Exploring digitality and youth subcultures in Helsinki and Saint Petersburg.
TEXT Johanna Sumiala, Leena Suurpää & Päivi Honkatukia
In today’s world we live digital media lives. This is to say that our lives are saturated by digital media.
As part of our normal daily routines we use our smartphones or other portable digital devices to look for information, entertain ourselves, search for help or connect with other people. By doing this, we shape our identities in and via digital media.
And yet, our digital lives are not only lived in the virtual worlds. We constantly travel between offline and online worlds, and simultaneously occupy both physical and virtual spaces, as we sit, for example, on a bus or in a metro car and follow someone’s Instagram feed via our smartphones.
Digital lives are not only lived, but also constantly managed and controlled by different institutions and organizations. Our actions and connections – what we like, where we are and with whom we engage and communicate – are digitally monitored and influenced by various agents, both in the public and commercial sectors, and used for diverse purposes. These monitoring activities may include digitally targeted advertising as well as surveillance to identify deviations from norms.
This said, digital lives are never lived in a vacuum. They are lived in certain spatial, temporal and ideological conditions.
In this collection of essays, we wish to shed light on the different ways in which digital lives are lived in the media city, in particular by young people. In her book, Media and the City (2013), media scholar Myria Georgiou reminds us that the media city exists through its representation and our imaginations of the city. This is to say that the media create and distribute images of the city; hence, it is much more than a location or a distinct phenomenon. Today, the image of a particular media city is created through a complex network of different actors in which professional actors, such as journalists, PR professionals and creative directors in the advertising business create this image alongside the people living in or visiting a media city.
The media city is also always intensely connected. It is linked by people, technologies, institutions and societal structures. As a global city, the media city can be described as a node of multiple social and cultural networks that exist simultaneously. What is more, they may be mutually inclusive, and in some cases highly exclusive. To have connections is to have social capital in a media city.
We explore two media cities, Helsinki and St. Petersburg. The two cities are connected – and also separated – by their histories. Many historical sites in Helsinki were built during the Russian rule. In more recent history, after the second world war and during the cold war that followed and lasted until the 1990s, the inhabitants of these two cities have been geographically close but socially distant from one another, e.g. due to strict border control regulations between the two different societal systems. The two cities are very different also when it comes to their scale: while Helsinki is populated by only some 650,000 inhabitants, St. Petersburg is a metropolis with around five million city dwellers.
We wish to take, what we call, a mobile street level view of the above-mentioned media cities. We will start our exploration by studying a particular form of transportation that exists in both cities, namely the metro, tube, subway – however you wish to call it. For us, the metro involves some key elements of the media city we wish to understand: its high level of automation and digitalization reveals many central aspects about the mediatized realities of contemporary cities. In the closed space of metro cars moving through tunnels underground, human interaction with various technological objects (travel card readers and mechanical doors) becomes an important part of the metro experience. Moreover, the Internet, digital technology and mobile devices are also deeply embedded in the everyday life of the city dwellers on the metro, as they are often immersed in their virtual networks through their gadgets while travelling. Metro cars and stations can be considered spaces for complex emotional and sensory experiences, social engagement and self-expression, of which mechanical and digital devices are essential parts.
While connecting different parts of the city, the metro is used by diverse individuals and groups of people, and is therefore rich with cultural meanings related to mobility, sociability, virtuality, norms, surveillance and control. Not only does the metro transport people from one place to another, but it is also a thoroughly social urban space filled with a plethora of emotions and interactions of which digital devices and virtual realities form an essential part in both cities.
While the metro follows mundane rhythms of city life and offers daily transportation, it also implies and provides a space for communication, meeting with friends, a shelter from the cold winter weather, a place for games or musical performances or collective struggles. Our bodily experiences of a media city are shaped by the physical construction of metro cars, as well as by the time-space routines of the cities: busy rush hours on weekday mornings, lazy Sunday mornings, and noisy late evenings at weekends. The metro connects people and locations, but it also reveals many divisions in the contemporary media city, those between the young and the old, or between passengers occupying diverse gendered, racialized and socioeconomic positions. As such it allows us to both observe and rethink contested dynamics between centers and peripheries.
Our goal is to grasp diverse moments of young people’s digital media lives on the metro and elsewhere in these two media cities. We regard youth as a relatively loose category of people who are in a stage of life between childhood and adulthood. For us, youth is by no means a clear or universal category, but instead something that is constantly being defined and labelled by both peers and adult society, with often anxious undertones as to the public role of the youth: young people are frequently depicted simultaneously as problematic, unstable or untrustworthy and as vulnerable, something to be concerned and worried about. These contested representations have consequences on how young people are treated also in the context of the media city, and on how they respond to these categorizations.
