One reason I've been remiss in posting is because our meeting and a host of other stuff I've been reading and thinking about lately has had me chewing the proverbial cud over this whole blogging thing. (Yes, you've guessed it, here comes the obligatory post where I pontificate on blogging and its role in my life. I need to apologize in advance for both the length of this one, its potential to disappear up its own academic arse, and the possibility of incoherence. Like right now...)
Be warned, this one is a doozy--so feel free to skip Acts 2, 3, 4, and 5.
YES! This one has ACTS.
Act One: When Blogs Collide
Many of you guys might have had BlogHer, but I got my own little taste of real-life blogger-on-blogger action last Saturday when I hooked up with Elizabeth for ice-cream. The idea of ice-cream was that our kids could come along, and would be relatively occupied while we chatted. In reality, I found that taking my 3 (nearly 4) yr old to a joint that would ply him with pure sugar on an empty stomach was not exactly the ideal recipe for having a relaxing chat with a fellow mom and blogger. Yes, he was compliant for all the 3-4 minutes it took him to wolf down his kid's cone, but this was swiftly followed by some, let's say "spirited" behavior, where he tore around the place yelling "Hey, you guys CHASE ME!!!" to Elizabeth's well-mannered and funny boys (Elizabeth--as I said before, those boys are a real credit for you, and a ray of hope for me letmetellyou ;-).
Herding preschoolers aside, Elizabeth and I managed to fit a great deal of furious chatting into the 45 minutes or so we had (albeit punctuated with "hey, you do NOT whack that woman's butt with your spoon--now say you're SORRY!"). She filled me in a little on BlogHer, and her experience of it, we talked about people she met and I lived vicariously through her "oooh, is she as nice as she seems online?? ooooh!!! you met Amalah? ooooh!!!" We talked about our local school district and it's utter incompetency, about having boys, and we talked about blogging and what it means to us but not nearly enough. It was really quite fascinating how easy it was to just begin talking to her--we had a shared context, shared points of reference, shared friends and aquaintances...and we had never met.
So all this got me thinking. First, that I looked forward to meeting up with Elizabeth for lunch some time when Monkey-Boy was safely ensconced at school (I highly admire all earth-mothers who can integrate their kids effectively into their adult social lives--I am not always able to be one of those people. Especially when there's serious chatting to be done). The rest of it..well read on (at your own peril) and you can see what's been spinning around my brain for the last few days/weeks.
Act Two: Starting a Blog of One's Own
I started this little blog back in February. My motivations for doing so were simple--after reading and commenting on various blogs for a while, I found that I really wanted to join in the conversation more wholeheartedly. One of my early posts tried to articulate the impulse, but when I look back on that one I realize I was still pretty wet behind the ears (and probably still am). Those who know me are all to aware that I am a leeetle bit of an exhibitionist, and I do love to spin a yarn. So the blog was a space where I could "tell stories" and experiment with writing. While the thought of pursuing traditional publication routes tended to paralyze my creative flow, the blog offered a form of instant gratification and (very important to exhibitionist-me) an audience (even if only a couple of people—because that’s all I really need, I’m afraid).
A while back, Mom-101's take on this helped me process what blogging was coming to mean to me--that its the communal and interactive aspect of blogging that becomes the fuel for processing ideas, for writing.
"I'm not the kind of writer who can create just for myself. I have stacks of dusty journals filled with idea starters, creative sparks, writing germs that never went beyond that initial flush of excitement that conjoined pen and paper for a few brief moments. It kills me to admit this, by the way. To acknowledge that I'm not more inner-directed is like admitting I'm not a Real Writer. A Real Writer is angry and independent, free from social expectations. A Real Writer hates parties. (And she has bad hair anyway, so who would want her at their parties?) A Real Writer is reclusive and asocial; she will shut herself away in a friend's lakeside cabin, happy to see noone but the ashen-faced postman for weeks on end until she finishes her manuscript or runs out of Camel unfiltereds, whichever comes first. A Real Writer, or so I was led to believe by misguided writing instructors, doesn't care what you think about anything she has to say."
Yes, in this scenario, I am also most definitely not A Real Writer. And I say this as someone who has produced a dissertation, given conference presentations, even published a couple of articles. (though, let me say, the dissertation process is less an exercise in intellectual rigor than a test of how much you can persist, how much you can be inner-directed).
