Finding the meaning of emo in youths' online social networking: A qualitative study of contemporary Italian emo
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Finding the meaning of emo in youths' online social networking: A qualitative study of contemporary Italian emo by Francesca Romana Seganti and David Smahel



Abstract
This paper analyses how young Italians aged 16 to 19 who identify themselves with emo subculture use social network sites (SNSs) in constructing their identity and social relations. Based on a qualitative methodology, the findings supported our hypothesis that SNS are tools to socialise rather than isolate. Emo emerges as a powerful identity mark, which through dissemination in new media provides the foundation for a new sense of subcultural belonging.

Contents

Introduction
Methodology
Findings
Discussion
Conclusion

 


 

Introduction

Emo is a global phenomenon which covers a large range of styles of emotionally charged hardcore. Some youth argue that it stands for “emotional”. During the last three decades emo has changed from an underground to a mainstream phenomenon. Bailey (2006) argues that today two types of emo followers can be distinguished: “independents” and “mainstreamers” (also called “emo kids”). Emo “independents” are loyal to the original mid–eighties intentions of the emo scene in Washington D.C. They are committed to independent music and see emo as a means of freedom from the corporate dominated music industry. According to Bailey, the “mainstreamers” are those who enjoy everything that emo represents, associating strongly with bands labelled emo even through popular channels such as MTV. Bailey remarked:

“They are mostly white, suburban, high school and college kids that dress alike, watch MTV’s TRL, and attend mainstream emo concerts like Dashboard Confessional, The Get Up Kids, and New Found Glory. It should be noted that some (especially emo ‘independents’) might tend to look down at this subcategory of emo culture as ‘sell–outs’ and ‘wannabes’.” [1]

The aim of this study was to begin building a knowledge base of emo subculture in Italy to further understand the meaning of this phenomenon in a specific context.

As far as the subcategory of emo is concerned, a quotation from Hebdige’s book Subculture, the meaning of style has strong evocative power:

“We are interested in subculture — in the expressive forms and rituals of those subordinate groups … who are alternately dismissed, denounced and canonized; treated at different times as threats to public order and as harmless buffoons.” [2]

Hebdige’s book is one of the most significant studies on youth subcultures, although it has been criticised for its structural and materialistic interpretation (Muggleton, 2000). Words like “dismissed”, “denounced”, “canonized”, “harmless”, and “buffoons” are key to tracing Italian emo followers’ presence on the Web. The Web, especially the Italian Web sphere, appear to be spaces for constructing anti–emo representations. “Anti–emo” Web pages mainly gather adolescents speaking out against emo adolescents. They produce video parodies and express detachment from emo behavior. Emo followers are described as wearing tight jeans, studded belts and wristbands, having long fringes which obscure their faces, and dyed black hair. According to emo opponents this “dark” look is an expression of superficiality, a mask hiding emptiness and boredom. Emo followers are not only described as “wannabes”, but also as inclined to depression and suicide. They are said to practice self–cutting, and are criticised for showing it off on the Web (“Anti–emo Italia”, 2010). In the recent Italian films, Cado dalle Nubi (2009) and Io loro e Lara (2010), emo youth are represented as sad individuals who had retired within themselves. In these media texts they are portrayed as heavy users of new media such as MP3 players and social network sites (SNSs), this use connoting social withdrawal.

On 8 May 2008, an Italian member of the Parliament — Antonio DePoli, UDC Party — suggested in Parliament that the Web site Nonciclopedia (http://nonciclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/Pagina_principale) be shut down, citing that it was encouraging “emo kids” to self–harm. DePoli had in fact mistaken the intent of the Web site which was to parody “emo”. While this episode had no political consequences, it found a strong echo in public opinion. The Web was seen as the cause of a determined social effect. This helped to reinforce the strong stereotype of emo youths as depressed, inclined to suicide, and asocial. This hysteria surrounding emo was perfect material for a moral panic story (Cohen, 1972) on the Italian national public service broadcaster’s main news service Rai Uno (http://www.rai1.rai.it/). “Fashion or sect?” asked the anchorman, alluding to the risk that emo followers could adhere to a nihilistic faith, deviating from generally accepted values and standards. Similar events occurred in other countries, such as Australia (Phillipov, 2009) and Mexico (Hawley, 2008).

Given the context outlined above, it was thought an examination of the social dynamics of a segment of this youth movement could offer interesting insights into this contested phenomenon; particularly an examination of the role of the Web in supporting the construction of its subcultural identities. Thus, the goal of this research was to analyse how emo youths represented themselves online, and how they used social network sites (SNS). This included a qualitative analysis of the communication dynamics among Italian emo followers aged 16 to 19 years who use Netlog, an SNS targeted at youths.

The research question was whether the Web could provide Italian emo youths with a space to express their subcultural identities, and if they were using it to isolate or to socialise.

The first step in this direction was to discuss with youth what emo meant to them. We investigated the way youth use the Web and SNSs as a means of subcultural participation producing self–constructed and reflexive forms of subcultural identity [3]. This aim was addressed within a theoretical framework that considered subculture as:

“A symbolic representation of certain sets of social relationships and practices, which emphasize some aspects instead of others.” [4]

Martin’s formulation of the concept focuses on the modalities of social representation of the social world rather than on efforts to identify and define actual groups of people and then ascribe to them values and practices that are held to be characteristics. Similarly, we understand subcultural identity in post–modern terms; that is as a representation through which subculturalists attempt to lend apparent and temporary substance to a particular vision of the self. We have also chosen to analyse the ways in which social activities and relationships are represented. With a focus on both the interactional ‘work’ done by people as they create their social worlds, and similarly, the processes of both researchers’ and media in portraying the particular ‘groups’.” [5].

This study’s analysis was undertaken with reference to Internet studies (Silver, 2004; Jones, 1995). This holds that off–line life has considerable impact on online relationships and communities, and that this interdependency between online and off–line must never be underestimated. One aim of this study was to contribute to the “meta–field” of Internet studies and subcultural theory. While there is a huge quantity of social research into punk (Muggleton, 2000; Bennett, 2006), goth (Hodkinson, 2002, 2007), hip hop (Neal and Forman, 2004), club culture (Wilson, 2006; Carrington and Wilson, 2004; Redhead, 1990; Thornton, 1995) and metal (Kahn–Harris, 2004; 2006; 2007), on an academic level there is scant research into the emo subculture, especially in Italy.

Subcultural theory

The Birmingham School (Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, CCCS) substantially improved developments in subculture studies in the ’70s. The major contribution made by CCCS was that of considering subcultures as expressive forms, linked to the production of alternative meanings. This overcame the limitations generated by both the juxtaposition of subculture, and early definitions created by functionalist sociologists such as “delinquents” or “criminals”. Following British Marxist critics, CCCS authors claimed that one of the main factors in the definition of subculture was social class, and that subcultures of the working class youth symbolically (through style) offered resistance to the dominant culture (Hall and Jefferson, 1976). As Stahl summarised, “CCCS theorists approach understood class, race and gender, historically, economically and politically, as the ‘problem’ to which subcultures were the ‘solution’.” [6].

CCCS maintained that the process of developing subcultural solutions to material problems allowed subculturalists to win a space in society for the collective expression of their identity. This then challenged the authority/dominant culture of the symbolic and social system from which they detached.

