Thousands of years ago, our early human ancestors gathered around campfires, creating communal hearths of warmth and light. There they might tell stories, converse about the day’s events, perhaps engage in shamanistic rituals involving plants, music and dance, or simply gaze silently at the flames in collective meditation. Today, the fireplace in my family’s living room shares its centralizing power with the television, around which we gather with our laptops and cellphones by our sides. Our time spent together is increasingly mediated by new technologies, enabling new forms of storytelling, altering our processes of individual and collective identity formation, and extending the possibilities for creating and maintaining social relationships. What follows is an ethnographic exploration of online social networking, a controversial new medium of communication that has become a fixture in the everyday lives of middle-class, American youth .
Studies of our primate cousins have found that their striking affinity for grooming one another serves the primary function of creating and maintaining social bonds. Predominantly social animals, our success as a species can be attributed in part to our capacity to form large groups, wherein different members perform a variety of roles and activities necessary for the well-being of their kin. It has been theorized that language evolved as a means of extending our social networks, allowing us to stay informed about friends and family through gossip (Dunbar 1996). Through language, humans create mutually understood symbols with which we coordinate social activities and pass on the stories, norms and values that order social life. Over the course of the past few centuries, the traditional roles of storyteller, gatekeeper, and matchmaker have been transformed through the accelerating force of mass reproduction, allowing for the increasingly expansive circulation of information in ways that transcend previous boundaries of space and time.
The myriad mediums through which we communicate symbolic forms cannot be examined in isolation. Rather, each new medium builds on prior media, extending our possibilities for symbolic interaction. While these communication technologies allow us to accumulate more information quicker and keep in touch with others at any time and from any place, they are typically seen as lacking the fundamental characteristics of immediacy and presence valorized in the formation of intimate social bonds; namely, eye contact, gesture, and body language. Nevertheless, as media develop they are increasingly adapted and appropriated in culturally specific ways, and subsequently integrated into everyday life. Just as mobile phones have become natural extensions of the modern cosmopolite’s person, so too are social networking sites becoming habitual features of the everyday lives of "digital natives," engaged with regularly and ritualistically.
My central argument in this thesis is that online social networks can potentially serve as both places of the hearth and avenues to the cosmos. Over time, these sites function as personal records of one’s experiences and relationships. These archives are made up of a variety of forms akin to older modes of record keeping, such as address books, journals, diaries, photo albums, personal correspondences, and yearbooks. Additionally, they serve as gateways to the greater milieu, enabling the circulation of information about the world and granting members the capacity to participate in various ways. For teenagers and marginalized groups, in particular, these sites can be safe spaces for exploring and experimenting with identity, as well as for connecting to new people and ideas.
At the same time, engagement with online social networking sites can potentially violate the privacy of the hearth and limit one’s exposure to the larger world of the cosmos. As certain sites become more popular, one’s online connections within the medium may expand to include family members, authority figures, co-workers, and past acquaintances. Information that was once accessible only to trusted members of one’s inner circle or particular community (such as a college campus) may become more publicly visible, thereby encouraging self-censorship or the imposition of privacy controls. Additionally, the ego-centric nature of online social networking allows users to regulate the information they come across online in such a way as to limit communication only with certain trusted individuals, or within a particular sphere of cultural tastes. Rather than creating the much-celebrated "global village," the Internet may actually be contributing to the increasing fragmentation of taste communities.
Integrating these seemingly opposed facets of online social networking in light of my ethnographic findings, I propose that everyday involvement with these sites can be metaphorically represented as a "virtual campfire" . A campfire serves to bridge the gap between the hearth and the cosmos, drawing individuals out of the comforting indoor hearth of the household, taking place outdoors in gatherings of larger (yet still intimately connected) groups in order to tell stories and converse with each other, collectively engaged in the ritualized processes of tending and feeding the flames. Engaged members of online social networks share their stories with Friends through creating individual Profiles, updating their Status messages, writing blog posts, and uploading photographs, music, and videos . Friends may then participate in the storytelling and camaraderie, posting Comments in response to this uploaded content. Social bonds are reinforced in diverse ways, ranging from written messages, Event invitations, and the formation of Groups, to virtual Pokes, Gifts, and online gameplay. Most importantly, these sites allow friends to construct private spaces for nurturing social cohesion and group membership.
However, the virtual nature of this intimate hearth- the lack of physical co-presence- complicates this "campfire" dynamic considerably. Not only is it difficult to control the information one promulgates to invisible and potentially unintended audiences, it is possible to learn about others and make character judgements without ever interacting with them. Additionally, some participants in my study have expressed concern over their overuse of the medium for such purposes as procrastination from work or voyeuristically "stalking" others, habits easily reinforced due to the low cost and accessibility of the Internet in their lives. Despite these issues, the virtual aspect of these sites allows individuals (especially the shy and the socially anxious) to express themselves in potentially creative and uninhibited ways- for example, through the use of multimedia. Furthermore, intimate groups may flourish regardless of the spatial proximity of their members, extending the possibilities for the formation of geographically dispersed communities based on shared tastes.
Before one can be known in online social networks, one must first "be in the know." For the average user, this is possible only through being a participating member of a given site, and all that participation implies. My interest in studying the phenomenon of online social networking arose out of my own personal engagement with three particular sites: MySpace, Facebook, and Tribe.net. Though these sites differ in the modes of participation they entail and the participants they primarily attract, they share several general activities: the creation of an individual Profile; the active or passive accumulation of Friends; interpersonal communication; and the sharing of media via photographs, music, videos and links.
The first step in becoming a member of an online social network is the creation of a member Profile, enabling one to "type oneself into being" (Sundén 2003: 3). Basic demographic information (age, gender, location, education information, and occupation), favored cultural referents (quotes, movies, television, music, and books), more open-ended autobiographical fields (interests and "about me"), and a corresponding image comprise the essential structure of Profiles on MySpace, Facebook, and Tribe (see Appendix B).