But it's not until this here blog that I have begun to consider myself as a writer. And I know I am not alone on this score. For many of us, blogging has been a powerful motivational force by virtue of the community that you gain with through the writing. This has even led some of us to think about how we can channel this energy into other types of writing. I have had all sorts of excited conversations with RL friends and my husband about where I might think about going next "as a writer." Kristen and I have chatted via email about this very thing. Kristen, as someone who is very productively (and entertainingly) exploring those opportunities to their full potential, offered some very generous advice and tips on venues to think about exploring for free-lance writing gigs (thanks, lady).
And this is something I am definitely considering delving into.. but there's this other little matter of my job, and the type of publications and research I need to be doing...
Act Three: Wherein I Get A Little Academic on Yo'Ass...
Most of you know that in my professional life, I work at a research center at a large university where I am actually paid to research and think about issues in Digital Culture--and sometimes I even get to teach. Ideally, I would be publishing in this field. In reality, I actually wish I spent a lot more time researching and writing, but I spend a great deal of time overseeing development of software and online content (mainly for educational and scholarly research purposes) . Sounds lofty, but this work often ranks on a par with herding up Monkey-Boy in an ice-cream joint in terms of intellectual fulfillment.
While I have been considering how to channel my writing into other creative outlets, there is the other pressure I feel professionally--to publish or to perish. I would not "perish" exactly in my job, but publications in peer-reviewed journals can take me interesting places if I want to go. It can also get me more credibility and better yearly raises in the place I work now. (Nice!) So yeah, publications would be good. And here’s where the blog has also begun to fuel a bit of creative energy.
Anyone familiar with Barabasi and his Social Network Theory? Me too!
In fact, in many ways we’re all familiar with it—we’re practicing it, for chrissakes. Just big guys like Barabasi get to theorize it for us (and I’ll return to the “guys” aspect here in a few…) For those interested, here’s the bastardized over-simplification of his theory according to moi: Websites (especially blogs) form an ever-expanding “scale free” network. Blogs are scale-free because they are intrinsically connected to other sites/blogs, and this connectedness is potentially infinite. A site’s “status” or degree of power is acquired through the volume of linkages to it (and links from comments are *not* measured in this paradigm—which you’ll see I think is pretty significant). The more a site is linked elsewhere, the higher the “competitive fitness” or “rate of attraction” becomes. Congratulations, you’re an A-list blogger!
Yep, yep—makes sense. And some of the reports from BlogHer indicate that many of the workshops dealt with how to boost one’s bloggy “rate of attraction.” (see how I cunningly slipped in some multiple linkages in this post—I want you to like me, see…)
But there’s something about the unfuzzy and rather neat math here—or rather the use of mathematical principles to create all-encompassing theories about online social networking—that does not quite capture the social. Yes, we can apply this theory and say, “yeah, there are A-listers in the mommyblogosphere, and yeah there is a certain hierarchy, ranking, or even (dare I say it) competitive streak to some of this”—we all love knowing we’ve got an audience, after all—because it means we’re more attractive.
OK--but there’s a whole lot more I see going on in the slice of blogosphere I float around (largely women, largely mothers, largely lefty-liberals with penchant for a drink and a good swear like me) that does not quite fit in this model. (And I am by no means the first to take umbrage with Barabasi’s application of mathematical principles to social phenomenon).
In fact, when I trawl through a lot of these theories, I am struck by how much the discussion is dominated by white guys (not that I have anything against white guys—some of my best friends are white guys). The terminology dominated by references to rank, power, and competition. It’s about the survival of the fittest. It’s about deleting the weakest link. It's all a bit "manly." But is it?
Liz’s mild discomfort earlier this week over discovery of this dark truth of the blogosphere—that “success” is all about linkages and technorati ratings--is just one indicator that there is still a great deal to learn about how our networks or communities reinforce one another. It’s not just about linkages (though this is a key part). The question (as Fred Stuzman and others have asked it) should be not how blogs attain hierarchical rank in the social network, but how we connect.
Act Four: Some Comments on Commenting
It’s connectivity and conversation that most defines our network (or networks). Especially in the female-dominated “mommy” blogosphere in which I participate. Obviously being linked by an A-list blogger can cause a flutter in any blogger-gal’s heart (hands up who is secretly hoping that you’ll turn up on Amalah’s Daily Dose? C’MOOON!) but we know that if you want to bring readers to your site, then you need to interact with other bloggers through the practice of reciprocal commenting. And remember, links from comments don't count in terms of ranking (mainly because then it would count as spam).
