Highlights From The Comments On Subcultures
(see original post here)
1: Maximum Limelihood Estimator writes:
I firmly believe that cycles don't exist and never have existed. This is my shitposting way of saying "I have never, once, in my years of experience modeling human behavioral time series, come across an honest-to-god cyclical pattern (excluding time of year/month/week/day effects)." And yet for some reason, every time I show a time series to anyone ever, people swear to god the data looks cyclical.
I called this “a cyclic theory” to acknowledge my debt to Turchin, but you may notice that as written it doesn’t repeat. Just because disco was cool in the 70s and uncool in the 80s doesn’t imply it will be cool in the 90s, uncool in the 00s, and so on forever. It will probably just stay uncool.
The cyclic aspect, if it exists, would involve the constant spawning of new subcultures that rise and fall on their own. So disco begets dance music, dance music has its own golden age and eventual souring, and then it begets something else. The atheist movement begets the feminist movement begets the anti-racist movement begets and so on.
What about the stronger claim - that no (non-calendar-based) cycles exist? I think this is clearly false if you allow cycles like the above - in which case the business cycle is one especially well-established example. But if you mean a cycle that follows a nice sine wave pattern and is pretty predictable, I have trouble thinking of good counterexamples.
Except for cicada population! I think that’s genuinely cyclic! You can argue it ought to count as a calendar-based cycle, but then every cycle that lasted a specific amount of time would be calendar-based and Limelihood’s claim would be true by definition.
2: People giving specific examples that either agree or disagree with the model:
Is this post intended to chronicle the cycle of those subcultures that are clearly 'movements', or is it intended to cover subcultures in general? Because I can think of any number of garden variety subcultures (skateboarding in the 70s and 80s, punk rock, D&D guys, etc) that had/have significant cultural traction that don't obviously fit this model.
If we're just talking about 'ism' cultures then it seems like a lot of this tracks, though even there I'm guessing that those 'ism' cultures where a critical number of the participants are clearly committed to making sure everyone knows how smart they are might be more susceptible. The Klan (in its many unfortunate incarnations) was/is definitely a subculture, but just as I don't see it necessarily fitting this pattern I also don't suspect it's a subculture where the members were eager to tell you how bored they were in K-12, or what their SAT scores were.
D&D definitely went through a couple of rounds like this. First the breakup of the original TSR: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TSR,_Inc.#TSR's_demise Then the decline of 3e and the edition wars: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dungeons_%26_Dragons#Wizards_of_the_Coast Currently 5e is at involution, having had an explosive growth phase driven by streaming and 80thies nostalgia. You can also observe this in RPG subcultures, e.g. the OSR.
Seen this in a political movement. What was absolutely shocking is how fast it went through the stages once it got to success. It was basically a long grind of ~10 years to get legitimacy, a relatively short burst of success and very rapid expansion to become a national/parliamentary party (around one year)... and 6 months after the elections the energies already started focusing inwards, with everything blowing up and getting completely "taken over by sociopaths" before the 1 year mark. Romania, 2016/17, USR.
Scott' description here is pretty spot on. What I can add is that strong and stable leadership might change the pattern, especially if it has some form of sanctity. May be why religious and ideological organizations thrive more than secular ones. There will always be pressure to go for status seeking inside the org, but if it's either hopeless (with strong leadership) or even better, hopeless and heretical, then you just put a lid on it and use the extra pressure to force expansion and object-level results.
In my example above leadership turned out to be an unexpectedly weak point, and once the inward status race started, there wasn't much hope to do anything else. You could try to do good work, but without getting aligned with the right faction (or at least a faction), at the next power shuffle you'll end up just not getting an eligible spot, even while being literally the most active member of parliament in history (happened), or having great results but being replaced by a glorified intern in very fair internal elections (also happened).
Trying to speculate and model what would have happened with strong enough leadership... and I still see problems. Even if the absolute top status level is not available, there is still pressure to turn inwards for the next few upper levels (I'm reminded of the quip "All politics is internal"). Leadership needs to be not just unassailable, but strong enough to bash heads and force either a clear process, or some form of Sanctity / alignment that makes too much internal focus something that Just Isn't Done.
That's a huge advantage older orgs have over new: the power system is old and ossified enough, almost a bureaucracy. It's true, the best hope is "a position commensurate to your talent and diligence", which means on average you get less. But even if the management may be less competent than you, you get the guarantee that your peers won't be fighting you for status - they'll at most be competing with you, more or less fairly.
The tragedy here is that how passionately people feel about the Cause is not helping at all, without also having a mechanism to turn this Belief into negentropy. The only thing I can think of, that can turn a young org's energies outwards, is an unassailable central figure. And it needs to be unassailable, not just powerful, because he/she's the lid that keeps the pressure up and outwards.
