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What are internet aesthetics and subcultures? Two Aesthetics Wiki members explain

By Malavika Pradeep

Jan 25, 2022

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‘Arts of existence’ is a three-part crash course into the dynamic world of internet aesthetics and subcultures. Each episode analyses their impact on a visual-first generation to curate a list of actionable takeaways for small businesses. As the first instalment, this piece attempts to peak behind the scenes of aesthetic and subculture creation—while drawing clear distinctions between the two.

“I asked my friends to send me pictures of my aesthetic,” one half of TikTok is heard saying before the screen flashes into a montage of similar visuals. Gathered at #whatsmyaesthetic, some users ask others to help define their aesthetic while the rest attach ten pictures off their Pinterest feed as an attempt. The other half, however, seems to be focused on lifestyles rather than visuals. They are seen meeting up, suggesting films, sharing Spotify playlists and giving elaborate room tours using dedicated hashtags under the umbrella term #subculture—with 28 million views and counting.

What are aesthetics and subcultures exactly? Is there even a difference between the two? If so, what should we—as both the audience and the creator—know before jumping on one?

Now, if you’re one of those 2013 Tumblr OGs, chances are that you have your concepts nailed. But the two terms seem to have blurred into a confusing alliance over time. So if you’ve been waiting for a transparent ride to the other side, you’re on the right dock. On a quest to establish the basics, we asked two active members of the internet’s “one-stop-shop” for aesthetics and subcultures to explain.

The tale of symbiotic yet staggering differences

“There is a lot of overlap between the two,” said Angela Yin, a 19-year-old art history student in California. Introduced to the dynamic world of aesthetics and subcultures while lurking on Polyvore in 2013, Yin explored the depths of Tumblr and Instagram before arriving at Aesthetics Wiki in 2020—where she contributed to various articles and became a moderator before stepping down in June 2021.

According to Yin, both subcultures and aesthetics have a shared list of elements including a common fashion sense, media and visual motifs. However, subcultures are noticeably different from the norm. “You’re able to pick out and identify a person from a subculture as being different from an average person,” she said. “Aesthetics, by contrast, don’t really have to be different from the norm.” On these terms, Yin cited preppy as an example of aesthetics.

Yin also credited this differentiation to history and the emergence of communities. “Subcultures tend to meet in person, have closer social ties, make zines, have memes, inside jokes and more,” she explained. In this regard, subcultures emphasise social connections when compared to internet aesthetics. On the other hand, one can participate in an aesthetic by just making moodboards, curating playlists and posting fan-made edits and pictures.

“Aesthetics don’t require group interaction and don’t facilitate making friends as much as, say, a local meet-up does. However, there is Discord, Facebook groups and other platforms for people who do want a closer atmosphere in an aesthetic,” Yin continued. Think uwu girls assembling with their Sanrio plushies and cat-eared gaming headsets on Discord, for starters. Simply put, the social component for subcultures is mandatory, while for aesthetics, it’s optional.

Similarly, in a 2019 article by Vox, the publication outlined how egirls are not compelled to be egirls outside of TikTok. Yin linked this as another potential difference between subcultures and aesthetics. “Most of the big subcultures have a long history, such as goths and bikers,” she said, adding how an egirl’s digital existence may be spurred on due to the rise of social media. “It’s still a fairly new thing that is being researched by sociologists right now,” she added.

Yet another basis of difference centres around the depth of internet aesthetics. “Aesthetics can be a complete mode for fantasy and escape,” Yin said. “A cottagecore blogger can live in a studio apartment in New York City, wear only navy business attire, listen to the music, make moodboards and still be considered part of the community.” In contrast, Yin outlined how you have to actively participate in a subculture to be a part of it—with the metrics depending on the subculture.

“For example, I am a Lolita. And in our community, you aren’t a Lolita until you have a coordinate (outfit) and wear it out.” In this regard, Yin acknowledged certain elements of gatekeeping within subcultures “where there is the knowledge that one should hold and ways to participate before you are considered part of the community.” The ex-moderator also explained how this factor doesn’t really affect aesthetics, largely because of the greater element of anonymity. No physical interactions are needed here, remember?

