Dan's Metablog
Writing about blogging, identity, and narrative

The first 15 pages   Thursday, April 6   5:01 PM

Qualifications: not finished, behind in fact, my advisor hasn't read it, my group hasn't workshopped much of it. Footnotes were a bit of a pain, so I've changed any applicable ones to links and left out others. I'm especially embarassed by the last section, which notices the right things but has little to no good analysis.

In short: this is my baby, but it's an ugly baby. So constructive criticism is welcome.

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Since the mid-nineties, the web genre that would eventually come to be known as the "weblog" or "blog" has become increasingly prominent.[1] Coinciding with their increased visibility, weblogs have diversified into an increasing number of subgenres; every study of the blogosphere finds that the ostensibly autobiographical, diary-style webpage — once fairly rare[2] — is by far the most common. Blogosphere studies, however, is an area with no shortage of definitional problems, and Wayne Booth's warning that "even careful critics are sometimes overpersuaded by their own definitions" (31-32) should not be taken lightly. What does Susan Herring or Rebecca Blood mean by "personal journal"? How does any given reader even understand the word "blog?" Even the most widely-accepted definition of the blog, "a frequently updated website consisting of dated entries arranged in reverse chronological order so the most recent post appears first" (Walker) contains a hidden normative aspect in its call for frequent posts. In "Distributed Narrative," Walker goes further, arguing that a blog without links or commentators is not actually a blog (20) — these definitions are unnecessarily restrictive, but they seem plausible to most readers because their normative elements are structural features present in the most popular instances of the major blog genres. Because these trait-based definitions, examples of what Anne Freadman calls the "recipe theory" of genre (52), are insufficient for building a coherent taxonomy, and because the "contrastive" approach she proposes lacks their explanatory power within genres, a non-arbitrary theorization of the diary weblog requires the separate application of two conceptually different approaches: a broad taxonomic approach based on differences in narrative structure and focus, and a rhetorical-interpretative approach identifying weblog traits correlated with success[3] within the taxonomic category. The end result is genuinely descriptive, rather than prescriptive.

Taxonomy toward a definition of the diary weblog

To locate the diary weblog genre using Freadman's contrastive approach, a "domain of pertinent comparisons" must first be chosen, a "like-statement" that precedes the successive "not-statement," which in turn establishes a dichotomy and sets up the next "like-statement" in the chain (51). Although blogs were influenced by many genres, both on- and offline — most theorists consider the diary, the homepage, and the epistolary novel relatives, and Miller goes on to spot genre features from the clipping service, the broadside, the anthology, the commonplace book, and the ship's log — rather than engage in a historical debate over weblog origins, it's simpler to begin the taxonomy within the blogosphere and make the first distinction one between two types of weblog.

In her essay, Julie Rak mentions the method of classifying weblogs by focus — sites are either focused inward, or focused outward as a set of annotated links (171). Sandeep Krishnamurthy makes a similar distinction, separating personal from topical blogs (qtd. in Herring, 3) and charting where blogs fall between the two axes. Though commentators like van Djick are right to call such distinctions "tenuous," the narratives of autobiographical weblogs, which have their source and their focus in the experiences and identity of the implied blogger, look inward to a much greater extent than weblogs like Go Fug Yourself or Said the Gramophone[4], which traffic in personal opinion but comment on aesthetic experiences which would be publicly available even if the blogger didn't exist. A similar rationale also applies to news, sports, technology, and other topical weblogs. The weblogs we're focusing on fall within the group that is content-generative, not content-dependent.

Not all content-generative weblogs, however, contain the presumptive autobiographical narrative of the diary weblog. Most of the blog Londonmark is given over to invented narratives — alternate versions of movie scenes, portentous character sketches — which, while clearly generated content, are not presented as real experiences. Other blogs, like Gus Openshaw's Whale-Killing Journal, are just as obviously fictional stories written in weblog form. Unlike the invented narratives which sometimes appear on diary weblogs, for example the statement of "quarterly objectives" Alice Bradley of Finslippy claims to have found in her toddler's crib , blogs like Londonmark posit no identification between the narrator and what, adapting a term from Wayne Booth, we'll call the "implied blogger." The contrast is not one between fictional and nonfictional blog entries, but between narratives that posit an autobiographical connection between the narrator and (to adapt a term from Wayne Booth) the "implied blogger," and narratives which don't. The presumptively reality-reflective blog entries are here the object of study.

