[blogathon] What I’ve Learned From Blogging

This is the fourth post in my SSA blogathon, and another reader request. Don’t forget to donate!

I’ve been blogging in some form or another for ten years. Since I was 12. Did they even have blogs back then? Apparently!

But I only started this blog a little less than four years ago, and it took about a year or two for it to really start to pick up readers. I’ve always written primarily for myself–because it’s fun, because I wanted to work out my ideas–otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to keep it up for 7 or 8 years before starting to really get readers. But having an audience and interacting with it is a big part of what blogging’s all about, or else there would be a lot fewer blogs in the world.

That makes blogging very different from other kinds of writing, and even though I’ve been writing and one way or another since early childhood, blogging has taught me a few unique lessons.

1. Do it for yourself.

I mentioned this already, but I’ll expand on it. Blogging and writing in general can be very thankless things to do. While I get plenty of lovely comments and emails from people about how my blog has helped them and influenced their opinions, most people who read this blog and like it will not tell me so. And nor should they feel obligated to. But that means that in order for someone to keep up blogging and not get burned out, they have to do it primarily for themselves–because it’s good for them, because they love it. The feeling I get from finally working out in writing an idea that’s been bouncing around in my head for hours or days doesn’t compare to anything else I’ve ever done.

But this is important because it applies to many things one does in life. I learned to love working out because I learned to do it for me, not for the approval of people who tell me I need to work out. I learned to love going to parties because I found a way to do it in a way that I actually enjoyed rather than doing it because it’s what college students “ought” to do (and I avoid the kinds of parties that I would not enjoy). And I predict that I’ll love my career not (just) because I want to “help people,” but because I enjoy the process of working through someone’s patterns of thinking with them.

Of course, sometimes you have to do things for other people and not for yourself. That’s a fact of life. But it’ll go better if you find a way to do it for yourself, too.

2. Your worth is not based on how many people agree with you.

Let me tell you this: no matter how confident you are, no matter how many compliments you’ve gotten, even the kindest and most polite criticism will sting. (And when it’s not polite at all, it stings even more.) I’ve come to realize that feeling stung by criticism is not a bad thing in and of itself; once the feeling passes, you can evaluate the criticism on its own merits and hopefully improve and clarify your own position.

But regardless of whether criticism is fair or not, it doesn’t have anything to do with one’s worth as a person. I could write something that every single person who reads it disagrees with and I’d still be a generally decent person who tries to be a good friend and partner and who tries to contribute to the causes and communities I care about. Even if I happen to write the stupidest fucking post that has ever graced this blog, those things are still true.

3. Don’t expect to make a huge difference immediately (or ever).

This also comes back to doing it for yourself. But I think that the more you expect your blogging/activism to Change All The Things!, the easier it’ll be for you to get burned out when you inevitably find that you’re not living up to your own expectations.

Blogging is even less likely to make Big Concrete Change than other forms of activism. If you participate in a march or rally, you’ll get a huge amount of visibility for your cause. If you lobby your congressperson, they may vote the way you wanted them to and help pass important legislation or block terrible legislation. If you participate in a boycott of a company, the company may cave and stop doing whatever shitty thing it was doing.

What does blogging do? Someone, somewhere out there, might read a post and feel like they’re not alone. They may write to you and tell you, but they may not. Someone, somewhere out there, might start questioning beliefs they’d previously held sacred. Someone, somewhere out there, might find a good new argument to use next time they have to debate with someone about religion or politics or social justice.

Sometimes blogging does make a huge visible difference. A good example is something Jessica Valenti discusses in her book The Purity Myth–in 2005, a Virginia lawmaker named John Cosgrove proposed a bill that would’ve made it illegal for a woman to fail to report a miscarriage to the police within 12 hours. But citing Internet backlash, he later withdrew the bill.

But I think that’s rare. Most of the time you will not see huge changes from your blogging, though you may occasionally see small ones. They still matter.

4. You get to decide how to blog. Not your commenters. You.

I have a pretty detailed and specific comment policy. Some of it’s the usual stuff, but some of it is pretty specific to my style of blogging and moderating. For instance, if you use a nasty tone, I get to respond to you with a nasty tone. If you disagree and don’t back up your disagreement with any evidence or reasoning, you’ll get deleted. If you’re a bigot, you get deleted. Plenty of people dislike my style of moderation, and I frankly don’t care.

