Last night I watched the documentary film, American Blogger. I heard about the film last year on the blogs of some of the participants and I was quite excited about it. I was excited partly because I was keen to see some of these bloggers offline, on film. I was also excited, because I had read Casey Wiegand’s blog (she is the film-maker’s wife and blogs about their family) and I was curious as to what Chris Wiegand would come up with. I was concerned when I saw who some of the participants were that there would be a lack of diversity (and a lack of awareness about how that was problematic) and, when it came out, the trailer seemed to confirm my predictions/worries. With a pompous voice-over (which would actually be kind of funny if it weren’t so cringy), it presented a hugely inflated sense of its own importance, and (in its first iteration, especially) of self-awareness when it came to the limits and omissions of the project. Appropriately (I think), there was plenty of critique: Technology Tell, called the trailer “unintentionally horrifying”, and the forums at GOMI went to town. Since the initial trailer release, the film has been re-positioned as ‘American Blogger – the first journey’, a qualification to the title which indicates that there may be further films, possibly covering more extensive and diverse communities in the American blogsophere. This, among other changes, suggests that the film-maker has taken some of the critique on board.
To the film itself. I find blogging culture so fascinating (I have, after all, been studying it for a decade now), that i was glued throughout. The film is too long. It’s two hours long and could easily be edited down to 90 minutes. It is also a bit all over the place, I was often unsure where in the United States the blogger CW was talking to, actually was. And this situation of the participants is, I think, important, or could have been important. Wiegand presents the film as a road-trip and it would make more sense to follow the sequence of the road trip in the film more explicitly than he does. Although there were several bloggers that I read regularly in the film, there were also a whole bunch I have never heard of and I would like to have seen blog-names on-screen when they were talking so that I could access the blogs quickly. All of these criticisms were also made by viewers chatting on the GOMI forum (it is always so interesting to me how these forums are treated with such disgust by a lot of bloggers when I think that the critique and advice to bloggers is often really insightful and potentially useful).
Aside from the technical/format issues I had with the film, what of the bloggers? Well, this is a pretty homogenous group of mostly white, mostly middle-class, women bloggers. Their blogs seemed to fall into the family/fashion/food/lifestyle zone and there were instances where I chuckled to see how similar some of their decor/clothing was. There are definitely dominant trends that run through blogging communities/categories, and there was a whole lot of chevron/gray/statement necklaces/manicures/bright lipstick among the participants. Lots of cute children and a bit of cultural appropriation. What struck me most was how the film points to just how professional blogging has become. Blogging, as it started, was amateur, with no profit or professional potential in sight. When I started studying blogging in 2004, I was looking at feminist academics who blogged, and how blogging operated as a form particularly suitable for feminist thought and activism. The risk, as I saw it then, was that blogging was also potentially career-damaging, and in academic life (where secure jobs are a rare species), this possibility could serve as an invisible and insidious editor in a environment where the lack of editors is seen as central to its identity. Now, ten years later, I see professionalism as the loudest editor. Several of Wiegand’s subjects maintained that they enjoyed the freedom to post whatever they wanted, that they saw themselves as autonomous owners of their online ‘real-estate’, that they could share freely. I’m not convinced. At the same time, they were shown taking outfit photos where outfits were chosen and shot to foreground c/o pieces received from a blog sponsor. In 2012 I spoke at a social media conference in Vancouver about authenticity and professionalization in blogging culture. It’s something I am still writing about and will be talking about at the PCAC conference here in Calgary next month. This film produces a whole host of new examples for me of how the concept of authenticity is lauded as central to blogging culture when, at the same time, the lives and selves we see on blogs are increasingly crafted and styled and co-opted by business interests. The business owners in the film talked excitedly about useful bloggers were for reaching potential customers. Bloggers have the trust of their readers, they are seen as ‘authentic’ in a way that traditional media advertising is not. So, many of them become instrumental in promoting business interests. The ‘authentic’ blogger identity is carefully cultivated in order to generate trust and to attract sponsors. This is certainly not the case for all bloggers but I see it a lot in the blogging communities I study and it was up-front and center in Wiegand’s film.
Z is surely going to wake up from her nap in a few minutes so I’m going to wrap up this initial commentary here. I found the film fascinating, but for someone without my rabid interest, the length and wonky editing might be too much to push through. To be honest, I even appreciated the missteps because they show a lack of polish and reveal something about the assumptions of the film-maker. It was nice to see some of the bloggers I read, on film. Melissa Jordan from Dear Baby comes across as critical-thinking and self-aware, both in the film and in her blog-post about the film. I am going to build a commentary of the film into the introduction and conclusion of my thesis, so I am very grateful for it and for the fresh burst of excitement it has given me about my own project.