ANTH 110, Vered Arnon
Homosexual Nomos out of Heterosexual Chaos: Gay.com(1) as a Ritualistic Social Construction of Reality
PART ONE. THE RITUAL
A young man sits down in front of his computer in his dorm room. He lights up a cigarette. The ashtray sits on the desk next to his computer. Moonlight shines through the window. The rooms is illuminated by only the moonlight, the computer screen, and the ember of a freshly lit cigarette. Music plays, quietly enough to be nondescript, the playlist containing varieties of pop and rock.
The young man wears baggy jeans and socks. He removed his sandals near the doorway of his room. He removed his shirt before sitting down. He appears relaxed, comfortable and casual, except for the tenseness in his wrist as he smokes his cigarette. Setting the cigarette down on the edge of the ashtray, he opens a browser window on his computer and types in the address of Gay.com. While the page loads, he takes another drag of his cigarette. His empty hand glides to the edge of his desk, where his fingers idly play a staccato rhythm. Once the page has loaded, both hands return to the keyboard.
First he sets up a ‘profile’. He creates a screen name to identify himself on the website. The screen name is ‘chshrcatwscnsn’. He enters words into boxes on the screen, describing himself and his interests and his romantic and sexual preferences. He emphasises that he is a college student who likes to party and is interested in finding interesting people to talk to as well as prospective long term romantic partners. He describes his appearance truthfully, using words with very positive connotations but without exaggeration. After filling in the text of the ‘profile’, he moves on to the pictures section. He uploads one photograph of himself. In the photograph, he is standing next to a friend, but the picture has been edited so that his friend’s face is hidden. Then he uploads a picture of a kitten with a sniper rifle. ‘This picture is hot,’ he says to himself, half-acknowledging the presence of an observer in the chair next to his desk. ‘People will look at this picture, and think what the fuck, it’s a cute little kitten with a big huge sniper rifle! It’s so cute but it’s so hardcore too, people will see this and they’ll know I’m an interesting person.’
After the ‘profile’ is set up, the second step begins. He clicks on a button on the website, opening up the messenger interface. This is a java applet that allows realtime chatting. When someone’s screen name is logged in on the site, and he has the messenger open, then someone viewing his ‘profile’ can click on a link and engage him in realtime typed communication.
The third step of the ritual begins once the messenger interface is opened. The young man grinds out his cigarette in the ashtray and lights up another one. He combs his hair away from his face with the fingers of his other hand, shaking his hair back as he exhales a thick plume of smoke. This type of body language would catch someone’s attention at a club or in a party situation. Self-conscious grooming behaviour is generally considered flirtatious by his society. ‘No one can see you,’ the observer comments teasingly. He laughs and replies, ‘Shut up. I’m just getting into the mood.’
He searches through the geographical listing of ‘profiles’ and selects his own geographic location. He begins to browse through the ‘profiles’ on the site, skipping over some, contemplating some for a few moments, and clicking on the messenger link to yet others. When he clicks on the messenger link, he types and sends the message ‘What’s up?’. A couple of messages pop up on his screen from ‘profiles’ he hasn’t viewed, containing the same message that he sends out. He looks at their pictures and ‘profiles’ before he responds. Some messages don’t get a response. To others he responds ‘nothing much. You?’. Those to whom he initiated the messaging respond with the same. This is followed by questions of ‘where do you go to school’ or ‘what do you do’ and so on. Jokes are made about the boring quality of life in the Midwest or the overwhelming academic requirements of private colleges. If the conversation picks up, email addresses or other screen names are exchanged, and real first names are shared. If the conversation is slow, the messenger window is closed or ignored. After about half an hour of this activity, the young man types messages claiming that he has to go study, or go to bed, or go to a party, into the various messenger windows that are still open. Then he closes all his browser windows and stands up from his computer. ‘Oh, you wanna interview me now?’ he asks the observer whom he’d been entirely ignoring during the last phase of the ritual.
PART TWO. ANALYSIS
For the purpose of this ethnography, ‘ritual’ is defined as ‘an activity engaging in self-conscious use of symbols’. The term ‘symbol’ is here understood to refer to ‘tangible formulations of notions, abstractions from experience fixed in perceptible forms, concrete embodiments of ideas, attitudes, judgements, longings, or beliefs.’(2)
Many symbols are involved in the ritualistic social construction of reality through use of Gay.com. The use of symbols is the primary factor that makes this activity ritualistic. Social construction of reality is performed by humans in nonritualistic settings as well as ritualistic ones. The explanation of symbols and what they stand for will show how this activity constructs a social reality in a ritualistic way.
The first symbol employed in this ritual activity is the computer. The computer is a communication tool, but when used in the context of this ritual, it becomes symbolic of direct interaction. It mediates between the individual participants and the constructed reality. The computer is not a doorway, or symbolic of a doorway, but it functions to enable passage from one plane of reality to another. The computer symbolises the ‘ritual space’.