The next step typically involves searching for and requesting the formal "Friendship" of others. It is generally the norm (especially on Facebook) to "friend" those one knows outside of the context of the site, allowing users to visibly articulate their social networks. On MySpace, many also openly "friend" interesting or attractive strangers, celebrity figures, favorite musicians, and iconic Profiles (such as "Satan"). For "MySpace Whores" and those seeking to promote themselves (particularly musicians), it is common practice to "friend" other members en masse; as a result, such users often accumulate thousands of Friends, thereby acquiring high visibility and claiming social status. On Tribe, it is common for members to "friend" interesting strangers within Tribes (the equivalent of Groups) to which they also belong.
Once having actively created one’s online social network, the real fun can begin. While the norms for interpersonal communication vary widely between as well as within MySpace, Facebook, and Tribe, the basic mechanisms are similar. Messages between any two individuals can be either posted publicly on each other’s Profiles (in the form of Wall Posts on Facebook, Comments on MySpace, or Testimonials on Tribe) or privately (much like e-mail). Furthermore, all of the sites also enable members to create Groups, formed around various sorts of common ties or shared interests, within which members communicate primarily through message board forums. More recently, instant messaging programs have been launched on each site, enabling "real-time" synchronous communication between members.
Lastly, all three sites promote the circulation of user-generated content in the form of photo albums, blog posts, uploaded videos, embedded music playlists, and hyperlinks. On MySpace and Facebook, members can Tag someone in a photograph, designating names of Friends to particular elements of a photograph (such as a person’s face), which then becomes linked to that member’s Profile. Given the prevalence of both popular and amateur musicians on MySpace, it is a common practice to introduce friends to musical discoveries through sharing MySpace Profile links. In the next sections, I seek to convey some of the defining characteristics of these sites through brief ethnographic descriptions. In so doing, I introduce a few of the many individuals who informed this study, whose subjective experiences and interpretations elucidate some of the main shortcomings and potentials of the "virtual campfire."
Demetri, my principal informant on MySpace, describes the typical MySpace Profile as "digital bling," saying that "people go crazy customizing it, putting little videos on it, like ‘this is what I love!’ So many videos, yeah, you’re gonna crash my computer…" When asked to elaborate, he went on:
There are two primary attitudes in evaluating MySpace. On one end is the aforementioned complaint regarding exposure to the intrusive "poor taste" of other members, combined with the irksome, prominent presence of advertisements and spam. On the other end, there is a sense of pride among members that the site, with all its flaws and quirks, empowers them to creatively express themselves and perform their identities in what Demetri describes as "the modern-day soap opera" of MySpace- where everyone is the star of their story. To peruse the site is to dive into a veritable ocean of colorful self-expressions and social dramas, publicly played out and displayed as entertainment for all.
MySpace, currently the fifth most-visited website in the world, achieved mass popularity over the course of 2005- especially among high school students . However, the extent to which a site is known and viewed is likely to lower rather than raise its cultural status. MySpace is commonly viewed, like "pop" music, with a kind of condescension by those who perceive themselves as culturally superior, such as college students. In my day-to-day conversations with friends, the topic of MySpace nearly always draws a derisive snort and a comment similar to my friend Jeff’s response: "That site is so annoying. Too many ads. Yo! I don’t want to hear your crappy music blasting my speakers!" The liberties that come with creating a MySpace Profile (such as embedding HTML code and uploading music) are the very source of the site’s reviled drawbacks. Additional disparaged elements include the large blocks of space reserved for sponsored ads as well as a regular flow of spam, disguised as Friend Requests from porn sites, pyramid schemes, and businesses. Currently, exactly a third of my current Friend Requests are from members whose Profiles no longer exist; it is likely they are spammers who have since been reported to the MySpace administration.
MySpace is notoriously sex-driven. With a devilish grin, Alex informs me that he accepts Friend Requests "from all the porn stars," and particularly enjoys it when they leave Comments on his Profile. Along with commercial activity, romance is a principal component of MySpace. Over the four years I’ve known Demetri, he has twice been involved in relationships with women whom he’d met and courted on MySpace, and many of my informants discussed experiences (either their own or those of their friends) with meeting face-to-face people they had previously met on the site. While both men and women enjoy perusing the site in search of sex and romance, women are frequently the objects of unwanted advances. One female friend, who is an avid Facebook user, explains why she removed her MySpace Profile not long after creating it:
From amateur artists to indie rock icons, folk bands to experimental musicians, MySpace is commonly viewed as the universal platform for promoting music and connecting to Fans (used in place of "Friends" for MySpace Music accounts). As music preferences are key indicators of an individual’s cultural tastes, "Friendship" between musicians and Fans is mutually beneficial: musicians acquire social status through high Fan counts and Profile views, while Fans can publicly display their tastes and stay informed about upcoming concerts and events. MySpace, then, is alternately viewed as a place for "the cool kids" and as the nexus of "pop culture," serving as a vast public space wherein members can hang out with their friends, perform their identities, and also acquire new information and cultural forms.
Since Facebook launched in 2004, it has become a pervasive element of college life across the United States. Julia, a Wesleyan sophomore, remarked that she had been told, "you don’t exist if you’re not on Facebook." Indeed, upon discovering that a new acquaintance is not a member of Facebook, it is typical to observe surprise and curiosity. For Julia, an incoming college freshman in 2005, acceptance at a prestigious liberal arts university was followed by eager anticipation: the acquisition of a university e-mail address allowed one to officially join that campus’ Facebook network and served as a platform through which soon-to-be classmates could gauge one another. It has become common for incoming freshmen to "Facebook Friend" future classmates they’ve never met face-to-face. While oftentimes this is merely a way to express their openness toward new friendships, it can also be a highly effective method of creating and establishing one’s reputation through "image broadcasting."
