Authentic Youth: Cultural Capital and Credibility in Digital Youth Culture

(from a proposed paper on the role of digital media in the lives of young people)

For young people, commodity culture offers an important site for the production of individual and collective meanings. Digital spaces such as the internet provide an excellent arena for do-it-yourself culture and creative consumption, but are ultimately structured by the same logics that determine how popular culture operates more generally. Discourses of credibility and authenticity afford us a glimpse into how young people navigate the complex interplay of social networks, cultural commodities, and subcultures in a mobile, mediated society. Given the role of cultural engagement in developing social capital, digital media offer a means for young people to become more invested in their social and cultural worlds.


Youth culture has frequently been dismissed as the product of a commercialized mass market, in which youth are targeted as a highly desirable demographic. For young people, however, leisure interests have emerged as a key site for the production of identity and meaning, particularly the consumption of cultural goods. How do young people navigate the broad, often chaotic sphere of popular culture, with its myriad of genres, styles, and norms? Moreover, why do many young people increasingly engage with popular culture in digital spaces such as social networking sites? Strategies for navigating diverse cultural spaces become even more crucial in the highly mediated world of the internet – how do young people engage with and negotiate digitally mediated culture?

This chapter will examine emerging theoretical models for addressing these aspects of youth culture, such as cultural capital and social networks, and suggest how digital media offer youth a valuable site of cultural engagement. More specifically, we can examine how young people produce and disseminate cultural practices through the lens of youth subcultures, which revolve around distinctive aesthetic tastes. Subcultural youth rely on digital media to circulate music, slang, and social norms, and to signify cultural positions. Particular technologies and websites lend themselves to the creative ways young people consume commodity culture, and voice specific identities. Within this cultural field, however, prevalent tastes depend on an implicit hierarchy of credibility, through which some styles and interests confer greater status than others, and augment social connections. This form of cultural capital highlights how young people can become more socially engaged through their online activities.

For young people, everyday “common culture” has come to represent an important resource for the raw material of “symbolic creativity,” such as fashion, music, and media (Willis 1990). Such cultural commodities can be decoded and remixed in a process of creative consumption, producing new individual and collective meanings (Hebdige 1979). Digital spaces in particular have proved well suited to do-it-yourself cultural production, allowing young people to share music, photos and other media, editing and rearranging embedded cultural codes. Online spaces have been most successful that cater to these activities, enabling users to create elaborate profiles detailing taste in music, movies and other people.

Within these cultural spaces, however, value and status depend on an unspoken hierarchy of aesthetic preferences, linked to broader ideologies of power and social position. To navigate these hierarchies requires certain kinds of competencies, termed cultural capital (Bourdieu 1984). This capital functions as a form of credibility, in which legitimate tastes appear more “authentic,” and can be parlayed into economic resources and the social capital of accumulated social connections.

Youth culture operates as a field of cultural production, emphasizing originality, novelty, creativity, and individuality. These aesthetic preferences confer greater authenticity to products perceived to embody those values √¢‚Ǩ‚Äú from music to fashion to personal profiles. “Youth culture,” however, has become difficult to distinguish from popular cultural more generally, in which images of youthfulness dominate advertising, entertainment, and fashion (Frank 1997).

Moreover, it can be tricky to disentangle “youth” conceptually from the lived experience of actual young people. Teenagers are frequently pathologized as dangerous and sexually precocious, triggering broader societal fears about literal and symbolic reproduction. Subcultural youth were initially viewed as deviant and delinquent, and youth culture continues to ignite moral panics among parents, officials and the news media. Ethnographic research, offers a glimpse into the actual practices of young people, and how they engage with digital media.

Popular culture was once characterized as a monolithic, homogenizing realm in which authenticity was sacrificed for familiarity and appeal (Adorno 1938). Young people themselves frequently deride the “mainstream” of trendy kids consuming mass media. On closer inspection, however, few will profess to inhabit this alleged “mainstream,” which suggests that it represents a construct against which subcultures position themselves (Thornton 1995). Other scholars have embraced the “post-subcultures” approach, viewing youth culture as an overlapping assemblage of genres and styles (Muggleton and Weinzierl 2003).

Within youth culture, highly visible subcultures continue to function as both cultural tropes, and communities organized around constellations of fashion, music and social activities. A revised theoretical approach, however, is necessary to grasp comprehensively how such subcultures operate in a highly mediated, networked society. To some degree, subcultures can be considered as subfields of cultural production, in which youth position themselves according to subcultural tastes through consumption of leisure commodities. This emphasis on style and consumption, however, does not sufficiently account for the creation and distribution of cultural knowledge and practices.

