Only a few days ago, a very popular food blogger published a beautifully written post about what it’s actually like for her as a person – a real, live human being with actual feelings that can actually be hurt - to live with the not insignificant amount of negative, mean and sometimes viciously cruel “feedback” she gets online from those who for whatever reason, have decided that they don’t like her or her blog.
The post in question was written by acclaimed author and foodie Shauna James Ahern at her Gluten Free Girl blog. I can’t tell you how many times various friends of mine have recommended in the past few years that I should be reading Gluten Free Girl because they love Shauna and the writing on her blog so much. But I have to sheepishly admit that because I find that reading blogs written by women who can actually cook leaves me feeling like a total failure as a wife and mother (something that’s obviously no fault of food bloggers but clearly a manifestation of my own raging guilt about how terrible a job I do in the whole “feeding the family” part of my role as wife/mama), I had never gotten around to reading Gluten Free Girl until this week, when about 10 different friends sent me this specific post Shauna wrote about how difficult it is for her to live with the level of vitriol that often comes with being such a high profile blogger.
Given that so many different people sent me the link to this specific blog post in the same 24 hour period and urged me to read it, I stuffed my guilt to the side momentarily and clicked on over. Apparently, I wasn’t alone, in only 4 days, this post Shauna has written about the horrible things people send to her and say about her online has already garned 600-plus comments, with more piling up by the day.
The reason friends knew I’d be interested in reading Shauna’s take on this topic is that I, too live with a certain level of hatin’ directed toward me online. Although there are some reasons that the periodic public ugliness to which I am generally accustomed has been quite bit worse over the past year, it’s not new to me. I’ve been dealing with this getting slagged online pretty much as long as I’ve been publishing under my own name in the interactive space, which in my case, is a long time. I started out in the late 90s writing for online magazines like Salon before many people were even aware that there WERE online magazines, and I’ve had my personal blog up and running for about 9 years now. (In blogger-age, that’s like, a googolplex of years.)
In all that time, I’ve racked up some seriously nasty public criticism directed my way, and Shauna is spot-on. It hurts. It’s sometimes exhausting. And mostly it leaves you wondering what kind of seriously bored and unhappy person takes the time out of his or her day to generate and publish or send stuff with no clear purpose except to wound and tear down someone they’ve never even met?
Shauna’s post is gorgeously crafted, and she really helps readers who maybe haven’t experienced this themselves understand what those anonymously nasty emails and tweets and comments can do to the psyche of the person on the receiving end. For those of us who HAVE been on the receiving end, she very accurately articulates the sometimes very, very painful experience of being mocked and criticized - whether that’s via a direct message in reader-sent email or in a more public interactive space where the whole world can read it, like on another blog or on Facebook.
Of course, nobody likes being the subject of bitter meanness. Not in private. Not to our faces. Not at work or at school. Not on billboards. Not on the sides of buses. Not in the local newspaper, and not in the very public realm of social media. No human being on the planet LIKES being mocked, criticized or belittled – wherever or whenever that happens.
But when it’s public criticism or mockery, that’s extra painful to read or hear. And we all kind of know that, whether or not we have ever actually experienced being the target public mockery ourselves. The understanding that being publicly criticized is no fun is obviously one of the primary reasons why most people consciously organize their lives in a way that makes it unlikely they will ever face or deal with unpleasant jabs being made about them in a public space. Very few people are willing to put up with the ugly and unpleasant parts of being public figures in a world with 24 hour cable news on the air and Twitter on the Web, and that’s certainly one of the biggest reasons why most people do not want or choose to work or live in the public eye – whether that’s as a politician, a reality TV star, a politician-slash-reality TV star, an actor, a bylined columnist with the New York Times - or….dare I say it….as a blogger.
(I want to pause a moment here in what I’m writing to let y’all know that I am taking deep breaths as I gingerly move into what I know are veeeeery sensitive waters.)
But here’s the thing: those of us who blog publicly, under our own names, using our own photos of our own families are making a choice to do that. We have chosen to expose ourselves to the strong possibility that at some point, in some format, we will become the targets of public criticism, possibly even very nasty, painful-to-read public criticism. And as much as I am disgusted by the ways that mostly anonymous public criticism takes shape in today’s digital landscape (more about that in a moment), I think that those of us who blog publicly – and particularly those of us who make some or all of our living via our work through our personal blogs – need to take some conscious ownership of the choices we’ve made – for ourselves and yes, for our children.
