At right is the cover of a book recently compiled by my Uncle John: a collection of the letters, writings, and photos of his godmother, Nellie Briscoe Perry. His introduction to the book names the “why’s” of the project:
This compilation of writings is my way of sharing with others a rare opportunity to 1) learn about the lifestyle of African-Americans living in the historic Shaw district of Washington, D.C., which was rich in culture and the arts in the 1940s; 2) understand how the events of the early 1940s impacted all walks of life; and 3) know the feelings and thoughts of an African-American woman as she lived through and was affected by the events of those times. Most of the contents of this book are in Nellie’s own words. So too is the title, Forever Waiting, which was a loving message she used to end many letters to her future husband, Mutt. You are invited to take this journey and hopefully find it to be an enlightening and enriching experience.
This week, Uncle John (known affectionately to me as “Tall Meat”) will be meeting with the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., which is interested in housing the letters and photos in their collection. What were once personal articles will now become public pieces of shared history.
I haven’t had a chance to read the book yet, and nonetheless it’s been heavy on my mind the last few days. Mainly, I wonder: what if Nellie’s documentation and communication didn’t take the form of old letters, but a modern blog? Would their social value and interest change? Diminish? In general, when do we treasure personal communications, diaries, and scrapbooks, and when do we dismiss them as trivia or junk? What makes the difference?
Part of what’s got my mind turning in this direction is a research article I read a couple weeks back: “Women and Children Last: The Discursive Construction of Weblogs.” Gender binary problems aside, the authors/researchers introduce a handful of useful terms and observations. One of their main arguments is that the discourse around blogging presents a skewed picture of who blogs and why. Basically, even though the vast majority of blogs are journal-type blogs, and young women comprise over half of journal blog users, the cultural image associated with American blogging is an adult (white, highly-educated) male. Why?
A selective focus on filter-style blogs, and to a lesser extent, k-logs, characterizes mass media reports, scholarship about weblogs, definitions and historical accounts of the weblog phenomenon produced by blog authors (including by women), and patterns of linking and referring within the blogosphere itself […] Since men are more likely to create filter blogs than are women or teens, this selective focus effectively privileges adult male bloggers. In each case, this outcome is mediated by other motivations that are arguably not sexist or ageist in and of themselves, but that reproduce societal sexism and ageism around weblogs as a cultural artifact.
The authors explain how the disproportionate focus on “filter blogs” (which are basically blogs whose main purpose is to direct readers’ attention toward selected news, media, and other phenomena external to the writer’s immediate, everyday experience), without stemming from overt, malicious sexism, nevertheless reproduces sexist dynamics by both invisibilizing thousands of women bloggers (again, binary: there are more than two genders, people) and implicitly marginalizing the style of blogging that most women bloggers engage.
Women and young people are key actors in the history and present use of weblogs, yet that reality is masked by public discourses about blogging that privilege the activities of a subset of adult male bloggers. In engaging in the practices described in this essay, participants in such discourses do not appear to be seeking consciously to marginalize females and youth. Rather, journalists are following “newsworthy” events, scholars are orienting to the practices of the communities under investigation, bloggers are linking to popular sites, and blog historians are recounting what they know from first-hand experience. At the same time, by privileging filter blogs, public discourses about blogs implicitly evaluate the activities of adult males as more interesting, important and/or newsworthy than those of other blog authors.
Many of these participants (including most of the journalists) are themselves female. Nonetheless, it is hardly a coincidence that all of these practices reinscribe a public valuing of behaviors associated with educated adult (white) males, and render less visible behaviors associated with members of other demographic groups. This outcome is consistent with cultural associations between men and technology, on the one hand (Wajcman, 1991), and between what men do and what is valued by society (the “Androcentric Rule”; Coates, 1993). As Wajcman (p.11) notes, “qualities associated with manliness are almost everywhere more highly regarded than those thought of as womanly.” In this case, discourse practices that construct weblogs as externally-focused, substantive, intellectual, authoritative, and potent (in the sense of both “influential” and “socially transformative”) map readily on to Western cultural notions of white collar masculinity (Connell, 1995), in contrast to the personal, trivial, emotional, and ultimately less important communicative activities associated with women (cf. “gossip”). Such practices work to relegate the participation of women and other groups to a lower status in the technologically-mediated communication environment that is the blogosphere, and more generally, to reinforce the societal status quo.
