LiveJournal: A Brief Introduction
LiveJournal.com is a broad online community, more commonly known as a “blogging” website. A blog is an online journal. Anyone can sign up to create his or her own blog. A LiveJournal functions much like any other personal journal: its owner may write anything he or she likes in it, and the entries are stored chronologically on that person’s journal webpage. Identity is defined in several ways on LiveJournal. Each LiveJournal comes with a User Information Page, in which the user may provide biographical information, oftentimes including name (or nickname), age, location, personal interests, and user pictures. On these pages, users are chiefly identified by provided usernames. These function much like screen names on AOL Instant Messenger or E-mail addresses, identifying the users, while concealing true identities. User pictures are another form of expression and identification used on LiveJournal. Users may have at least one (more often, two or three) icons that are continually used to represent themselves whenever they post anything on the website. These pictures are restricted only by size: they may be no larger than 100 by 100 pixels, which is approximately the size of a square inch. Aside from this, the pictures may contain any image. Generally, users select images that they feel best represent their personalities – typically self-portraits, oftentimes photos of favorite bands, animals or movies, or merely images they find beautiful or amusing or somehow striking.
Users interact with each other in several ways. One is through reading one another’s journals and leaving “Comments.” This is the chief feature that makes online journals so appealing: writers can easily get feedback on their entries. Comments can be viewed by others, and can be replied to. The other main way in which users interact with each other is through Communities. Communities function as single journals in which multiple users write. Each Community is founded with a single interest or purpose in mind with which to incite users to join and post entries relating to the topic at hand. These topics may be related to political issues, musical interests, artistic sharing, personal emotional and health related issues, fashion statements, and even specific kinds of pornography. Communities have User Info pages just like personal journals. Some Communities have only a few members and are fairly inactive, while others have hundreds of members, and receive dozens of posts a day. Members of Communities may post entries at any point, and all members can view all entries. Each entry may be commented on by any member, and every Comment may be responded to. It is in this way that group discussions and interactions are fostered.
A Community for Dreadlocks Enthusiasts
The Community in which I will be focusing my ethnography is called “A Community for Dreadlocks Enthusiasts,” found under the username get_up_dread_up. It was created in March of 2002, and currently has 515 members. Its list of interests includes dreadlocks, freedom, Africa, reggae, philosophy, spirituality, and friendship. These are some of the attributes which attract users to this Community, and bond the members together. While this Community has hundreds of members, not all members post regularly. The Community receives, on average, half a dozen to a dozen posts a day. I myself have been a member for at least a year, but have posted perhaps four times. Because of the equal-opportunity nature of LiveJournal Communities, the power structure of get_up_dread_up is extremely relaxed. There is a Moderator, one who makes sure the Community stays true to its original purpose, and runs smoothly. The current moderator, nairamdal_park has practically zero presence in the Community. In fact, she even posted once while I was conducting my observations to ask if anyone else wanted to step in a take over position as moderator. For all practical purposes, the Community functions entirely on its own without a clear leader. Some people post more often than others – adonialetha (an 18 year old Caucasian girl from Pennsylvania), missteerayne (an 18 year old African American girl from New York), kittypoop (a young woman), and at least a dozen more post every week, if not every day, and often comment on other people’s posts. However, no one seems to hold any real power in the Community. It does not matter how prominent a member you are: everyone can post, everyone can comment, everyone is treated respectfully, and no one has any special privileges over anyone else. For the purpose of collecting information for this paper, I posted an entry asking members to respond with their age, location, gender, race, and age of dreadlocks, and received around 50 responses. From these responses, I gathered that the huge majority (around 80% of the responses) of active members of this Community are under the age of 25. This is not surprising when you stop to consider what kinds of people would belong to an online community – generally, the younger generation has more access to the internet due to modernized educational facilities, and tend to be more computer-literate than their older counterparts. In this sense, LiveJournal communities by their very nature cater to middle class youth. Most members have had their dreadlocks for three years or less, and quite a few do not even yet have them. There are a few active members who have had their dreadlocks for over ten years, but the majority of responses came from people with dreadlocks one to three years old. Approximately two-thirds of the responses came from people in various parts of the United States, and the rest from foreign countries: Canada (6), Great Britain (2), Norway (2), Holland (2), the Netherlands (1), Germany (1), Australia (1), and Singapore (1). One striking statistic is that the huge majority of active members are Caucasian and female. This is interesting because dreadlocks have strong associations with Rastafarianism, a distinctly African religion and culture in which women are regarded as subordinate. Why then, is this Dreadlock Enthusiast’s Community filled with mostly white women from the United States and Europe? Through observing this Community, I’ve discovered that there are many different reasons for getting and maintaining dreadlocks besides following the Rastafarian faith.
