Thu 4 Oct 2012
It’s October. Late the other night, as I pressed ‘send’ on my oh-dear-god-it’s-finally-more-or-less-done 78 page thesis proposal (yeh, you heard me) and crawled into bed, it occurred to me.
Neither of them were here, on an address with ‘cribchronicles’ in it.
First time since April of 2006.
I miss this.
I think I understand why personal blogs are supposedly endangered, these days. They’re the hardest kind of writing to do.
Oh sure, there may be less editorial pressure and shareholder/brand accountability on a personal blog than you’ll find if you happen to hit the big time and start writing for HuffPo. And hey, even if you have a readership comprised of three living souls, you can be your own personal media empire and utilize thirteen different stats packages to give you a fully-rounded picture of what exactly that reader in outer Uzbekistan actually finds compelling about your work (I once discovered someone had found their way to my blog by Googling “I am the Walrus”…John Lennon, eat your heart out).
But having a vague sense of what has made people come in the past doesn’t necessarily give you a sense of who you’re talking to. On a personal blog, unlike a media outlet with pre-determined demographics and audience, you have to build your sense of who you’re talking to out of whole cloth.
And just navigating that…especially at first, or when who you’re talking to takes a shift, is no joke.
Chances are, when you learned to write, you wrote for your teacher. Or for yourself, maybe, and the vague shadowy posterity who might someday find your peach satin diary when you were no longer around. But you had some vague sense of who to address, and in what register.
This is called ‘self-presentation’: we navigate and manage it, all the time, in human life. Most people speak differently to their friends than they do to their mothers, for instance. And, we address people in power over us from different relational positions than we do cashiers in grocery stores, even if we’re entirely respectful in both interactions. We have what Goffman (1959) called different ‘faces’ for these different facets of our lives. We have lots of faces, and we navigate between them all the time.
We’re legion, baby.
Except on teh Internets. Here, we have to take all the faces we regularly wear and throw ‘em into a blender and pancake the resulting mush on like a big ol’ mud mask. And the more we live in public? The more faces get smushed into that mix. We post a status update on Facebook and there’s Aunt Myrtle chortling along with our best friend from college and the person who sits three cubicles away. And, oh yeh, that first slow-dance from seventh grade, the one who got away.
That’s context collapse.
Now, more and more, people navigate it every day. Some use privacy settings to minimize it, or try to keep worlds separate. Others of us cultivate broad public selves via social media channels, and discover along the way that our neighbour likes obscure death metal too, or that Aunt Myrtle actually has a rather raunchy sense of humour.
But every time we sit down in front of the blank screen we have to conjure up who it is we are addressing; to imagine, as Wesch puts it, “the nearly infinite contexts” we might be entering (Wesch, 2009, p. 23)
That’s what makes blogging as just one’s plain old self harder, in a sense, than sitting down and writing for a far larger audience under somebody else’s masthead. There, no matter how thoughtful your piece or how much pressure to rise to the reputation of that publication, you are already handed a voice of sorts to inhabit, a self that is both shaped and backed by a brand far bigger than you.
Not here. Here, you can be anybody. But you have to cobble that self together from the nearly infinite contexts and selves reflected back at you by the disco ball of the blank screen.
It’s what makes the dead-letter pile of all the millions of blogs choking the internet, mostly long-left to molder in silence, still an extraordinary accomplishment in human produsage, in Voice. Those millions of people sat down in front of the blank screen and called forth some place to begin, some face to wear, some self from the thousands of possible selves they could have been on that given day.
It’s easy to forget that, when you get used to blogging, when you find your range of faces and an audience willing to receive them…once you narrow the infinite to a more manageable, visible number.
I’d forgotten, until I closed cribchronicles. Now, adjusting to the quiet lean-to that was this theoryblog having become my only room of my own, so to speak, I sit here staring into the void, wondering who I’m talking to. It’s intimidating as hell.
But it’s also heady stuff, a strange thrill reserved for us, the digitally adventurous. Voyages in self.
There was a kerfuffle over the weekend at an academic conference, about the ethics and etiquette of live-Tweeting academic conference talks and presentations. Dubbed #Twittergate, it’s been the story – and debate – of the week in higher ed. As someone whose first big conferences were mostly social media and blogging events, where a hundred laptops – now more phones and tablets – go into action every time a session gets interesting, I found the whole thing rather…bewildering. Others have both recapped and deliberated it far more eloquently than I could hope to here, so I’ll just throw in my one small salvo.
The academics who don’t ‘get it’? Who object essentially, as some did, to the idea of their work being represented outside of their control?
Sure, they’re ignoring the water-cooler discussions conferences exist to provoke. Sure, they’re conflating a whole pile of prejudices about what the internet is and isn’t and what prestige is and isn’t in a world turned upside down by information abundance. But.
I also think some of them may be grappling with – or maybe trying to fight off – context collapse. They’re clinging to a notion of professional self that circulates in professional, gatekept circles. They don’t want their ideas represented in a medium they associate with the illustrious musings of Snooki, or with litanies of what people had for lunch.
That’s what it all looks like until you throw yourself into that void and figure out who else is out there to talk to.
Maybe they glance our way out here and they don’t see ideas and peers and the potential for networks or connections. Maybe they glance our way and they see all that plus the rest of the infinite mirror ball of possibility and they cannot figure out who they’d ever speak as, here, and don’t want to be tossed into that paralyzing void?
Maybe. Heck, I feel that way sometimes.
What I say to them is what I say to myself when I stare at the cursor pulsing on the white screen, through, trying to reel in some sense of self and direction on which to scrabble forward:
No way out but through. Welcome to living in public.