Almost two decades later, Muggleton (2000) argued that CCCS failed to learn from subculturalist’s on–the–ground experiences. This was due to their use of a priori theoretical framework which “has resulted in a structural overdetermination of meanings” [7]. The framework is based on two central principals of Marx’s method, materialism and totality. The notion of post–subculturalism was first introduced by Redhead (1990). He claimed that subcultural structural divisions had dissolved and connections between style, musical taste and identity were becoming increasingly fluid, if not completely undermined. This idea was developed by Muggleton, who claimed that the problem with the CCCS’ approach was that it imposed a holistic framework upon the phenomenon with the “answer” known in advance. Theory thus was not “generated” but related to whatever aspects of the empirical scene seemed relevant (Woods, 1977, cited in Muggleton, 2000). In line with Cohen’s critique of CCCS’ approach, Muggleton believed that the lives, selves and identities did not always coincide with what they were supposed to stand for. He especially criticized the CCCS’ claims that a real analysis of subculture was complete only if it took place at three levels: the historical, the structural/semiotic, and the phenomenological. Echoing Max Weber, Muggleton said that it was not possible to have this exhaustive knowledge of social reality, nor of pre–given theoretical principles: Comprehension of the world can only ever be empirical, partial and one–sided. By drawing on Weber’s studies, Muggleton argued that it would be better to regard subcultures as capable of being constructed in various different ways. This was instead of as realities that possess an essence which exists objectively and independently. Moreover, Muggleton criticized the approach of the CCCS, which situated youth subcultures within a theoretical framework of class oppression and conflict. Muggleton’s approach pointed to the dimension of change and examined how subcultures (or post–subcultures) were sustained, transformed, appropriated, disfigured and destroyed. Muggleton advocated that researchers should consider the relationship between their theoretical assumptions and the lived reality of social actors. He encouraged the examination of postmodern theories which aimed principally at recognition of heterogeneity, multiplicity, diversity, and transformation as valid components of the subcultural experience. Accordingly, Canevacci (1999) defined Italian post–subcultures as “eXtreme” and as “eXterminated cultures” in reference to their dynamism, fluidity and to the syncretic “co–eXistence” of the different selves and different languages they embodied.

Other authors moved beyond the CCCS’ structural interpretation of social life. Bennett (1999) emphasised active consumerism as the reflection of subculturalists self awareness. Bennet applied Maffesoli’s (1996) concept of tribe to contemporary dance music culture. The tribe (or neo–tribe) is small scale social configuration which is not located in a class structure. Maffesoli argues that technological developments, such as computer bulletin boards (for amusement, erotic or functional purposes), may create a communicational matrix, in which groups with various goals appear, gain strength and die. These groups recall to some extent the archaic structures of village clans or tribes. Maffesoli specifies that the only notable difference, which characterizes the ‘electronic nebula’, is, of course, the very temporality of these tribes. Characteristic of the tribe is that by highlighting what is close (persons and places), it has a tendency to be closed in on itself [8]. Miles (2000) favoured the term “lifestyle” to subculture. He argued:

“Young people no longer depend on subcultural affirmation for the construction of their identities (if indeed they ever did) but construct lifestyles that are as adaptable and as flexible as the world around them … young people use their lifestyles which on the surface appear to be fragmented or ‘post–modern’, as a highly rational and modernist way of stabilizing their everyday lives.” [9]

According to Miles, the media provide a template upon which young people can construct meanings around what is “cool” and what is not. For Miles, youth are an active force in the creation of their own lifestyles, asserting an individual sense of self, rather than attempting symbolic “resistance”, as in the CCCS.

In conclusion, “standing over these various theoretical and methodological exertions is a question that will not go away: how to define the ‘space’ within which youth cultural activity occurs. In other words, ‘where’ does youth cultural activity take place?” [10] Our choice was to analyse the Web.

Subcultures and social networking sites

Considering subcultures (the term subculture is used as a “folk model”; Jenkins, 1983) as outcomes of activities in real situations (Martin, 2004) the Web emerges as an original observatory for understanding their representation. A variety of studies have demonstrated the capacity for individuals to reinforce their development in particular music or style–related groups through the use of digital media. Thornton’s (1995) earliest study on U.K. club culture demonstrated that micro media, like the “UK dance” mailing list she analysed, are essential mediators amongst subcultural participants. Thornton argued that “they rely on their readers/listeners/consumers to be ‘in the know’ or ‘in the right place at the right time’ and are actively involved in the social organization of youth” [11]. According to Thornton, communication media are inextricably involved in the meaning and organisation of youth subcultures.

Technologies, such as bulletin boards, Internet forums, e–mail, chat, and instant messaging, are all social networking tools. These are all comprised of a broad matrix of relationships that allow people to connect with others through a common goal, shared interests, or mutual benefit (Subrahmanyam and Šmahel, 2010). Moreover, tools such as Facebook (www.facebook.com) and MySpace (www.myspace.com) are based on mapping and measuring normally invisible relationships. This reciprocal relationship between individuals and content made researchers distinguish between “social networking sites” and “social network sites”. boyd and Ellison (2007) argued that while the definition “social networking sites” emphasizes relationship initiation often between strangers, “social network sites” support pre–established relationships. This distinction was made as research demonstrated that these kinds of sites were mainly used to keep in touch with people already known in the off–line world (Gross, 2004; Haythornthwaite, 2005).

One of the aims of this study was to ascertain whether this attitude was present in the subculturalists using Netlog (http://en.netlog.com/), a social networking site.

Recent online research has also shown that online networks are organised in selective hierarchies, with key members holding the positions of information providers and social coordinators, “enhancing sub–cultural participation” [12]. The goth community, discussed by Hodkinson (2003) in Goth.Net, and the vampire online community, analysed by Mellins (2007), were found to form virtual member clubs, where each site linked to another autonomous site forming a wider “infrastructure” [13] or sub–network. “News and events can spread much faster than they could ever hope to face–to–face and users can feel part of a virtual community” (Mellins, 2007).

Hodkinson (2007) analysed British goths’ use of LiveJournal (http://www.livejournal.com/), a pioneer of SNS. He found that goths’ pre–existing community attachments remained as high in cyberspace as in everyday life. Hodkinson found that the goths’ use of interactive online journals encouraged patterns of interaction which were individual centred and embedded in existing structures of identity, community, and communication. According to Hodkinson, goths were able to use LiveJournal to cluster themselves into an interactive network. This level of insularity facilitated their continued participation in a relatively cohesive subcultural community.

Baym (2007), who analysed Swedish indie music fans’ presence online, demonstrated that ego–centred networks have not totally replaced online communities of interest. She found that the Swedish indie fan community was distributed in many places, both on and off the Internet. For instance, some fans built presences and participated in fan communities on file sharing sites. Baym noticed that they did this in an invisible way as peer–to–peer services did not require public profiles.

Furthermore, fan communities developed via SNSs that provided fans with a launching pad for individuals to contact one another. Baym found that people built personal relationships that went beyond simple “friending” to include sending one another personal messages, and led to other kinds of interpersonal contact. Baym concluded that the Swedish indie fan community did not dwell on site–based communities of interest that earlier incarnations of online music fandom entailed, nor in the individualized social networking spaces that had purportedly replaced them. “Instead it is in all of these places and others, spreading itself through a network of sites. Few if any fans frequent them all.” (Baym, 2007)

The aforementioned studies demonstrated that online worlds offer subculturalists an environment to develop and sustain different kinds of social networks. These networks may be ego centred or interest driven, pre–existing or new, and all inclusive or limited. This provides a framework for better understanding the ways in which Italian emo followers use SNS.

To this aim, the vast literature on SNSs was taken into account. SNSs have been shown to provide adolescents with a space to work out identity and status, make sense of cultural cues, negotiate public life and enhance their social capital (boyd, 2006, 2007, 2010; Livingstone, 2008) Indeed, research focused on visual self–presentation on SNSs (Siibak, 2009; Whitty, 2008) demonstrated that youth are very conscious and strategic in their visual self–presentation. Users have very clear expectations of the aspects and qualities a person has to have in order to become popular among SNS users. Siibak (2009) argued that “online peer groups act as ‘important others’ whose expectations are taken into account when naming the aspects and qualities that would lead to popularity in SNS.” We thought that “online popularity” could enhance subculturalists’ subcultural capital, as found in Thornton:

“Subcultural capital confers status to its owner in the eyes of the relevant beholder. In many ways it affects the standing of the one like its adult equivalent. Subcultural capital can be objectified or embodied. Just as books and paintings display cultural capital in the family home, so subcultural capital is objectified in the form of fashionable haircuts and well–assembled record collections.” [14]

According to Thornton, subcultural capital is embodied in the form of being “in the know”. Given that SNSs give youth the “opportunity to play and display, continuously recreating a highly–decorated, stylistically–elaborate identity” [15], investigating their role in the construction of subcultural identity could shed light on subculturalists’ media usage. Indeed analysis of subcultural self–presentation online could illuminate the meaning of emo. Bennett (2004) argued that this perspective, of finding the meaning of subculture by looking at how subculturalists use the Web, had never been at the centre of academic interpretations of subculture.