The second symbol builds from the first. The second symbol involved in this ritual is the website Gay.com. Gay.com is symbolic of the open forum of interaction where humans seek mates or romantic or sexual interests. The social reality that American college aged males live in is a predominantly heterosexually structured one, and Gay.com is symbolic of a homosexually structured counterpart to this reality.
The next symbol is the ‘profile’ that the individual participant constructs at the beginning of the ritual. This ‘profile’ symbolises himself. In an ordinary setting where people make new acquaintances, they use body language to communicate and attract others. The ‘profile’ is symbolic of body language. Articulate self-description is symbolic of physical grace – misspelled words in a profile are symbolic of (and thus interpreted as) clumsiness. The ‘profile’ is the online symbol of one’s self, and the ritualistic creation of the ‘profile’ is a ritualistic creation of what one would ideally be in a context where homosexuality was the accepted norm. No pretenses of heterosexual behaviour are made, no assumptions of heterosexuality obscure one’s intentions and expressions. The ‘profile’ is symbolic of the internal self that feels stifled and restricted in a heterosexually dominated society but in this ritual is liberated and empowered.
The pictures uploaded in the pictures section of the ‘profile’ are symbols as well. The photograph of himself that the participant in the case study uploaded is a symbolic visual representation of himself, not merely a visual representation. He chooses one in which he thinks he is portrayed attractively. He chooses one in which he is standing with a friend because he wants to show that he is not lonely or socially inept or needy. But even more symbolic is the other picture he uploaded, the picture of the kitten with the sniper rifle. This picture symbolises his own personality. The humour and creativity in the picture expresses things about himself that would be revealed through the tone of his voice or the facial expressions accompanying his flirtation. In the context of a constructed online reality where physical interaction is impossible, the symbolism in pictures serves to carry information that is basic and important to what sort of impression ‘he’ (his ‘profile’) will give people on first sight.
The messenger interface on Gay.com is also a symbol. It symbolises conversation and verbal communication. The realtime interface symbolises the direct openness of communication between people when they meet at a bar or a club or anyplace else where people go to ‘pick up’ other people. In American heterosexually dominated society, there aren’t abundant locations where men can go to meet new people and toss out ‘pick up lines’ to anyone who attracts their attention, but the realtime messenger interface on Gay.com provides a symbolic substitute for this social forum and interaction. The text, typed into the messenger box, is symbolic of what people would say to each other face to face. Different abbreviations reflect different personal styles, different opening questions are symbolic of the different sorts of eye contact or body language that would occur in a physically interactive setting. Initiating a conversation through the messenger interface is symbolic of making a ‘pick up’ attempt. Responding to someone else’s initiation is symbolic of accepting the offer of flirtation.
PART THREE. INTERPRETATION.
Rituals function to meet human needs. Peter Berger describes a theory about the social function of ritual and the social construction of reality in his book The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion(3). Human existence for individuals is characterised by a need to create nomos out of chaos. The world is disordered and meaning is not inherent. Human individuals have a psychological need for meaning and order. When faced with anomic aspects of reality, individuals cope by creating nomos. The heterosexually dominated society in America is anomic for a homosexual individual. Heterosexually dominated social structure and interaction patterns are chaotic and meaningless to a homosexual individual. One of the most basic areas of life where nomos is essential is that of sexuality. Humans have a need to attract mates, to be found attractive, and to be able to interact in such a way that they can communicate these instincts and be understood. Chaos in areas of life that are basic and instinctual threatens an individual’s sense of meaning even in other unrelated areas of life. When basic needs are not met, other needs cannot be attended to. A nomic structure in which individuals can meet their sexual needs is essential not only for individual psychological well-being, but also for the general well-being of the community, because if some members feel alienated or have unmet needs, then their contribution to the community is restricted. Depression and frustration resulting from a lack of perceivable meaning in the structure of reality affects those around an individual as well as the individual himself. The anomie of the heterosexual predominance in settings like bars, clubs, and other places of social mingling, threatens a homosexual’s ability to find order and meaning in flirtation and mate-seeking. To overcome this chaos inherent in American social reality, individuals ritualistically create a symbolic social reality, where they can interact with other homosexual individuals in a nomic setting that makes sense to them and is meaningful to them. Participation of homosexual individuals in use of Gay.com is a ritualistic social construction of nomic reality to counter the anomie of the heterosexually dominated social reality that these individuals have to cope with day after day.
The individuals interviewed for this ethnography and the individual observed during the ritual have requested anonymity. Much gratitude is extended towards them for their cooperation with this project.
Berger, Peter L. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Doubleday, 1967).
Geertz, Clifford. “Religion as a Cultural Symbol”, in The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973).
2 Clifford Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural Symbol”, in The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), p91
3 Peter L Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Doubleday, 1967). While this ethnography is focusing on nonceremonial, and thus nonreligious, ritual, Berger’s book on theory of religion is where his discussion of ritual is found. He is also the author of The Social Construction of Reality, in which his theory upon which interpretation of this ritual is based is developed with less specific focus on ritual.