First Place Social and Natural Sciences Upper Level
Geeks that Sparkle: Ethnography of an Online Community of Nerds
Class of 2015
International Studies 261
Dr. Brian Turner
SparkLife is a forum-post and social-networking website attached to the study guide
website SparkNotes. Those who have accounts on SparkLife are known as sparklers.
Sparklers tend to be young, motivated, intellectual, and, for lack of a better word,
nerdy. Nerds, that is, young people with a keen interest in scholarly disciplines
who are also passionate about very specific fictional works, are SparkLife’s target
audience. The articles posted, as well as conversations in the comments section,
Articles often focus on intellectual pursuits such as history, science, and literature,
as well as works of fiction, pop culture, and current events. Sparklers are either
in college or finishing high school and as the website is based out of New York
most are American. There are many from other countries, however, and there is a
noticeably higher female presence. “Manklers,” male sparklers, are so rare that
I could only track down one willing to be interviewed.
I joined SparkLife in my senior year of high school. I noticed it while reading
the SparkNotes study guide for William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and before
long I was visiting it at least once a day. I finally formed an account because
I really wanted to comment on a particular article. Soon I was a full-fledged sparkler
posting my own articles, commenting regularly on others’ articles, up-voting comments,
and corresponding with both fellow sparklers and the SparkLife editors, known as
“sparkitors”. I chose to study SparkLife partially because I was already involved
in the community, but mostly because I realized that in many ways SparkLife fit
the criteria of a subculture; this fascinated me, as the community is wholly internet-based.
With the advent of websites like SparkLife, the internet is quickly becoming much
more than a source of information. It’s also a place to connect with other people,
and those connections can often form communities based entirely on electronic communication.
These communities are just as valid as their real-life counterparts and can thus
be subject to ethnographic research.
Participant observation on SparkLife consists of a few steps. First one forms an
account and chooses a username; sparklers’ usernames typically reflect their interests
or fandoms. (A fandom refers to a group of people who enjoy a particular fictional
work or genre.) After choosing a username one simply reads articles, comments on
them, and replies to others’ comments, making a few “sparkfriends” along the way.
I do all of these things anyway, but when I began studying SparkLife, I did so while
paraphrasing, or directly quoting, articles and comments in my field notes and then
analyzing those articles and comments. I was looking for underlying motives behind
SparkLife norms as well as commonalities among sparklers themselves.
I began my research after e-mailing sparkitor Chelsea Dagger to obtain permission
to do so. Chelsea readily gave it, adding that since SparkLife is an online community
open to anyone who might want to view its content, permission was not really necessary.
I received even more consent for the project when I presented a description of it
to the sparklers. I did this by writing an article explaining the intent of the
project, my methodology, and what would happen to my findings. I also asked that
anyone who might want to help with it say so in the comments. It got over 50 comments,
all of which were in support of the project and many of which included offers to
help. One comment was particularly enthusiastic and included the sparkler’s personal
A major concern I had before starting the project was biased. Being a long-time
sparkler myself, I harbor certain affection for the community. I steeled myself
beforehand to describe both the positive and negative aspects of SparkLife and to
present both equally. To do this I first completed my field research, noting norms,
values, and the thoughts and opinions of other sparklers. I then took a step back
and tried to imagine how a non-sparkler might view my findings. It was then that
I began my analysis.
As stated, I was able to interview sparklers who had commented on the post announcing
my project, one of which was a young woman known on SparkLife as LadyM. LadyM had
many useful insights, and was probably the most articulate of my informants. She
was also the only one to put a name to the lack of “moral diversity” among sparklers.
Sparklers, as young adults, are all just entering the “real world,” and are still
stuck in the liminal space between childhood and adulthood. For this reason, many
still cling to the basic ideals instilled by their parents. This contributes to
the lack of “moral diversity,” which often appears in the form of judgmental comments
directed at those with more sexual, alcoholic, or drug experience, as well as those
who are more comfortable with sex, alcohol, and drugs. LadyM was quick to add that,
as she has an “open personal philosophy,” she may be somewhat biased, but the truth
behind her statement can be found throughout SparkLife.
