Anderson Siblings in Cyberspace

Siblings in Cyberspace: Carey’s Ritual Model of Communication in the Digital Age Helen Anderson Stanford University In 1975, James Carey urged us to think about communication in a ritual sense  with  his  essay,  “A  Cultural  Approach  to  Communication.”  In  2007,   the  year  after  Carey’s  death,  brothers  John  and  Hank  Green—not communications scholars but a young adult novelist and a web developer, respectively—did just that. It does seem that the Internet has evolved into an increasingly ritualistic part of our lives. But the Green brothers stretched the definition of media rituals even further with Brotherhood 2.0: a YouTube-based project, designed with only themselves in mind, that snowballed into a global phenomenon. And while Carey was generally skeptical about technology, viewing it as a barrier to the oral tradition, Brotherhood 2.0—a near-perfect example of his theory of ritual communication—might just have changed his mind.

Carey’s  essay—republished in 1989 as the first chapter of his book, Communication as Culture—set up a dichotomy between communication as transmission and communication as ritual. The mainstream transmission model, Carey wrote, describes what one would most likely find  in  a  dictionary  under  the  entry  “communication,”  commonly   indentified  by  “terms  such  as  ‘imparting,’  ‘sending,’  ‘transmitting,’  or   ‘giving  information  to  others’”  (p.  15).  He  refined  this  definition  as  “the   transmission of signals or messages over distance for the purpose of control”  (p.  15).  By  contrast,  in  the  ritual  model,  “communication  is  linked   to  terms  such  as  ‘sharing,’  ‘participation,’  ‘association,’  ‘fellowship,’  and   ‘the  possession  of  a  common  faith’”  (p.  18).  The  terms  “ritual”  and   “transmission”  are  not  meant  to  categorize  different  types  of   communication (e.g., news broadcast as transmission; conversation as ritual), but rather to highlight different capacities of communication. Carey illustrated his point with the classic example of a newspaper. According to the transmission model, the value of a newspaper lies in the information that it imparts. Through the lens of the ritual model, however, this information is in itself less important than the act of receiving and reading it each day, as well as the fact that it shapes and maintains our conception  of  the  world  around  us.  As  Carey  put  it,  a  newspaper  “is  a

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presentation  of  reality  that  gives  life  an  overall  form,  order,  and  tone”  (p.   21).

But what of digital media? Even in 2003, Nick Couldry remained ambivalent  about  the  “long  term  ritual  significance  of  the  Internet”  (p.   130),  writing  that  “there  is  little  scope  as  yet  for  ‘asynchronous  mass communication’”  (p.  131).  Though Carey knew nothing of digital media at the time of writing his essay, I would argue that the same principles of transmission and ritual communication can easily be applied to the Internet  and  to  “natively  digital”  artifacts—things that could not exist in any form without digital technologies. Moreover, Brotherhood 2.0 serves as proof that the Internet can have long-term ritual significance.

In a nutshell, the Brotherhood 2.0 project (of which this video is the first installment) is an attempt by John and Hank Green to fight technology with technology. Deciding that their relationship had become shallow because they primarily interacted through textual means (email, text messaging, instant messaging), they resolved to discontinue all textual communication with each other for one year. Instead, they would alternate posting daily video blogs, addressed to each other, on YouTube.

The premise, certainly, is rather ironic—using new media to simulate the old-fashioned art of face-to-face interaction—and has interesting, uniquely digital consequences—the opening of a private sibling relationship to thousands of strangers, for instance. It also embodies several  facets  of  the  idea  of  the  “natively  digital”  artifact.  Previously,  a   person could film himself, send the tape to his brother, and wait for a response, but this mode of communication would have been slow, expensive, and entirely impractical. The YouTube medium also encourages a kind of audience interaction that is not possible in traditional mass media. For example, in the January 1 video, Hank mentions “punishments”  that  will  be  doled  out  if  one  of  the  brothers  fails  to  post  his   video on time (see Appendix A). When they are necessary, these punishments are suggested by viewers in the comments.