There is a whole (as yet) untheorized or unresearched politics of commenting that I am fascinated by (feel free to set me straight on this one). Reciprocal commenting strengthens and broadens our community—or, as Kristen puts it, comments are like blog-crack. In fact, the practice of reciprocal commenting is so central to our community of practice, that many of us in our darker moments have ‘fessed up to feeling a certain amount of pressure to always comment on a post, just to show support (even if you have not read an entire post).
Feed another’s blog-crack habit, so you can get you some in return...
And I don’t think there is anything wrong with that, per se (dear God, if you’ve made it this far through this fucking post, you deserve a medal—feel free to Pass Go, and click on “Comments” –or not!) No, commenting for the sake of commenting is not an empty act—it is a vocal gesture of support. (and I hope I am not offending lurkers here—hell, I lurk all over the place….)
Which is why, when someone abruptly stops commenting on your site, many of us can feel a bit slighted. Because it feels like a withdrawal of support. And this is also where the comment-fatigue begins to set in. While we want to support one another—there are so many great blogs and so little time--suddenly the networking and supporting that helped us feel like an active member of the community begins to feel like work. And suddenly you’re realizing that you’ve not posted in (cough) a week, and “oh my god people are going to drop you, and no one will read you, and you’ve spoiled everything you silly bitch.” I’ve weakened my link to the community; I am going to become extinct! Which I am beginning to realize now (seasoned 7 month blogger that I am) is not at all true. (Thank Christ for this article: Why Post Frequency Does Not Matter Anymore ).
But it’s hard to extricate personal feelings about relationships from this work of writing, because it is the relationships, the interactions, that help us write in the first place. Shit, it's those relationships that brought me and Monkey-Boy to that ice-cream parlor on Saturday.
A few weeks ago (like others before me) I uncomfortably discovered how much I was actually invested in the relationship aspect of blogging. I realized that someone who had been an active commenter (and email correspondent) in the early days of this blog had not only stopped commenting (even while I had blithely continued commenting on this person’s blog) but had deliberately removed me from her list of “friends” and even her longer blogroll. I took it really personally (feels stupid to say now) and spent way too much energy wondering what I could have done to be deleted like that. At the same time I was asking myself “why does this matter?” and "why does this feel like High School?" and "what does this tell me about this little writing gig I’ve got myself into?"
Though I did not enjoy the experience at all at the time—it made me confront some of my own insecurities and validation issues that I don’t like to dwell on overmuch--I am now grateful to that person for making me confront this aspect of myself and my blogging—the social aspect.
Act Five: In Which I Dodge the Larger Question (for now)
So the mathematical principles of Barabasi (a physicist) don’t quite account for the phenomenon (phenonemA?) that is mommyblogging, and, I am sure, many other contexts for blogging. In academic terms, we can say this is because social networks are governed not by natural (read “neutral”) laws of evolution and attraction, but instead emerge through communities of practice and their contexts. In other words--if you talk about "blogging" as one thing, it's a bit like talking about all books as one thing. It completely removes the question of context--and why the hell we are blogging in the first place. All of which, of course, begs the question "so what's different about mommyblogging? or women's blogging?" or? or? or? (as if even those terms can adequately account for the various communities within those "genres")
Right now, I can’t begin to answer this or a whole host of related questions fully (nor could anyone, ever) but I do know that I'm going to give it a stab. And some of it might make its way here. I am toying with making an alternate "research" blog--because social network theory bloggers--yes, there is such a breed--are writing some pretty interesting stuff. And I am hoping by having a space to process and write about my ideas will give me the impetus and communal support I need to hone some of those ideas into more "academically sanctioned" forms of publication. Right now "blog posts" don't get you very far in terms of tenure review (which though sucking big ones from a purely selfish perspective, does kind of make sense).
So I'll keep you posted (har har, no pun intended). And if you've made it this far, thanks for reading. Because without you folks I would not be here right now, and I am kind of liking "here" right now...
UPDATED to add: I should also thank Tracey, of course, because she was the one--back in January when I was uhm-ing and ah-ing to her over instant messenger about, "uhm, writing, uhm, a blog"--who told me something along the lines of "you can fucking write, go for it!" Which made me feel kind of warm and fuzzy. (and, Paula, if you're reading this, thanks also for the extra shove;-))