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However, this reminded me of my conversations with Gib and Sanfor—the co-administrators of the Discord server dedicated to Weirdcore. With evidence dating back to the early 2010s, the aesthetic lacked a centralised community committed to preserving it until the start of 2021. “[This] led to the term ‘Weirdcore’ becoming a label with no meaning behind it,” Sanfor told SCREENSHOT at the time, outlining how it was then confused with its sister aesthetics Dreamcore and Traumacore.

In my chat with the administrators, they also explained the requirement for moderation when it comes to internet aesthetics—a concept not to be confused with gatekeeping. Gib termed this aspect as a ‘collaborative effort’. “It’s a lot of people expanding the boundaries and experimenting with what is and what isn’t Weirdcore, coming up with new ideas and evolving it—because any art form that doesn’t evolve, ceases to exist,” he mentioned.

On the flip side, Sanfor noted how this heavy moderation has previously resulted in people disagreeing with how Weirdcore is approached. “While I understand where they’re coming from, we have a responsibility to keep the aesthetic on track, to keep it somewhat consistent in terms of themes and general look,” he said. “We won’t prohibit people from expressing their own feelings however they wish, but we need to keep the aesthetic from devolving into something meaningless again.”

Sure, there are some aesthetics like 2020core, gorpcore and lovecore with no specific qualifiers or rites of passage. But that’s not always the case with those that have full-fledged communities to back them up like Weirdcore and cryptidcore.

An arguable creation process

Now that we’ve established clear distinctions between the two, it’s time to address the roots of the phenomena. Who pioneers internet aesthetics and subcultures? What is the research process like? And, in our digital age where it feels like everything’s been done and dusted before, is it even possible to create our own aesthetics and subcultures from scratch?

When asked about the self-creation process behind both, Yin highlighted the difference between a ‘created aesthetic’ and a ‘non-created aesthetic’ on Aesthetics Wiki. “Created aesthetics are pages on our Wiki that originated there. A single person decided to write an article or create an account and the movement was born.” In contrast, a non-created aesthetic is one which has originated via multiple sources and evolved over time to suit shifts among its audience. In these terms, dark academia is a non-created movement—organically made and developed through online communities influenced by the European patrician society—while dual kawaii was created by a single person, who now has the ultimate authority over the aesthetic.

Yin, however, believes a person cannot create an aesthetic or subculture as there are already pre-existing ones that influence a person. Rather, she described it as a “collection of influences.” “For example, pastel academia is a scholastic focus on kawaii. All of the visuals come from kawaii culture, but they added their own love for learning.”

Does this mean that created aesthetics and subcultures are merely spin-offs on existing ones? “Deliberately going out and trying to create an aesthetic likely doesn’t work, as the point of aesthetics and subcultures are that they are beyond a single person,” Yin said, outlining how it’s a bit off-colour to claim that the user invented it when all they did was utilise a pre-existing aesthetic to base their own. This is also the reason why created aesthetics are not going to be as unique at the end of the day. “But then again, this could be argued for all art,” Yin added.

So, what does the ideal process for aesthetic and subculture creation look like instead? “People should just exist on their own, doing their own interests and reblogging or posting the things they like. Others would soon see it, admire it, mimic it and then the trend catches on,” Yin explained. The ex-moderator also noted how aesthetics and subcultures are often created on whims.

Light academia started as a single Tumblr text post that the creator wasn’t intending to make as an aesthetic. But people who found the single post resonated with it—adding their own photos to the tag and making their own text posts. In the same way, a person can dress a certain way and a friend on Instagram could wear a matching outfit. A lot of it is simply play.”

On the other hand, pastel academia’s growth and popularity were not autonomous. “A lot of its content includes directions and its article on Aesthetics Wiki became quite popular,” Yin explained. Although some communities catch up with the rules and guidelines of the platform, it doesn’t matter for others and can even be perceived as “hackneyed and presumptuous.” Yin, therefore, labelled the overall creation process as “fairly random and uncontrollable.”