The user’s capacity to project an idealized self is limited to some extent by Facebook’s emphasis on the "real-life" affiliations of members. Those with whom one typically interacts on Facebook are usually people one also sees and interacts with on a regular basis offline in her school, workplace, or geographic communities. Because people’s Profiles are by default only visible to those within these articulated networks, the site instills a sense of privacy and trust. However, the bounded nature of Facebook networks may simply expose a user’s Profile to the judgemental and potentially predatory gaze of her peers. Says Carla, a Wesleyan sophomore at the time of our interview, "Let’s just say that the [certain frat] brothers really like to use Facebook to compare, contrast, and hunt down the women they have or would like to get nasty with…"
Both MySpace and Tribe allow for a great deal of user input in the look and feel of one’s Profile. In contrast, Facebook’s reputation is predicated upon the "clean" look of the site, emphasizing functionality over stylistic elaboration. While this austerity has been widely praised by proponents of the site, it has recently become compromised by the "clutter" of third-party Applications that greatly expand what were once simple, uniformly designed profiles. As the following conversation will attest, it's just not "cool" to like Facebook- one is better off being critical- though many depend on it in some way or another as a way of maintaining social bonds:
Despite the disparaging tone in which many college students refer to Facebook in conversation, I've found that my Friends on Facebook continue to be highly active, having become skilled at incorporating the more useful features of the site into their everyday lives. 25% of the most recent 50 emails in my inbox are Facebook notifications of some sort- Event Invitations, Friend Requests, Wall Posts, Group messages, and Pokes . Upon logging into the site, the "News Feed" that makes up the center of the homepage serves as my very own town gossip, informing me, for instance, that my friend Julie has added "comedy clubs" to her Interests, that ten of my Friends will be attending a party in New York next week, and exactly what my friend Steven wrote on my friend Dave’s Wall. While the site extends one's capacity to communicate with friends and stay informed about upcoming parties and events, it also enables members to join Groups connecting disparate individuals on the basis of shared interests, as well as facilitating potential connections with weak and latent social ties (such as classmates).
When registering for Tribe, one chooses a local geographic network and gains access to events, recommendations, and classified ads posted by members in the vicinity. By far the most populated network is the San Francisco Bay Area, where so many web startups had their beginnings. Recent posts are by default visible on one’s homepage, alongside a separate module for events, listings, and blog posts made by Friends in one’s network [see Appendix B]. The most popular means of engaging with this particular online social network is through joining social groups, known as "Tribes," and participating in the message board forums that are the principal source of community formation on the site. Within the milieu of Tribe, it is common to find individual Profiles made up of original content in the form of blog posts, displays of recent activity on the site (such as posts made to Tribes), poetry, images, videos, and descriptive lists of esoteric interests (such as "flying trapeze"). It is also typical to come across transgressive topics such as polyamory, drug use, and nudism. Tribe’s lack of censorship is one of its most cherished values:
I use the site primarily to read and discuss Tribe message board threads pertaining to New Age sentiments and alternative subcultures . The site’s locality-based structure is especially useful for finding out about "underground" parties and artistic events in specific cities. Members of Tribe tend to be somewhat older, usually young urban-oriented adults with an affinity for artistic forms- in particular, attendees of the annual Burning Man arts festival and smaller but similar parties of the "psytrance" genre . Such gatherings attempt to evoke our "tribal" past- communal rituals of music, drugs, and dance that evoke one of the images of the campfire described at the beginning of this paper. By and large, my Tribe network consists mainly of individuals I have met at such gatherings and know only in these occasional contexts. Nevertheless, though my Friends on Tribe are not involved in my everyday life, they are still part of what I consider an important subcultural "community" based on shared values of communality, living as an art, and opposition to the "mainstream." A few weeks ago, a friend who I run into primarily at psytrance parties mentioned that he had recently been told by a fellow "trancer" that he absolutely had to join Tribe, and even went on to say "if you’re not on Tribe, you shouldn’t even be at this party!"
If MySpace and Facebook are "ego-centric" in nature, I would describe Tribe as "community-centric." Tribes are typically based on shared interests or affiliations to a subcultural group. Given the primacy of group discussions on the message boards of Tribes, however, the site itself may become the central "place" for such groups to gather, as many members are typically busy with their everyday lives apart from the other members of their subculture.
For those with eccentric interests, then, niche-based online social networks such as Tribe may be seen as safe spaces to express unconventional elements of one’s personality and connect to like-minded others. While it is still common to "friend" those on Tribe whom one has met in "real life," the small population and specific niche demographic drawn to the site inspires trust between members, enabling the formation of geographically dispersed communities based on shared interests. Many of the Tribes I’ve come across serve to connect artists from geographically disparate communities, as the following story will attest:
Mike, a friend from high school, had been going through a "Facebook-identity crisis" over the past couple of days; each time I had logged into Facebook during this time, the "Recently Updated" tab indicated that Mike had changed several elements of his Profile. Often, his changes would include a reference to the Facebook medium itself. Curious, I sent him an IM (instant message) and struck up a conversation. He noted the inadequacy of Facebook Profiles for truly getting to know others, particularly those he had recently met but had yet to develop a good friendship with, and expressed his desire to be able to connect "directly to people’s brains." His observations, provoked by his personal experiences with Facebook, can be applied to virtually every medium of human communication- beginning with language itself. As the early twentieth century philosopher-poet T.E. Hulme put it: "Language is by its very nature a communal thing; that is, it expresses never the exact thing but a compromise—that which is common to you, me, and everybody." From face-to-face conversations to modern technologies of communication, our experiences of the world are mediated by language. Through language, humans develop mutually understood symbols by which we construct our sense of ourselves, of others, and of reality itself.
The struggle to effectively or authentically communicate one’s "true" self is not particular to online social networking; rather, the tension between one’s inner self and its outward portrayal had been a subject of concern in Western culture long before the advent of the Internet. Plato spoke of the "great stage of human life." If, as Shakespeare mused, "All the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely players," then what happens when the curtains close and we go backstage? In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Erving Goffman (1959) elaborated upon this dramaturgical approach in crafting a sociological theory that has come to be known as "symbolic interactionism." Once backstage, "the impression fostered by the presentation is knowingly contradicted as a matter of course (112)." From the symbolic interactionist perspective, one performs a certain role on the public stage that is often subverted in the private sphere ("backstage"). This private sphere supposedly allows for a more "truthful" performance of self, but is nevertheless still a performance tailored to a specific audience. The question then becomes: can one only truly know oneself in the absence of others?
