Reflections on Jewish camping in the age of social media
When I was growing up, going to camp meant putting my regular world in exile while I continued with life somewhere far away. There were no phone calls and if you wrote a letter you had to wait at least a week for a response. There was no email delivery and, even if cell phones were around, no kids were hiding them in their camp trunks. Children had a break from their parents and parents from their children.
My, how the bunkhouse walls have fallen. Like every other area of our lives, the urge and means to stay connected have won out over quainter notions of going away to camp, and camps have been forced to adapt to parents' increasing expectations for access and information. It began several years ago with camps adding features to their websites to extend their functionality beyond registration and packing lists and into the summertime. Families could now see blog posts about their child's division, find out about upcoming events, and see photos from the past week, or day, of camp. The YouTube age only raised the bar for online "content" that camps were expected to offer their eager audiences. Color wars, shiriahs, camp shows and all sorts of other events were thrown up on the web for parents to consume in near-real time.
In my own house, Camp Morasha's (a major Modern Orthodox camp) weekly Erev Shabbat/week-in-review videos have been must-sees every summer Friday for the past four years. My kids love the chance to scream out their cousins' names as they recognize them on the screen, while I have been continually impressed by the ever-improving production quality, even with such small turnaround time. But this week's Morasha video is different, and I think it represents a fundamental change in the relationship between campers, parents and the media the connects them. This video (below) features a flash mob with at least a hundred Morasha campers in a shopping mall executing a large-scale, elaborately choreographed dance number to the pleasure of surprised shoppers and security guards. It is a lot of fun and rather impressive. What makes it different, though, is the way it shifts the role of the video camera from documenting to directing the camp experience.
Julia Roberts once explained why she would only act clothed, saying, "To act with my clothes on is a performance; to act with my clothes off is a documentary." Here we have the opposite: when children are being recorded doing their normal camp thing, they are campers; when rehearsing for the video becomes their normal camp thing, they are actors. This raises a whole bunch of questions: when camp becomes theater and parents the audience, who are the real campers? When the "camp experience" becomes secondary to the product to be posted, how does a camp measure its success?
Don't get me wrong, I don't think there is anything wrong with this development, and I don't meant to predict the end of Jewish camping. These kids are clearly having a blast, and probably learning a few helpful skills while they're at it, and the parents need something to keep themselves busy. And of course, using flashy media to attract customers is nothing new either. It's just interesting to see how the institutions that helped form our strongest, old-school, childhood memories are changing in the age of social media.
If the changes in rest of the world is any indication, we have plenty of other changes to look forward to.