 

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Methodology

An interpretative approach

In line with interpretivism, we believe that natural science methods are not appropriate for social investigation, as the social world is not governed by regularities holding law–like properties. Instead, we consider the world as a construction of ideas, meanings, and symbols that determine human behaviour. This is in line with the interpretative perspective rooted in Geertz’s (1973) “thick description”. His theory asserts the essentially semiotic nature of culture, or sub–culture. So, we “travelled” to the online subcultural space as Internet ethnographers, with the aim of exploring the subculturalists’ social world using both participants’ and researcher’s knowledge. As with the interpretative methodological strategies, our aim was to illuminate meaning in participants’ practices. “What does it mean to be emo?” “What is the significance of emo events to those involved?” To “address research questions that require explanation or understanding of social phenomena and their context” [16], we used a qualitative methodology. We applied a participant observation approach, supplemented by online interviews, with ethnographic embodied learning being part of the process of understanding “the other”, as in Hine [17]. We considered Netlog a “library of people” (Teli, et al., 2007) where we took “a ‘pick–up approach’ — reading, extracting information and giving back results in forms that can be stored in libraries again, like books, articles or conference proceedings. There is no negotiation; the data to be collected are simply there” (Teli, et al., 2007). Borrowing from Teli, et al. (2007), we asked: How do the participants negotiate what it means to be part of Netlog? The ability to read the results, and therefore speak with the “other” (Geertz, 1973), was developed through online interviews. These allowed the field worker (Seganti) to familiarize herself with the informants, and gather background information, such as school experiences, parental relationships, and other local context information, which otherwise may not have emerged. Aware that for adolescents, “the Internet tends to serve as an extension of the real–life identity, rather than as a place where special identities are created” (Blinka and Šmahel, 2009; Kendall, 2002; Subrahmanyam and Šmahel, 2010), the degree of virtuality or reality of the process of subcultural identity and community construction was not questioned. We entered the online field as an extension of off–line space.

This study was conducted within a theoretical framework that highlighted the dynamic nature and continual transformation processes of both the sub–culture and the identities which express it (Muggleton, 2000). Given that we are providing the reader with an interpretation of participants’ interpretations of their continually evolving social worlds, our reading of the phenomena is not the only one possible, and the adopted perspective cannot produce exhaustive knowledge.

Because of this, and the fact that both emo and Netlog usage are mutable flexible processes in constant evolution, conclusions are partial and provisional. Finally, as this research addresses only the segment of Italian emo who use the Web, this study does not try to generalise its findings to wider Italian emo.

Research site and sampling procedures

Preliminary investigation found Netlog to be a popular SNS amongst emo followers in Italy. On Netlog participants can create and decorate their own profile page choosing text colours, backgrounds, and other elements such as photos. Users are identified by nicknames instead of real names. Each member can invite Friends (“Friend” is capitalized when referring to people met in SNSs, as in boyd, 2010) to join their network and those who accept are allowed to post comments on member’s posts, videos, and photos. Netlog has a number of features which allow users to interact and share material, i.e., blogs, photos, videos, chat, and private messages. Users can also create groups, listed in the section “Groups” in the profile page, or group profiles that are called “Train” and are dedicated to celebrities or specific topics.

In order to recruit the sample a Netlog page was created explicitly for this project. By creating a Netlog space volunteers could be recruited personally, given information about the purpose of the research, and their rights and privacy respected. Users whose profiles contained references to emo were invited to join the project’s Netlog page, which was kept private in order to respect their privacy.

A non–probabilistic sampling strategy was used [18]. The primary criteria chosen to select the sample were that participants must be: 1) emo followers; 2) Italian; 3) members of Netlog; and, 4) aged between 16 and 19 years.

A level of diversity within the defined population was ensured. Males and females from different towns, villages, and cities, from the north, south and centre of Italy were recruited. One limitation was that the group boundaries were restricted by access to technology, more specifically, to Netlog. However, since the purpose was to explore and elucidate individual perspectives, producing an in–depth analysis rich in details rather than focusing on incidence or prevalence, it was opted for an in depth analysis of a small and well defined number of targeted individuals.

According to Nielsen Net/Ratings, the number of Italian users over 14 years totalled 25.8 million in 2008. Nielsen Net/Ratings research found that increases in Internet use have occurred across the entire age distribution. Italian teenagers were the most likely to use the Web, 84 percent in the age group 14–19 year–olds. This data contradicts the idea that the sample was likely to reflect the perspective of a more educated and highly socially positioned population. It also strengthens the idea that the selected sample constituted a unit that both “represented” and “symbolized” features of relevance to the investigation.

In an EU report on the use of the Internet by young people (Livingstone and Haddon, 2009), it was suggested that it is common practice for researchers dealing with kids to invite “freely given written consent from all children participating in the research, and from the parent or guardian of those under 16 years old, while ensuring that all understand that they can refuse any question or withdraw at any time” [19]. Age range was therefore limited to emo followers over 16 years old to avoid the parental permission requirement. It was thought that if the participants were required to ask their parents/guardians for permission they would probably feel uncomfortable and not participate.

The sample size was limited to 23 respondents, mostly those who had befriended the project’s Netlog profile.

Data collection and analysis

There has been reflection as to whether online participant observation (Jones, 1997) could have been conducted from the beginning. However, access problems and ethical issues emerged. It was found that most of the Italian emo profiles on SNSs were kept private. In order to gain access, you had to become part of the SNS and its members had to accept you as a “Friend”. However, it was considered that being accepted as Friend in a SNS did not imply permission to record users’ activities. It is considered ethical to record activities in public places without consent provided that individuals are not identifiable (Eysenbach and Till, 2001). In this instance, it was thought that the constant presence of the researcher could violate privacy, so interviews were used. At the end of each interview, permission was sought from each participant to visit their profile pages and use contents in this study. As a consequence, the researcher became a formal observer from May to September 2009. Participants were asked for permission to be kept as IM friends in case some follow–up questions were necessary; all agreed. They were also invited to be in contact via Netlog if they had any questions.

It was decided not to use face–to–face interviews in the first phase of the project as it could proven very time–consuming and frustrating. When developing the research project the field worker (Seganti) was based in the Czech Republic. Thus, it would have required travel with the risk that interviewees would not occurred. As such, Internet–based semi–structured synchronous interviewing was chosen as a legitimate means of data collection (O’Connor, et al., 2008). This choice was reinforced by an increasing number of studies (Coomber, 1997; Šmahel, 2003) that demonstrated that youth are more likely to express themselves online. It was crucial to gain participants’ trust and set them at ease while they were participating in the project.

The purpose of using semi–structured interviewing was to obtain specific information, explanations, background, and contextual material. It was considered that online interviewing would enable accurate and complete disclosure of all the relevant data, while also allowing for areas of concern to be probed as they arose. Interviews were guided only to the extent that interview guides were used. These were prepared beforehand to provide a framework for the interview, as in the matrix showed in Table 1.

 

Table 1
Main theme Questions
EmoEmotion … what does this word evoke to you?
What is the difference between a emo and a non–emo?
What does it mean to be emo?
What are your desires?
Why do you express yourself with a fringe?;
What are the advantages of using the Web for an emo follower?
Does the Web help you to satisfy your desires? Why? In what ways?
New mediaWhen did you join Netlog?
What do you think it is for?
What are you looking for?
How do you relate to the rest of the users?
Talk about the relationships (friendship, intellectual, dating, …) you are constructing.
Arguments; areas of debate.
Do you have more than one profile?
How does it feel to have online friends?
Do you maintain lasting relationships being “someone else”?
Do you meet only online and if not, why did you decide to meet face–to–face?
Do you maintain lasting and trustful relationships?
What is the Neglog community? What does it mean? Describe it.
Do you feel free to socialize?
Do you join different online communities? If someone joins other online communities, ask whether they are able to adapt to other online communities.
What is the perceived difference between an encounter online and an encounter face–to–face?
Life off–lineInvestigate typical emo events (why, where, what).
Define and analyse the group you joined through Netlog.
When was the last time you left emo? What about your relationships with peers? Have you ever been bullied? Why? What about your relationships with teachers?
Do teachers ever ask you about personal issues?
In case they did, in which way they ask you about it?
Investigate whether they do well in school. Investigate about family. Are your parents aware of the meaning of being emo? What do your parents think about it?
Imagine your life without taking part to emo groups (online and off–line).