Though Krishnamurthy provides another dichotomy — individual or community — that allows for a further demarcation of presumptively reality-reflective weblogs from a structural standpoint (qtd. in Herring 3)[5], it would be rash to construct the next dichotomy based on the number of implied bloggers. Aggregated personal sites like PostSecret and Overheard in New York, which solicit the personal experiences or observations of a number of people with entries usually selected by an editor, are unified by one or more themes. Both single and multiple-author diary weblogs, on the other hand, present the audience with one or more main "characters" to follow. On the "About" page at Dooce, Heather Armstrong notes that:

This website chronicles my life from a time when I was single and making a lot of money as a web designer in Los Angeles, to when I was dating my husband, to when I lost my job and lived life as an unemployed drunk, to when I married my husband and moved to Utah, to when I became pregnant, to when I threw up during the pregnancy, to when I became unbearably swollen during the pregnancy, to the birth, to the aftermath, to the postpartum depression I currently suffer.

While the difference between a blog like Armstrong's and a blog like Overheard in New York is undoubtedly related to the number of contributors, the existence of multiple-author personal weblogs suggests the real contrast is between the theme-narrative genre and the character-narrative blogs, also known as diary weblogs.

While this genre taxonomy is not "whimsical" or "subjective," different classificatory statements will make different features salient (Freadman 55). This paper has relied on narrative structure and focus — whether a blog is content-generative or content-dependent, presumptively reality-reflective or unanchored fantasy, structured around a character, or a theme — to explicate the diary weblog genre, mainly because narrative structure seems to be the criterion toward which all the "recipe approach" genre formulations were pointing. Using the contrastive method, other writers might adopt different criteria and come up with their own equally valid taxonomies — it's the lack of any detailed framework in which to place blogging subgenres that leads to the chaotic, ad hoc genre categories currently in use. Even theorists mapping what they already think they've found — this taxonomy has hardly "discovered" the diary weblog, after all — will end up with less arbitrary definitions of their objects of study if they first map the blogosphere with a series of dichotomies. For the purposes of this paper, the diary weblog is any blog that generates its own content rather than commenting on other content, presents a narrative that is presumed to be reflective of the implied blogger's real experiences, and is tied together by a focus on one or more characters rather than themes.

As blogs themselves are genre hybrids, it would be foolish not to acknowledge that the diary weblog genre does not appear in a vacuum; it is contained within both the genres above it in this taxonomy and other genres outside the blogosphere, it borrows from and is influenced by countless other genres, and it can appear alongside writing of another genre, in the diary entries at Londonmark, for example. The diary weblog is one of countless genre "games" (Freadman 45) available to writers online. It's this willingness to allow genres to appear as games within and alongside other genres that allows such a rigid set of dichotomies to retain its descriptive power at the taxonomic level.

The blogger — identity on the diary weblog

Though there is disagreement as to whether the blogger's contruction of identity is a form of role-playing or an authentic attempt at mimesis, and to what extent the readers care, the presentation of the online self as reflective of the implied blogger is an essential element of the diary weblog. Some theorists have adopted apparently extreme positions: Raynes-Goldie, embracing postmodernism, suggests that "in this informational chaos, the question of truth is not really a useful one," whereas McNeill notes that "though these readers do not know the diarist outside of the context of her text, they believe her textual representation is 'real,' the flesh made digital" (37). Presenting a more measured view of the subject, Kitzmann writes, "that diaries and autobiographies, both handwritten and electronic, are grounded to a significant extent on real, authentic individuals is a common enough assertion" and he compares the fictionalization of blog entries to a violation of Philippe Lejeune's "autobiographical pact" (59). From the standpoint of the reader, however, it's the assumption of truth — not actual truth — that is the essential element of the diary weblog; a fictional diary weblog may function just like an actual one if it believed to be real, though readers are often outraged to find they've been fooled.[6] This assumption of truth, however, is complicated by the limitations of the format, blogger's self-characterization, and by fictional narratives in entries.

As is the case for all forms of mediated communication, the authenticity of diary weblogs is mimetic, aware of its limitations and working within them (60). As Michelle Fowler of Mimi in New York observes, "the people here who know me by Mimi only know one side of the story, the people who know me by ---- think they know both, but they only hear what Mimi gets up to, they never witness it. It's liberating, but also confusing, deceptive, strange..." According to Rak, "it does not matter as much that bloggers cannot ever approximate face-to-face communication, or that representation cannot approximate who they 'really' are, as it matters that blog rhetoric be made to approximate what the real 'feels' like. Blog rhetoric is an instance of Jean Baudrillard's 'strategy of the real,' a rhetoric that derives its urgency from a sense that the real is lost and must be simulated" (174-175)." Nearly all readers of weblogs will be familiar with these kinds of compromises, which may seem so commonsensical that they may take the mimetic nature of the diary weblog for granted. This underscores the importance of emphasizing reader assumptions over the actual truth of a diary weblog.

