Book review

Camgirls: Celebrity and community in the age of social networks, by Theresa M. Senft

Adriano Barone

Milan, Italy

[0.1] Keywords—Ethics; Gender; New media; Online social networks

Barone, Adriano. 2009. Camgirls: Celebrity and community in the age of social networks, by Theresa M. Senft [book review]. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 3.


Theresa M. Senft. Camgirls: Celebrity and community in the age of social networks. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2008, $29.95 (150p) ISBN 978-0-8204-5694-2.

[1] Camgirls: Celebrity and Community in the Age of Social Networks discusses, in the words of its author, "what it means for feminists to speak of the personal as political in the age of networks" (115). The book defines politics as "leveraging of power between connected entities" (5): therefore the dialectical nature of communication on the Web makes it an inherently political medium. Senft then acutely notes that common assumptions about these two categories—political and personal—make commentators forget to analyze and understand the political values of personal blogs and of other online network/community-building tools, exemplified here by Webcamming (that is, dramatizing one's life and views on the Web with a camera), and focus by contrast on apparently more openly political expression on the Web.

[2] After this framing introduction, the core of the book is divided into five chapters, each of which identifies different issues regarding Webcamming. Through case histories with which the author was personally involved, Senft shows how ordinary notions related to ethics, feminism, and personal and political issues on the Web are based on false assumptions and are proven, to different levels and extents, to be wrong.

[3] Chapter 1, "Keeping It Real on the Web: Authenticity, Celebrity, Branding," considers the ideology of publicity, which for camgirls (that is, girls who practice Webcamming) translates into essentially three strategies: theatrical authenticity, self-branding, and celebrity. The most interesting point here is a critique of the concepts of self-branding and microcelebrity (as opposed to "real" celebrity): the desire and the practice to present oneself to others over the Web using tools typically associated with celebrity promotion—with the key difference that "on the web popularity depends upon a connection to one's audience, rather than an enforced separation from them" (26).

[4] According to sociologist Erving Goffman, identity amounts to little more than a series of performances directed to particular audiences in our lives. Hence, the difference between real celebrities and people such as those camgirls engaged in microcelebrity practices lies in the ways in which members of these groups address their respective audiences. The chapter also suggests that celebrities are commodities masquerading as people, while those engaged in microcelebrity are people experimenting with branding themselves as commodities, a point that the author discusses in chapter 2. The issues at stake are particularly significant, but unfortunately, Senft's book does not deal further with the concept of microcelebrity, only focusing on self-branding; microcelebrity is announced as the subject of an upcoming volume still being written.

[5] The end of chapter 1 transitions to themes developed in the rest of the book: the idea that the Web can be a tool to practice micropolitics, meant as "conversations and actions in non-political arenas that set the stage for macro politics by rendering people receptive or unreceptive to certain messages and plans of action" (31).

[6] Chapter 2, "I'd Rather be a Camgirl Than a Cyborg: The Future of Feminism on the Web," demonstrates how the concept of self-branding is not an exhaustive depiction of Webcamming. The inherently transformative online aesthetic of the "grab," which allows viewers/consumers to take what they want and rework or discard the rest, makes Webcamming a relentlessly confrontational activity. Webcam girls don't simply sell a product; they also engage in a very specific kind of emotional labor, which prompts speculation on how much a camgirl can have in common with other first and third world emotional laborers who don't broadcast on the Web. This speculation is formulated via the concept of strategic essentialism, a practice through which individuals create new names for themselves, generating feelings of affinity and at the same time antagonism toward other individuals, thus acknowledging all identities to be inaccurate and/or incomplete. Particularly relevant here for its implications with regards to transformative culture, the concept of grabbing implies both that a casualty principle is at work in the production of camgirls' Web site materials, but also that consumers play an active role in choosing, collecting, interpreting, and putting back into circulation on the Web these same visual materials.

