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McNeill (2013) suggests that “fringe societies… rely on their projected identity, or their messages within, to demonstrate their belonging” (p. 6). An example of a fringe community that has used projected identity to create a sense of belonging is the Bronies, adult male fans of the children’s cartoon My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. The Brony culture is a community born in social media that has transitioned to an in-person experience. Bronies have a broad social media presence, with many online communities formed around Brony culture. To represent the community, I have chosen the website What is a Brony? (http://whatisabrony.com), which gives an overview of Brony culture and links to other Brony communities. For this discussion, I will examine how the Brony community was made possible by the nature of social media, how the community developed and represents its own culture, and how those outside the community contribute to the identity. I suggest that Brony culture is an example of digital symbiosis that is made possible by the nature of communication and identity in social media.
Bronies are born of the Internet and social media. In 2010, the Hub network launched the animated series My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. The show was aimed at young girls, but the show found an unexpected fan base. An adult fan community of the show formed on the social media platform 4chan (http://4chan.org), “an image-based bulletin board” (4chan, 2014) featuring Japanese animation (anime), photography, and music, where users remain anonymous. This exposure on 4chan led to the growth of the “Brony” community (a portmanteau of the forum designator, /b/, and “Pony”) (Fallon, 2014), and soon other online communities formed, including PonyChan (http://www.ponychan.net/chan/), BronySquare (http://brony.squares.im/), and Everfree Network (http://everfree.net/) (LittleShy, 2014).
The Bronies present themselves online as a community with an established culture. According to the website What is a Brony? (2014):
A brony is a fan of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic that is outside the target demographic of little girls. Most bronies are friendly teenagers and young adults that simply aren’t afraid to admit to enjoying a show that is innocent, colorful, and funny….. Bronies are known for their creative works. Art, music, animation, and fan fictions are just a few things that bronies create based around their favorite characters, or original characters that they create themselves.
Online, Bronies create user personas based on the naming conventions of My Little Pony characters, with names such as “LittleShy,” “CyberSpark,” and “RainbowDash” (LittleShy, 2014). Brony community content ranges from the innocent to the pornographic, and community forums often contain warnings for parents of young Bronies and/or My Little Pony fans (LittleShy, 2014). While Bronies have anonymous online identities, not all community members remain anonymous—Bronies regularly meet in person at “PonyCons,” fan conventions held around the world. Much in the vein of comic book and sci-fi/fantasy fan conventions, Bronies often attend PonyCons in costume.
Brony culture exists and grows, in part, as a response to those outside the community. In the early days of the Brony forum on 4chan, My Little Pony show producers became concerned for the safety of child viewers, and investigated the Brony community. However, producers determined that these fans were indeed fans of the program, and now work with Brony fans in the production of web-based material, even appearing at PonyCon events (Fallon, 2014). Bronies have been the subject of news articles, and a documentary film, A Brony Tale (2014). Additionally, Bronies have been parodied in the animated show Bob’s Burgers, with an entire episode dedicated to “Equesticles,” male fans of the fictionalized animated series “The Equestranauts” (Mintz & Dillihay, 2014). A popular viral video spoofing the show Game of Thrones, Game of Ponies (adecoy95, 2012), started as Brony-generated content and spread to a more mainstream audience. In both news articles and parody, certain questions are raised about Bronies, as illustrated in this article in The Daily Beast:
These adult men call themselves Bronies. And they’re not what you think. They’re not overly effeminate. Many aren’t gay. They aren’t predatory, or even being ironic. They are just guys. Dudes. Dudes who like My Little Pony.” (Fallon, 2014).
Brony websites are transparent about these issues, and often poke fun at these outside questions/criticisms of the community. Many Brony sites include a visual of a My Little Pony character with the phrase: “You watch a show for little girls?” (LittleShy, 2014, Everfree Network, 2014). The Bronies embrace the reaction of those outside the community and use it as another element of community identity.
