What we are not: us, them, and identity

3004965811_51c357c0d6_z

(CC) artnoose

This week, we’re going vegan! For those who are wondering: no, Understanding Social Media didn’t suddenly turned itself into a cookery blog and I didn’t go nuts either. So, how come that I am talking about veganism in my post? Well, however strange it may look, I am actually not. Our task for this week was to dig deep into an online culture. I chose a vegan community (which I am going to call VC from here onwards!) as the object of my nethnographic investigation and in this post I am going to share some of my reflections about it. So, now that potential doubts have been banished, let’s grab a vegan burger and let’s start.

First things first!

Before turning myself into a lurker, I needed two things: a research focus and a starting point. Let’s be realistic: I am not an ethnographer and this post aims to stay within a certain number of words, so I decided to focus on how the community establish and demarcate itself. In particular, I was interested in how the community draw the line between “us” and “them”. For this purpose, looking at how it deals with newcomers seemed like the best starting point to me. On one hand newcomers are vital for online communities, since they contribute with new energy and knowledge [1]. On the other hand, they can also represent a problem, since they are less-likely to conform to community customs and norms [2]. Therefore, if there’s a place where it is possible to pinpoint the edge of a community culture that’s probably the so-called “newbie garden”[1], i.e. the section in which new members can learn community customs and norms themselves.

The non-vegan garden

(CC) Jesper Wiking

(CC) Jesper Wiking

The meaning of “newbie garden” takes, however, a very interesting shift in the community I have been lurking at. In this context in fact, the target of the garden are not the new members of the community in general, but only the non-vegan ones. Such a division is even emphasized by the welcome banner displayed at the top at the forum, which reminds the vegan-only dimension of the community and directs non-vegans toward the non-vegan garden. As a matter of fact, some of the messages by VC owners seems to suggest that the non-vegan garden was originally intended for vegan newcomers as well. However, whether this was the case or not, reality proves to be different, since it is not unlikely to find presentation posts by vegan members in the general forum.

Meat-eaters

The non-vegan garden is not the only section related to non-vegans. Indeed, one of the subsection of the general forum deals with members’ problematic relationship with “meat-eaters”. However, whereas the non-vegan garden is a place in which non-vegan members can ask question and voice their doubts about veganism, this is not the case for the subforum about meat-eaters. There, vegan members report and discuss comments made eat-meaters, without any active participation of the latter in the discussion. As a consequence, the tone of the messages in this part of the forum ranges from supportive to mockery. The first is usually found in those threads in which the original poster (OP) shares a negative or frustrating experience about his/her relationship with meat-eaters. The latter instead is usually used to pinpoint the silliness of meat-eaters’ arguments against veganism.

Conclusion

The relegation of non-vegans to a dedicated section in addition to the one dedicated to the relationship with meat-eaters represent a way in which VC affirm its identity and demarcate its boundaries. In fact, as Kraut and Kiesler argue, member awareness of an out-group reinforce in-group boundaries and the homogeneity of the in-group [2]. First, by limiting the presence of non-vegans to a specific area VC owners manage to keep the rest of the forum quite homogenous (i.e. non-vegans free). Second, having a space in which meat-eaters are identified as cause of discomfort and/or target for mockery reinforce the community perception of them as other. In other words, by saying “this is what we are not”, the community draws a clear line between “us” and “them” and thus constantly re-establish its group identity.

References

  1. Lampe, C., & Johnston, E. (2005). Follow the (slash) dot: effects of feedback on new members in an online community. In Proceedings of the 2005 international ACM SIGGROUP conference on Supporting group work (pp. 11-20). ACM.
  2. Ren, Y., Kraut, R., & Kiesler, S. (2007). Applying common identity and bond theory to design of online communities. Organization studies, 28(3), 377-408.

Pictures

vegan, letterpress by artnoose http://www.flickr.com/photos/artnoose/3004965811/

big meat eater media vhs front by Jesper Wiking http://www.flickr.com/photos/wiking/3450645815/

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