The Virtual Campfire: Chapter Five

Pleasures and Utopias

/ Safe Spaces
/ The Strength of Weak Ties
/ The Information Revolution
/ Promoting Individual Endeavors
/ Technoshamanism and Neotribalism
/ Conclusions

As I discussed in Chapter One, the history of the Internet is strongly rooted in the utopian idealism of the 1960s. Today, the medium is still frequently heralded for its potential to circulate information and enable new possibilities for interpersonal communication, identity performance, and community formation. Many find that the anonymous and text-based nature of the Internet offers users a safe space for disclosing personal information and pursuing romantic interests. Online social networks, in particular, facilitate the spread of information based on established networks of trust and reciprocity. By visually displaying such networks and their membership in them, people may derive an increased sense of communal belonging. Furthermore, individuals can also easily promote and distribute their own content in various forms, such as audio players, video clips, and photo galleries.

On a collective level, the Internet provides a platform for the spread of information and ideas that can bring like-minded individuals into contact with one another regardless of temporal or spatial distance. Such perceived potential provides support for utopian ideologies, such as “neotribalism” and “technoshamanism,” that purport to promote the sanctity of humankind- the “sacred” campfire ritual and shamanistic practices described at the beginning of this thesis- utilizing modern technologies to tap into the “collective un/consciousness.”

Safe Spaces

Despite the many claims that mediated communication is less valuable than face-to-face communication, in the absence of physical co-presence, people have long sought and will continue to seek out contact with others across boundaries of time and space. For those grappling with a dearth of face-to-face contact in their everyday lives, computer-mediated communication can provide a meaningful form of social interaction. Having recently transferred to Wesleyan, Isabelle found the “Events” feature of Facebook particularly useful for informing her about what was going on socially on campus. Lola observes that “it's nice to sign on and see that little notification that you have a new Friend Request,” and few deny this pleasure in practice, though they commonly try to in face-to-face conversation. “Everyone acts like they are not that into Facebook,” my friend Teresa commented, “but everyone so is.” At Wesleyan, joining Facebook is practically requisite, an indicator of one’s membership in the community. “I think it does help me sort of establish myself,” said Maddie, a freshman, “as like, ‘I’m a Wesleyan student.’” A sense of solidarity, a feeling that “everybody’s doing it,” effectively cancels out any potentially negative social consequences of simply having an online Profile. Conversely, those who are not on Facebook or MySpace (a minority among my social network) may be viewed as “too cool” for the medium, a paradigm that is mirrored in the social construction of cell phone ownership.

A study conducted by Ellison et al; (2006) of 800 Michigan State University students found a high correlation between intensive Facebook use and increased social capital for those with relatively low self-esteem and school satisfaction. The somewhat anonymous nature of online communication provides a low-stress environment for communicating with and learning about others, regardless of the social setting or the strength of one’s relationship to the addressee. Online social networks, while they simulate offline social bonds, are nevertheless fundamentally mediating. It is this spatial distance that allows people to represent themselves to and communicate with others in ways unhindered by the limitations of physical co-presence. For instance, the user is granted a high degree of authorship over her self-disclosure, able to construct an identity grounded in written text and (usually) chosen, static images, which may be edited and revised at any time. Nevertheless, this form of expression is also limiting, for it demands a certain level of “cultural capital” and prior training in the medium to represent oneself effectively. The “truthfulness” of one’s online identity is, for the most part, up to the individual, however it is also largely dependent on the extent to which one’s online identity is linked to offline relationships and activities. Furthermore, a user may “lurk” undetected, thus deriving the voyeuristic satisfaction of consuming social information without risking self-disclosure, let alone initiating interaction.

Many find this security especially beneficial for pursuing romantic interests. With a few clicks of the mouse, one can look up a new crush and find out his relationship status. “If you’re interested in someone,” an anonymous Wesleyan student writes, “send hir a message via Facebook or e-mail.” On college campuses, Facebook interactions have come to be an accepted way of indicating interest toward a person one may not otherwise run into, and in this way the medium changes the way that people build relationships with others. Carla, after meeting someone briefly at a party, sent him a Facebook message immediately afterwards saying that they should hang out again. She also started a fling with another man she had been admiring from a distance by way of Facebook messaging. “At Wesleyan, it’s especially important to look at sexuality,” wrote Leah, a sophomore girl. Facebook simplifies what is often a complicated process of outwardly identifying oneself as queer, enabling individuals to mark the gender(s) they are interested in and search for others who have indicated that they’re interested in the same sex. For those desirous of more fluid gender and sexual identity options, there’s SGO (Sex Gender Orientation)- an application that allows one to choose from a number of fields pertaining to gender and sexual identity:

