Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Subcultures and the digital economy: dead or alive?

By Pauline McGowan, Research Lead at The Nursery Research & Planning

A constant theme around subcultures, especially in the internet age, has been their predicted demise. This is partly attributed to the internet creating a focus on individual rather than shared experiences, the erosion of music as the leading form of self-expression and a fusion of ideas meaning that tribes do not exist in the same separate and distinctive way that they did in the past.

At the same time, there has been less visibility of goths, punks or other distinctive subculture tribes on our streets.

As part of The Nursery’s Identity Series, we wanted to explore this trend and understand the prevalence of subcultures in the UK today, determining the motivations that drive involvement and establishing whether the demise is fact or indeed fiction.  

Subcultures are thriving (especially online)

Our nationally representative study of 1,800 UK adults found that far from becoming extinct, subcultures are thriving. Over half of the adult population (56%) are involved with at least one subculture (on average three) and that a further quarter (25%) are interested. 

One reason for excitement around subcultures is that mainstream culture feels rather vanilla in terms of character, creativity and intellectual debate. Subcultures by contrast, whether political, spiritual, gaming, fantasy world or alternative lifestyles, feel full of colour, personality and diversity. People drawn to subcultures want to belong, to express their creativity, to challenge themselves, learn more about the world and create an alter ego.

And far from causing the death of subcultures, the internet has facilitated a huge wave of activity and engagement, so much so that 43% of those involved only engage with subcultures online.

The internet is also part of the reason why we see fewer signs of subcultures in everyday life. Subcultures now primarily meet and engage in online communities and these then facilitate the myriad of festivals and conventions that typically flood the UK in a normal summer. 

Subculture’s online presence

It is unsurprising, that online-only connectors are younger (67% are under 44) but there is also a difference in the type of subculture involvement. Gaming, body modification (tattoos, surgery, bodybuilding), fandom and influencers are most likely to be online whilst those involved in more classical subcultures such as spirituality, politics and fantasy worlds are least likely.

We also found that motivations for those only connecting online are most likely to centre around expressing creativity and developing an alter ego and much less likely to focus on belonging, meeting others or learning a new skill.

For everybody involved in subcultures, YouTube is the main point of contact (38%), higher even than real-life meetups (37%). 

But it is really Facebook communities that are at the heart of subculture involvement with 35% engaging this way, and indeed Facebook communities are equally relevant to those connecting online as well as offline.

It is in other social media that we see a difference with Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and even Reddit much more popular for those only involved online. 

Social media creates subcultures of its own; Instagram influencers of course, but TikTok especially feels like a perfect platform for subculture motivation, with its focus on creative playfulness. We found that TikTok was already used by 11% of people involved in subcultures. 

Brands and subcultures

Subcultures are not just rich, creative spaces but are also big money. Nearly half of those involved in subcultures spend over £500 per year on this and 11% spend over £1,000.

Brands are an important part of subculture life. The mainstream brands that people gravitate towards tend to have a general sense of rebelliousness, and passion (think Dr Martens, Supreme and Pretty Green). They present as a slightly unusual renegade choice for consumers. 

There are also a wide range of brands that cater specifically to subcultures. These brands cater for niche attitudes and behaviours and thoroughly immerse themselves in the subculture. They come across as fans, feeling completely authentic and part of the tribe.

Some examples we discovered include:

  • Steampunk gin; core to steampunk socials is the subversion of traditional gin and tea rituals
  • Witch Casket, a monthly subscription service providing surprise baskets for Wiccans filled with cards, statues, prints, oils etc
  • Gamers and cosplayers love Funko pop; distinctive, playful collectible characters
  • Lovehoney caters for a wide range of sexual behaviours including BDSM and makes these behaviours feel normalised and positive

Subculture identification allows brands to focus on identity beyond demographics and get close to their customers. And subculture worlds are a rich, characterful place full of personality and opportunities for growth.