 

Prior to starting, permission to record the interview was requested and an informed consent letter sent. Text–based online synchronous interviews via MSN Instant Messaging (IM) system were then carried out.

All the interviews were conducted between April and May 2009 and lasted approximately one hour.

Data were processed according to hierarchical structures (Ritchie and Lewis, 2003). The hierarchy consisted of a series of “viewing” platforms, each of which involved a series of analytical tasks that enabled sense to be made of the data and an overview formed. The first stage involved data management, sorting and synthesizing the data in preparation for more interpretative work. Sense was made of the findings by producing descriptive and then explanatory accounts. Ritchie and Lewis (2003) suggested initially identifying themes and concepts in raw data, and then labelling data by concepts and theme (data management). They then suggested sorting, organizing and summarizing data, identifying elements and dimensions and refining categories (descriptive accounts). Finally, after establishing typologies, patterns are detected and explanations developed, seeking applications to theory (explanatory accounts). The results presented in this paper are a combination of those that emerged in the third stage of interview analysis and the results from observation. The aim was to provide “an understanding of how events or behaviours naturally arise as well as to reconstructed perspectives on their occurrence” [20].

 

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Findings

The sample: How participants define “emo”

The final sample constituted 23 Netlog users, 14 males and nine females. As shown in the table below (Table 2), 10 of the respondents lived in cities and 13 in towns. Based on the occupations of their parents, the respondents’ social class was defined as shown in Table 2. We drew on the Italian National Institute for Statistics’ classification [21]. It emerged that the participants did not belong to the same social class. They were educated to a secondary school level.

 

Table 2
Respondent Age and sex Occupation/Type of school
(2008–2009) [22]
Place of origin Social class Registered on Netlog since
1) Massimo19
M
UnemployedFrosinone, City, center of ItalyMetropolitan working classJuly 2009
2) Giorgio19
M
Technical schoolMozzo [23] (Bergamo), Town, north of ItalyMetropolitan working classNovember 2007
3) Emilio19
M
Civil service [24]Verbania (Vercelli), Town, north of ItalyMetropolitan petit bourgeoisJuly 2008
4) Romina19
F
First year, Faculty of HumanitiesSan Giovanni Rotondo (Foggia), Town, south of ItalyMiddle class employeesJanuary 2007
5) Roberto19
M
First year, Faculty of ArchitectureSacrofano (Roma), Town, central ItalyBourgeoisFebruary 2007
6) Sergio19
M
Technical schoolAprica (Sondrio), Town, north of ItalyBourgeoisFebruary 2007
7) Sebastiano18
M
Professional schoolBenevento, City, south of ItalyMiddle class employeesJune 2008
8) Leo18
M
Liceo (Arts)Reggio Emilia, City, north of ItalyMiddle class employeesApril 2008
9) Francesco18
M
Not availableMonza, City, north of ItalyMiddle class employeesJanuary 2009
10) Debby18
F
Technical schoolAriccia (Roma), central ItalyMetropolitan petit bourgeoisJune 2007
11) Domenico17
M
Liceo (Sciences)Padova, City, north of ItalyBourgeoisSeptember 2005
12) Giuseppe17
M
Liceo (Sciences)Procida (Naples), Town, south of ItalyMiddle class employeesFebruary 2009
13) Alessandra17
F
Professional schoolPadova, City, north of ItalyMiddle class employeesJune 2008
14) Angela17
F
Not availableVittorio Veneto (Treviso), Town, north of ItalyMiddle class employeesJune 2008
15) Marcello17
M
Liceo (Sciences)Roma, City, central ItalyMetropolitan working classJune 2008
16) Gaia17
F
Liceo (linguistic)Settimo (Milano), Town, north of ItalyMetropolitan working classJuly 2008
17) Enrico17
M
Liceo (Languages)Catanzaro, City, south of ItalyMetropolitan petit bourgeoisJune 2008
18) Riccardo17
M
Technical schoolRivalba (Torino), Town, north of ItalyBourgeoisJuly 2007
19) Giulia17
F
Professional schoolAcireale (Catania), Town, south of ItalyNot availableMay 2008
20) Antonella17
F
Professional schoolRovellasca (Como), Town, north of ItalyMetropolitan working classJanuary 2009
21) Luisa16
F
Not availableMantova, City, north of ItalyMetropolitan working classApril 2008
22) Lorenzo16
M
Technical schoolBologna, City, north of ItalyNot availableJune 2007
23) Ambra16
F
Dropped out schoolMolinella (Bologna), Town, north of ItalyMiddle class employeesJune 2008

 

Regarding music tastes, the interviewees could have been considered mainstreamers. Their tastes included music that has gained widespread mainstream media appeal, from pop to pop rock to screamo, i.e., screamed hardcore. Eleven of the respondents mentioned some of the so called “emo bands”. In the U.S., this music includes bands like Dashboard Confessional, which none of the interviewees mentioned, and Chemical Romance, which 13 of the interviewees mentioned. Other recurrent names were: Secondhand Serenade, Bullet For My Valentine, Alesana, Green Day, Panic! At The Disco, Funeral For A Friend, From First to Last, and Avenged Sevenfold. Seven respondents said that they listened to Screamo, a genre that combines heavy fast screamed hardcore parts, with quiet, twinkly melodic parts (Radin, n.d.). Five said that they enjoyed every kind of music from Guns N’ Roses to classical. Five interviewees mentioned bands such as Tokio Hotel, Dari, and Avril Lavigne — young pop rockers who play enjoyable music with catchy choruses, occasionally slipping into a power ballad territory.

Twelve participants defined emo as an emotional condition in which youth find themselves. According to them, emo is not a choice but a fact: a destiny. Three interviewees said that they had always been emo because they were highly sensitive and sometimes introverted. Four said that other teens defined them as emo because they possessed such “sensitivity”. Five respondents associated the experience of being emo with bad experiences from the past, such as domestic violence or having suffered from parental separation. While they argued that such a sensitive personality develops because of family or personal problems, six others reported no personal or social problems. Instead they argued that emo is first of all about music, and being emo means having deep emotional feelings such as those expressed in emo music.

“I grow fond of people very easily and I show them my emotions easily … I scare or hurt with my feelings … I know it is difficult to understand, but I am not able to explain it in a better way” (Roberto, 19 years old). [25]

Roberto, who is fond of emo music and played in a band, described his feelings as vacillating and his emotions as mixed. However he, along with many others, stressed that “true” emos are not depressed, rather they can be sad or happy and are subject to wide mood swings and feelings that are typical in adolescence. The difference is that emo followers are able to have “intense” relationships as opposed to superficial people. The adjective “intense” is used here because the respondents used it. None of them were able to describe their feelings. Rather they referred to erratic emotions shifting up and down in response to whatever was going on, or not going on. Sebastiano (18 years old) said: “It is a matter of picking up and giving off emotions in a full and natural way” [26].

While some, like Sebastiano, associated emo with extroversion and the ability to embrace and express emotion (e.g., they are not ashamed of crying); others associated emo with introversion. “I don’t express my feelings; I keep all my pain and my thoughts inside me. I have talked about my life with very few people” [27], said Francesco (18 years old). Six respondents said that emo youth are not socially excluded but choose to be antisocial, excluding themselves. Five respondents argued that the difference between emo and other kids was that other kids were not fragile. “Other guys never cry” [28], said Giuseppe (17 years old). When I asked Emilio (19 years old): “How do you consider those who have had negative experiences but do not call themselves emo?”, he said: “They are just strong, at least stronger than me.” [29] To summarise, the definitions of emo were rather confused, mostly because they were based exclusively upon emotional traits that the youths were unable to describe.

Netlog as a stage: “One, no one and one hundred thousand”

“We have feelings, attitudes and aspects of our personality which are different from those of other people … obviously, an emo cannot be a superficial person.” (Lorenzo, 16 years old) [30]

Lorenzo emphasised that emo youth care a lot about the value of other people and have sincere and deep feelings. In the interviews, this theme of “deepness”, the need not to appear as superficial, was one of the most recurring. Nevertheless, a comparison between how the teens represented themselves in their narratives and the way they behaved online showed that they acted in a way which was in contrast with the image of non–superficiality to which emo youth identify. It emerged that, on Netlog, the respondents had from a minimum of 500 (Leo, 18 years old) to a maximum of 19,710 (Domenico, 17 years old) Friends in their Friend’s list. Utz (2010) and Haferkamp and Krämer (2009) argued that the mean is 300 Friends. These figures are high compared to other SNSs and indicate that emo followers are promiscuous networkers. Among the respondents, very long Friends lists was considered the rule. The idea that energetic collectors of links could be considered negatively, as Donath and boyd (2004) found, e.g., “Friendster whores”, never emerged.