Sex: “Unspecified,” “male,” “female,” “intersex,” “eunuch,” “MTF [male-tp-female],” “FTM [female-to-male],” and “Other/Multiple.”
Transition Status: “Unspecified,” “Non-Op,” “Pre-Everything,” “In Transition,” “Pre-Op,” “Post-Op,” and “Other/Multiple.”
Gender Identity: “Unspecified,” “Male,” “Female,” “Bigender,” “Agender,” “Androgyne,” “Genderqueer,” “Third,” “Fourth,” “Fluid,” “Questioning,” and “Other/Multiple”
Gender Presentation: “Unspecified,” “Maculine,” “Feminine,” “Butch,” “Femme,” “Androgynous,” “Metrosexual,” “Genderfuck,” and “Other/Multiple”
Orientation: “Unspecified,” “Straight,” “Gay,” “Lesbian,” “Bisexual,” “Pansexual,” “Asexual,” “Heteroflexible,” “Homoflexible,” “Bicurious,” “Androsexual,” “Gynosexual,” “Androgynosexual,” “Queer,” “Questioning,” and “Other/Multiple”)
Sexual Identity: Same as above.
Kinsey Scale: from 0- exactly heterosexual- to 6.0- exactly homosexual.
Interested In: “Men,” “Women,” “People,” “Transmen,” “Transwomen,” “Transpeople,” “Cismen,” “Ciswomen,” “Cispeople,” “Nobody,” and “Other.”
Out To: Common social and familial groups, ranging from “Myself” to “Everyone.”
Title: “Unspecified,” “Mr.,” “Ms.,” “Miss,” “Mrs.,” “Mx.,” “Mre.,” “Dr.,” “Prof.,” “Capt.,” “Rev.,” and “Other/Multiple”); and pronoun:

Though this application is used by only 137 Facebook members, 10 of them are Friends of mine from Wesleyan. This fact is indicative of the importance placed by Wesleyan students especially on tolerance and awareness of the full spectrum of gender and sexual identities.

Jordan provided a more extreme example of the role Facebook has played in relationship formation. He once looked up all the people who were going to an upcoming music festival on campus and found a cute girl he had never seen before. He went on to tell me the story of their serendipitous encounter:

So I looked at her profile, and I looked at her (she did look pretty) and I saw…there was something about her profile…I think she liked some music artist I liked, so I messaged her about it and I was like ‘hey, I like your music’ or ‘I like your something or another’. And we started up this conversation and e-mailed back and forth a few times…and it never really went anywhere until like, 6 months later and we were at some party…and I see this girl and I’m like, “holy shit,” and I went over and I was like, “is it you?” and she said, “oh my god, it’s you!” And so she ended up coming back to my house and hanging out with my friends, and we actually ended up sleeping together that night… And then the next day, she came over again, and ended up meeting the girl who she ended up becoming long-term girlfriends with.

These and other anecdotes make it clear that, rather than substituting for social interactions, Facebook is becoming integrated into the everyday processes of relationship formation on college campuses. Facebook users are granted the capacity to build upon chance encounters and sustain long-distance friendships. For the most part, interactions in the Facebook realm center on playfulness and are quite casual. A person one normally sees only in random chance encounters can instead be contacted through a Facebook message or Poke, or at the very least, one is able to see which parties he has RSVP’d to for the coming weekend by scanning his Mini-Feed. Both are common practices on college campuses

MySpace is avidly used for romantic pursuits by high school students as well as adults; it was initially developed as a medium for online dating. Demetri, who has met many women on MySpace and dated two of them, has been involved in a great deal of “MySpace drama,” which he describes as a “modern-day soap opera.” During one conversation, he ranted at length about the often lewd, transgressive character of the site:

There’s a whole other element of sexual expression there, which in our society is generally frowned upon, but because you’re online, all of the sudden you feel like you can do what you want, and not be… in trouble, or criticized, or taboo, ‘cause it’s not the same people seeing it, or whatever. So there’s this whole element, on MySpace especially, of people being like- and this has actually happened to me now, too, but mostly it happens to women, from men- they’ll be sending them messages like, “I wanna take all your clothes off you and lick your whole body,” but whatever… it’s like, this erotic interlude, all of the sudden you get this message from some random guy, and it’s like, “I wanna rape you, blah blah blah,” whatever, “wouldn’t that be hot?” [laughs] Why would you think it’s okay to send me a message like this? ‘Cause I’m a woman and I have some picture of me up on MySpace and I’m hot? And so… that gives you license to send me a message that you want to do dirty things to me? Noooo, that’s not okay, you wouldn’t come up to me in a supermarket and tell me you wanted to lick my asshole. Why are you telling me this online? …So there’s this whole sense of social lubricant there… alcohol and the Internet both provide that social lubricant. Where else do people feel free to do or say these kinds of things? You would never say that at church! You would never proposition someone’s 22-year old daughter at church, be like, “hmm, we’re an older couple looking to experiment…”

His last statement referenced a story I’d told him earlier on in the conversation, about receiving just such a proposition from a Middletown couple via MySpace. It is quite common to encounter such “inappropriate” behavior on the site, and violating social norms of respectable conduct is one of the principle pleasures of the online medium- which, as Demetri aptly points out, functions as a “social lubricant” through reducing social risk. To include one’s location on one’s MySpace Profile is to voluntarily list oneself in an online directory of potential sexual partners. This use of the site is especially popular amongst high school students, who constituted the original majority of MySpacers in the site’s infancy. “I didn’t use the site, but all the girls did,” my brother recalls, “they were always talking about boys from other schools they found on MySpace.” It would seem that MySpace was commonly used by girls at my high school to expand the dating pool beyond the tiny insular community of Clinton, where classmates of the opposite sex often seemed more like little brothers than potential romantic partners.