Brotherhood 2.0 epitomizes, and even extends, Carey’s  theory  of   ritual communication. Just as Carey (1989) argued that the important part of a newspaper is not the actual news but the fact that it is delivered every day, the important part of these videos is often not their content. In the January 1 video, Hank Green spends a little bit of his time explaining the project, but much of the video is taken up  with  his  trivial  antics  (“I  can  see   my  eye  in  my  eye.”)  and  musings  (“Does  that  make  us  crazy?”).  What he is saying is of little significance, but the fact that his brother will be seeing his face every other day (and vice versa) holds a great deal of value in terms of their long-distance fraternal bond.

The transmission theory still applies. Especially in later videos, the “vlogbrothers”  (John  and  Hank’s  YouTube  username,  by  which  they  are   often identified) devote a good portion of their daily screen time to explanations and discussions of culture and politics. Although the messages are bite-sized (each video is usually three to four minutes long),

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they are still important. Even more important, however, is their ritual significance in creating and maintaining a certain worldview: the fact that the brothers are talking about a certain topic means that, if you are one of their regular viewers, it has become part of your reality and is something you should care about. This underscores an important point: although the project began as a ritual for just two people, John and Hank were aware at the outset that their videos were available for public viewing. Since this video was posted, they have gained a fan base of over 500,000 “subscribers,”  a  number  that  grows  every  day. YouTube notifies the subscribers the instant one of the brothers uploads a new video. Thus, Brotherhood 2.0 has become a ritual for the huge number of people who watch the videos on the same schedule as they are made. Interestingly, the subscription function is not unique to YouTube but is almost universal, in one form or another on sites across the Web (“following”  on  Twitter  is   one example). By  adding  the  “subscribe”  feature, the medium inherently supports ritualization.

Carey (1989) wrote that,  “under  a  ritual  view,  then,  news  is  not   information  but  drama”  (p. 21).  In  this  case,  the  “news”  becomes  Hank   and  John’s  daily  thoughts.  And  it  certainly  is  drama.  If  we  backtrack  to  the   idea of the private relationship on public display (a phenomenon that all too commonly manifests itself via Facebook), we can also tie in the fact that Hank seems to be acting for us. In theory, we are looking into a window on his life, but we are not receiving a mirror of reality, because Hank acts differently when his camera is turned on than he probably would otherwise. This  is  analogous  to  Carey’s  (1989)  observation  that   news  “is  not  pure  information  but  a  portrayal”  of  the  world  (p.  20).  And if, as Carey claimed,  media  “invites  our  participation  on  the  basis  of  our   assuming,  often  vicariously,  social  roles  within  it”  (p. 21), the viewer in this case assumes his role  to  be  that  of  Hank’s  friend.  “hank, you were by far the most awkward video blogger ive ever seen. EVER. good thing you got so good lol,’”  a  commenter  known  as  SuperWRASSLER wrote of the first video, years after the video was made. The commenter addresses Hank directly and casually, as if he were an old friend.

Thousands of people have likewise assumed such a relationship, because there is another dimension to this project—Brotherhood 2.0 spawned a huge online movement of viewers of the vlogbrothers’  videos   who  call  themselves  “Nerdfighters” (fighting for nerds, not against them). They  embrace  the  intellectual,  “nerdy”  culture promoted by John and Hank’s  videos  and  have  their  own  set  of  sayings  and inside jokes that nearly constitute a unique language. To name just a couple:  “DFTBA”   stands for “don’t  forget  to  be  awesome”  and “in  your  pants”  are  three   words that provide amusement when added to the ends of book titles—as John demonstrated in one of his videos—as well as the inspiration for the name of the online forum where Nerdfighters could communicate with one another. Some Nerdfighters have begun making their own YouTube

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videos; others use the community to organize events and raise money for charitable causes.

