August 6, 2008

Goodbye, Blogger- Migrating to!

This is my final post on this blog, as I am excited to *finally* announce my transition to Wordpress on my own domain name- that would be JennyRyan.Net! Please update your bookmarks and your feed readers accordingly; the direct link to the blog is I'm still in the process of manually copying posts over from this blog and my old iggli blog, due to inexplicable import failures, but I look forward to spending some time developing my website.

Future plans include:
-A cyberanthropologist's toolkit, replete with links to pertinent literature, blogs, academic programs and journals.
-Publishing some of my creative writing and poetry in hyperlinked-labyrinth form.
-Addendum chapters to my thesis, The Virtual Campfire, in which I will reflect upon: the uses of Facebook post-college; the role of in the formation and display of subcultural capital; and the role of social networking sites in the 2008 Presidential election.
-A collaborative web-based art project centered on connecting the art, music, and writing of talented friends and acquaintances, and potentially engendering new forms of creative expression in cyberspace.

I suppose it all still falls within the somewhat-undefined umbrella term "Webnography," but for now and as of late I have been merely musing. The only thing that ever remains the same, is my name.

Chameleon-ly Yours,
Jenny Ryan (.net!)

July 21, 2008

Remaking the Mirror

Perhaps it's but a personality trait, but I find myself decidedly undecided, residing in a constant state of indecision. For better or worse, I turn to the steady hum of the interweb for inspiration. Going out to dinner entails a lengthy perusal of online reviews (three cheers for yelp!). My life decisions, beginning most memorably with the college search since the advent of high school, are group decisions. This is not to say people have not always been composed of their collective interactions (read: culture), but that this process is occurring in new ways that have yet to be understood and categorically ordered into consciousness.

For as much as we are conduits of culture, we are also its composers. Being as it is the dawn of a new era of mediated communication, we are in prime position to create new memes for future generations. This is imperative, for as anyone tapped into the collective neural net knows (and that's everybody, to varying forms and degrees), the world is in a deep malaise that, while it may never be undone, must be remade. Degunk the junk and foster the funk.

Through the mirror, darkly sinister forms abound. The websites I have been researching glamorize "stupid spoiled whores," revel in misanthropy, and celebrate self-mutilation. This is the ugly underbelly of a jaded generation, saturated with the soulless machine of a media industry gone mad. Eventually, one would imagine, we will reach satiation and revolt against this funhouse mirror of our society. That is to say, we may and must remake the mirror.

Here we stand, poised at the precipice of a new era of information flow. The simple existence of these websites is telling: with the ever-evolving tools of the interweb, the ever-increasing population of the digitized can join the conversation. Little surprise it is that we converse online in the same way we converse offline: we gossip about others, consume media and talk about it, create representations of ourselves through performative acts, confess our darkest secrets and innermost longings in the sanctuary of like-minded others...

And, like in life, some clamber for soapbozes where they may espouse prolifically to a mostly unseen (but potentially vast) audience, while many lurk about, not wishing to be heard but willing to absorb. Though most of us be sheep, theories regarding the wisdom of the crowd contend that diluting and diversifying such a crowd will increase the chances of its survival.

In order to survive, we need to be critical producers of alternative points of view. This post was originally inspired by the research I'm conducting on pro-self harm websites; having sussed out the black-and-white, the extremes, I've moved on to the nuanced middle ground. In this space that is neither supportive of self-destruction nor condemning of such a perspective, there are emerging voices that seek to not only reflexively examine the issue as it stands, but to redefine the very definition of "pro-self harm." Not supportive of the disordered habits that are the coping mechanisms for our culture, but supportive of those who are clearly in need of support most of all. Effective support entails not only empathy and understanding, but strong voices (herders, if you will) with the capacity to critique our disorderly conduct and call new memes into being. So clamber on up, to the top of the search results, redefine the folksonomy, and remake that mirror (repetition numero tres).

Consider this a call to action.

Some inspiration:
mamaVISION: Highly controversial (read: popular) personal blog of a 30-something ex-model turned mother, dedicated to spreading awareness of our eating disordered society and empathetically communicating with the sufferers themselves.

