The rapport between Goth subcultures and new technologies has often been a subject of fascination for those who are both part of that subculture and external observers. William Ford Gibson, who provided much of the impetus for such intersections via his contributions to cyberpunk, made the connection between technology and Gothic rather embarrassingly explicit in his 1986 novel, ‘Count Zero.’ Less mortifying was the crossover that occurred in the late eighties and nineties between Goth and Industrial music, particularly via bands such as Nine Inch Nails or Frontline Assembly, exploiting a hardcore techno sound combined with a strongly Goth-influenced aesthetic.
This connection between the Gothic and technoculture has contributed to the survival of a social grouping that Nick Mercer, in twenty-first-century Goth (2002), refers to as the most vibrant community online, and is also the subject of several studies by Paul Hodkinson in particular. This paper is not especially concerned with the Gothic per se, whether it can tell us something about the intrinsic nature of the web or vice versa, but more with the practice of a youth subculture that does indeed appear to be flourishing in cyberspace, particularly the phenomenon of the Internet, Goths that have emerged in recent years. Claims that sites and newsgroups form virtual communities are, of course, not specific to Goths. With the emergence of the Internet into popular consciousness in the early to mid-nineteen-nineties following the invention of the World Wide Web, commentators such as Howard Rheingold in ‘The Virtual Community’ (1995) made grand claims for the potential of online or virtual communities. No longer would individuals be restricted to accidents of geography, social status, biology or ethnic identity when forming connections in cyberspace, but would instead pursue their own interests and desires. This virtual world was entirely virtuous, and Howard Rheingold defined such communities as “social aggregations that emerge from the net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace.”
By the end of the nineteen-nineties, opinion was becoming much more sceptical about the possibilities of online communities. Michele Wilson (1997), for example, has argued that much thinking on these groups tends to confuse community with mere communication, and that the complete withdrawal from an embodied, political and social reality results in an abstract notion of community that favours the nostalgic simulation of communities that never existed over the messy reality of engaging with a social environment that does not conform to one’s every desire. Similarly, Shawn P. Wilbur (1997) points out that the much-abused phrase, “virtual community,” disguises the fact that we operate within not one but several notions of community, that as well as communication it involves an “immersion” that is usually geographical. At the same time, we had become used to notions of the virtual community long before the arrival of the Internet, relying on communal experiences shared by letter or telephone and, particularly with the advent of television, a sense of shared experience in major events such as the Olympics or World Cup. For Shawn P. Wilbur, then, virtual communities are not impossible but the attempt to reduce them to a single, elegant definition is less preferable to the multiple, even contradictory accounts that one encounters online and elsewhere.
The practice of virtual communities has been demonstrated by a number of writers, such as Susan Clerc’s examination of electronic fan culture (1996), Randal Woodland’s (1995) and Nina Wakeford’s (1997) discussions of the gay community online, and the work of Ananda Mitra (1997), Madhavi Mallapragada (2000), Ellen Arnold and Darcy Plymire (2000) on different ethnic groups on the web and in discussion groups. Sonia Livingstone (2002) also shows that the activities of youth subcultures online, often so alienating to older observers, actually originated in those “mediating family subsystems” that have relied on new technology to keep in touch with extended and dispersed families or kinship groups throughout the post-war period. Even when restricted to one cyber subculture such as Goths, a paper such as this cannot and should not intend to offer a comprehensive and elegant solution to how such virtual communities should operate. It is important, however, to offer a working hypothesis of what this much-abused phrase means here. First of all, while Howard Rheingold’s vision of a virtual community is naive, he is right to point out that for any claim to community there must be an element of persistence and group endeavour: this is not the same as permanence, for all communities eventually perish, but individual efforts, while they may participate in a wider collective, do not alone constitute evidence of a vibrant cooperative venture. Secondly, while aware of the dangers that attend to the oversimplified equation of community and communication, and also aware of the calls of theorists such as Arturo Escobar for a full-blown “anthropology of cyberculture,” it is the discursive elements of such communities that I am most interested in, the linguistic sites of struggle that form a sense of identity in the process of articulation. Such language games, if they are to be perceived as mutual, must be dialogic rather than monologic and this itself has important consequences for the construction of subcultures, indeed, any culture. Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, it is clear that the most active online Goth groups are frequently located in a physical socius: the environment of clubs, music stores (not quite yet replaced by MP3 downloads) and friends’ houses that underpinned Goth lifestyle in the 1980s remains as important today.
What, then, do Goths do online? The facetious answer would be “pretty much the same as everyone else:” that is, they use it as a forum for communication via bulletin boards and newsgroups, information on clubs and music, create personal websites to establish an online presence, sex, entertainment and, increasingly, as a means to engage in commercial activity, especially for fashion and music. Paul Hodkinson (2004) comments that in contrast to the “high media profile” of the 1980s Goth, the contemporary scene is much more small-scale and “has survived and developed predominantly outside the realms of mass media and commerce.” What television and print tire of often finds its place in multifarious bulletin boards and community discussion groups — media used by the masses but not necessarily mass media in the traditional sense. Nick Mercer’s twenty-first-century Goth lists somewhere between six and seven thousand sites, and I encountered several more that I could not find listed there. Nick Mercer’s definition of the Goth scene is a wide one, but even so, there is plenty of evidence that the Goth subculture is a lively and active presence on the Net. This group, as with many such cultures online, has also drawn considerably from elements of cyberpunk, particularly its neo-pagan elements and its cynicism regarding mainstream Christianity, what Samuel R. Smith calls (after Philip Kindred Dick), a fascination with “the invented religion future.”
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