As the critic Ian Watt wrote, "the accurate transcription of actuality does not necessarily produce a work of any real truth or enduring value" (32) — the truth of diary weblog entries is further complicated by bloggers' tendency to "modify what they write in direct response to their awareness of the specifics of their multiple audiences" (Sorapure 10).[7] To move beyond mere transcription, at the rhetorical level most bloggers, and the Bloggie finalists in particular, have made conscious choices about how to present their online identities. Intentional exaggeration seems to be quite common: Miller observes that "combined with its focused and repeated effort, the blog's public disclosure — its exhibitionism — yields an intensification of the self, a reflexive elaboration of identity." The pseudonymous Zinnia Cyclamen, implied blogger of Real E Fun, tends to limit her blog entries to events related to her job as a humanist funeral director — this no doubt distorts her in the eyes of the reader. Other bloggers, like Armstrong and Fowler, attempt to maintain a constant tone over multiple posts. As is also the case with popular topical blogs like Wonkette and Instapundit, readers seem to appreciate a unity of voice throughout entries, and that unity is easier to pick up on when the voice is less subtle and more entertaining. So long as it doesn't interfere with the verisimilitude of the blog for the readers, who may or may not notice any embellishment, some exaggeration of one's own identity seems to work well for the finalist weblogs.

Unlike mere exaggerations, imagined events recounted on diary weblogs are dependent on the reader's knowledge that, while the story is fake, the implied blogger is using that story to reveal something about herself[8] or some other character. Readers understand that Armstrong has not told her daughter "that little baby frogs have their legs torn off" when she doesn't say "please" — the story expresses Leta's stubbornness and Armstrong's bemused exasperation. Likewise, Bradley's account of the quarterly statement is meant to be read as a device to make her complaints about childrearing more interesting. It's a combination of reader knowledge about the implied blogger and reader assumptions about truth that prevent these examples from becoming problematic.

Either of these elements can fail, however. Many of the character sketches on Londonmark don't identify the narrator, and could easily be mistaken for actual memories or reflections, just as any tongue-in-cheek comment on a diary weblog could be taken literally by readers who lack the assumptions about the implied blogger upon which such statements are predicated. The resulting interpretation may clash with the blogger's intent, but visitors will still believe that they're reading a diary weblog entry — the result is a failure of rhetoric but not of genre. Alternately, an entry can be completely "in character" and yet readers may come to doubt its veracity. The "girl on a bicycle" hoax, in which two prominent bloggers [I'm still tracking down their names, again] started posts with the same invented story, is a good example of this latter phenomenon. The entry was unproblematic for readers who were aware that the bicycle story was invented, as well as those who never became suspicious — for those who were found out they'd been deceived, however, the post challenged their assumption that posts would either reflect reality or (even if only implicitly) signal their departure into fiction. As noted above, it's not the violation of that assumption, but rather the reader's discovery or belief that it has been violated which separates the diary weblog from various types of fictional weblog.

In the vast majority of cases, naturally, the implied blogger is based on the actual author, and though it's unwise to tie the blog too closely to any individual precursor, many theorists connect the construction of an online identity through the diary weblog to the construction of self in a diary. On the vast majority of diary weblogs which are not fictional, the writing becomes an opportunity for self-discovery; Miller notes that "bloggers, however, seem less interested in role playing than in locating, or constructing, for themselves and for others, an identity that they can understand as unitary, as 'real.'" The process of writing a blog entry — which needn't be posted until the blogger is satisfied — allows the blogger time to reflect on her experiences and present herself as she chooses; the knowledge that any posts will be public is an added incentive. In addition to their actual blogging, many diary bloggers include an "about" section, a genre that can anything from Cyclamen's short note in the sidebar to the several pages Stephanie Klein of Greek Tragedy devotes to "why I write," "favorite things," and "the real me." Regardless of its length, the "about" section is a meditation on identity, and it's often the character which emerges in "about" whom the blogger is trying to approximate in the posts.

