7.19.2007

I Am In and I Am Out. And That's OK

[this post is part of a discussion that is currently going on at blogrhet. if you have comments on this one, please head on over there]

It was about a year ago that I started getting my teeth into what this whole blogging venture might mean to me personally, and also what it might mean in broader, more overarching terms. I was positively giddy with the realization that though competitive and hierarchical models for evaluating how social networking occurs in the blogosphere, when it came to the smaller communities in which I was participating, the theories could not adequately account for how these networks cohered and were successful. I was, at that time, an excellent blogizen. I diligently reciprocated all comments, added everyone who had even breathed in my direction to my blogroll, and while I still faithfully read the entries of “big” bloggers (back to “being big” shortly) I became much more invested in my own niche. It was much more rewarding. My writing improved as I became part of a lively conversation, and I gained a lot of personal satisfaction from the relationships that were emerging.

As I continued along in this fashion, my comments section and reader stats steadily increased. I knew this because I was quite, quite obsessive about checking them. Stats were checked daily (hourly. ok. every 5 minutes) any linky love or referrals swiftly followed up on, I went about visiting blogs and leaving comments all over the place. To boot, my pregnancy at the time was not doing my traffic any harm, and as the due date approached, I got lots of hits as people checked in to find out the scoop (want to raise your readership? Get preggers or married. Or divorced.)

I was in the thick of it, and loving it. I had been blogging for about six months and I felt suddenly extremely tuned in to how the community worked, its norms of participation. I smelled fascinating research hypotheses, and steaming hot feminist arguments about the reinvention of motherhood. And I still do.

But…

Now an old and sage 18-month blogger, I still enjoy blogging a great deal (and could not be more delighted with the collective success of BlogRhet) but I have begun to experience some of that ambivalence about it all which is so familiar to many.

At what stage does “community participation” become obsessive? At what stage does commenting on other people’s blogs become less about reciprocity and good manners, and more about maintaining the readership, keeping that comments thread nice and healthy and full? When you find yourself slumping into a black mood because you posted one hour ago and “still no one has stopped to show me love,” then what does this reflect about the "relationships" you are cultivating? If you remedy the situation by carpetbombing a few blogs you’ve neglected lately, is that quite right?

Let me tell you a secret. After my baby was born last November, my blog became a pretty dead space. Understandably. I was not really motivated to write. I was simply motivated to function in some kind of human way. Sleep was also a priority.

Fast forward a few months, and I was ready to leap back in. And (it seemed to me at the time) in terms of my blog I really paid for my hiatus. It was like starting from scratch. I would post what were (to me) HI-LARious posts, and get only 1 or 2 responses. My STATS were pathetic, in my mind, and all those people who had been part of my community before were off enjoying other blogs. And how could I blame them? I had dropped off the face of the earth. When it comes to blogging, out of sight, out of mind can be very true. I knew this. I had observed the community norms, for chrissakes!

So I got busy. I was suddenly everywhere –at my old haunts, but also lots of newer bloggers I had not read yet. And it was a heady time. How I had missed Mama Tulip and Mom 101, those girls can write. And the more I commented, the more I saw a spike in my own comments, and while my stats did not exactly soar, they became much healthier. Then came the day when this post got linked from Zero Boss and Babble, and finally, I thought, I have arrived. Stats continued to escalate, until there was a week where I was hitting about 500-700 a day. (it was a lot for me, ok???)

The writing! The writing is speaking for itself! All my work is paying off!

Yes. My “work.” (Is it work, this thing we call “reciprocity”?)

Anyway, I did not think to check and see exactly which post was drawing the traffic. But surely it was my witty political commentary on the breastfeeding that ZB and Babble had so rightly picked up for its sheer genius.

Think again, Joy…. Try this post.

Yeah. Apparently I was the only blogger on the planet to actually think to put those funny math pictures on a blog so that people could email a link instead of forward all those jpegs about among their contacts.

That post, to this day, draws me as much traffic as pretty much everything else combined.

So, uh, the writing was not speaking for itself. [hangs head in shame...]

Don’t get me wrong. I am not putting myself down as a bad writer. I think I have some pretty good moments there, and only wish I could have the stamina to write more creatively more often, but I just don’t.

But the whole situation caused me to look hard at myself and ask “what exactly are you in this for? Because if it’s fame or status, then you are so totally SOL, woman!”

I questioned how my participation in the community—my devotion to reciprocation—was actually fuelled by less than “community-minded” goals, and more about traffic traffic traffic. Yes, it was about maintaining ties with writers I enjoy and respect, but the more feverish part of it was driven in part by a fear that if I don’t, they will forget about me. This was combined with a heavy sense of guilt and obligation.

And suddenly it wasn’t so enjoyable any more.

So I stopped. Not completely. (Obviously). But I stopped worrying about reciprocity quite so much. I came to a realization that the weight of obligation was entirely about me, and that even if I didn’t visit someone whose blog I adore on a regular basis, this didn’t mean they’d written me off. And if they had written me off, then tough shit for them, you know? Life was too short.

As Tere notes, this topic of “inclusion” and the appropriate rules of conduct in blogging communities has produced some in depth and even (politely) heated conversations at BlogRhet. It is obviously something that many of us feel very strongly about. Concerns over how blogging “cliques” might emerge, where only certain parties can be included. What this reveals to me is how emotionally invested we are in this whole process. So many of us started blogging as a means to write for an audience, then we discovered that with audience comes community. And despite my story, I will maintain that it is this community dynamic that is to me the most meaningful aspect of blogging. Nonetheless, there are some interesting and potentially sticky issue to raise:

Reciprocal commenting is a primary means through which certain blogging communities—small clusters of blogs—interconnect and gain strength.

Are these communities grow in size, are they also potentially jeopardized? Is there a critical point here in which a healthy and densely interconnected smaller community cannot sustain itself? I am thinking here not just in terms of people’s experiential relation to blogging (a sense that a community that was once quite tangible has disintegrated or shifted) but also, empirically, about how clusters and nodes in social networks might emerge or break down as they grown in size (I will be boring people with this at BlogHer, and no doubt in a few posts beforehand).

As I argued before, when we look at this through the lense of social networking theory, these individuals become dense nodes around which many of us cluster and coalesce. For example, I might not have a direct relationship with whom I perceive as a Big Blogger, but I observe other bloggers like me in the comments thread, and so I go and visit and make friends).

I do believe, that as certain bloggers “mature,” develop a following, embark on entrepreneurial ventures, their status in the community will automatically shift. They will become outsiders to some degree, dense nodes or connecting points, and though they might undertake very significant work to strengthen the community, they will not be able to participate in the same way that those of us who occupy the “long tail” of the blogosphere can.

This, I believe, is an issue of scale more than anything else, though the perceptions about status and inclusion are very real, and possibly contribute to this hierarchical dynamic. Of course they do. For as we go about looking for community (validation? traffic?) we forge relationships with those who can return the favor, and move away from those who do not. We seek peers, other people "like us" who can endorse this whole blogging thing and say "hey! I'm here! I"m listening!" And this is very meaningful.

The question of how the "like us" aspect of this dynamic works remains, but I'm going to end here. But the issue Tere raises about inclusion, and especially how race, sexuality and class figure into these equations is worthy of a post of its own, and I'll be returning to it pre- the panel at BlogHer (The Politics of Inclusion and Exclusion in Online Communities) where this question, among others, will be of central importance.