The Brony community exists as a result of digital symbiosis and the unique attributes of communication in social media platforms. The anonymity of the 4chan community allowed male fans of a cartoon made for little girls to interact entirely as anonymous projected identities. The platform gave these individual identities a means to come together based on a shared interest and form a collective identity. The collective identity of the Bronies was strengthen the changing nature of the categories of film/television medium (McNeill, 2013, p. 83). The convergence of television and the Internet allowed for these community members to share the source material, the My Little Pony series episodes, with those beyond who might not have direct access to a small, cable channel. Additionally, access to the tools of media production allowed the Bronies to create their own art, film, and music and to publish it through the platforms of their online communities. As a result, the individual and projected identities of Bronies became that of both consumers and producers of media content.
Digital symbiosis appears to have worked in “reverse” with the Bronies. Brony identity existed entirely as online encounter-events in the early stages. There was no “real” world manifestation of a Brony—Bronies were fans who posted art inspired by the show. However, at some point, the online projected identity of Brony merged with offline identities of community members to the point where Brony became an offline identity as well. When Bronies decided to meet in-person, in public at conventions, Brony identity moved beyond virtual to being an in-person projected identity. For the members of the Brony community, the virtual is now represented in “physical real-space” (McNeill, 2013, p. 93), bytes have become flesh, and “lived life … [is] an authentic life projection” (p. 93), lived both online and in the real world.
4chan. (2014). In 4chan. Retrieved from http://www.4chan.org/
adecoy95 [Screen name]. (2012, March 29). Game of ponies [intro] [Video file]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sMqz_vc22_g
Mintz, D. (Writer), & Dillihay, T. (Director) (2014, April 13). The Equestranauts [Television series epidsode]. In J. Schroeder (Producer), Bob’s Burgers. Los Angeles, CA: 20th Century Fox Television.
Everfree Network. (2014). In Everfree Network. Retrieved from http://everfree.net/
Fallon, K. (2014, May 1). Inside the bizzare world of ‘Bronies,’ adult male fans of ‘My Little Pony’. The Daily Beast. Retrieved from http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/05/01/inside-the-bizarre-world-of-bronies-adult-male-fans-of-my-little-pony.html
LittleShy [Screen name]. (2014). What is a Brony? Retrieved from http://whatisabrony.com/
McNeill, J. (2013). Concepts in new media: Online communication, culture, and community. Boston, MA: Pearson Learning Solutions.
For this textual analysis I have chosen the Reddit (reddit.com) community. Reddit is a “social news site … which allow[s] users to re-publish and vote on the news articles they deem fit for their own consumption” (Wasike, 2011). In addition to news, Reddit also features entertainment content, including visual “memes” (photos with ironic/insulting/inspirational captions, usually not created by the owner or creator of the photo). Reddit content is entirely user-generated, and users are welcome to create their own communities. As Reddit has over six trillion pages and over 8,000 sub-communities (About reddit, 2014), I have chosen to narrow my analysis to the “About” areas of the community–About page, Redditt_101, Rediquette– and to a specific Reddit sub-community–r/Funny. I propose that Reddit users have created an ethno-projected community with a clearly identifiable projected identity and cultural expression, particularly through the use of language and community rules, and in doing so, create an online culture that transcends the offline cultural backgrounds of individual users.
Offline cultures are often identified by a shared language. Reddit has its own language that allows for the overarching Reddit community to connect across subreddit community cultures. Community members are called redditors, individual communities are called subreddits, and rules of behavior and cultural values of the site is called reddiquette (About reddit, 2014; Reddit_101, 2014; Reddiquette, 2014). Subreddits have a unique naming convention with “r/” in front of the name, such as r/Funny, r/Gadgets, and r/Documentaries (Reddit, 2014). Not only does the use of these terms and naming conventions create a shared cultural identity (“I am a redditor”) it also reinforces the user-generated nature of the site, as users are considered “editors” of content and community. Communities also receive a name, subreddits, creating the sense that even with the tremendous number of individual communities (8, 193 as of November 14, 2014) (Reddit, 2014), all communities are united in a sense of “oneness” (McNeill, 2013) through the great umbrella culture of Reddit identity.
