Friday, October 21, 2011

Insider blogging

A friend of mine is teaching a Creative Nonfiction course this semester and he's asked me to cover a couple of classes while he's out of town. He wants me to focus specifically on blogging and the aspects of writing creative nonfiction in the blog format that make it unique. I'm delighted to have the opportunity - and not just so I can be the cool, fun substitute teacher - but I could use the collective wisdom of the blogosphere as my plans come together.

I'll be teaching two classes. In the first, I thought I'd introduce elements that are characteristic of the medium and decisions that bloggers make and debate as they craft their voices and shape their blog personae. I'm thinking about things like:

- The decision to use your real name or a pseudonym, and the pros and cons of each decision. (There have got to be some great posts out there that dissect this issue. Can anyone point me to one?)

- The ethical implications of using other people's names - or, even, other people's stories, even if the names are changed.

- The further implications and considerations for bloggers who write about their children: Where does the blogger's story end and the child's story begin? What rights of privacy should a child automatically be afforded? What happens when the cute story you wrote about naked five-year-old Sally is discovered by the classmates of awkward eighth-grade Sally?

- The many ways that parent-bloggers negotiate and balance the right-to-privacy or safety-and-security issues with the establishment of veritas and the bringing-to-life of the narrative: real names with photos; fake names with photos; real names without photos; fake names without photos - and the potential benefits and pitfalls of each.

- The self-referential nature of blogging - the ongoing narrative, the link-back to previous posts, the assumption that the reader already has - or knows how to find - the backstory, the presumption that there is always backstory.

- The phenomenon of comments - the dialogue that can ensue between author and reader, or between readers - the way that the best, meatiest, most heartfelt, most meaningful part of a post often appears in the comment section.

- The communities that form through blogging - the circles that emerge - the politics of the blogroll - the danger of creating "insiders" and "outsiders" among one's readership. I remember reading a post somewhere long ago that talked about how blogging was like being back in eighth grade - and then reading a response post on a different blog about how blogging is, in fact, nothing like being back in eighth grade. Does that ring a bell with anyone? Can you point me to a link?

- The existence of blog trolls - people who seem to stalk your blog obsessively, waiting for new updates (and the fact that you know about their existence because you have been tracking your blog stats obsessively) - and people who leave nasty, hurtful comments - almost always anonymously, with no reply address, like grenades lobbed through the blogosphere.

- Flame wars and the way that misunderstandings can escalate quickly and divisively, with lines drawn and opinions entrenched within hours.

- The crafting of a blogging persona and the assumption by some that because you are writing about your own life, the blog reflects exactly who you are - and the reality that blog writers shine spotlights on the areas of their lives that they want you to see, leaving the vast majority of their lives - and themselves - in the shadows.

I'd be delighted - and eternally grateful - if you can point me to any blog posts you've read that delve into these subjects and capture well any perspective on them. I'd like to avoid turning these into classes on autism blogging or mommy blogging, so I'd especially welcome suggestions from further afield (though, by all means, I'd be happy to have examples from closer to home as well).

At the end of the first class, I'd like to assign each of the students some reading, asking them to read a post or a series of posts that captures a quintessentially bloggy phenomenon - something that could only happen through writing on the web - that they can showcase them for us in the second class. Some ideas:

- Real-life implications of online writing - how the same things that make for a wonderfully snarky post can really come back to bite their author. I'm thinking, especially, of things like being Dooced (or, fired for blogging about one's job), pointing them here - or more recently, the blogger who found Child Protective Services at her door because of a post that she'd written.

- The collective power of blogopshere - The Bloggess's recent response to spam mail from a PR firm comes to mind, though I'm sure there are examples with greater heft and import (Like...? Help me out here.)

- The equalizing power of the internet and the instant access that blogging can grant to the often unsuspecting blogger - there was some story I read once about a kid with autism who got to meet his country music superstar hero. And, of course, the one in which the autism mom got invited to the White House to share her thoughts and expertise.

And what else? What posts out there capture the essence of blogging? What are the things that happen in the blogosphere like nowhere else? What makes us who we are?

Oh - just thought of another one. There was that blogger who enlisted the blogosphere to help her teach that class...


KW said...

From my little world, academic bloggers who use thinly veiled pseudonyms and write about both their academic subjects and politics--and often the latter of the former. Check out and Tenured Radical, long time blogger Claire Potter who moved her whole show the Chronicle of Higher Ed with mixed results ( at least to read Historiann on the subject! Interesting, I think, perspective from both of them on how being tenured offers a measure of security that's peculiar to the profession. Your class should be awfully interesting. : )

Niksmom said...

When discussing the collective power of the blogosphere, you can't overlook this one (also from The Bloggess) which caused an international sensation! Seriously: She helped create Christmas miracles for people who had no hope.

Or the smaller, but equally powerful, spheres in which iPads have been gifted to those who never could afford one (ahem: links in this post, or to share knowledge which can change lives or save lives.

Just off the top of my head.
Can't wait to hear more about this as you pull things together.

Karen Isaacson said...

got nothin to help you, but DAMN I want to take that class.

Bright Side of Life said...

Also have nothing to help you, however, after reading all your information I think I may give up blogging!! :)

Anonymous said...

Mary, I've been participating in online communities since the mid 90's (usenet, anyone?) My early experience was in the martial arts field and now, of course, the game industry. More recently I've been a community manager and blogger on my company's website. I can offer my experience on a couple things.

Real name vs. Pseudonym:
Whenever possible, use your real name unless your safety will be compromised. This used to be less important but not anymore. This is one reason why Facebook rules the social media world, despite the lost friendships due to differences of opinion on various hot-button issues. Nothing says you are a serious person more than backing up your opinion with your actual identity (except superheroes, of course..)

