in praise of living in public

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.

I posted one blog post the entire month of September. One. And an older one got picked up in a bigger venue, which is all very nice. But still.

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.

Michael Wesch and danah boyd and internet theorist people call it ‘context collapse.’

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.


37 Comments in praise of living in public

  1. edenland

    I just logged on to twitter and saw this link and here I am. BAM. What a fricken awesome post.

    Thank you. You just named a whole lot of things I had no name for. The peculiarities of personal blogging has really done my head in. All my worlds, my thoughts collided. Hard to explain … I haven’t enjoyed it at all, lately.

    I think I just might keep going after all, see what’s around the next bend.

    I love the way you write. X

    1. bon

      thanks, Eden.

      i think for me this is a process, maybe, of beginning to dig through to the other side of closing my original blog, my comfortable voice.

      i’d always kept this voice distinct from that, and didn’t want to bore readers “there” with the stuff here…and people told me they were intimidated by here so i didn’t really know who to write to.

      maybe i’m merging the two. maybe i’m just testing out the mirror ball. maybe it doesn’t matter if i know.

      it does matter to have it reflected back at me, though…thank you. for receiving. and for telling me.

    1. bon

      it’s true.

      i’m not even kidding. you’ve been one of the most consistent voices engaging with my ideas & reflecting ’em back to me & sometimes challenging, sometimes taking ’em in your own direction…

      thanks for that. much.

  2. Jada

    That’s exactly what kept me under a psuedonym for so very long…that exact feeling that my thousand faces (and legion, yes they are) were compressed to an ideal I could NOT actually create in reality, despite trying to be “authentic”…Stepping back and away and slowly toeing back in is allowing more distance under my actual name, but also giving me an opportunity to look at myself and determine which face should be brought forth, if any at all. I had an “I hate the internet” moment yesterday because everywhere I went it was all the jerky faces saying jerky things and I really felt like…gee, in real life, these would be inside voices. Then I realized wait, this is real life sometimes. And then I made bread because bread doesn’t make me angry.

    So yeah, it’s fertile and confusing and frustrating but ultimately, kinda awesome. I think.

    1. bon

      yeh i’m still on the side of kinda awesome, too.

      or at least, i think the social web is part of all kinds of problems. and also can be part of their solution. and i focus on those latter bits because they are the ones that – when i step back – stand out the most for me, in my own practices.

  3. ruth

    Thank you 100x for articulating this! After 5 years of personal blogging, I felt irrational for still being insecure. You’ve helped me understand it. I feel better about my blog work because of your words. Again, thank you.

    1. bon

      ah, the insecurity piece…good point. i think the whole myth of “write for yourself” makes us feel if we have some kinda *truth* it should just pour out of us unconsidered and pure…which is, IMO, a philosophically untenable position. all writing has an audience, even if it is just a future self. most good writers learn to use their understanding of that audience to target their work. so really, what gets framed as “insecure” could also be, say, best practices for good communications. ;)

  4. Jennifer

    In real life I quite love bringing friends together, letting crossovers develop and have people in my network see each other as part of their network.

    Online, however, I struggle with this – with the permanence, the lack of context, and (most stiflingly) the vastly different circles in which I move. So many things I think of I don’t say due to concern about how it will offend or upset someone, or whether it will negatively impact people’s estimation of me or those with whom I’m in conversation. I want everyone to respect everyone and (ideally) even like everyone, yet I suspect that the more likely scenario might not be so rosy.

    1. bon

      i too want everyone to get along. more and more i realize that that’s unlikely…but that i don’t have any particular skills for navigating the different worlds from which people approach my own.

      also, i realized, reading your comment, that i kinda wrote about context collapse five+ years ago, only i didn’t know what to call it. and i was then in the early days of our affair and the awkwardness had not yet emerged. still…

      thanks for sparking that revisit, Jennifer.

  5. Redneck Mommy

    Hot damn I miss reading your words.

    And as a non-academic who followed the academic twittergate, I just want to shout into that academic void that ‘resistance is futile.’ Of course, I totally want to be wearing my Star Trek shirt while I yell it. Surely then more people will take my message seriously.

  6. Loukia

    I wish there was a space on the internet where I could connected solely with my online friends, with my blogging world. I do not love the fat that my online space is also filled with my beloved real life best friends, and I don’t love that my blog is read by my mom and dad… because I need a place I can talk about things I wouldn’t talk about with my dad. Even if it is about sex. Or whatever. Or issues I have at home. Or in relationships. I need privacy, and I don’t find that on my blog. Many of my blogging friends know me very, very well.. we talk in person, we talk though email, I leave more detailed comments on their posts, sometimes more openly than I can write on my blog. My blog is all real, very authentic, but I do not discuss in details things I would love to, if I knew certain eyes weren’t reading. It’s hard. And facebook, and Twitter, used to be easier, but not so much anymore. I know from a few instances my boss at work reads my tweets (oh fucking joy) and my mom is on Twitter now, too. So like, you know? It’s hard.