While it is a popular activity on MySpace to initiate correspondence with strangers, the site is also frequently utilized to track down people one has met offline and would like to get to know better. One afternoon, a freshman boy named Tom replied to a call for stories I had posted on the Anonymous Confession Board, initiating a conversation with me via Instant Messenger in order to tell me a tale of his “MySpace romance:”

I went to Starbucks in my town in high school almost every day senior year on my way to the library. One day, the cashier looked at my name on my debit card, looked me up on MySpace, and sent me a message… and then we dated for 3 months.

As the conversation continued, I realized that the pursuant was also male.

“Oh, a him?” I wrote, “That’s interesting…”

“Why?” he replied.

“There is more social risk involved in asking out a random member of the same sex… and the Internet reduces social risk,” I responded.

“That makes sense,” he wrote back:

It might be interesting to note that my sexual orientation is NOT on my MySpace. And I think he knew someone in my high school who he asked to ensure that I was gay. The details are a little foggy. But, I wasn't out in my high school, and I believe he was told that there was a good chance.

When asked why he ended the relationship, Tom went on to write:

He was just what the gays call a “closet usher”... someone who you're really able to overlook your insurmountable differences because you're happy enough to be finally dating a guy. This is so weird that I’m telling you all this! I don't know who you are!

A classic example of “reduced social risk,” indeed!

Tribe is representative of another kind of “safe space”- it is a niche site where the “alternative” is not only accepted, it’s the norm. Tribe is relatively unknown to those unassociated with Burning Man or psytrance culture. While the more popular MySpace and Facebook encourage self-censorship to some degree, on Tribe it is common to come across message board threads publicly discussing such topics as bondage, drug use, mysticism, and shamanism with the sort of frankness normally reserved for close friends. A novice drug user, posting a thread entitled “lsd versus mushrooms,” received 122 responses of advice from more experienced members. In a Tribe called “Au Naturel,” a post entitled “how many of you drive naked?” incited friendly camaraderie and support in the form of 51 responses. A Tribe called “3+ Male Relationships” describes itself as “A tribe for Gay men that are interested in LTR [long-term] relationships of 3 or more,” and has 121 members. Clearly, the site is an excellent source of information and social support that would be difficult to come across via mainstream media or in everyday life.

The Strength of Weak Ties

Social networking sites have become popular tools for keeping in touch with new acquaintances and friends, increasingly replacing other forms of networking (such as exchanging cell phone numbers). Last month, vacationing in Mexico, I befriended several Canadians who happened to also be fervent Facebook enthusiasts. We promised to post the photos we’d taken of our adventures, and to keep track of one another through the site. MySpace has enabled me to stay in touch with those I meet who do not attend university and thus are less likely to have a Facebook account. In addition, I regularly add musicians I enjoy listening to, as well as authors who have had an important influence on my life. Tribe, alternately, helps me befriend and remain connected to people I may know only through our shared presence on the dance floor, and to “meet” Trancers from other parts of the world (such as Mexico, Romania, India, Canada, the UK, and Portugal). This sort of transnational networking triggers an intense feeling of belonging to a global underground community, tied together through shared beliefs, music tastes, and party styles.
Howard Rheingold, who coined the term “virtual community” in 1993, seeks to debunk the critique of virtual communities as alienating and superficial through a discussion of the merits of both strong and weak social ties in the acquisition of knowledge:

A social network with a mixture of strong ties, familial ties, lifelong friend ties, marital ties, business partner ties, is important for people to obtain the fundamentals of identity, affection, emotional and material support. But without a network of more superficial relationships, life would be harder and less fun in many ways. Weaker ties multiply people’s social capital, useful knowledge, ability to get things done (Rheingold 1993: 361).

Much of the research that has been conducted on online social networking highlights the benefits of the medium for strengthening weak social bonds. Donath and boyd (2004: 80) contend that while use of social networking sites does not necessarily increase one’s strong ties, the sites enable one to form and maintain a greater number of weak ties, thus increasing and diversifying various kinds of information and opportunities. The vast majority of those I interviewed would agree that online social networks simply make life easier. Those seeking information about a homework assignment, for instance, may (and often do) use Facebook to find others enrolled in the same course. Additionally, the sites are often utilized to “introduce” one friend to another, in more or less useful ways. On occasion, these sites have served me as vehicles for finding others interested in my field of research. “Get in touch with my friend Leo,” Tara wrote on my Wall, “Facebook: Leo Patterson. He goes to Harvard and has some crazy ideas about/fun with social networking sites. Also one of the smartest people I've had the pleasure of knowing.” More common, however, is the practice of “checking out” new acquaintances. Online Profiles allow one “to learn about where [someone is] from, who else they are friends with, this that and the other thing. And like, you know, what groups they represent,” according to Jordan. He went on to discuss how Facebook has facilitated his own repository of “useful information”:

There have definitely been times where I’ll note somebody tera-peripherally and it’ll become something kind of in the Facebook, like I’ll see in their profiles that they’re really into a lot of the same stuff that I’m into, or maybe they’re from a city I’ve visited and really like, anything that kind of piques my interest about them… and next time I’m having a conversation with them I’ll be like, “hey man I just learned this about you, let’s talk about this”. There was this one kid, for example, that listed [on his profile] all these names of musicians I’ve never heard of and they were all very Eastern European-sounding. So the next time I saw him I was like, “hey what’s up with these guys?” and he was like, “Oh, I’m really interested in gypsy folk music,” and we had a really interesting conversation about it, and it turned me on to some musicians who I listen to a lot now.

Drawing on the aforementioned study as well as the work of Robert Putnam (2000), Ellison et al; (2006) distinguish between two forms of social capital: bridging social capital, which refers to the weak ties between individuals who may share information and differing perspectives, but not usually emotional support; and bonding social capital, which refers to the strong, emotional ties typically found within families and close friendships. In addition, they included a new form of social capital- high school social capital- in reference to the particular audience supported by the Facebook platform (high school students moving out of the home and into a university setting). Facebook was found to be particularly useful for keeping in touch with old high school friends and acquaintances, thus increasing bridging social capital (2006: 1162). In particular, they note that the site is often used to activate “latent ties” by allowing users to discover how such ties may be more applicably useful in various contexts. For example, I recently utilized Facebook in order to find out more information about a new housemate, and discovered that we have 15 Facebook Friends in common, that he is an experimental musician, and that he is from Germany. Upon discovering these facts, I breathed a sigh of relief that my soon-to-be-neighbor is most likely laid-back and interesting- an assessment based primarily on our mutual acquaintances.

The Information Revolution

My ideal? To throw such lustrous content into the world that the shine of it blinds me to myself while warming and illuminating all others nearby. Such possibilities have always been exactly what propelled me to study online social networks in the first place. Yes, there is glitter and garish HTML, narcissism and virulent flaming, but there is also enormous creativity. As the Internet becomes increasingly burdened by censorship and rampant commercialism, we would do well to make the most out of our united power as not simply consumers, but creators of MySpace, Facebook, and other Web 2.0 sites defined by user-created content.

I urge you all to make your online profile a work of art and a source of inspiration. We are all starseeds.

Best wishes, fellow seedlings!

(First post to my blog, miss.anthropology, January 2008)

Online social networks are but one of many new forms of web applications that fall within the spectrum of “Web 2.0.” Web 2.0 has myriad definitions, but can best be understood as the shift from a one-way flow of information to information tailored by and for the users themselves, many-to-many. Wikipedia, for example, allows anyone to edit the enormous database of encyclopedia entries that have been produced over the past five years. However, while with Wikipedia the entries themselves are the common reference point among participants, online social networks perpetuate a plethora of “ego-centered” flows of information directly pertaining to one’s virtually established relationships, which are more often than not pre-established in the offline world. This is best exemplified by Facebook’s News Feed, where I can learn about Events that my Friends plan to attend, who has recently updated their Profile photos, what one Friend wrote on the Wall of another, and that John and Paige are now engaged.

All three sites allow members to upload or link to various forms of media, such as video, music, and still images. Most everything that is uploaded to an online social network can potentially become a subject of “conversation” in the form of Comments. For example, Facebook notifies me when someone has Commented on a photo in which my name is Tagged, prompting me to revisit the photo and perhaps respond. The nature of responses is typically light-hearted and casual, often joking. Unlike telephone conference calls, anyone who is able to view the photos may potentially contribute to the conversation at any point in time. Users may also Tag others if they wish them to be notified of a Note they’ve posted, nearly ensuring that their words will be read by an intended audience, and encouraging reciprocal feedback. On MySpace, members are informed when their Friends post blog entries or broadcast “Bulletins”:

Above is an example of recent Bulletins posted by my MySpace Friends. Kelly, my younger sister, posts lengthy surveys with her answers to such frivolous questions as “Coke or Pepsi?” Lama-Jigme is a Buddhist monk I stumbled across on the site, found his thoughtful Bulletins interesting, and added as a Friend. KatAlyst, a local Middletown friend, informs his MySpace Friends about an upcoming party in New York City. The rest are musicians I either am a fan of (Chemical Brothers), know personally (Laura), or whose Friend Requests I’ve accepted after checking out the music they’ve uploaded to their Profiles.

