American Blogger

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.

Failing

I’ve been waiting for some words to magically appear on the screen/page and that hasn’t been working out so I thought that I would force myself to sit down and write a post. So. Our trip to Vancouver was a lot of fun and it was great to see friends and have time together without work/school/errands/chores. There is truly not much better in the world than seeing your children play with your friends’ children.

We have been back for two weeks and I got stuck into that list of to-do’s that I made before I left. The list was a big help. I had been through the sections I was working on and made some notes there too (I find that if I bold the notes and make them a bright colour, it helps me to see at a glance where I need to pay attention). I started in on the list and then, I don’t know, I just lost momentum. Little things started stealing my work time away and I wasn’t really carving it out. We had a week of a lot of social stuff last week and I was just trying to keep up with the kids and the house. I have also been having issues with my wrist which makes it hard to type much but it’s not a massive deal.

Today, at the end of another week of not-much-to-show I feel like I’m failing, and it’s pretty shitty. I need to figure out how to get past this though because, honestly, I don’t have time to sit around feeling sorry for myself. I have a bit of time to myself today because L is off work and has taken our eldest daughter out for the afternoon. Baby Z is napping. I am trying to force myself back on track. Or at least into the station. Interestingly, right around the same time that I stopped doing any meaningful work on my project, I also stopped exercising. I have been meaning to go swimming all week and it just hasn’t happened (see, waiting for things to magically ‘happen’ again!). My mom-and-baby fitness class finished up before we went away and Z is too old to enroll in another one. I know that there is a correlation between exercise and work for me and I need to get back on it.

So, goals for today: 1) get outside for a walk. Bundle Z up when she gets up from her nap and go out for an hour. 2)See where I’m at in the theory chapter and set a small, reasonable, writing goal to accomplish tonight. When the girls are in bed, get it done.

Long-term, though, I want to think about strategies for dealing with times when I feel stuck, or struggling to work, and start interpreting it as failure. I need to do this for the girls as much as for myself. R had a Taekwondo test scheduled today and she got an attack of nervousness and shyness and wouldn’t even try to do it. It was tough to see her sitting on the edge of her class while the other kids did the test. She seemed grand afterwards and chomped down a cupcake but I want to be able to support/encourage her to try next time without berating her. If I’m going to learn to do this for the girls, I need to be able to deal with my own struggles around performance, success, and failure. I need to develop strategies so that I don’t spend even more valuable time on self-loathing and disappointment (which never results in an uptick in productivity). One foot in front of the other. One paragraph at a time.

Taking Stock

I have been chipping away at the data gathering part of my methods section over the past couple of weeks. Tiny chips. I’m taking a short break over this weekend and early next week and I’m leaving my work in a not-so-great place. I am feeling a bit frustrated. I’m not making progress as quickly as I would like, and I’m not finding the hours to put in to make it happen. So, in a way it feels like a shitty time to take a break because I’m not finished the draft of the chapter, by any means. In another way, I think it’s an excellent time to take a break. I don’t have good momentum at the moment, I’m floundering a bit, and it can’t hurt to stop, take stock, have some fun, and then get back to it with a positive attitude.
So that is the plan. Tomorrow I should get about and hour and a half work-time in the morning. In that time I want to do the following:
– Quickly read through the chapter as it stands.
– Flag the areas that need work and identify next steps for each area.
– Update the reference list
– Identify reading required to move on
– Adjust timeline
Then I have to pack for a family of four (LJ is a lousy packer: leaves everything to the last minute and forgets really obvious essentials). Traveling (even when it is a relatively local trip) with kids is sooooo different from traveling without them. I am excited though – on Thursday evening I will be drinking beers with some pretty awesome women that I haven’t seen for a while. I’m going to get to meet some new babies and introduce friends to baby Z. Yes, perhaps a holiday is just what I need.

‘Me and My Shadow’

Brief thesis update: I got some feedback on my ‘chapter sketch’ which was encouraging and devastating in equal measures. Not really devastating but there’s always a bit of a crisis of confidence for me with the first reading of criticism before I pull it together and start to see how the critique is helpful. I spent my work time on Monday going through each comment and either making quick revisions to address a simple problem or planning how I could start to tackle the major issues. I have about two weeks to revise and flesh out before I submit a more substantial draft. Yikes.

In the meantime I thought I would post one of my favourite essays. ‘Me and My Shadow’ is by Jane Tompkins and was published in the late 1980’s (a LOT of my favourite pieces are late 80’s/early 90’s which I may get into at another time). You can find a pdf of the essay here. I first read this when I was doing my MA in Women’s Studies and it has become one of those foundational pieces of work that I return to again and again when I’m trying to articulate how I see my scholarly work as part of my life and my life as part of my scholarly work.