Most fascinating of  all  is  the  concept  of  “Nerdfighteria”—the virtual realm inhabited by the Nerdfighters. Carey (1989) wrote  that  “we  first   produce the world by symbolic work and then take up residence in the world  we  have  produced”  (p. 30). But Nerdfighteria takes his theory to an extent that he probably could not have imagined. Nerdfighters have a distinctive common culture of symbols—these consist of John and Hank themselves, their videos and the videos of other prominent Nerdfighters, a plethora of inside jokes, and certain current events and issues that are often discussed in the videos. Once these symbols were established, Nerdfighters  “took  up  residence”  in  this  virtual  culture,  naming  it   Nerdfighteria.  But  they  went  a  step  further.  They  organized  “Nerdfighter gatherings,”  some  so  large  that  they  verged  on  conventions.  They  met   each other in person. Some of them became friends. With so many Nerdfighters in a single physical space, that space temporarily became “Nerdfighteria.”  Essentially,  they  took  a  community that was entirely virtual and conceptual, and they brought it into the real world.

The project has come full circle: it began with John and Hank Green, who have known each other their entire lives, trying to replicate the most basic form of human communication (face-to-face conversation). It ended up with thousands of people, who had met and formed connections with each other solely online, returning to this basic type of interaction. Brotherhood 2.0 shaped reality in more than just an ideological way—it shaped it in a physical way too.

Carey’s  ritual  model  of  communication,  therefore,  can  describe  digital   media  with  almost  uncanny  accuracy.  His  assertion  that  “communication   is a symbolic process whereby reality is produced, maintained, repaired, and transformed”  (Carey, 1989, p. 23) can be broken down in terms of Brotherhood 2.0: the two brothers produce the reality that consists of their ideas and their daily back-and-forth ritual, but the community of fans (Nerdfighters) maintains that reality by acknowledging it and talking about it with each other.

At this point, the  original  intent  behind  Carey’s  words  diverges  from   the actuality of this digital artifact. When Carey (1989) wrote about repairing reality (p. 30), he meant that people can repurpose the ideas of others to fit their own needs and eras. The original authors of the theories, in most cases, would not be aware that their ideas were being repurposed. But, in the case of Brotherhood 2.0, the situation is more dynamic. John and  Hank  are  the  “rulers”  of  Nerdfighteria and the authors of its original tenets and ideas. As such, they lay down the foundation—produce the “publicly  available  stock  of  symbols”  (p. 28), as Carey (1989) would put it, of Nerdfighteria. But when Nerdfighters then converse about these symbols, John and Hank are in on the conversation, because it is a conversation that takes place in YouTube videos and on public message boards. Thus, they can address this conversation in their videos,

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essentially  “repairing”  reality,  either  by  modifying their opinions based on something the Nerdfighters say, or by defending their opinions against the opinions of the Nerdfighters. This back-and-forth between media producer and consumer (and even here, the line is blurry)  supports  Carey’s  (1989)   suggestion  that  “thought  is  predominantly  public  and  social”  (p.  28)  and   pushes it further, eliminating the need for the thinkers in question to be proximate to one another.

Finally, the Nerdfighters, with the help of John and Hank, transform reality by bringing Nerdfighteria into the physical world. So although they are “constructing  a  model  of  an  environment  and  then  running  the  model   faster than the environment to see if nature can be coerced to perform as the  model  does”  (Carey, 1989, p. 28),  it’s  a  transformation that comes about not by coercion but almost organically. John and Hank did not set out to build a model for social interactions among thousands of people and then test that model—Nerdfighteria simply developed that way through social, collaborative thinking.

After  John  and  Hank’s  experimental  “year  without  textual   communication”  had  ended,  they  decided  to  continue making videos, mostly to keep their community of viewers alive. Therefore, when Carey (1989) said that  “a  ritual  view  of  communication is directed not toward the extension of messages in space but toward the maintenance of society in time; not the act of imparting information but the representation of shared beliefs”  (p. 18),  it’s  difficult  to  come  up  with  a  more  apt example than Brotherhood 2.0 and Nerdfighteria.