The A to Zs of documentation

When asked about her advice to those looking to create their own aesthetics and subcultures, Yin explained how Aesthetics Wiki is moving away from ‘created aesthetics’ on the platform—instead focusing more on documentation. The ex-moderator hence discouraged people from writing articles on personal aesthetics.

However, if you are interested in documenting existing aesthetics and subcultures like Britishcore, dystopiacore and Kandi kids on Aesthetics Wiki, we’ve got Gibby—a self-described “Finnish gremlin” who authored the folk punk Wiki page—on the line. Dabbling in different types of music, mostly mashup, noise and folk punk, Gibby is currently making his own folk punk album along with other musical mishaps.

When asked about his motivation to create the page, Gibby explained how it was a spur of “screw this, if nobody else has written about it, then fine, I shall do it” moment. “I’d actually thought of writing it for a couple of months, but it was only this summer that I decided to do it.”

So, what was Gibby’s research process like before writing the article and creating the page? “The research was basically me being hyper fixated on the genre, watching documentaries and reading Wikipedia articles on bands themselves.” Gibby also admitted to researching groups like AJJ, Ramshackle Glory, Days N Daze and The Window Smashing Job Creators when he spotted similarities with the clothing styles described in his article. Gibby then followed the style guide listed on Aesthetics Wiki while authoring the page.

In terms of the reception to his article, Gibby noted an influx of positive feedback from both online and offline. When asked if the piece has fuelled the popularity of folk punk, the author disagreed—further highlighting how folk punk is not for everyone. “This is honestly due to how bad the quality [of the music] tends to be, with it being acoustic and often done by the members themselves, usually on a shoestring budget.”

If you are planning to document and create your own Wiki page, Gibby advised a thorough review of the rules and standards governing the platform. “Adding all the things in the guidelines isn’t necessary,” he mentioned. “I basically added the points that fit and explained the basics of folk punk.”

Although documenting aesthetics and subcultures is a step into its mainstream exposure, are there any particular platforms one should keep in mind to build a community around the same? ‘TikTok, obviously’ one may think like I did until Yin pointed out a factor influencing the process. For starters, Aesthetics Wiki is not a place for community building, social media is. Remember how the aesthetic backing femboys and softboys ever so often grips TikTok and Twitter? However, they haven’t been translated into pages on Aesthetics Wiki yet.

That being said, the perfect platform is difficult to pinpoint since different communities interact in different ways—be it Tumblr reblogs or TikTok meme formats. “Knowing the platform’s MO and expressing yourself from that comes from osmosis,” Yin added.

Foundations with contradicting life span

To date, SCREENSHOT has spoken to several small businesses dedicated to certain aesthetics and subcultures. Be it kidcore brand Blackcurrant Pop or dark academia-inspired Etsy shop Harper & Rafell, both owners shared the same plans for the next five years down the lane: immense expansions and noteworthy collaborations. But isn’t the life span of such businesses completely dependent on the longevity of the aesthetics and subcultures they’re based on? More importantly, don’t both of them lose their appeal once they go mainstream?

“Subcultures will almost always have a greater longevity because the community has a tighter knit and it becomes part of your identity,” Yin explained. On the other hand, internet aesthetics are ephemeral because of their majorly-gen Z audience. “Teenagers are often known for cycling through different identifiers and leaving different trends,” Yin said, adding how they are eventually destined to grow bored with them. This is also the root of all problems and controversies relating to aesthetics and subcultures. “If a community is too static, it grows stale. But if it changes and evolves, it won’t be the same anymore,” Yin summed up.

Then there is the whole ‘mainstream appeal’ part to the conversation when big retailers pick up on certain aesthetics and subcultures. “They lose their glamour when, for example, you find metal and punk shirts at retail stores and celebrities wearing studded denim vests with patches on them (aka battle vests),” Gibby explained. The author labelled this as ‘recuperation’, adding how it is a “horrible side-effect of capitalism” and counter-culture for subcultures like punk.