Get_Up_Dread_Up’s posts vary in topic from entry to entry, but seem to separate into two distinct categories: dreadlock maintenance and photo updates, and dreadlock-related morality and spirituality. The maintenance type of entries are the most common. These are often quite repetitive: as the Community collects new members, the same questions are asked over and over again. These questions usually ask for advice on how to make dreadlocks smoother and tighter, how often to wash them, what products to use, how to create dreadlocks in straight hair, how to remove dreadlocks without shaving the head entirely, how to deal with lice, etc. Despite the repetition of the questions, Community members always respond with helpful advice. As some members have had dreadlocks for several years, they are in a good position to offer advice to those who are struggling with fledgling dreads. However, even those who have month-old dreadlocks can be considered “dreadheads” and are able to offer constructive advice to those getting dreadlocks. One of the first things you’ll learn from this Community is that dreadlocks are a continuous process. After their intitial formation or “birth,” dreadlocks will grow and change as long as hair continues to grow out of the head. As knots tighten up and hair becomes more entangled, dreadlocks tighten and thicken, becoming smoother and harder. One of the most common types of posts in this Community is a photo update. Members often post photos of their hair, bragging about how long they’ve had their dreads, showing off how much tighter they’ve gotten since the last set of pictures, or complaining about how they wish their dreads didn’t stick up so much. There are certain members who post photos of their dreadlocks quite regularly, and seem extremely proud of their tresses. 19 year old Norwegian Fugged has had her dreadlocks for two years and five months, and 17 year old Caterpillarboy from the Netherlands has had hers for a year. Both girls post approximately every month with thoughtful photographs of their hair, expressing the beauty, happiness and contentment they gain from their decision to keep dreadlocks. Members always respond in a complimentary fashion, encouraging and congratulating, asking or giving advice depending on the circumstances, almost always mentioning how the most important factor in having good-looking dreadlocks is time, pure and simple. Another common type of picture-post is that of someone without dreads wondering if they would “look good” with dreads. An example of this was on November 18th. Freak41 posted several photos of herself, stating that she “extremely wants dreads,” but isn’t sure if they would suit her. She requested “any opinion, good or bad.” Ten people responded, and all of them encouraged her to get dreadlocks. A similar instance occurred on November 2nd. Drivebyfruiting posted pictures of herself, explaining that many people have told her that dreads would look bad on her. There were 19 comments in response, every single one of them encouraging her to decide for herself, adding that dreadlocks would indeed look marvelous on her, as they would on anyone who really wanted them. The decision to get dreadlocks is usually one that takes a long time for people to come to. Most people getting dreads state that they have wanted them for a long time, and always coveted them on other people. Reasons for getting dreads in the first place are not usually intellectual or philosophical: it’s mostly about either the way they look, or the convenience of a lower-maintenance hairstyle. As time goes on, people become more emotionally attached to their locks; as the emotional attachment grows, so does a spiritual connection and philosophy towards their hair.
The Morality of Dreadlocks
The consistently positive attitude of the people in these entries indicates that getting dreadlocks, even as a fashion choice, is about attitude and love, not about face shape and hair texture. Since the most important factor in getting satisfactory dreadlocks is time, dreadlocks require serious commitment. This leads us to the second category of posts: those about the morality and spirituality of dreadlocks. Race and discrimination indeed become important issues in relation to dreadlocks. Since dreadlocks are typically viewed as something only black people have, many Caucasian dreadheads face discrimination from family and the workplace. Tearose offers a typical attitude from the Community towards this issue in her November 2nd post:
“You know, I’ve been thinking about this. And I wish more people would understand that dreads don’t belong to anyone. They don’t belong to a specific race … people dread their hair for a reason, whether it be for religious reasons, spirituality, whether they be artists or poets or hippies. To me, dreads identify a person’s heart, not their skin color.”