I decided early on that what would be up for debate on this blog would be ideas, not how I choose to blog. Nobody gets to tell me they don’t like my tone. Nobody gets to tell me not to feed the trolls if that’s what I want to do. Nobody gets to tell me to write about something other than what I want to write about. Nobody gets to tell me that FREEZE PEEEEACH.

My blog, my rules!

5. People will assume that who you are when you’re blogging is Who You Are.

This is one I’ve had a lot of trouble with. To some extent, my blog is a good approximation of who I am and what I care about. But to some extent it’s not. My response to commenters prattling on about false rape accusations is not the same as my response to people in meatspace prattling on about false rape accusations. My argumentation online is not the same as my argumentation in meatspace. Having now met many bloggers I follow offline, I know I’m far from alone in this.

But people don’t always know or consider this, so I think people often assume I’m really snarky and argumentative in meatspace, too. I’m actually not. I much prefer listening to talking, and in fact, I read a lot more than I write. I read dozens of articles a day and dozens of books a year. What I write is a fraction of what I think about as I read all these things.

Sometimes this means I make an effort to be extra friendly, smiley, and easy-going in public. But I think the most important thing for me is to remember that my personality, like everyone else’s, has multiple facets, and that I make good decisions about which sides to deploy in given situations.

Actually, I have a lot more to say about things I’ve learned from blogging, so I’ll probably have to write a follow-up post since this one’s super-long. Stay tuned!

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Why I Criticize Liberals and Not Conservatives

For someone who identifies as liberal and progressive, I certainly spend an odd amount of time criticizing fellow liberals and progressives. Unlike other bloggers of my general type, I don’t do all those muckraking-type posts detailing the latest scandalous Fox News segment or hypocritical Republican politician’s speech. Instead, I prefer to rip on people that I mostly agree with. Why is this?

Several reasons. First of all, getting my panties in a wad over some stupid conservative comment takes very little intelligence, and I prefer to utilize my intelligence as much as I can. The typical liberal kvetch-post usually goes something like this: “Well surprise surprise! [Insert Republican candidate here] gave a speech in [insert small conservative town here] yesterday and claimed that ‘good Christians’ should not allow gay couples to go to prom! It never ceases to amaze me how vile these Republicans are!” Or: “Last night [insert Fox News talk show host here] claimed on his show that people on welfare are ‘dirty rats pilfering our hard-earned money.’ Perhaps he should try living on welfare for a while!”

Okay, I exaggerate, but hopefully you see my point. It’s just that it takes no mental energy whatsoever to criticize people and ideas that are so ludicrous. For instance, today in Salon: talk show host Sean Hannity thinks Sesame Street is an attack on “family values” (whatever the hell that means these days), and Representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minn) apparently thinks that the US should support Israel so that the Jews can rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem and Christ can return. Um, okay.

Now, what Salon (and the liberal blogosphere in general) does with their time and webspace is their own business, but one has to wonder why so many intelligent writers would would want to waste their energy railing against the likes of Hannity and Bachmann and the rest of that entire cadre of shockingly brainless people. Because, really, what is there to actually say about the two links I just mentioned, aside from the fact that they are really stupid?

Meanwhile, most of the intelligent conservative perspectives that I’ve encountered unfortunately involve economics. For instance, Northwestern’s president, Morton Schapiro, refuses to implement a living wage for workers in dining halls, housekeeping, and etc. because he thinks this idea is economically unsound–and he’s a well-known, respected economist. No matter how much I’d love to see a living wage on campus, I can respect his opinion.

However, one little problem–I know absolutely nothing about economics, and I am prevented from learning more by the fact that I find it insufferably boring. So not only am I completely unqualified to even try to argue with the likes of Dr. Shapiro, I also have little desire to do so. (Likewise, it seems, with most liberals. The Living Wage Campaign at Northwestern, for instance, has insisted on using passion and emotion to fuel its arguments, even though President Shapiro, when asked what would convince him to implement a living wage, answered, “Good arguments.” Meaning, of course, arguments that are evidence-based and rational.)

As for why criticizing liberals is a good idea, that should be self-evident. I care deeply about seeing the causes I care about succeed. Sometimes, however, I feel that people are going about them in the wrong ways. For instance:

Incidentally, there are just so many types of privilege now. White privilege, male privilege, class privilege, heterosexual privilege, cis privilege, abled privilege, thin privilege, even vanilla privilege! A veritable buffet of privileges. For the record, I do believe privilege exists, in a way. But I don’t think it’s worth talking about, because bitching and moaning about it and yelling at people you disagree with about how they can’t “see past their privilege” contributes nothing useful to the larger discourse on social justice. I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t. All it does is alienate people that you might have otherwise persuaded.