Lack of self–esteem was another recurring theme in the interviews, which could explain this discrepancy as interviewees may have feared being judged negatively and possibly being perceived as geeks and so sought to impress the interviewer. Further, nine interviewees stressed that they “do not live on Netlog” and “have a real life” (Sebastiano, 17 years old). They wanted to show that they were aware that, in contrast to “real life”, Netlog is a kind of theatrical world. In Romina’s words: “All of us wear masks … Netlog is like ‘Uno, Nessuno, Centomila’” (Romina, 19 years old) [31].

Romina refers to Pirandello’s novel, Uno, nessuno e centomila (One, no one and one hundred thousand), in which the author plays on the complexity of self–perception, the myriad perceptions others have of one’s self, and the impossibility of grasping true knowledge of self as it is continually evolving and refuses to be singularly defined. The idea that Netlog is a stage, where one can perform fluid transformations, was shared by 13 respondents. Four of them reiterated this concept saying that emo was just a label that other people used to identify them, thus avoiding appearing stuck in a fixed identity. For example, when asked what kinds of information he shared online, Domenico (17 years old) explained that identity construction online (as off–line) is relational and depends on the context in which one is interacting:

“If you look at my profile it is difficult to understand anything about me … But if you like someone, yes, you share your thoughts. It depends on who you are talking to. On Netlog there are hundreds of people who want to know private and intimate things about you, it is up to you not to show them. You use your brain and decide. It is subjective, it depends on the people.” [32]

When Domenico said that one cannot understand much about him from his profile page, he meant that the profile provides limited information, e.g., music tastes, emo look, rules of conduct, while knowing someone in depth requires time and commitment. Domenico and many others in the sample distinguished between their real friends in their networks, who were generally real–life friends and were a minority, and the broader “collection” of Friends with whom they said they did not share most of the characteristic of a community, e.g., common values, regular interaction, support and intimacy. The broader “collection” of Friends included weak ties, as Domenico clarifies:

“You cannot know everyone on Netlog. For instance I do not know all the people in my friends list. I have never spoken too many, I just accepted their friend request because they look nice, or because I think that they are interesting … in the end we are all interesting.” [33]

According to him Friends could “understand something” of him from his blog postings, but in conclusion he traced a difference between “his self” and “his profile page”. He described this difference as the key to entering a game in which success is obtained when one manages to display. He said:

“For instance in my blog, I write for myself. Sometimes I write my thoughts. But I also write for my readers, so they can understand something about me … even if today people use Netlog just to display and not to be serious. In the end, Netlog is like that, it does not have to be serious, it is like a game and we are just children who have grown up too much.” [34]

According to Domenico, displaying one’s subcultural capital aims at obtaining social approval from other youth. Netlog is therefore a tool to acquire status (boyd, 2007). Driven by this aim, emo followers construct their profile pages to include elements of their subcultural capital that lay the foundation for obtaining a successful interaction with selected subject–recipients (a concept that emerges from the metaphor of game). It is sufficient to look at the profile pictures in the respondents’ Friends list to notice the compatibility with the so–called emo look. Profile pictures aimed at developing a sense of belonging. Nicknames are the same, conveying “alternative” subcultural references such as the names of singers, e.g., “Jared” the singer of the emo band 30 Seconds on Mars, or of a protagonists from a Japanese anime, e.g., Sakon, ShippoSanji, or names evoking moods, e.g., FuneralParty, EmotionalBoy. On the other hand, when we entered the users’ profile pages, by observing the photos that the youths published in their SNS, we had the opportunity to verify that the so–called “emo look” was not only appropriated by emo followers, but also by other “ordinary youth”.

These teens seem to experience a continuous tension between their need to be appreciated for their uniqueness “what they really are”, and their need to communicate their social discomfort, their inability to relate to and connect with other youth. This theme, with some variations in presentation (see above: emo is self–exclusion or emo causes exclusion) was mentioned often when discussing the meaning of emo. So, emo masking, which implies the adhesion to conformist standards, such as style guidelines, is the direct consequence of the need to communicate a message that otherwise cannot be shared and therefore would go unnoticed. Emo masking brings their discomfort into being, transforming their social alienation into a shared condition. SNSs, by contributing to the increased diffusion of the message, act as transmitters. Emo followers, as is common in adolescence, have not yet developed their identity and emotional autonomy, as demonstrated by their inability to handle criticism. They struggle to achieve identity. Netlog provides them with a space of identification, which helps to overcome confusion about their identity. At the same time Netlog provides a framework that has flexibility and therefore lets them play between “one, no one and one hundred thousands” identities.

After explained how little one could understand him from his profile page, Domenico went on to contradict the idea that it takes time to build a relationship with someone else, by admitting:

“Expressing yourself is easier on Netlog especially because it is faster. You log in and talk. While face to face it takes time, you must know someone, and try to understand what kind of person they are … it is not as easy as reading a profile page!” [35]

According to Domenico, the profile page can be a valid tool for self–presentation, but at the same time it tells the reader nothing about the person. This contradiction not only shows how important it is for youth to have control over the impression someone forms of them, but it also clarifies how well SNS–mediated communication accomplishes this. It is fast, easy to use and forwards messages to so many people that in one way or another, superficial versus non superficial knowledge, first impressions versus extended knowledge, youth will inevitably find social approval over their personae.

Web celebrities as connectors

It emerged that through a snowball effect previously unknown users became popular on Netlog. They acquired status within the social network because they had thousands of Friends. They utilized the SNS to gain more Friends; people who “followed” them because they were interested in their activities. Generally they were club promoters, and kept the attention of others by sending invitations to off–line parties targeted at “alternative youth”. Word spread fast as well as their popularity.

It was found that the creation of online celebrities is not as common in emo as in other subcultures, e.g., Scene Queen, Scene King. Despite this anomaly, one respondent in the sample, Angela (17 years old), was going to become a Netlog celebrity. Some of her fans created a Netlog Fan Club and a Train. In her presentation, she emphasised that she was anti–V.I.P. This contradiction is interesting because it shows the innate conflict between the two sides of emoness — being in the know while being modest. One fan clarified that Angela was a celebrity because of her qualities not because she had many Friends or comments. “She is wonderful and nice, she is always available and she is not snobbish” [36] (excerpt from AngelaFanClub page). This comment attempted to underline the characteristics of emo that make its followers “different”. Paraphrasing boyd (2006), the Web provides youth with the tools to write their “emoness” into being and this, in turn, brings status to youth obtaining social approval from other subculturalists. However, it is worth noting that, as Livingstone (2008) pointed out, these teens are not including every aspect of the self in their presentation, but only those that are strategic in establishing relationships and showing that the self is embedded in the peer or subcultural group. In line with Siibak’s (2009) findings, impression management in the online world varies according to the expectations of the reference group at hand. In this case, an emo audience (Angelafunclub) determines Angela’s characteristics as a celebrity.

The need to define an emo identity in detail on the SNS can be interpreted in light of experiences reported by the participants who only occasionally used Netlog for social purposes. Debby (18 years old) said:

“I do not like Netlog because it fosters conformism. When the emo movement began we were just a few people in Piazza del Popolo and we all looked different from one another. Now the Internet is homogenizing emo by producing stereotyped images. So I prefer not to participate much, but I do not hate these new emo kids as others do. When they come around Piazza del Popolo I do not stalk them like some emo do.” [37]

Debby stressed her adherence to attitudes that characterise “true” emo identity. She was alternative, anti–conformist, and hit upon a concept of authenticity that is embedded in territorial belonging. Debby and two others, Roberto (19 years old) and Marcello (17 years old), were the only respondents in the sample who lived in the area around Rome. They said that they felt misunderstood at home where “people look down on you” [38] (Roberto) and “do not accept diversity” (Marcello). They met every weekend and sometimes during the week at Piazza del Popolo in Rome, where they had a large circle of friends, “the true ones”, as Roberto said. They stressed that they were frequenting the square before it became popular to emo followers, at least since 2007–2006. In Piazza del Popolo, they met teens coming from suburban areas with the same experience of “becoming a stranger” at home. Based on such experiences of estrangement, the teens developed a new sense of belonging, the meetings in the square making this an on–going process. In Rome, these teenagers had the opportunity to reconnect with others and share their “diversity”. They were also able to distinguish themselves from other emo followers and be “in the know”. Marcello became a club promoter and Roberto has been interviewed twice by magazines investigating emo, and has also appeared in a television special.

