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Shaping Community Boundaries in a Networked Society: The Case of the ultra Orthodox Community in Israel

Final Report Summary - CBNS (Shaping Community Boundaries in a Networked Society: The Case of the ultra Orthodox Community in Israel)

The recent penetration of ubiquitous digital technologies into bounded communities has dramatically reshaped the power structures within these communities and evoked formidable resistance from established traditional authorities. In light of the deeply entrenched penetration of digital technologies amongst bounded communities, the study’s goal was to examine the impact of free flowing and non-formal sources of knowledge on these societies. In particular, the study aimed to uncover the potential impact of new media on bounded societies with a focus on fundamentalist communities. More specifically, its aim was to (1) investigate in which ways digital knowledge repositories (DKRs) shape informal religious learning in the public sphere, and (2) to explore how religious DKRs provide opportunities for strengthening and defining religious identity and community, for sharpening the boundaries between religious sub-communities, and for creating channels of communication and exchange of information.

Throughout a research design that included extensive ethnographic fieldwork, over 70 interviews were conducted primarily with webmasters that manage DKRs including web journalists, dating/matrimonial websites, and key informational websites of the community.

Findings suggest that DKRs are being integrated and undergoing a legitimization process in the ultra-Orthodox community. As part of this legitimization process the aims and motivations of webmasters and online opinion leaders (e.g. bloggers, online journalists, web/portal operators and entrepreneurs) have been investigated. Accordingly, this includes the creation of codes of conduct in establishing these information sites, codes that pertain to ethical guidelines, efforts in fostering communal boundaries and acting as social activists to guard the ultra Orthodox public from perceived external threats. This is particularly salient in two forms of DKRs that were given focal attention: online journalism and online dating services.

With regard to web journalism, three major schemata were identified that shape Haredi web reporters’ self-perception and underpin their activities: the communal-Haredi, the Western-democratic, and the journalistic ecosystem imperatives. The study uncovered the ways that web journalists balance these themes and aver that the professional codes and ethos of the ultra-Orthodox online press are mostly the outgrowth of its journalists’ experience, rather than formal training or communal dictums.

With relation to online dating services: These online dating mediators have been found to being critical of traditional ultra-Orthodox matchmaking. In line with their criticism, they have formed several types of DKRs. A typology was carried out of their sites, which revealed four primary categories: dating sites; databases for matchmakers; sites explaining the service to prospective users; and how-to sites that accompany and describe the matchmaking process from beginning to end. The study also took stock of the various activities pursued by the online matchmakers. A case in point is their cultivations of open and tacit knowledge in the field of life skills. Moreover, these DKRs function as intermediaries between their clients’ individual preferences and the traditional values of Haredi society in all that concerns finding a spouse. We have also discovered that they essentially function as Haredi entrepreneurs. Besides establishing and maintaining websites, they develop socio-business ventures, like speed-dating events, which constitute a subversive reaction to traditional matchmaking. Surprisingly enough, our subjects function as secondary authorities of knowledge in their community. Whereas the Haredi elite are socialized in formal institutions of learning, the matchmakers draw on both their Jewish and general education. As documented in the literature, the liminality of these intermediaries engenders ceaseless self-scrutiny with respect to their role and enterprise within an enclave culture that is in the throes of ongoing change.