Online social networking sites combine the casualness and directness of speech with the evocative presence of the visual to create the “virtual campfire.” Orality and visuality converge and merge in the online medium, reaching simultaneously for both the hearth and the cosmos. This hearth is the realm of the domestic, where we nourish our desire for the security of intimate relationships and the capacity to be our “true” selves. At the same time, there is the desire for belonging to the cosmos, the expansive social universe wherein we accumulate knowledge and perform our identities, themselves the products of the particular cultural and institutional systems within which our everyday lives are embedded. Though accessible only to those possessing the resources and cultural capital necessary for participating, online communities offer an array of possibilities for meaningful human connection that are fast becoming available to all through public service and international aid initiatives.
Over the course of human evolution, knowledge about the world and the individual’s place within it has traditionally been imparted by storytellers and ritual experts. While religious leaders had previously embodied these roles, with the popularization of the printed word their authority became secondary to that of the liberal, secular bourgeois intellectuals, whose activities have expanded in the wake of Industrial Revolution. Mass production requires mass consumption, and over the 20th century advertisers and other cultural producers have marketed an ever-expanding array of symbolic goods and media forms targeted at the increasingly fragmented tastes of consumers. The construction of individuals as “consumers” reflects and reinforces longings for the connectivity of true community, for meaningful engagement as members of the world. From its grassroots beginnings, the Web has become another medium through which cultural forms are bought and sold; however, it is also a new space where individuals, regardless of gender, age, class, nationality or race, can themselves become producers of culture, and engage with like-minded others across barriers of time and space.
What makes the online medium unique is its capacity to bridge the gap between the place of the hearth and the space of the cosmos, potentially reversing what has been called “the disintegration of the public sphere” (Habermas 1962: 175). Over the course of the 21st century, new technologies of communication have increasingly brought the “public sphere” into the home. Both reflecting and reinforcing widespread sociocultural processes of “individualization,” modern media have become integral in the formation of identities based on cultural tastes. The Internet has helped to extend this process of individualization, and in the process has heightened the degree of agency people have in learning about the wider world, and most importantly, granting them a voice with which to participate in that world.
Though we are significantly closer to this ideal, it would be premature to claim that the technologies I have studied have made the Internet into the “global village” prophesied by Marshall McLuhan half a century ago. Rather, most of my participants use social network sites to extend their offline communities into online practice in a manner more closely in line with the concept of "networked individualism," which suggests we are expanding our social networks (weak ties in particular) according to our cultural tastes and communities of membership. In this study I have sought to expand upon this theory by examining the ways in which engaged members incorporate computer-mediated communication into their everyday lives in meaningful ways, extending the possibilities for self and community formation through the “virtual campfire.”
Throughout the evolution of modern media, public and private spheres have become increasingly blurred. The transparency and permeability of this new “virtual” medium not only makes it possible to access public spaces from the privacy of home, but also renders the private sphere susceptible to public visibility. The popularization of online communication precipitated a familiar moral panic, similar to the initial reception of television, inciting a discourse of fear regarding the potentially transgressive nature of virtual intimacy as well as corporate interest in exploiting the Web for its economic potential. It is important for Web users to be aware of the extent to which their personal information and activities on these sites are tracked and archived by corporate and government authorities, and, when possible, to collectively organize protests demanding changes in privacy policies and design architecture.
Nevertheless, for the most part the intangible dangers of being observed by unintended audiences are considered secondary to the convenience of instantaneous access to this “virtual campfire” from the comfort of the home. While online social networking sites are often disparaged as poor replacements for human interaction that encourage superficial relationships, my ethnographic analysis reveals how some people, American youth in particular, are incorporating this medium into their everyday practices in more or less meaningful ways. Through elucidating both the dangers and possibilities of this medium, I seek to encourage people to create their own “virtual campfires” as a supplement to, rather than a replacement of, their offline lives. Through participation and sharing in meaningful ways- from conversation to creating art- we might begin to see these sites as vehicles for healing the widely-felt loss of community and the pervasive sense of alienation experienced by so many.
Today, at the culmination of my fifth year at Wesleyan, most of my friends have already graduated. Few of the friends I do have left on this campus have ever met those who feature most prominently in my memories of college. As a result, I sometimes find myself telling romanticized tales about my former classmates, accompanied by the perusal of Facebook, where I find myself drawn to the faces and expressions of old friends, much as I might peruse a yearbook. For this reason- the sentimental mementos of personal relationships collectively stockpiled and interlinked within the vast archives of the site- Facebook has become an important place for remembrance, a nostalgic campfire that draws together old friends in my memory. It is also a virtual medium through which my now-distant friends and I keep track of the ongoing stories of each others’ lives, enabling us to “groom” one another in a variety of ways- sending Gifts, playing Scrabulous, or taking the time to write a humorous or thoughtful Wall Post. The glow of this campfire may make invisible the surrounding forest and the wolves that lurk within, waiting for their chance to steal our source of sustenance for their own gain.
MySpace has become a place for broadcasting “my story,” much like the personal homepage I created as an adolescent. It serves the primary function of enabling creative self-expression for the entertainment and (hopefully) inspiration of a doubtlessly wide yet generally unknown public audience. By attracting the gazes of visitors to my MySpace Profile, I become the message of the flickering flames that might entrance and, through the ineffable power of poetry, incite transcendence. However, although I believe my flame burns bright, its warm glow may be overshadowed by the blinding fluorescent bulbs of capitalism. Nevertheless, the stories told to me by those who value their performances on the site reveal its possibilities for creative imaginings of the self.
The “virtual campfires” that constitute Tribe make up a virtual “tent city,” like those found at art and music happenings such as Burning Man. Connecting geographically distant individuals through their eclectic interests, the Tribes I came across reminded me that meaningful relationships can, in fact, be formed through the screen. My personal engagement with the site helped me connect to other groups and individuals outside of the university sphere I was embedded in, and allowed me to imagine other possibilities for being. Inspired by the group discussions that took place on the message boards of various Tribes, it is here that community is created through the collective participation of those seeking to share their own magic and wisdom with those receptive enough to listen and respond.
I hope readers will take away from this thesis a “middle-path” approach to their own online activities. While it is important to be aware of the unintended audiences to whom you may make yourself visible, the Web also extends the possibilities for communication in potentially extraordinary ways. Successfully building a “virtual campfire” first entails deciding upon a site that aligns with one’s interests; for instance, I frequently recommend Tribe for those seeking information and discussion about Burning Man, or MySpace for those wishing to promote their music. To truly fuel the flames of the campfire, I also suggest genuinely connecting to Friends through either one-way or Group conversation, thus explicitly “grooming” others in ways that encourage reciprocity. We may also use these technologies to collectively organize for political and activist causes as well, brainstorming ideas and circulating information in ways that may indeed contribute to progressive change. Participation with others is thus paramount to deriving a sense of meaningful connection through what can be an isolating medium. By sharing information and telling stories, it is indeed possible to create meaningful connections and refashion our world, overcoming the sense of alienation that so many experience in late capitalist modernity.
© Jenny Ryan 2008