The Virtual Campfire: Chapter Three

An Autoethnographic Exploration of Life Online

/ First Forays Into the Cybernetic Jungle (1996-1999)
/ High School: Self and Others (1999-2003)
/ Transitional Periods: Juggling Networks and Finding My Place (2003-2006)
/ Convergence of Spheres (2006-Present)
/ Conclusions

The initial aim of this chapter was to closely explore my personal experiences with MySpace, Facebook, and Tribe. As I began to write, however, I realized that such an exploration would need to go back to my adolescence and the beginnings of what has been a 12 year long engagement with the Internet. Throughout my childhood, I was a self-professed “bookworm,” spending countless hours wandering in wonder about the local library, skinny arms laden with books, the covers of which appealed to my sensibilities. I religiously judged books by their covers, and was especially fond of the short anecdotes about everyday hilarities that littered the pages of my mother’s extensive Reader’s Digest collection. My constant submersion in the words of others shaped my understanding of the larger world, a world that was scarcely visible from the vantage point of my isolated, countryside childhood home in upstate New York. A quiet kid, my greatest transgressions involved illicit reading during class, slim paperbacks tucked neatly beneath my composition notebook and taken in through sporadic bursts whenever the opportunity arose. Over the past twelve years, my gaze has shifted from the fixed text of books to the increasingly dynamic and interactive screen of the computer.

First Forays Into the Cybernetic Jungle (1996-1999)

My childhood obsession with reading was extended and transformed by the advent of the Internet in my rather sheltered adolescent life. When I was a child, I routinely brought the mail into my family’s kitchen after disembarking the school bus. One day, when I was about 12 years old, I noticed a shiny disc packaged by a company called America Online. Particularly memorable to my mind were the words “World Wide Web.” I became insatiably curious, and (as children will do) began pestering my parents for the product. My father eventually acquiesced, and I spent the night before our first login excited and sleepless, envisioning an enormous spiderweb that would allow me to crawl about the world, exploring the myriad whims of my inquisitive mind. I sought answers to the kind of existential questions that consume the late-night ponderings of precocious teenagers. At the same time, I yearned for a sense of belonging, for a comfortable “hearth” in which I could find intimacy, and for secret worlds of the imagination that could not possibly be realized within the drudgery of middle school social politics. The Internet offered me access to a world beyond the small town where I resided, at the same time granting me a voice with which I might be part of that world.

My introduction to the Internet occurred at the pivotal juncture between childhood and adolescence. Moreover, for me this transition was marked by my family’s move from the countryside of upstate New York (where our backyard merged with a local farmer’s berry crops) to the nearby small college town of Clinton. The move was made in large part so that I could legally attend one of the better public schools in the area, having graduated from a tiny private Catholic elementary school in the same town. Not only was I the new kid, but I was a shy bookworm who still let her mother choose the clothes she wore. Overwhelmed by the new milieu, I found solace and freedom on the Internet, where it didn’t matter who you knew or what you wore. Certainly, my online interactions were not always pleasant, but I at least had time to craft a witty reply, unhindered by my tendency to blush furiously and lose the ability to speak in response to direct interactions. I quickly discovered the world of “fanfiction,” made up of writing communities based on the fictional characters and plotlines of favored television shows and books. By and large, these communities resided in mailing lists and web archives, encouraging feedback and support from readers. Fanfiction based on a handful of science fiction television dramas would come to be my primary reading material throughout my middle-school years, a universe that extended from the television screen outward into countless possibilities.

Like all adolescents, I sought an environment in which I could experiment and play. Many of these explorations were marked by transgressions of the “social laws” that typically guide adolescent behavior, such as adult supervision, as well as more general social norms regulating aggression and sexual conduct. My first forays into the veritable human jungle of online chat rooms were my own secret dramas, the social risks of which were null (in the “real world,” anyway). Early on, I learned to avoid the America Online (AOL) chatrooms, preferring the more anonymous, unrestricted diversity of Internet Relay Chat (IRC) [25]. On AOL, I was frustratingly limited to a single username linked to my main e-mail inbox, meaning that anyone I conversed with in AOL channels could send me messages whenever I was online (unless, of course, I blocked them). With IRC, I was free to create a new name for myself each time I logged in, free to experiment without risk of exposing my true identity. Often, I attempted to pass as a college-aged woman with a name like “Wildfire,” and was delighted to find I could successfully banter intellectually with my faceless peers. Many of the more popular chatrooms felt a bit like entering a bar: one would immediately be asked “a/s/l? (age/sex/location?).” To expose oneself as a young female would be a fatal error, indeed; it would inevitably result in a barrage of messages, the likes of which taught me a good deal about (self-identified) men, sex, and danger. Oftentimes, when I didn’t feel like dealing with the lecherous come-ons of lonely males, I would choose an androgynous handle, one considerably less evocative than my usual “Wildfire” or even “Jenneh.” Over time, I developed the ability to distinguish “quality” chatrooms from the aforementioned squalor and came to spend a good deal of time competing with other users in word games monitored by a robot, or gossiping in fan-based chatrooms about the latest episode of The X-Files.

