Saturday, March 13, 2010

Some Thoughts on Blogging, Technology and Gender, and What We Choose to Reveal About Ourselves

I had a very bloggy week, between watching Julie & Julia and Monday’s episode of House, which both revolved around women whose blogs got the better of them.

Julie & Julia received a lot of press for its portrayal of supportive husbands, on both women’s side. The Times gleefully wrote of Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci’s portrayal of middle-aged passion, but Julie’s husband was a “saint”, so much so that he objected to the label. Much is made of the Childs’ marriage, how passionate they were, but I found Paul Child to be supportive, but distant; in fact, both husbands in the movie were quite bland. Maybe that’s the point—they both were supportive characters, meant to prop up the leads, so they usually are less developed than the protagonists.

But other than that observation, it was Julie’s bloggy passion that stood out, in comparison to this week’s House episode, concentrated on a blogger who goes a little too personal with her diagnosis. Both women get caught up in blogging about their lives, neglecting their significant others, who come to resent their girlfriend’s hobby. (Tip: Get a boyfriend who blogs, or who at least likes the medium as much as you do.) This is reminiscent of Emily Gould’s fantastic bloggy piece in the New York Times nearly two years ago, where she recounts how blogging about her personal life wrecked her relationship and her life. All three women had successful blogs, the real-life ones turning into successful writers. All three were transformed by their hobby, sharing their love with others and eventually having their own audience. Both Julie and Laura Prepon’s Frankie worry too much about their audience; Julie, about actually having one, and Frankie, about what they think. She uses her blog as a crowdsource of opinion, on both the large and small decisions of her life, including the many major medical ones she faces in the episode. Their blogs become their lives, their reason for getting up in the morning. Julie’s Julia Child obsession is fueled by her blogging, and without it the structure of her project would fall apart, as she is documenting her progress. Frankie, too, is obsessed with documenting her life, and despite protestations from her boyfriend, feels she would be lying if she did not faithfully record or retell everything. Julie does not feel this way, though she does consent to not publicizing a fight she has with her husband (though by it being in the movie we presume that it is retold in her book).

The issue here, of course, becomes privacy. Sure, on the surface, Julie Powell’s project sounds fun, if daunting, and not particularly invasive; she is in charge of how much she chooses to reveal, and on the surface a cooking blog would not be one to draw readers.

But of course, that’s too simplistic. One of the women mentioned in the film who actually makes an appearance is Amanda Hesser, a New York Times food writer who made a name for herself (at least to this writer) by writing a column in the Times Magazine in the early part of the ‘00s, “Cooking for Mr. Latte”, about her meals and dates with a certain Mr. Latte, later revealed to be the New Yorker writer Tad Friend. “Cooking for Mr. Latte”, a kind of Sex and the City meets food, certainly had enough dish and romantic intrigue to make it more than just another food column, and, though it was on paper, had a bloggy feel to it, as it chronicled their burgeoning relationship. (The column also became a book.)

So why are all these bloggers women? Why is it that women feel the need to emotionally reveal themselves online, to chronicle their lives? Men seem to go about it in a much more analytical, data-driven fashion; Nicholas Felton has designed a number of what he calls “Personal Annual Reports”, yearly compilations of the minutia that makes up his life, and it’s fascinating: all the restaurants he ate at, the countries he visited, his most played songs on iTunes. Every year, the charts and graphs, not to mention what he actually records, get increasingly complex. (The MIT Media Lab has done similar projects, recording and analyzing personal, daily data of students.) Sure, I already know all the comments, the criticism: even a friend of mine, when I showed him Feltron, responded, “I know the irony of what I'm about to say as a man that Tweets but that's kind of self absorbed.”

Sure, it’s self-absorbed. But it’s a whole other form of diary, a multimedia one, life writ large. The data aspects makes it so much cooler, because it’s objective, and it’s a form that you can’t argue with; maybe that’s why men like it. There are so many ways to tell a story, and neither is completely right, for each time it’s told, it’s done a little differently, and they all give different sides to the same one.

The Internet, in all its lovely possibilities, has also given us a way to be anonymous and solicit anonymous opinions. That comes across in blogging—again with the choosing to reveal what we want. But there’s also the new ChatRoulette and, services that flip anonymity on its head.

ChatRoulette, memorably introduced to many (including me) via this New York article, is a basic service that automatically turns on a user’s webcam and randomly beams you into someone else’s browser, and they you. The only options are to engage, move on, or turn off. Most outlets have connected it back to the days of the “wild, wild Internet”, before it became safe for minors, where everything and everyone was searchable. Here, it doesn’t matter if your name or your face or your home really belongs to you, as you are only known by your face, and there is no tag—there’s not even a record of who you’ve been connected with. There’s no way to track, no searching, no user names, no login information, no password. Glorious freedom. And yet it’s scary and incredibly intimidating, a party game to play.
is a site, a meme if you like, that lets people ask questions of a particular user. The person can use his or her real name, or a version of it, if the person desires, and those asking the questions can also identify themselves, though they usually stay anonymous. People asking the questions are strangers and friends; maybe you’ll get something good. It’s a version of a Facebook application known as the honesty box, which always got someone in trouble; that’s what honesty tends to do. And yet it’s addicting, in a way, to say too much; God knows in this era of TMI that it’s hard to put a lid on. Lying is contagious too, but it’s confusing as hell; being openly honest, too openly honest, can be about connecting or prolonging the awkward, having something to say, maybe just making a funny.