The Reddit community is an example of an online cultural community that has created its own cultural identity through formal and informal rules. These social groups become ethno-projected communities as the group create “a set of formal and informal controls that guide how to interact (informal controls) as well as how one must act (formal controls)” (p.60). Reddit is proudly user-generated. As described in the Reddit_101 (2014), “This site is made up of ‘sub’reddits, which are all their own communities. Every single post you see on this site belongs to its own community, with its own set of users, and with its own set of rules.” Community members agree to follow the rules of the communities they join, agreeing to follow proper reddiquette, the “informal expression of the values of many redditors, as written by redditors themselves” (Reddiquette, 2014).
An examination of a subreddit, in this case r/Funny (https://www.reddit.com/r/funny/), shows how this cultural identity is realized through profile creation, formal rules, communicative structures. r/Funny has over seven million subscribers. An invitation to those new to the community connects to the reddiquette page, and the community moderators have “pinned” (permanently positioned) a post describing at length the meaning of the primary rule of the community: “All posts must make an attempt at humor. Success or failure of said attempt is immaterial” (funny_mod, 2014). This post directs users to the 15 rules of the sidebar relate to posting etiquette as well as to the specific theme of the forum, with an emphasis on avoiding offense language or self-promotional posts. The sidebar concludes with the rule “Hate speech and bigotry will be removed at the moderators’ discretion” (r/Funny, 2014).
From this content we see the process of interaction that occurs within the culture and how members participate in this culture. The pinned post reveals the participation of users in policing the forum, as some report violators and others dispute editorial decisions. Community members agree to follow the formal rules of this cultural community (attempt at humor) with the understanding that the community or moderators can remove violators. This cultural value of r/Funny, “funny” redditors, is meant to surpass any other cultural identity, including ethnic, religious, or political background. The culture has refined the notion of funny, indicating that “interesting” is not enough, but actual execution of humor is not required as “success or failure of said attempt is immaterial” (funny_mod, 2014).
This brief textual analysis of the Reddit community reveals evidence of “a process of mainstreamed cyber-resonance that defies or alters the identity formed from contact with culturally mainstream societies and agencies of socialization in the real world” (p.55). Through the use of culturally-specific language (redditors, subreddits), formal and informal rules, and community user policing, the Reddit community and its 8000 sub-communities create a space where members defy/alter offline identities to participate in this specific ethno-projected community. As illustrated by the r/Funny subreddit, cultural expression must transcend that of an offline cultural identity, particularly as relates to culturally accepted humor, and must be expressed in terms of the rules of r/Funny culture. Users who violate the rules risk admonition by other community members or expulsion from the community. Thus, the Reddit community, chooses to represent itself by the very nature of its existence, a user-generated community, maintained and policed by the mutually-agreed upon expressions of the members of the culture.
About reddit. (2014). Reddit.com. Retrieved from https://www.reddit.com/about/
funny_mod [Screen name]. (2014). We’ve had an experiment running for a few months. We now have a new rule on the basis of that experiment. All posts must make some attempt at humor. Reddit.com Retrieved from https://www.reddit.com/r/funny/comments/2ke2nz/weve_had_an_experiment_running_for_a_few_months/
r/Funny. (2014). Reddit.com. Retrieved from https://www.reddit.com/r/funny/
McNeill, S. (2013). Concepts in new media: Online communication, culture, and community. Boston, MA: Pearson Learning Solutions.
Reddiquette. (2014). Reddit.com. Retrieved from http://www.reddit.com/wiki/reddiquette
Reddit_101. (2014). Reddit.com. Retrieved from https://www.reddit.com/wiki/reddit_101
Wasike, B. (2011). Framing Social News Sites: An Analysis of the Top Ranked Stories on Reddit and Digg. Southwestern Mass Communication Journal, 27(1), 57-67.