It’s the same person who feels and who discourses about epistemology. The problem is that you can’t talk about your private life in the course of doing your professional work. You have to pretend that epistemology, or whatever you’re writing about, has nothing to do with your life, that it’s more exalted, more important,  because it (supposedly) transcends the merely personal…The public-private dichotomy, which is to say the public-private hierarchy, is a founding condition of female oppression. I say to hell with it.

Me too, Jane, me too! Now, I have to go change a diaper, do some grocery shopping, and work on some focus group theory.

Thematic Analysis and Theory

I sent off my ‘chapter sketch’ about ten days ago now and since then I have been working on developing strategies for my analysis. I have made some progress:

I looked through my existing files in the ‘analysis’ folder and it turns out that I had made a bit more progress when I stopped working in 2012 than I thought I had. I had (thematically) organized my discussion of my data into two main sections (chapters) and had begun to shape the coded data into a coherent discussion in one of these areas. Another sweet find in the mess of old files! What I hadn’t done, and what I need to do next, is to develop strategies for a closer analysis of the data.

My approach to this has been to return to the theory (retreat! retreat!). A couple of years ago I attended a workshop with Sally Wyatt, who was a visiting scholar in our department. It was extremely generous of Dr. Wyatt to do this and it’s something that I wish I had done more of in the past and would like to get the chance to do again. Dr Wyatt pointed out that even though I did a good job of getting into how I conceptualize blogging, I didn’t really talk about or unpack (I kind of hate that term but it is useful sometimes) my approach to value. It was very helpful and a bit embarrassing to see that I had made this (glaring) omission and it’s been on my mind since then to return to the chapter to address it. So…I have sketched my approach to value into three main questions: First, how has value been taken up in debates over the validity/legitimacy of popular culture in scholarly work?

Second, how is value talked about in scholarly work on specific popular culture forms and practices.

And, finally, what do I mean when I talk about ‘value’ in a basic, philosophical sense? What is value? How does it operate?

In the process of working out this part of the theory chapter, I kept notes on any strategies or points of focus for my analysis. I’m slowly beginning to put together a list of ‘things to look for’ in my data. The next time I post an update here I hope to have put together a starting-point list and also to have worked out specific techniques for the analysis. I like the back and forth between theory and methods.

In other news, this week has been better in terms of not feeling so conflicted about time spent with family and work-time. I do think it is smart for me to be aware of how my experience is shaped by my social and cultural context and to think about what could be done in order to create a more supportive environment for graduate students with children and other family commitments. Perhaps there is something I can raise in my department or an initiative I could become involved with while I am finishing so that students who are starting out or thinking about graduate work have a bit more support.

Choices?

Combining work and family life often leaves me wishing that I had a time turner like Hermione did in the Harry Potter books (is that what it was called? a time turner? I’m not sure…). Struggling to manage all of her school-work my favourite character of the series found a device that would allow her to loop back through time to essentially do two things at once. Last week I had an emotional and frustrating time making a decision about whether to devote some time to my thesis work or spend that time with my family. In Alberta, Canada, last Monday was ‘family day’, a holiday, which meant that L was home from work and we had a long weekend. In thesis-land there isn’t really such a thing as a weekend in terms of having time off but I do tend to put work on the back-burner (or further back on the back-burner) during the weekends. Monday, however, is usually one of my good work days because R is in preschool and I just have Z at home. I also have the looming deadline of last Thursday to get something out to my supervisor.