Indeed, this attitude is exhibited in the diversity of the members of the Community. While the majority of members are Caucasian, their family heritages come from all over the world, and the members as individuals are extremely varied. Through this Community, dreadheads from all walks of life can offer each other moral support, encouraging each other not to give in to societal pressures. Issues intensify, as does the need for moral support, when dreadheads face negative pressure from their family and friends. Susan27 wrote on November 11th that her father tried to pay her money in order to remove her dreadlocks in order to “conform.” Showinexpression responded with similar stories from her past, in which her boyfriend’s mother offered her $300 to cut off her dreadlocks. She’s also had job offers that were contigent on her cutting off her dreadlocks. Did she cut them? “Hell no! Jobs come and go, and money stays in ur [sic] pocket for only a moment. Dreads can last forever.” Showinexpression’s strong commitment to her dreads is a common theme amongst the members of the Community, no matter how they came to have dreads in the first place. I_dread is one of the oldest active members of the community, and has had his dreads for 12 years. In age and dreadlock-related acumen, he is rather like the patriarch of the community. He offered these words of wisdom to Susan27: “Dreads grow from your heart, and not your head… You are dread, and with that comes the locks … To cut them off, would be like cutting a piece of your heart out.” Through facing adversity, dreadheads strengthen their own identity and commitment to having dreadlocks. In this way, dreadlocks become more than just a hairstyle: they symbolize personal choice, freedom, and connection with oneself.
Indeed, a common topic of discussion is the deep meaning of dreadlocks to each individual. Continuing the above discussion, Aplasticred offers her sad personal anecdote, in which she relates her shorn dreadlocks to a lost love:
“I took mine out because everyone pressured me to. I tried to stay strong and resist, but I just couldn’t do it. my family, my friends, even my own boyfriend all wanted me to take my dreads out. so I did, and I miss them so damn much. taking them out was like killing a little piece of me… having dreads is like having a great romance.”
Another interesting discussion occurred in response to treeshaman’s November 6th entry in which she questions keeping her 13 year old dreads after having a serious revelation about her life in which she feels a need to cleanse herself of the past. Dreadlocks, again, gradually morphing over time yet never fully changing, mirror the lives of their owners. In order to move forward and shed the “negative energies” of the past, is it beneficial to also shed the hair? In dealing with these issues, dreadheads often become fairly superstitious. How does one rid oneself of negative energies? Susilou1 states that “water gets rid of energy … so just running warm water over your dreads gets rid of all your negative energy.” In response to this, fourmi declares that “they can’t be completely filled with negative energy. They are mostly filled with your energy, which I believe can’t be entirely negative, neither positive. If your revelations told you they were more negative than positive, it’s your mission to overcome the negativeness. In that case, cutting them would be giving everything up.” Members associate hairstyles with lifestyles. Piratepug added: “I know I have learnt a lot from having dreads and I am not sure if that kind of learning from them has run its course… I know that you never stop learning, though I do miss the simplicity of having a shaved head, and maybe simplicity is what I need right now… maybe I need to venture on into unknown territory with my dreads? I really don’t know?” To members like Piratepug, hair represents more than mere fashion: it signifies a lifestyle choice, and encompasses a philosophy to live by.
Several things about this community remind me of the community analyzed in Barbara Myerhoff’s Number Our Days. Members of each community are strongly tied together through strength in the face of adversity. The elderly Jewish immigrants in Myerhoff’s ethnography each experienced severe discrimination and strife due to their religion during their lives. All survived by learning from personal and observed mistakes, and gained inner strength and wisdom through overcoming adversity. Most dreadheads in get_up_dread_up have experienced a similar, though usually less extreme form of suffering for their choice to have dreadlocks. While discrimination against dreadlocks could be considered quite petty compared to the years of painful intolerance endured by the old people in Myerhoff’s book, it is still a valid form of discrimination, and causes people with dreadlocks to strengthen their own personal resolutions. Many dreadheads have lost jobs, friends, lovers, and fought with family members over their decision to have dreadlocks. Keeping dreadlocks in the face of such adversity requires inner strength and a strong personal relationship with their hair. Similarly, the elderly Jews developed and maintained intensely strong personal relationships with Judaism. While they often did not see eye to eye with each other on such matters, each one took comfort in their own individual beliefs, and gained strength from it.
Through being a member of get_up_dread_up and observing their interactions for a better part of a year, I have learned a great deal about dreadlocks. Not only do I know which brand of shampoo is ideal for maintaining healthy locks (Dr. Bronner’s Tea Tree Oil) and how to tighten dreads at the roots (grab each dreadlock above the root and rub briskly against the scalp in a circular motion for a couple of minutes), but I know why many young white women around the world choose to get a hairstyle associated with a male-oriented African religion. Dreadlocks represent style, freedom, individual choice, a lifelong relationship with one’s self and one’s hair, spiritual connection to natural processes of life and time, and acceptance of all of these aspects of oneself. In get_up_dread_up, self-awareness and acceptance are manifested in dreads.