Paul Ricoeur, an eminent scholar in the field of hermeneutics and phenomenology, challenges the notion that the self is transparent to itself. Rather, he theorizes that the hermeneutic self is revealed to that self through the ‘other’- most immediately and directly through two interlocutors. Furthermore, this direct, intersubjective encounter is a relation that is "invariably intertwined with various long intersubjective relations, mediated by various social institutions, groups, nations and cultural traditions (Kearney 2004: 4)." One continually attempts to define herself as an individual with a unique "personality," however this process is itself co-constructed through one’s everyday interactions with others as well as the subjective appropriation of various cultural markers of identity. From this perspective, online social networks mirror the process by which individuals construct their identities by extending interpersonal communication and providing fields in which they may articulate their cultural tastes and group affiliations.
By granting users access to new forms of cultural expression, a member of an online social network may acquire different kinds of knowledge and skills that serve to increase her cultural capital (Bourdieu 1986). The ability to navigate through these websites and acquire and display such knowledge is itself a form of cultural capital, indicating that one has familiarity and expertise with computers. The cultural capital one acquires in online social networks is often demonstrated through member Profiles in the form of articulated cultural preferences (such as books and movies), the extent to which one portrays herself as more or less the producer of her own text, and the style in which an individual’s Profile is presented. Oftentimes, the cultural capital demonstrated on these Profiles can best be described in terms of Sarah Thornton’s concept of "subcultural capital," which expands on Bourdieu’s original theory and applies it to members of a subculture. A subculture defines itself through its differentiation from other groups, such as "pop culture" and "mainstream society," and its members acquire "hipness capital" in adopting certain styles and acquiring certain kinds of knowledge and status (particularly discerning music taste). Subcultural capital is displayed on all three sites, but especially Tribe; members demonstrate their membership to the "underground" through joining certain Tribes that allow one to stay in the know about upcoming parties, new music albums and artists, and ideas and dialogues pertinent to, for example, the Burning Man subculture.
The increased possibilities for community and self-formation enabled by online social networks can also serve to increase one’s social capital. Pierre Bourdieu (1986: 51) defined "social capital" as:
By aggregating one’s social contacts, be they close ties or casual acquaintances, and providing detailed information about these individuals, one accumulates a wealth of potential resources. As Robert Putnam (2000: 171) defines it, "Social capital is all about networks, and the Net is the network to all ends." When members join networks (such as university or workplace networks) they reaffirm their group memberships, instigating a sense of belonging. Social capital can even be symbolically demonstrated by the number of Friends or Fans one has- though excessive numbers of Friends may evoke suspicion over the "authenticity" of an online persona. Thus, social capital is furthermore contingent upon two primary factors: reciprocity and trust.
A review of the recent sociological, economic, psychological and philosophical literature on the nature of trust was examined in a paper by Chopra and Wallace (2003) entitled "Trust in Electronic Environments." Trust is considered a crucial element with regard to social capital, and exists on four levels: the individual (psychological), the interpersonal (one to another), the relational (social glue), and the societal (functioning). The processes involved in the development of trust include past behavior, intentionality of the trustee, emotional bonding, reciprocity, reputation, and shared values. A variety of factors influence the degree to which an individual trusts those with whom they interact in virtual environments, such as one’s technological bias, disposition, referrals by trustworthy others, and the context within which these online relationships are formed. In the context of the online social networks I am examining, an individual’s level of trust in the network is dependent on her personal comfort with online sociality, the extent to which her offline communities are connected to her online, the presence of untrustworthy others, and the site’s reputation itself. While online social networks can serve to reinforce or extend one’s social capital in local offline communities, these networks also increase the efficacy of dispersed community formation based on shared interests or cultural tastes. One’s sense of trust, then, is also largely informed by the degree to which one’s online network aligns with one’s personal values, such as family and local community or music preference and party style.
Despite the evidence that all experiences are mediated and that the "self" is co-constructed, I have time and again encountered the pervasive belief that experiences with online social networking diminish the quality of interpersonal communication and fail to authentically portray one’s "true" identity. This perceived disconnect may be attributed to a number of factors. Firstly, computer-mediated communication reduces the kind of social cues we frequently rely on in face-to-face communication (such as gesture and intonation), thereby increasing the likelihood for miscommunication. Secondly, successful computer-mediated communication demands not only literacy and the ability to effectively communicate through written text, but also a certain level of "fluency" with the specific language of the online environment in which one is participating. Thirdly, popular online social networks pose the threat of enmeshing multiple social contexts (such as the university versus the workplace versus the family), effectively challenging the previously established boundaries between public and private. In these cases, the protective boundaries between how we perform ourselves "onstage" and "backstage" become dangerously blurred. Finally, because these audiences are often invisible, we may come to know more about another through their online personas than through "natural" face-to-face interactions, and vice versa. In such cases, the "self" is projected rather than co-constructed, thus potentially altering the process through which we come to know another. This is not to say that the "self" has not historically been projected in the formation of impressions, but rather, that online social networking intensifies and multiplies the contexts for this practice.
Though I was officially a member and actively participated in the online communities I chose to write about, much of what I understood about the practices of others in these environments was garnered through the ubiquitous practice of observing what was publicly accessible. Perhaps the most controversial ethical issue that arises through online research is the practice of "lurking" undetected as a means of easily accumulating information that can then be categorized and analyzed. While such a method diminishes the potentially negative repercussions that may arise as a result of declaring one’s intentions as a researcher, it also precludes cooperation between researcher and subjects; moreover, the practice effectively circumvents the issue of "informed consent" and might therefore be regarded with suspicion. I remained (and do still remain) uncertain about my role as an anthropologist: am I a participant-observer, or a participant-lurker? Does the "participant" component of this identification legitimize the "passivity" of lurking? After learning of prior research in this area, it was apparent to me that informed, sensitive ethnography would help to dispel some myths and highlight productive forms of interaction in this era of swift technological and social change.