We Bite Back: Post-pro-ana - Postmodernizing the discussion of eating disorders and encouraging recovery.

Suicide: Read This First: Another form of "pro-suicide"- offering empathetic understanding and resources.

Self-Injury: A Struggle: Longstanding site devoted to spreading awareness and cultivating a community of support for self-injurers, created by a fellow self-injurer.

July 18, 2008

Book Review: The Powerbook, by Jeanette Winterson

"The world is a mirror of the mind's abundance,"
is typed alone to a page near the end of this novel.

What Winterson makes abundantly clear is the true process of storytelling, a process that abstracts the past and remaps the future. Our heroine, Ali, taps out stories for her customers, sent through the ethereal interweb in pursuit of such an impact: "freedom, just for one night."

As much as the story shifts so does she, hurtled through the lives of fairy tales past, retold again and again in various guises. Through such shifting of the story, for which the screen is a conduit, we find a metaphor for the ever-fluxing selves in which history and memory are contained:

There are so many lives packed into one. The one life we think we know is only a window that is open on the screen. The big window full of detail, where the meaning is often lost among the facts. If we can close that window, on purpose or by chance, what we find behind is another view.

This window is emptier. The cross-references are cryptic. As we scroll down it, looking for something familiar, we seem to be scrolling into another self- one we recognize but cannot place. The coordinates are missing, or the coordinates pinpoint us outside the limits of our existence.

If we move further back, through a smaller window that is really a gateway, there is less and less to measure ourselves by. We are coming into a dark region. A single word might appear. An icon. This icon is a private Madonna, a guide, an understanding. Very often we remember it from our dreams. "Yes," we say, "Yes, this is a world. I have been here." It comes back to us like a scent from childhood.

These lives of ours that press in on us must be heard.

We are our own oral history. A living memoir of time.

Time is downloaded into our bodies. We contain it. Not only time past and time future, but time without end. We think of ourselves as closed and finite, when we are multiple and infinite.

This life, the one we know, stands in the sun. It is our daytime and the stars and planets that surround it cannot be seen. The sense of other lives, still our own, is clearer to us in the darkness of night or in our dreams. Sometimes a total eclipse shows us in the day what we cannot usually see for ourselves. As our sun darkens, other brilliancies appear. And there is the strange illusion of looking over our shoulder and seeing the sun racing towards us at two thousand miles an hour.

What is it that follows me wherever I go?

Not that the self be shaken loose, but that it be found, reassembled, in the process of remembrance itself. Which is to say: I am the sum of parts, artifacts of time, indulgent fantasies and messier proclivities. And in this space, here and now, I am neither man nor woman but as yet an alien voice, hanging in makeshift space.

That said, I must say that this novel is reminiscent of my adolescent online diary: a tangled, messy, yet occasionally brilliant jumble of bits and pieces devoted to the wistful myth of romantic love. While the perfect companion to 20-minute subway rides, the writing here is oft redundant and cliched. Still, an inspiration for a new era of writing and reading.

July 16, 2008

between a rock and a space place:

when eyes meet there is a flash of understanding.
where within the screen do we find our mirror neurons firing forth?
pay attention
to the data.
taken together in infinite intricate interactions
of form and meaning,
we create a tapestry of makeshift sighs, high fives, smiles, shared laughter;
we remake the mirror daily.
intrigue takes us to the source.
swim liminal we shall through life's watery edges,
and take time and care to trim the hedges.
(so coax and buzz the furry fuzz,
for useless is as useless does)

July 8, 2008

the most beautiful thing that i ever read... the introduction to e.e. cummings' collected works. i read it many years ago, and pull it up whenever i need a reminder as to why i live the way i do - in the pursuit of being continually reborn, in the refusal to settle for anything less than a little more than everything, with the acceptance that i don't quite "fit" and never will, dedicated to truths found only by my own accord- pardon my tendency to manifestos, but you'll see what i mean. enjoy!


