Selections From the (not so) Secret Life of Blogs: An Ethnography

By Robin Lester

In 2001, I was living with two roommates in a run-down neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY. One evening, one of my roommates (male, and a year younger than I) came home, excited to show me something new he had learned about at work that afternoon. He logged on to a website, and proceeded to show me how he had posted an online diary entry, accessible for anyone to see. He told me it was called a “blog.” I told him I thought it was the stupidest thing I had ever seen. “Why would anyone want to put their journal online?” I asked. “Why not just write it down on paper?”

A year later, I was living by myself in a tiny studio in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan. I had come down with a terrible respiratory infection – the kind that makes coughing hurt your entire body, stuffs up your entire head and upper torso, and comes with a burning fever. That morning, I had slithered uptown to see my primary care doctor. She asked me if I had a fever, and I said I didn’t know. I didn’t own a thermometer! Adults owned thermometers. Grownups. Moms. Old people.

On the way home, I bought a thermometer.

Later, my friend Sam called to see how I was feeling. I told him about the thermometer, and then I described in incredulous detail what the instructions said the package. “Sam, it says you can put the thermometer under your tongue, under your armpit, or in your ass! Who doesn’t have either a tongue OR an armpit?” I exclaimed. “Why would you choose to put this in your ass?”

There was a quiet chuckle on the other end of the line, before Sam said, “Robin, you really need a blog.”


Blogs: An Introduction

Monday, October 8, 2007. It is an autumn morning, and I sit down at my kitchen table facing the window, my feet propped up on the chair across from me, and open my black Macbook. I am still in my pajamas. As is customary for me, after I conduct a brief email check, I search my Firefox toolbar for the link called “feeds.” I click it. The link calls up Bloglines, a website I use to keep track of all of the blogs I read. The sites show up as a list on the left of the screen, and the sites that have been updated appear in bold. I have subscribed to 106 blog feeds, and I see that there are 28 new posts for me to read.

Some of the sites have several new posts. Usually, these are topical, and not personal, sites. On occasion, topical sites are too difficult for me to keep up with and I simply click on the bold link without actually reading to lessen my tally of unread posts. When I find a bolded blog I want to read, I click on its title. Its newly published text appears in a window to the right of the list.

I scroll down in search of a personal blog to read. I find one – Callalillie. Callalillie’s blog, like several others, does not let me view the latest post in its entirety using Bloglines, and requires me to visit its actual web address. When the external link opens in a new window, I a greeted by a familiar page layout. A light blue header at the top features the categories “about,” “archives” and “links.” The top of author’s head is silhouetted on the left, wearing a green knit cap with cat ears. The post, like most that appear on Callalillie’s blog, starts with a large photograph that fills the width of the text column. Today’s photo is a picture of a grey tabby cat sitting next to a faux cat, and the post pertains to the difficulties the author has encountered integrating her two cats with her husband’s two cats – a problem they’ve faced since moving in together in 2005. The faux cat is intended to help integrate the two feline contingencies.

Who cares about kitties at war and a battery-powered fake purring cat? I do. What makes this ongoing documentation of a stranger’s life so compelling to me? Good writing, honesty, shared experiences and my own curiosity. What is it about these individuals who open themselves up to anonymous scrutiny, and why is the writing so often gripping to readers? What drives them to lay their lives out for us like a diary, to accept feedback (including responses that are not always kind), and to keep at it, sometimes for years? What goes into the process – the design of the site, the colors chosen, the font used, the name of the blog itself? How do bloggers choose what to reveal and what not to disclose? Do blogs have a shelf life?

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If you’re a blogger or a consumer of blogs, the above description will likely sound familiar. However, if you’re one of the millions of Americans who are not reading or writing blogs, the scenario and vocabulary probably sounds like a foreign language. What exactly are blogs, and how do they work in establishing new networks within societies?

Per Wikipedia, a blog (short for “weblog”) is “a website where entries are written in chronological order and commonly displayed in reverse chronological order.” Blogs are almost always topical, and focus on providing recent news, information and updates on a given subject. Common blog subjects include politics, fashion, news, celebrity gossip and technology. Topical blogs often act as virtual, instantaneous news sites. Their immediacy, and viral nature (the rapid speed with which their content is shared throughout the community of Internet users), have changed the way information is shared, as well as challenged established mediums to meet the needs of a changing society.