It remains to explain why weblogs, but not other forms of CMC, have been discursively constructed so as to exclude women and young people from the realm of active participants. In the early days of the Internet, participation by diverse groups was exaggerated, if anything, to show the “democratic” nature of the medium (cf. Herring, 1993). With weblogs, the opposite is the case; actual diversity (and hence evidence of the democratic nature of weblogs) is discursively minimized. Two reasons for this suggest themselves. The first is that the larger context has changed; gender dynamics online now broadly reproduce the offline status quo (Herring, 2003a), making gender equity less of an issue in discourse about the Internet. This may explain why participation in blogging by females and members of other demographic groups merits relatively little comment. The second is that unlike in more interactive forms of CMC, the individual author is central in weblogs, as in traditional forms of print authorship. In keeping with the Androcentric Rule, male authors historically have been more highly valued than female authors (Spender, 1989). Moreover, personal journal-writing, traditionally associated with women, is generally not considered “serious” writing (Culley, 1985; McNeill, 2003). This may explain why weblogs are being discursively constructed so as to exclude women and young people (also assumed to be incapable of “serious” writing), and why journal-style blogs receive little attention despite being the most popular form of blogging for all demographic groups.
Besides, when women’s blogs are not being ignored, it seems, they’re being attacked. A post over at See Emily Blog, “Hating On Women Bloggers,” highlights some of the violent misogynist hatred to which many women, both high- and low-profile, are subject online.
Several months ago, blogger Heather B. Armstrong, who writes Dooce, started a separate site called Monetizing the Hate. On this site, she posted all of the horrible, vitriolic comments that readers sent her and she plastered the entire page with ads. It’s since been taken down, and I can only assume she made plenty of money off of it because she has so many regular readers that revenue from her blog supports her entire family. When she created the site, though, Kate Harding wrote about it for Jezebel. She was surprised that Armstrong got so much hate mail, because she rarely ever voices political or religious opinions- she mostly writes funny stories about her kids and dogs. Harding discussed the levels of hate mail both her and any female blogger that she knows receives for simply voicing their opinions.
Women are not only attacked online on the basis of their arguments or general intellect (par for the course for bio-boy male presenters), but are also smeared for being fat, ugly, cuntish, bitchy, illegal, vomit-worthy, etc. (Flavor of the insults varies according to class and race.) And of course, the vocabulary of hatred toward transgender folks remains pretty much the same, whether online or off: freakish, dirty, disgusting, whorish (not in a good way), pathological, unworthy, criminal, ought-to-be-raped, ought-to-be-killed. Women and trans folks are also stalked and slandered online with sickening regularity. Emily’s post — with its saddening, graphic examples and quotes — barely scratches the surface of our deeper problem.
Who has the right to write? And to write in what way? (A ‘right’ way? A valuable, meaningful, ‘skillful’ way?) What is the role of these unproductive writings — that is, unprofessional writing practices that serve as a means of reflection, personal communication, community education, or non-commercial artistic expression — in a society that counts as important work, above all else, men’s capitalist endeavors? Are women’s and trans folks’s informal writings primarily socially valuable as either (a) historical artifacts for prestigious institutions or (b) targets for trolling vitriol?
Debates on the democratic nature and/or potential of blogging, as a medium, often go something like this:
“Yes, it’s democratic: any schmuck can start a blog. Hundreds of thousands have.”
“No, it’s not democratic: getting published may be easier, but being read is just as difficult. A tiny percentage of elite blogs — the same old voices, more or less — attracts 85% of all traffic.”
Fair enough; this is sub-ideal. But frequently, versions of this argument also assume that everybody’s aim in blogging is to attract tons of traffic. To be widely read. Influential.
What if our writing, for its own sake, is enough? What if our small, vibrant communities suffice? And what about the small, slow work of trying to live genuine, reflective, compassionate, loving, and happy lives? Does that somehow not count?
I’m very glad for Uncle Tall Meat for finishing his book, and proud of him for preserving both his godmother’s legacy and a slice of DC history. I wonder, too, how often we recognize history in the making, right before our eyes.
Pride walks with a magnificent glow as an uncle speaks of a godmother and a niece speaks of an uncle…
Your post gave me much to think about. It was refreshing to hear a rather different and dynamic perspective. Thought your question was very powerful: “What if our writing for its own sake, is enough?” Thank you for sharing your insights.
A Proud Reader
I want to make another connection that is implicit in this post (and something I’ve noticed independently); blogs are the analogues only for journals. Emails that are the modern analogues for letters and correspondence. This is an important distinction, because emails are private correspondence, whereas blogs (at least the public posts that you talk about witnessing as history) are written for a public audience. And the scholarship that takes place around epistolary evidence is, I think, a lot more revealing than scholarship only relying on the public record.
