The Consequences of Getting Personal
The BlogHer founders bare all
SXSW Interactive is evolving. Alongside the exhibitions of better-faster-more emergent technologies from BattleDecks and DOM scripting to Darknets, with a nod to all the dollars appertaining panelists are keeping it real about what brings us online in the first place: ourselves.
But which selves do we place online? That's the question before the three co-founders of BlogHer. Last year, Lisa Stone, Elisa Camahort, and Jory Des Jardins created BlogHer.org, a cluster site in which women (and some men) write about everything from technology to travel to religion and race, food, shopping, and current events in order to "create opportunities for women bloggers to pursue exposure, education, and community." All three intermittently describe themselves as "evangelists" for personal voices, for the transmission and sharing of ideas about women's lives, and for the craft of blogging itself.
BlogHers are moderating two panels at SXSW Interactive this year. With "We Got Naked, Now What?," Camahort and Des Jardins, among others, consider the at-times sticky relationship between personal and professional blogging, while Stone and BlogHer contributor Melinda Casino will discuss the relative merits of group and individual identity-based communication online in "Public Square or Private Club: Does Exclusivity Strengthen or Dilute?" As with so many other panelists (and keynote speaker Heather Armstrong, queen of personal bloggers and doyenne of Dooce.com; see p.60 for an interview), these talks explore boundaries in the blogosphere between blogging as a business tool and blogging as raw, unfiltered personal expression and between the paradigm of online villages and the paradigm of millions of users listening and speaking as individuals. Are self-segregation and self-segmentation advantageous for bloggers and their readers? Or should bloggers let it all hang out and seek to express themselves outside their own demographic?
To better understand how individual bloggers choose what to reveal and how to reveal it, BlogHer is conducting a survey "Blogging 'Naked' at Work" about bloggers' writing habits. Camahort and Des Jardins plan to discuss the results of the survey in their panel.
"The purpose of the survey is to find out, not only how people define for themselves the boundaries or if they do, but if they've had external feedback come to them [about] personal information on their blog," Camahort explains. "And that can be good external input or bad external input. We're looking to find out about both sides."
Camahort cites herself as an example of a self-segregating blogger. "I have a separate political blog and a separate personal blog and a separate business blog," she says. "I will use profanity on my personal blog, but I would never use it on my professional blog. But I link between them. Jory has one blog. Right between us, we have two of the extremes."
Another extreme is "Naked" co-panelist Elaine Liner, a Dallas-based writer better known in the blogosphere as the "Phantom Prof." Liner wrote anonymously but frankly about her students' personal and academic problems plagiarism, ass-kissing, and addiction among them and was busted and fired.
"She experienced one of the downsides of blogging," Camahort says. "Although I'm not sure if you asked her, she'd be sorry."
"I don't know any bloggers who have discontinued blogging after they've been dooced," Des Jardins says. "It gives them a new identity. There's a whole group of people who found a greater calling because they knew they were pushing the limits. This was their way of publicizing discontent."
Camahort and Des Jardins also theorize that the consequences for getting personal might be different for women and men if they reveal details of their romantic and family lives in a business setting. When a blogger like Technorati darling Robert Scoble mentions his spouse or child, his credibility is unaffected, they suggest and possibly even enhanced.
"Women who write about family are 'mommybloggers,' while men who write about family are 'personal bloggers,' incorporating personal elements into their blogs," Des Jardins says. "It's so easy to call someone a 'mommyblogger,' to say that they write 'just' about family."
"As though so much of our great literature and art isn't about family relationships," Camahort points out. "When Arthur Miller wrote All My Sons, nobody said, 'Oh, he's just a 'daddy playwright.' Nobody calls him a 'male playwright.' I think that's why women are rightfully apprehensive."
Fellow BlogHers Stone and Casino who Stone describes as an "unashamed, unabashed feminist blogger" will continue the talk about marginalization, identity, and their implications in "Public Square or Private Club: Does Exclusivity Strengthen or Dilute?"
"What we're dealing with is the difference between really specific slices of identity and participation in the mainstream," Stone says. In other words, should bloggers and online communities define themselves according to particular aspects of who they are and exclude others? Or should they welcome and engage others outside their demographic?
"That's the mother of all questions," Stone says. "Have you ever seen the response that start-ups like Broadsheet or BlogHer get from people who don't understand why women would want to just talk to women? Why do people want to talk to people who are just like they are?"
She adds, "Like seeks like for self-identity and self-preservation. And when those parts of ourselves become particularly embattled or particularly lost, this is one more tool for us. The question becomes, then, is that enough?"
A formerly single mother, Stone says she sought community with other single parents online and found advice, commiseration, and support without being called upon to explain her choices to someone who didn't understand them. She says she needed "a sort of separatism to gain self-understanding and strength" but eventually felt the need to speak to others about the needs and lives of single parents. "I felt like it was possible for me to be marginalized if I didn't mix it up with the group."
As a result of these experiences, Stone adopted an "incubate and infiltrate" strategy that she compares to the offline work of queer artists like the Indigo Girls and artists of color like Spike Lee, whose "authentic projects that come from within" were greeted with mainstream success. "The question for any identity-based community is how to meet and greet each other online without having a troll blow it up. And then figure out a way to mark one's turf in a way that ultimately solidifies who you are.
"The tools we're talking about, whether it's a film or a song or a story printed in any medium, or a blog, which is a personal printing press, or an IM client we're talking about a method of communication. It gets down to the eternal human search for self-understanding."
"Embracing dissent" is likewise critical to this process, Stone says. The talk's co-panelists, BlackFeminism.org's Tiffany Brown (founder of Webinista LLC) and Barb Dybwad of Weblogs Inc., Engadget, and DykesDoDigital.org (see p.64), might bring different approaches to the table, and that, Stone says, is all the better.
Camahort agrees. "People tend to talk about bloggers as monolithic, but blogging is a tool and a technology, and it's being used in many, many different ways. It's difficult to say that there will be one answer to the question of what's appropriate. Blogging is giving people a lot more freedom to decide what's important to them. ... The only best practice is to make sure that people are aware of the implications of the choices they make."
We Got Naked, Now What?
Saturday, March 11, 11:30am, Room 16AB
Jory Des Jardins
Public Square or Private Club: Does Exclusivity Strengthen or Dilute?
Saturday, March 11, 5pm, Room 18D
Tiffany B. BrownMelinda Casino
Increasing Women's Visibility on the Web: Whose Butt Should We Be Kicking?
Sunday, March 12, 11:30am, Room 16AB