Creepy Thesis?

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 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!!

14 Replies to “Creepy Thesis?”

  1. that is actually kind of cool that you got noticed. 🙂 i got hacked apart on a discussion board of disgruntled/ex-Adventists. i was kind of flattered! i mean, they KNEW who i was!:) this bunch of strangers who hated me, KNEW who i was! exciting stuff. and considering that you didn’t get hacked apart, you’ve got something brag-worthy!

  2. Trudy, I wonder if part of the reason that this sits easier with you than with others is the fact that you are already a published author. I would think that fact would put you in a different mindset than the average blogger, make you more likely to expect reviews, make you view your blog as part of a greater body of work.

    I don’t think I have a problem with the author not contacting the bloggers, although in her shoes I would likely have done so. I don’t like her mixing the distant ‘literary’ review tone with her judgement of various bloggers. I think she should have picked one or the other.

    And, like I said elsewhere, when someone writes a book they write it as an whole entity, to make a certain point or to tell a certain story, and as such they are viewing it in its entirety. A blogger doesn’t usually do that, they are living and creating the narrative and they go. They aren’t seeing it as a finished product that can be judged in the same way a book can. Every story/entry isn’t part of their argument, it isn’t a finished product. So I’m not sure a literary type analysis was the appropriate one for this material.

    That being said, I don’t know what type of analysis *would* be appropriate, but this feels off somehow.

  3. Yikes! Maybe all those comments that I delete that say that my posts have helped them in assignments were for real after all! I seriously doubt it as the grammar and spelling mistakes in the comments were not indicative of learned people, but then again…. 🙂

    I haven’t taken the time to read the thesis yet but I’m hoping to get to it. It hadn’t crossed my mind that someone would be able to use blog posts as part of a thesis. Seems a little weird to me. And I do think it ought to go without saying that you ask permission of the person before doing so, but what do I know.

    Reading this reminded me of the “How do you shape your brand (witness/testimony)” post I wrote last month. You can read the post here if you’re interested: . The basic premise of the post is that people are going to draw conclusions about you based on what you post so it’s a good idea to post things that will help people draw the conclusions you want, not that you don’t want. Come to think of it I didn’t ask permission of the blogger that wrote the post that inspired my post. Hmmmmm….

  4. Well, if no other good comes of this, I’ve found an interesting new voice to add to my list of blog haunts! Hello, nicetomeetcha!

    I’ve found the conversation and controversy swirling around this issue quite enlightening. I think I would have embraced her analysis if it were more clear that it was the blog and not the blogger that was being scrutinized, and that there was a more respectful and less judgmental tone to her conclusions and assumptions. And, erm, maybe if I wasn’t one of the bloggers. Altogether, though, it’s given a lot of colour to an otherwise rather boring Sunday!

  5. Patty, was that the discussion about your story on a “Reviewing the Review” feature on the online Spectrum magazine? If so, I remember that, and remember thinking that if you read it, it must have felt weird. (And sort of similar to this since you were writing about a real-life experience, as one might do in blogging). I really admire all the Spectrum regular writers (and occasionally write book reviews there myself), but the commenters on that site can be vicious.

    It is bizarrely flattering, but also thought-provoking. And I do see your point, Christine, about it being different from a book. I guess I’m just thinking bloggers should think of it more AS IF they were publishing a memoir — albeit one that’s being published in daily or weekly installments — rather than as if they were keeping a personal journal to share with a few friends.

    I haven’t seen that post of yours, Jacqueline, but will check it out.

  6. Thanks, Dani! I’ve checked out your blog a few times before on Chris’s recommendation and will probably check it more often now … now that we’re both obscurely famous!

  7. Dani and Trudy, I didn’t realize you two didn’t (virtually) hang out. I’m glad you’ve ‘met’ each other, I think you’ll enjoy each other’s blogs a lot.

  8. I agree with you, Trudy. And, it’s nice to meet you from this! I felt creeped out, you could say, last night. And I was really upset and angry because there were gross misreadings of blog posts, and even of the quotes that were given, that were offensive to me as a person and as a blogger.

    I do think, having been an academic and written an MA myself, that it would have been useful for her to contact us. This is, as she argued, a “dialogical” genre, and she is “the reader” in that equation. But, that’s for her supervisors to determine, I suppose.

    I also appreciate that she’s a young student, not a blogger, not a mom (to my knowledge), who wouldn’t know that certain things she said about “me” would offend me.

    The portrayal of me was difficult to stomach, so my judgment on the issue as a whole is biased. I’m emotionally involved. Some say she was required to ask us permission, and there are articles stating that (which I have been sent to me, but which I haven’t opened). But, it’s okay. It would certainly have been courteous of her to let us know.

    I have more to say, but will have to blog about it on my own blog! I’m happy to say I’m *responding* now, rather than *reacting*. I’m not responsible for the hashtag #creepythesis. Someone else invented it. I don’t feel creeped out as much as disappointed for various reasons, not least because – as indicated by the abstract – the thesis had a lot of potential.

  9. Thanks Haley-O — I’m looking forward to reading your take on it on your own blog. And I totally agree that if she had drawn different conclusions about me, or even if I had stumbled upon it without a careful and gentle warning from Chris like I did, I would have been “reacting” much more than “responding.”

  10. I really enjoyed your reflection on this thesis. I truly think it’s been blown out of proportion. Then again, I wasn’t included… 😉

  11. I think I ended up coming off ok. Though it is incredibly weird to have my entire blog archive distilled into little more than I’m a renter of possibly secular status who doesn’t have a credit card and with a husband whose job, take home pay and level of parenting participation are unknown. 🙂

    I find the whole thing a strange mixture of slightly unsettling and flattering. I’m one of those who felt that the analysis was really shallow, but whatever. Like I said on Dani’s blog: someone has to score low to establish the bell curve.

  12. Although my blog was not involved, this whole thing has made me remember to really look at what I blog. I’ll admit, I do think about potential readers of my books reading my posts and try not to be too controversial in what I say so as not to offend potential readers. But someone analyzing what I post in certain months (maybe a great month, maybe a sucky one) and then picking things out of those posts to piece together a picture of my career, husband, children, friends, and the rest of my life has never crossed my mind. Having said that, I think it was the assumptions in the thesis that bothered me. Yes, these bloggers put things out there when they posted about themselves so they’re fair game but taking pieces of those posts to assume how financially comfortable they may be, or how much their partners do to help out around the house, or why one person may be less overwhelmed than another, seems a leap. Even comments other people made on these blogs were scrutinized and assumptions and inferences made from them.

    I don’t know about the academic ethics of contacting the bloggers who were included in the thesis (which seems to mean she does not have a post-graduate degree) but it has been a lesson for me about blogging.

  13. I personally didn’t have a strong reaction to the thesis on anyone’s behalf, but I did learn that you like Dr. Demento and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which makes you intriguing. Nice to meet you!

  14. I found your reaction and perspective really interesting. In particular, when you say:
    “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” – Yes! It would have been so fascinating to read that kind of analysis. It almost makes me want to go back to school and write it myself. Almost.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: