This morning I discovered a tempest going on in the teapot of the blog-world that actually includes me, which is kind of bizarrely flattering.
It’s over a 2008 Masters thesis from Simon Fraser University that is being referred to on Twitter by the tag #creepythesis . In it, the author wrote about the phenomenon of “mommyblogging” and analyzed eight blogs by Canadian women who wrote about parenting, either as the main subject or one of many subjects on their blogs. And yes, one of the blogs she analyzed was my very own little Hypergraffiti.
None of the bloggers was contacted about her work; the only reason anyone found out about it, so long after the fact, was that one of the bloggers involved stumbled across an online version of the thesis while self-Googling (it amazes me that I didn’t find it, as I am a relentless self-Googler). Word got around, as it does in the online world, and I think everyone referenced in the so-called Creepy Thesis has now had the chance to look at it and put their comments out there in the blogosphere or on Twitter. But how creepy is it, really?
Well it is kind of odd, to see details about your personal life recapped and summarized in somebody else’s writing, especially if you knew nothing about it in advance. What some bloggers are finding more unsettling, though, is the analyses the thesis author made about their lives, families, and values based on what appeared to be fairly random selections of entries from our blogs.
I will admit to feeling less scathed by this than some of the other bloggers involved, and I realize that may be partly because the thesis-writer was fairly easy on me. None of the random entries she selected reflected particularly badly on me as a person or on my parenting, and she drew no damning conclusions about me as a person. So maybe it’s easy for me to say that while reading the thesis was a weird experience, it wasn’t truly creepy.
Most people seem pretty clear on the ethical issue: the writer was under no obligation to contact the blog owners and ask their permission to use their blogs in her study, although many people feel it would have been courteous for her to do so. I would have liked to know about it, but also understand the reasons why she chose not to.
The fact is, though bloggers don’t always reflect on it much, blogging is publishing. It’s self-publishing, so it’s more uncensored and we sometimes feel as if we’re writing a private diary or writing for an audience of close friends, but it’s publishing. I’m writing about my personal life, my family, my job, my writing, and putting it out there into the world just as surely as if I had written a memoir (and, incredibly, someone wanted to publish it. Maybe in the Dull and Obscure Lives of Eastern Canada series????) So although it’s jarring when someone treats my blog as a piece of published writing, pulls it apart and analyzes it just as a reviewer might do with one of my novels, it seems to me to be part of what I signed up for when I chose to blog about my life.
Other people who’ve commented on the discussion have felt that while discussing their writing as writing was acceptable, drawing inferences (not always flattering ones) about the bloggers’ lives was crossing a line. But if so, it’s a very blurry line. I’m writing about my life, after all. And I’m playing fast and loose not only with my own privacy but with that of my husband and kids and various other people (a fact Christopher is quick to remind me of, which has resulted in a lot of self-censoring as he’s gotten older) by writing about them. I think that when you write about your life, it’s virtually impossible for someone to analyze your writing without drawing inferences about you as a person.
It reminds me a little of the internet flap that ensued when one of my literary heroines, the memoirist Anne Lamott, posted a piece on salon.com about a fight with her teenaged son in which she slapped him in the face (the same piece later appeared in one of her books). This painfully real-life moment in which she’d chosen to expose her own inadequacy as a parent earned Lamott a torrent of abuse in which she was criticized for slapping her son (an action she was in no way defending), for writing about it and thus violating his privacy (although she’s made it pretty clear in her books that anything she’s written about Sam at least since puberty, she’s sought his permission to publish), and generally being a lousy parent. Write about your own life, and you’re putting it out there to be examined, critiqued, misunderstood and taken out of context.
Indeed, even when you write fiction people will draw inferences about you from what you write. I wrote my own master’s thesis about the novels of Audrey Thomas, and in it I speculated, as many critics did, about the parallels between her own life and the lives of her fictional characters. One of my thesis reviewers commented that she thought I might have contacted Thomas for an interview, but to be honest, the thought never occurred to me. I was writing about what was out there in the public domain, drawing conclusions based on what this woman had written — just as someone has now done about me and a bunch of other bloggers.
There were ways, though, in which I thought Creepy Thesis was not so much creepy as disappointing (@disappointingthesis doesn’t make as good a Twitter tag, and also is not very specific because, let’s face it, there are a lot of disappointing theses out there moldering on library shelves, mine included). I thought the writer’s method of selecting random journal entries from a particular month provided more of a handful of glimpses into bloggers’ writing and lives, rather than any kind of sustained analysis set in a context.
In some cases, this method caused the researcher to draw conclusions about bloggers’ lives which were clearly incorrect, as other posts on the blog would have shown her had she included a broader range of entries. Searching out everything a blogger had to say about a particular topic — like marriage, or childcare, or potty training, or whatever — might have presented a more rounded picture than “Here’s what this blogger happened to post about in September 2006.”
But the bigger issue that I felt the thesis left untouched was the issue of honesty in blogging. She seemed to write as if she thought blogs provided a clear window into the lives of the bloggers. In reality, of course, my blog-persona is a construct. I choose exactly what I’m going to tell you and how I’m going to tell it. I tell stories to present myself in a certain light. I’ve blogged before (here for example) about issues of identity and my desire for authenticity, but I realize that there is no such thing as the unvarnished truth. Especially for writers, and bloggers are included in this category. As soon as you pick up a pen or poise your fingers over a computer keyboard, you are picking up the varnish and the brush, getting ready to varnish the truth. I think the thesis would have been more interesting if the writer had explored that angle: what image of themselves as mothers, as women, are these bloggers creating by the stories they choose to relate and the language they use to tell them?
Issues of identity and privacy on the internet are endlessly fascinating to me, but all things considered, I’ve decided not to be creeped-out by the Creepy Thesis. That doesn’t mean I don’t empathize with those who do feel that way, and as I said, some people have more reason to feel upset than I do because the writer drew some unflattering conclusions from the excerpts of their blogs that she chose to include. But I don’t feel I can say anything about my privacy being violated — my privacy is the area I choose not to write about, the many things that get edited out and don’t get posted on the blog.
And if nothing else, I guess this will stop me whining about how nobody ever reads my blog!!