[7] Chapter 3, "Being and Acting Online: From Telepresence to Tele-ethicality," assumes that forestalling ethical action in mediated environments like the Web is very dangerous and advocates for such a danger to be avoided by "tele-ethicality": that is, to "engage, rather than forestall action in our mediated communities, despite the potential for fakery and fraud" (56). This means that physical interaction with an individual known only on the Web should be taken into consideration by members of network communities, since usually viewed and lived experiences are considered to be mutually exclusive (the author reports the case of an attempted suicide, watched by more than 1,000 viewers, without anybody but two of them calling 911 as a "concrete" reaction).

[8] The author makes explicit here the book's overall prescriptive approach to ethics. Contrary to her promise of a descriptive position in her introduction, Senft is not distanced from the phenomena under examination, and she shifts from analysis to activism. The same happens in chapter 5, which urges "reflective solidarity," and in the conclusion, where the author concludes with five recommendations ("Emphasize the Cultural," "Respect the Local and the Strangers," "Think Heretically," "Take Ethical Action," and "Seek Solidarity with 'Friends' and Friends"). Such recommendations are not theoretical but rather grounded on the personal experiences reported in the text, where they provide a sort of manifesto. By repeatedly quoting Donna Haraway's 1985 "Cyborg Manifesto," Senft wants to update her message for a contemporary feminist audience. This is a perfectly acceptable aim, but it sacrifices the theoretical aspects of the book as initially formulated.

[9] Chapter 4, "The Public, the Private and the Pornographic," follows logically from the need to derail, through tele-ethical strategies, the process by which camgirls become virtualized and considered as pornographic icons. Senft refers to Haraway's usage of the word cyborg in discussing a pornographic ideology, defined as the belief that specific, feminized bodies ought to be scapegoats for shifting relationships between public and private in a culture—even if this definition seems to describe a social interpretation of the phenomenon, and not the phenomenon per se.

[10] One of the most interesting observations made in this chapter is the notion that, throughout history, women have responded to their exclusion from the public sphere by establishing counter–public places where democracy is regularly critiqued and strengthened. Camgirls specifically resist the intimate public sphere through performance, creating networks through what is called "strange familiarity"—that is, the familiarity arising from exchanging private information with otherwise remote strangers. Senft points out two limits of feminist porn-camp on the Web, the most cogent one being the fact that camp loses much of its force as a result of the appropriative aesthetic of the grab—which blurs the boundaries of the supposed counter–public space in which the Webcam performance takes place.

[11] Chapter 5, "I'm a Network: From 'Friends' to Friends," examines the concept of community building, focusing on what the author calls "networked reflective solidarity": a political identification and alignment with the other, performed by acknowledging not identity but difference. As Senft explains, "In reflective solidarity, I acknowledge that others are knowable to me only via conjecture or fantasy, yet I chose to believe in them and the affinity we share, and I vow to listen to them" (108).

[12] Here, the concept of dialectic confrontation is again taken up when talking about both identity performance and community/network building, and through them elaborating the notion of ethical narcissism, which further strengthens the idea of "the personal is political" already stated in the introductory chapter. According to the concept of ethical narcissism, if the author of a blog (or any other personal space on the Web) accepts the possibility of interaction with a network, as opposed to a purely nonconfrontational exposition, the narcissistic practice of personal blogs can become ethical in the sense that it becomes dialectic and creates the opportunity to spread a dialogue beyond the established network in which it was originally formulated.

[13] Camgirls is an innovative take on the ethics of rules building in online communities. The book makes a strong point of showing the fallacy of naive beliefs in the not-political nature of narcissism and pornography, two positions stereotypically associated with camgirls and in general with developing personal spaces online.

[14] The overall conclusions are twofold. First, tele-ethicality allows women to have a stronger political impact on the Web, and it helps build a larger and more significant arena for micropolitics. Second, activism can spring from spaces not designed for political action but that end up facilitating it, such as Web communities based on the ostensibly personal practice of Webcamming. However, Senft opts not to overtly theorize these conclusions and ties up her prescriptions only by their being based on multiple observations of her personal experience. Since Senft is writing two more essays on microcelebrity and tele-ethicality, it is to be hoped that reading Camgirls together with the next volumes will provide a more organic, theorized, and complete vision. In any case, the book stands out among studies on Web communities because it provides an ethical theorization of community building online filtered through a feminist point of view.

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