I’ve seen this in the indie game subculture. There was definitely a point where I realized I was overwhelmed by the number of indie game conferences, documentaries, and websites. There was a whole meme about the “indiepocalypse” when the gold rush period suddenly ended. That said, indie games themselves are as healthy as ever! They’ve just not such a good economic bet as they’ve gotten closer to market equilibrium.
3: Erusian writes:
I think you missed a key dynamic. As the opportunities to break new grounddry up and it becomes harder to advance and there's more money/momentum the feedback loops break down. People start to be rewarded for conforming to the expectations of the current movement consensus. That's when you get Loyalists. Loyalists are the opposite of Heresiarchs and their followers. They not only dogmatically follow a pro-movement ethos but they actively purge and purity-spiral people who are not sufficiently devoted or who smell too much like Heresiarchs.
In the early days you pushed things forward by improving the movement, having interesting ideas, offering actionable criticism and then executing, and so on. As that becomes harder (and you need to be a genius) you can instead get ahead by unswerving loyalty and attacking the heresiarchs, effectively reassuring people in power. And people who look kind of like heresiarchs which creates space by clearing out competition.
This produces a more orthodox but less interesting kind of thought. It's easier to be a loyalist and it gives you a chance to create new virgin territory by invoking what amount to purity spirals. Yes, you might not be able to align AI as well as that guy. But you can find that time he said that maybe AI alignment wasn't the most important thing ever and he needs to be purged! (Whether this example happens I can't say. But you get the concept.)
This hardens the organization, ossifies it. This can be good if it really has found the one true path. But usually it's actually a trap. One that's especially hard to detect for true believers. And a worse trap than the heresiarchs.
Some of the heretics want to burn everything down but most of them are reformers who just want to make their own ideas dominant. But Loyalists force them out of the movement and the movement itself into increasingly rigid forms of thinking. In the process of making the movement pure it destroys its immune system. And then the question becomes: did the movement amass enough money and power in its earlier stages to maintain itself as a mature organization, driven more by momentum than by innovation? Or does this ossified shell die?
4: Laura Creighton writes:
Something not mentioned is that when the people who are doing this cool new thing because this is a cool thing that I want to do for its own sake (and, incidentally, I might get some status from it, even though I don't care about such things very much, because I don't see any way to stop this) begin to be approached in numbers in the group by the people who are doing this cool new thing because they can get status from it, and are precisely drawn to it because it will generate status for them, and status is what they care about more than anything or most anything in the world) -- Gresham's law kicks in.
Many of the cool people *leave* because they cannot stand to be around people who *aren't* in it for its own sake.
I'm sick of starting cool groups, companies, etc which I have to leave when it stops being about the things I love and care about, done by people I like more than a little, and starts being about giving status to people I am at best indifferent to, and often dislike, and who often take a strong dislike to me because, for as long as I can hold out, I will try to flatten the status levels which cuts into their prestige.
If you haven't looked on the creation of status as an undesirable outcome that needs limiting, you may not have ended up in a situation where the first person to drive you and other likeminded out of your group gets to keep all the chips. And that is one place where the psychopaths thrive.
I guess I should have been more respectful to David Chapman’s model, because the most common criticism in the comments was “actually I think it’s more of [reinvents David Chapman’s model]. Fine. Good work David.
5: Anon writes:
This post is very rediscovering-monarchy-from-first-principles, so I approve.
"The only thing I can think of, that can turn a young org's energies outwards, is an unassailable central figure. And it needs to be unassailable, not just powerful, because he/she's the lid that keeps the pressure up and outwards." This is the exact principle that pro-monarchist thinkers used to justify monarchy. I can't remember now if it was Burke or Carlyle or someone else who said on the occasion of the murder of Louis XVI that the revolutionaries had not just killed the king's person but the entire structure of legitimacy, inculcated through ages, and that the French people would now be wholly ungovernable since every man would think he could wear the golden hat and begin to scheme against the guy wearing it right now, who after all was no different from himself, a former baker or cobbler or something. Assailable, if you like.
I had used the example of Planned Parenthood, which has a board of directors and strong institutional tradition so you can’t just waltz in and take it over. It sounds like the difference between this and what Anon’s proposing is that you can found your own pro-choice organization and (if it’s good enough) displace Planned Parenthood as the center of the pro-choice movement. I think this system - exit over voice, market selection, whatever you want to call it - is usually an improvement on pure authoritarianism.