Let me be VERY, VERY CLEAR before I go any further that I am not specifically or even generally referring to Gluten Free Girl’s choices for herself or her family (which are, of course, quite similar to my own choices to myself and my family with regard to blogging.) Nor am I referring specifically to any other particular blogger and the way she does or does not do her thing. Instead I am simply using Shauna Ahern’s very powerful blog post this week – one that clearly really touched a lot of people as evidenced by the huge number of comments – as a jumping off point to dig into a topic that I’ve been meaning to write about for quite some time.
While there still may be many American who have never read a blog, who truly have no idea who Ree Drummond is, and who could care less what “mommybloggers” do on the internet, the fact is that there are also a whole lotta people who DO know and care. And that means that at this point, personal bloggers - particularly those who have attracted any kind of readership - are now a type of celebrity in the classic sense of the word. And I say “a type” because an individual’s status as a celebrity can exist only within a specific audience, but that doesn’t make her celebrity any less real. For example, I wouldn’t know any of these guys if one of them came up to me and whacked me over the head with his hockey stick, but to the large number of rabid ice hockey fans in North America, Zach Parise is clearly just as much of a celebrity as Heather Armstrong is to the thousands of women who attend BlogHer every year.
And you know what? Today, more than ever before, celebrities – people who live and work in the public sphere - are gonna get garbage slung their way. We know that. We all know that. We see it with actresses and NFL stars and politicians – even local politicians – and really, with anyone who is in the public eye by choice and/or by vocation. But for some reason, maybe because our type of online-based celebrity really is so new, we personal bloggers don’t seem to have really owned this yet…this reality that if we decide to put our lives and words and names and voices and photos on a now quite popular type of media platform, we have to just expect the same kind of negatives that other types of celebrities have long known to come with the territory.
Now don’t get me wrong. I think that people who say nasty, vicious things about other people online are Not Nice, and I have a lot of specific criticism for the way those who own and operate the media today – mainstream, independent, social, on-air and online - are increasingly willing allow their own media outlets to become cesspools of garbage and hate, using some misguided “free speech” rationale, when in fact these media brands are just happy to monetize the page views that every comment brings, no matter how vile that comment is. I have actually come full circle on the issue of anonymous online commenting in the past 2 years, as I’ve seen up close and all too personally what a negative impact it has on journalism, on truth, on civil society, and on real people who are its targets. I now strongly support the right and the responsibility of those who own, operate and profit from all the various “screens” available as media platforms today (including personal bloggers) to create accountability and guidelines around any sort of discussion forum to which they give voice. As I said in a recent Momcrunch post, our media platforms belong to us, and we have NO obligation to publish nasty, ugly, cruel, or harassing feedback from our readers in the form of comments. Delete. Delete. Delete.
But while I fully recognize that the anonymity and ease of expression offered by the internet has created a whole new level of cruelty and meanness (both quality and quantity) in the criticism directed toward ALL kinds of public figures, there is absolutely nothing new about the reality that those of us who choose to place ourselves in the public eye, and especially those who actively cultivate a certain level of celebrity, whatever our motivation for doing so, shouldn’t be surprised by the fact that with the good comes the bad. For bloggers who have become well known and well read, the good may come in the form of income paid for ads on the blog, brand-compensated sponsored posts, review products we end up keeping, or expenses-paid travel. The good for bloggers can also come in a very powerful outpouring of love and support from readers and commenters if, say, one of our children falls ill or our husband loses his job. But there is a flip side to having cultivated an audience for our blogs that drives enough page views to attract advertisers, or that has allowed our readers to become so attached to our families that they would care enough to publicly root for us when things go wrong. And that flip side can be very, very unsettling, unpleasant and in some cases, downright disturbing.
Am I saying that bloggers “ask for it” when they receive horrible emails from readers, or when someone starts a Twitter hashtag such as “bloggerXsux” and then uses it to drive a public dialogue around how ugly your child is? No. I am not. Nor am I excusing those who are unkind and heartless and bored enough to engage in that kind of behavior directed at any public figure or celebrity, whether their target is super-famous or only a little bit famous, or whether she happens to be a blogger or an actor or an MSNBC pundit. I’ve got absolutely nothing good to say about those who publish comments and tweets and Facebook status updates and blog posts of their own that are intended to wound, tear down or even destroy whatever public figure they happen to be targeting via their piggy little eyes that particular week.
But what I am saying is that we personal bloggers who put ourselves out there have to stop acting surprised by this stuff. There’s nothing remarkable about the garbage that gets directed our way once our blogs have an actual readership. Our particular niche of celebridom – minor though it may be - is not unique in what it attracts – not in quality or in quantity. Other public figures have been dealing with this long before Al Gore invented the internet so that we could start our blogs and sell ads on them. (I KID PEOPLE! I KID!!!)
