25 years of Erasmus Identity: a netnography

In the last 25 years, a brand new collective identity has started to spread among young European students: the Erasmus Identity, grown exponentially since the famous exchange programme began in 1987. “Feeling Erasmus” became a new lifestyle characterized by well-recognizable cultural features, now embedded in a well-known symbolic imaginary.

What does “Erasmus Identity” mean? Who is the “authentic Erasmus student”, according to European students’ shared “cultural meanings”?

Since cultural identity is not a material and directly observable “thing”, we don’t need structural, demographic survey-like data to answer these questions: instead, we need to listen carefully to the voices of those who actually co-construct this “Erasmus lifestyle” through social practice, who feel to belong to it, silently knowing and maintaining the “symbolic boundaries” of this collective identity. That is why in the following pages we will briefly describe Erasmus Identity using a methodology called “netnography” – a kind of an ethnographic analysis applied to a digital “field”, in our case Facebook.

Our findings indicate four main cultural traits of Erasmus Identity – sociality, transgression, cosmopolitism, independence – combined with a fifth meta-factor (identification).

The theoretical starting point of this research is the refusal of online-offline dichotomy: while studying the Net we study much more than the Internet.

Research design and methodology

Through a web crawling software, we searched on the Italian Page of Facebook the keyword “Erasmus” between the 10th May and the 12th June 2012 – exactly the period of official “Erasmus birthday” events throughout Europe. We found 1488 results – posts and public comments; 756 of these were off-topic, while 483 showed a pure “service content” (information about applications etc.) or “business content” (mainly related to house renting or clubs’ advertisements). We focused on the remaining small cluster of 290 posts composed by textual and visual narrations of Erasmus students themselves.

Erasmus Identity’s ingredients

Here are the different cultural factors of Erasmus Identity emphasized in Erasmus student’s self-presentations in Facebook (there could be more than one factor for every single post):

Sociality (23,4%)

When people talk about Erasmus on Facebook, they talk mainly about sociality: parties, multicultural friendships, unforgettable time spent together with other “Erasmus people”. Erasmus Programme is described and perceived by users as a “social experience”, and sociality is an important factor used in the construction of a  “narration” about being Erasmus.

you can’t be invited to six parties in a week! I should study…but I’m too weak, people convince me easily…it’s a hard Erasmus life (author’s translation)

Cosmopolitism (21%)

The Erasmus student presents him/herself as a cosmopolitan person: he/she likes talking about travelling around the world, remarking how beautiful and cosy this foreign city is, consciously evidencing his/her multicultural social relationships – and doing all this in a variety of different languages.

JUST BACK FROM SARAJEVO DAYS AGO, NOW PLANNING TRIP TO PRAGUE THIS WEEK… WOW – CAZZO, WHAT A FUNKING ERASMUS!?!?

Trasgression (20%)

The Erasmus student is often described (and loves to describe him/herself) as a trasgressive person: because he/she doesn’t study enough, he/she gets drunk beyond any limit, he/she exhibits his/her sexuality with no moral inhibition. Remember: we are speaking about “self-presentations” (in a Goffmanian sense), not about “true” behaviors. Concepts of truth and falsehood don’t matter too much at the cultural discourse level.

con resaca y sin ganas de estudiar… tìpico dìa erasmus

Independence (11,7%)

Being Erasmus means (particularly for italians) living far away from mummy and daddy, on your own, coping with everyday difficulties (burocracy, home cleaning, etc.). This factor is the least recurrent in self-presentations, but it is however an important part of the cultural narration of the Erasmus experience.

I hate Erasmus burocracy (author’s translation)

Identification (43,4%)

Facebook posts categorized as “identification” are those which communicate nothing more than the pure belonging – at the moment, in the past or in the future –  to Erasmus students’ social category. These posts do not tell much about “what is” the Erasmus Identity, but they confirm through their presence that this identity it actually exists. They could be the announcement of the imminent departure published on Facebook’s wall, as well as nostalgic or proud statements about “being Erasmus students”.

Can’t stop loving Erasmus :D

Who is the authentic Erasmus student?

The authentic Erasmus student is the main character of a collective cultural narration, and he/she is characterized by recognizable features: sociability, open-mindedness, a bit of madness, independence, freedom, cosmopolitism, tolerance – and all other possible declinations of the four main cultural factors described above. This portrait could be considered in some ways ambiguous, but it is the social product of cultural meanings, norms, symbols attached to a “real” collective identity, that of the Erasmus student. Where can we find the proof of this “reality”, of the existence of such a cultural identity? It is in the self-presentations acted everyday by thousands of European students, offline and – in a more “visible” way – online. There are 518 Facebook pages explicitly dedicated to this exchange programme, and about 64.200 results searching for “Erasmus” on Youtube. One of these videos – see below– appears several times in the analyzed posts, and it perfectly summarizes the cultural portrait we are talking about:

If you read the users’ comments on the video, it will be evident to what extent this stereotypical model of Erasmus lifestyle is shared among Erasmus people. These are the most frequent words used in the comments (the bigger the fonts, the higher their frequency – see for example how big is the word “true”!):

post erasmus depression comments

Conclusions

These four cultural ingredients – sociality, transgression, cosmopolitism, indipendence – cannot describe alone the uniqueness of one’s Erasmus experience. They are not the deterministic account of all Erasmus students’ behaviors. They are just chapters of a big story, a collective and cultural narration every Erasmus student, consciously or not, contributes and belongs to – at the same time being influenced by it. To allow us to speak about the existence of a collective identity, these four ingredients need to be mixed with the fifth: identification – the exhibition of the feeling of being “Erasmus student”. Such a strong feeling that, after 25 years from the beginning of this story, it still makes people say: “damn, I f..cking miss my Erasmus life”.

Written and translated by Massimo Airoldi – from the Master Thesis research “L’identità tra Rete e Realtà”

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