In creating an online identity, I have taken a very active and focused approach. I have fully embraced the idea of being both creator and curator of content, “uploading and organizing [my] own content” (McNeill, 2013, p. 39) as a means of self-expression and personal brand building. I have sought to achieve a level of “digital symbiosis” (p. 38) with a specific online community, women entrepreneurs, and I attempt to leverage the tools of new media to serve a specific purpose. In this paper, I will explore where and how I self-represent online, the differences between my online self and my “regular” self, and how my online self relates to my cultural expectations. I propose that my online self is the meeting of performance and projection.
In the online space, I primarily live on Facebook. I have an active presence on Twitter and LinkedIn. I also have a personal website (http://AngelaStalcup.com) and a personal blog (http://curvylife.com). I use YouTube to host videos, but I tend to use those videos on Facebook, my personal website, or my blog. I self-represent through the native technologies of the social networks and applications that I use, as well as through strategic content creation and curation. Elmer (1997 as cited in McNeill, 2013) reveals, there is now “an overwhelming emphasis on aesthetics, graphics, moving and still pictures, and … three dimensional web pages” (p. 39). I take full advantage of the visual elements of my online “home.” In social media, I post lots of pictures, including a lot of selfies, to add to the visual element. On my personal website and blog, I use professional stock photos along with my own photography, and use video on occasion. When creating text-based material, I am very cognizant of my personal brand and business goals, even when posting something “just for fun.”
I am attempting to create a very specific online identity, closely related to my “regular” self, but definitely with a focus on my positive qualities. McNeill (2013) describes three experiences of engagement with a projected identity: authentic, refined, inauthentic. I consider authenticity and transparency to be part of my personality and value system, so I strive to be as authentic as possible; however, there are times when I take a refined approach. I started using Facebook expressly for the purposes of creating my own online broadcast channel, with “commercials” for my business interspersed with entertaining and informative content. As part of this broadcast strategy, I have cast myself in the role of being a fun friend who is in the know about business and events in Atlanta and beyond. Additionally, I am advocate for positive body image, so I have an online identity as “Curvy Angela,” my user name of my blog. Curvy Angela is “curvy, sexy, crazy” (Stalcup, 2008) and is all about being bold and living out loud. I use the tools of Web 2.0 to build, maintain, and grow these identities.
I use the visual and textual elements of my preferred online platforms in an attempt to move beyond a simple encounter-event to move beyond “expression as projection” (McNeill, 2013, p. 29) to an online engagement, an exchange between my projected identity and that of someone else. I am attempting to create a co-emergent experience with others in such as way as to form links and to a collective experience. The visual elements of images and photography are effective means of getting a “pull” response to the “push” of my messages. The Facebook algorithm favors pictures, so whenever I post a picture it is more likely to appear in the news feeds of my friends than simply text alone. Further, people like to “like” and comment on pictures. (As I write this paper, a picture that I posted thirty minutes ago of me performing on stage has already gotten 25 likes.) The goal in this is to strike a balance between the authentic (I post before and after pictures of getting my hair colored, gray roots, foils, and all) and the refined image (professionally produced headshots and video), so as to seem professional, yet at the same time “real.”
While I consider my online presence to be a facet, if not a complete mirror, of my “regular” self, there are parts of my life that I choose not to share. My goal for my online presence is to establish a personal brand as well as to engage and create community for women entrepreneurs. I consider the impact to the community of my personal beliefs and lifestyle choices, and if I think that the sharing of these aspects of myself would be unnecessarily controversial, I do not share them. I have very strong personal beliefs on politics, religion, sexuality, and a host of other issues. However, these do not particularly relate to the community that I am trying to engage, women entrepreneurs. I seek to create an inclusive experience for anyone who wants to engage my digital identity. If was on online simply for the purposes of self-expression, I would be more vocal on personal issues. Thus, I allow others to interpret my identity in a way that serves my purpose for being online.