The poems to come are for you and for me and are not for mostpeople-- it's no use trying to pretend that mostpeople and ourselves are alike. Mostpeople have less in common with ourselves than the squarerootofminusone. You and I are human beings;mostpeople are snobs. Take the matter of being born. What does being born mean to mostpeople? Catastrophe unmitigated. Socialrevolution. The cultured aristocrat yanked out of his hyperexclusively ultravoluptuous superpalazzo,and dumped into an incredibly vulgar detentioncamp swarming with every conceivable species of undesirable organism. Mostpeople fancy a guaranteed birthproof safetysuit of nondestructible selflessness. If mostpeople were to be born twice they'd improbably call it dying--

you and I are not snobs. We can never be born enough. We are human beings;for whom birth is a supremely welcome mystery,the mystery of growing:which happens only and whenever we are faithful to ourselves. You and I wear the dangerous looseness of doom and find it becoming. Life,for eternal us,is now'and now is much too busy being a little more than everything to seem anything,catastrophic included.

Life,for mostpeople,simply isn't. Take the socalled standardofliving. What do mostpeople mean by "living"? They don't mean living. They mean the latest and closest plural approximation to singular prenatal passivity which science,in its finite but unbounded wisdom,has succeeded in selling their wives. If science could fail,a mountain's a mammal. Mostpeople's wives could spot a genuine delusion of embryonic omnipotence immediately and will accept no substitutes.

-luckily for us,a mountain is a mammal. The plusorminus movie to end moving,the strictly scientific parlourgame of real unreality,the tyranny conceived in misconception and dedicated to the proposition that every man is a woman and any woman is a king,hasn't a wheel to stand on. What their synthetic not to mention transparent majesty, mrsandmr collective foetus,would improbably call a ghost is walking. He isn't a undream of anaesthetized impersons, or a cosmic comfortstation,or a transcedentally sterilized lookiesoundiefeelietastiesmellie. He is a healthily complex,a naturally homogenous,citizen of immorality. The now of his each pitying free imperfect gesture,his any birth of breathing,insults perfected inframortally milleniums of slavishness. He is a little more than everything,he is democracy;he is alive:he is ourselves.

Miracles are to come. With you I leave a remembrance of miracles: they are somebody who can love and who shall be continually reborn,a human being;somebody who said to those near him,when his fingers would not hold a brush "tie it to my hand"--

nothing proving or sick or partial. Nothing false,nothing difficult or easy or small or colossal. Nothing ordinary or extraordinary,nothing emptied or filled,real or unreal;nothing feeble and known or clumsy and guessed. Everywhere tints childrening,innocent spontaneaous,true. Nowhere possibly what flesh and impossibly such a garden,but actually flowers which breasts are amoung the very mouths of light. Nothing believed or doubted;brain over heart, surface:nowhere hating or to
fear;shadow,mind without soul. Only how measureless cool flames of making;only each other building always distinct selves of mutual entirely opening;only alive. Never the murdered finalities of wherewhen and yesno,impotent nongames of wrongright and rightwrong;never to gain or pause,never the soft adventure of undoom,greedy anguishes and cringing ecstasies of inexistence;never to rest and never to have;only to grow.

Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question

July 7, 2008

Select your sex!- er, gender? Wait isn't this the internet?

A couple of days ago, the following message popped up on my Facebook homepage and has yet to disappear:

It would seem those who choose not to identify as "his" or "her" has become an issue of some urgency for Facebook. They've written a blog post about the issue:

As Facebook grows in other languages, we are learning a lot about what the "Facebook Experience" is like for people around the world. One of the first challenges was getting words that are really long in other languages to fit on the screen properly. Recently, we've been figuring out how to deal with a new challenge—grammar. Ever see a story about a friend who tagged "themself" in a photo? "Themself" isn't even a real word. We've used that in place of "himself or herself". We made that grammatical choice in order to respect people who haven't, until now, selected their sex on their profile. However, we've gotten feedback from translators and users in other countries that translations wind up being too confusing when people have not specified a sex on their profiles. People who haven't selected what sex they are frequently get defaulted to the wrong sex entirely in Mini-Feed stories. For this reason, we've decided to request that all Facebook users fill out this information on their profile. If you haven't yet selected a sex, you will probably see a prompt to choose whether you want to be referred to as "him" or "her" in the coming weeks. When you make a selection, that will appear in Mini-Feed and News Feed stories about you, but it won't be searchable or displayed in your Basic Information. We've received pushback in the past from groups that find the male/female distinction too limiting. We have a lot of respect for these communities, which is why it will still be possible to remove gender entirely from your account, including how we refer to you in Mini-Feed. We hope this change will make the Facebook experience even better across the world. Let us know if you have any thoughts about this on our suggestions page. Naomi is a Product Manager at Facebook.

