A Cyclic Theory of Subcultures

This pretty much describes what happened to steampunk too: "A Cyclic Theory of Subcultures" by Scott Alexander.


Phase 1: People are just having fun. No expectation of gaining money, status, whatever.

Phase 2: The movement catches on, the people who were involved from the beginning gain high status, but there's plenty of opportunity for everyone to create new things.

Phase 3: The movement stagnates. Work becomes derivative. The only way for status-hungry joiners to rise is to attack others. Quote:

Sometimes these fights are object-level: the movement’s art is ugly, its intellectual arguments are false, its politics are unjust. But along with the object level disagreements, there are always accusations that accurately reflect status-famine, ones like “the leaders of this movement are insular and undemocratic” or “the elites don’t listen to criticism”. These accusations may or may not be true. But during the Growth phase, nobody makes them, even when they are true; during the Involution phase, people always make them, even when they aren’t.

Some split. Others sour on the whole thing and leave.

Phase 4: The movement either stabilizes through institutionalization -- or it peters out.


  • Steampunk started splitting in the early 2010s. It was a community/maker movement early on: The good old days of Brass Goggles forums, athenaeums, and smolweb sites.

    What I think happened was that it came about just about the same time as the Feed was becoming a thing. I would honestly tie the collapse of Steampunk to it's heyday coinciding with the rise of modern social networking and the rapid commercialization of the movement.

    I remember discussions early on being enthusiastic, but within only a few years I saw the constant gatekeeping of "that's just <x> or <y> with gears stuck to it". I think a lot of people forgot that it was both a creative movement and a sociological one.

    Just my two cents...

  • @profDelphiniusTucker, why, it's good to hear from you after such a long time! How have you been?

    I think you're onto something. The whole Facebook/Twitter dynamic certainly lends itself perfectly to the "Phase 3" Scott Alexander describes.

  • Almost a decade friend! I've been fantastic, although more cynical than I was in my optimistic past.

    Much of what I do now is involved with figuring out what we can do to take ourselves back to a more decentralized internet (not the Web3.0 nonsense, but more smolweb) that's populated by people and not organizations. One of Alexander's conjectures is the consistent flow through that cycle, and while true, if we can go back to separations and more communal value/interest focused aetherweb spaces we can mitigate some of the damage.

    Effectively, sure, every small community and subculture is going to be subject to that cycle (at least as a rule of thumb), but if we're less monolithically defined and we go back to priding ourselves on our breadth of interest then maybe we can see a world where that cycle is less world-shaking.

  • I long for that Internet, too. I don't think it's just nostalgia, because I've heard this from a lot of people: I think we had a lot more fun before Facebook and Twitter. I don't know how to bring that back, though?

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