“Jenneh,” as I was known to those I considered my closer (albeit still faceless) Internet friends, was the creator of a website composed mostly of favorite quotes, self-fashioned graphics and animations, and long lists of other “favorites.” Anyone who was at all Internet-savvy during this time period (many of them younger users) had a personal webpage, usually obtained by creating an account with a free web-hosting provider such as AngelFire or Geocities. Usually, these pages were loaded with bad HTML, such as flashing text and continuous GIF animations, reminiscent of today’s MySpace Profiles. Creators of such sites linked to one another based on the relevancy of another site’s content (a direct recommendation), or through interest-based “webrings” located on the page (typically not affiliated with the site owner herself) [26]. Such custom-made, egocentric webpages parallel today’s online social networking Profiles, where everyone is an author without an editor. Today, such Profiles are usually linked together through social networks increasingly based on offline ties. Certainly, the medium for self-expression on the Internet has evolved, but the desire for transgression, the search for human connection, and the allure of anonymity and fantasy continue to be key factors in the ways people choose to engage with one another online.

My first sexual “encounter” occurred in the ethereal realm of cyberspace at the age of 13, when I fell in love with a boy I would never end up meeting face-to-face. Though it would be another two years until my first offline sexual interaction, the sense of intimacy, excitement, awkwardness and joy felt no different. We’d gotten to know each other in the chatroom of a downloadable game called HoverCraft, where players met in the game’s chat rooms to challenge each other to virtual races in virtual hovercrafts. In this world, I was a renowned “expert” at the game, and so was he, inspiring friendly competition and mutual respect (as well as sexual tension). After races, which one of us usually won, we would often linger on the course, represented by our little red hovercrafts, typing to each other into a void made visceral by our frequent games of hide-and-shoot. Though we chatted for hours each night for several months, when he finally called me on the phone our conversation was stilted. His voice sounded too feminine, too young. I realized that my attraction to him had hinged in large part on fantasy, intensified by the titillating unknown. Nevertheless, our bond was not without foundation; it was, most certainly, the result of what I have come to call “mind-melding,” when empathy, vulnerability, and affection coalesce to allow for the kind of connection that transcends conventional hierarchies of appearance and social status. That year, following a recent divorce from her cheating husband, my best friend’s mother moved to Germany to marry and live with a man she’d met over the Internet and gotten to know over a period of ten months. As parents raised eyebrows and murmured their disdain for such “impractical,” “pathetic” behavior, I remember thinking to myself, “the world is certainly evolving faster than they can understand.” My friend’s mother remains happily married in Germany to this day.

High School: Self and Others (1999-2003)

Upon entering high school, my online social practices underwent a shift. I began to use the Internet primarily for school assignments, which I could put off through my AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) program. Typically, I would have several programs running at once. In one window, I would be writing a school paper in my word processor. In another, I would be reading articles and generally surfing the World Wide Web in my web browser. Always, AIM would be open in the background, and I would often be involved in several conversations at once. These late-night online conversations, one-on-one with various members of my high school social clique, were often focused around gossip, in addition to helping each other with homework assignments. My best friend and I would copy and paste segments of our concurrent online flirtations with boys we liked, or virulent arguments with a mutual friend. This helped us to cope with that persistent beast that hinders all forms of communication, but especially online communication: miscommunication, in its myriad forms. “He probably didn’t mean that sarcastically,” I would advise, “it’s hard to detect sarcasm through text.”

