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03 April 2009

Thoughts on Ephemeral Communities


Ephemeral communities are ones which are either temporary or in a constant state of flux. Good examples are tourists, Burning Man and other "Festivals," and, of course, the internet. I think they would make a fascinating research topic for some nascent anthropologist. Unfortunately, it's not the area I want to go into, so I won't be doing that research. However, I do have some thoughts on the topic.
What interests me is how peoples' identity and behavior changes when they become part of an ephemeral community and leave their usual community behind. I don't have empirical evidence to back this up, but these are the ideas that I would hope to see some research address. First of all, it seems that identity becomes more fluid in ephemeral communities, and is, in some cases, completely dissociated from one's "normal" identity and even from one's physical self (especially in the case of the internet). As a result, a person can be anyone they want to be, can even change identities midstream if they so desire. A corollary to this is that identity becomes more superficial - it's less about one's underlying personality, and more about how one projects themselves using symbolic representation (i.e. clothing, costumes, avatars, etc.). A lack of identity markers might even make those around you uneasy, since they wouldn't know how to approach you or what norms to follow.
Anther effect appears to be that peoples' sense of risk is diminished, and they are more willing to engage in potentially dangerous activities that they wouldn't normally engage in within their "normal" communities. For example, in many cases, tourists will engage in drug use and become more sexually promiscuous when abroad when they wouldn't normally do those things back home. People on the internet will speak more freely, be more bold and express stronger opinions than they do in everyday life. This is related to the fluidity of identity and the anonymity that is inevitable in ephemeral communities.
I'm curious what makes people do these things? What functions do they serve? Is it a universal phenomenon, or is it mainly a feature of Western Industrial society?
I'd love to hear other thoughts on the subject, or relevant anecdotes. This blog itself is ephemeral, so don't be afraid of persecution! :)

3 comments:

Natsumura Akane said...

Pop culture conventions of various types would definitely fall into this category, perhaps as a subset of "festivals", really. It's definitely true that people tend to behave very differently at various types of pop culture conventions than they typically do in their everyday lives. I think it's especially true of cosplayers, who take on highly unusual and symbolic modes of dress in part to better project a particular social image. The people in costume tend to act much more confident and outgoing than they normally would, and people within the convention's in-group who meet them tend to react much more positively to this openness than usual.

Jeremy Trombley said...

That's interesting, I wasn't familiar with cosplay until you mentioned it, but I will definitely look into it more now. Not knowing much about it, I agree that cosplay conventions fall into the category of ephemeral communities. I wonder, though, if there it also manifests in more concrete communities as well?
I think cosplay could also be referred to as what I would call "alternate identities." That is, an identity one projects in certain contexts which is completely different from (but incorporated within?) one's ordinary identity. I doubt that all examples of alternate identity are associated with ephemeral communities, but it is my sense that ephemeral communities facilitate alternate identities more than concrete communities. Both of these concepts are areas ripe for anthropological investigation, and, as far as I know, no-one is doing that research.

Tecolote said...

Funny, I thought I coined the term "ephemeral community" in regard to the annual crop of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, and people on cross-country train rides.

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