In the mid aughts, I traveled to China to teach for a year, and started a blog to share and record my experiences with family and friends back in the States. Turned out that evangelical Christians ran the school that recruited me, and most of my colleagues had no experience teaching, they had come to China to proselytize. Feeling estranged not just from my home but from the other expats around me, my blog became a record less of my travels, and more of my travails as a liberal atheist and passionate urbanite living in a tight-nit, conservative, suburban religious community. Only a few fellow teachers knew about my blog, and I felt this sense of authority in the online space that I lacked in real-life. I vented. I kvetched. I turned my rancor into humorous anecdotes.
Humorous to me, at least. When the blog was discovered by my students, and then shared around the school community, not many people found it funny.
There’s a heady sense of power to the anonymity of the Internet. With a few keystrokes we can create a fake profile, start a blog, and share our deepest secrets or most hateful thoughts. But to what end? What happens when the glee of our one-sided storytelling and the pleasure of enacting a public revenge carries us away, twisting our online lives into a parody of reality rather than a representation of it?
Meredith O’Brien, a Boston area writer who blogs about pop culture, politics, and parenting, penned a novel called Mortified: A Novel about Oversharing (Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing) on this very subject. Set a few years back, at the start of the blogging revolution, the novel follows Maggie Kelley, a suburban mom who, aside from a few nights a month hawking scrap-booking materials, stays at-home with her kids while her husband works. When the little ones go off to school, she logs on to pen vitriolic, tell-all, and very funny stories on her blog, “Maggie Has Had It.”
Maggie writes about sex (or the lack of it), her children’s awful behavior, and her failings as a mom who might just prefer to be back in the office than at home doing chores. Her husband Michael is “The Wanna-Be King,” or “Sweet-Lips,” depending on how attentive he’s been to Maggie’s sexual needs. The kids are “Thing I” and “Thing II.” But it’s Maggie’s mother-in-law — her nemesis, disapproving of Maggie’s parenting, housekeeping, language, just about everything, really — who receives the harshest treatment, at one point getting the nickname “Benita,” after Benito Mussolini.
The novel largely alternates between what happens to Maggie and how she describes it on her blog, letting the reader decide how fair Maggie’s posts are to the other characters. Occasionally, the point-of-view dips into her husband’s head, and even the dreaded mother-in-law’s perspective, and time rewinds to visit past traumas in the character’s lives, shedding better light on their current neuroses and unhappinesses. With this, O’Brien expertly demonstrates what a novel does so much better than a blog — it can include a multitude of perspectives, and spin around an event from a variety of view-points.
We become informed readers of Maggie’s blog, aware of her distortions and the petty grievances she addresses in her wickedly funny anecdotes. And we become implicated in a way too, because don’t we want her to keep ranting and raving? As Maggie herself puts it, talking to a reporter about her online life, “Most of the stuff in your paper is bad news, isn’t it? Scandals and crimes and stuff that’ll sell more papers and ads? Most of the entries in my blog are me working out my problems and that’s more interesting, at least to me, than a bunch of fake Hallmark-y stuff about how to make things perfect, or how they supposedly are perfect.”
This is a novel about over-sharing, and under-sharing too, as Maggie works through her issues in writing but then doesn’t do much to directly address them in real-life. Until, of course, her anonymity breaks down, her blog is found out, and she’s forced to deal with the consequences of what she’s written.
This is interesting, thoughtful material, especially — but not only— for bloggers. Because who now-a-days doesn’t have some kind of online life that involves sharing events, or pictures, or even just links? We all represent ourselves in the public sphere, and it’s important to think how we’re doing that, not just for ourselves, but also because it affects the people we’re talking to and about.
Since that experience in China, my rule of thumb has been to only say things online that I would be comfortable saying in real life, whether that be on Facebook or Twitter, when making a comment on an article, or writing here on Babble. There are people out there behind the pixels. Your friends on Facebook or followers on Twitter aren’t just numbers. And one day, my son will be old enough to read these posts. Meredith O’Brien’s Mortified is a timely exploration of what it means to be both a real person and an online presence, and it’s a very funny story to boot.