Review of The Digital Campfire – An Ethnography of Online Social Networking

On: September 17, 2009
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About Gwen Keupe
Gwen Keupe is a New Media Master student at the University of Amsterdam. She graduated her Bachelors degree with a thesis titled 'One Million Strong for Barack - Openness and involvement through online deliberation'. Her research interests lie within online social networks and the way people use them to accomplish real things offline.


Ever felt guilty about spending so much time online, browsing through your friends Facebook pages and leaving them massages on their walls? No need for that anymore, this is what we’ve been doing for centuries and it can actually help you establish intimate relationships, expand your knowledge of the world and help you empower yourself (or, at least, in some cases).

Jennifer Anne Ryan argues in her Master  thesis (in Anthropology) entitled ‘The Virtual Campfire – An Ethnography of Online Social Networking’ (2008), that the way we participate within online social network sites greatly resembles the way our early human ancestors gathered around campfires, told stories, shared experiences and tried to make sense of their place in the world.

Through the use of online social networks, Ryan argues, we again find ourselves sitting close to a campfire with friends, family and people we have just met. Only this time, we are not gathered around flickering flames, but we are gathered around flickering images on our computer screens, often accompanied by people we have never physically met.

Reviewing Ryan’s work (an ethnographic study) can not be done without giving some information about the author herself, as she often openly refers to her own online experiences and that of her (online) friends and acquaintances. Ryan calls herself a “digital native” and psytrance – lover, actively using the internet from a young age, experimenting with her (online) identity and enjoying her online venues as a young teenager away from authorative figures.

Writing her MA thesis as a student at Weselyan College (Middletown, Connecticut), she stresses the importance of having access to online social network sites as these sites function as a lifeline in getting in contact with (future) classmates, (possible) romantic endeavors and on and off campus activities.

The introduction of Ryan alone immediately makes clear that social network sites are becoming a vital part of our everyday lives and her thesis is a wonderful introduction to all the relative new and sometimes confusing feelings, problems and experiences that accompany the use of social network sites.

Ryan’s research involves an exploration of three social network sites, the immense popular and and the lesser known As an active participant in all these social network sites, Ryan makes extensive use of her own experiences with these online social networks. Tribe functions as a way for her to stay connected with the underground subculture of psytrance and facilitates ways for her to express herself artistically. Facebook functions as a way to stay connected with friends and MySpace as a way to keep up with recent music developments and discussions. Ryan also writes about the role these different social network sites have in the lives of her (online) friends and acquaintances.

In ‘The Virtual Campfire – An Ethnography of Online Social Networking’ (2008) Ryan starts off by giving a historical analyses of “modern” communication technologies and gives an in depth look into the rise of Web 2.0 technologies. Web 2.0 technologies like social network sites, allow people to maintain both the strong and weak social ties within a persons life and imply new ways of looking at a persons public and private spaces.

The boundaries between ones public and private space blurres according to Ryan. And it is the blurring of these boundaries that make us ask new questions about utopian and dystopian implications of the use of the internet and especially about the problem of surveillance on social network sites.

Within social network sites, people experience a sense of belonging to the world (as our ancestors did by communication around a campfire). And people also experience a sense of surveillance (as our ancestors did when gossiping about fellow tribe members). However when communication takes place around the “virtual campfire”, surveillance becomes permanent through “top down” gazes from corporations as well as horizontal gazes from the members themselves (trancending time and space).

This notion of surveillance then, off course raises the question why people keep participating on social network sites. Ryan therefore goes deeper into the notion of pleasures and utopian ideas that come with the use of these sites like Facebook, MySpace and Tribe. Ryan writes that it is through the use of these technologies people are allowed to “reinforce individual and collective identity, extend and diversify social ties, promote their art and ideas to others, tailor their information to their particular interests and network of trustworthy referrers and potentially connect to a kind of “collective consciousness”.

The final chapter of Ryan’s thesis starts very personal (as all chapters do) as she writes about the way her family used a Wiki to keep each other updated about her grandma’s illness. She then takes the leap to write about, what she calls “virtual shrines” and the notion of empowerment. For Ryan, new media technologies like Facebook, MySpace and Tribe can actually become empowering as they function as a virtual place of remembering (not bounded by space or time). She again extends the notion of the “virtual campfire” by stating that the online profiles of the dead extend the possibilities of memory. People post messages and look at the picture of their loved ones, often in anonymity. It therefore empowers them as they articulate their feelings.

For Ryan, social network sites like Facebook, MySpace and Tribe, “combine the causality and directness of speech with the evocative presence of the visual to create the virtual campfire”. So on the one hand, we are involved in intimate relationships by using technological aides like social network sites. On the other hand, we are expanding our social universe by accumulating knowledge about the world through these new communication defuses. We are, as mentioned earlier, expanding our weaker and stronger ties and are urged to look again at our private and public spaces.

Jennifer Anne Ryan’s ‘Virtual Campfire’ is an absolute recommendation for anyone who wants to learn about the way people use social network sites and how these social network sites become part of our daily lives. Ryan’s MA thesis is recognizable, often funny, cleverly written, critical at internet culture and while doing all this, she never looses track of theory.

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