Throughout my high school years, I was also coming into my own as a creative writer and poet. Often, late at night, I would post some prose or a poem I’d recently composed on my online diary, located at My online diary was relatively private: I posted under a pseudonym, which I disclosed only to close friends who also kept online diaries. We would often comment on each other’s posts, offering constructive criticism occasionally, although more often praising each other’s poetic gems and pointing out ideas that called for further elaboration. This was a space in which I felt free to experiment with my writing, describing dreams in poetic stanzas and therapeutically articulating my frequently confused and chaotic states of mind through stream-of-consciousness. In the lonely dark of the night, scratching at the inner depths of my psyche with a vulnerability I could not normally exhibit in everyday conversations with my friends, I could give in to the yearning of the young writer who is driven by a desire to put words to it all. What’s more, there are few things so satisfying for the writer than feedback, than knowing that someone in the world read those words and cared enough to respond. The Internet enabled that feedback in a way my secret paper diaries could not; however, a few years ago that treasured record was deleted due to my inactivity on the site. Clearly, there are as many disadvantages as there are advantages to the medium.

Upon graduating from high school, I embarked on a year-long student exchange stay in Denmark. Having always been a small-town girl, culture shock both overwhelmed and inspired me. I began, once again, to write furiously. Firstly, I bought a durable notebook that I kept with me at all times. Not only did I want to be able to record my thoughts wherever I went, I wanted to create a permanent artifact of my journey. When traveling, I could not always get Internet access, nor did I want to spend too much money on Internet cafes. Thus, my physical journal became a sketchbook of ideas and prose that I would later incorporate in more finalized “publications” through the Internet. Though I continued to use my online diary for more intimate musings and to keep in touch with some of my closer friends, I primarily wrote lengthy e-mails to family, friends, teachers and other looser acquaintances. Hand-written letters were written sparingly, usually to grandparents, though it was always an exciting occasion to receive a written letter or package.

I saw practically no one I knew from home for an entire year, but I found solace in writing those e-mails and maintaining my relationships in a visible way. During my first three months abroad, I also chatted regularly with many of my friends on AIM. However, when winter came I moved in with a new host family. They lived out in the countryside, and counted among their household three golden-haired children, a down-and-out family friend, a goat, two horses, and several chickens. They did not have Internet access. The umbilical cord cut, I started text-messaging my Danish classmates habitually. My Danish not only began to improve rapidly, but I started to forget about my relationships back home. While this shift was beneficial in the end, in the midst of that dark Danish winter I felt isolated, confused, and depressed. I turned to my journals and reminisced often, thankful for the tangible permanency of paper and pen.

Transitional Periods: Juggling Networks and Finding My Place (2003-2006)

I returned home from Denmark in the middle of the summer of 2003, and spent the next month reconnecting to my family and friends and preparing for the next stage of my life: Wesleyan University. Excited about new possibilities, I scoured the Internet for any and all information I could find about my new school, just as I had done during the college selection process that had dominated my senior year of high school. The best source I found was the Wesleyan University LiveJournal community, whose membership ranged from incoming freshman to recent alumni. Most of the posts were written by eager “pre-frosh” who wanted to know more about dorm life, campus clubs and organizations, and information about classes and professors. Many of the new members introduced themselves to the community, seeking to make some friends before they arrived on campus. Though I quickly chose to introduce myself and ask a few questions that had been on my mind, for the most part I lurked, acutely aware that those who were highly active in this community were unlikely to be the sort of people I would end up spending time with upon my arrival. I was right: most of the friends I made my freshman year had little to no interest in online diary communities; they were extroverted and spontaneous, the sort of personalities I had come to gravitate toward during my year abroad.

Upon arriving on campus, I was almost immediately turned on to the then-popular social networking site Friendster. In the chaotic onslaught of introductions and chance encounters with my new classmates, Friendster became pivotal to the process of defining my emergent social network. Though it was possible to send private messages to new “Friendsters,” as they were often called, the most popular form of communication was posting publicly viewable “Testimonials” on the Profiles of new friends. The primary function of Testimonials was to bolster the ego of the Friendster in question, with the expectation that the same gesture of kindness would be returned in exchange. The style of these Testimonials typically referred to the addressee in the third person, and was usually light-hearted, sentimental, and witty. For example, my friend Sandra, a Mexican girl and fellow exchange student I’d befriended in Denmark, wrote me a sweet Testimonial early on in the year:

To which I of course replied, two days later:

Throughout my freshman year at Wesleyan, Friendster was all the rage. However, with the advent of (as Facebook was originally named) in February of 2004, Friendster’s popularity among Wesleyan students began to decline abruptly, while Facebook’s popularity swelled. That spring, I stopped logging into Friendster altogether, and created a Facebook account.