Academic research on online social networking has only recently begun to produce ethnographic texts, a trend that will hopefully continue to grow. When I began this study, however, I was unable to find any published ethnographic accounts of online social networking practices. Therefore, I turned to the field of what has variably been called "computer-mediated anthropology," "the anthropology of cyberculture," or "cyberanthropology." Sherry Turkle’s (1984) early ethnographic study of emerging computer subcultures, based on hundreds of interviews and six years of participant-observation, pioneered the field by articulating the computer as a cultural object that is not only subculturally appropriated in a variety of ways, but also creatively invoked in the construction and projection of self-identity. However, it would be a decade until "the anthropology of cyberculture" would be coherently defined by Arturo Escobar, whose 1994 article "Welcome to Cyberia" was published in Current Anthropology and widely received.
The first "virtual ethnographies" were situated within the domains of BBS’ (bulletin board systems) (Myers 1987), online role-playing games (known as MUDs) (Turkle 1995; Jacobson 1996), and Usenet newsgroups (Baym 1992). These forms of early online "communities" were predominantly text-based in nature, bringing together previously disparate individuals on the basis of shared interests and cultural tastes (such as local Internet hobbyists studied by Myers, and television soap opera fandoms studied by Baym). Many of these first Internet ethnographers invoked Erving Goffman’s theory of "symbolic interactionism," whereby group members actively negotiate the meanings of symbolic interactions and thus participate in shaping the communication environment (Lawley 1992). With the growing availability and accessibility of the Internet in the mid-1990s (due in large part to the rise of user-friendly Internet Service Providers, such as America Online and Prodigy, and the introduction of free web browsers such as Mosaic and Netscape), participation in these and new forms of online interaction became increasingly popular. By this time, the concept of "the virtual community" had been introduced in Howard Rheingold’s (1993) landmark novel by the same name, though he would later suggest the more apt term "online social network (2000)" .
The turn of the 21st century was marked by a plethora of authoritative publications that served to articulate the ethical and methodological issues involved in conducting ethnographies of the Internet (Jacobson 1999; Jones 1999; Hakken 1999; Hine 2000). However, as we will see, the overwhelming majority of the research on online social networking has been observational and quantitative in nature. The first ethnographic research on social networking sites, to my knowledge, was danah boyd’s research on Friendster (boyd 2004). Boyd articulated the struggles faced in crafting an online profile for a potentially vast and heterogeneous audience, as well as the ways in which members used the medium in creative and occasionally disruptive ways.
Much of the popular discourse on computer-mediated communication, and indeed of all new media when it is first introduced, is organized by dualisms: whether emerging technologies are good or bad for "society" (particularly children); whether experiences on the Internet are "real" or "virtual;" and whether the Internet is a libratory space for individuality or another mode of control and surveillance by ruling powers. Given the predominance of quantitative sociological and psychological studies concerning online community formation, much of the scholarly literature I came across made generalizing conclusions based on large population sampling and surveys conducted by outside researchers. A short review of some of the major studies serves to highlight some of the primary findings of research regarding online social networking and demonstrates the need for an engaged ethnographic approach.
In one of the largest-scale studies on online social networks I have found, Golder et al; (2007) conducted a statistical analysis of 362 million messages sent by 4.2 million Facebook users over a period of 26 months. The results showed a strikingly consistent temporal pattern of messaging across the whole network, with internal variations consistent across campuses. The elusive nature of "poking" on Facebook was described as a socially meaningful act that necessitates reciprocity, thus reinforcing social bonds. While the overwhelming majority of messages were sent between Friends, the researchers also found that only a small proportion of Friends sent messages to one another. This raised doubts concerning the strength of Facebook ties. However, my personal experiences with Facebook suggest that the vast majority of interpersonal communication actually occurs in the more public realm of "Wall Posts" (which are posted at the bottom of a user’s Profile), suggesting a desire to publicly display one’s social interactions and a degree of comfort with such displays.
Online privacy has been at the forefront of popular discourse, and several studies have focused primarily on this issue. A quantitative study of 4,000 Facebook users at Carnegie Mellon University was conducted by Gross and Acquisti (2005). They examined three factors of information revelation in online social networks: identifiably of the user; types of information presented; and visibility of one’s Profile. On the basis of their results, they concluded that Facebook users appear generally unconcerned with the public sharing of their identities, with 91% posting an identifiable picture of themselves and 40% posting their personal phone numbers. In a related effort to assess the identity-sharing behavior of college students, Stutzman (2006) conducted a random survey of 200 undergraduate and graduate Facebook-using students. Results suggested that, although students exhibited a general feeling of doubt regarding the protection of their identities online, they were generally comfortable with this information being accessible to friends, who constitute the majority of one’s network on Facebook. However, they were markedly less comfortable with strangers viewing this information. Such results warrant a more nuanced examination of the perceived audiences of online profiles, as well as balancing the potentially negative consequences of revealing personal information online with the benefits that motivate students to continue doing so regardless.
In an effort to elucidate the benefits of online social networking, Ellison, Steinfeld, and Lampe (2006) discuss the implications of Facebook use for crystallizing relationships that might otherwise remain latent (such as classmates), and maintaining relationships formed in previous communities (such as high school). In an extensive study based on 286 survey responses at Michigan State University, Facebook use was highly correlated with high school social capital, interactions with preexisting connections (as opposed to forming new ones), and increased social capital overall for those with relatively low self-esteem and school satisfaction. The researchers acknowledged the drawbacks of self-response measures, and suggest pairing survey methods with actual measures of use (assessing Facebook Profiles themselves).
In a later study by Ellison et al; (2007), a quantitative analysis of over 30,000 MSU Facebook Profiles examined the relationship between the amount and types of information presented in Facebook Profiles and the number of Friends in one’s network. A strong positive correlation was found between the two factors, particularly with the inclusion of more verifiable information (such as high school, AIM screenname, and birthday). The results are discussed through the lens of how individuals use Profile elements as signals in order to establish common frames of reference, thus reducing the cost of searching and enhancing communication between interactants. The study focuses largely on the visible behaviors of information revelation, and the researchers acknowledged that a major limitation was a lack of understanding of the attitudes toward and motivations for such behaviors, which could be investigated through interview methods.