The “searchability” and transparency of the Internet is another important facet of the “Information Revolution.” With regard to social networking sites, finding others who share such eclectic interests as “Javanese Gamelan” is as simple as typing the phrase into a search bar. Individuals may also join or create groups composed of like-minded enthusiasts around the world, thus diversifying and extending “communities” based on shared interests. Moreover, the sheer popularity of MySpace and Facebook means they are often the first places to look for tracking down old friends and acquaintances, much like phonebooks. Unlike phonebooks, however, online Profiles provide a glimpse into the lives of others without the potential awkwardness of direct interaction that a phone call entails. Such transparency has given rise to the widespread linguistic use of “Google” as a verb. It is now common practice, for instance, for employers to “Google” potential employees [32]. One of the greatest appeals of online social networking is the ability to observe without being observed. Rather than being the sole right of state agencies and corporate marketers, individuals themselves are granted this observational power, promoting a proliferating array of “lateral gazes” in a way that may compensate for these “vertical gazes” of authority.

As I log onto Tribe, I am greeted with an array of content in the form of Local Posts (set to show posts pertaining to New York City) and Blog Entries (posted by those in my network of Friends). A cursory glance at the posts informs me about upcoming concerts, parties, astrological events, and spiritual musings of the “New Age” variety. Many of those with whom I’ve discussed Tribe have admitted that they rarely log onto the site. “When I do,” remarked Ted, “I’m usually looking for discussions about, say, ayahuasca [33], or certain audio programs…” For those seeking discursive information regarding alternative political and artistic ideas and practices, Tribe is bursting with conversation. My search for political activity on Tribe has inevitably led me to discussions pertaining to the 9/11 “conspiracy,” tirades against President Bush, and issues of global interest. Often, this sort of information is not easily accessible, as the majority of members pride themselves on their rejection of mainstream media, representing themselves as the “global underground.”

Both MySpace and Facebook, in contrast, have become important sites for more mainstream political activities and interests. In 2006, Facebook launched a feature called “Election Pulse,” enabling members to indicate which candidates they support, learn about and discuss political issues, and gauge how candidates are faring among Facebookers through polls organized by state. MySpace, in turn, recently launched “Impact Channel,” fulfilling essentially the same functions as its Facebook counterpart but reaching an even greater audience. Furthermore, the “Channel” is heavily video-oriented, featuring a series of dialogues with the candidates in collaboration with MTV’s “Rock the Vote” initiative. Visitors to the site are able to submit videos of themselves asking questions of the candidates, promoting a sense of being directly involved in political democracy. Similar collaborative endeavors between network television and online social networks include the YouTube/CNN presidential debate in June of 2007 and the Facebook/ABC presidential debate in January of 2008.

As the 2008 presidential election approaches, candidates have been rushing to capture the elusive yet desirable youth vote. Unsurprisingly, the Democratic party has been considerably more effective with its use of new social media to drive campaigns. In a CNN article, “The social networking election,” dated 12 September 2007, a Republican pollster is quoted as saying: "Our party is really behind in learning how to maximize this and use it to our best benefit. We were very proactive in learning how to use talk radio. When it comes to the Internet, especially social networking sites, we're really behind.” On MySpace, Barack Obama leads the popularity contest with over 340,000 Friends (as of April 2008)- not counting the thousands of Friends who link to alternate Obama Profiles created to represent each individual state in the U.S. His Profile consists of a regularly-updated blog, YouTube videos of his past speeches, links to further information, photographs, podcasts, and various buttons linking to his other “online habitats” on sites such as YouTube, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Such practices serve to humanize politicians and breach the disconnect felt by voters, and are particularly oriented toward the purportedly politically “apathetic” youth generation of the United States today. Members of online social networks, in turn, have begun utilizing the sites to display their support for particular candidates on their Profiles (much like bumper stickers), research and discuss political issues, and run local campaigns in the form of Groups.

Promoting Individual Endeavors

The public nature of the Internet makes it an ideal medium for promoting one’s craft or agenda to large groups of people. Online social networks are particularly useful vehicles for finding others who share similar interests, due in large part to their “searchability.” By articulating that I am interested in psytrance, for example, psytrance DJs and producers around the globe can find my Profile and request my Friendship. Shared interests, especially with regard to music tastes, serve as a foundation for expressions of camaraderie and implied intimacy, as exhibited by the following Comment on my MySpace Profile:

Hey! Thanks alot for add! I think I'll continue with my new tracks and the mixing of everywhere u look this weekend. I might put up a new sample of the other new track sometime within this weekend :) have a really great Friday evening! Peace.

(Psytrance Producer, Sweden)

For emerging artists, MySpace is the place to promote one’s creations online. Rather than being relegated to the ethically controversial and illegal practice of pirating music that is protected under copyright, MySpace serves as a legal platform for listening to a wide variety of music. Musicians can upload audio files directly onto special MySpace Music Profiles, allowing visitors to listen to their songs for free with a simple click of the “Play” button. Many also allow fans to purchase albums directly from the site if they so choose. Established artists are likely to draw their own following of “Fans” (the term used in place of “Friends”) and thereby accumulating cultural capital (as opposed to social capital), while emerging musicians often search for and send Friend Requests to large numbers of users in hopes of drawing potential Fans and converting social into cultural capital. Musician Profiles also serve to inform Fans about upcoming shows and concerts, either through a calendar on their Profiles or through event invitations. Fans may RSVP to upcoming events and share invitations with their Friends, a form of secondhand promotion that is often highly effective.