Facebook was exclusively for college students, protectively insulated from the Friendster “meat market” of overeager singles and porn advertisers. With its clean, austere style, impeccable functionality, and insular network organization, Facebook complemented the institutional bubble of college life in ways that Friendster could not emulate. Its viral popularity meant that within months, the majority of my friends at Wesleyan and other college settings had created Profiles on the site. During the summer of 2004, much to the amusement of many of us, the incoming freshman class received their e-mail addresses and began creating Profiles en masse. I recall the disparagement expressed by my classmates toward those incoming freshmen who already had dozens of “Friends.” There was even a neologism for such people, “Friend Sluts,” which implied that they Friended others promiscuously and with little to no regard to forming face-to-face relationships, instead seeking primarily to raise their Friend count and come across as popular. The class of 2007, of which I was a member, was the last to form social cliques without the aid of Facebook. However, the transition from freshman to sophomore year often entails a shifting of social alliances (at least at Wesleyan) as students become more confident, less dependent on their hallmates, and begin taking a more active role in choosing with whom they wish to spend their time.

It became regular practice to check out newcomers and make quick judgments, mostly based on Profile photos, music taste, and how witty or clever their “About Me” section was. Before I’d even met my hallmates, for example, I already knew what they looked like, where they were from, and what their favorite books and bands were- and they knew just as much about me. Consequently, our first impressions of one another had already been made based on how we chose to represent ourselves on Facebook. There are certainly both advantages and disadvantages to this mode of learning about others: individuals can broadcast aspects of their identities that may not arise naturally in face-to-face encounters; however, such a static form of self-disclosure to a largely invisible audience means that people have little say in how their Profiles are interpreted by others. Though many students spoke about Facebook as a shallow, superficial way of representing their identities and disavowed or downplayed their interest in and activity level on the site, in practice Facebook continued to grow in popularity: most of my friends logged in daily, discussed the site’s merits and downsides in everyday conversations, created silly Groups based on inside jokes, and used the site to show friends they were hanging out with the Profiles of people who came up in conversation.

That summer, while being trained as a WebTech for Wesleyan, I lived with Demetri, a 28-year old Middletown resident and friend. Much to my bemusement, Demetri spent most of his free time on MySpace. When he wasn’t updating his Profile with his latest poem or looking for attractive, interesting women, he was busily living up to the oft-used label “Comment Whore.” Like all addictive behaviors, commenting on the MySpace Profiles and photos of other members leads to a sweet and easy reward: receiving comments in return. Almost daily, Demetri would chortle, “check out how many comments I’ve gotten on this picture!” His MySpace girlfriend that summer was a Long Island drama queen, and the site quickly became a battleground where their displays of affection, jealousy, anger and sorrow played out in a magnified, often publicly visible form. As is common to all dramas played out on the Internet, their fights were exacerbated by frequent miscommunication and the partial anonymity of text (which frequently serves to lower one’s inhibitions). Demetri, always on the lookout for more readers/Friends, begged me to join MySpace. “Pleeeeease?” he cajoled, “I really want you to be my Friend!” “We are friends,” I retorted, but joined anyway. Due to the site’s immense popularity, I was well aware that my parents and relatives might look me up (and they have). In creating my Profile, I hastily uploaded my “one good picture” of myself and filled out the fields pertaining to cultural tastes and demographic information, leaving the open-ended fields completely blank.

Initially, I recall being excited about the diversity of identities exhibited through creative and multimediated MySpace Profiles. However, maintaining my active membership on the site quickly became a burden, as my inbox exploded with random Friend Requests. The sheer quantity of requests, combined with the lack of any verbal correspondence (beyond the MySpace-generated “_____ wants to be your friend!”) obliged me to accept or deny requests based solely on superficial, cursory glances at the initiator’s picture and username. In recent months, I have begun to actually visit the Profiles of those who request my Friendship. At the time of this writing, there are 12 Friend Requests pending. A substantial majority of these requests are from DJs and musicians seeking to promote their craft; three feature the ubiquitous “Profile Does Not Exist” avatar, likely spammers who’ve since been deleted by MySpace.