Apparently it's an issue of being lost or, as the case may be, misconstrued in translation.

I didn't select a sex, just clicked 'close'; confusion regarding such things has a salubrious effect on consciousness, methinks.

July 4, 2008

Sussing Out the Issue of Pro Self-Harm Websites

I've come to a point with this Berkman/danah boyd project on pro-self harm websites where I have a reasonable grasp of the discourses surrounding the issue. Pro self-harm websites (eg; pro-eating disorder, pro-cutting, pro-suicide) are yet another example of an underground movement demonized by mass media and made into a binarized issue of battling moral agendas. However, moral panics serve the primary function of legitimizing a subculture based on rebelling against popular discourse (interestingly, Sarah Thornton is once again the scholar par excellence when it comes to youth and subculture theory).

The best studies I've read so far call for a middle-path approach. Rather than continuing to enforce the black-and-white thinking of pop journalists and those who subscribe to the disease/illness paradigm of self-harm purported by the medical industry and the field of psychiatry, these scholars call for a dialectical approach that involves empathic understanding and collaborative participation in reconstructing the meaning of "pro self-harm" from within the communities in question. In a word, ethnography.


In other news, The Virtual Campfire been getting hits from all over the world! Roger that, interest in online social networking has reached pandemic proportions :):

In Pursuit of the Bonfire

From the mid-19th century California Gold Rush to the turn-of-the-20th century cinematic fame of Hollywood, the furthest-west segment of the United States has inherited the legacy of the New Frontier. Today, the San Francisco Bay Area serves as the nexus of American utopianism, home of Silicon Valley and the dot-com frenzy, haven for hippies new and old.

I seek not to conclude my research of online social networking, but to extend its implications and apply it toward understanding the interconnected mysteries that keep me captivated by anthropology. The literature of cyberspace has quite literally predicted the future now within which we are currently living. The first step, then, is to become familiar with this literature, ranging from science fiction books and films to new ways of crafting contemporary folklore through the use of modern media technologies.

I've been chatting with James Curcio, author of Join My Cult! and, more recently, Fallen Nation. They're also on my summer reading list, and fit quite neatly into the literature I'm looking to submerge myself in (indeed, our chats have been a substantial part of the inspiration behind this post). I'm hoping to contribute to one of his new projects, Mythos Media, which seeks to produce contemporary myths in new ways through the use of new media. Thus, the second step is my own active participation in storycrafting, immersing myself in the mythology of the future-now and constructing parables utilizing new technologies.

From the open source culture of the Internet to the gift culture found at Burning Man and psytrance parties, the mythological legacy of California depicts all the essential dramaturgical elements: a paradisiacal land of angels and devils replete with struggles for power, legitimacy, and authenticity in an age where the world stands poised on the brink of apocalypse, anxiously awaiting salvation in the form of a charismatic prophet, a new world order, scientology, etc;

Or global consciousness.

The third and simultaneous step is a paper I am currently writing for an edited collection on psytrance culture, entitled Weaving the Underground Web: Neotribalism and Psytrance on
Essentially, I'm building on the segments of my thesis that dealt with and subcultural capital theory, discussing the ways in which members of utilize the site as a facilitator of local scenes as well as a conduit for the spread of a global subculture.

The culture of the New Age (defined by Steven Sutcliffe [2003] as "a diffuse collectivity of questing individuals") circulates through the intersection of a wide array of beliefs and lifestyles that coalesce with the aid of such liminal spaces as the internet and international psytrance gatherings. Today, this mythology pervades in American popular media, which circulates readily on a global scale. Proper experience of this "global underground" is thus twofold, entailing both online ethnography of as well as adventures around the world- but that will probably have to wait until I find a Ph.D program suitable for this project. That would be step four.

Comments, suggestions, conversation welcome and encouraged.

