Subgroups and niches are an integral part of Gen Z's identity. With the rise of social media, subgroups and niches have been able to thrive in close-knit communities and have completely altered the way Gen Zs understand themselves, others, and the world around us.
Coastal cowgirl, horror healer, steampunk, cosplayer, ski bum, weeb, cottagecore. If you identify with any of these phrases, you’re probably part of a niche. Many of us participate in and identify with subcultures and niches without even really knowing it. In a way, being a part of a niche or subculture is as much of an identifying factor for a person as their ethnicity, cultural heritage, or place of origin. And it has had a major influence on how Gen Zs identify themselves.
A subculture, or niche, is a term used to describe a group of people whose values, actions, and attitudes distinctly differ or deviate from the dominant culture. The dominant culture of a society, or “mainstream culture” is composed of values, actions, and attitudes that have been established as “standard”, “normal”, or “acceptable” within a society. Though subcultures were historically a rejection of the mainstream, social media has drastically changed that for Gen Z. With the democratization of information on social media, what one person's hidden interests might have been in the 70s or 80s now have an entire subreddit and community dedicated to it. This has effectively made it possible for anyone to find a community that matches that person’s values or interests. Consequently, it’s how Gen Z has grown up understanding and defining themselves.
Gen Zs grew up in an era where subcultures and niches were exploding right as we were entering our teens, which consequently is around the same time social media platforms began to reign supreme in all forms of communication and connectivity between youths. These three factors contributed to Gen Zs being driven to (consciously or unconsciously) identify themselves with their particular interests as a niche. We were trying to fundamentally understand ourselves in our early teens, at the same time as the internet and social media were giving us a resource for finding our identities through online communities.
It is important to note here that different subcultures and niches operate differently across platforms. How “accepted” a niche is, is often directly correlated to which platform the majority of the community resides on. For example, platforms like Reddit and Tumblr are historically community-based platforms. They are not primarily for individuals to post pictures of their accomplishments and adventures, like Instagram and Facebook are. More often than not, users on Reddit and Tumblr maintain a somewhat anonymous profile allowing niche communities and subcultures to flourish. It’s a place for people to share and connect based on their interests, even if they’re against the cultural norm, acting as the most popular social media platforms for communities on the fringes to exist. This is reinforced by the fact that Reddit and Tumblr were social media platforms that were on the fringes of society themselves.
As the years progressed and the cultural moment progressed right along with it, the more niche your interests, the cooler you became (although I am unsure if this will ever be true for furries or bronies). The more you could distinguish yourself from the cultural norm, the better. Suddenly, film buffs, art hoes, anime weebs, video gamers, and witches became acceptable, and even sought-after, identifiers of one’s personality. “Normative” behaviors became somewhat repulsive. If you couldn’t identify yourself with something, who were you? You were basic. And that is the kryptonite of Gen Zs.
Gen Z's obsession with the memeification of (well, everything) but in this case themselves as well as communities, and hyper intelligent social media algorithms, worked together to consolidate groups of people based upon their interests. Think of it like this:
I love anime. One day I decide to make a classic “starter pack” meme post on Instagram because I identify as a part of the anime (not so subculture anymore) subculture. The starter pack includes a squishmallow, Attack on Titan posters, ramen packs, and other characteristics / possessions of what I deem someone who likes anime to have. This post is now something that can circulate within the anime community by social media algorithms and reaffirm what you should have or actions you should do in order to say you truly identify with the subculture. It has defined the “gate of acceptance” into the anime community. The more of this content that circulates, the more people find ways to identify with the anime community and differentiate themselves from other communities. The subculture has now written its own rules for being an acceptable member of the anime niche.
Not too long ago, liking anime was a true subculture, in the way that normative society looked down on people who self-identified as anime watchers. The perception of anime (especially in America in the early 2000s) was incredibly skewed and its renunciation as a part of normative society was often interlinked with xenophobic tendencies. Now, if you go to a college party and someone mentions “Attack On Titan”, 80% of the room is going to happily take part in that conversation, guaranteed. To say that you’ve been watching anime for more than a decade now, is like a badge to wear on your sleeve. It connotes that you are a more legitimate fan, a more legitimate part of the community, because you were part of it before it became culturally acceptable.
The silly thing about all this is that now that liking anime is a socially and culturally acceptable trait, it can undergo its own nichification. The more normative something becomes, the further down the rabbit hole people have to go in order to differentiate themselves from what could only be called the “mainstream” version of that community. It’s a competition now. It looks something like this:
“Hey I like your HunterxHunter shirt, that’s a great show.”
“Oh yeah I love anime, what’s your favorite?”
“I think my favorite is My Hero Academia.”
“Oh… isn’t that show like, super cringe?”
“Uh… I don’t know, I guess? But I like it… What’s your favorite anime?”
“Mononoke, it’s pretty underground though, I don’t think you’d like it.”
If this conversation doesn’t sound familiar to you, let’s try this example instead:
“Oh yeah, I love [insert band name].”
“Oh really? What’s your favorite album?”
“Well I actually don’t really know the album names, there’s just a couple songs I like.”
“You’re not actually a fan then.”
Most Gen Zs understand these scenarios as “gatekeeping”. Gatekeeping occurs when a subculture or niche feels pressure to keep their subculture underground and untouched by the masses and therefore intentionally withholds information about their community from others. A lot of the appeal for being a part of a subculture is the fact that you aren’t “basic”, which as noted earlier, has become an undesirable trait. Gatekeeping and the development of subcultures into normative interests has underlined much of what Gen Z has experienced in their personal coming of age films, and continues to define our young adulthood. We live to identify with something, anything and we want it to be all ours, something that isn’t shared in mainstream culture. Oftentimes we’re identifying with many things at once, sometimes contradicting, sometimes overlapping interests (think identifying with the EDM community but also the straightedge niche and the punk rock community). So much so, that many used-to-be niched interests are a part of the cultural norm now.
Though Millennials were all about the "personal brand", the creator economy and social media has gone a bit too far for Gen Z, so much so that many find novelty in anonymity. As we participate in more and more niche communities, subcultures will no longer be representative of our personalities, but key markers of our intersectionality as a generation. Because we are fluid with our identities, we will exist fluidly between subcultures: treating them as experiences that impact us rather than communities that define us.