I remember with utter clarity the night, that following autumn, when my housemate screeched from the next room, “Oh my God! You can upload unlimited photos to Facebook, and tag people in them!” She spent the next several hours joyously uploading her digital photographs to her Profile, revisiting the stories of her past as she methodically Tagged the faces of her friends, choking with laughter as she came up with clever captions. Within days, I had received a dozen e-mail notifications that I had been Tagged in my various friends’ Facebook photo albums. Though alarm bells sounded in some distant corner of my mind, I joined in enthusiastically. To date, I’ve uploaded 939 photos to 25 albums, photos that range from my childhood to the present day. The vast majority of these photos were taken at Wesleyan, and feature the sort of “scandalous” transgressions that are common to college life: friends playing “beer pong,” friends making out, friends drinking and smoking, friends dressed in drag for Queer Prom, etc; Facebook photos became a regular fixture in the weekend partying routine; inevitably, someone had taken photos at that party one might have a rather hazy memory of, and the phrase “do NOT put that picture on Facebook!” became a common plea for those caught in compromising situations.

The summer after my junior year, my boyfriend and I sublet an apartment in Boston. The day we moved in, our friend Natan rushed over and proceeded to drive us around the neighborhood. All the while, he chattered excitedly about introducing us to his friends and the Boston psytrance scene, which featured monthly outdoor parties on the river. “You guys gotta join Tribe,” he said earnestly, “it’s like MySpace for the cool kids.” My interest flared immediately, and I eagerly loaded the site on my laptop upon returning to our apartment. “Add me as a Friend first,” Natan instructed, “and then you can browse through my Tribes- join Gnomefatty Collective and Sonic Beating, they’re the ones organizing the Circle parties and Firefly [an annual arts and music festival held in Vermont].” I quickly registered and spent the next few hours browsing the site. To my delight, Tribe was indeed overwhelmingly populated by “cool kids,” as well as thousands of Tribes dedicated to the sort of “New Age” ideas and practices that aligned perfectly with my own “alternative” interests: trance parties, artist collectives, science fiction, vegetarianism, experimental writing, and shamanism (to name a few). The site resembles older forms of online communities based around subcultural tastes, but is also strongly rooted in geographically based communities. Thus, I soon found myself oscillating between forum threads discussing the psytrance subculture as a global phenomenon, and local member reviews of the best restaurants in the city.

As the summer progressed, Tribe proved to be a useful communications medium in a number of ways. Firstly, it enabled me to be “in the know” about upcoming parties, festivals, and events posted on the forums of Tribes such as Sonic Beating. Thornton (1996: 13-14) proposes that “the media are a primary factor governing the circulation of [subcultural capital],” providing “a network crucial to the definition and distribution of cultural knowledge.” By posting an Event to associated Tribes, party promoters can easily and freely circulate the necessary information about the event to a specific niche population in one fell swoop. More conventional methods, such as word of mouth or the circulation of fliers at popular venues, while still utilized just as often as before the advent of the Internet, require more effort on both ends to communicate with the “right” people or visit the “right” venue- rather, partygoers must frequent the “right” online venues of party promoters, by they on MySpace or Tribe. Secondly, as I became a regular attendee of psytrance parties I began Friending and being Friended by those I had met at these events. This practice served to solidify my sense of belonging in the “scene,” and enabled me to learn more about and keep in touch with the many fascinating individuals with whom I had briefly shared a dance floor. Lastly, Tribe became a portal through which I could participate in conversations with like-minded individuals around the world about “alternative” topics of mutual interest, fostering cross-cultural understanding vis-à-vis a global subculture rooted in the shared ritual of psytrance parties.

Convergence of Spheres (2006-Present)

During my visits back home, my younger sister sits in front of the computer for hours on end, her attention shifting back and forth from MySpace to AIM. Sometimes her cellphone will be pressed to her ear, other times gripped in one hand as she rapidly punches out text messages to her friends. “What are you doing on there?” my dad would occasionally ask as he passed through the room. “Nothing!” she would snap, clicking back to the web browser in order to shield the chat windows that covered the screen. Even when she had friends over they would often sit together at her computer, perpetually engaged in the exchange of gossip and various online performances of high school life. Though I’d always been an Internet geek myself, I could not understand the allure of MySpace, a site I found to be littered with advertisements, plagued by spam, and populated by poorly-coded Profiles with a tendency to blast terrible music upon loading. Nevertheless, when I talked with my sister about MySpace (via AIM, of course, as she communicates far more effectively with me through IMs than face-to-face conversations), she was most enthusiastic about the site’s ability to enable users to “make things pretty.” During the peak of her MySpace use, she spent 2-3 hours a week creating and editing her Profile. The rest of the time, she told me, was spent browsing the local teenage male population and exchanging flirtatious messages.