6: AvalancheGenesis writes:
Considering how often I feel the need to say some version of “I’m not, like, one of __those__ members of the Rationalist movement, I just sort of think some of their ideas make sense sometimes.”, I'd suppose we're firmly in at least Stage 3 now.
My rationalist timeline:
Precycle: 2007 - 2010
Growth: 2010 - 2016
Involution: 2017 - 2020
Postcycle: Since 2020
Now things are pretty stable, partly because we put enough distance between ourselves and our growth phase that we can start to get a little hipster cool again, and partly because effective altruism is the Hot New Thing that everyone is supposed to have an opinion on. This is the usual pattern of exciting talked-about movements spawning successor movements that then get to be exciting and talked-about in turn, while the original movement gets to go back to being normal people with a common interest again.
By the way, in the past week, effective altruism has gotten long, glowing profiles in the New Yorker, the New York Times, Vox, the cover of TIME Magazine, shoutouts from Elon Musk and Andrew Yang, podcast interviews with Tyler Cowen and Tim Ferriss, and criticism from Freddie deBoer. Enjoy it while it lasts!
7: MT writes:
A lot of this sounds like truism, or selection bias. Thing isn't popular or exciting to most, then it catches on and grows, then it stops growing, fragments into new directions and isn't novel but becomes part of the mainstream. This HAS TO describe literally anything in the past that was ever popular/exciting, because it wasn't always that way (started small) and can't grow indefinitely without becoming either an institution (stable leadership/direction), fragmented (new leadership/direction), or just falling apart.
The germ of this idea was my feeling that I’ve been in movements where it starts out feeling like everyone can’t stop gushing about how great we are, and then later there’s another phase where criticism reigns and everyone feels slightly embarrassed to be involved. This doesn’t feel tautological to me, although it might become trivial if you allow enough selection bias (some movement where this hasn’t happened “isn’t the kind of movement this happens to”).
I could prove this by making nontrivial predictions about which movements are going to get less camaraderie and more internecine struggle in the future. Four years ago I would have said “new left socialism”, and I think I did endorse Robby Soave’s article to that effect at the time, but I think new left socialism is well into involution or even postcycle now. Last year I would have said YIMBYism, but I’m not up-to-date on it and maybe it’s already transitioned too. The only movement I see that’s still clearly high on “we are so great and such good friends with each other” is postrationalism/ingroup/TPOT, so sure, I expect things to get worse for them (sorry for this potentially self-fulfilling prophecy).
(I’m nervous about saying EA because they still have more money than they can spend in a reasonable amount of time; as long as that situation continues they won’t be exactly resource-scarce, and the people with the purse-strings will have a natural advantage as “elites”.)
I’m actually surprised how few uncomplicated happy growth spurt movements I can think of now, compared to how many I can think of that seem to have passed through that stage. I think this is a combination of:
This is a pretty pessimistic social moment (eg the thing where dystopian SF has become more popular than the utopian SF of the late 20th century).
Exciting new movements are exciting partly insofar as they’re hidden gems, and I’m not cool enough to know about them. The ones I do know about make no sense to me, which probably means they’re successfully keeping uncool people like me out.
Some movements deliberately resist legibility as a defense mechanism; see eg Freddie deBoer’s Please Just Fucking Tell Me What Term I Am Allowed To Use For The Sweeping Social And Political Changes You Demand.
Does anyone else know groups in this phase now?
8: Nate writes:
What was the original movement for which the emergence and fragmentation of the intellectual dark web was the involution?
Why should they be involution?
The NYT piece Meet The Renegades Of The Intellectual Dark Web is a great example of what it looks like when a movement is starting its growth phase. Newspapers write articles about how edgy and cool you are and how the establishment is afraid of your growing power. The couple of people who joined the movement out of genuine conviction when it was unpopular or made them look weird (eg Jordan Peterson, Eric Weinstein) get catapulted to superstardom.
IDW seemed like an unusually short period of time before everyone turned on each other and it became cringe, maybe because nothing united them besides being heterodox and there’s no reason for adherents of different heterodoxies to like or agree with each other. So there were a brief couple of months when people were excited about having a powerful mutual rallying flag against The Man, and then they turned on each other.
There’s also another thing I didn’t get to in the original post about something like attack surface. When a movement is small, outsiders mostly don’t bother coming up with good criticisms, because nobody cares and it feels like punching down. In early Growth phase, the movement is still confined to its natural base and has a buzz of excitement around it and nobody wants to criticize it then either. But as it gets bigger, it becomes a well-known important topic (cf. all those news articles about EA), it starts feeling actually threatening to people (eg one vegetarian is a cute eccentric weirdo, but if 50% of people are vegetarian then you start feeling judged for not being one, and maybe people start taking meat off the menu), plus it’s in Involution phase so insiders are cooperating with outside critics.