A recent study by Dwyer (2007) employed just this method in an exploration of student use of online social networking sites and instant messaging. A panel of six undergraduates conducted semi-structured interviews of 19 college students, inquiring about issues such as self-presentation, dependency for sociality, anonymity and expectations of privacy. In the final discussion, the researchers defined an underlying framework of connections: communication technology features enable interpersonal relationship management, which is influenced in turn by individual attitudes (such as impression management and privacy concerns). While my research indeed supports this basic framework, it expands upon it to examine the formation of communities based on shared tastes.
The issue of taste was explored in an extensive project developed by Liu, Maes, and Davenport (2006), who discussed the performative, self-conscious nature of publicizing one’s personal profile in online communities. The researchers coded the Interests of over 100,000 Profiles on Friendster and Orkut in order to create a "taste fabric" of these social networks. In so doing, they created a virtual geography based on shared tastes, marked by "identity hubs," "taste neighborhoods," and "taste cliques," finding a common unifying aesthetic among individuals’ Interests. This research provides support for online communities as uniting geographically dispersed individuals based on shared cultural tastes. Based largely on the theory of Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halto (1981), that the self is a construction of the "symbolic environment" that both echoes and reinforces her identity, the research also supports the idea that the construction of identities in general is a largely interactive process. I highlight this study as one example of how scholarship in this field often serves to reinforce unifying, empirical theories that ignore the experiential nuances of the medium and the forms of agency it enables; there is little research that focuses on why individuals engage with online social networks and how they interpret their experiences.
As the popularity of "Web 2.0" continues to skyrocket, researchers from various academic disciplines (such as sociology, psychology, linguistics, and media studies) attempt to shed light on the relationship between the Internet and society. While such studies serve well to illuminate general trends and highlight issues of public interest, they overwhelmingly lack nuanced understandings of why people are motivated to engage with this medium in the ways that they do, and many of them have called upon ethnographic and interview-based studies as productive avenues for future research. Nevertheless, the issues highlighted by previous scholarship came to guide many of my early inquiries on the subject, expanding my horizon of understanding and field of inquiry. Furthermore, in engaging deeply with previous work, the grand narratives underlying them became apparent, allowing me to distinguish some of the established assumptions at play.
By giving voice to those who choose to represent themselves online, including myself, I have sought to foster a deeper understanding of the complexities that arise in everyday conversations with others involved in this new medium, such as the ways in which the Internet challenges notions of space and time, public and private, self-representation, interpersonal communication, and the credibility of information. Such an endeavor seeks to question the boundaries of how we understand the world, in the process elucidating the spaces betwixt and between such boundaries that give rise to new possibilities for re-interpretation of the experiences that these new technologies enable.
However, pure description of how others talk about online social networks would be but a superficial approach to ethnography. From the phenomenological point of view, the "truth" of ethnography lies in the interpretation of lived experiences, and is always partial. Such an endeavor is problematized by the author’s own re-interpretation of described experiences, a process that is undoubtedly influenced by the anthropological quest for authoritatively representing the "other." The tradition of composing these reinterpretations into a generalizing, authoritative theory is precisely the flaw, from Heidegger’s point of view, of the phenomenological reduction. He contends that in order to truly understand something one must begin, not with ideal structures, but rather with everyday experiences of things as they show themselves. Therefore, it is only through immersion in the shared world of online social networks that I can claim to know anything at all- the basic premise of ethnography. Even then, perceptions are influenced by one’s own position and interests, and thus this ethnography is necessarily to some degree "autoethnography," as I seek to interpret my own experiences. This reflexive interpretation takes into account the described and observed experiences of others, the role of popular discourse, and the impact of prior knowledge and historical precedents. Such an ethnography finds its value, not in enumerating an empirical structure informed by hierarchical representation, but rather in examining how these new and emergent interactions with technology are deeply entrenched in prior forms of human communication and representation.
Computer-mediated communication is like speech in that it allows for casual, convenient, and immediate interactions. Additionally, it shares several aspects of written communication in its potential for permanency, replicability, and transcendence of spatial and temporal constraints. It is evident that a deeper and more nuanced approach to understanding this new medium would entail elucidating the parallels between current and past communicative practices. The pervasive belief that online experiences indicate a turn away from direct, unmediated experiences of the world ignores that all experiences are in some way mediated. Rather, online social networking is indicative of a qualitative shift in the ways in which some people construct their identities and relationships with others. As such, the topic is best understood firsthand, and best analyzed through the lens of qualitative description.
The rapidly evolving nature of web technologies can be dizzying to the researcher. The Internet mirrors and magnifies the social world, which is always changing and adapting to new situations and developments as they arise. The very notion of "community" is one that is constantly in flux, for "community" is easily eroded as sites become more popular, less directly useful, and as new niches arise and break off of the larger community. As Derrida noted, "contrary to what phenomenology- which is always phenomenology of perception- has tried to make us believe, contrary to what our desire cannot fail to be tempted into believing, the thing itself always escapes (Derrida 1979: 104)." From this point of view, it is impossible to articulate the meaning of experiences, for in order to do so we must grant false stability to that which is inherently always in flux. To frame it in the dialogue between Heidegger and Husserl: fulfillment of experiences, the ideal of categorial intuition, is not the "true" nature of phenomena, for there is always room for still further interpretation of any experience.
It has become clear to me that the value of this ethnography lies in elucidating the myriad shifting possibilities that emerge in the highly intersubjective field of everyday discourse. As my research has deepened, the one thread that ties these discourses together is the pervasive feelings of anxiety evoked by the blurred boundaries between subject and object, voyeur and exhibitionist, human and machine, reality and imagination. All technologies extend the possibilities of humankind, and in turn, they become appropriated and embedded in everyday experiences. However, at times technologies may seem alien and incomprehensible, instigating fear and a sense of powerlessness. The sense of agency felt as one "types oneself into being" through the creation of a publicly viewable online profile can quickly be negated by the discovery that this personal freedom comes with the cost of possible persecution by unintended audiences, such as potential employers and legal authorities. What occurs is a splitting of selfhood, a temporal shift of identity from intentional author to victimized object of the gaze.