Natan, who was also a regular MySpace user, was quick to point out how “lame” my Profile was. I took his insult as motivation to update all of my social networking Profiles, uploading images of drawings I’d made and transcribing poetry I’d written. On MySpace, I even took some time to code the layout and design of my Profile, upload an audio track, and edit my “Top Friends” to include Friends whose music, art, or writing I wanted to promote, as well as those who had included me in their “Top Friends,” thus reciprocating their gestures of friendship and appreciation. While I thoroughly enjoyed these empowering acts of self-expression, only on Tribe did I feel truly free to express myself, demonstrated by importing my intimate LiveJournal onto my Profile: MySpace was far too well-known, the first place anyone (including my parents) would look for someone’s online presence; similarly, Facebook was exploding in popularity and becoming increasing less insulated since the site had begun allowing high school students to join earlier that year. Tribe, in contrast, is a more “restricted” cultural field characterized by certain broadly shared interests and orientations. By virtue of even joining the site, members demonstrate their subcultural knowledge of the “online underground.”

Over the past few years, my brief visits back home in upstate New York have shaped my understanding of the marked differences between older generations and my own. Several years ago, I began making the transition from spending most of my visits alone in my room to sitting with my parents in the living room, gathered around the television and fireplace. My laptop accompanied me, providing a portable and private form of entertainment, information, and socialization. Friends and books in a box- not to mention a tool for constructing my individual “brand,” as well as a personal journal! As they were held captive by the blaring voices and painfully “hip” dramatizations of commercial advertisements, I would sit in the chair closest to the fireplace, chatting on AIM with friends from school while updating my Facebook Profile to broadcast that I was home. “What’s coming on?” I might ask, perhaps lifting my gaze from the screen. The would respond, on occasion, “the weather.” At that point I would smirk, pointing my mouse cursor to the upper left-hand corner of my screen; a plethora of widgets would cascade into view, the one in the very center displaying the current weather conditions and six-day forecast.

Today, perhaps inspired by their technologically savvy children, my parents now own laptops themselves. Last time I visited, most of my time was spent, as before, gathered around the woodstove (itself a much older example of the ways technologies become embedded symbolically in everyday life) with my parents. Now, however, their attention to the television has become increasingly replaced by attention to the their laptops. My father will often come home from a long day at work, turn the television to the news or a sports game, sit down and plug his cell phone into its charger. Getting settled, he then puts on his glasses and pull out his laptop from his briefcase; depending on his mood at the time, but usually first checking his e-mail, he will proceed to read online newspapers and/or log into his “fantasy sports” account, where he and his brothers and nephews compete in a virtual reality, building sports teams and trading “real life” players. I am currently teaching my mother, who has just purchased her first laptop, the proper etiquette of instant messaging, beginning with emoticons. :)


In the imagination we transport ourselves into alternate universes of possibility with the sometimes comforting knowledge that the real world will be there waiting for us when we return. The greatest mysteries lie at the nexus between individual imaginations and collective hallucinations; that is to say, we may become the people we wish ourselves to be in the spaces “betwixt and between” the roles we presently perform in everyday life (Turner 1986: 97). The Internet allowed me to play out my fantasies in a space separated from my ordinarily adult-supervised reality, and in this process of experimentation, actively imagine and construct my identity.

Besides experimenting with who I was not, my online experiences also frequently served as a mirror in which I could effectively see myself. In both cases the world of the Internet was seen as a safe space, particularly for an anxious and somewhat shy girl as myself. As I acquired more offline friends and the Internet expanded in both popularity and interactivity, my social activities online became increasingly related to my high school community, as opposed to interest-based communities like an online game or television fandom. As the boundaries between my online imaginings and offline “realities” became increasingly blurred, the protective veil of anonymity I’d previously enjoyed was replaced by the selective revelation of my online persona to trusted members of my high school social clique. Like a reflection in the mirror, their feedback on my late-night written confessions helped me to see myself as a creative being and articulate my emerging identity.