Such practices depend on social interactions which produce interlocking networks of affiliation, rather than clearly bounded groups (Fine and Kleinman 1979). Subcultures, therefore, can also be viewed as “communities of practice,” groups mutually constituted by membership and shared practice (Eckert 2000). As networks, subcultures depend on media as technologies of circulation to create and spread subcultural tastes and styles. While punks may have relied on fanzines, contemporary youth utilize digital media and other emerging technologies.

Within digital spaces, subcultural youth have proved exceptionally adept at identifying their aesthetic preferences, and signifying these interests to others. In particular, young people often invoke discourses of authenticity to distinguish the cool from the dated, the “real thing” from the over-commercialized. Though subcultures may not operate according to dominant tastes, they rely on culturally specific credibility in the form subcultural capital, which lends hipness and cachet to certain styles and products. Coolness, however, depends on limited accessibility to retain its status √¢‚Ǩ‚Äú once a style becomes popular with a broader audience, it loses its distinctiveness.

In youth “club cultures” that revolve around night clubs and dance music, subcultural capital is conferred by specialized knowledge of bands, clothing retailers, music labels, and other subcultural products. Access to this knowledge, however, requires involvement in subcultural networks, on- and offline. Furthermore, subcultural youth must undergo a process of acculturation into the values and norms of their group to learn how to apply such information accurately. Online resources facilitate this process by rendering subcultural styles and norms more visible in digital spaces, such as in band profiles or regional discussion groups.

Where subcultures once relied on niche and micro media, such as fanzines, flyers and mixtapes (Thornton 1995), digital media present even greater opportunities for creative consumption. New media figure into the lives of most subcultural youth, for whom the internet often supplies the primary outlet for engaging in social and cultural activities with their peers. New technologies allow young people to share music (both files and web links), to promote events like club nights, concerts and festivals, and to spread cultural and linguistic practices (such as trends in fashion and slang). The nature of digital media allows subcultural norms to spread more widely, producing translocal communities with similar tastes across disparate geographical areas.

Social networking sites have become especially notable spaces for creating online identities and performing subcultural selves, such as MySpace.com and LiveJournal.com. Online profiles and blogs have widely replaced static homepages, and the structure of these websites encourages users to produce symbolic identities organized around images, taste preferences, and personal narratives. Both LiveJournal and MySpace allow users to post pictures of themselves as icons, and display galleries of additional images. Even the most basic identifier, the username, requires users create a unique “handle,” through which many young people signify cultural position.

By supplying standardized fields to customize pages and profiles, both sites emphasize symbolic identities around taste in music, movies and other cultural products. For subcultural youth, these preferences reflect the particular cultural spaces in which they operate online. Other subcultural youth are the intended audience, rather than parents or “mainstream” peers. Digital presentations of self, therefore, presume a specific audience and cater to that context, even if these websites are accessible to a wider range of users.

Yet for many youth, these digital spaces cannot be fully divorced from offline interactions. In my research with subcultural participants (aged 21 and over), most used the internet to connect with existing friends through social networking sites, instant messaging, and email (Kraemer 2005). They relied on digital networks to find out about new music and upcoming events, but would socialize with their friends regularly in offline spaces. These included subcultural events such as club nights, but equally encompassed barbecues, movie nights and trips to the zoo.

Moreover, they made decisions about what music to consume and events to attend based on the credibility of their peers. Other factors influenced their choices, but they relied heavily on friends and acquaintances to filter the array of options available to them, knowing which friends shared their tastes. Subcultural capital here finds itself inseparable from social networks, as more involved participants were more discerning about which bands and labels to support – newer, edgier sounds (such as powernoise, a subgenre of industrial music) garnered greater admiration.

Through discourses of subcultural legitimacy and authenticity, young people thus evaluate media and cultural commodities, allowing them to navigate the cultural and social worlds they inhabit. Youth subcultures offer us insight into how young people manage the array of tastes, styles and cultural commodities available to them. While aesthetic preference may instantiate values of novelty and originality, young people produce cultural and social meanings through their adaptation of cultural products.

Digital spaces have become phenomenally popular with young people precisely because they lend themselves so well to symbolic interaction and creative consumption, allowing users to share digital photos, music and other media, and create online presentations of self through which young people voice their position in the cultural field. This symbolic space of semiotic indicators, however, remains grounded in everyday social worlds, and appears, in fact, to augment social capital. For young people, these activities represent a form of social and cultural engagement that deserve recognition and support, rather than condemnation and moral panic. Further research should explore the nature of cultural and social capital among youth, and consider how young people can be engaged rather than marginalized through their passion for digital media.

 
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