The website also tends to be rather one-sided politically. Several articles reflect
a liberal bias and sometimes an outright disdain for conservatism. Almost every
article related to American politics has a decisive Democratic lean, and prominent
Republicans are often free to be mocked with impunity, while doing the same with
a Democrat would result in angry comments and possible debate.
SparkLife also falls victim to trolls, people who post comments designed to provoke
argument. Trolling on SparkLife is rare, likely because it is not as popular as
many other forum-post or social networking sites. It does happen, however, and the
un-moderated nature of the comments means that troll-fuelled debates can and do
happen. While sparklers usually try to keep disagreements civil, the function of
trolls means that they do not remain so, and sparklers can and do leave the site
forever as a result.
SparkLife is also, for LadyM, a way to connect to like-minded people from all over
the world. She was initially drawn to the community because of one of its predominant
norms, articulate criticism of pop culture phenomena. In fact, the first column
she read “religiously” was popular SparkLife blogger Dan Bergstein’s “Blogging Twilight,”
in which Bergstein more often than not mocks the popular book series. Sparklers’
criticism is not limited to fiction, however; the comments section of the article
“Have You Heard of Malala Yousufzai?” is a prime example of their tendency to criticize
even international policy. The top, or most up-voted, comment on this article is
questioning the lack of media attention for Afghan civilians killed in U.S. military
The fact that most sparklers are American and they were still in agreement with
the commenter shows that sparklers are willing to question government or media actions
just as readily as they would Stephenie Meyer’s writing. Replies to the comment
agree with and even add to the original statement. For example, IAmEternal sarcastically
suggests that patriotism is being hypocritical about what you let the public know.
Mock-seriousness is yet another SparkLife norm. It often takes the form of sarcasm,
which can be indicated by adding “sarcasm hand” in the midst of or after the sarcastic
statement. The “sarcasm hand” custom originated with Dan Bergstein’s “Blogging Twilight”
when commenters could not always tell when Bergstein was being sarcastic when he
talked about the novels. However, mock-seriousness can also take the form of exaggerated
enthusiasm. Petrina23 comments on “What Your Halloween Candy Says About You” to
say that “sour patch kids are the most amazing food in the world.” It is highly
unlikely that petrina23 considers sour patch kids to be superior to all other foods,
but on SparkLife, hyperbole is a way of showing that you like or dislike something.
Another way of expressing emotion on SparkLife is through humor. Sparklers manipulate
humor to express disdain, anger, happiness, and excitement. For example, the announcement
that Dan Bergstein will be working for SparkNotes full time was met with a long
stream of jokes. Some related the announcement to contemporary occurrences, such
as LuckyCharmsLizz’s adding “#DANCAKES2012” to the end of her comment, imitating
the many election-related hash tags. By choosing to parallel Bergstein’s new job
with the presidential campaign, LuckyCharmsLizz was employing both hyperbole and
wit to express her happiness that Bergstein would be working for SparkNotes full-time
and thus posting articles more often.
Another facet of SparkLife culture is whimsy. This is in keeping with the website’s
purported intention of providing study breaks for those visiting SparkNotes for
homework help. Articles are generally kept humorous and topical. Even more serious
articles, such as kat_rosenfield’s account of the Malala Yousufzai shooting, use
a linguistic style unique to SparkLife. This style includes quirky yet grammatically-correct
phrasing and the use of phrases common in everyday speech that are uncommon in written
text. While SparkLife does not discourage critical thinking about serious issues,
it encourages it in the language of the website, which is partially a language of
This whimsical nature extends into SparkLife’s norms. One possible example is the
“sarcasm hand.” Sarcasm is typically a way to express disdain. This is a common
emotion on SparkLife, where members regularly condemn popular fiction that they
consider undeserving of its popularity. But an overabundance of sarcasm can be viewed
as bitterness, and bitterness does not lend itself to whimsy. “Sarcasm hands,” while
a tool to express disdain, are also a fun metaphor unique to SparkLife, the brainchild
of one of the most well-known SparkLife bloggers. So, on SparkLife, scorn can go
hand-in-hand with fun.