I wanted to spend time working and I also wanted to spend time with L and the girls. He was taking R to the local ski hill and suggested that Z and I join and watch for a short while. R was extremely excited at the prospect and I went along, albeit with the nagging feeling that I was failing at the work-prioritisation that I have been shooting for (and boasting about a bit too). At the end of the day I feel pretty f***ing lucky to have a) a family I love so much and want to hang out with and b) work that I am actually excited about. I am enormously privileged to be in the position of staying at home with my kids and working on my thesis. BUT, I do think it’s important to recognize how my role as primary caregiver for the children/home makes it difficult to define space for work. L wanted me to go to the ski hill to watch them, yes, but he also wanted to go because he couldn’t mind Z and ski with R at the same time. And he wanted to ski with R (he is a bit obsessive about skiing at the moment). If I’m honest, I balked at being assertive about my work at least partly because I didn’t want to jeopardize my ‘loving mother/cool wife’ status. And that irks me. Yes, it is my responsibility to take that assertive bull by the horns and get better at claiming that space and time for work for myself. BUT, the social rewards I get for not being assertive (gold stars on my ‘loving mother/cool wife’ reward chart) are tempting. I am not any less loving or less cool if I prioritise work but it certainly feels that way sometimes. I get sick of the emphasis on personal responsibility all the time. I want social and cultural supports in place to help me feel less like I am choosing between my family and my work, and prioritizing one over the other all the time. I want affordable, high-quality childcare. I want recognition for the labor of domestic work. I want to challenge the hierarchy which always seems to value paid work over unpaid (be it domestic work or studies). I want to not have to ask, beg, and constantly strategize and organize to squeeze an hour of writing into my day. So, it is a struggle and a recognition now, with a week of hindsight in place, that I don’t have to choose between gratitude and frustration or personal responsibility and external support. So often we frame things as ‘either/or’ choices and hierarchies where we have to assemble a pecking order, and set it in stone.  At least, that is a tendency I notice. ‘Choose: family or work’! Choose: gratitude or frustration and anger! ‘Choose: qualitative or quantitative’! When our choices are framed like this, they are not really choices. There are always limited available options and there are always consequences for our ‘choices’ and ‘priorities’. These binary oppositions don’t help anyone. And they always leave me feeling lost. I am grateful. I am frustrated. I am angry sometimes. I am really happy most of the time. I am extremely privileged to have the support that I do from my family but I refuse to erase the structural inequalities which so often shape our experiences and our options.

Back to the thesis itself…I submitted a ‘chapter sketch’ – which is a euphemism for a partial draft – of my methodology/methods chapter. I’m happy with the progress I made even if there are many many blanks to fill in. Next on the agenda: some reading on the concept of value in cultural studies/popular culture for my theory chapter and then a return to my data in order to begin work sketching out findings/analysis chapters and to feed back into my m/m chapter by fleshing out some of my thematic discourse analysis strategies. I have a deadline of the end of March to have this work done and sent to my supervisor.

Opening up old files & a new research question via the whiteboard

I am getting into the part of the M/M chapter where I describe my research process. In one way this is fun because I’m getting to write about something I have done rather than theory theory theory which gets intellectually exhausting (for me, anyway). I am revisiting the initial analysis of my data that I did about a year and a half ago which is a whole other challenge. Sometimes it’s wonderful, like when I find a document of lucid description and organized data that I didn’t know I had (this is like finding $20 in a jacket pocket or old purse!). At other times it’s really frustrating, like when I find a document with a promising title, ‘Initial Analysis’ for instance, only to find that it is empty, save for a title and a few half-arsed notes. A good part of what I’ve been doing this week is digging through all this stuff and collating the good notes. I actually have quite a lot which is nice! I did a pretty thorough coding before I went on Mat. leave and now it is time to document it and start putting together the tools for the detailed analysis. Oh, and I have a deadline of next Thursday to submit a draft of the chapter. Yikes. It is definitely time to clear out those files and to develop an easy file naming system. I have put it on the to-do list.

I have also continued to use the whiteboard and I have an idea for how it can play a specific and useful role. Yesterday, I used it to rethink my research question a bit. I wrote out the existing question (‘How do bloggers assess and understand value in blogs and blogging practices’) at the top of the board and then really focused on thinking about whether it asked what I am really asking of my data. It may sound silly, but the question has always bugged me, and I haven’t been able to clearly delineate my sub-questions. I ended up switching out my question word from ‘How’ to ‘What’. This shifts the focus from a process of meaning making to my interpretation of the meaning itself. It helps with defining the methods. I also found that, after I had made that change, the sub-questions popped out really easily. My research question now is ‘What is it that bloggers value in blog texts and practices?’ and my sub-questions are: a) Is this contested? How? and b)Is this contextual? How? I’ll see how it goes over with my supervisor but I’m happy with it.

My whiteboarding yesterday was  so successful that today (while Z was napping and R occupied with building another Lego house (her ‘houses’ are quite mausoleum-like) for her favourite pony) I put the new question at the top of the board and then began to organize the steps of the thematic analysis leading into the discourse analysis for my methods section. This helped to focus me and I sat down and drafted the section quite quickly. So, my idea is to commit to updating the whiteboard every day. If I do nothing else I will wipe and re-write the whiteboard each day, moving my project forward one board at a time. Let’s hope that it can help me get to some semblance of a draft by next week!