Relatedly, this is an amusing thought I had a while ago: in the future, if we (not necessarily you and me, I mean, but generally the people we know) become famous artists, or scientists, or other luminaries, the emails between us will be historically and culturally valuable and insightful as primary sources. So there will be published books of our emails, IMs and even maybe texts to each other! It would be most amusing if they are in hard copy, but more likely they will only be digital (to make searching through them easier). I wonder who the first famous person is going to be for whom email archives are posthumously published?
A possible title for such a publication: “Forever Lagging.”
I guess it’s quite clear that I think that digital artifacts are no less in potential value than physical ones. I think in the immediate present, we haven’t realized the equal value of digital information as historical evidence only because digital correspondences go back barely a few decades, and hence only covers time which most people alive today still remember.
In the future, the problem of digital correspondence will be twofold: access and volume.
First, access. The information is useless if it is not accessible. Much of it will be locked in databases; physical letters, after their owner died, still remained tangible and visible objects that could be physically passed along. But after a person dies, their emails are not transmitted. Will Gmail release the emails of a person after they have been dead for, say, 50 years? The ethics of this seem very hazy, not least because most email services are not going to track or verify the identity of its owner.
(Hmm, in fact, I think that sounds like a worthwhile project to undertake: set up a database where people can donate all their emails once they die. I would certainly want my emails to be available for future scholarship.)
Second, volume. If we solve the problem of access, there will be far more digital data to distill and analyze than there ever was with letters and correspondence. I have a friend who, for his PhD, has basically read all of Marin Mersenne’s correspondence (which was no small feat), and then proceeded to make connections and abstractions. This is already a huge task with physical letters, but such a ground-up approach may simply impossible with larger volumes. Something like a keyword search approach is great, but is a selective and top-down approach that won’t give an understanding of the body of correspondence as a whole. We’ll need to develop new technical ways to parse and analyze huge amounts of prose.
As for what makes them valuable, well, we do, right? The letters for Forever Waiting were physically just musty things in a box somewhere. But for Nellie and Mutt, they were manifestations of their love for each other. For their children, or your uncle’s godmother, they were family heirlooms. And now, because of your uncles’ work, for me they are history. Digital correspondence will work the same way.
Thank YOU, Aunt Linda. I know that you were also a big part of making that book possible — and, of course, inspiring me to write. It was good to talk to you the other day.
Momin, I really dig your points and I love your questions on the access and volume problems of digital correspondence. It’s like this whole big futuristic landscape — exciting stuff. You articulate ideas that never would have occurred to me. If you have more detailed ideas about what all this digital data collection might look like, I’d love to hear them.
A couple of things, though, I see a bit differently. One is that even though I agree that blogs are a lot like journals, and emails more closely match up with letters, there are significant boundary blurrings, too. For one thing, you and I are publicly corresponding on this blog right now, which makes it different from a journal, and more like email or letter writing. That’s one of the main features I love about blogging — and why I never could bring myself to journal consistently.
Also, even though emails and letters are theoretically private, aren’t there still important exceptions in which people make them public or semi-public: through electronic forwarding (pretty common, these days), the publication of letter collections like you say, or other mass distributions? And then a whole lot of secondary commentary might spin off from the original email or letter exchange. So I do think that a collection of letters between two people, even if they were originally private, can be analogous to a blog — especially the thread or comments section of a blog, in which a wide audience gets to witness exchanges and communication between or among two or more parties.
As for the question of what makes bodies of correspondence valuable, your simple and clear answer (“we do”) strikes me as both true and untrue, in the sense that I was probably mistaken in conflating different metrics for measuring value.
On one hand, objects carry meanings with which we imbue them — so my blog is as valuable as I believe it is. Then again, historical societies, journalists, and academics might be interested in some artifacts, and not others, regardless of the significance they hold for their creators or keepers. That’s what the researchers are getting at in their paper, I think. Clearly, women, girls, and other folks are invested enough in their journal blogs that they regularly maintain and update them. These blogs have value. So why do media and academia ignore them? Why the disproportionate focus on news blogs and bloggers, rather than journals? (Which, I see your point, might not be old enough to appreciate in their content, but still represent a new and fast-evolving frontier of reflection with self and community.) And given this discrepancy, who is in a position to benefit materially and socially from their own creative labor?
