There’s an interesting post by David Chapman about the life-cycle of subcultures. He identifies three types of people who enter a subculture at different stages. First there are the “Geeks”, the creators and hardcore supporters. The come “Mops”, the more casual supporters whose numbers are necessary for a scene to grow big enough to be economically viable. Finally there are the “Sociopaths”, who want to exploit everything for profit without caring about the subculture itself, taking a short-term slash-and-burn approach that destroys the thing in the process.
He sees the “mops” as something of double-edged sword:
Mops also dilute the culture. The New Thing, although attractive, is more intense and weird and complicated than mops would prefer. Their favorite songs are the ones that are least the New Thing, and more like other, popular things. Some creators oblige with less radical, friendlier, simpler creations.
Which makes me think of those who liked Mostly Autumn’s “Pocket Watch”.
Chapman doesn’t give any specific examples, but by implication references the underground music scenes of the 1980s and 1990s, many of which burned out relatively quickly. It nay be a generational thing, or it may be that he’s over-generalising, but I’m not seeing his theory playing out in every subculture I’ve been involved with over the years.
Let’s look at the underground progressive rock scene to start with. This has been stable for quite a few years, a few bands teetering on the edge of mainstream success, but many more merely satisfied to establish themselves a niche. Has the scene just been lucky enough to get just the right balance of Chapman’s Geeks and Mops for long term stability? Or is it that its roots in a genre much of the mainstream rejected as unfashionable a generation ago make it immune to Chapman’s Sociopaths? Or is it just that the age profile (much grey hair and many bald heads) means the Geeks and Mops and older and wiser, not interested in passing fads?
The tabletop RPG hobby has likewise been around for a long time. But fashions within the hobby rise and fall, and individual games with a long publishing history are the exception rather than the rule. Even then, though, the hobby itself is bigger than any one game. There do appear to be a few examples of Chapman’s theory playing out; the way the E Gary Gygax, the father of Dungeons & Dragons, ended up being forced out of his own company though political machinations does sound like an example of his Sociopaths in action. There are other examples I can think of too, but I’d rather not start naming individuals.
What about the railway enthusiast and model railway hobbies? That’s an odd case in that it started out as a fandom of a thing that was never an artistic or cultural movement but a mundane service industry that involved a lot of heavy engineering. It’s become three separate but frequently overlapping things. First there’s what amounts to the fandom of “real” railways based around travel and photography. Second there’s the whole railway preservation movement. Finally there’s the model railway hobby. But while there are many, many Geeks and Mops, it’s hard to identify obvious Sociopaths. Maybe they exist, but they just know a good long-term cash cow when they see one, so they’re actually relatively benign?
Ian Allen, the so-called “Father of Trainspotting” who died last week in his 90s was surely one of Chapman’s Geeks. Yet he founded not one but two successful businesses on the back of the hobby, a publishing house and a travel agency. On an even bigger scale, parts of the preservation movement have become significant elements of the tourist industry. Companies like the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railway operate as commercial businesses, and their steam-operated railways are important parts of the local economies. But I don’t think you can accuse their management of being motivated by anything other than a love of trains.
So ultimately I’m not sure whether David Chapman’s theory holds or not. I certainly don’t agree with him on the necessity of gatekeepers to preserve the purity of a subculture; that smacks too much of elitism, and gatekeeping is one of those things that can so easily turn toxic. This is especially true when you have what amounts to a turf war between competing subcultures over a disputed space; the whole Sad Puppies/Hugo thing, and the ongoing Gamergate culture war are prime examples.