When you were in middle school. And your friend returned from summer camp, all they could talk about was camp and their camp friends. They weren’t trying to sign you up for camp. They wanted to communicate the camp experience to you so clearly that you would love it as much as they did. But you couldn’t possibly understand, and in fact, you were pretty annoyed by hour two. They wanted you to get it because, being immersed in the camp, playing the games, doing the crafts, singing the songs, camp became them. They were what I call ‘low-key radicalized.’
In high school, I used band t-shirts as a short-hand for who to make friends with (this is a clue that I was not popular, for those wondering.) To this day, when I see someone with a Suicidal Tendencies t-shirt, I still give them an imperceptible nod (clue #2). There are a lot of t-shirts on adults with their favorite band, exercise product, comic book character, beverage brand, software. But not just t-shirts. Also hats, bags, socks (yes, really), tattoos. There is a lot of Marvel out there and a fair amount of heavy metal, and surprisingly little k-pop, given its popularity.
Have you ever engaged someone with similar interests and realized they are much, much more invested in BTS or Captain America than you? Overwhelmed by their passion you look for an escape for the conversation. You’ve undoubtedly committed the modern faux pas of making a casual joke about a diet trend to someone who has their entire identity wrapped up in the very trend.
Insight: Our identities can be fully consumed by the unlimited access to information on virtually any subject.
When you read the word “radicalized,” you think of politics, maybe extremists. And I promise I’m not talking about politics which I know very little about. I’ve been applying the phrase “low-key radicalization” to describe the people who take their interests over the line. In the camp story, you think of a cult operating at a compound, controlling the members. Now, camp comes to you, whatever your camp is. Whatever t-shirt you want to wear permanently. When we insulate ourselves from other influence (maybe the filter bubble?) or invest so much of our identity in our understanding and pursuit of these interests that they become our whole personality. But it’s not just fandom. Think of the topics you hesitate to bring up with friends with certain hobbies or habits. Think: veganism, triathlons, workouts. Topics that are fine on their face, but bring them up with someone overly invested and you want to run. Had you asked me about Clash Royale this spring, you would understand that I was low-key radicalized about it, at minute 18 on elixir management.
I don’t remember this many people being this committed to their hobbies, interests or media consumption (sheesh) to such a level. Maybe it is a function of people having time during the pandemic to focus on and fall in love with their interests. Maybe it is a function of unfettered access to limitless information about the interest, leading to a full immersion in the topic. The manifestation of this understanding of the subject combined perhaps with communication akin to 16-part Twitter threads or confessional video style monologues.
The low-key radical doesn’t want to convert you. They want you to understand the information. They want you to understand them. The information is them and they are the information. Now, every minute, every word, every pixel, is summer camp for somebody.