Debby also reported an episode in Rome involving one Netlog celebrity, MissX (18 years old). One Saturday, Debby found that Piazza del Popolo had been “invaded” by “alternative” youth aged between 14 and 19 arriving from different parts of Italy to see MissX. MissX, according to Debby, “had the only merit of having sporadically worked as model and club promoter” [39]. Debby harshly criticised this girl and SNS celebrities in general as in her view they were fake idols and did not possess any particular qualities that could justify their popularity.

As Oscar Wilde said, “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about” [40]. The point is that whether or not Web celebrities deserve positive feedback, they are able to move crowds. Debby witnessed the square in Rome invaded by young people who were not locals.

An interpretation of this is that while for the teenagers in Rome, and for all those in the sample who were part of a pre–existing local emo community, the solution to socializing difficulties was a “new” feeling of belonging. The absence of pre–existing, shared, concrete, daily practices led teens who met on SNSs to establish identity markers, such as nicknames and dress codes, evoking shared symbols. The tendency to conformism, which Debby mentions, is necessary for emo followers who are not able to identify themselves through symbols and representations locating them in a defined place. However, for those who share an experience of locality, it is not necessary to adopt a codified style, “we all looked different from one another”. The rest have to conform to rules to compose the message they want to communicate otherwise it cannot be received or shared. Netlog provides teens with a space for transmitting such messages, as the creation of Web celebrities demonstrates. On Netlog, popular teens create gossip which provides those who have little to share online with something to talk about.

Communicating with strangers, a dominant pattern

boyd (2010) argued that social media, such as social networks, were mainly used to connect with friends, family, and acquaintances. When asked about the way they used Netlog, none of the respondents mentioned having family or relatives on their networks. Many respondents said that they had real–life friends and acquaintances on their Friends’ list. Contrary to dominant patterns, it was found that all of the respondents used Netlog to communicate with people they had never met before. Usually, they added a Friend on Netlog and then exchanged MSN contacts. Seven interviewees reported that if they wanted to carry on relationships, exchanging MSN contact details was crucial to “kick off chatting”. Friends were chosen mainly after seeing a user’s profile picture, which is the only information available when someone keeps their profile private.

boyd (2010) argued that there were youth who used social media to develop connections with strangers, and that those who were marginalized and ostracized relished the opportunity to find connections beyond their schools. Our findings are consistent with boyd’s with one notable exception. While boyd argued that those youth who sought new friends through networked media were a minority, among emo followers they are a majority.

However, it is worth noting that during the interviews 13 of the respondents emphasised that they did not consider Netlog to be a tool that improved their social life. Instead they presented Netlog as a tool that facilitates an approach, while in order to consolidate a relationship prolonged online interaction via other media or face–to–face encounters must to occur.

Netlog as a space “under control”

It was found that emo youth established rules of conduct that strangers and other Friends in their networks had to observe, e.g., “If you are coming here to insult me, please go away”. In cases where Friends’ behaviour tended towards inequality, irrational “flaming”, and even threats of violence, youth who did not tolerate this excluded the flamers by using the “Black List” feature. As Lorenzo (16 years old) explained:

L.: “In real life I am shiny and bright with my friends but there are not many of them, you can count them on one hand. In contrast I am reserved and antisocial with my schoolmates and acquaintances in Bologna.”

I: “and on Netlog?”

L.: “I use the Black List.” [41]

Domenico added: “I think that there are a lot of smart people on Netlog and you can start good friendships or at least you can confront others and avoid the risk of coming to blows (beating).” [42] As mentioned in the introduction, in Italy there is a strong prejudice against emo followers, especially amongst adolescents who see them as “depressed and paranoid” (excerpt from anti–emo Forum). Not surprisingly, all the participants reported having been verbally bullied because other youth, schoolmates, or strangers identified them as emo. Eighteen respondents said that they had been attacked verbally when walking around their neighbourhoods. Some said they did not care about insults, others said that they had become used to them. Alessandra (17 years old) said that she was often involved in physical fights with youth from her school because of her emo identity.

Online bullying was not mentioned very often, yet by establishing rules of conduct, the youth avoid others transgressing the implicit morality of mediated communication: reciprocity. So, the use of the Black List, as well as Domenico’s opinion that Netlog can be a space of confrontation where one can avoid the consequences of being emo, in his words “beatings”, may express a desire to develop new ties with selected people with whom they can share some of the values implied in emo identity. This, as well as the aforementioned analysis of the dynamics of impression management, demonstrates how Netlog has emerged as a space that youth can keep “under control.” Antonella (17 years old) noted:

A.: “On Netlog you should not hide yourself and many people are as you would like them to be, they are sincere.”

I.: “What do you mean by ‘they are as you would like them to be’?”

A.: “They are sincere, and behave without prejudice … you may have noticed that my ‘friends’ are mainly emo.” [43]

Antonella’s statement that “On Netlog you should not hide yourself” refers to the fact that as opposed to everyday life in which one should observe the rules of social conduct, behave according to norms, and conform to aesthetic trends, through online representation, she can liberate the self in an environment that she perceives as free from prejudice. Thus Antonella paradoxically revealed a strong dependency on the judgement of others. As in a play, in the online space Antonella feels that the audience sees her performance as being controlled by her instead of being controlled. She argued that on Netlog “people are as you would like them to be”, meaning that there one can select an audience which possesses the ideal characteristics that one can identify with, as in her case, emo.

The idea that Netlog is a powerful tool for impression management emerged in nine interviews. Eight respondents also showed awareness of the fact that people on Netlog represent themselves using stereotypes and Photoshop, editing their pictures to appear physically attractive in order to become popular in their virtual network. They also showed awareness of the dynamics where young people are conscious and strategic in their visual self–presentation on SNSs, carefully selecting photos to accompany their respective profiles (Siibak, 2009; Whitty, 2008).

Online text–based communication

It emerged that the messages exchanged via Netlog were mainly focused on photo comments. These comments were brief and concentrated on the approval or disapproval of the way other youth represent themselves. Besides publishing pictures, youths communicated on Netlog via private messages and by commenting in blogs with posts and pictures. It emerged that blogging on Netlog was sporadic. On average, blogs were updated less than twice a month. Blog contents were generally lyrics, poems, jokes, quizzes (for instance, the author invited other kids to take the “how well do you know me” quiz) or reflections about life events. Long entries were not welcome. Rather, emo followers shared gossip from their respective real–life social worlds and from the world of Netlog itself.

Emo followers published “anti–truzzo” (house–techno–music fan) posts in which they criticised and attacked other subculturalists. Romina (19 years old) remarked:

“I cannot stand them! They only care about Dolce & Gabbana and Armani clothes. They are all the same. Stupid consumers!” [44]

Yle, among others, attacks “truzzi” for being consumers. She builds her emo identity through differentiation. During the interview, Roberto (19 years old) said:

“Truzzo is not a style, it is just an ignorant person who thinks to be better than everybody else. They think that they can solve any problem by beating someone up. They use group violence against those who are weaker than them, but when they are alone they are scared. They are a kind of primitive people. Furthermore, their talk is trivial and they have a really scarce culture, really scarce!” [45]

Emo youth defined themselves in opposition to “truzzi” and used blog entries on Netlog to emphasize that they were not “ignorant and superficial” consuming kids like the “truzzi”. Further, emo kids defined themselves in opposition to posers who, as Muggleton (2000) explained, were perceived to be only interested in subculture as fashion [46]. One of the interviewees included the topics of “truzzo” and “poser” as those as “emo topics” in online conversations. Ambra (16 years old) noted:

“We talk about emo topics … topics such as those I talked about a few moments ago … some of us have been through the same experiences and we share them.” [47]

According to Ambra, emo topics were the main point of discussions in online groups such as “Emo for Life”, “I love Emo”, “Emo Dark”, and “Love Emo”. The field worker (Seganti) participated in these groups as a lurker. However, at one point she felt obligated to intervene. One of the interviewees, Ilaria, posted a story in the group “I love Emo”, writing that she had attempted to commit suicide the day before. Seganti contacted her via MSN to suggest that she seek expert advice. However, before she got a chance to suggest this, Ilaria confessed that she had had no intention of committing suicide, she had copied and pasted the story from another blog. This episode reveals that the Web provides the resources to construct an image of identity built on assimilation: “We suffer! Nobody understands us!” This is what she was attempting to scream to the world, but she was unable to find the right words to describe what she was going through, finding it easier to do a Google search. However, it is worth specifying that seven respondents stressed that emo has nothing to do with suicidal tendencies, and eight distanced themselves from the concept of emo being associated with depression. “Emo is happiness”, said Debby.