June 9, 2008

Pressing the Reset Button

I am writing from my new home in Bushwick, Brooklyn, NYC. It is a crazy little den here, but I do cherish my little office nook by the window:

Liberated from the demands of academia, I can finally feel my mind slowly unwind. Someone was describing to me how they've felt like they produced a lot more than they took in/experienced this past year, and I couldn't agree more. Gotta live life to have anything to write about in the first place.

I'm down for that.

My reading list for summer:

The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30), by Mark Baurelein - Someone recently told me I should "know my enemy" and therefore read The Cult of the Amateur. While it's probably true that I should get a handle on the arguments of the technophobes, it's hard for me to read a description like this without wincing:
According to recent reports, most young people in the United States do not read literature, visit museums, or vote. They cannot explain basic scientific methods, recount basic American history, name their local political representatives, or locate Iraq or Israel on a map. The Dumbest Generation is a startling examination of the intellectual life of young adults and a timely warning of its consequences for American culture and democracy.

Black and white thinkers always lose in the end, but I guess they make for good headlines. In case it needed to be said: the ways in which my generation acquires knowledge and information have changed. I'm looking into the Transliteracies program at UCSB that examines these changes in information-gathering behaviors, toward a process of aggregation, organization, hyperlink-hopping, public posting, and personal bookmarking.
Okay, so I'm probably not ever going to think about that book again, much less read it. But I thought I would at least shame the author publicly in the blogosphere for being such a propagandistic sellout. Straight from the mouths of the dumbest babes.

Speaking of "the dumbest generation," not to make this an ageist or political debate, but I did receive this little gem through virtue of my Facebook newsfeed. Top-quality filtering, right here:

The Soft Edge: A Natural History and Future of the Information Revolution, by Paul Levinson.
A brilliant science fiction writer and pop media pundit, Levinson's book Digital McLuhan has been one of the most influential references in my research. The Soft Edge looks to be a fascinating take on the role of communication technologies in shaping the history of man. Paul Levinson embodies everything that I hope to draw out in my own career as a writer: as intelligent as he is witty, his work as fun to read as it is thought-provoking, as prone to citing Habermas and McLuhan as he is to quote Battleatar Galactica.

Everything on the syllabus for a course by Kristen Scott called Literature and the Culture of Cyberspace, which includes James Joyce, HG Wells, William Gibson, Jorge Borges, Neal Stephenoson, and Ursula LeGuin.

May 20, 2008

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.

February 20, 2008

Arranged-Marriages Online, Social Network-Style

Several months ago, someone told me about social networking sites that function as matchmaking tools for arranging marriages- a cultural practice that is common for nearly half the world's population, including India, China, and Indonesia, as well as Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists. In a fit of brainstorming for my next research project, this conversation came to mind and I quickly discovered, an Indian version of an online dating site. Curious, I filled out a profile of my own to see what kinds of categories one could choose amongst for self-representation.

Well, first of all, it's clear that most of the profiles on the site are filled out by parents, who are traditionally responsible for the search for and approval of potential husbands and wives. Among the more salient identity markers are Religion/Community (Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Jain, Parsi, Buddhist, Jewish, "No Religion," "Spiritual- Not Religious," and "Other), Education, Profession, and Lifestyle (diet, smoking and drinking habits). Arranged-Marriages are ideally between two members of the same caste or sect, and certainly covers the gamut. Potential matches are also frequently judged by education level and profession, as well as the aforementioned "lifestyle habits," which are heavily informed by religious beliefs.

A few other things I learned about while creating a profile on the site:

• The alignment of the stars at one's birth determines if a person is a Manglik, and inquires as to one is. In Indian astrology, Mangliks are destined for difficulties in marriage. In order to balance out these negative forces, it is often suggested that a Manglik marry another Manglik, based on the idea that two negatives make a positive. Astrology in general is quite important for many Indians, especially Hindus, when it comes to marriage, and users may incorporate a variety of astrological readings in their profiles.

• Like pretty much every social networking site, one can fill in an open-ended "About Me" box. However, on this site, there is also a significant section called "About My Family." offers a few pointers for users filling out this section, the first of which suggests describing the family's outlook and approach towards life. Early on in the registration process, one could select whether her "Family Values" are traditional, moderate, or liberal. Clearly, the degree to which one's family embraces more traditional or more liberal attitudes and values has a significant effect on the matrimonial process.