Blogs can also consist of news, information and background about an individual’s life, akin to a journal.   The earliest forms of online journaling cropped up in the mid-1990s with the inception of message boards. These spaces allowed users to leave messages that appeared chronologically and linearly as a thread – a list of comments referring back to a specific web post.

Online diaries began appearing in the mid-1990s, and many personal websites included “what’s new” or “news” section that were frequently updated.  The term “weblog” is attributed to an American blogger named Jorn Barger, who began posting pithy topical notes regularly on his website, Robot Wisdom. In 1999, blogger Peter Merholz broke the word into two parts – we blog – on his personal website. The term quickly caught on for use as both a noun (the web entity) and a verb (the act of writing and publishing on a blog).

These original blogs were more often akin to a personal journal, or an account of one’s life and surroundings. While the adaptation of blogs by journalists, media and major corporations has made sense for their continued success in a competitive and modern social landscape, individuals continue to write and publish personal blogs, often for little or no compensation. Personal blogs cover the mundane and the significant, the day-to-day and the overarching themes in a writer’s life. While writing in a paper journal has long been a way to work through feelings and document personal occurrences, these musings have historically been kept private, for the author’s eyes only. However, publishing a journal online invites voyeurs into one’s life. Blogging is often referred to as “journaling” because blogs often contain “personal reflections on daily life, ideas, observations and one’s internal state.”

The Oxford English Dictionary added the word “blog” to its corpus in March 2003, and in 2004 “blog” was the most frequently requested term in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. In 2006, Time Magazine’s Person of the Year was “you,” reflecting the ability of the modern individual to publish and communicate with the world around them. As the blog becomes more and more a mainstay, what sets the most captivating public journals apart?


Veronica: A Personal Blogger

Veronica is nearly 29 years old. She is a tiny woman with large brown eyes and towers of family baggage who works at a New York City-based non-profit organization. Raised mostly in Queens, NY, her parents divorced when she was young. She moved with her mother to live with her grandparents and entered the New York City public school system. More gregarious as a child, she has grown shy as she’s aged. She often felt intimidated by her overcrowded middle school and by subway predators.

Veronica is incredibly sensitive, with an amazing eye for small details. She shares many memories on her blog, of her childhood and of the long laundry list of emotions she has experienced. In one post, she writes of her grandfather’s death in an apartment fire, and how she clung to her grandparents’ cat after it emerged from the wreckage with melted whiskers days later. Her writing reveals that she feels everything, for both herself and others. Two years ago, she wrote:

I also started to think about how many people in an average life leave their imprints on us. Really, if you opened up my heart, tore open my chest, you would see the imprints of so many faces. Friends, loves, family. People who I loved, people who I didn’t love. What interests me more than the obvious people I carry around in my heart — the exes, the best friends, the grandparents — are the strangers. The ones who are likely not to carry me around with them. The ones I met once, that albino boy in kindergarten, the bus driver   who said something to me sweetly. I carry around so many faces, so many strangers’ faces with me everyday, and it amazes me how long they stay in my heart. Some make me smile: I carry Boone, the boy from Georgia that we met playing hookey from school, waiting for standby David Letterman tickets. I looked up Jekyll Island the moment I got home that night, after not getting into the Late Show. Some make me sad: I carry the girl   whose friend died of leukemia when we were in the first grade together. I remember her crying by the sink in the classroom when she found out…

Veronica carries her history with her.

Veronica grew up blue-collar. She was the first in her family to attend college – a state school in upstate New York. She details much of this – her life story – in a section of her blog titled “Timeline.” This acts as part of her “about” page, and includes small dated anecdotes about her life. The timeline ends with the death of her somewhat-estranged father from pancreatic cancer, and an explanation: she began her blog in 2004 to work through the aftermath of her father’s passing, as well as to return to journal-writing.

Veronica’s timeline is striking because it is written as though she remained a passive participant in the events that life gave to her, as though her life has been defined by what life has brought to her, instead what she has herself engineered.

I started reading Veronica’s blog a few years ago, when a friend of mine forwarded me the link to her site. I was intrigued at first because Veronica mentioned living in my neighborhood – often a basis for initial interest when discovering a blog. As time went on, I became further drawn to her writing style, and the ways in which she felt for others and even objects, as though her soul was just a little too exposed to this world. Later, I worked my way through her archives reading several posts about the loss of her father. My own mother had been sick for years, suffering from a rare form of cancer, and it was when she became gravely ill that I “delurked” (or “de-lurked”) and began leaving comments on Veronica’s posts. There was something so beautifully honest about the truths she had written, the things that are difficult to even think, nevertheless admit to oneself and to others – feelings of guilt and anger, of describing the deceased. Her posts were exceptionally brave, especially for someone who presented herself as being a shy, passive young woman intimidated by the busy world around her.

