The Virtual Campfire: An Ethnography of Online Social Networking [online]

I’ve been a bad blogger recently, and hardly a functional human being- this state of total liminality is both extraordinarily liberating and incredibly frustrating. I graduate on Sunday. If you would like to experience the fruits of my yearlong labors, I encourage you to check out the electronic version of my thesis, which I plan to add interactive features to in the future (I’m thinking more along the lines of a wiki than this rather average website). If you do read it, drop me a line and let me know what you think! I’m always eager to hear fresh perspectives and related stories.


A thesis submitted to the Faculty of Wesleyan University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in Anthropology.

Based on five years of participant-observation on the social networking sites MySpace, Facebook, and, The Virtual Campfire explores the increasingly blurred boundaries between human and machine, public and private, voyeurism and exhibitionism, the history of media and our digitized future. Woven throughout are the stories and experiences of those who engage with these sites regularly and ritualistically, the generation of “digital natives” whose tales attest to the often strange and uncomfortable ways online social networking sites have come to be embedded in the everyday lives of American youth.

Thesis as Academic Marathon

Last week, I finally sent in my thesis, which with appendices currently stands at 234 pages. I’ve been celebrating ever since, finally released from the constant strain I’d been under all year. The best comparison I’ve found for relating my experience is that of a marathon. I was a competitive distance runner in high school, and it would seem I transferred that competitive energy and masochistic endurance into my academic life. By “masochistic endurance,” I mean: the intentional sacrifice of the body’s needs for the sake of continually moving forward; when the brain separates from the body so as to control it, rather than being controlled by it-

ie- survival mode

Looking back, I see that the stress I put myself under, however much I rationalized the need for it, took a serious toll on my health, and ultimately affected every other realm of my life in the process. Take this blog, for example. I had all but abandoned it this past month, and for the most part it has been mostly a repository of snippets of my thesis and musings related to my research. In focusing my energies on the single-minded pursuit of one aspect of my life, I became unwell and overwhelmed.

The isolation I felt, despite the efforts of my friends and loved ones to support me, crept in during the loneliest hours- usually around dawn after spending a dozen hours at my desk. I recall searching the Web for stories of those in my position, looking for guidance and hope, or at least some solid advice on just when too much is too much. I couldn’t find a lot, but what I did find helped me immensely. Now that I’ve a clearer head, I thought I ought to do my part in returning the favor. What follows are some realizations I had to learn the hard way (damn), but maybe you won’t have to (sweet!):

One thing I realized is that staying awake for too long without pausing for rest is a huge time-waster. I would spend hours in a state of half-consciousness, struggling to put words to my increasingly scattered thoughts. Especially after 24 hours, my attention span and ability to articulate began to decline abruptly. Sleep is necessary. Your body cannot, in fact, be separated from your mind, no matter how much we wish it to be so.

I found it especially easy to rationalize such self-destructive behavior thanks to the discourse that surrounds university life. While my rational self knew I was in need of such human comforts as sleep and social activity, my competitive spirit clung to the vision fed to me through my environment and media consumption. That “vision” is in fact an irrational ideal of a superhuman superbrain. Now that I’ve stepped back from it a bit, it’s not nearly as alluring as it once was, this “success.” Success is happiness, and happiness comes about through wellness and ALLEVIATION, rather than perpetuation, of stress.

One thing that got me through during my frequent bouts of losing confidence was having mentors, in their various guises. Here I’ll take the opportunity to plug the potentially awesome benefits of this new “social web”- I was able to befriend and communicate with a variety of researchers and authors who might be considered experts, and their advice for me was enormously motivational. Inspiration and hope can be derived from even the briefest of exchanges at times. Reaching out is easier than ever.

Nevertheless, I cannot stress enough (heh) the incredible importance of grooming one another- face-to-face interaction cannot be replaced by any means. It is easy enough to become a hermit, but from my experience, we need others in order to keep it real. It is easy, also, through the process of isolation, to grow bitter of the world and to see yourself as separate and alone, a martyr. This past week has been one of reintegration; I now see that my biggest mistake this past year was neglecting so much of what makes me happy- people, especially- but I am lucky to realize now that the love had been waiting for me to return the entire time.

Writing that brought to mind the Desiderata, which I read every new year’s eve. That seems like a good note to end on- blunt simplicity.

Desiderata – Max Ehrmann

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.

As far as possible, without surrender,
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even to the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons;
they are vexatious to the spirit.

If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain or bitter,
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs,
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals,
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love,
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment,
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life,
keep peace in your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.