Young people’s urban engagements are often framed as more or less spectacular acts of particular youth cultures. Since the 1970s, scholars in the field of youth studies have discussed these youth formations as subcultures. And since then, the concept has been used, albeit in contested ways, to describe young people’s diverse collective activities as resistance to adult norms and expectations, or as solutions to cultural contradictions or structural problems, such as poverty, racism or the lack of various resources for success, that they in very concrete ways experience together in their everyday lives. At first, subcultures were studied mainly as male working class phenomena - as young men’s reactions to class-based norms and restrictions imposed by middle class society. In this collection, the essay that relates most to this tradition, is Malin Fransberg’s piece which discusses graffiti subculture as a masculine phenomenon.
Young people’s collective formations and commitments have recently been discussed more and more as being situational and constantly changing, instead of forming distinct or consistent subcultures. Neither youth cultural action in general, nor subcultures in particular, are necessarily stable, coherent or recognizable by their characteristics, boundaries or conditions for belonging. Media technologies also profoundly shape the way in which young people engage in their everyday sociocultural environments, belong to diverse groups or draw boundaries between different groups of people.
In this book, we conceive youth cultures in a broad sense as social spaces for testing, forming, claiming and contesting group belongings and engagements. What inspires us are the very mundane elements of the youth cultures in the context of the media city. As such, they may be difficult to catch and categorize - both for the researchers and to anyone trying to make sense of young people’s engagements. Recognizable or not, youth cultural engagements convey important meanings, choices, necessities and experiences for young people themselves, as the essays of this book highlight.
Heta Mulari, Nadezhda Vasileva and Yana Krupets begin the book with a dialogue based on their experiences of studying the metro as an everyday space for young people in Helsinki and in St. Petersburg. They tackle the challenge of studying and problematizing the everydayness, and reflect together on the diverse methods and concerns they have used and had in making sense of the media city as a youth space - grasping visible in the invisible, and particular in the ordinary. The discussion between the researchers exemplifies the complexities involved when they are balancing on the border of triviality and meaningful knowledge production. As well as requiring skill, craft and sensitivity from the researcher, it also demands an ability to shift between being close to and maintaining an analytical distance from the field being studied.
Arseniy Svynarenko and Anastasia Sablina have carried out ethnographic studies on playing Pokémon Go in Helsinki and in St. Petersburg. In their essay, they focus on how mobile gaming is always to some extent defined and constrained by societal forces, and emphasise the particularities of the public discussion surrounding the Pokémon Go game in the two cities. When as in Helsinki and in Finland the discussion has revolved mostly around nuisance caused by players, the Russian media seems to be more alarmed about alleged security threats related to digital gaming. Svynarenko’s and Sablina’s research reveals the nature of the media city for young people as an arena for play, fun and creativity, but simultaneously as a site of constant struggles in the political contexts conditioning and controlling youth cultural play.
In her essay Heta Mulari discusses a young people’s circus and flow art community in Helsinki. The circus community members distance themselves from the values that are understood to be enforced upon young people by adult society, such as individual success, competitiveness or a demand to grow up efficiently. What seems to be important for the participants is the creation of alternative and convivial spaces for young people inside the city, and issues such as joy and mutual support in the city. At the same time, Mulari’s careful ethnographic analysis also reveals that the community is not free from internal processes of belonging vs. being left behind, or inclusion vs. exclusion.
Yana Krupets and Nadezhda Vasileva also reveal the importance of approaching youth cultural phenomena at a very mundane and everyday level, trying to grasp the meanings of youth cultural engagement in the ways that those participating in it experience it. They have studied a group called sticker artists in St. Petersburg. Even if these young people and their outputs (stickers) are barely visible to other city dwellers, the young people themselves attach many crucial meanings to these engagements – also in terms of the course of their lives. For them, making and gluing stickers is definitely one way to express their engagement as active citizens in the media city.
Similarly to the sticker artists in St Petersburg, graffiti writers in Helsinki also constantly negotiate the meanings of their actions in relation to the fact that they are defined as crimes by the society and hence controlled by authorities. Malin Fransberg discusses how illegality is an essential element of the graffiti subculture as a masculine field. Furthermore, Fransberg makes sense of the participants’ thinking of their subculture’s position in terms of its transnational roots vs. being almost patriotically protective of Helsinki as their own location. This illustrates interesting contests between local and global attachments vis-à-vis the media city. Another constant concern for the participants is how to preserve authenticity of their subcultural engagements in spaces and places which have become increasingly digitalized and commercialized. As Fransberg shows, it takes a great deal of subcultural creativity to be able to balance between these complex requirements.
So, welcome on this virtual journey of two media cities to explore young people’s lives and cultures on the move in these environments and landscapes! You may dive into partly hidden urban youth subcultures: encounters in an urban circus, active player communities of Pokémon Go, the redefinition of the city by sticker artists or debating gender in graffiti subculture. Take a look at just one essay or read them all as a book. Or you may focus solely on the ponderable photos or drift away by listening to mesmerizing metro sounds.
Photograph: Patrik Rastenberger