9: FarTheThrow writes:
I'm always so confused when I read analysis like this that is built almost entirely around status. Maybe I'm just too much of a hermit to understand, but it all just seems like a very weird/alien way of viewing things that is pretty divorced from what I experience in my life. I'm trying to create a mental model of how this is supposed to work and the best I can come up with is something like "hey this cool movement I joined seemed great but I expected to have gained... 30 status... points and I've only gained 23! I better go start a fight with someone so I can take their status points!" Like, I'm confused how I'm supposed to map that to something I've ever experienced, let alone have it be the primary dominating factor in all these various social dynamics.
It also feels a bit non-falsifiable in practice, because I rarely see any behavior that can't have a status explanation attached even when there are simpler, more straightforward explanations. For a meta example: with status theory you could assert that sure I say I'm making this post because I'm confused by this concept and its application and what to hear feedback that will help me understand it better, but really I'm actually just mining for status points by being a sophisticated contrarian. But what predictions about my behavior can you actually make with that statement? If, for example, I don't engage in the responses you could say "See! /u/FarTheThrow has already gotten all the status they were going to get from this post, since they don't actually care about understanding the concept, they didn't bother engaging further!" And if I do engage in the responses, you could say "See! Yet more status mining, trying to look like a sophisticate who engages in rational discourse!"
Worrying about status doesn’t feel like worrying about status, and usually it’s not even helpful to think about it on the status level. It’s like nutrients. Most non-sociopaths don’t go about trying to “obtain nutrients”, they just happen to eat foods, and some of those foods are healthier and tastier than others…
Being in a Growth phase subculture feels like “my contributions are appreciated”, “people respond to my comments”, “my feedback is taken seriously”, “there are lots of interesting projects I can work on”, “I feel accepted socially”, “I tend to get the positions I apply for”, “I make friends easily”, “it’s easy for me to make progress on tasks I put my mind to”, et cetera.
Being in an Involution phase subculture feels like the opposite. There are intimidatingly-high barriers for entry, and the only advice people will give you is “lurk moar”. Everyone else is better at the thing than you are, and you have no compensatory advantages. You’re not sure how to break into social networks or get invited to things, and although there might be formal programs to help (eg internships), you cannot get any.
“Status” is an abstraction that covers all of this stuff. Like all abstractions, it’s less useful than just describing the thing you are abstracting over in careful detail, but like all abstractions, you might not feel like doing that and then the abstraction is helpful
Kaj Sotala writes:
These descriptions resonated with me, in that I can recognize in them the shape of - say - the nature of Finnish anime fandom in the early and mid-00s, as well as a bunch of other subcultures I've had some familiarity with. And I think that people in those subcultures were motivated by that kind of "forward and upward" work.
I wouldn't characterize that in terms of status, though. I'd say the relevant needs were more about things like a sense of belonging, being seen and appreciated (which is meaningfully different from wanting status since it doesn't require you to be above anyone else), doing something that feels meaningful, and connecting with like-minded people. And because the scene was still small, there were easy opportunities to do that kind of a thing - if there's no existing convention or online forum yet, creating one feels like a meaningful contribution that lets you connect with others.
And once things became more institutionalized and everyone started taking it for granted that yeah of course there are forums and conventions, some of that excitement faded. While others, having connected with enough like-minded people and now being older with less time available, gradually started participating less. (I'm kind of suggesting that the scene has declined from its prime but I don't really know - maybe the younger folks are keeping it alive and it's actually bigger than ever, I'm one of those oldies who has basically withdrawn and has no idea of what's going on anymore.)
But then, as pursuing the kinds of needs that I described also often correlates with getting status and they're kind of like wanting status if you squint, these kinds of analyses tend to lump them all together with status.
This is a definitional dispute and I should know better than to get involved in definition disputes, but I can’t help myself: I feel like “it’s not status - it’s just a sense of belonging, being appreciated, and connecting with people” is like saying “it’s not language - it’s just letters, words, and sentences.”
I guess Kaj is using status in a strict sense and I am using it in a loose sense. Or maybe Kaj is talking about going from neutral status to high status (where you start to feel like a special bigshot) and I am including going from negative status to neutral status (where you start to feel accepted and part of the group).
Imagine if the word “money” had a connotation of “thing you use to buy luxury goods so that poor people are jealous of you”. Then people would tell economists “You’re so cynical in thinking that labor markets are about money - a lot of people just want to pay their monthly rent and provide food for their families”.
Normally in a situation like this I would use a different word, but I don’t know if there’s a good snappy replacement. Accepting suggestions!