    1. bon

      it’s like all the edges get hewn off the more contexts we try to roll together. and some of the honesty and connection is IN the edges, isn’t it? in finding people for whom the same edge resonates, the one that the rest of our worlds don’t share.

  7. Sue Fisher

    Here’s a question for you: how would you feel if your personal blog became the subject of academic study? I know this topic has come up in the past with a couple of theses/mom bloggers. But I want to ask it again in this context. In a couple of weeks I’ll be doing an information literacy session for a grad class looking at Canadian diaries and memoirs. Their syllabus ranges from early settler diaries to Margaret Trudeau’s published memoir. A so-far open slot on the syllabus lists blogs, etc. If one of the blogs was yours, how do you think would you manage a reversal in context collapse?

    1. bon

      ooh. good question. i think for me – just for me – i’d be potentially uncomfortable but would feel obliged to be more or less okay with it, b/c the work is in the public domain and i believe meaning is transactional: neither in my own words nor in the reader’s understanding. with that, though, and the larger framework of network and good faith in which the blog was written, i could be made a lot LESS uncomfortable if i were assured that the research would come from the same perspective – essentially reflecting back at me interpretations of my words, and potentially taking my response to those into account as well. that, erm, is of course my own research methodology.

      just being told i said x and that makes me x would make me feel more exposed. which i’d still suck up. but not necessarily without writing rebuttals. ;)

      1. KeAnne

        I have an online friend who discovered a reader was using her blog in his psychology class as an example on having everything but still being miserable. She hadn’t been asked if it were ok for him to do so and felt that he was only seeing and using one of her faces. It was very ugly, and she almost closed her blog.

        1. bon

          i can see that. i can see how that would hurt and be ugly. i’ve found mis-reflection of one’s intentions or positions always feels ugly.

          which of course, then raises the question of how one writes within context collapse. i’m not interested in blaming your friend b/c i have not read her work, but i know that for the most part i remain convinced that i managed to blog very personally for six+ years with only ONE semi-troll offended by my statements in that time b/c i very overtly wrote across context collapse from the beginning. not out of any great nobleness or awareness. but when you start to write b/c you cannot speak and yet you need to talk to people who you KNOW do not understand the experience you want to explain? it helps. it broadens the lens from the beginning and means you are almost never taking the shortcuts we all (me! me! just accidentally not so much on the blog!) do in the sanctuary of safe & like-minded people. i didn’t have those. i wrote to try to make them out of people i knew, and in the process found kindred spirits of all kinds. aww. now i’m getting all Anne of Green Gables. hush.

  8. Jennifer (another one)

    Some people think of it like gossip – when they find themselves mentioned in those spheres (twitter/facebook/etc.), it’s like finding out that people have been talking about them behind their backs. And they have no recourse if they’re misrepresented because they’re not a part of the conversation. So — if that “gossip” is impacting their offline lives — then they are effectively coerced into joining a conversation they would really rather not join.

    1. bon

      excellent point. i think you’re quite right…except that if true, these otherwise smart people are dismissing as mere gossip a medium and forum that is far, far more without ever trying it out or attempting to understand or appreciate the fair amount of ink spilled on what it IS, for people – especially academics – engaged.

      1. Jennifer (another one)

        Oh, I agree people ought to give those platforms a chance, rather than dismissing them as idle chatter.

        BTW I discussed this post with a 33yo coworker (I’m 40), and he 1> knew exactly what you meant by ‘context collapse’ and 2> said he plays with it on Facebook. He said he loves to post things which he knows will be seen as outrageous by half his audience and hilarious by the other half. I thought that was interesting.

  9. KeAnne

    Those poor academics. What a changed world they are in. It’s always jarring to me when I attend conferences that aren’t social media or Internet-related because of the lack of smartphone/laptop/live blogging/tweeting going on.

    I wonder if the academics who objected also object to MOOCs? The two seem similar in that academic conversations, thinking and research are being opened up to the “great unwashed.” I think you are correct that they worry about context collapse and losing control, but as the saying goes, “information wants to be free.”

    On a personal level, I welcome context collapse on my blog. I like that one day I can feel free to write about my child while the next I’m writing about surrogacy and then the next about what I did while everyone was at BlogHer or my spectacular failures at cake decorating. I like having 1000 faces.

    Glad to see your post. I always look forward to new stuff from you!

    1. bon

      thanks, KeAnne.

      i am wary of the whole “info wants to be free” line, only because it tends to come from a particular place that obscures its own ties to the research/corporate culture and assumes itself outside those complexities, and that whole notion of outside is one i do still long for but don’t quite believe exists….

  10. Kate

    This is just lovely. For so many academics, there’s a second, awful version of writing for the brand — the regular professional production line that services institutional ranking, individual tenure, reputation, etc, whose measures are citations and impact and the 78 page proposal that feels like a relief when it’s gone. That’s why people in our system get itchy with Twitter at conferences, because reputation is a souffle that can collapse at any moment if a backchannel comment is misdirected, and so much rests on reputation.