• Admirably, the site also inquires about users' HIV status. Though figures place the percentage of HIV-infected people in India at a seemingly minute 0.36%, with the country's enormous population this amounts to between 2 million and 3.6 million Indians living with HIV. While there is some evidence that the rate of infection is currently declining, likely due to successful prevention and awareness campaigns, there is also plenty of evidence to the contrary. Given the rampant fear and stigmatization of HIV-positive individuals in communities everywhere, marking oneself as HIV-positive on the site likely drastically reduces one's chances at finding a spouse. However, as with both Mangliks and "Special Cases," another profile category wherein one can indicate mental and/or physical handicaps, the site makes finding others who share their "condition" a much easier process in many ways.

This semester, I am taking only one class as I complete my graduate thesis, the last class I will ever take at Wesleyan: Nationalism and the Politics of Gender and Sexuality with Professor Kauanui. Like most of the classes I've taken, I'm to conduct a semester-long research project, giving me the opportunity to conduct another mini-ethnography related to online social networking. As such, I'll be regularly posting my most pertinent and interesting findings. Stay tuned!

February 7, 2008

Hibernation and the Pursuit of Brilliance

This past month, I've sought to nourish myself through what is, for me, the most difficult period of the year. January. And I made it! I'm okay! And I've written a lot of things.

In fact, I was recently hired to join a team of bloggers, helping to create the "meat" of a pre-beta social networking site, iggli. You can check out my blog here, or by clicking on the title of this post. It's where I've been writing regularly these days. Original writing, at that.

Having shaken myself free from the noxious syndrome of reading "research" and creating headers beneath which I can conveniently categorize the perspectives of others into "anxieties" and "utopias", I have now reached what will be the butter on the bread of my thesis. That is, that which makes the dry foundation delicious. Not that ethnography is ever dry. My first chapters are rife with the stories, anecdotes, personalities, ideas that propelled me to do this research in the first place.

But now, allow me to be indulgent. I embark on a chapter I've hesitantly entitled "A Phenomenological Exploration of Online Social Networking." This is where I tell my own story, where I deeply investigate my own integration of anxieties toward and utopic visions of the Internet and its potentials and failures.

And everything else.

The past week has consisted of moving into a new apartment (where I will no longer bother touchy neighbors with my entirely nocturnal rhythm and proclivity toward human interaction and [god forbid!] music), sleeping 10-12 hours a night, and battling the obvious onset of ill health with my finest vegetarian cooking, isolation, and relaxation.

I sit before the screen now resolved to put forth a testimony founded on inner truths, desires, sadnesses, attempts to bridge the increasing divide I see between individuals and community. The Internet, for me, is the "final frontier" in which we may remake ourselves, and in so doing, contribute to the remaking of this severely damaged world.

Though, as severely damaged as it is, it is because of my overwhelming love of the stories, personalities, and lives of others that I have become so enamored with the potential for anthropological research to promote human understanding, empathy, and that elusive yet all-empowering ultimate pursuit: community, connection, the sense of belonging and the extension of selfhood.

This has been a manifesto.

December 13, 2007

Intercises of Cyberspace and Subjectivity

It has become clear to me that the value of this ethnography lies not in my description of experiences, but rather in elucidating the myriad shifting possibilities that emerge in the highly intersubjective field of discourses. 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 humanized 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 split 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 discourse, many celebrate the Internet for its potential to democratize information. The perceptual difference between the democratization of information and the invasion of personal privacy lies in the degree of power individuals perceive themselves as having over the medium, as well as the extent to which they feel the medium has power 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, my friend described her adolescent brother 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 space safe, away from the judging gaze of his family. To reject or criticize is to reclaim one’s subjectivity, or at least portray oneself as the author of one’s own meanings.

Years ago, I endeavored to learn Swahili and travel to Zanzibar for 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, condescending. 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 realized the ethnographic authority 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. As such, I have concocted plans for 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 . Rather than simply purporting a “native” interpretation, such an ethnography incorporates the voices of “other natives” as well as “others”. As for now? I no longer have a working title. That, too, must emerge out of the thematic coalescence of the many stories and experiences that demand still further interpretation.