Culturally, I navigate multiple cultures in my online engagements. As a middle class, white, American woman, it is not unexpected in my culture to have a large online presence and to spend a lot of time in social media. I also interface with Southern culture, both from a family perspective (400 years in North Carolina on both sides) and in terms of where I live (21 years in Atlanta). When dealing with Southern culture, I am aware of certain sensitivities, particularly related to religion. Atlanta in a multi-ethnic community, and I have a diverse set of friends—black, white, Asian, Latino, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, atheist, gay, straight, transgendered—and I attempt to maintain a cultural sensitivity regarding race, religion, and background. Finally, I consider the female entrepreneurial community to be a type of culture, and I attempt to support an inclusive environment based on positivity and reciprocity. I cannot always keep all of these cultures happy; however, I find that even in disagreement there are ways to be respectful in engagement and dialogue.
When I consider the nature of my online identity, I see it as the intersection of performance and projection. McNeill (2013) describes the difference between the two terms: “the encounter of the performance relies on a linear structure, which contradicts the essence of projection and the emergent encounter-event” (p. 50). To an extent, the encounter-events that I initiate are a form of performance. I am performing the role of “Angela About Town,” “Business Angela,” or “Curvy Angela.” Yet, these performances lead to engagement and interaction with others and become co-emergent, with my projected-identity engaging with other projected-identities in digitally-projected communities. Having been in the online space for over six years, my online self and my in-person self have developed a symbiotic relationship, a relationship that I enjoy.
McNeill, S. (2013). Concepts in new media: Online communication, culture, and community. Boston, MA: Pearson Learning Solutions.
Stalcup, A. (2008). In Facebook. Retrieved from http://www.facebook.com/angela.stalcup
Two recent major technological advancements have impacted the way people communicate: the “Living Web” (McNeill, 2013, p. 11) and mobile broadband Internet. The nature of Internet connectivity and the ability to have always on, always present devices have shifted the process and experience of interpersonal communication. For this paper, I will review how the nature of these technological advancements has impacted communication for those with an online presence, then explore the benefits and drawbacks. While I believe that these advancements have the potential to greatly improve interpersonal communication and human connection, I believe that we must proceed cautiously as we navigate this time of transition.
Historically, technological advancements have impacted human communication and have stirred the concerns of societies and cultures as to their potential negative impact. The rise of “machine-assisted-communication” (McNeill, 2013, p. 12) is no different. The advent of the printing press, radio, motion pictures, and television, each brought fear and trepidation to Western culture that values and morals would decline as a result (Vuong, Smith, Rusher, & Watkins, 2014). While society did not collapse with these technologies, the ways in which people with access to these technologies communicated did change. Societies moved from a one-to-one, face-to-face model, to a “few-to-many model” (McNeill, 2013, p. 12). While interpersonal communication remained primarily one-to-one, the addition of mass publication/communication models allowed organizations and entities with the necessary financial means to “push” information to the masses (p. 12). However, the recent addition of computer-mediated communication to the machine-assisted model has radically changed this few-to-many, unidirectional model to a multidirectional, “pull” model allowing anyone to be a publisher of information.
This multidirectional pull model did more than change the flow of information to mass audiences. Not only did this shift allow anyone to push information out to the masses, the technologies of personal computers and mobile devices resulted in a change in “the various geographical, temporal, and spatial borders” (McNeill, 2013, p. 13) that had previously bound communication. While a telephone call (via land line) may have broken geographic borders, it could not break temporal borders—both parties had to be on the line at the same time. However, the technological advancements of voice mail, email, chat, and texting all a shift away from “real-time and temporal notions” (p. 12) as two-way communication can be an asynchronous event. Additionally, no longer must audiences wait for a push of communication; Internet technologies allowed audiences to select and filter the information they want to receive and when (and how) they receive it.