The website’s status as a source of entertainment also permeates norms. The comments
on an article entitled “My Secret High School Crush (And The Uber-Embarrassing Poem
I Wrote in His Honor)” display this trait. Lisa Bernier’s article, as the title
suggests, includes a poem she wrote in high school inspired by her crush. The poem
is somewhat silly, and while it suggests literary talent, it is not the kind of
poem you would ever find in a textbook. The fact that Bernier calls the poem “uber-embarrassing”
shows that even she is not overly proud of it.
But the comments on this article are entirely positive. While many are laughing
at the poem, many more understand how an unrequited crush feels, and one in particular
appears to value the poem exactly because it is funny. Ichihara Yuuko calls the
poem “perfection”; considering SparkLife’s hyperbolic and comedic norms, it is highly
likely that she describes it thus because it is amusing. On SparkLife, then, entertainment
value can be analogous to objective value; this is yet another way that the website’s
subculture and professional goals align.
SparkLife is largely free of the vulgarity and out-and-out cruelty of most open-forum
websites. This is remarkable, especially since the comments are not moderated in
any way that could prevent someone from posting a reply to an article. Comments
can be flagged as inappropriate, but more often than not, the only flags are for
spam. Expletives are used, but not in excess, and they are rarely directed at fellow
sparklers in an insulting way. Sparklers’ choice to remain polite and to use expletive-free
language suggests that most are naturally averse to disrespect and impropriety.
The website itself is not saved the sparklers’ norm of criticism. This criticism
is often limited to technological snafus such as “Gary,” the glitch that causes
comments or sometimes entire articles to disappear, reflect incorrect time stamps,
and removes emoticons. Or at pet peeves such as the lack of ability to edit SparkLife
profiles. However, sparklers are also happy to express their distaste for the website’s
liberal or Democratic political bias as well as the tendency of sparklers to be
judgmental of one another. They also tend to be annoyed with SparkLife’s commercialization
in recent years.
Because SparkLife is, first and foremost, a business, it is necessary for it to
generate revenue, and corporate-sponsored or more mainstream content is an easy
way to do this. The result is an increase in articles that sparklers find uninteresting
at best and aggravating at worst. This may also have contributed to the suspension
of certain series that sparklers were fond of. LadyM comments on this recent phenomenon
in her interview, saying that she no longer indiscriminately reads every article.
Another informant, xXx_Dragon_Rider_xXx, thinks that SparkLife has declined so much
in quality that “good” articles are rare.
Sparklers are also known to apply their critical thinking skills to real life perhaps
more than most. SparkLife provides an outlet for these analyses. An article entitled
“Should You See Looper?” includes QueenofAwesome’s comment that she was annoyed
by a sudden change in time travel theory towards the end of the film. Most young
adults would not have noticed this, fewer would have been able to explain their
irritation so articulately, and even fewer would explain this in real life. SparkLife
is, in some small way, an outlet for expressing thoughts and feelings that must
be held in check in real life for the sake of fitting in.
Sparklers are not only prone to some level of individuality, it is encouraged. Examples
of “thinking outside the box” can be found throughout SparkLife. A subtle example
is an “Ask Jono” article entitled “Ways to Turn a Guy Down.” Jon Skindzier, who
writes the column, lists several ways for the letter-writer to turn down the guy
who keeps pestering her. These methods range from kind to blunt, but most interesting
is where Skindzier tells the letter-writer that she is under no obligation to give
the guy a reason for not wanting to go out with him. While this is certainly true,
it is not a fact that would have occurred to most people, as it is considered kind
to try to assuage the feelings of the person you reject as much as possible. In
truth, however, rejecting someone’s romantic advances is not necessarily being unkind;
you are not saying that there is something wrong with the person, you just don’t
happen to be interested. This norm of real life can, it seems, be rejected by sparklers,
and it is perfectly fine to do so.
