The Underground is the New Mainstream

Posted on August 21, 2007
Filed Under Culture & Technology, Marketing 2.0 |

Brown University student Maha Atal wrote for the Brown Daily Herald back in March 2007 entitled “A mainstream that is hard to pinpoint.” It’s an interesting read from a cultural standpoint and a business standpoint as the “mainstream” has relevance to both.

Youth movements from the 1950s to the 1990s, though always championing the rhetoric of individualism against an impersonal “system,” were also always about group identity - young people have traditionally banded together against a clearly identified “establishment” consisting of the government and their parents.

Generation Y takes individualism more literally - our act of youth rebellion has been to reject all allegiances, be they political, social, cultural or even generational.

There can be no doubt that we’re living in the Age of the Individual. Time even named you the Person of the Year last year. Individualism has always played an important role throughout history, especially in the United States, but the extent to which Generation Y has taken individualism to a new level has profound implications for our culture and businesses. I call Generation Y’s new breed of individualism New Individualism. Clever, no?

Culture and New Individualism

Culture is defined as “The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought.” Maha notes that “In a paradoxical way, the unifying cultural preference of our generation is to reject the need for a unifying culture.” This is an interesting, significant observation. While individualism plays a key role in culture and has contributed to the evolution of our culture, the notion that we’re experiencing an upheaval in which an entire generation is rejecting the need for a unifying culture is a scary, yet fascinating one.

I would not argue that a homogenous culture is desirable. Quite the opposite; diversity is ideal. However a unifying culture is very important for our society, as it is only through collaboration and collective effort that we can advance. The United States serves as a case study for the importance of some form of unity: a nation of immigrants bound together by a culture that values hard work and whose members aspire to build better lives for themselves and their families. Without this culture that brought people of diverse backgrounds together, it’s unlikely that the United States would have evolved as it has. Consequently, it stands to reason that if we cannot sustain a culture that brings us together, society could devolve. Many theories as to why the Roman Empire collapsed hint at assaults on Roman culture. Military historian Vegetius, for instance, believed that a dilution of traditional Roman culture occurred when German mercenaries became a key part of the Roman army and that this played a major role in the fall of history’s most celebrated empire.

If we reject the need for some unifying culture today, are we doomed to follow in the footsteps of Roman Empire? There are two perspectives here:

Only time will tell if New Individualism is going to benefit or hurt society. The outcome of New Individualism will likely be rendered in shades of gray, not black or white.

What New Individualism Means for Business

Cultural trends always affect business, and New Individualism is having a major impact on today’s business landscape. As noted in the article:

For the last several decades, it has always been possible to identify major trends, to single out a few dominant countercultural voices - underground rock groups or populist politicians - as separate from and opposed to an established culture they sought to critique. Once upon a time, a well-meaning parent could switch on MTV or open Rolling Stone and be reasonably sure to find out what his teenage child was listening to.

These days, there are no clear demarcations. As a group, young people in America don’t turn en masse to any one TV show or blog for news, music or fashion. In today’s decentralized world, where a band can rise to fame through Web downloads and never appear on MTV, every individual can have a personalized encounter with pop culture. Similarly, we customize our news, setting our homepage preferences to report only on the subjects that interest us.

The effects of this dynamic are apparent today:

New Individualism creates significant challenges for consumer-oriented businesses, but I think there are several strategies that companies can leverage to succeed in today’s consumer market:


New Individualism is having a large impact on both culture and business. Whether the overall impact on our culture will be positive or negative remains to be seen, but regardless of that, it is a reality that businesses have to deal with. There are some significant challenges, but great opportunities exist for the businesses that can successfully deal with those challenges by understanding the dynamics of New Individualism.

Share and Enjoy: These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages.
  • Digg
  • Netvouz
  • ThisNext
  • Reddit
  • SphereIt
  • Slashdot
  • StumbleUpon
  • Technorati
Print This Post Print This Post


11 Responses to “The Underground is the New Mainstream”

  1. Stanley Miller on August 21st, 2007 8:46 pm

    The new invidualists are probably a smaller market than you think. Individualism goes against our biology and leads to unhappiness (Paradox of Choice, Schwartz) Most successes will still be in the popular mainstream. Businesses that integrate friendly navigation systems (, also might likes) and filters guiding consumers to popular choices will benefit most.