Eventually, my online diary and extensive archive of e-mail correspondences became, like old journals and mementos, visual articulations of my past. As I moved on to Denmark and then college, I began using the Internet as a medium for maintaining the weaker ties to my past. With the explosive popularity of Facebook, in particular, I’ve found myself reconnecting with my Danish classmates, old high school friends and acquaintances, and even a handful of classmates from my early days at St. Mary’s Elementary School. As my network grew, I became increasingly concerned with how to most authentically portray myself on the site. Wishing to be seen as unique and unwilling to be defined by predetermined fields, I began filling out my Profile on Facebook with snippets of poetry I’d written. Like my sister, I enjoyed the potential for social networking sites to operate as vehicles for creative self-expression, allowing me to become a cultural producer in a system that constantly reinforces my role as a consumer.

My interest in studying the phenomenon of online social networking was piqued in part because of the ways these three sites (MySpace, Facebook, and Tribe) served to encapsulate three different version of myself: on MySpace, my Profile was like an artistic self-portrait that served to promote the creative endeavors of my friends and to connect me to family members and friends who did not attend college; Facebook was used as a high school and college yearbook and directory, signifying my membership in the Wesleyan community and serving as a useful tool for finding out about on-campus activities, groups and individuals; Tribe helped me to solidify my membership in the global psytrance subculture, allowed me to read and participate in conversations pertaining to some of my more eclectic interests and learn about ongoing events and local “tribes” of interest outside of my immediate Wesleyan community. Given the variety of public personas that make up my social identity, maintaining three different social networks has become, to some degree, necessary. Thus, the recent development of social software that effectively consolidates one’s online identities (such as Google’s OpenSocial and SocialUrl) is of no use for me.

Online social networking has, however, allowed me to consolidate the various activities that made up my early uses of the Internet: rather than online chatrooms and listservs, I learn and converse about particular shared interests on Group message boards; instead of sending e-mails that require me to know the recipient’s e-mail address, I can choose to either send a private message or post one publicly on her Profile; rather than crafting a personal webpage or online diary, I create detailed personal Profiles and import my blogs; even my desire for “gaming mastery” is fulfilled by the popular Facebook Scrabble application, Scrabulous. Nevertheless, in creating “authentic” online identities directly affiliated with my offline relationships, the level of anonymity I once prized is no longer attainable. Not only are my activities on these sites made visible to the scrutinizing gazes of those in my networks, they can also potentially be used against me in a court of law- for Big Brother, of course, is always watching.

It is this very visibility, however, that makes online social networks such rich sites of anthropological research. Simply browsing through MySpace, for instance, is to browse through an incredibly diverse array of individuals searchable by interest, group membership, or demographic characteristics (such as gay 20-somethings in India). Besides enabling researchers to pinpoint special interest groups, online social networks facilitate the research process by maintaining an extensive archive of user activity, providing an observable medium for reflexive conversation in the form of group message boards, and visually displaying the ways in which people are connected to one another. Most importantly, social networking sites combine preexisting online and offline practices in unique ways.

By examining my personal history with the Internet, I have sought to provide a qualitative, nuanced account of how these sites effectively bridge the divide between imagined communities based in shared tastes (such as fandom and a “global subculture”) and geographically-based communities (such as shared institutional affiliations like the university or workplace). In so doing, the perceived division between online virtuality and offline “reality” is being replaced by individually-tailored practices that invoke qualities of both- a “virtual campfire” that grants me a participatory role in uncovering the cosmos from the comfort and warmth of my personal hearth. In the chapters that follow, I seek to portray some of the main anxieties and pleasures experienced by my informants that complicate this cozy notion of a “virtual campfire,” in turn reinforcing a variety of dystopian and utopian discourses.

>> Chapter Four: Anxieties and Dystopias


  1. IRC was born way back (relatively speaking) in 1988, enabling real-time text-based communication between users in the form of private messages as well as public or private chat rooms, called “channels.” One connects to the IRC server through a freely available, downloadable “client” program (such as mIRC), and creates a “handle,” or nickname, upon login.
  2. “Webrings” are a collection of websites, usually based around a common interest such as “Science Fiction” or “Boating and Yachting,” linked together through a navigation bar that is added to one’s site. The navigation bar allows one to move to the previous or next member’s site in a circular manner.
© Jenny Ryan 2008