Trolling/flame wars:
Never hesitate to delete a comment that is simply offensive (racist, deliberately insulting, etc). Ban users who do such things, unless it appears to be an exception compared to most of that user's responses. If the person is highly critical but uses a logical argument, look at that as an opportunity to state your own viewpoint clearly and open a useful dialogue.

Anonymity on the internet is difficult. I had a user who repeatedly made new accounts after I banned his user name and IP. I turned some serious attention on him and eventually found out who he really was (an underage teen, aged 12) and contacted his father with the posts he had made. That put an end to it. If you ever need advice on how to track an IP address, let me know.

Insiders and outsiders.
Most people who read your blog will never post a comment. Others will post one or two specific comments, and another group--often quite small--will post the majority of comments. As long as anyone is free to post (except identified trolls) there is no insider/outsider vibe unless the blogger actively encourages a select group and discourages all others. Often "insiders" are just keenly invested in your site and willing to put in more effort adding to discussions than others. Each blogger must decide what kind of culture she or he wants to project on their site, and actively maintain that. It is, at times, quite difficult, but that is the difference between a blog and a discussion forum. The blog's core is always the viewpoint of the blogger while forums tend to represent many individual points of view.

Use of other people's names or ideas:
To me, the choice to use other people's names or stories is a no brainer: if they know what you wrote and sign off on it, all is well.

Assuming readers know the backstory:
This is solved using the simplest of formatting. Whenever you reference an earlier post include a link to that blog post. This is really simple best practices these days--and you already do it! It is one of the simplest and best ways to grow your audience, by making it easy for them to understand the references you make while allowing them to read more posts on your site! The internet is non-linear, and wise bloggers use this to help their readers.

Audience misconceptions because the blogger is only showing a selected portion of herself/himself:
My advice here is to completely ignore this. People will always project elements of their own lives on you and a percentage will be completely misconstrued. Be honest, and address any misconceptions in comments--but only on your own terms. Share only what you wish to share. Don't get drawn into other people's drama.

Hilarity in Shoes said...

There's a great dating blogger in DC who, after becoming very popular relatively quickly, recently stopped blogging altogether because her public persona was hindering her goal of finding a serious relationship--which was the whole reason she started blogging in the first place. You can see her swan song here, but her last few posts deal with the issue:

Anonymous said...

Bonnie Stuart PH.D candidate in Canada (Crib Chronicles is her blog) lots of Canadian bloggers, Ali Martell is another and Cheaty Monkey. Check out Her Bad Mother also Canadian now writing for Babble and living in NYC. Dooce is famously a long time blogger. Twitter is a good source for bloggers, thy tweet a quip linked to their blog.
Let me know if you need more info!

Anonymous said...

PS google Blissdom 11. Recent conference held in Canada, topics such as branding, trends in social media...

Stimey said...

Wow. I think your class is going to be reaaaaaalllly long. Awesome too.

Implications of blogging: (This is, like, a seven-part series; just keep clicking "next post.") She lost an adoption partly because of blogging.

Community and good: Susan (whymommy) of Toddler Planet. She was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer a few years ago. She has spread soooo much information about this aggressive breast cancer that presents without a lump. Bloggers from all over reposted her informational post about IBC. She is part of a blogger-born project to donate lymphedema sleeves to cancer survivors who need them. She has done a lot of real life good with her blog. Like, life-saving.

Support wise, I wouldn't still be standing without the blogosphere, but there are far more specific ways I have seen bloggers help their own. Examples: WhyMommy's Virtual Science Fair, which I organized when Susan went back into treatment ( Or Anna at An Inch of Gray. She just lost her son and the community has been sending love and prayers to her. They're also on a mission to get Justin Bieber to meet her daughter to give her a few moments of happiness. ( Heather Spohr of the Spohrs are Multiplying: Same things. Her daughter passed away and not only did her community gather around her, but they raised a tremendous amount of money for the March of Dimes and I think her daughter has a foundation named after her now. Anissa Mayhew had a debilitating stroke and the community rallied. The Nie Nie Chronicles are about a woman who was seriously burned after a plane crash and I think the blogosphere came together around her. I could give you lists and lists, small and large scale. Strangers giving time, prayers, love and money. This community GIVES.

As for your first questions, I think that sort of thing is so largely opinion and your own personal comfort level. I think you could present your own feelings on those subjects (and I'm guessing you have some well thought out ideas for each) with an end note that these are things you should think about before you start writing and come up with your own answers because no one answer is going to work for everyone.

Please let us know how the classes go! I can't wait to hear!

Maddy said...

I'm always impressed with how much can happen when people make the effort to come together, like with the various facebook campaigns and the like.

But on a micro-lever, I think that finding people who have similar perspectives [regardless of the topic they're blogging about] goes to show how much support you can find from like-minded people.

DT35 said...

Re: unanticipated consequences of blogging -- Rene Najera had to shut down his extremely informative epidemiology blog, EpiRen, when his employer got a lot of grief from a reader who disagreed with him.

Dr. Robert Lindeman, a Boston pediatrician who blogged as Dr. Flea, demonstrated a touchingly naive faith in the impenetrability of his pseudonym by live-blogging his malpractice trial. Almost needless to say, the opposing counsel had known his identity for months, and no doubt had plenty of juicy quotes to question him about. AFAIK, the Flea blog can only be found through Googlecache or the Wayback Machine.

MOM-NOS said...

These suggestions are great! Thank you all so much. And please keep them coming!

Erica said...

Probably too late to help you now, but I wrote about blogging with pseudonyms last year:

Anonymous said...

An inch of gray- Bloggers son's accidental death leads to true identity exposed and daughter ends up meeting Justin beiber due to efforts of her blog followers .