Youth culture, identity, and creativity in the age of digital media

The online Directioners: virtual spaces for identity and cultural production

One Direction were, by any measure, a major pop music success. The English-Irish boy band originally formed in 2010 for the British TV talent show The X Factor, subsequently signing to Simon Cowell’s record label, Syco Records. Worldwide tours followed, along with scores of international hits, before the band began a hiatus in 2016. One Direction’s commercial achievements were impressive, but also significant was the role of social networks in the band’s career. One Direction’s record label was adept at using social media to generate and maintain a strong emotional bond between the band and their fanbase -dubbed ‘Directioners’ — who became famous for their fervour for the tousle-haired songsters.

Equally significant, however, was the way the Directioners, themselves, played an active part in propelling the band to success. A wealth of fan activity boosted One Direction’s rise, with legions of Directioners using Internet platforms like Tumblr and Twitter to promote the band and its members. As Pilar Lacasa (2016) and her colleagues argue, this involvement was an invaluable marketing tool for the band but it was also a meaningful experience for the Directioners, who used the fandom as a basis for global interaction, friendships, and communal solidarity. Beyond this, some Directioners also used their fandom to explore new dimensions of identity and expression. One sub-section of the fanbase, for instance, promoted the (probably erroneous) idea that two members of One Direction - Louis Tomlinson and Harry Styles — had a romantic relationship or ‘ship’. Promoted largely through Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter, this unlikely liaison was referred to by the portmanteau of ‘Larry Stylinson’, or simply ‘Larry'’, and was configured by the press as evidence of a delusional fan pathology. More accurately, however, the ‘Larries’ exemplified the practice of ‘shipping’ (derived from the word ‘relationship’) in which fans explore the realms of gender, sexuality, and desire through playful fantasies of erotic encounters between fictional characters or celebrities.1

This was just one facet of the wealth of cultural production and creative activity undertaken by Directioners. Indeed, alongside the social networks, websites, and blogs, One Direction also elicited voluminous fanfiction, as fans conjured-up fantasy lives for their favourite band members. And sometimes their endeavours crossed over into mainstream success. In 2013, for example, Anna Todd was inspired by her passion for One Direction to begin writing an erotic novel — After — based on Harry Styles and the other band members. The 25-year-old Texan wrote the novel’s 239 chapters on her smartphone, uploading them onto the free storytelling website Wattpad. The book was chiefly written for Todd’s own enjoyment, but within a year it garnered more than a million readers and landed the author a lucrative publishing deal with Simon & Schuster (Michaels, 2014). The After series of novels were duly released in 2014 (with the lead character’s name changed from Harry Styles to Hardin Scott) and hit the New York Times bestseller list - a popularity that saw Paramount Pictures pick up the books’ film rights and release a movie adaptation of After in 2019.

The Directioners’ various forms of online expression exemplified the more general way digital media and online networks have become pivotal spaces for young people. This chapter examines the increasing role of digital media in the way youngsters develop their sense of self, manage their social relationships and engage in processes of cultural creativity. It begins by considering how developments in cyberspace may have fed into a wider ‘decentring’ of identity in contemporary society, with individuals articulating an ever-wider range of identities and selves. For queer theorists, this fluidity has been especially pronounced in the realms of gender and sexuality, and the chapter considers the way essentialist views of stable, binary identities have been challenged by sensibilities that destabilise conventional boundaries of sex and gender. Arguably, youth culture and its associated media have been especially fertile spaces for such challenges, and the chapter examines the way a succession of pop artists — from Little Richard to Lady Gaga — have elaborated a queer ‘performance’ that questions the binaries of gender and sexuality. For some critics, social media also afford important spaces for identities that challenge traditional notions of gender and sexuality, and the chapter examines the way groups of young people - One Direction’s Larries, for instance — explore gendered and sexual identities that flow across conventional boundaries.

The chapter continues by considering the way technologies such as Web 2.0 and smartphones increased the role of online communication and social media in young people’s lives. The chapter highlights both the broad global similarities and the distinctive local differences that characterise young people’s use of social media. And, while the negative dimensions to social media are acknowledged - for example, cyber-bullying and sexual harassment — recognition is also given to social media’s capacity for building connections, communities, and friendships. The chapter concludes by considering young people’s wealth of online creativity and cultural production, and assesses how far this surge of cultural expression represents a sea-change in the nature of young people’s media engagement.

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