This shift in the nature of the Internet, from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0, the “Living Web,” fostered this move to the pull model. Deleuze and Guattari (as cited in McNeill, 2013) propose a rhizomatic model to describe the effect of Web 2.0 technologies. The term rhizome comes from nature; “rhizomes connect other plants in a living network—feeding each other nutrients and producing additional roots—for survival” (p. 17). When applied to the Internet, we see the connections of a “living network” (p. 17), where parts interact without formal structure and traditional hierarchy. Users are able to enter and exit the network through various entry points, moving around “through links and traced projections” (p. 19). As parts of the network are cut-off or removed (ruptured), new pieces organically develop. Thus, even as platforms change, entire networks can shift, re-form, and adapt. Online communication has become a fluid, organic experience.
The nature of the machines themselves in machine-assisted communication has also impacted the way we communicate. The development of the “4th screen” (McNeill, 2013, p. 13), the mobile device, has made online communication intimate and personal. As of 2013, 58% of Americans owned a smartphone (Vuong et al, 2014). This trend is developing globally as international telecommunications companies are bypassing land-line broadband infrastructure and going straight to mobile in developing lands (GSMA, 2014). The size and ease of use of mobile technology make these devices seem an extension of the person (Vuong et al, 2014). Combine the living network of Web 2.0 with the personal proximity and intimacy of the mobile device, and online communication becomes an “always on” experience that becomes an extension of the daily life of the individual user.
This sense of personal online network creates both benefits and drawbacks. From the positive perspective, individuals are no longer bound by time and space to maintain relationships. People can live, work, and love on a global scale and manage it all in the palm of their hands. With a lowered barrier to entry as an online publisher, individuals can build communities that are either supported or exist entirely online (McNeill, 2013). Further, individuals can chose to enter and exit communities at will, making community membership and participation a choice, not an accident of birth or location. Access to a broad range of networks and information allows individuals to have direct communication with experts that they may not have access to locally, expanding educational and employment opportunities beyond geographic boundaries.
However, all of these ongoing connections and the never-ceasing flow of information can be problematic. Being constantly connected can become an obligation rather than a convenience. This is particularly true in the world of work, as employers expect employees to check email and take phone calls after work hours. The demands of “digital multitasking” (McNeill, 2013, p. 15) are driving people to distraction and perhaps even making people less intelligent, making users “unable to form complex thoughts or to think through the information we are subjected to through texting, messaging, and email” (p. 15). The demand of the device can cause individuals to miss out on face-to-face interactions happening directly in front of them as their attention is focused on the screen rather than other people around them (Vuong et al., 2014) giving people the sense that they are missing out on “true interpersonal exchanges” (McNeill, 2013, p. 12). There are now official psychiatric disorders associated with Internet use (Gaming Addiction) (Vuong et al., 2014), and it is quite common these days for people to speak about the need to take a “digital cleanse” (Vuong et al, 2014) or in some way or another untether from their digital connections. Many experts express concern about the impact on children to early exposure to digital devices, worrying that we are raising a generation of children that will not develop in-person social skills.
From my perspective, the impact of technological advancements on communication is a both/and scenario. These advancements both expand and contract connections. These advancements both make us smarter and dumber. These connections both facilitate closer interpersonal relationships and create interruptions in face-to-face communication. We are in a period of transition with new technologies, and as these technologies develop so will the human capacity to use these tools as just that, as tools for communication, to create and support the kinds of communication we as users desire. Global mobile technologies have the potential to bring the Internet to regions of the world that lag far behind the West in access to web technologies. The potential for individuals on a global scale to have access to information, education, and other people presents limitless opportunities for the benefit of the human condition. However, like any new technology, there will be pendulum swings of overuse, misuse, and general malaise over the technology. I sincerely believe, however, we will pass through this time of transition to a time when digital access and digital literacy enter the realm of global human rights, all for the betterment of humankind.
GSMA. (2014). Accelerating the rise of the female digital economy: Event guide. Atlanta, GA: Author.
McNeill, S. (2013). Concepts in new media: Online communication, culture, and community. Boston, MA: Pearson Learning Solutions.
Vuong, A., Smith, S., Rusher, R., & Watkins, C. (2014, April 23). What’s new in high tech? [Video file]. Retrieved from http://video.pbs.org/video/2365229651/