December 12, 2007

Facebook is Evil. Whatever.

The following was initially a comment on danah boyd's recent post discussing Facebook's "slippery slope" of betraying its users, most recently with Project Beacon. Please share your thoughts if you have them!

"Trusting Facebook users" are generally older folk- I think they're more open to publicizing their online profiles because they're seeking to make connections, they're gaining from the public exposure and excited by all the novel possibilities. My ethnography of social networking sites primarily re/presents the voices of college students- particularly veteran Facebook users. The site started out as being a great little niche environment, so people could exchange intimate messages and upload photos from that crazy party where everyone was on a ton of drugs and so on. Then it opened up, everyone was pissed, and that's when attitudes toward Facebook started to shift.

Most first-generation Facebookers have some degree of distrust/disgust for the site, often a great deal of it. Yet they continue to use it because it's become so firmly integrated into campus social life- it's a way to easily invite people to parties and share photos from said parties, to visually organize one's social network and keep track of alumni and old high school buddies, to find out the sexuality or relationship status of that boy you've been admiring from afar. It's crucial. If you're not on Facebook, you're going to be somewhat out of the loop.

Such important social practices generally take precedence over the egregious invasions of privacy that most are highly suspicious of. The trend is not abandoning Facebook- it's far too useful. However, the site's reputation is definitely tainted, and some Facebookers are using the site to form or join groups that promote awareness of Facebook's privacy policies and petition for change. Most, however, are simply becoming more savvy and protective of their online personas; it's become increasingly common for me to be unable to access the profiles of those I'm not friends with because of that practice. Others have simply taken to deleting much of their profiles, leaving just an e-mail address, a witty or ironic comment, and maybe a funny picture. There's also a huge trend to apathetically accept that nothing can be done about it, much like how a lot of young people feel about our government.

Again, these are just observations of the changing attitudes among a specific subset of Facebook users. They know what's going on (though I would say that only the Tech-savvy blog-readers have even heard about Project Beacon- but they know their information is being used for capitalist endeavors), they're disgruntled that so much of what they do on Facebook is publicly broadcast and forever archived. Regardless of how they talk about it, however, they're still using it regularly for everyday social practices. For many, it's become as habitual to check Facebook as it is to check e-mail.

November 28, 2007

This Space is a Place Within Space

I am constantly reworking the whole. Truth be told, things have never been so gooey. I recommend clicking.

November 26, 2007

Emergence for an Update

The past six weeks have been spent throwing myself into the writing of my thesis. Currently, I have 53 pages of solid writing, and in the process have discovered an emergent structure that belies that which I'd previously been naively imposing on myself. It has become clear to me that I am able to provide a kind of phenomenological perspective that is notably absent from much of the preexisting literature on computer-mediated communication, generally, and online social networks, particularly.

I have found a lot of journalism, a lot of psychology, a lot of sociology, and various intersections of the three. Don't get me wrong, there is some great research out there, but the vast majority is either biased to some degree (not that there is such a thing as being unbiased, but that's a whole other post) or somewhat dehumanizing, Anthropology, in contrast, is the analysis of individual voices and perspectives that make up webs of meaning and power. Humanism and science spring forth and coalesce! But I digress: in tandem with the written thesis, I am also creating a website. A website that is both a blog (this blog) as well as a wiki, so as to better articulate a) my personal ethnographic and research process, and b) the various media sources involved in the construction of my knowledge (images, blogs, videos, online articles, public forums, the sites themselves, etc;).

By the way, if anyone reading this has any career advice, throw me a bone!

October 9, 2007

Mass Media Belongs to the Masses

The character of mass media has been shifting dramatically over the past century- from the one-directional consumption of television, to the dialogical (yet niche) nature of online bulletin boards, to the enormous multimedia production of today. As the tools of new media increase in accessibility and expand in ubiquity, we find ourselves in conversation with a public audience that is more or less evident.

