Allow me to time travel to a field in Bedfordshire, around a decade ago. It is busy with arrivals. Like everyone I have come to this strangely pastoral yet ear-numbingly urban event via a text message, sent just after midnight. Someone tells us we’re heading for National Trust land. We chuckle. Our non-smart camera-free phones are tucked in our pockets, their duty done.
We travel via taxi and now we’re in a muddy lane. A police car looms into view and we think it’s all over. But then two policemen lean out: “Going to the rave? Over the hill, turn right.” Yes – Her Majesty’s Constabulary giving out directions to a secret party, with the unspoken agreement that we “keep it to ourselves”.
Around 200 people have congregated. Most are here because of that single message. To qualify for the hallowed text you have to be in the know – and on the list. There are no tweets, no Google Maps. There is a genuine sense of caution: forwarding the text is frowned upon. And anything close to social media – these were the days of chatrooms – will bring unwanted attention. We all knew what had happened to the original rave scene in the late 1980s and we didn’t want to end up on the six o’clock news.
Let’s imagine this scenario today. Police helping youths find the party? Improbable. Huge sound systems belting out trance behind country hedges without a surrounding fuzz of tweets, YouTube uploads and Facebook brags? Impossible.
Youth movements are generally secretive, for obvious reasons. So let’s time travel again, this time armed with wifi and a bag of iPhones, and watch the Mods and rockers doing battle in Facebook likes, the punks Instagraming their hairdos, the DM-wearing skins DM-ing details of the fight. Would social media have fuelled or killed these tribes?
The Mods would have loved the looping vanity of Vine, the “video Twitter”, and so would the talcum spinners of the Wigan Casino. Northern Soul was the social media-ready movement: the hashtaggable names and mottos (#twistedwheel, #keepthefaith), the sense of community spliced with one-upmanship – and the visual spectacle of it all. But exploding the craze beyond those in the know – and on the dancefloor? A risky business.
Social media amplifies a moment by letting those who are not physically present join in. That’s where the Venn diagram gets interesting. Look at #xfactor. Or #riots. The peripheral circles, the echo chambers, become bigger than the central event, triggering clusters of new and, in the case of the riots, potentially more extreme actions elsewhere. Social media blows the lid on otherwise niche, covert and local activities, sending a movement global in days – then often smashing it apart.
Recent years have brought us flashmobs, Twitter storms, happy-slapping, SmackCam, planking, twerking, Harlem Shaking and of course the 500-strong, alco-pop fuelled Facebook house parties that end up in the Daily Mail. They all have one thing in common: a very short lifespan.
So the youth movements of the past might well have grown bigger, faster, but then Twitter and Foursquare would have brought the deckchairs crashing down on the Mods as the police moved in. And the Sex Pistols would have been exposed as a boyband by @PennyRed faster than Malcolm McLaren could rip your jeans. The rave scene, while better coordinated and less reliant on flyers, midnight texts and meet-ups at service stations, would have plunged into parody before sunrise – “new on Buzzfeed, 16 ways to spot a raver”.
So what now? We already know we live in an accelerated culture. Today’s headlines, tomorrow’s chip paper – #ROFL, you need to be this hour’s trending topic. And, while not strictly the preserve of the young, the rise and fall of operations like the Pirate Bay (the file-sharers’ lost paradise) and Silk Road (“eBay for drugs”) do feel a bit like history on repeat. The party always moves on to the next field, the next hashtag or the next proxy server. But one thing remains: young people will always want to gather in the dark and do things others don’t know about. Yet. So DM me the details after midnight?
A version of this blog was first published at culturekicks.co.uk