  2. Erik Kalviainen on August 22nd, 2007 9:08 am

    I think you make a good point, Stanley, but I can’t help but feel that there is a lot of truth in what Drama is saying. Perhaps people are hard-wired to “belong”, but there definitely is a strong trend towards Individualism. How would you explain this discrepancy? Is it simply a matter of an over-reaction by the media? Or is it that New Individualists are a very vocal minority?

  3. Stanley Miller on August 22nd, 2007 1:34 pm

    They’re a very vocal minority.

    We haven’t changed much. We have the same Wal-Mart shopping DNA as those who lived a thousand years ago. The difference today is that we are offered infinitely more choices. And pursuit of this new individualism will require even more as we seek to differentiate ourselves from others. The result is choice hangover which for many means sadness, regret, and depression. That is, until science finds a way to reprogram that particular double helix.

    This clip from (although directed at the long tail) describes it best. The New Individualists would be the bodies.

    “I am” is a familiar youth phenomenon. Gen Y will come around. Wait until they hit their thirties

  4. Jenny Ryan on August 26th, 2007 12:48 pm

    Interesting post. I would suggest some further reading for you, from an Internet culture perspective: From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Movement, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. My notes and thoughts are posted on my blog, Webnography, at .

    Take care,

  5. Michael Camilleri on August 31st, 2007 8:44 am

    I think a lot of what you say is important, Drama, but I don’t think you do justice to the complex relationship Generation Y has with the group. It’s true that Generation Y has shunned many of the groups previous generations gravitated towards (religion, political organisations, sporting teams) but I think this needs to be placed in its proper context before too many conclusions can be drawn from it.

    Generation Y is a cohort largely disillusioned with these particular groups, not necessarily with groups in general. The success of social networking sites amongst Generation Y is evidence that we are not loners. We just want to belong to groups that are ‘real’. We have lost faith in the standard groups that have been the backbone of modern society, having grown up in an age where scandal, hypocrisy and the public exposure of it all have destroyed whatever faith we might have had in the integrity of these organisations.

    I agree with Stanley that there is a biological desire to belong and I don’t believe Generation Y has somehow managed to overcome this. Rather it’s come of age in a society in which these groups are in turmoil. We have reacted in what seems to me to be a logical way: by constructing our own personal networks, leveraging technology to reach people who would in previous generations drifted out of touch.

    The mainstream is dead, though, and I think Stanley is wrong on that count. In the world of the Internet what exists to congregate people into a mainstream? Certainly there will be events or ‘crossovers’ that appeal to broad range but the days the advertiser could easily reach millions any day of the week are on their way out. It’s difficult to see anything stopping that trend.

  6. J. Cha on August 31st, 2007 9:18 pm

    “We build no monuments to teamwork.
    We build monuments to individuals.”

    Lester Thurow
    Economist Dean, Sloan School of Management, M.I.T.

  7. Neomeme » Blogging is Tough on September 2nd, 2007 3:06 pm

    […]  The Underground is the New Mainstream […]

  8. julespaxtonfan on October 31st, 2007 11:40 am

    re generation y. i would talk about the delusion of individualism exercised at a retail and cultural/media level. beyond those decisions there is a rump, and a large if not defining rump, of similarity and homogenity in terms of values, behaviour patterns etc.

  9. Culture and the Internet « Original Commentary on November 5th, 2007 9:02 am

    […] Drama 2.0 […]

  10. Marketers: Don’t Be the “Nice Guy” : The Drama 2.0 Show on November 28th, 2007 12:49 am

    […] jeans because they’ve been told that a brand of jeans is a representation of who they are. I’ve touched on the power of turning products into platforms of self-expression before and this is something that I’m currently not only fascinated with, but working to apply to […]

  11. Ganga downbeat chillout denmark on June 25th, 2008 5:33 pm

    I think there is nothing scary about individuality and the culture born from it. Its really mostly an illusion to think that you are something special beacause of the things you buy to cover your naked body and the selection of stuff you put in your house.
    The most scary thing, is that many people actually regard individuality as the new religion of our time. That is the biggest illusion.
    TNoone is an island - even though it would be cool…
    Downbeat / Chill Out artist Ganga

Leave a Reply


Lead Sponsor

Drama 2.0's indulgent jet-set lifestyle is supported by Drama 2.0 Show lead sponsor . For more information about MySites, click here.


Drama 2.0 spikes the Web 2.0 kool aid by providing critical analyses of Web 2.0, its people, its startups and its impact on the world of media. Other topics are explored when Drama 2.0 has been drinking too much 1975 Dom Perignon. Read more about the Internet's version of Keyser Söze here.