Communication is an essential aspect of identity construction on diary weblogs. José van Dijck argues that "since its very inception, the [diary] has been dialogic rather than monologic, hence obliterating the line between private and public," but even if our notion of the diary as historically private is a misconception, for many bloggers the diary weblog opens up new possibilities for communication. The diary's practice of "addressing," which van Dijck considers "crucial to the recognition of diary writing as an act of communication" — is no longer limited to an imagined addressee. As McNeill puts it, "online participation in this genre allows writers to carry on diary conversations that will no longer be monologic, where the response will not be just imagined but actual" (28). Often diary blogs will provide an email address or post-specific comment field for user input; barring that, the blogger still has the sense that an audience of confessors is reading her work. So Fowler tells her readers in the initial post that "I want you to help me make the decisions about how to achieve [my] goals. Every aspect of my life will be up for discussion on this website. I want you to post your replies and your advice, criticism, encouragement, to me here." Even if the blogger rejects user input, she's still relating her experiences before an audience, in a public communication. The most successful diarist bloggers tend to use a certain set of strategies to make this communication effective.

Rhetorical elements of the diary weblog

Though the "recipe approach" to genre is unsuitable for taxonomies, within a pre-established genre, a catalogue of traits can show how writers are innovating the form, and point to practices that may eventually form the basis for differentiable subgenres. Rather than attempt to provide an exhaustive list of the rhetorical elements on the chosen diary weblogs —is it that important that these bloggers overwhelming prefer sans-serif fonts? — this section will sketch out common, especially salient rhetorical elements related to the narrative of a diary weblog. Listing these elements may provide readers with an approximate description of what constitutes good writing within the genre in the opinion of the many readers who nominated these blogs for "best writing" awards, but this paper makes no prescriptive claim as to the value of any trait described. The rhetorical elements of the weblogs that fall into the diary weblog taxonomy vary widely, but the most successful weblogs make frequent use of unified posts, a dynamic narrator, static secondary characters, ironic distance, dialogue, [and much, much more...]

Post unity, through a focus on a single theme or event, is a common feature of all the "best writing" nominees. It's by no means universal — these bloggers occasionally engage in rambling posts just like the rest of the blogosphere — but generally readers can expect a single topic, usually indicated in the post's title. Julia Montgomery of Tequila Mockingbird devotes a number of posts to anecdotes, like the wrong number conversation in "alas, poor norm. i knew him not." Bradley and Armstrong both devote posts to when they gave birth, and tell day-to-day stories about raising their children. Fowler writes about her nights at the strip club, or reproduces conversations she's had. Posts on a single topic or theme, like Klein's "your theme song" or Cyclamen's "Don't Tell The Children" are also very common. Such entries go beyond what McNeill calls "the diary's traditionally personal functions of logbook and memoranda" — an approach to the diary that is common, perhaps even predominant, on diary weblogs elsewhere in the blogosphere, where bloggers often simply list the events of their day. The unified posts still serve as records, but their unity acknowledges a desire to entertain others. As almost all blog entries make use of "permalinks," post unity is also a way of acknowledging, and encouraging, the practice of linking online — at the social bookmarking site del.icio.us, the most-linked posts from dooce.com are all unified by a single event or theme.

As mentioned above, process of writing a diary weblog is also a process of identity construction, composing and refining the implied blogger as the narrative progresses. This affects not only the character behind the writing, but also the character in the telling; the narrator too is often dynamic. In fact, although in Bradley and Armstrong's case their growing children (and Armstrong's dog Chuck) are also fully realized, dynamic characters, it's usually only the narrator who changes in any way through the entries. Sometimes this change is presented in the form of an explicit revelation, and when Fowler, an English expatriate, writes that "An arse is an ass, and I am well on the way to becoming a New York female," or Klein relates that "I was writing a story about my summers at camp, when suddenly the character on my page was an ex, and I realized I wanted to know about him now... realized I really always liked him for him, just as he is." It can also be more subtle, however. In September of 2004, Cyclamen devoted several posts to her thought processes as she prepared to officiate at a funeral against the wishes of Viv, the deceased's wife. Devoted readers can also track the changes in "Mimi" — looking back at her own posts, Fowler observes that "I lost my sense of humor somewhere around May."

In contrast to the dynamic narrator of these diary weblogs, the many static, two-dimensional characters provide stability. Armstrong's husband Jon, though a major figure on her weblog, is nonetheless static, a supportive constant in the narrative. Likewise, every mention of Armstrong's mother alludes to the relentless nature that has made her the "Avon World Sales Leader." Other characters are even more recognizably two-dimensional sketches. Cyclamen's husband is referred to only as Top Bloke, a pseudonym that also constitutes the bulk of his characterization. Fowler makes frequent use of pseudonyms — "The Diplomat," "English friend," etc. — and Montgomery, like many "best writing" bloggers, tends to use role-based designations like "my sister" and "my mother" in lieu of actual names. The diary blogger is generally more concerned with sharing her own thoughts and experiences than with tracking the personal growth of others, and by limiting evidence of personal growth to one narrator character (with rare exceptions), the blogger controls the focus of the story and can demand the attention of the audience. The real story is about the narrator (or one or two others); others are merely characters in that story.

