I spent the past weekend at BlogHer08 attending panels and parties, visiting vendor booths, hanging with friends and taking in the sights. Interesting to see how the conference has evolved even since last year. For one thing, there was a cubic ton of swag (which I wrote about here) and a huge emphasis on consumer brands (K-Y Jelly, Graco, Weight Watchers, GM, Boca) that tell their own story: Use K-Y, get pregnant, buy car seat to put in GM minivan, drive to Weight Watchers meeting, go home and eat Boca Burger. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
I was relieved to spend time with a couple of the blog-related companies, who don't much care about my gender: Six Apart, whose Typepad product powers this blog, and Picnick, an extremely cool site that I used to add the text to my banner.
[Pointless tangent: I am home sick today watching Days of Our Lives; not because I am a fan of soaps, but because they are supposed to have a storyline involving a child with autism. No luck so far, but there seems to be a plot line involving a bearded guy named Steve who wears an eye patch and seems to have been abducted and forced to have sex with some random woman not his wife. Aliens, perhaps? Clearly I don't get out much.]
This year, I couldn't shake the feeling that, as women writing on the Internet, our strongest asset is in danger of becoming our greatest liability. Women in this country control a couple of trillion dollars worth of household spending, yet the phenomenon of women bloggers--an increasingly powerful media force--is largely seen as a sort of fluffy pink suburb, and, as Shannon aka Squid put it, BlogHer its "Lilith Fair of blogging."
I'm here to tell you: there was no hair braiding, no singing of Kumbaya, no synchronizing our periods. There were, however, many smart, heated discussions in the hallways, in the panels, over dinner, in cars, and, yes, in the bathrooms. We talked about politics, media, celebrity, family, sexuality, publishing, ethics, gender and where it's all going.
I couldn't help but be struck by how the blogosphere as a whole--male or female--is struggling with the same three issues: how to monetize (oh how I hate that word); how to preserve what's valuable and unique online; and the increasingly worrisome emphasis on celebrity. What it all comes down to, in my mind, is your RFB--your reason for blogging. What do you want from it? Is it self expression? A business tool? A means to community? All three? Something else?
Consider Whymommy, whose mission is to speak openly and honestly about her experience with inflammatory breast cancer and build a sense of community with other women in the same situation; Melissa, whose Stirrup Queens and Sperm Palace Jesters is a safe haven for people dealing with infertility; and, of course, all my special needs mom-blogger friends, about whom I'll write more soon.
All offer a purity of purpose, a warmth and inclusiveness, that is honest, down-to-earth, often funny, and very specific in its intention: to connect with and be a resource, even a friend, to others.
Then there's Heather Armstrong, the person and the phenomenon, who probably could never have imagined that she would become The Most Famous Woman Blogger In the Whole Wide World, and who now openly struggles with the impact of this particular brand of celebrity on her and her family. At the closing keynote, she spoke candidly about her life behind the scenes and her efforts to stay connected to her audience while protecting her family and her privacy.
Armstrong mentioned a blogger who had referred to her as "a mythical hobbit," the point of which was, in my opinion, to reject the idealization that reference implied. The ensuing weirdness has been amply documented by now, and several have criticized Armstrong's response as arrogant, but I saw it as a warning: don't idealize me. Don't let the cult of celebrity screw up what is meaningful about what we're doing.
I think it's advice worth listening to, whether you write about scrapbooking, cancer, food, gender or politics. Celebrity is a trap, and it corrupts what's most valuable about the blogosphere: the ability to connect directly with an audience on a topic that is mutually meaningful. And I wonder if Armstrong doesn't believe that in a way she is a victim of her own success--that the ability to connect with so many people has been impossible to sustain as her audience and fame have grown. I thought she seemed angry, wary and quite sad, actually.
Armstrong isn't one of my regular reads, but I admire her fierceness and bravery in chronicling a deep depression and some very tough times, and she is funny as hell. But she's also turned out to be a pretty polarizing force. So she makes money. So she's beautiful. So she gets so many comments she has to close them down. Calling her an "imaginary hobbit" is demeaning, because it buys into the whole celebrity mystique. It's ironic, sure, but it's also yucky.
I believe that in the end Armstrong was trying to caution us: don't fall for the celebrity trap. Don't idealize bloggers. We're all real people with real lives. Don't buy into the hype, don't seek it out, don't exploit it.
Last year, Elizabeth Edwards inspired us. This year, Heather Armstrong cautioned us. But did we hear her?