Knowing who one's audience is can be a tricky process. Blogs, websites, and publicly-accessible online profiles entail invisible publics. The creation of Friend Lists and the implementation of privacy features restricts one's audience and enhances awareness of it. Through the lens of the social graph, we can create categorical definitions of our audiences by labeling clusters of relations.

(From the looks of it, it would appear that my social network revolves around the following sites: Wesleyan, Boston, NY, San Francisco, Washington D.C, and the Northwest US):

There is something intrinsically satisfying in visual representation that text lacks. There are also few things more desirable than that which reflects oneself, however iconically.

TouchGraph, the company behind this Facebook application, says on their website:
"Traditional search engines provide a way to sift through this data. However, the greatest insights can be achieved not by sifting, but by looking at the big picture to see how items are connected."

Just the name of the company- TouchGraph, beckons us outside of the textuality of the Internet (a quality that is becoming progressively less prominent), allowing us to grasp our wider place in the virtual world on a more intuitive level.

Such data also allows us to understand exactly how limited our individual, direct scope actually is. I predict that the practice of mirroring real-life social networks will soon become secondary to the process of producing engaging media- which, as the Internet becomes increasingly searchable, will find its place amongst wider taste fabrics. These "taste fabrics" are constructed through "word of mouth" reconfigured to the modern sense- that is, hyperlinked. In turn we may find ourselves navigating visual representations of the taste fabrics we create through our Google searches, our social networks, and our own content.

Emancipation from the material bases of inverted truth this is what the self-emancipation of our epoch consists of. This "historical mission of installing truth in the world" cannot be accomplished either by the isolated individual, or by the atomized crowd subjected to manipulation, but now as ever by the class which is able to effect the dissolution of all classes by bringing all power into the dealienating form of realized democracy, the Council, in which practical theory controls itself and sees its own action. This is possible only where individuals are "directly linked to universal history"; only where dialogue arms itself to make its own conditions victorious.
-Guy Debord

October 5, 2007

Musings on the Big Picture

I have been thinking of online social networks as pertinent examples of a generational trend, marked by the increasing appropriation of the media and proliferation of contextualized interpretations by disparate individuals, connected through shared taste fabrics that are founded, by and large, on mass media. The rise of Web 2.0 signifies a shift toward user-generated content in the form of blogs, photo albums, videos, music, niche communities, message board dialogue, playful interaction, computer media, and creative displays of identity (what I call the "mashup").

The locale of the hearth (that which is safe, secure) has shifted, from the family home theater clustered around the television to a dynamic mirror of ourselves as relational wholes, albeit individually fragmented. We have begun to bridge the gap between producers and consumers of media- increasing interactivity allows for a two-way dialogue as opposed to the directional nature of mass media.

However, all is not oral. New media is rather a hybrid of oral and written language- at once casual yet permanent, private yet public, intimate yet mediated. We are creating the media, but must not forgot the role of the media in inculcating our understandings of reality.

September 22, 2007

Plaintively Researching

These past few weeks have been a rush of novel experiences, as I reconfigure my identity in an extremely pointed way. I have been meeting so many new people, and first conversations almost inevitably touch upon my research, which is essentially what i do (who i am?) right now.

As a result, I've taken to carrying a digital voice recorder in my pocket. It's mere presence has a similar effect on me as speaking in front of a crowd of people: intense social phobia. I treat the object gingerly, awed by its potential to preserve the situation so very perfectly in a peculiar mode. Tonight, a friend who promotes his tracks on MySpace spoke of Google's vast database of categorized interest nodes, sending advertisements directed uniquely at his individual identity as derived from his web browsing habits. Google's rumored launch to "out-open" Facebook- that is to say, become the next leading online social network, is of particular interest to me, as is the increasing popularity of niche social networking sites, blogospheres, and Second Life.

September 10, 2007

Survey on Online Social Networking Habits!

I am conducting a short survey for users of Facebook, MySpace, and/or

Your participation in this survey is entirely voluntary, and you may terminate participation at any time prior to the completion of this survey without penalty. Please understand that the information you provide will be viewed only by the researcher, and that any responses published will not enable identification of me in any way.

Questions and concerns can be directed to Jenny Ryan (researcher) @
Further information and future publications can be found at

I Agree, Continue to Survey!