Following her lead, I began to publish my own posts about my mother’s looming death. They were posts that made many of my friends – those who had not yet grieved the loss of a loved one – uncomfortable. But immediately after my mother’s death, Veronica delurked on my site. A connection had been made.

Veronica and I met in person for the first time a few months later. She was nervous, but quick-witted and warm, short in stature and small-boned, with heavy lashes and wavy hair. Despite her insistence about her insecurity via her writing, she comes off on her blog as being happier and more in control through her command of the language and writing style. However, in person, she is in fact jumpy and suspicious

My friendship with Veronica was, in some ways, the beginning of my interest in studying blogging sociologically, in an attempt to figure out how “virtual” relationships complement “human” relationships.

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Veronica has just returned from a vacation with her boyfriend. They’ve been together for six years now, and he moved to Boston for work a few months ago. I think it was around then when her posting frequency started to drop off. I know from speaking with her that she’s not sure about her boyfriend; not sure that he’s “The One,” not sure she wants to move to Boston to be with him. In fact, she’d rather live on her own for the very first time in a studio apartment. There has been no mention of this turmoil on her blog, however, despite the fact that she has shared a lot of other personal information (namely, dealing with the death of her father) over the three years she’s been writing.


Blog Holidays

Like many emerging cultures, bloggers have started their own traditions and events designed to both create solidarity and identity, as well as providing networking and support opportunities. These events are often invented by individuals, but given titles that include words denoting their official nature.

National De-Lurking Day/Week

In 2005, the author of a blog titled Paper Napkin began an annual event called De-Lurking Day. The day encouraged lurkers, those who read blogs regularly but never comment or interact with the author or other readers, to post something in the comments identifying themselves.  The act of reading a blog regularly without commenting is called lurking. In 2006, De-Lurking Day became National De-Lurking Week, held during the second week of January. It was repeated in 2007. Paper Napkin created specially designed buttons to advertise the event, and encouraged bloggers to include them on their own blogs.

How do these web “events” spread? Virally. That is, as individuals include information regarding the events and their participation on their own blogs, readers who find the event quirky or humorous add the information to their own blogs. A delurking event is favored by many blog writers, as it results in the personal validation of their work. Earning and maintaining new readers signifies that the blogger has something interesting and worthwhile to say.

The Great Mofo Delurk

In 2007, frustrated by what seemed to be a decline in the number of comments received on their blogs, three women who blog under the handles JulianaandTonic, Sweetney, and Schmutzie’s Milk Money created an event called The Great Mofo Delurk. The one-day event, which occurred on October 3, 2007, recruited more than 450 blogging participants after a mere week’s notice. The blogging trio created a set of matching icons to be used by participants, creating a standard identity.

I didn’t notice any mention of competition or friction between the two delurking events. It appears they may be able to coexist, and even include an overlap of participants.


Motivational Events

Some bloggers have initiated events to encourage blog posting and to help keep themselves and other bloggers motivated. These events also work to create solidarity and encouragement

NaBloPoMo

Veronica, along with several other Bloggers, is attempting to participate in NaBloPoMo, which stands for “National Blog Posting Month” Participants agree to publish at least one post per day for the entire month of November. When joining NaBloPoMo, one has access to all the others participating. I decide to sign up in the hopes of finding some newer blogs for my project. In its first year, only 300 bloggers participated. The event grew to include more than 3,000 blogs just one year later. Now in its second year, National Blog Posting Month (or NaBloPoMo for short) takes place in November. Bloggers may register officially and may add their blog to a master blogroll of participants.

NaBloPoMo was started by a group of 20-somethings in San Francisco, as an alternative to National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a writing exercise that challenges participants to complete a 50,000-word novel in 30 days’ time. The number of participants swelled to more than 79,000 in 2006. The success of NaNoWriMo is an indication of how many individuals yearn to write, and how many dedicate themselves to doing so when given a game plan and a specific goal.

