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Networks, Judaism & LiveJournal. Talk by Theresa M. Senft, Ph.D. at Jewish Funders Network National Conference Denver, Colorado 13 April 2006 Questions: email Talk Breakdown. Who am I? What’s the difference between a sphere and a network, and why does this matter?

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networks judaism livejournal
Networks, Judaism & LiveJournal

Talk by Theresa M. Senft, Ph.D.


Jewish Funders Network

National Conference

Denver, Colorado

13 April 2006

Questions: email

talk breakdown
Talk Breakdown
  • Who am I?
  • What’s the difference between a sphere and a network, and why does this matter?
  • What questions did I ask online users about Judaism and offline community?
  • What answers did they give?
who am i
Who Am I?
  • Ph.D, Dept. of Performance Studies, NYU
  • I study people in virtual environments, noting how their behavior online corresponds with their expressed beliefs about the function of identity and community in the ‘real’ world.
  • Principle methodology: auto-ethnography
what is social software
What is social software?

Social software (n): computer applications designed expressly for the purpose of facilitating human socialization.

what is a blog
What is a blog?
  • Blogs (short for web-logs): Web sites that allow users to write words, post images or upload songs for others to view without prior knowledge of HTML. Blogs are generally arranged in in a reverse-chronological fashion, and bloggers (those who write blogs) often allow readers with with opportunities to publicly respond to their posts.
features of blogs
Features of blogs
  • Democratizing of web expertise through ease of use and free sites for expression.
  • “Snapshot writing” rather than essay form.
  • “Call and response communication” rather than a fixed mode of address
  • Creation of alternate public spheres
what is livejournal
What is LiveJournal?

Began in 2000

Nearly 2 million active journals

Half these updated in last thirty days

Roughly 2:1 female/male

Largest age range: 14-27

livejournal comments feature
LiveJournal Comments Feature

Above, a screenshot of some of the fifty five responses given to the author’s question, “What did people do in the time before Advil?”

question 1 online v offline
Question 1:Online v. Offline
  • Do you spend time on the Web as a way to:
    • Avoid offline Jewish communities?
    • Supplement your experience of those communities?
    • Re-imagine those communities?
    • Something else?
question 2 what would you tell the jewish funders
Question 2: What would you tell the Jewish Funders?

If you could tell these progressive (but somewhat older) Jewish community leaders one thing about what places like LiveJournal mean to you, what would you tell them?

sample locale terri senft s livejournal
Sample Locale: Terri Senft’s LiveJournal
  • Since 2000
  • 650 Friends listed
  • Population familiar with being polled on questions
sample locale lj community weirdjews wj
Sample Locale: LJ community WeirdJews (WJ)
  • Since 2002
  • 1,181 members
  • 4857 posts
  • b/w 3 and 10 posts per day.
weirdjews disrupting yeshivas since 1992
WeirdJews: “Disrupting yeshivas since 1992.”
  • “A community for Jews outside the mainstream…whether they be Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, born-Jews, Jews by Choice, or anyone considering conversion.”
  • “We usually let almost everyone join unless given a good reason not to. (ex: neo-nazi's, proselytizing Christians, banned ex-members under different names).”
topics in weirdjews
Topics in WeirdJews
  • I have to come up with something to do for Yom HaShoah and I only have fifteen days to do it….
  • I was reading…about לשוןחכמה, the language of the wise..I was wondering if anyone knows about it offhand.
  • Anyone ever read Thomas Mann's "Joseph and His Brothers" series?
weirdjews topics cont
WeirdJews Topics, cont…
  • I saw…a tank top with ‘not tzniut’ printed on it. I'm not certain (a) what website I saw it on, but…now..I want it badly!! Help!!
  • So, has anyone here ever tried the 30 Minute Seder before? Is it good? Bad?
  • Any Jews at Notre Dame?..What has your experience been?
why do they turn to lj
Why do they turn to LJ?
  • Desire to transcend geography
  • Desire for environments where they feel “Jewish enough”
  • Desire for economic affinity
  • Desire for others with the same politics
  • Desire for a Jewish public sphere
  • Desire for exposure to difference
transcending geography
Transcending Geography
  • Social isolation of Jews outside the urban coasts of U.S.
  • Transitory nature of living arrangements, especially college students and young professionals
  • Difficulties of ‘starting over’ at a new shul each time one moves
testimony the new shul and social anxiety
Testimony: The “new shul” and social anxiety
  • I moved to Austin two and a half years ago, away from a city (and a synagogue) where I'd spent my whole previous life. Starting over in a new community is hard.
  • On-line communities don't have the same kinds of standing-around-after-the-service-with-no-one-to-talk-to awkwardness…
testimony not my shul
Testimony: “Not my shul”

I go to shul for the whole "shul experience", but I don't feel like it's my shul, per se, or that the people there are my community, in part because I wasn't really raised in any community, but also because I know I'll be moving somewhere else when I'm done with college and I see this phase of my life as largely temporary and transitional.

testimony where next year
Testimony: Where next year?
  • It's hard to make "this is MY shul" chest-beating-style identifications when you know you're probably going to be in a different state in the next year and a half.
i want a space where i am jewish enough
“I want a space where I am Jewish Enough”
  • Not Jewish enough because I have tattoos
  • Not Jewish enough because I have piercings
  • Not Jewish enough because I am not heterosexual
  • Not Jewish enough because I am not observant
  • “My mother isn’t Jewish, but…”
  • “My mother is Jewish, but…”
testimony my mother is not jewish but
Testimony: “My mother is not Jewish, but…”
  • I grew up in a reform household and my mother is not Jewish, which means that lots of more conservative Jews do not consider me Jewish/fully Jewish.
  • online communities have these sort of gateways that let me know exactly who I'm dealing with and what their opinions are before I "out" myself and open up to judgment.
testimony my mother is jewish but
Testimony: “My mother is Jewish, but…”
  • “I was born to a Jewish mother and a Roman Catholic father, I'm pretty much agnostic... There isn't really a place for me in the traditional Jewish community.
  • [Online} I can also observe the more religious people and their conversations. This way, I can learn more about Judaism without feeling like an outsider or being invasive…”
judaism not money
Judaism, not money
  • Offline Judaism is often associated with an interest in middle class interests (homes, cars, children.)
  • High costs of temple dues and other sorts of financial requests often bar entry or embarrass students and working class people who might otherwise want to join.
  • Weirdjew users speak of wanting to talk about “Judaism, not money…”
desire for political affinity
Desire for Political Affinity
  • Many users of spaces like weirdjews are actively
    • Feminist
    • Queer or queer-friendly,
    • Questioning Zionism or anti-Zionist
    • Questioning or anti-occupation
    • Interested in working class concerns
    • Interested in activism, not charity
testimony jews i can get along with
Testimony: “Jews I can get along with”

Jewish institutions are not looking for a way to hold onto Jews like me because they recognize that there is no way to hold onto Jews like me, and as institutions they have to try and perpetuate themselves.

LJ, however, has enabled me to put together, not so much a community, but a clique of Jews I can get along with.

testimony connecting to and reinventing political affinity
Testimony: connecting to and reinventing political affinity
  • The Jewish communities with which i am affiliated and feel affinity with (secular Yiddishists, radical leftist Jews, Jewish anti-occupation activists, queer Jews) are few and far between unless you live in New York, which i don't…
  • I use the internet to network and be connected to these communities in some capacity and in a limited sense to work towards building them up in the geographic area i live in...and in a way to reimagine or even cooperate in the creation of new types of Jewish communities.
desire for public sphere judaism
Desire for public sphere Judaism
  • Many users want a space to discuss issues of Judaism without demand to conform or adopt certain beliefs to maintain the social balance of a given community.
testimony this wouldn t happen in shul
Testimony: This wouldn’t happen in shul…

If I walked into an orthodox shul and told them what I thought about some of their traditions or even asked about them, I would be encouraged to leave and be the topic of discussion afterwards.”