    And then there’s the whole problem that conventional academic writing isn’t about listening or responding, except combatively. But blogging is. So maybe the resilience of personal blogging against the odds of time contraction speaks to this search for spaces where there is conversation and thinking, not just reputational broadcasting.

    1. Jennifer (another one)

      “conversation and thinking, not just reputational broadcasting”

      I love that. It’s exactly why I still love blogging over twitter or FB.

  11. Kimberly

    You asked for thoughts/stories:

    1) I started blogging (sortof) about seven years ago, right about when I got pregnant with my first. I wanted a place to memorialize stuff and I knew it wasn’t going to be in the journal. I wasn’t working for the first time in my life, and I had a relatively easy pregnancy. So I spent a lot of time online. It was new. I enjoyed it. It was for me, maybe my family, maybe a few far away friends.

    I started reading some lovely blogs. Toddled Dredge and Antique Mommy and yours and Beck’s were some of the first ones I read. I loved them. I loved the interaction. I commented with some regularity.

    2) Somewhere in there I joined Twitter. (Hang on, let me see when….huh. It doesn’t tell me when) probably about the same time, so I could connect with my bloggy pals. Twitter remains about 90 percent internet, 10 percent real life. That has blurred, obviously, as I have met several internet people in the real world and made some good friends.

    3) I don’t remember when I joined FB. But it immediately was more of a ‘real-life’ meeting place. Mostly family and high school and college friends. It has become more current and local recently. It is the reverse of twitter, 90 percent real life and 10 percent internet.

    The Twitter me is less sanitized than the FB me, because my family is on FB. Despite the 140 char limit, I find that there are more conversations on Twitter than FB, probably because of how the service works.

    I don’t post much on FB any more. I have it kept VERY private, as it is my real name with real people. I have it locked down as best as I can. I am more “open” on Twitter, but it is much less identifiable.

    How much of “me” do I put out there? My blog, such as it is, is open. 3.5 years ago I wrote a post on the supplements that were helping me make enough milk to breastfeed my second baby. It was for me, so that I would remember what I had done, but I knew that there were one or two people who might benefit, so I unprivatized the blog. That post is read nearly every day, and it has received visitors from all over the world. This is the internet at its’ best. Struggling with low milk supply is one of those topics that our mothers would have thought too private for public consumption, but it isn’t something I am ashamed of or feel the need to keep quiet. If it helps someone, excellent.

    The downside? I will FB you with a story that shows the odd side of this context collapse.

    I do sit and think, before I write something in various venues, as to who will be reading it, and how it will be perceived. I like being able to share different parts of me in different places.

  12. amiee

    Reading here feels so much like the first incarnation off your blog… difference being that it is about your new …baby? Thesis.path. Astute as always. Context collapse…aptly describes why I have turned to snapshots and feel mute even when I long to write. If only to reconnect to those I found through the medium.

    But I know you are here…with a consistent and illuminating angle on what this all means. Thanks for challenging the blank screen.

  13. Pingback: This Week | Life with Roozle

  14. alejna

    This post and the ensuing discussion give me lot of food for thought.

    I’m a blogger and an academic, but for the most part those worlds don’t mix for me. I missed the brouhaha about live-tweeting at conferences. I did once write a post about some talks at a conference I attended, but they were talks that were tangential to my field. And it felt really awkward. I didn’t know what voice to use. Now I have some insight about why! Context collapse. Thanks for learnin’ me that term!

    And context collapse is likely what is gradually quieting my voice online. I have already had to adjust to knowing that my mother reads my blog, but I’m not quite sure how I feel about having parents of my daughter’s classmates read it. And I remember the embarrassment of having my blog mentioned by someone in front of my academic advisor. Happily, his general disdain of blogs likely prevented him from looking up my blog and seeing what a goofball I am.

    At the same time, I have always been moderately careful about what I post, as I decided to use my real name. Even though I don’t use my last name, it’s not too hard to figure out who I am. I always have to think about how my blog will look to some future employer. I confess that while I have written for myself and my friends, I have edited and censored myself with my former syntax professor in mind. (Unlike my advisor, he *is* the sort of person who would track down a blog to see what someone has written. So he must by now know that I am a goofball. Though maybe he’d already suspected it from my penchant for using “squid” in my linguistic examples.)

    I’m so glad to find you writing here again.

      1. bon

        it was a GOOD comment. so grateful. thinking these narratives about how and why might have a place in my work, if you’re okay with that?

        1. alejna

          I am okay with that, thanks! The narcissist in me loves the idea of me being included in someone’s work.

          I find your explorations of these subjects very interesting.

          (As a side note, I thought briefly about posting this on Facebook, but then realized that I’d have to think about who might read these comments!)

  15. Pingback: The World’s Biggest Small Town: or, Be the Twit you Want to See in the World |

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *