Saturday, May 31, 2008

Blogging the Personal: The Fine Line Between Intimacy and Exhibitionism

I finally got around to reading a very long story on personal blogging that ran in last weekend's New York Times Magazine. Written by former Gawker blogger Emily Gould, the story is a painfully meandering account of how her experiences with being public about very private matters led to emotional turmoil, regret, and ultimately resignation.

Although my own life is far removed from the elite and elite wannabe media social circles in which she traveled, there were some passages where her own sentiments have crossed my mind a time or two. The commonality is that we both chronicled some very intimate portions of our lives. I'd like to pull out select passages and offer up my own thoughts.

Blogospheric Social Network

Gould writes:
Some of my blog’s readers were my friends in real life, and even the ones who weren’t acted like friends when they posted comments or sent me e-mail. They criticized me sometimes, but kindly, the way you chide someone you know well. Some of them had blogs, too, and I read those and left my own comments. As nerdy and one-dimensional as my relationships with these people were, they were important to me. They made me feel like a part of some kind of community, and that made the giant city I lived in seem smaller and more manageable.

I came to this blog via a different direction. None of my friends prior to starting this blog in July of 2006 know of this blog's existence, and I'm sure if any of them read the story from start to now, their jaws would drop somewhere near ground level. As time progressed, I developed a small network of blog friends, with reciprocal readerships. Although I'm not as active writing in this space, there is a select group of readers with whom I keep in regular touch via IM and e-mail. Moreover, some of them I have met a time or two in real life. I can't deride my own friendships as being "nerdy and one-dimensional" because the scope of our conversations have transcended the original focus of this blog.

The Propriety of Divulging Private Information

Gould writes:
As Henry (her boyfriend) and I fought, I kept coming back to the idea that I had a right to say whatever I wanted. I don’t think I understood then that I could be right about being free to express myself but wrong about my right to make that self-expression public in a permanent way. I described my feelings in the language of empowerment: I was being creative, and Henry wanted to shut me up. His point of view was just as extreme: I wasn’t generously sharing my thoughts; I was compulsively seeking gratification from strangers at the expense of the feelings of someone I actually knew and loved. I told him that writing, especially writing about myself and my surroundings, was a fundamental part of my personality, and that if he wanted to remain in my life, he would need to reconcile himself to being part of the world I described.


One of the strangest and most enthralling aspects of personal blogs is just how intensely personal they can be. I’m talking “specific details about someone’s S.T.D.’s” personal, “my infertility treatments” personal. There are nongynecological overshares, too: “My dog has cancer” overshares, “my abusive relationship” overshares.

It’s easy to draw parallels between what’s going on online and what’s going on in the rest of our media: the death of scripted TV, the endless parade of ordinary, heavily made-up faces that become vaguely familiar to us as they grin through their 15 minutes of reality-show fame. No wonder we’re ready to confess our innermost thoughts to everyone: we’re constantly being shown that the surest route to recognition is via humiliation in front of a panel of judges.

But is that really what’s making people blog? After all, online, you’re not even competing for 10 grand and a Kia. I think most people who maintain blogs are doing it for some of the same reasons I do: they like the idea that there’s a place where a record of their existence is kept — a house with an always-open door where people who are looking for you can check on you, compare notes with you and tell you what they think of you. Sometimes that house is messy, sometimes horrifyingly so. In real life, we wouldn’t invite any passing stranger into these situations, but the remove of the Internet makes it seem O.K.

While my own wife does not know about this space, there is a question that gets raised by commenters here and on other anonymous personal blogs... Is it right for us to talk about our personal lives and matters that involve our spouses without their consent? Are our motives noble?

Those of you who have read this blog far back enough may realize that my arrival here was driven by criticism of my posts to a semi public forum about extramarital relationships. I had come there out of curiosity because I was considering starting one of my own. When I started venting and "oversharing" my own personal details, some of the readers accused me of wanting female attention and using that space to fulfille that desire.

Indeed may of the forum members were women, but I don't think I came there seeking their attention or approval. I was trying to puzzle out how to deal with dissatisfaction in my own marriage, and I was quicily losing hope in believing anything could be done to fix it. The forum was a place where I could be open about this aspect of my life and seek some advice.

The Fleeting Feeling of Blog Oriented Validation
Gould writes:
In my old job, I’d been able to slowly, steadily learn the ropes, but now I was judged solely on what I produced every day. I had a kind of power, sure, but it was only as much power as my last post made it seem like I deserved.

Blog readership on a personal blog feeds on how captivating the narrative remains. Keeping the narrative alive requires frequent posting. For some people, writing a post flows naturally, so the stream of updates comes regularly.

I tend to be a slower writer, thinking over my thoughts quite a bit before putting them together. In the days of working for the Titanic software company, I had a lot of spare time to reflect on the areas of my life that were disappointing and depressing. The luxury of putting together longer posts was there.

Over time, I watched my readership grow to as much as 70 unique visitors per day. The peak was about this time last year as I was trying to hammer out an offer with the Online Payment Subsidiary of the Big Online Auction Company. The tension between my wife and I was very strong, and I suspect that there was as subset of the population that was enthralled or appalled enough by the drama to keep reading.

After the marriage was pronounced unfixable in July last year, the blog became a journal of my job search, which involved a lot of traveling and a lot of agonizing. Although not as big of a draw, I was able to sustain about 40 visits a day. With things being much quieter here, I've finally dropped below the 20 visits, much of that is loyal readers who've noticed an RSS update and some other people arriving here for searches on chronic masturbation or some term from one of Schnarch's writings. If the guy ever wanted to to ensure better search results, he could buy my blog. :-)

Love for the Haters

Gould writes:
The commenters’ compliments were reassuring. And though I was reluctant to admit it, there was even something sort of thrilling about being insulted by strangers. This was brand-new, having so many strangers pay attention to me, and at that point, every kind of attention still felt good.

Although not as common now, I got my share of negative commenters on this place. Granted, they weren't the level of the Great Online Friend Meltdown over at Desperate Husband, but there were some anonymous snipers who seemed to think that I could do no right. I learned to handle these commenters in stride, listening to the merits of their arguments with an open mind. I don't think I ever reached a point where I developed an emotional need for their feeback like Gould says she did.

How Truly Social is a Net Relationship?

Gould writes:
But while my actual participation in life shrank down to a bare minimum, I still responded to hundreds of e-mail messages and kept up a stream of instant-messenger conversations while I wrote. Depending on how you looked at it, I either had no life and I barely talked to anyone, or I spoke to thousands of people constantly.

This could describe my life up to and including this blog. I'm sure my wife and her friends believe that I live in a form of isolation, with no friends at all. Indeed my wife has asked me a couple of times in the past year when was the last time I talked to some of my college and high school era friends.

Prior to exploring the questions of my marriage and career, I spent a lot of time reading and commenting on political blogs. Prior to that it was reading and posting on USENET newsgroups focusing on railroads and computing.

One of the most jarring aspects of self confrontation during this blog has been to realize just how isolated I had become both personally and professionally. My change of jobs has forced me to break out of the professional shell. Still a work in progress in the building of a real-life personal network. As my wife and I go our separate ways, this will be essential for me to continue on the progress I've made and to avoid seeking out an unhealthy and unbalanced rebound relationship.

The Struggle to Stay Motivated

Gould writes:
On Heartbreak Soup, I was reduced to writing about not having anything to write about. I wasn’t cooking much, or reading much, or thinking about much of anything besides how miserable and emptied out I felt. When I posted about a week spent wandering around dead-eyed in Florida’s artificial beauty the week after the funeral, one reader left a comment recommending specific brands of antidepressants. Soon after that, I lost the will to blog altogether.

The will to blog is a complicated thing, somewhere between inspiration and compulsion. It can feel almost like a biological impulse. You see something, or an idea occurs to you, and you have to share it with the Internet as soon as possible. What I didn’t realize was that those ideas and that urgency — and the sense of self-importance that made me think anyone would be interested in hearing what went on in my head — could just disappear.

I worry about this every now and then. The lack of posting on this space has made me wonder sometimes how long I will be able to keep the blog going. The limbo-like estrangement stalemate has my personal life on hold for another month, and I respect the fact that most of my readership would find the technical aspects of my work to be an eye-glazing experience, so I try not to spout off on that too much.

I've also wondered at times whether I fall somewhere on the autistic spectrum, perhaps as an Aspie. Some have described my more analytical posts as "cold" and "detached". A few readers noted how obsessive I was about discussing Schnarch, and I believe that a lot of my success as a software developer has more to do with my ability to focus and understand a problem and then hammer at it relentlessly than out of truly clever creative genius.

The Suppression of the Embarrassing

Gould writes:
Late one night, I unlocked Heartbreak Soup and wrote one last post there. In it, I talked about how a single blog post can capture a moment of extreme feeling, but that reading an accumulated series of posts will sometimes reveal another, more complete story. I talked about how taking the once-public blog and making it private, though tempting, felt like trying to revise history.

Knowing that the worst of my online oversharing is still publicly accessible doesn’t thrill me, but it doesn’t scare me anymore either. I might hate my former self, but I don’t want to destroy her, and in a way, I want to respect her decision to show the world her vulnerability. I’m willing to let that blog exist now as a sort of memorial to a time in my life when I thought my discoveries about myself and what I loved were special enough to merit sharing with the world immediately.

I've wrestled with this question a few times over the course of this blog. The person I was when I started the blog is not the same person I am now. Sometimes I don't like seeing that person, and some of the early posts focused way too much on the day-to-day matters of my sex life.

I've been tempted at times to take down the sexual posts or even remove the references to the affair discussion boards. In the end, I believe that I would betray the significance of the transform that took place. And by reading others' personal blogs, I realize that flawedness is the natural state of humanity. To deny it or suppress it in disclosure presented as intimate would not be differentiated, and so the old posts remain.

Even if I do move on and stop writing for this blog, the blog itself will remain intact. I think it might prove helpful for others who are lost and trying to figure their own lives out. They might not reach the same conclusions or take the same path as me. The bottom line is, we all figure out or own paths and live with their consequences. But at least they could see where jarring things up might take them.

For all of you who blog about your private lives, what's your take on all of this? What sort of issues have you dealt with over the lifetime of your blog?
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