As there is no specific word limit or subject guideline for participating in NaBloPoMo, many use it as a general writing exercise or as a reason just to write. Blogging, and writing in general, often takes a great deal of self-motivation that most people cannot conjure up regularly. NaBloPoMo helps personal bloggers refocus on their daily lives, as well as reconnect with their inner selves. It can be used as a form of therapy, or as “taking stock” in one’s own life. Additionally, NaBloPoMo participants provide prizes to be given randomly to bloggers who successfully complete the month.

The NaBloPoMo website also features a NaBloPoMo “randomizer.” The site allows readers to click through to blogs participating in NaBloPoMo, as a way to introducing readers to blogs they may not have read before. The randomizer also increases visibility for participating blogs. Anyone may access the randomizer site – it is not solely limited to those writers participating in the project.

I figured it would make sense for me to sign on for NaBloPoMo myself, in order to further immerse myself in the blogging community. I found it difficult to keep up, especially on days when I felt particularly stressed and felt I had nothing to say. Perhaps my biggest worry as a blogger has been whether I come across as boring or insignificant. Blogs must be compelling to remain successful.

On November 25, I realized that I had forgotten to publish a post on November 24. It was the first thought that popped into my head upon waking. Ironically, I’d had endless fodder for posts over the prior few days as I had been hosting a friend of mine from Poland who has never been to the US before. I’d been marveling at his reactions to New York, and to the U.S. in general, and had felt as though I were rediscovering NYC all over again through his eyes. Our experiences were ideal for personal blog content. My field notes upon realizing I had failed to complete NaBloPoMo:

As soon as I woke up this morning, I realized that I had failed at NaBloPoMo. Yesterday was a whirlwind, saying goodbye to my father and taking Lukasz to both Chinatown and Soho. I even had a post drafted up in my mind about how delighted Lukasz is with the truthfulness of American movie clichés – how coffee is refilled every three minutes in diners, and how Chinese food is delivered in small white boxes with chopsticks and fortune cookies. I’m so disappointed in myself. With the bustle of the holiday season, finishing NaBloPoMo seems nearly impossible. I’m not sure who decided to hold the     event in November. January would have been so much more realistic! I can’t believe I made it this far along – only six days left as of yesterday – only to drop the ball. In some ways, I feel as though I’ve let the blogging community down. I was so sure I would be able to stick with it.

I was surprised at how disappointed I felt after not completing November’s exercise. Perhaps this comes from wondering if I might have felt a sense of accomplishment, victory or belonging had I finished with the group.

Like both delurking holidays, NaBloPoMo’s organizers offer “branded” banners and buttons for inclusion on participants’ blogs. This year’s design incorporates the popular culture phenomenon “LOLcats,” pointing to the modern cultural awareness of bloggers.

x365

x365 is another blog-specific writing exercise. Dan Waber started the event in 2006 as a way to commemorate his 40th birthday and encouraged other bloggers to do the same, as well as adapt the project to their own lives. Each day, Waber published a post about someone who had impacted his life. Each post contained only 40 words, and one such post was published every day for an entire year. In the exercise, x = a number relating to the writer’s life, whether it be a milestone, a birthday, a date, etc, as well as the number of words in each post relating to the project.

Waber’s website includes a blogroll of all individuals who are participating, divided into three categories: completed, in progress and stalled. Clicking through reveals a great number of interpretations. Some people have written poetry in their posts, while others have included photos. Waber intended for the exercise to be inspirational and uplifting, but not all participants have utilized it in that way.

Veronica is the only blogger I read regularly who is currently participating in x365. For her, x = 29 – the age she will turn this coming year. Veronica’s x365 posts are mostly sarcastic or derogatory comments peppered with sadness. From November 13, 2007.

#11 – Guy
You were my high school boyfriend’s father and you told him you thought I was boring. You took me to a firing range and made me shoot a handgun.

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November 14, 2007. I haven’t kept up with my Bloglines account this past week. I was out of town for a few days, and the break from the Internet was surprisingly refreshing. However, this means that the pending posts I have to read build up. I think I returned home to around 300 unread blog posts. NaBloPoMo makes it more difficult to keep up, as the amount of content posted increases exponentially. While it’s nice to read more from some of my favorite Bloggers – Veronica, for example – it takes up a considerable amount of time.

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Robin Lester will be receiving her MA in Sociology in May 2008, and her studies have focused on ethnography, urban sociology and the sociology of class. Currently, she writes the popular Clinton Hill Blog and was recently hired as the Communications Manager at Project for Public Spaces.