 

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Discussion

This study could not find an unambiguous definition of “emo”. This is in line with the post–subcultural perspective developed by Redhead (1990), Muggleton (2000), and others. In accord with Muggleton’s approach, emo can be analyzed in a post–modern perspective as no longer having any sense of subcultural authenticity, inception being rooted in particular socio–temporal contexts and tied to underlying structural relations.

Not tied to class structure, emo identities are embedded in mainstream values and attitudes. Most of the emo followers in the sample liked pop music; they were giving birth to their own celebrity culture and enhancing the culture of control. Therefore, they were not really “resisting” the system, as CCCS theorists maintained, but were appropriating and perpetuating mainstream values in ways they claimed to be “alternative”. In line with Miles (2000), they used media to construct meanings of hipness that could be shared. Their aim seemed to be to find a place in society, to assert an individual sense of self through the means of a subcultural identity. Emo made them feel like “personae” and the Web provided them with a space to express their voices.

It emerged that more than being associated with a list of bands labelled emo, or to a specific look, emo was associated with possessing certain personality traits and social attitudes which formed complex individuals. Some of these have been identified here. The emo youths identified in the sample were living in a period of uncertainty in which it was difficult for them to communicate with people and share social discomfort. This is either because their schoolmates did not accept them, ignored them, or they excluded themselves. As a consequence in real life they only had small circles of close friends.

These findings contrast with media stereotypes that portray emo as chronically “depressed” individuals who are likely to use new media to withdraw from society. They also confirm the view that SNSs are tools to socialise rather than isolate. As opposed to the goths analysed by Hodkinson (2007) who used LiveJournal to maintain relationships that developed in reality, emo youth mainly used Netlog to build new ties that compensated for the lack of communication between them, their parents, and unattractive off–line networks. These new ties formed the audience that legitimised emo subcultural identities. As in boyd (2007), for emo youth having a long list of friends on Netlog was a way to make up for insecurities and to acquire status. Many in the sample also argued that if they wanted to deepen relationships their interactions mediated by the SNS were prolonged. These developed in a multiplicity of sometimes intersecting individual spaces — the neighbourhood, the party, MSN, video camera. This demonstrated that for emo followers, SNSs are effective “networking” tools. Emo followers mainly did not use these to hang out with those that they already knew, as in boyd’s studies. Moreover, in contrast with Baym (2007), the variety of emo groups dwelling in multiple spaces did not form site–based communities of interest. Even when the youth went off–line they did it to meet somebody they had chosen to meet via an SNS. From SNSs individualised networking moved into the off–line world.

It also emerged that the decontextualized space of Netlog made emo followers feel free to express themselves without fear of others judgement or disapproval. This is probably due to the user’s ability to establish rules of conduct, to control impression management, and to restrict undesired individual access to their profiles. Through Netlog, they escaped the controls of others on their behaviour, but at the same time they recreated control loops. We found that emo identities are strongly dependent on social approval for specific self–presentations.

Emo youth attempt to employ the power derived from the SNS allowing them to control identity construction and the ‘masks’ they wear (the emo look) to spread a message that would otherwise go unnoticed. Adolescents want to communicate social discomfort, and the fact that they have found strategies to express this may reveal a need to socialize rather than isolate.

Further research is needed to better understand the quality of the socialising done by emo youth. When a comparison was made between what emo youth said about their “emoness” and how they described their SNS use, many discrepancies emerged. For example, we found that the SNS provided most emo youth, especially those who lived far from each other, with a space for communicating and expressing their “diversity”. The SNS supports the dissemination and popularity of “emo symbols”, “emo celebrities” and “emo stories”. These, besides enriching subcultural capital, create a sort of amniotic fluid in which previously isolated youths can merge and be “born” again as subjects whose difference is recognised as familiar by other subculturalists. This “sharing” can imply two types of risk. One possible risk is that in order to increase their self–esteem, they use SNSs to obtain approval from strangers. As Livingstone (2008) points out, online risks may arise from disclosing personal information to a wide circle of friends, not all of whom are close friends. On the other hand, it seems that SNSs provide emo followers with the space to construct essentialist versions of “emo”; thus they unavoidably risk homologation. This observation derives not only from the consideration that some emo create online content to establish patterns of communication, but also from the analysis of such content. As the interviewees explained, through SNS, emo followers feel able to express themselves. The SNS allows them to share their intimacy. “We are not ashamed of expressing our emotions”, “we are not ashamed of expressing ourselves”, many repeatedly argued.

Emo followers are likely to use SNS to display their “non–superficial” and deep personalities. At the same time, they are unavoidably involved in thousands of relationships that reveal a superficial selection of friends and an extreme need for approval. These contradictions between what emo say about themselves and what they do online nurtured the idea that emo followers can be considered post–modern icons embodying the conflicting impulses of youth today.

 

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Conclusion

Emo followers’ use of SNS was consistently linked to the social context of their everyday lives where their vulnerability was not accepted. It was not the Web, as media panics would claim, that caused their isolation but the off–line context. They compensated by actively engaging in new mediated friendships that often evolved into off–line relationships. It seems that being fragile, “emotional” individuals is not accepted and, given that being emotional is a characteristic of being human, it revealed that these youth perceive themselves to live in a society in which emotions cannot be expressed. At the same time, emo followers’ usage of SNS revealed that despite their attempt to be “alternative”, they could not evade the social imperatives of this century, the need to display, to show, to look coherent and authentic.

Finally, although simple recommendations may be difficult to make, this study provides insight into a still evolving phenomenon. Future studies on aspects omitted here could be developed, and the use of different approaches could provide interesting new data. For instance, it would be interesting to use a feminist perspective in analysing how emo challenges gender roles.

Scapegoated and vulnerable, the emo male embodies the “repulsive double” (Guidorizzi, 1992), the disquieting image of the ego that unexpectedly reappears to disturb the conscience of the tough Western male. Does this confirm a crisis of masculinity? Further, if it can be said that the vulnerability of emo youth reverses the model of the tough male, what about emo females?

Future research could address such new questions and also test our conclusions. Given the limitations of the employed methodology, our results could be corroborated using online and off–line ethnography. Our project was limited to one year, while more extensive research could investigate the quality of new ties emo build online and further develop off–line, ascertaining whether these are long–lasting. Further evidence is needed to state firmly that emo youth are using new media as a tool to reconnect to reality, as was found here.

In order to develop a holistic picture of the phenomena, attention must be paid to the quality of the interactions between emo youth, their parents, and teachers. The gaze of emo youth was found to be focused on self–expression. However, it may be argued that they do not consider themselves as an collective aiming at destabilizing mainstream or family values. On one hand, most Italian SNS profiles were kept private, with youth seeming unlikely to communicate with their families on the Web. On the other hand, profiles were used to publicize emo identities. More research is needed to establish who emo followers’ imaginary audiences are and how they intersect with their everyday lives.

Finally, given that emo is a global phenomenon, the research could also be carried out in different countries to see if these findings are valid beyond Italian borders. End of article

 

About the authors

Francesca Romana Seganti, Ph.D., is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Communications at John Cabot University and at Fattorello Institute, Rome, Italy. She obtained her Laurea Magistrale in cultural anthropology at the University of Rome La Sapienza. In 2003, she won a scholarship to attend the London Metropolitan University, U.K. There, in 2007, she obtained her Ph.D. with a dissertation concerning the role of an online community in the lives of the latest generation of Italian migrants in London. She then worked as post–doc Research Fellow at Masaryk University, Faculty of Social Studies, Brno, Czech Republic. Her research interest is in the field of cyberculture, its effects upon traditional cities, communities and identities, and its interconnections with everyday life.
E–mail: frseganti [at] libero [dot] it

David Šmahel iis an Associate Professor at the Institute of Children, Youth and Family Research, Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University, Czech Republic. He directs the “Cyberpsychology” workgroup, which researches the social psychological implications of the Internet and technology. His current research focuses on Internet use by adults and adolescents and the associated online risks, the construction of online identities and virtual relationships, and online addictive behavior. He is the editor of Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace (http://www.cyberpsychology.eu) and has co–authored, with Kaveri Subrahmanyam, the book Digital youth: The role of media in development (New York: Springer, 2010).
E–mail: smahel [at] fss [dot] muni [dot] cz

 

Acknowledgements

The authors acknowledge the support of the Czech Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports (MSM0021622406), the Czech Science Foundation (P407/11/0585), and the Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University.

 

Notes

1. Bailey, 2006, p. 141.

2. Hebdige, 1979, p. 2.

3. Bennett, 2004, p. 168.

4. Martin, 2004, p. 33.

5. Ibid.

6. Stahl, 1999, p. 4.

7. Muggleton, 2000, p. 12.

8. Maffesoli, 1996, p. 141.

9. Miles, 2000, p. 159.

10. Bennett and Kahn–Harris, 2004, p. 14.

11. Thornton, 1995, p. 151.

12. Hodkinson, 2002, p. 181.

13. Hodkinson, 2002, p. 177.

14. Thornton, 1995, p. 11.

15. Livingstone, 2008, p. 407.

16. Ritchie and Lewis, 2003, p. 5.

17. Hine, 2008, p. 259.

18. Ritchie and Lewis, 2003, p. 78.

19. Livingstone and Haddon, 2009, p. 29.

20. Ritchie and Lewis, 2003, p. 38.

21. According to the Italian National Institute for Statistics (Istituto Nazionale di Statistica at http://www.istat.it/), in Italian society, contemporary social mobility operates within seven occupational classes:

  1. Bourgeois (Executives — of companies, factories, state apparatus, university professors, etc. — Entrepreneur with employees)
  2. Metropolitan petit bourgeois (Entrepreneurs with a maximum of six employees, Supervisors — factories, state apparatus, schools, etc., small business people, professionals, self–employed workers with employees, lower grade professionals, self–employed workers without employees in services and industry sector).
  3. Rural petit bourgeois (Entrepreneurs with a maximum of six employees, supervisors (factories, state apparatus, schools, etc.), small business people, professionals, self–employed workers with employees, lower grade professionals, self–employed workers without employees in agriculture sector).
  4. Middle class employees (clerical workers, office workers, teachers, technicians).
  5. Metropolitan working class (skilled manual, semi– and unskilled manual in services and industry sector).
  6. Rural working class (skilled manual, semi– and unskilled manual in agriculture sector).

22. In Italy, secondary school can be: Professional or technical, where after graduation youth have direct access to professions; and, a liceo, a senior high school specializing in arts, sciences, humanities or languages (and is generally followed by university).

23. Mozzo is not a province. So is in parentheses, the province to which the town (comune) belongs is indicated (e.g., Mozzo is a city in the Province of Bergamo; that is, a city located in the Region Lombardia, Northern Italy).

24. In Italy, the civil service is a year–long volunteer part–time job for youth between the ages of 18 and 28 years. They can work for non–profit organizations, NGOs and other cultural or social projects.

25. “Mi appassiono alle persone molto facilmente e molot facilmente gli mostro le mie emozioni … spavento e faccio male con i miei sentimenti … lo so che è difficile da capire, ma non so spiegarlo in un modo migliore.”

26. “Praticamente la cosa è così: prendi e dai emozioni in un modo del tutto naturale.”

27. “Io non esprimo i miei sentimenti, mi tengo tutto dentro: il dolore, i pensieri … Ho parlato della mia vita veramente con poche persone.”

28. “Gli altri ragazzi non piangono mai.”

29. “Sono forti, almeno più di me.”

30. “Noi abbiamo dei sentimenti, degli atteggiamenti e degli aspetti della personalità che sono diversi da quelli delle altre persone … è chiaro che un emo non può essere una persona superficiale.”

31. “Tutti noi portiamo delle maschere … Netlog è come ‘Uno, Nessuno, Centomila’.”

32. “Se guardi il mio profilo non capisci molto di me … Ma se ti piace qualcuno, allora sì che ti apri. Dipende con chi stai parlando. Su Netlog ci sono centinaia di persone che vogliono sapere i tuoi fatti intimi e privati ma sta a te non svelarli. Usi la testa e decidi. E’ soggettivo, dipende dalle persone.”

33. “Non puoi conoscere tutti su Netlog. Ad esempio io non conosco tutti quelli che stanno nella mia lista degli Amici. Con tanti non ho mai parlato. Ho solo accettato la richiesta perchè mi sembrano interessanti, ma alla fine siamo tutti interessanti.”

34. “Ad esempio nel mio Blog scrivo per me. Alle volte scrivo i miei pensieri. Ma scrivo anche per i miei lettori in modo che possano capire qualcosa di me … anche se la gente usa Netlog più per apparire che per cose serie. Ma alla fine Netlog è così, non deve essere serio, è come un gioco e noi siamo tutti bambini un po’ troppo cresciuti.”

35. “Esprimere te stesso è pù facile su Netlog soprattutto perchè è più veloce. Entri e parli. Invece dal vivo ci vuole tempo, devi conoscerti e cercare di capire com’è l’altro ... non è mica facile come leggere un profilo!”

36. “E’ meravigliosa e carina, lei c’è sempre e non è snob.”

37. “Non mi piace Netlog perchè fomenta il conformismo. Agli inizi del movimento emo eravamo solo un piccolo gruppetto a Piazza del Popolo ed eravamo tutti diversi. Ora con Internet gli emo sono diventati tutti uguali perchè si sono creati degli stereotipi. Quindi io preferisco non partecipare tanto ma non odio questi nuovi pischelli emo come fanno gli altri. Quando vengono a Piazza del Popolo io non gli rompo le palle come fanno gli altri.”

38. “La gente ti guarda dall’alto in basso.”

39. “Avrà al massimo fatto la modella o la PR qualche volta … cioè niente!”

40. See http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/The_Picture_of_Dorian_Gray, accessed 1 July 2011.

41. L.: “Nella vita reale io sono una persona chiara e limpida con gli amici anche se non ne ho molti perchè li puoi contare sulla punta delle dita. Però sono molto poco socievole e riservato con i compagni di classe e gli amici di Bologna.”

I.: “E su Netlog?”

L.: “Uso la Lista Nera.”

42. “Penso che ci siano un sacco di persone fighe su Netlog e ci puoi fare amicizia e confrontarti senza il rischio di finire a fare a botte.”

43. A.: “Su Netlog non ti devi nascondere e le persone sono come tu le vuoi, sono sincere.”

I.: “Cosa intendi per ‘sono come tu le vuoi’?”

A.: “Sono sincere e si comportano senza avere pregiudizi … forse avrai notato che i miei ‘amici’ sono tutti emo.”

44. “Non li sopporto! Gli importa solo di vestirsi Dolce & Gabbana o Armani. Sono tutti uguali: stupidi consumisti!”

45. “Truzzo non è uno stile ma solo una persona ignorante che si sente superiore. Pensano che ogni problema si possa risolvere facendo a botte. Usano la violenza contro i deboli ma quando sono soli hanno paura. Sono come i primitivi, parlano in modo volgare e sono veramente ignoranti!”

46. Muggleton, 2000, p. 142.

47. “Parliamo di argomenti emo … tipo quelli di cui ho parlato adesso … alcuni di noi hanno avuto le stesse esperienze e quindi le condividiamo.”

 

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Editorial history

Received 10 October 2010; revised 15 May 2011; accepted 11 June 2011.


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Finding the meaning of emo in youths’ online social networking: A qualitative study of contemporary Italian emo
by Francesca Romana Seganti and David Šmahel.
First Monday, Volume 16, Number 7 - 4 July 2011
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