear of losing it, the anxiety of being accused of fakeness, the need to keep it despite often dramatic changes in life or circumstance. We see this with Jennifer Lopez and her ascension to a Pop Culture icon status while claiming to still ferociously asserting her “realness.” In 2002, J.Lo released “Jenny from the Block” in which she demanded that she was still “Real” despite all of her success.
This song, and many of JLo’s songs, are fundamentally declarations to the people of the communities that she grew up in that she is still a member. She is recursively stating the values of her neighborhood, her friends, and showing she still has not exchanged that identity for any other— that she hasn’t not sold out. Her songs, and even album titles have deep context to remind her people, that she’s still “from the block.” She was doing this because those seminal experiences from the Bronx were still a huge part of her identity, and she refused to have that identity taken away by success, so she needed to prove her place.
This need to prove membership isn’t new. From handshakes to coded language, people have been able to demonstrate “realness” and membership in the real world for millennia. The question became, how could you prove this in the online world where the “eye test” might not be an option?
THE DIGITAL TRANSITION
Historically a shared physical space— a literal common ground— was at the heart of the genesis, establishment, and diffusion of any subculture. Neighborhoods and cities served as a foundation for contextual inspiration. Corners, nightclubs, and speakeasies were protected ‘turf’ where coded aesthetics took shape. CBGB was the Mecca of Punk’s. Attendance was mandatory, commitment was tested, and newbies were distinguished from posers. Underground dens acted as “hush hubs” granting anonymity and shelter for the most subversive values and behaviours, protecting members from potential reprisals by uncompromising and closed minded mainstreamers.
Without such reefs to guard their shores, exposure of subcultures and their micro-genres, memes, and lifestyles became almost inevitable. Without protection of their cultural and intellectual capital, a sort of cultural imperialism loomed. Thus establishing “Realness” amongst participants may possess even greater import in the digital landscape than the real world.
Users translate tips and tricks from the pre-digital age to hide in plain sight online. Deep contextual cues, code words, and other seemingly innocuous symbols enable members to find each other online without alerting outsiders. Coincidentally the flat topography of the internet that leaves subcultures more exposed also allows them to find and recognize like-minded peers with the help of some of the following clever tricks.
At it’s core expression of group membership is a deep form of intimacy, it’s only logical that people are protective of this information, and that they would find creative ways to protect these intimate moments. Group identity is a powerful thing, and questioning someone’s realness is at it’s core an indictment of their perceived personal identity. This is serious stuff.
TAKING REALNESS ONLINE
The following five behaviors are are forms of self-policing and protecting subcultural values as well as their members sense of identity. It’s easy to write-off the simple twitter behaviors and online banalities, but in a modern world deeply interwoven with the digital world, these behaviors are the scaffolding of our sense of self.
These corners are Wired, not The Wire. Everyone tends to gets brave on the internet, because an online beat down tends to come with a lot fewer consequences than IRL, it doesn't break bones it just bruises pride. As such, the 'Rep Check' is a common practice. A 'Rep Check' consists of questioning another's status as a group member, participatory voice, or authoritative position within the culture. 'Time In', taste, and cultural capital are examples of benchmarks driving these checks and they often lead to a much larger conversation on guideposts for belonging. Essentially, a rep check is an attempt to silence or discredit others by proving they’re not in-group enough.
The #NetFlex has historically had any number of names— see “pissing contest” and “chest thumping." You’ll find the #NetFlex in a number of different forms online from gratuitous overshares and name dropping to the classic “I’ve been doing X since before it was cool.” Status staking is ultimately a way of demanding respect for the amount of time and energy someone has put into something they’re passionate about. People want recognition, this is obvious, but sometimes on the internet you need to take status if you’re not getting it freely.
The classic example of the #humbleflag IRL is the “hanky code” used by queer individuals to publicly to signal their sexual preferences and proclivities in a time before it was ok to be out. In the real world Hanky Codes, different styles of daps, the number of studs on your jacket, etc are all examples of Badging. Online there are symbols, hashtags, avatars & memes that let others know that an individual is "in the know" and should be considered part of the in-group. For the unindoctrinated these often innocuous Badges likely won't merit a second glance, but for those on the inside of a subculture they are beacons connecting like-minded people to their peers.
When someone is trying to establish their credibility in a subculture, any sort of bump from other credible sources helps. The result of this is a sort of publicity given to interactions with the most elite members of any group, a sort of co-opting of the credibility of others to establish oneself. Whether it’s through placing the date of a meaningful interaction in the bio on a twitter account, or using a screen capture of the interaction somewhere, it serves the purpose to advance membership.
One amazing aspect of insect hives is that they do incredible things with a small set of rules— instincts that they act on automatically, but in large numbers produce strange and complex responses. If we think about the specific set of values shared by any online group or subculture like the instincts of insects, you can see strange and coordinated complex responses when those values are violated. #Gamergate was the collective outcry of gamers coming together about journalistic ethics. Though #Gamergate has recently taken a somewhat anti-feminist bent, for better or worse it is a complicated example of people uniting about a perceived threat to a subculture. Don’t give Justin Bieber the Grammy? If you're the winner, get ready for the #Beliebers to swarm. Put out a terrible reality show about Black Sorority Sisters? Heels and Earrings are coming off and thousands are almost instantly calling for a Boycott. And make a joke about AIDS in Africa on Twitter? Well, #justinehaslanded & #needsanewjob.