Despite the existential anxieties that arise frequently in everyday conversation, many celebrate the Internet for its potential to democratize information. The perceptual difference between democratization and invasion of personal privacy lies in whether individuals perceive themselves as having some degree of control over the medium, or conversely, tend to experience the medium as having control over them. A common way of regaining control and agency when confronting one’s own powerlessness is with words and thoughts, projecting apathy or distaste and finding affirmation through others.
Feeling a loss of connection to her adolescent brother, my friend described him as "consumed by MySpace, his gaze never turning from the computer screen." For her brother, it is likely that MySpace conveniently fulfills his youthful desire to hang out in a safe space, away from the judgemental gaze of his family. Rather than explaining his disconnection from the family as a negative effect of new technologies, the situation can be more deeply analyzed in terms of discursive methods of power. To reject or criticize is to reclaim one’s subjectivity, or at least portray oneself as the author of one’s own meanings. Thus, technology, unable to speak for itself, has time and again become the scapegoat for generalizing theories of modernism- identified as the cause of the growth of individualism and the erosion of communal, social ties. My goal in this ethnography is to juxtapose a variety of representations- scholarly, historical, technological, autobiographical, institutional, and popular- with the subjective accounts of those who engage with online social networking sites as regular facets of everyday life.
For roughly half my life, I have been an avid enthusiast of the Internet and a member of a wide variety of online communities- in short, I am a "digital native" (Prensky 2001). Unlike most established scholars in this field, I was an active participant in the sites I have chosen to study well before I began researching them academically. My interest in online ethnography began quite suddenly and voraciously in the spring of my junior year (2006). Having declared a double major in psychology and anthropology the previous year, my schedule that semester consisted of three psychology courses (Psychological Measurement, Cultural Psychology, and a Seminar in Eating Disorders) and two anthropology courses (Making Anthropological Video and Youth Culture). For the first time, I was to conduct semester-long research projects of my own design.
My final project for "Youth Culture" was an ethnographic analysis of Wesleyan Facebook users. The paper began with a brief overview of the history of social networking on the Internet, and developed into a description of the many functions and the organizational structure of the Facebook. Firstly, I positioned Facebook as a virtual representation of an existing "real life" community- the Wesleyan campus. Through interviews and auto-ethnographic analysis, I explored issues of image management and perceptions of the role that Facebook plays in the lives of Wesleyan students. Other topics included notions of privacy (or lack thereof), media controversy surrounding the Facebook, concerns over narcissism and voyeurism, social pressure to be a part of the Wesleyan Facebook community, and control over one’s life through this virtual and visual medium. Aside from interviews and auto-ethnography, segments of the actual Facebook Profiles of respondents were incorporated to supplement the analysis. This medium frames individual and group identity in what can be rather limiting ways, and thus I stressed how people used sarcasm, irony, wit, and misrepresentation as strategies to work around or subvert these limitations.
In the "Seminar on Eating Disorders," I conducted research on the role of online diary communities in the lives of individuals afflicted with eating disorders. Using ethnographic analysis and interview methods, my partner and I examined nine different LiveJournal communities, as well as the Eating Disorders and Body Image Circle on OpenDiary. Although previous research had been conducted on pro-anorexia websites, no research had been done that examined the impact of online eating disorder communities like those we analyzed. Some of the issues addressed were: self-presentation; the role of "noters" (those commenting on the diaries of others); positive versus negative feedback; support; "rules" and goals; images and photographs; themes; implications for future studies; and demographic factors such as age, gender, and location. From the nine communities I posed questions to, I received thirty-seven detailed responses. Given the convenient, accessible, and inexpensive nature of the Internet, its potential for therapeutic purposes is substantial. However, there is also an enormous potential for abuse: many of these communities define themselves as pro-eating disorder, and individuals looking for such support can easily find it in this environment. The anonymity of the Internet, in this case, proved to be invaluable in my social research on individuals who identify themselves in relationship to these communities and the "safe spaces" they form.
By the end of that semester, I felt as though I had truly begun to establish my niche in the realm of academia as an anthropologist of the Internet. As I entered my senior year, I embraced my new role as Internet researcher with gusto, and decided to apply for the combined BA/MA program offered by Wesleyan’s anthropology department. Two of the four courses I’d enrolled in that semester (Anthropology of Dance and Qualitative Research Methods in Psychology) allowed me to once again craft lengthy research projects of my own design; once again, I devised projects based in online ethnography.
In "The Anthropology of Dance," Professor Kolcio challenged us to explore new ways of doing social research. In exploring the global phenomenon that is the modern psytrance movement, I posed a series of questions regarding the nature of trance dance, community, and transcendent/ecstatic states on several Tribe trance groups. I received well over thirty fascinating replies, ranging from intellectual assessments of trance dance to pure poetry. The implications for researching global phenomena through online ethnography were explored, as well as the risks and limitations of engaging with respondents through this virtual medium. The issue of embodiment is a very pertinent question in the realm of online research and virtuality. How can a community be formed outside of physical space and displaced from traditional notions of time? Additionally, I drew from what I had learned in my own experiences with psytrance, as well as what I had learned from psytrance communities on Tribe, by creating such events in my own space, amongst my own immediate community.
For "Qualitative Research Methods," I conducted interviews with Wesleyan students regarding the impact of Facebook on their daily lives. I was concerned with three questions in particular: What practical role does Facebook play in an individual’s life? How does it affect her social relationships? How does it affect self-identity and perceptions of other identities? My engagement with this class illuminated much about how methodologically and ethically to go about doing online research and conducting interviews. In contrast to my previous research on Facebook, these interviews were with self-selected individuals and far more in-depth, allowing respondents to discuss issues of importance to them, as well as tell stories they found applicable to my research project, as they understood it. Some points of interest are: the language people use in discussing Facebook; the trend among incoming freshmen who eagerly awaited their Wesleyan e-mail address solely to register themselves "officially" in the Wesleyan Facebook community; the role of Facebook as a necessary tool for communication and practical information; and the role of Facebook in generating gossip and enabling surveillance.
