The birth of cool
Before there is a subculture, there is a scene. A scene is a small group of creators who invent an exciting New Thing — a musical genre, a religious sect, a film animation technique, a political theory. Riffing off each other, they produce examples and variants, and share them for mutual enjoyment, generating positive energy.
The new scene draws fanatics. Fanatics don’t create, but they contribute energy (time, money, adulation, organization, analysis) to support the creators.
Creators and fanatics are both geeks. They totally love the New Thing, they’re fascinated with all its esoteric ins and outs, and they spend all available time either doing it or talking about it.
If the scene is sufficiently geeky, it remains a strictly geek thing; a weird hobby, not a subculture.
If the scene is unusually exciting, and the New Thing can be appreciated without having to get utterly geeky about details, it draws mops. Mops are fans, but not rabid fans like the fanatics. They show up to have a good time, and contribute as little as they reasonably can in exchange.
Geeks welcome mops, at first at least. It’s the mass of mops who turn a scene into a subculture. Creation is always at least partly an act of generosity; creators want as many people to use and enjoy their creations as possible. It’s also good for the ego; it confirms that the New Thing really is exciting, and not just a geek obsession. Further, some money can usually be extracted from mops — just enough, at this stage, that some creators can quit their day jobs and go pro. (Fanatics contribute much more per head than mops, but there are few enough that it’s rarely possible for creatives to go full time with support only from fanatics.) Full-time creators produce more and better of the New Thing.
The mop invasion
Fanatics want to share their obsession, and mops initially validate it for them too. However, as mop numbers grow, they become a headache. Fanatics do all the organizational work, initially just on behalf of geeks: out of generosity, and to enjoy a geeky subsociety. They put on events, build websites, tape up publicity fliers, and deal with accountants. Mops just passively soak up the good stuff. You may even have to push them around the floor; they have to be led to the drink. At best you can charge them admission or a subscription fee, but they’ll inevitably argue that this is wrong because capitalism is evil, and they forgot their wallet.
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.
Mops relate to each other in “normal” ways, like people do on TV, which the fanatics find repellent. During intermission, geeks want to talk about the New Thing, but mops blather about sportsball and celebrities. Also, the mops also seem increasingly entitled, treating the fanatics as service workers.
Fanatics may be generous, but they signed up to support geeks, not mops. At this point, they may all quit, and the subculture collapses.
The sociopath invasion
Unless sociopaths show up. A subculture at this stage is ripe for exploitation. The creators generate cultural capital, i.e. cool. The fanatics generate social capital: a network of relationships — strong ones among the geeks, and weaker but numerous ones with mops. The mops, when properly squeezed, generate financial capital, i.e. money. None of those groups have any clue about how to extract and manipulate any of those forms of capital.
The sociopaths quickly become best friends with selected creators. They dress just like the creators — only better. They talk just like the creators — only smoother. They may even do some creating — competently, if not creatively. Geeks may not be completely fooled, but they also are clueless about what the sociopaths are up to.
Mops are fooled. They don’t care so much about details, and the sociopaths look to them like creators, only better. Sociopaths become the coolest kids in the room, demoting the creators. At this stage, they take their pick of the best-looking mops to sleep with. They’ve extracted the cultural capital.
The sociopaths also work out how to monetize mops — which the fanatics were never good at. With better publicity materials, the addition of a light show, and new, more crowd-friendly product, admission fees go up tenfold, and mops are willing to pay. Somehow, not much of the money goes to creators. However, more of them do get enough to go full-time, which means there’s more product to sell.
The sociopaths also hire some of the fanatics as actual service workers. They resent it, but at least they too get to work full-time on the New Thing, which they still love, even in the Lite version. The rest of the fanatics get pushed out, or leave in disgust, broken-hearted.
The death of cool — unless…
After a couple years, the cool is all used up: partly because the New Thing is no longer new, and partly because it was diluted into New Lite, which is inherently uncool. As the mops dwindle, the sociopaths loot whatever value is left, and move on to the next exploit. They leave behind only wreckage: devastated geeks who still have no idea what happened to their wonderful New Thing and the wonderful friendships they formed around it. (Often the geeks all end up hating each other, due first to the stress of supporting mops, and later due to sociopath divide-and-conquer manipulation tactics.)
Unless some of the creators are geniuses. If they can give the New Thing genuine mass appeal, they can ascend into superstardom. The subculture will reorganize around them, into a much more durable form. I won’t go into that in this blog post. I will point out that this almost never happens without sociopaths. An ambitious creator may know they have mass-appeal genius, and could be a star, but very rarely do they know how to get from here to there.