Because MySpace Profiles are so highly editable, allowing for user-generated HTML and Javascripts to be utilized, Profiles may be works of art in and of themselves. One of the authors cited in this thesis, Paul Levinson, recently Friended me on MySpace, notifying me via Facebook that “I ‘Stumbled’ your MySpace page - poetic images and words - should attract a few gazes...” While I have indeed endeavored to create a “poetic” MySpace Profile, his own Profile far surpassed mine with its use of various media forms. An established science fiction author and professor of media studies at Fordham University, Paul’s MySpace Profile is replete with scrolling images of the covers of his novels, in-depth blog posts on television as well as politics, podcasts of readings of his books, YouTube videos of interviews as well as a film adaptation of one of his novels, and images from his excursions on the 3D virtual world Second Life (see Appendix A).

Tribe also allows users to edit their Profiles substantially, and particularly emphasizes group discussion in the form of message boards. Tribes such as “Creative Writing” and “Electronic Music Production” encourage members to post links to original material, comment on and critique the work of others, and engage in dialogue with other artists involved in the field. One of the unique features of the site enables members to write reviews of artists, musicians, bands, DJs, writers, and filmmakers, which can then be posted to appropriate Tribes as well as on one’s Profile:

The viral nature of social networking sites also makes them ideal platforms for promoting activist causes and generating political support. On Facebook (originally a service geared toward upper-tier college students), student activists across the country form groups aimed at raising awareness of various issues and garnering collective solidarity and support. In order to gauge how the site is used for activist purposes, a research partner and I interviewed the founder of the Facebook group “400,000 Faces,” which sought to promote public awareness of the genocide in Darfur in the following manner:

Each person in the 400,000 represents 1 person that has died in Darfur (400,000 is an average of statistics). The pictures will be printed 100 per a page at every participating school (on recycled paper). On April 28th 2007 all 4,000 pages will be lain out over public areas at each school during a rally for Darfur. A picture of the display will be taken and sent to senators, representatives, UN officials, local and major news stations, and those whose influence matters. The resulting packets of 4,000 pages will be sent to the officials that have the best chance in creating change.

A widespread critique of this kind of Group is that little is actually accomplished: one can consider herself an “activist” simply by clicking a button to join a Group. This perspective was expressed by Isabelle:

Isabelle: The only time that people really get devoted to a cause on Facebook is when it’s a stupid, useless thing that barely affects their life. If everyone in the 400,000 Faces group volunteered to do awareness work for Sudan that would be one thing, but joining the Facebook group does not make you an activist.

Ben, the founder of the group, responded to this critique more optimistically:

Ben: I would say that most members of the group are people who care but aren’t willing to do anything, but in every 100 members there are 4 or 5 that are willing to put forth the effort to make change in whatever way they can. This is collecting those people and spear heading their efforts into one movement…while their effort is small, when you get 400,000 members to stand together, even if passive their efforts accumulate and have an extremely powerful result.

“400,000 Faces” reached their goal about four months after its inception, and, Ben states, “[it was all done by] friends inviting friends inviting friends…I would guess that there are very few schools throughout the entire nation that do not have at least one member of 400,000 Faces.” This form of viral networking is how a similar Group, called “For Every 1,000 People That Join This Group, I Will Donate $1 to Darfur,” accumulated over half a million Facebook members in less than a week. When my Friends began joining this Group, I (like nearly every member on Facebook) watched its popularity evolve through my News Feed. Given their demonstrated success in conglomerating individuals around shared attitudes and tastes, it is little wonder that online social networking sites have attracted the vociferous attention of advertisers, corporations, activists and artists alike.

A common promotional practice on MySpace is the use of robots, commonly called “bots,” that will send Friend Requests to users en masse:

This practice is greatly disparaged by casual MySpacers and often cited as its most unappealing facet. However, the average user is typically unaware of the extent to which content is proliferated throughout the site. Bots are used by spammers as well as musicians, pornography sites as well as young entrepreneurs- with varying degrees of success. One such entrepreneur, a 21-year old Wesleyan sophomore who runs his own line of t-shirts, commented bleakly: “I have a bot that ‘friends’ people on MySpace. I have over 7,000 friends, but I’ve only sold 3 or 4 shirts this way!” He proceeded to ask me how he could more effectively promote his business, as my friend standing next to me responded derisively, “oh, you’re one of those!” I suggested, first, a more personal approach through direct messages rather than mass “friending.” Secondly, I recommended that he check out Tribe as a source of networking with other artists and aficionados of DIY (Do It Yourself) enterprises.

Technoshamanism and Neotribalism

Let us admit that we have attended parties where for one brief night a republic of gratified desires was attained. Shall we not confess that the politics of that night have more reality and force for us than those of, say, the entire U.S. Government? Some of the "parties" we've mentioned lasted for two or three years. Is this something worth imagining, worth fighting for? Let us study invisibility, webworking, psychic nomadism--and who knows what we might attain?