The traditional depiction of nerds, particularly female nerds, is also rejected
by SparkLife in the form of the series “Geeky Girl Glam.” In it SparkLife blogger
Allison Emm does makeup tutorials inspired by things that would normally be considered
“geeky.” In doing so, she goes against the archetypical picture of the female nerd
as physically unattractive and unable or unwilling to change this. On SparkLife
it is okay for female fans of the BBC series Doctor Who to also like wearing
makeup, and to be good at applying it. Ironically, the inception of Emm’s series
coincides with the increased presence of corporate-sponsored content on SparkLife,
and it is likely a part of it. But by posting tutorials inspired by Doctor Who
characters, Emm manages to connect SparkLife’s recent commercialization to the glory
days of old SparkLife, when geeky content ruled. So maybe SparkLife is not dying
a slow death at the hands of corporate funding; perhaps this is the beginning of
a new SparkLife, one in which nerd culture and commercialism will blend almost seamlessly.
The SparkLife community is an inclusive one. New sparklers have only to ask to have
an acronym defined or a norm explained. One common question is about the SparkLife
tradition of commenting “bam” when you are the first to comment on an article. Sparklers
are also welcoming when it comes to their fandoms. The comments section of “Help
a N00b: Harry Potter…Books or Movies First?”, while not empty of aghast questions
of how the author has not read the books, mostly consists of suggestions of the
best way to enter the fandom. The website is designed to be attractive to any nerds
who might want to join, and the current members are ready and willing to add them
to the fold.
SparkLife provides different services to different sparklers. For some it is an
escape, for others an opportunity to interact with like-minded people they would
not otherwise be able to communicate with, and still for others it is a place where
they are accepted and valued for the quirks that may make them less relatable in
real life. But SparkLife is also a business, and as it asserts its business side,
sparklers face a choice: abandon the website altogether, or attempt to keep as much
of old SparkLife alive while embracing the more commercial version. Sparklers, being
largely academic, are critical thinkers, and they apply these skills not only to
academic pursuits, but to pop culture, fiction, the world at large, and SparkLife
Sparklers, in labeling themselves nerds, see themselves as distinct from archetypical
young adults who would rather spend their weekends going to parties than reading
Dumas. This manifests itself in the way SparkLife ignores or conflates certain real
life norms. SparkLife’s culture values wit, mock-seriousness, whimsy, and intelligence.
These values can be twisted to fit given needs, such as using humor to express excitement.
Whimsy, which was originally merely a part of SparkLife’s mission as an escape from
studying, has also seeped into the way sparklers phrase their comments and articles.
Mock-seriousness is another important norm, and it serves to allow sparklers to
express themselves in a more interesting fashion.
SparkLife does not avoid real-life problems, but even these are presented in such
a way as to not completely deviate from the website’s overall tone. It also has
a few issues of its own. From interpersonal differences among sparklers to technological
glitches that can stunt the all-important commenting aspect of the website, the
recent influx of more corporate-sponsored articles, and the growing dearth of sparkler-aimed
articles is also considered a problem. It is very likely that if a truce of sorts
is not reached soon SparkLife’s audience, and thus its culture, will change dramatically.
For now at least, sparklers tend to be young adults with interests that separate
them from their real life norms. Sparklers are largely polite and open-minded when
presented with a different view, a rare quality in an open-forum website. They can
also be naively judgmental, and the website itself has a liberal bias that does
not leave much room for other political ideas. Sparklers are nonetheless very welcoming
towards new members; everyone is given a fair shot. The website itself provides
a way for people from different backgrounds but with these key traits in common
to meet and form a community. The combined personalities, interests, and ideas of
all the sparklers, as well as the website’s intent, combine to form an online subculture
that is wholly unique.