Though the stereotypical diary weblog is self-absorbed and melodramatic, these bloggers craft their entries with a considerable amount of ironic distance, which presents itself in several ways. The "best writing" nominees often comment on their own actions, as when Londonmark follows an embarrassing anecdote with the observation that "I shouldn't be allowed out, it's true. I'm not ready for civilised society" or Cyclamen relates a moment of doubt in the third person: "I hope to goodness I do, thought Zinnia." The decision to undercut potentially melodramatic statements is another manifestation of ironic distance: Bradley blogs about how good it is "to finally, after years of struggling with rock-bottom expectations and crippling self-doubt and blar de blar twelve years of therapy blar, be doing what I've always want ed to do." Armstrong blogs that her first 13 weeks of pregnancy were far worse, but immediately adds "but this doesn't mean that I'm not going to go ahead and complain about this last trimester." Many of these bloggers also use irony to combat the temptation to take their own blogging — and their popularity within the blogosphere — too seriously. Montgomery ran a post before the 2005 Bloggies titled "i promise to use my blog to promote bathroom humor...and world peace." And though her blog is by many measures the most popular diary weblog, Armstrong frequently exaggerates the importance of the Internet to make her status seem slightly ridiculous — "I never knew that the binky was such a political issue, and when we took away Leta's pacifier earlier this week we apparently took away the Internet's pacifier, and the Internet is PISSED."

Dialogue is also an important element on these weblogs. Most of Montgomery's Tequila Mockingbird entries, for example the "alas, poor norm. i knew him not" conversation mentioned above, contain long stretches of dialogue (it's only the reader's awareness of the autobiographical pact that prevents these posts from straining credulity), and the other bloggers transcribe conversations of varying length. Armstrong relates conversations with her husband, like their argument over her missing keys, and Bradley often posts conversations she's had with her son Henry. Dialogue is usually included for comedic or (on Fowler's blog, for example) satirical purposes, though it needn't be — Cyclamen uses transcribed conversations to tell the story of Viv's husband's funeral, and her apprehensions about officiating.

And that's where it stops, at the moment.

[1] As of November 2004, more than 8 million Americans had created weblogs, and twenty-seven percent of American Internet users, roughly 32 million people, claimed to be blog readers. (Rainie) Back

[2] In "The Digital Queer: Weblogs and Internet Identity," Julie Rak makes a convincing argument that the diary weblog of today is descended from the link-based weblogs of the past more so than the online journals which pre-date blogging (171). Blood discusses the transition from link-log to the more personal blog in "Weblogs: A History and Perspective." Back

[3] For the purposes of this essay, the seven autobiographical "best writing of a weblog" Weblog Awards finalists for 2005 (Dooce, Tequila Mockingbird, Londonmark, Greek Tragedy, and Real E Fun) and 2006 (Dooce, Finslippy, and Mimi in NY) — are taken as representatives of the rhetorically "successful" diary weblog. As a criterion, a democratic contest is superior to hits or incoming links (though these blogs have plenty of both) because of the element of informed approval inherent in the nomination process. Though the existence of other contests like the Diarist Awards (diarist.net) would seem to problematize this choice, the Weblog Awards or "Bloggies" represent a larger, more diverse cross-section of blog readers. As several of these blogs have changed their format considerably over the years, any analysis only applies to the year preceding their nomination. Back

[4] The two "best writing" finalists that most clearly fall outside the diary weblog genre. A critique of celebrity fashion and a music site, respectively. Back

[5] There are other narrative aspects of weblogs that could be used to theorize a taxonomy, perhaps even before taking the aforementioned categories into account. Many readers would still recognize a website as a blog if it lacked the traditional reverse-temporal ordering scheme, or if it was a proto-blog with only one post. Yet these two entities are fundamentally different in structure from the typical blog. Back

[6] Notable diary weblog hoaxes include QT's Diary, Plain Layne, and Kaycee Nicole's "Living Colors." Back

[7] Though theorists like Walker and McNeill overgeneralize when they imply that most diarists want to make that audience as large and active as possible. Back

[8] Throughout this essay, I've used feminine pronouns to describe bloggers. This choice has less to do with gender politics than the recognition that most bloggers, most web diarists, and all the "best-writing" diarists except Londonmark are female. Outside of the diary weblog genre, however, the most popular bloggers tend to be male. Back

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