What, then, would Carey think of the vlogbrothers? Carolyn Marvin (1990),  in  an  essay  advocating  the  application  of  Carey’s  ritual  model  to   technology  in  a  broad  sense,  perceived  an  implied  split  in  Carey’s  writing   between  “good-communication and bad-technology”  (p.  217).  She  went  so   far  as  to  say  that  “his  positioning  of  mass  media  and  transportation  as   high-tech destroyers of community makes him a cultural positivist for whom transmissive technology is what is not original oral communication”  (p.  220).  But  in  an  essay  responding  to  Marvin,  Carey   (1990)  countered  that  he  believes  “technology  is  thoroughly  cultural  from   the  outset”  (p.  245).  In  one  sense,  Carey  acknowledged  that  technology  is   “a  creation  and  therefore  an  expression  of  human  purposes”  (p.  245),   indicating that he does not see technology as inherently detrimental. But he  was  clearly  not  without  his  qualms  about  technological  progress.  “I   believe,”  he  wrote,  “that  the technological reorganization of life in the modern world involves genuine gains and losses, and such losses are abbreviated in phrases like the ‘loss of community’ and the ‘decay of democracy.’ It is not that we lost something we once had but that we have been robbed by the illusion that we will ever have  it”  (p.  249).

The problem with communication (and technology by extension), Carey  (1989)  wrote  in  “A  Cultural  Approach  to  Communication,”  is  that   we view it primarily as a means of power and trade, of politics and economics,  instead  of  an  opportunity  “to expand  people’s  powers  to  learn

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and  exchange  ideas  and  experience”  (p.  34).  Carey  (1989)  seemed  keenly   aware of a fault in modern systems of communication, calling us to “rebuild  a  model  of  and  for  communication  of  some  restorative  value  in   shaping our common  culture”  (p.  35).  Still,  he  failed  to  propose  anything   resembling a concrete solution, instead seeming to want to fall back on the old  values  of  oral  tradition.  “The  point  is  not  to  eliminate  technology  (no   one  wants  that),”  he  offered,  “but  to  contain or balance off its bias via an alternative principle and form of communication. The plea for time, for the oral tradition, for virtue is certainly a slim reed on which to hang much hope”  (Carey,  1990,  pp.  250-251).

Carey’s  defeatist  attitude  seemed to spring from his conviction that technology is an inhibitor, rather than a facilitator, of the kind of communication he wished to achieve. Unable to find a solution by pushing technology away, perhaps he should have turned towards it. In fact, many of his goals—“to  learn  and  exchange  ideas  and  experience,”  “shaping  our   common  culture”—ring true as the pillars upon which Brotherhood 2.0 developed.

John  and  Hank’s  digital  relationship  is  a  return  to  the  oral  tradition   that Carey so revered—they are just two brothers sharing stories, jokes, and ideas. It is a relationship where rituals are made possible by technology, rather than hindered by it. Brotherhood 2.0 not only brought people together under a common culture, but encouraged the exchange of thoughts among thousands of people—a constantly-evolving brainstorm on a massive level. John and Hank Green might have found something that Carey was looking for all along.

Certain critiques of the system the Greens developed can be anticipated, and it is true that no technology is without its drawbacks. For one, Nerdfighteria is a world accessible only to the Internet-capable. I believe, however—and I think Carey would agree—that it is the people waterlogged with technology who are most in need of a new ritual model of communication. Another concern is that the sheer volume of discourse generated by the project is so enormous as to be overwhelming. Still, the model works because John and Hank serve as moderators. If you do not have the time or will to venture into the forums, you can still be part of the community  by  watching  the  brothers’  videos,  where  they  will  give  updates   about the goings-on in Nerdfighteria, distilling the ideas generated in the aforementioned brainstorm into highlights that they find intriguing.