Over at Yin’s, the ex-moderator highlighted how people often use clothing to express connections with a community. But when that factor loses its context, it becomes watered down and shallower than before. “For example, a teenager wearing a tweed blazer is connected with dark academia, meaning they probably like to read and be pretentious. But if tweed blazers become popular, it means that the teen is following a trend and not aligning with a community with set connotations.” Take royalcore, for instance. Inspired by the visuals and key values of West European royalty, the aesthetic features long evening gowns and opera gloves—both of which are being redefined and incorporated into everyday wardrobes as we speak.

There is, however, a plethora of factors playing into the relationship of brands with various internet aesthetics and subcultures. “Indie and smaller brands are okay, but the issue is when corporations try to get on it in a way that seems disingenuous,” Yin explained. The variety of audiences within a subculture is another factor. “Some people in the cottagecore aesthetic may emphasise sustainability, anti-capitalism and repurposing. However, others aren’t concerned about that and would purchase a cottagecore piece from H&M, for example.” The list of variables also boils down to whether the owner is part of the subculture or not. Brands that are credited with creating an aesthetic or subculture are yet another factor and topic for part three of this series.

Let’s address one more aspect, in case you can’t wait for more insights into the dynamic world of internet aesthetics and subcultures: forecasts. Is it possible to predict the ones that might come up in the future? “Yes and no,” Yin exclaimed. “Trends tend to cycle. For example, cottagecore is the latest incarnation of pastoral romanticism in 70s revival or 90s shabby chic.” According to Yin, they can also be a consequence of social and political events or even media.

“Cottagecore became really popular during the pandemic, when people couldn’t go outside and experienced escapism through learning new hobbies. However, a lot of it is random and comes from out of nowhere. For example, dark academia came from The Secret History, a book that was published in the 90s, thirty years before the popularisation of the aesthetic.” BookTok, who?

The aesthetic way forward

In the next five years, Yin expects Aesthetics Wiki to become a platform like TV Tropes—a place for people to contribute and use as a dictionary for aesthetics and subcultures. “We still have a lot of pages that we need and are missing. More depth could also be used in articles.” But as more people join and Aesthetics Wiki’s presence goes viral through word-of-mouth and Google searches, Yin hopes articles will bloom organically on the platform—making the Wiki “a place for people to turn to as a resource similar to other internet history websites like Know Your Meme.”

Yin also admitted to stepping down from the moderator position to focus more on research and writing, “rather than monitoring page activity and discussing the Wiki on a meta level.” Leveraging her art history background to seek influences, Yin’s special interest now lies in finding the origin and impact of specific aesthetics—featuring interviews with the pioneers.

Over at Gibby’s, the folk punk artist plans to keep contributing to Aesthetics Wiki. “Maybe about black metal, because I feel it’s different enough from regular metal culture that it deserves its own article,” he added.

With all of that out in the open, if you are someone who camps out on #whatsmyaesthetic and want tips from the OGs themselves, Yin has got you covered. Having written an entire article for Aesthetics Wiki, the ex-moderator advises starting by exposing yourself to different things and finding out what you like. “Collect colours, objects, sounds, sensations, emotions, quotes, textures, fashion details and songs. Then develop your visual vocabulary to express the feeling of the aesthetic,” she said. Knowing certain connotations (for example, tennis skirts denoting ‘sexy high schooler’) and adjectives used to describe an image also helps the entire process, apart from learning a bit about the background of designs—including the history of fashion and art.

So, what are you waiting for? Get cracking on your article documenting sleazecore or Tumblr girl today. Update gothcore and goblincore while you’re at it, maybe? And if you still have misconceptions about aesthetics and subcultures, head over to the Aesthetics Wiki page authored by Yin and sift through the elaborate disclaimers listed. But if you’re clear with all your concepts, sit tight, because boy oh boy you’re in for a ride into the dynamic sunset we call ‘internet culture’.