Because weirdjews is inherently a FORUM, and not a place of worship, there is more leniency in expressing your opinion or asking for others' thoughts.”

testimony the public and the personal
Testimony: The public and the personal
  • LJ has a public or performance element, but it's also very personal, and that's one of the things that I think makes it so fascinating to people- you are allowed to read other people's thoughts, to see how they think and what makes them tick.
testimony online and intimacy
Testimony: Online and intimacy
  • The online format also allows (at least in my case) for the feeling of a greater level of intimacy- you start to recognize people, know who you're talking to, etc, and it becomes something resembling its own family or community. And for some reason, right now, that seems to click better for me than an offline community
desire for difference
Desire for Difference
  • While users often speak of a desire to ally with Jews sharing their same politics, they also talk about a desire to be exposed to Jews who are different from them.
  • Many discussed the Web as an ideal locale to arrange and manage these exposures to differences with Judaism.
testimony offline polarizes divisions
Testimony: Offline polarizes divisions

Young Jews keep hearing about the increasing polarization and fragmentation of the global Jewish community: Orthodox Jews won't talk to Reform Jews, left-wing Jews won't talk to right-wing Jews, and so on.

Whether they mean to or not, I think the traditional offline community usually reinforces these divisions far more than they challenge them- everybody goes to their own place, they talk among themselves, and never seem to get back around to regrouping as a collective.

testimony variety
Testimony: Variety
  • There are people (on LJ) from and in other countries, people of different denominational backgrounds, etc. This not only makes it more interesting, it makes it more educational. I've learned more from a few years on LJ than I think I did in 6 years of religious "education.”
testimony identity is exclusionary and that s okay
Testimony: Identity is exclusionary (and that’s okay…)
  • When I toss off a Jewish joke, or tell lengthy anecdotes about my family, or toss in Yiddish vocabulary, I don't have to worry as much about whether or not I am excluding anyone. I know I'm excluding people, but on LJ people routinely skim past entries that don't interest them, and if I want to present something in such a way that certain people will get more out of it than others, I can without it having any grand political consequences.”
getting global
Getting global…
  • I can say that the students I know who participate on-line do so to strengthen and broaden their identities, not to replace affiliation. Most of them talk about their conversations with people outside Australia, and how it makes them feel a part of a global community rather than just a local one.
testimony i no longer demonize them
Testimony: “I no longer demonize them…”

I have met and spoken with far more Jews, and far more different kinds of Jews, especially those who hold opposing views of myself (in politics and religion) than I ever would have in person, and it's helped give those ideas and beliefs a human face. I still disagree with them, but I (generally) no longer demonize them, and I really don't know if this ever would have happened in real life. I think such communication and understanding can only be a good thing.

testimony historical precedents
Testimony: Historical precedents
  • It's a similar model for the Jewish renewal, et al phenomenon that occurred in the 1960s and beyond: people couldn't find what worked for them in the institutions of their day, so they created their own.
testimony why online forums
Testimony: Why online forums?
  • They're useful communications tools
  • They produce interesting discussion sometimes
  • They have been helpful in enabling me to develop empathy for perspectives that radically differ from my own
  • They are a starting point for DIY culture building that isn't beholden to the political or religious or cultural agenda of mainstream institutions and their funding.
other sites to explore
Other sites to explore
lj sites
LJ sites
links to these conversations
Links to these conversations
  • Conversation at Terri Senft’s LiveJournal. Entry entitled, “Help from my Jewish Friends” at
  • Conversation at the WeirdJews site. Entry entitled, “Research” at
  • Follow up conversation at Terri’s LiveJournal. Entry called “Follow up” at