About a month ago, I joined Twitter and became addicted to sending out “tweets” to my friends. I’ve gone beyond using the mainstream social networking sites like Facebook, My Space, and Youtube, and have begun experimenting with Flickr, del.icio.us LinkedIn, Jewcy, Second Life and Tumblr. I know I have a “problem,” but I’m not alone. Social networking sites have been growing at an astounding rate. In fact, according to a recent teleconference I attended on social media, more than 57% of Jews belong to a social network. With more than ½ billion users worldwide, the demand for these sites continues to grow and the potential seems limitless.
Two locals are hoping to cash in on the phenomenon. About a year ago, T.J. Shanoff and Brad Spirrison created MyCampFriends.com, a site inspired by their mutual love for overnight camp and social networking.
For 15 years, T.J. attended Harand Camp in Wisconsin as a camper, counselor and staff member. He recalls his summers there as some of the “most significant and indelible experiences” he’s ever had. Brad agrees. A camper at Camp Deerhorn, Brad describes camp as a place where he, “learned how to befriend and compete with others and also get up on a pair of water skis.” They both have always loved camp and were surprised that there really wasn’t a specific space online where they could find other enthusiasts and former bunkmates.
“It struck me that there was no one website dedicated to fellow camp-fans to share their camp-specific memories with their camp friends; hence MyCampFriends.com,” explains T.J. “There are a few other, smaller sites which have come along since then, but we were the first—and, we believe, the most fun and ‘campy.’”
”MyCampFriends.com offers a place online where you will find nobody else but your camp friends and others who cherish the existence of camp,” says Brad. “The fun part is when you get all those people together sharing laughs, memories and visions of things to come.”
So far, the majority of people who have signed on are camp alumni ranging in age anywhere from their early 20’s through their 50’s. Individuals can create their own profile pages, upload their favorite videos and connect with other campers.
But as the site continues to grow and expand, the guys hope to reach out to camps and camp directors with the goal of creating more pages dedicated to individual camps rather than just individual campers.
Crystalaire Camp has really utilized the site’s tools, say the creators. After decades in one location, Crystalaire recently relocated. The camp director wanted to ensure that alumni would be aware of the change and used its MyCampFriends.com page to spread the word. In the end, Crystalaire was so happy with the outcome that it created a “virtual reunion” page for alumni who are unable to attend the camps annual reunion.
“We feel [Crystalaire] is just scratching the surface of the way we can work with camps to keep their campers and alumni thinking about camp and their camp friends all year round,” says T.J. “Some camps have very extensive profiles with beautiful narratives, pictures and videos. Others have sort of a thumbnail description with limited users. Every camp grows at its own pace.”
As a proud alumnus of camp Bnai Brith Beber, in Mukwonago, WI, I used the camp directory to look up my old stomping grounds. I was excited to see that my camp has a presence on the site, although nowhere near Crystalaire Camp, and it inspired me to reach out to some of my old camp friends who I’d previously stayed in contact with only via Facebook.
In addition to finding my old camp, I also toured some of the sites other features. My favorite was the “ask the camp nurse page.” The page features a large picture of “Nurse Candy” and her even larger syringe needle at the ready to dispense shots to unwilling campers.
T.J. explained that the page is inspired by his own experiences at the nurses’ office. “I had asthma and allergies like any good Jew at theater camp, so I spent a lot of time with the nurse. It was the only place at camp that was air-conditioned, and they had a TV, which meant I could watch ‘WKRP’ re-runs in 72 degrees while everyone else was playing Capture the Flag in 95 degree heat. Those fools!”
Even though the site is still very new (their membership numbers are in the thousands), the two are thrilled by the positive responses they’ve been getting. “While there is a lot of work to be done, it is satisfying to see how people are responding and we are very anxious to see how this all goes,” says Brad. “We’d love for this to be a full-time gig, or, better yet, something to retire from.”
For now, though, they both continue at day jobs they love. T.J. is employed at The Second City where he has co-written and directed such shows as “Jewsical: The Musical.” And Brad, who has always been in the internet business, contributes to a number of Web sites and has a weekly column about the internet, innovations and entrepreneurs for The Chicago Sun Times.
But they make plenty of time for social networking, updating content frequently and expanding pages. In fact, Brad hinted that future projects are in the works. “In addition to going deeper in the camp world, we are learning what this demographic wants in other spheres of their life. Don’t be surprised to see a few spin-offs soon.” To which T.J. added, “Yes, yes, yes! Stay tuned for our next site later this summer.”