I guess that might sound contradictory, given my insistence that writing can be for its own sake. But in my experience, though the personal motivations for writing can remain independent from social praise or punishment, they’re not entirely disconnected. What would happen if women and trans folks were rewarded and encouraged for their personal writing, rather than dismissed or attacked? I can say, for myself, that I sure would love it if friends of mine and I could make a living, somehow, through our mindful blogging. But if society doesn’t see it as valuable — either because it’s too contemporary to be history, too uninteresting to be news, or too informal to be art — this becomes a tricky prospect.
And at a more basic level, even though I’m deeply grateful for all the support and positive feedback that you and other friends have offered, that encouragement is still counterbalanced by my own socialized doubts and fears that because I’m writing about my own experiences, I’m wasting my time, indulging in narcissism, etc. Where do those ideas come from, and how are they bolstered on a large social scale?
Anyway. Just some thoughts. Hope your week’s going well! Also, if I ever do write an official autobiography, can I borrow your Forever Lagging title? ;)
Ah, I had so much to say about the first part of this post that I didn’t yet get to the great stuff after that lovely photo of you in Darwins. But, as you integrated the themes of the overall post in this response, I’ll do it all at once.
So first, I’ve been thinking a lot about these issues of the digital world because I’m currently working as a research assistant at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society (cyber.law.harvard.edu).
Your comment about you and I publicly corresponding reminds me of some work by danah boyd (and it is indeed ‘danah boyd,’ not ‘Danah Boyd,’ which is so cool), who is currently at Berkman. In her paper “Why Youth Heart Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life” , she introduces the idea of ‘networked publics’ to describe the kind of social interaction that happens on the Internet:
I found that really insightful. The nature of our correspondence in these comments is described very well as a performance for an invisible audience. But I still think boundaries are there. After all, remember I sent you a long email with my thoughts about New York City, different from what I wrote as a comment on your blog? Depending on who we are performing for—one person, or an invisible audience (or posterity; but unless we are Queen Victoria writing our private journal, we probably aren’t thinking about the possibility of posthumous audiences)—our content does change.
While I think there are still stable boundaries in terms of intended audience, I will agree that it doesn’t necessarily map well onto different forms of communication. For example, when Galileo wrote his ‘Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina,’ the entire point was for it to be ‘leaked’ and publicly circulated. Taking the form of a letter was just a rhetorical device to make his essay seem more heartfelt. And it was addressed to the top female Medici not only because Galileo thought she was receptive to his ideas and was trying to cultivate her support, but also to lend the letter the authority of the Medicis. That Galileo was a clever one!
But barring rhetorical trickery, relationship between boundaries and types of communication might undergo a revision with Google Wave. Have you heard about this? I’m quite excited about it. As the presenters put it in the Wave introduction video, it’s reimagining what email would be like if it were invented today. What it does, I realized, is consolidate emails, blogs, twitter, IMing, wiki-style collaborative editing, and facebook into one system. And once I thought about what Wave does, I understood that there’s really no reason all these things should be separate. They’re all doing pretty much the same thing (communicating and performing) with the main variance being intended audience.
The way Wave works is, you create a new ‘wave’ just like you’d start an email. But then, you don’t ‘send’ the wave, you add people to it; once a person is added, they can edit the wave, reply in-line, etc. A key thing that makes this all work is that every wave has a ‘playback’ function, such that you can see the history of it, and see each change that was made and by whom. And (this is the neatest technical thing, that was apparently the hardest to work out), the waves can be used as IMs at a whole new level, because whatever you’re typing appears in realtime (obviously with an option to disable this, only sending when you hit a ‘send’ button). The main advantage is that with this, IMing becomes much more like a physical conversation.
Then, you can ‘publish’ waves to make a blog. Or, instead of keeping a private blog that people have to sign in to read, you add only the people who you want to read your ‘blog post’ to the wave.
Waves create wiki-like possibilities too: You add multiple people to the wave, and all of them have that ability to edit it. The advantages of this for collaborative work is clear: you can actually see exactly what the other members of your team are changing as they change it. No need for the messy and inexact process of ‘merging.’ Then to make a wiki or collaborative blog, publish that wave.
The Wave code has been released, but Google is not pushing it publicly yet, they want developers to make applications and plugins for Wave so that there’s a library of features before it starts to be used en mass.