I’m getting really off-topic now, but another quick comment about privilege–although this is a matter of semantics, I think it’s much more useful to view non-privileged people as disadvantaged rather than viewing privileged people as “privileged.” After all, we don’t want everyone to lose privileges like not being accused of stealing, being paid fair wages, and being able to easily find the right hair care products. Rather, we want everyone to have these privileges. So rather than implying that it’s somehow “bad” that I, as a white woman rather than a black one, can walk into a store and not be followed by a salesperson, we should be implying that it’s completely wrong that a black woman would be followed while a white one would not. Different emphasis entirely. I know any progressive would agree with me on this, and yet they persist on using language that problematizes the privileges that some of us have rather than the disadvantages that others face. The privileges I have as a middle-class, cisgender white person are privileges everyone should have. The privileges that heterosexual men have are privileges that I should have. And so on.

Back to the point. This is why, in most of the posts where I’m explicitly criticizing something, I generally propose some alternatives–organizing a protest rather than personally boycotting a store, finding a healthy balance between work and love rather than sacrificing one for the other, and so on. I hope that by doing this I have shown that I do actually care about finding solutions rather than simply criticizing things. I get a lot of satisfaction from identifying ways that things are being done wrong and suggesting ways to do them better.

But bloggers who endlessly chronicle the bon mots of Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh are doing absolutely nothing productive. I’ve always believed that a “good blog” is one that contributes something meaningful to the world rather than simply chronicling things that piss off its author.

Exhibitionist Journalism

So, yesterday this little gem was posted on Salon.com, an online news magazine that I generally like a lot but that, unfortunately, frequently falls into the trap of sensationalism. The piece, by Holly Kretschmar, describes the author’s experience with cooking and eating her placenta after giving birth to her first baby–a course of action recommended by her doula, which I understand is some sort of earthy midwife whose services Kretschmar was inspired to engage after she miraculously conceived despite fertility problems and a doctor’s estimate that her chances of conceiving naturally were .0001 percent. Apparently, this arbitrary, albeit fortuitous, glitch is reason enough to throw out the concept of science entirely and resort to all manner of cuckoo rituals.

Anyway, the doula recommended a placenta recipe and Kretschmar enthusiastically tried it, chronicling her experience in this article that Salon for some unknowable reason decided to publish. The piece went into terrific detail about how the placenta tasted and what texture it had, and Kretschmar, a vegetarian, pontificated on the joys of eating of oneself: “It occurred to me that this meat of mine was truly sustainable, a renewable resource created without killing. In a way, our culinary experiment was the ultimate act of consumption: eating life without taking life.”

I’m not even going to go into the numerous reasons this entire enterprise is repulsive (for instance, that silly little taboo called cannibalism), because, when it comes down to it, Kretschmar made a personal choice to eat her own placenta. Okay. It’s a free country. But the more important question (at least to me) is this: why the hell write and publish an article about it?

The fact that she finds it interesting is not (or should not) be enough. Plenty of people find their bowel movements interesting, but I’ve yet to see a published article about that. Websites like Salon generally have standards for publication, the standards we all learn in journalism school–newsworthiness, timeliness, and impact, for instance. Articles about personal experiences that ought to be kept private, like bowel movements and, yes, placenta eating, just don’t make the cut. Usually.

To me, it seems that this article served a dual purpose for Kretschmar and for Salon. The author gets to exhibit herself to the world as some sort of new-age open-minded hippie and satisfy her own need for attention, and Salon gets to drive up pageviews by disgusting and angering its readership. (A quick peek at the comment thread of the article confirms this result.) The only party that doesn’t win in this scenario? The readers.

This is exactly what’s wrong with journalism nowadays. It used to be that publication was reserved for the best of the best–articles that could inform or inspire. Then blogs and other social tools appeared on the scene to fill the niche of personal media. And then, respectable publications like Salon decided to steal blogs’ audience by publishing just the sort of self-serving drivel they’d previously (and rightfully) ignored.

I’m not saying blogs don’t serve a purpose. They do. Perhaps Kretschmar’s friends would’ve loved to read about her foray into placentophagy. But the rest of us don’t need to know, and most people who read websites like Salon are intelligent enough to know a blatant publicity stunt when they see one. Give us more respect, Salon.