Despite the vastly positive aspects of this social and intellectual community, Carey (1990) might still have balked at the technological medium,  seeing  this  as  yet  another  unsuccessful  “attempt  to  escape  the   constraints  of  the  proximate”  (p.  249).  He  might  view computer screens as a sterilizing force, prohibiting us from truly engaging in the oral tradition. But there is nothing sterilizing about the knowledge that there are people out there, like long-lost relatives, who are friends that you have not yet met—nothing distancing about the sheer delight in your voice when you see someone in a coffee shop wearing a shirt emblazoned with John

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Green’s  face  and  the  word  PIZZA (proof that the stock of common cultural  symbols  transcends  the  Internet)  and  say,  “You’re  a  Nerdfighter?  I   am  too!”  In  a  community  born  of  distance,  proximity  is  celebrated.

So is Brotherhood 2.0 the future of communication? Could the project be copied, creating communities to fill different niches of the digital world? Perhaps not, if only because it developed under circumstances that are not precisely replicable. The fact that John and Hank reached out to self-identified  “nerds,”  people  who  stereotypically  gravitate  to  the   Internet, could partially account for their success. Moreover, as an author for teenagers, John had already gained a fan base for his books. Many of these people probably followed him to Brotherhood 2.0 via a quick Google search of his name, and they account largely for the age demographic of Nerdfighteria. Additionally, one video—in which Hank performs an original song about the then-upcoming release of the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows book—went viral, prompting an unforeseen  influx  of  viewers  (“Accio  Deathly  Hallows”  has  been  viewed   over a million times on YouTube).

Even if the Brotherhood 2.0 model is never precisely duplicated, it does serve to illustrate the vast potential of digital media to create communities, and it answers some of the concerns Carey identified about the state of modern communication. The project has taught us that the Internet can facilitate dialogue in a ritualistic way that brings back some of the positive aspects of the oral tradition and transforms them, so that people  across  the  globe  can  join  the  conversation.  In  the  Green  brothers’   original drive to become more connected, they ended up connecting many others. And because of the momentum gained from a greater number of people  producing  and  spreading  ideas  together,  Carey’s  theory  of  ritual   communication has reached new heights. If the digital generation takes a page  from  the  vlogbrothers’  book,  perhaps  the  oral  tradition  can  live  on— not in spite of the Internet, but because of it.

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Appendix: Video Transcript for “Brotherhood 2.0: January 1st” Intro Titles:

Two Brothers, One Video Blog

365 Days of Textless Communication

It’s  a  whole  new  kind  of  Brotherhood.

Brotherhood 2.0

Hank  Green:  Hey  John.  I  guess  you’ve  heard  by  now—

[camera beeps]

Hank Green: Auto power off? What the—still some glitches to work out.

Hank Green: Hello, John. By now you will have received my message that we will no longer be communicating through any textual means. No more instant messaging; no more emailing. Only video blogging. And possibly phone calls.

Hank Green: You can see my eye in my eye. Ahhhh.

Hank  Green:  Okay,  let’s  try  to  ignore  that.  There.  You  can’t  see  it  now,   can you?

Hank  Green:  Last  night  I  sent  you  an  email  from  a  New  Year’s  Eve  party   in Lake Tahoe.

Hank Green (voiceover): The email outlined our plans. Starting on January 1st—today—I will send you a video blog. Tomorrow, you will reply to that video blog. We will continue like this until the year is up. If one of us fails to send a video blog on a weekday, there will be certain punishments. The punishments will be outlined later. I finished this email, “Cross  my  heart,  hope  to  die,  and  I  may  very  possibly  be  required  to  stick   a  needle  in  my  eye.”  That’s  the  kind  of  punishment  I’m  talking about. Brotherhood 2.0 commences today. Does that make us crazy? Probably.

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References Carey, J. W. (1989). A cultural approach to communication.

Communication as culture (pp. 13-36). Winchester, MA: Unwin Hyman.

Carey, J. W. (1990). Technology as a totem for culture: and a defense of the oral tradition. American Journalism, 7(4), 242-251.

Couldry, N. (2003). Media rituals: A critical approach. New York, NY: Routledge. Green, H. (2007, January 1). Brotherhood 2.0: January 1st [Video file].

Retrieved from Marvin, C. (1990). Reconsidering James Carey: How many rituals does it

take to make an artifact? American Journalism, 7(4), 216-226.