The Ethnography of Online Communities

In his book The Social Code, author Patrick Hanlon argues that social media communities can be characterized by seven distinct elements: a creation story, a creed, icons, rituals, sacred words or lexicons, non-believers, and a leader. In this post, I'm going to test his thesis by comparing his criteria to a Facebook interest group called “Space Hipsters.” 

Creation Story

Space Hipsters was established in February 2011 by writer Emily Carney in partnership with her husband, sister, and a close friend. It was envisioned as a place for diehard space enthusiasts to hang out, swap stories, and basically geek out about all things space-related with a particular emphasis on manned spaceflight and the early days of the American/Soviet Space Race of the 1960s and early 1970s. Though it wasn’t expected to attract many, membership would swell to almost 8,000 members over the next five years. 

Carney recalls that while casting about for an appropriate name, “Space Hipsters” was first suggested by her husband. “Hipster” was used in the sense of the first people to adopt or establish a trend. 

In the group’s early days, Carney used the group as a forum for sharing space-related memes and photos with funny captions. Over time, the character of the group changed to be more of what she terms a "big tent" space group that includes a wide variety of members interested in the full spectrum of human endeavors in space, some of whom are or were directly employed in the space industry.


The creed of the group is explicitly established by the moderators and embraced and enforced by the group’s members. It includes keeping posts “on-topic,” and related to issues of spaceflight and spaceflight history--the group’s “magnetic core” as described by Hanlon. The group creed prohibits discussions of politics or religion in recognition of the fact that membership is comprised of diverse political persuasions, all religions or no religion at all. The group’s creed explicitly states that it’s “meant to be fun and laid back” but it forbids discussion of “so-called alien encounters, conspiracy theories, astrology, or other pseudo-scientific topics.” Posts drawing attention to--or providing links to--websites that promote such topics are actively discouraged and may be removed without notice.


Icons in the context of social media communities are images or symbols by which community members may recognize one another. Badges and logos are prime examples of such icons. In the case of Space Hipsters, icons abound. The history of spaceflight is replete with program emblems and crew mission badges. Mission emblems are stitched to the exterior of astronaut pressure suits and reproductions of those emblems are hung on the walls of Mission Control once missions are completed. Members of Space Hipsters will sometimes stitch these icons to their own jackets. 

Most people--enthusiasts or not--are likely to recognize the iconic emblem of Apollo 11 with its bald eagle approaching the surface of the moon for a landing, olive branch clutched in its talons. But only the sorts of people likely to join the Space Hipsters group would recognize the mission emblems of Apollo 15, or Skylab II, or the third Space Shuttle mission. These sorts of icons are a type of currency on Space Hipsters. Members will proudly showcase photos of their mission emblem collections, framed and hung on their living room or office walls. Sharing such photos is a way to signal I’m one of you. We share a common passion.

Sometimes group icons take the form of artifacts such as books. It’s common for members to post photos of their bookshelves, populated with space-related volumes often collected over the course of many years. Famous, rare, and long out of print books are particularly noteworthy and carry a special iconic status. As with framed mission emblems, possession of certain original edition books like Roger Bilstein’s “Stages to Saturn” which chronicles the design and construction of the Saturn V moon rocket, confer status as a community member. Likewise, books that are signed by astronauts or those directly involved with the space program serve the same purpose.


As defined by Hanlon, rituals are common actions taken or shared by community members. In the case of Space Hipsters, there are a number shared rituals. One is the recognition of anniversaries. For example, the anniversary of the first moon landing of July 20, 1969 never goes unnoticed. Every July 20 is marked by commemorations in the form of posted photos, personal memories, videos of the event, and articles analyzing the landing’s historical and anthropological impact. Other important historical events in the history of spaceflight are similarly noted. 

Another community ritual is the recognition of events in the news which conform to the group’s creed. Examples include launches of new space probes, the arrival of probes at their final destination, or the return of astronauts from the International Space Station. Reacting to these events via real-time posts (such as during the landing of NASA’s Curiosity probe as it was being lowered to the Martian surface via the “Sky Crane”) is common. 

Sacred Words

Hanlon’s so-called lexicons or sacred words refer to the special words which are used and understood by the community’s members. Anyone who instantly recognizes the meaning of these words--either their literal meaning or their meaning as signifiers--is likely to be a member of the community. As Hanlon says, if you don’t recognize these words, you don’t belong. In the Space Hipsters group, the lexicon is large, often technical, and virtually impenetrable to an outsider. 

If you know that CSM is the vehicle that the Apollo astronauts flew in, or that AS-506 is the official designation for the Apollo 11 mission, or that OV-102 is the “actual” designation of the Space Shuttle Columbia, you’re likely to be interested in joining the group. If you can define TLI, DOI, “Mode One Charlie”, or pronounce the acronyms PGNS and PLSS as “pings” and “pliss” without referring to Google, you might be a high status member of the group.     


Hanlon points out that all online communities share another consistent theme: heretics, a counter-culture of oppositional non-believers. Defining who is not a member of the community firmly establishes who is. 

Space Hipsters has a very clear anti-group of heretics who literally do not believe that the events that Hipsters revere ever happened. Most vocal of these anti-groups are the Moon Hoaxers, a group of dedicated conspiracy theorists who believe that the moon landings were faked by the U.S. government to win its propaganda war against the Soviet Union. Fueled by the proliferation of conspiracy websites, this heretical group routinely baits members of the group or rouses members to complain about the Hoaxers’ infuriating intransigence. Hoaxers or hoax ideas are forbidden in the group’s creed. Group members, resigned to the idea that hoaxers are completely resistant to verifiable facts, either refuse to engage them or unify to drown them out. 


Every online community has a leader, someone who establishes the rules of the community and promotes their vision of what the group should be. In Hanlon’s words, the leader says “here’s how we do things, this is what we celebrate.” In the case of Space Hipsters, founder Emily Carney is the acknowledged leader of the group, though she now shares responsibility for group guidance with several other trusted members. This expanded group is empowered to perform the moderation role, starting conversations, steering conversations, or resolving awkward conflicts between group members.