Gmail’s annoying new “buzz” thing is perhaps an attempt to prime the public for Wave by merging gchat, emailing, twitter and facebook (as you can click through to people’s ‘Google profiles’). But I think so long as Buzz is separate from email, it will be an annoyance and will feel redundant, whereas Wave will actually eliminate tons of redundancy in our Internet lives.
Sorry, that was a tangent. It’s just that the way the internet is changing categories and creating new ones is something I find fascinating. I mean, what you said about the boundaries between types of correspondence blurring is a dead-on theoretical insight, but then there come things like Wave that take that and change the categories to reflect how we actually use them!
Next I will take up the main topic of your post and reply, how the work of women, youth, and trans (and, I would add, queer!) individuals is valued. You say:
I’m going to offer you another possibility, that you are on to when you mention “community education” as a possible role of unproductive writings: blogs as a way to gain a critical mass in order for marginalized individuals to have a community in which they can socially explore and construct identity. Or, simply put, this is saying that queer and trans individuals in isolation can figure out their identity through the internet. This is an amazing idea I was exposed to through a Berkman event:
I’d recommend watching the video (it’s at the bottom of the page), but then again I’m biased because I asked a question at 40:19 (and I ask it over the internet! I think that’s so neat).
To merge the two metrics you fear sound contradictory, recognition contributes in a huge way to individually constructed value. But another thing you mentioned, capitalism, made me realize that the value awarded by ‘society at large’ has another huge impact on creative production: can people make a living off of creative expression? I think that women and queer and trans individuals are rewarded and encouraged by communities they create amongst themselves that helps want to continue that creative expression. But while some people even manage to eke out a living through the support of just a given community of identity rather than society at large, it’s probably nearly impossible. For example, I imagine that there isn’t exactly a huge demand for trans spoken word performers. Will there be enough trans individuals and allies, who will go out to pay to see a trans performer, for that trans performer to be able to be creative full time?
And within a capitalist world, you do have to get paid to survive. So the question of the implicit suppression of creative expression by a denial of living resources opens up into the larger questions surrounding capitalism. This also includes questions of elitism. Womens’, queer and trans rights are crucial; but does being subsidized by the labor of others become a ‘right’ for oppressed communities? Or is the lack of a given community being able to support performers due to that community lacking money, again from structural oppression? Or, is the lack of universal interest in a creative expression of something like trans individuals a function of a lack of education and visibility, such that an expression of the trans experience could be just as universally appreciated as your average romance blockbuster if being a trans individual was a non-issue in society? Ah, explorations for another time.
Damn I wish I could edit these, so many little mistakes I see reading it over again… if I have a wordpress account and sign in, I can edit it, right?
I assume you’re joking about using Forever Lagging, as it is a terrible pun. But if you are serious; as our invisible audience is my witness, you are more than welcome to use it, even without attribution! In fact, I’d encourage you to use it without attribution.
Ooh, I also got to wondering if anybody else has had realized the need to preserve and make accessible email correspondence for scholarship.
This is all I found:
This article, though, phrases the issue in terms of attaching a price tag to information, rather than looking at scholarly value. I’m tempted to dismiss it as materialistic, but again within the capitalist society in which we live, selling one’s own memorabilia might be a crucial source of income for an established but still financially strapped artist.
So, digital materials have already become part of an archive (Salman Rushdie’s materials at Emory), but what I’m waiting on is for digital correspondence to be published in a collection, and/or used for, let’s say, “e-epistolary” scholarship.
This post, and it’s comments, is so full of wonderful head-food I am smiling from ear to ear. I ponder these things daily :)
While examples abound on the misogyny in the blogosphere one that really calls it out into the open for me is the story of Kathy Sierra. It was such a heinous example that many of us stopped (or suspended) blogging as a show of solidarity.
Thrilled to hear Wave being discussed here… since such dramatic technological changes will bring a brief window of opportunity to press the reset/change button on cultural norms online, I hope to see as many mindful people as possible participating in those efforts.
Hey laurel! Welcome. :) I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on this or any other head-food.
Yes — Kathy Sierra — I remember when that happened and made all kinds of news. On the one hand, people were shocked, and on the other hand, it was simply a magnifying of the kind of misogyny that permeates our culture.
I’ve been Waving! Do you see me? It’ll take me a minute to get used to, but I can see it being super helpful, not to mention fascinating in the changes it effects, as you say.
Hope your semester’s off to a good start!
I do indeed see you on Wave ! I waved back atcha on the goddardmfaia wave.
My first packet is off and away, that’s a good feeling. Hope that your work is going well (and from what I can see — it IS !).