So we have two sides of a coin here: a site where we are expected to divulge secrets to those asking, and another an interface where we are personally faced with random strangers, no accountability. The first is implicitly about accountability, though we aren’t supposed to be pegged; the second, an escape route if we wish it to be.

But of course, we often occupy on the assumption that more information is better, and that notion led to ChatRoulette map, where users’ IP addresses are tracked to see who is using the service at any time. You do not need to be engaged on ChatRoulette to use ChatRoulette map, as I discovered this afternoon. There’s an option to turn this off, for it ruins the fun for some people. Exposing IP addresses always has a whiff of creepiness, as it feels like Big Brother is coming down to watch.

There are plenty of people who say that both will be a fad, but in Internet world, there are few things that have escaped this designation, one being Facebook. The Internet is both a blessing and a curse, causing us both to escape and feel trapped by our past, and we eagerly take up the call whenever we need to do so.

P.S. I have a account. Ask questions, readers!

Also cross-posted on Notes on Popular Culture.


John said...

(picking up where my Notes on Popular Culture comment left off)

There are a few problems with the Julies and Frankies of the world, at least from my perspective. First of all, they run the danger of spending so much time chronicling their lives that they're missing out on living them. This is a risk with any type of writing, but especially with prolific livejournal-style blogging. That's part of the reason why I so rarely blog anything about my day-to-day life: I barely have the time, energy and resources to make it interesting enough to satisfy ME, let alone readers that demand excitement.
Second, I still don't trust crowdsourcing as a viable way to make decisions. Sure, it can be allright for something as simple as deciding what toppings to order on your pizza, or even what model Blu-Ray player to get, but crowds often don't understands all the ins and outs of a situation, and they certainly don't have to live with the consequences of your decision. Additionally, you run into the problem of mediocrity, where the thing that gets the most votes may not be the thing that any one person likes the best. As the writers/cast of [Title of Show] say, "I'd rather be nine people's favorite thing than a hundred people's ninth favorite thing." It would be sad to see that kind of thinking fall out of favor, because then we'll be sliding inexorably toward a gray, boring, inoffensive but somehow mildly pleasant singularity of the mediocre.

MediaMaven said...

I've seen Julie & Julia 2 1/2 times over the past five days (including commentary), and I want to watch House again (I missed Friday's rerun because of Julie & Julia). Nora Ephron, during the fight scene between Julie and her husband, comments how difficult it must be to be involved with a blogger, because of the privacy issue, how everything is immediately recorded for consumption without time for thought, not to mention the energy required to do so. Writing daily doesn't leave you much time for other things, which is why it has to become a priority (and one of the many reasons why I will never be a "real" blogger). Truthfully, most personal LiveJournal-style blogging is boring, and you risk looking too obsessive/etc if you follow that style.

It's supposed to seem crazy when Frankie asks her blog readers for medical advice, that's the point. It's a personal, major decision, in a different realm than wondering what the best vacation spot or digital camera to buy.

Good stuff!

mikhailbakunin said...

You quoted a friend as saying, "I know the irony of what I'm about to say as a man that [sic] Tweets but that's kind of self absorbed."

Did you write "sic" because he used "that" instead of "who"?

If so, I should point out that you did the same thing in this very post:

"There are plenty of people that say that both will be a fad, and in Internet world, there are few things that have escaped this designation, one being Facebook." (My emphasis.)

PLEASE don't write "sic." I beg you. I may be in the minority here, but it really annoys me.

It used to be that people inserted "sic" to clarify a statement that was grammatically ambiguous, but now it's just another way for pretentious bloggers to condescend to their readers.

MediaMaven said...

Yes, I did, Mr. Grammar-Fix-It. I didn't do it to be pretentious, but to be correct. I actually debated whether to put it in (as in another area, ultimately leaving it out). Funny thing is, I actually picked up this habit from you--for years and years, I never knew what the hell it meant, what it's purpose was for. And I KNOW you've inserted the word into your blog posts, but I'm not about to search your blog for the evidence.

I will take it out and fix my error. Because it bothers me that I have an error in there.

MediaMaven said...

I should also say that the majority of this post was written at 2 am, but I did revise it a day or so later. I tried, however, to keep my original spirit intact--what I always do when editing a blog post I've written.

petpluto said...

It used to be that people inserted "sic" to clarify a statement that was grammatically ambiguous, but now it's just another way for pretentious bloggers to condescend to their readers.

Speaking only for myself, I don't use [sic] to condescend to my readers, nor do the blogs I frequent seem to use it to condescend to me.

I use [sic] to indicate the mistake present is not my own. That doesn't mean that I don't make plenty of my own grammar or spelling mistakes (less with spelling, cuz of the red line phenomenon, which makes copied spelling mistakes without [sic] all the more egregious). It just means that there is a separation between the grammar and spelling errors of someone else, and the ones I OWN. I stand by everything on my blog, even the stuff that is somewhat embarrassing now. I don't need to be owning anyone else's mistakes too.

mikhailbakunin said...


I may have told you what it meant, but it was NEVER a "habit" of mine. In fact, I doubt I've ever used it on my blog, unless I was being ironic.

I'll expect my apology IN WRITING. And with no gramatical (sic) errors!