-Hakim Bey, The Temporary Autonomous Zone (1985)

In my virtual wandering through the thousands of bulletin boards that make up Tribe, two terms I’d never heard of before quickly caught my attention: technoshamanism and neotribalism. Both terms evoke a romantic notion of merging modern technologies with ancient tribal wisdom. For instance, certain kinds of electronic music are attributed the capacity to induce trance-like states that can be shared by a group of people through ecstatic dance, evoking images of shamanic tribal rituals in various parts of the world (such as South America, India, and Africa). Synthetic drugs such as LSD (acid) and MDMA (ecstasy) are frequently ingested as well, to aid in inducing trance-like states, altering visual and auditory perceptions, and enhancing feelings of connectedness to others and the “divine within.” In the words of one Tribe member:

To me, [technoshamanism] is getting in touch with the past and uniting it with the present. Our species has danced the night away to a rhythm and beat for as long as we have had consciousness to do so. Whether it be an animal hide-based drum or a drum machine, the sound is the same. If music in general was compared to say, the English language, its beat and rhythm would be the vowel sounds that make up every word in existence. Understood by all who hear it regardless of ethnicity or creed.

Underlying the ideology of neotribalism is the concept of a universal consciousness that has been lost and forgotten in the wake of civilization, and that must be rediscovered if humanity is to survive.

These ideas/beliefs have parallels in many religious or “cult” movements: prophetic figures have emerged throughout the past half-century (such as Timothy Leary, Terence McKenna, Alex Grey and Daniel Pinchbeck), some of whom espouse the apocalyptic belief (traces of which can be found throughout the site) that the world will come to an end in the year 2012 [34]. “The tribes and the primitive people will survive,” predicts a 50-year old Californian man, “know how to get all that you need from the earth. Nothing else can be expected to survive.” Like the Back-to-the-Land movement of the 1960’s, neotribalists seek a return to humanity’s “ancestral roots” through developing local, self-sustaining communities, with an emphasis on creating a global network of interconnected “tribes.” With its unifying power, the Internet is one of those modern technologies that is utilized by technoshamans as a means of tapping into the “collective neural network.”

As I previously mentioned, Tribe was founded on the principals established by Craigslist- namely, local trust-based communities sharing information, unhindered by advertising and aided by displaying how members are connected to one another. Members join “Tribes” based on shared localities, lifestyles, interests, and niches. When asked why he spends so much time on Tribe, a party promoter I have befriended and partied with after meeting on the site replied, “there are just so many cool people on there, people who know what’s up.” Being “in the know” is a key value in the formation of the “underground,” through which members of a subculture pride themselves on possessing special knowledge (subcultural capital) that distinguishes them from the imagined “mainstream.” A primary use of the site is to organize and promote artists’ collectives. Last year, a friend of mine created the Tribe “Chrysalis Cuddle,” in reference to a group of Wesleyan students (myself included) dedicated to throwing “underground” raves on and around campus. The Tribe had a short-lived period of activity over a winter break period, during which five of us exchanged ideas about future events. Though we were all in separate parts of the country, we could participate in the conversation at any time. The thread remains accessible today, though it has been inactive for over a year. Most importantly, the nature of message boards is such that our posts were well thought out and attentive to previous responses, allowing for a constructive dialogue unhindered by the burdens of co-presence (such as hesitations, interruptions, and “filler” words).

In 1962, Marshall McLuhan’s landmark novel The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man described the changes that had been taking place since the invention of the Gutenberg press; namely, the increasing collapse of spatial and temporal barriers, enabling people to communicate on a global level. His notion of the “global village” has since become a popular metaphor for describing the Internet and the World Wide Web. Utopian visions of a vast, interconnected global community, connected through cybernetic technology, abound in books, movies, and television. Equally common, however, are apocalyptic and ominous depictions of a world governed by Big Brother, divided by war and poverty, or destroyed entirely by the ignorance of humanity. “Technoshamans” seek to put forth positive energy in order to bring about the healing seen as imperative for creating a better world and reclaiming our ancient roots:

A lot of visionary artists are reflecting states or planes that are certainly more primordial and edgier than the technicolor flower-powered sunshine of the 60's. Goa/psy trance also reflects the aural elements of the shadow plane, and this is in response to the fact that we are dealing with heavy amounts of darkness. We could lose our planet in 50 years, for goodness's sake! 2005 was the hottest year on record, and Africa is suffering from a massive AIDS epidemic.

