WHEN asked about my parents, there’s a photo I reach for. 1981. Standing in front of a granite building, carnations bloom from their lapels. A navy blue twinset, and a skinny black double-breasted suit. Pablum until neck-height. My mother’s Phil Oakey bob – hacked off one side, erupting, henna-red and crimped on the other. My father’s dark hair battered by bleach, taking flight from his scalp in a Flock of Seagulls. Here stand the unabashed New Romantics squeezed into wedding attire, unwilling to fully comply despite the formality.

I’m the progeny of subculture kids. Two generations – my folks, and my mum’s father. A west-coast Teddy Boy in the 1950s – pints, fights and a perfectly greased DA. A “duck’s arse” he’d tell us. Shockingly implausible when imparted by my non-drinking, curse-free Catholic papa.

My parents, like my grandfather, saved their money for good suits and bootleg records. My mother imported a rainbow of winklepickers and matching leather gloves. They were committed to something that gave them joy and a connection to others. Working-class and fearlessly part of something outré. They wanted something more than was offered to them by society at the time. Misunderstood kids had their tribes throughout the generations, as I’d come to have mine. Where did they all go? Why did they disappear?

I was one of the last in a generation of identifiable weirdos – a group anyone could name on sight. Born in the 1980s and coming of age before internet ubiquity started the mass disinfecting of differentiation. For years I’d glutted on my mother’s records – Joy Division, Bauhaus, The Cure, Cocteau Twins, Siouxsie Sioux – wondering how we’d gone from this to Britney and S Club 7. I traded my acoustic guitar for an electric, joined a youth club and had my first brush with punks, metallers, riot grrrls and goths. It felt like a homecoming. I was hypnotised by sidereal girls with alabaster faces. Otherworldly, with lined eyes, raven lips and inky hair. I wanted to be one. This was a tall order for a Fife mining town girl, where the most exotic spoils of the local Superdrug were brown lip gloss and foundation in a spectrum of artificial peach. So, a trip to Edinburgh. An inaugural excursion to Cockburn Street for “supplies”, to begin a transformation that would see me through teendom and beyond.

Nearby Fleshmarket Close was enveloped by swarms of scene kids. Fishnets, chokers, jeans as wide as big tops, skyscraping mohawks. Independent shops for inchoate rebels – records, hair dye, leather, body jewellery, chains, tarot cards, tattoos. I was in love with this alternate reality at first sight.

I found my way to Whiplash Trash – a dingy grotto of perspex heels, neon bongs and cheap PVC militaria that I’d end up living above six years later. I made my first purchase of my future uniform. A mempo of Stargazer makeup: white foundation, kohl liner, black lipstick.

I put it on in Princes Street Gardens, unable to wait the length of a Fife circle train home. I watched my face change through each layer. First de-saturating with dabs of moon-coloured liquid, then contrasted in the extreme with jet liner and charcoal lips. I saw myself – I was sure of it. And so began a new life that would connect me to music, clothes, books, places, opinions and politics I would have otherwise missed. I was part of a club. I belonged to something that said something about the person I wanted to be, to others who wanted to need to belong.

From the outside looking in, of course it seemed superficial. Young people displaying their mainstream non-conformity with absolute conformity to the new group. From the inside looking out, it was so much more than affectation. Back then, the way we dressed had power. To be the only kid in school with pink hair said something. To be the boy in the village with the stretched ears and snakebites meant something. To be the prefect hauled out of modern studies for uniform violation meant something. You were an outsider who’d found your people. It was a means of not feeling so alone in your crappy Fife town, hollowed out by Thatcherism and forgotten about by Blair.

The hair and makeup were avatars, signalling shared interests, beacons to possible connections. It gave you a reason to talk to people – in the street, at a gig, in another city. There was no danger of them being dilettantes when they’d spent £150 on New Rock boots. They were invested in the scene and each other. The surface ephemera of the alt kids was cathected with who we were and what they were interested in. To look at others dressed like you was to look at people who weren’t going anywhere. Anchors in the shifting seas of adolescence.

Back then, so much of it was social. We didn’t have Spotify, so we’d save for CDs. We’d spend hours flipping through records in Third Base, buying what our pocket money would cover. There was an investment of time as well as cash, because we couldn’t have everything we wanted with a click. We shared what we had. Made mixtapes. We’d go to each other’s houses, to sit with our bare feet in the rain out of bedroom windows, smoking into the night, falling in love with albums together. Even with the first flutters of social media and peer-to-peer file sharing, we knew it was a poor substitute for getting together. Time and materiality connected us. It’s sad to see how quickly we’ve traded these things for the facsimile, on platforms where no-one has to commit. You can be a Snapchat filter punk instantly, and have it melt away in 24 hours for tomorrow’s passing reinvention.

I first started thinking about this shift in visual meaning on my 28th birthday. I got my nails done for the first time, picking a place from an Instagram feed. Heavily-tattooed manicurists with side-shaves and pastel hair, indistinguishable in style from those who’d tattooed me a decade before. Visually, it screamed emo kids. The thumping David Guetta and casual racism said otherwise. It was a simulacra of alternative, a co-opting of a subculture as nothing more than a “look”. They looked like me as a teenager, but behaved like the girls who bullied me.

What were once the reliable markers of a shared connection have become commonplace, losing their deeper meaning and connection to something other than the individual. In the era of Trump and May, kids today have everything to rebel against – but if it is happening at all, it’s not in the streets. They’re not coming together to reject the status quo with a vibrant counterculture. There’s no anarchy in the UK. What little there is, is fed through a browser of platform, and you can ignore it with a click.

I thought about it again this week when I found myself in Camden after a day of work. A place I’ve visited countless times, where I had my nose pierced at fourteen and spent my bus fare home to Scotland on band T-shirts and bondage trousers. Once a nexus where punks, goths, rockers, metallers, skaters and everyone else gathered in their tribes, now full of the indistinguishable masses. The streets are still swollen with leather, patchouli, roasted nuts and hoisin sauce – but the crowds have lost their edges, flattened by a culture in pixels instead of stuff.

Through the crowds, I see one cybergoth girl, her hair a fountain of candy-coloured falls, one aging rocker, a pack of day tourists in matching yellow hats. They’re shoaling around the same shops and stalls fixed in the amber of another reality. I think of the ravens and the Tower. The goths have left Camden.

Now what?