The following semester, I was officially accepted into the BA/MA program and began my thesis research in earnest. To begin, I set up a blog I titled "WebnographY," in which I posted my summaries and notes of the books and articles I read that were related to my research . Additionally, the blog was used to record my random thoughts and experiences, link to my past research projects, and to solidify my emerging identity as an anthropologist of the Internet by serving as the website URL linked to my signature when commenting on related forum threads and blog posts. By the end of my senior year, I had completed an extensive literature review that dealt with a variety of topics highlighted by past research of online communities: methodological issues and ethics; virtual identity formation; social, cultural, and sub-cultural capital; and popular discourses framing the Internet in utopian or dystopian perspectives.
Since creating my blog a year ago, it’s been visited by over 1,300 people and has also been referenced on the blogs of others conducting online ethnography (such as Alexander Knorr’s research on Second Life) as well as on the online syllabus for UC Berkeley’s course on social media. One visitor to my blog sent me an e-mail asking if she could reference one of my papers in her own undergraduate research on Facebook, while another recently inquired as to whether I’d be interested in speaking at a conference entitled "Gender and Technology" at Rutgers University this spring. By maintaining an informative blog of my ongoing research, I’ve come to feel a strong affinity with an online community of those interested in the anthropology of social media. In the near future, I aim to create a website that will allow me to freely publish this thesis online and aggregate a diverse array of resources for those interested in learning more about this field of research.
Years ago, I endeavored to learn Swahili and travel to Zanzibar for ethnographic fieldwork. As I became engaged with the actual practice of writing ethnography, however, it became clear to me that writing the "other" would always feel somewhat wrong to me, a condescending mode of knowledge. When I wrote my first paper on Facebook back in the spring of 2006, I was struck by the way in which my own experiences resonated in my writing, how the words of others challenged and complicated my perspective with layers of meaning. In other words, I became aware of the ethnographic authority implicit in my own position as a "native" of an emergent "other." Eventually, the real struggle became that of subverting such a perceived authority in pursuit of deep listening- of practicing empathetic, temporal re-interpretations of my interpretations. It is easy to say in theory, but difficult to show in practice. It is my belief that the next stage of human knowledge is the expansion of a process of co-construction of knowledge, enabled through widespread access to technology and the emergence of truly interactive and immediate forms of communication that also allow for archival and easy reference ("searchability"). As such, I have teamed up with several Facebook scholars to create a website that would ideally bring to life the co-constructive nature of this project by enabling further co-authorship in the form of a wiki .
The first section of this study provides an historical background for the emergence of the contemporary online practices of computer-mediated communication discussed in this thesis. In Chapter One, I briefly sketch the development of modern communications media, beginning with the popularization of the Gutenberg printing press in the era of nation-building that marked 18th century Europe. I go on to look at the Industrial Revolution, and to trace the relations of the middle class to new media technologies over the 20th century and into the 21st. In the second portion of this chapter, I provide an historical overview of the development of computer-mediated communication over the past half-century, elucidating points of comparison and departure from prior forms of communications media.
Chapter Two traces the development of Tribe, MySpace, and Facebook over the past five years, beginning with a description of some of the earlier popular websites that defined the social networking genre. By tracing the histories of these sites, I aim to demonstrate how popular attitudes have changed over time, marked by particular events that have evoked controversy, opposition, and anxiety. While all three sites are modeled on granting users the ability to create a virtual private space, they have at times violated the trust of their members by implementing features and policies that disintegrate the boundaries between public and private, moderating or censoring the content that can be displayed, or attending to the exploitive interests of commercial enterprises.
In the third chapter I explore my own experiences with the Internet and the various roles online communication has played in my life since I first encountered the medium over ten years ago. In so doing, I seek to explicate the complex ways in which these technologies both shape and are shaped by everyday understandings of self-identity, relationships with others, and membership in various kinds of communities. This chapter sets the stage for what I consider to be the most important contribution of this research: an emphasis on the subjective experiences of individuals as they adopt and integrate this medium into their everyday social practices.
In the latter half of this thesis, I turn the lens from myself to the stories of others engaged with my particular sites of focus: MySpace, Facebook, and Tribe. Chapter Four examines some of the anxieties and dystopian views expressed by my informants. The vertical gazes of legal authorities, commercial enterprises, and other unintended audiences threaten to expose or exploit members’ personal information. Longstanding student concerns with popularity, authenticity, and romance are expressed in new ways on these sites, which many criticize as lacking authenticity, contributing to the deterioration of face-to-face communication, and promoting narcissism and voyeurism.
In Chapter Five, I discuss the various pleasures and utopian visions described by participants. By interacting in these virtual private spaces, members can experiment with their identities, engage in transgressive acts, and foster a sense of communal belonging. These sites enable the promotion and circulation of various forms of user-generated content, ranging from photo albums to home videos, across boundaries of time and space. Some believe that these technological advances have arrived just in time to salvage community as the world descends into the destructive forces of modernism, advocating a return to humanity’s ancient "tribal" roots.
Chapter Six explores another possible future scenario for online social networks: the "digital graveyard." Through observation and ethnographic analysis, I examine the phenomenon of memorializing the online profiles of deceased individuals. In such cases, the "virtual campfire" metaphor can be applied to the ways in which memorialized profiles become public and permanent while simultaneously creating an intimate space for collective remembrance. While these factors may result in profanation of this sacred space, they also extend the possibilities for commemoration in unique ways. Ultimately, I suggest that members of online social networking sites take into account the possibility that their virtual identities may quite suddenly come to serve as "digital graves," potentially permanent encapsulations of lives as they were lived online.
I encourage readers to peruse the Appendices as they are needed: Appendix A provides a glossary of some of the potentially unfamiliar Internet terms and jargon I refer to on occasion. In Appendix B, I have selected portions of my own Profiles on MySpace, Facebook, and Tribe, as well as the personalized "homepages" that greet members upon login, so as to provide a reference for those unfamiliar with the sites. My online Profiles have developed as I became more involved in these networks, reflecting my current desire for creative self-expression through these media. Appendix C contains a descriptive list of and links to recommended resources for those interested in learning more about online social networking, including links to my own Web presences.
© Jenny Ryan 2008