(Posted to the Tribe “Techno Shamanism”)


Despite the anxieties and fears that online social networking evokes, the medium continues to be integrated into the everyday practices of many. Its immense popularity can be attributed to a number of factors, such as extending older forms of two-way communication (like the radio and the telephone) to include new possibilities for interaction through multimedia, as well as allowing for the voyeuristic pleasures of one-way observation. I have frequently found myself signing into Facebook when telling a story or mentioning someone unknown to my listener(s); this is a common practice amongst my friends. By scrolling through our “Mutual Friends,” the individual in question may be recognized, albeit unilaterally. When I lost my phone, Facebook became my primary means of getting in touch with my friends; when I got a new phone, the site was extremely useful for obtaining phone numbers. As I am looking to move to New York City in a few months, I posted a “Request” for housing recommendations on Tribe, where my chances of finding potential housemates compatible with my lifestyle and worldview are considerably increased. Unlike MySpace or Facebook, which are more place-based in nature and involve social class, Tribe is less place-based and prioritizes shared subcultural preferences. All three sites serve as sources of social and political information tailored to my personal network and interests, and keep me informed about upcoming events I might be interested in and which of my friends are planning to attend.

Online social networking has become a highly effective tool for promoting such events, as well as engendering visible support for musicians, writers, activists and politicians. When a friend recommends a musician to me, I invariably ask for their MySpace address (unless, as is often the case, I’m introduced to the musician by being shown their MySpace Profile) in order to listen to some of their music easily and freely. Novice and established authors alike can find an audience for their written work, effectively sidestepping the middleman through publishing freely and publicly online. In a similar vein, both activists and politicians have discovered that these sites enable not only discourse and dissemination of ideas, but also a means to build quantitative support. Indeed, the more Friends one is connected to or members who join one’s group through online social networks, the more one’s name will appear in the networks of others, instigating a form of viral proliferation that exponentially increases one’s social capital.

A recent survey by the PEW Internet & American Life Project (2007: 27) found that 1 in 3 adults have posted creative content online. Alongside blogging, wikis, and other forms of collaborative and interactive technologies labeled “Web 2.0,” social networking sites are one of the primary tools heralded as enabling the “Information Revolution.” The term “revolution” is somewhat grandiose, thus “evolution” may be a better fit. Print media became secularized with the advent of nation-building; electronic media has arguably become democratized in this period of globalization. Thus, one of the primary pleasures emphasized by my informants is the way in which these sites allow members to experience themselves as producers of culture, rather than simply audiences or consumers. “We’re making the media,” Demetri asserts, “We’re the content creators.” This is certainly true, particularly within online social networks that enable members to post and share personal photo albums, homemade videos, blogs, and other various forms of art. In this way, users feel empowered to take on active, productive positions as producers of culture, sources of information, and agents of the observational gaze.

Furthermore, “Web 2.0” technologies have instigated a shift in the role of the media from “gatekeeper” to “matchmaker” (Levinson 1999: 129-131). Once upon a time, information was something either pre-packaged (in the case of newspapers and network television) or sought after in libraries. With the advent of modern web technologies, one can not only find information on any subject conceivable, but also filter such information through recommendations and referrals. For example, my iGoogle homepage, which appears whenever I open my web browser, neatly displays the “feeds” of my choosing: popular technology blogs, blogs of fellow anthropology and media researchers, the blogs of my friends, my email inbox, and the most popular stories recently posted to Digg [35]. Such an emphasis on individual taste preferences reflects and reinforces the growing importance of “lifestyle” in identity formation, especially among young people, linked in turn to the increasing importance of global media culture and patterns of consumption.

In 1962, Marshall McLuhan popularized the notion of the “Global Village” in a book entitled The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. His discussion of the Global Village predicted the onset of an era of “electronic interdependence,” characterized by a shift away from individualism and fragmentation and toward a collective, “tribal” identity based in the aural and oral nature of electronic media. His ideas became embedded in the cultural vernacular to such an extent that the Internet is often referred to as a global village. The “neotribal” ideologies of “technoshamans” seek to ensure that the cognitive changes currently under way do not become usurped by totalitarian rule and fear, as McLuhan warned, but rather are guided by those who see themselves as in tune with man’s original “tribal” nature and the collective good.

The metaphor of the “virtual campfire” has been extended in this chapter to describe the ways in which these sites allow members to reinforce individual and collective identity, extend and diversify social ties, promote their art and ideas to others, tailor information to their particular interests and network of trustworthy referrers, and potentially connect to a kind of “collective consciousness” that some see as having the capacity to transform humanity into a “neotribal” state. The question then becomes: to what extent and in what ways can these media be made truly “empowering”? In the next and final chapter, I discuss a particular ancient ritual- that of memorializing and commemorating the deceased- as it is recreated by members of online social networking sites.

>> Chapter Six: The Digital Graveyard: Frozen Performances, Remembrance, and Commemoration


  1. An article entitled “Want a job? Clean up your web act,” reported survey results that one in five employers use the Internet to find information about job candidates (Ferguson, 28 March 2007).
  2. Ayahuasca is a vine containing the powerful hallucinogen DMT. Traditionally, it is used in South American shamanic rituals. Since the 1950s, it has become popular among many in the counterculture.
  3. The belief that the world will end in 2012 is derived from various interpretations of the Mayan calendar, which ends its thirteenth cycle on December 20th, 2012.
  4. According to Wikipedia, “Digg is a community-based news article popularity website. It combines social bookmarking, blogging, and syndication with a form of non-hierarchical, democratic editorial control.”
© Jenny Ryan 2008