Basically, my argument is that there’s nothing new under the sun when it comes to public figures and public criticism, even when the public figures are a relatively new breed, like personal bloggers. Instead of continuing to be surprised and hurt by the inevitable haters that come with the readers, maybe its time for us bloggers to own the choice we’ve made to pursue a certain level of celebrity, with all that it entails. I think that bloggers who define success as having a large and loyal audience, and who actively work to create that defined success need to be realistic when doing our own cost-benefit analyses regarding the bad stuff that WILL come along with whatever good offered by that same success.
That doesn’t mean we necessarily just passively accept being harassed or maligned or publicly criticized or whatever. For starters, when it comes to our own blogs as media platforms, we get to control the rules. And when it comes to other media platforms – the ones over which we have no control of the rules – we always have the opportunity to get in that dialogue with the haters and stand up for ourselves or push back. Sometimes I think that’s entirely appropriate, and I’ve done it. But not too often, and frankly, less and less over time do I bother.
I think that its time that we bloggers take a page out of the playbook developed by public figures within more long-established categories, like actors and politicians, athletes and even popular authors. None of these types of celebs seems particularly surprised by the fact that haters gonna hate. It’s part of the territory. They get that and they don’t really discuss it publicly that often. It’s kind of a given.
And I also think that other types of public figures – other than bloggers – seem to better understand that even within the reality that they are famous to greater or lesser degree, they can then choose their own level of exposure. For example, if the mayor of your hometown doesn’t want a photograph of her sunbathing nude to end up in the local newspaper, she knows better than to sunbathe nude in the backyard of her suburban home…or on the lawn of the courthouse. And in an example far more relevant to what we do as bloggers, there are some celebrities who actively bring their children into their public “brand,” allowing them to be photographed or interviewed, while other public figures make the choice to specifically shield their offspring from the exposure generated by their own celebrity status (contrast the way Amy Carter was in the public eye as First Daughter as opposed to the way Chelsea Clinton was carefully shielded during her time in the White House). Neither choice is necessarily right or wrong, but it is a CHOICE, not an accident.
The fact that at least some personal bloggers are now actual public figures – celebrities, if you will – with all the good and bad that the role entails is still SUCH a new concept that I think that many of us are struggling to truly accept the idea, and to authentically own all that goes along with it. But while some blogging pioneers, like Heather Armstrong did kind of blaze this path first, becoming famous along the way more by accident rather than by design, those of us who have come after can’t keep acting as if we don’t understand what we’re choosing when we tread the same path. There’s nothing accidental about most bloggers’ success any longer.
In my humble opinion, the time has come for those of us who do this blogging gig to be intellectually honest with ourselves – personally, and as a community – about these admittedly sensitive issues. The simple fact is that if we “appear” on our blogs as ourselves – as real people – then if our blog achieves any ,measure of success whatsoever, it’s these real people – us -who WILL attract some unpleasant and even crazy feedback and criticism from the public. And as much as I know I am going to get my ass kicked for saying this next thing, I’m going to do it anyway; we also have to own up in an authentic, no-excuses way to the truth that if we sell advertising on a blog that draws even part of its audience appeal (AKA: pageviews) from the cute photos of or funny stories about our kids that we publish there, we are creating a situation where some of the inevitable negativity that’s directed at public figures will come in the form of mean people saying mean things about our children. That doesn’t make it RIGHT that some pathetic loser might Tweet about our child’s haircut or weight, but the fact that it shouldn’t happen doesn’t mean it won’t.
As I said, I’ve intended to write about this topic for quite a while now, but just hadn’t found time. Consider this my first pass at it. Given the inevitable sensitivity of what I am digging into here, I am not entirely sure that I have gotten the tone and nuance of what I am trying to say exactly right. As the conversation around this blog post evolves, I am likely to offer clarifications and further explanation, especially if it turns out I haven’t quite gotten my points across in the way I intended. I may end up writing a second blog post. But I want to wrap up by reiterating that although I did use the lovely and important post written by Shauna Ahern this week as my jumping off spot for this topic, nothing I’ve written is about her or her blog.
The truth is…I mean, well, if anyone wants to know which blogger I was really thinking about as I’ve argued ehere that we need to be more intellectually honest in owning our choices, you can find that particular blogger – the woman who is the true focus of my judgy judgment and angsty deliberation RIGHT OVER HERE. (And while you’re there, don’t fail to check out how cute her kids are. Especially that baby. DANG that’s a cute baby…)
This is Katie, donning her flameproof suit before signing over and out on this one….
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