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July 31, 2005

Notes and Comment on BlogHer '05

"A blog, you see, is a little First Amendment machine." The people at the BlogHer conference saw that. Many of them saw it better than I did. For in addition to its glories they spoke of the terrors of free speech, which seems to me a more balanced picture.

Santa Clara, CA. I am not a photographer, and did not bring a camera. But I cannot recall wanting to be a photographer more than I did when I first walked into the Andiamo Cafe Friday night and “saw” BlogHer ‘05. It was just so interesting to look at. Maybe twenty rows of long picnic-style tables, all filled with women writers who, sharing various Net connections, were seeking that human connection, and starting to find it— and naturally to confer. (Pic.)

According to Lisa Stone, whose idea got things rolling, the point of the BlogHer Conference ‘05 was to get beyond asking: “where are the women bloggers?” One looked around the Andiamo. Here were the women bloggers. Everyone was taking pictures because that is part of what people do at blogging conferences. I had no camera. So I took these notes instead.

1. Amy Gahran wrote before : “I firmly believe that the point of weblogging is not merely to have your own blog, but to participate more fully in the public conversation.” Right, I believe that too. Or I thought I did.

Some of the women bloggers had a different point: blogging was fuller participation in a private conversation already being shared across social space. Thus: “Moms in the neighborhood were talking about these things, so I put them in my blog.” Or: “I started this as news for my extended family and it grew from there.”

The desire to make public a conversation already going on among people you know is not the same thing as people’s desire to join the public conversation they know is out there. Both types crowded the rooms at BlogHer, sometimes within the same woman. (Also see Gahran’s follow-up post.)

2. Lots of free-floating hostility toward the Technorati Top 100 in the opening session on Saturday (“Play by today’s rules, or change the game?”) but this was indistinguishable from the free-floating hostility toward those—including one’s self—who would take the Technorati 100 seriously enough to discuss it in plenary session at a conference like this!

And so the debate about “playing the game” (with men) sustained itself in part by repeatedly disdaining itself, rather like people do when they speak about the bloggers vs. journalists debate by first apologizing for it: I don’t want to get into the whole “are bloggers journalists?” thing, they’ll say, but… And of course they quickly get into it. Why this happens I am not sure, but it has something to do with a conversation being both stuck and unavoidable.

3. Several participants made a sensible-sounding suggestion. There’s nothing wrong with a list of top blogs, they said, but they would be more useful if drawn from networks of affiliated or “same style” bloggers. Rather than the Top 100 blogs in the whole world, which is silly and abstract, the top bloggers in an online world meaningfully divided.

For example: The top mommy bloggers, as they call themselves and are called by others. Marc Canter told the crowd: Make a BlogHer Top 100, and tell the men to kiss off. Still, it wasn’t clear to me why the same free-floating hostility wouldn’t just float over to the moms who topped that list, or the women on the BlogHer 100.

But there’s an insight in the suggestion to diversify the lists. It’s the same insight that gave rise to the blog roll as a feature of the weblog form. A weblog typically makes sense within a conversational “field” made up of other weblogs, to which it is related. We tend to look at the blog and ask how it works as free-standing page, but we should really look at the blog and the world it habitually links to because most of the time that package is what actually “works.” The individual weblog is to some degree an illusion. There is no free-standing page.

4. “Citizen journalism is more fun to do than to discuss,” writes Adina Levin after one of the sessions I attended. I have to agree. It was surprising how “in the way” the term citizen journalism was in almost every discussion of it. People seemed more engaged in their various problems with the language (“the tired old wordgames,” Levin called them) than in the activity the words were supposed to designate.

Of course if there is anyone to blame for this, it’s people like myself who circulate such terms or on occasion even think them up.

5. At the session on flaming and anger online, at the Blogging 101 workshop, at the discussion about identity blogging, and here and there in almost every other session I heard women talking about the personal attacks they had either expected or received. They discussed stalking and whether blogging led to it. They talked about losing their jobs if they said the wrong thing on their blog. They spoke about their children and whether kids were put in danger when mom blogs. (See this.) They asked about publishing your address and what could happen if you did. They spoke about their dread when an anonymous blog was traced to them. They said they were filled with anxiety that someone they knew was going to read their blog.

It seemed to me (and I told the conference this part) that these were reflections on a kind of terror that is by now deeply associated with the Internet, especially the strangers who are on it. At a conference of bloggers that was 80 percent men and 20 percent women (the usual ratio) this would barely be heard. I don’t recall many expressions of dread from bloggers at the three BloggersCons I attended.

Here it was routine, which is not to say bloghercon was dominated by expressions of terror (because it wasn’t, at all…) but rather in a conference that is 80 percent women—and where 100 percent of the tone was set by women—there were no disincentives to speaking about raw fears connected intimately to the act of blogging. (See Halley Suitt on the differences.)

6. But of course these same people, possessed of Net fears, were also possessed of blogging, despite whatever alarms they might have sounded in questions and comments. They weren’t being stopped but they were being open about being scared. What was most impressive to me was the way the speakers and presenters dealt with fears from the floor, which they were often asked to do.

Simple example from the “How to Get Naked” session: If you tell the people you’re afraid might read your blog what you really think, then you don’t care if they read it. This is extremely practical advice. If you don’t want it on the front page of the New York Times, don’t publish it in your weblog.

Koan Bremner: If you out yourself, no one can out you. (Practical, also powerful.) Heather Armstrong: “I have a husband who is 6-3, and he is very protective of me.” (And so even though it’s possible some deranged troll will come after me, I am not really worried about it, and will keep writing in this personal way of mine.)

7. We live more and more in a world where terror is used against us, and we’re supposed to be fighting a war against it. We’re told that war has many fronts; and one of the fronts is what we permit to terrorize us, which is to some degree within our control.

I think the happiest conference goers at BlogHer were probably the newbies, people who want to start blogging or just did. They got a lot of good information and advice. Some of the best information was actually dispensed in response to the fears provoked by blogging, which shouldn’t be avoided, the sages said, but examined, turned around, defused, and creatively shrunk.

In Bloggers vs. Journalists is Over (Jan. 15) I wrote: “A blog, you see, is a little First Amendment machine.” The people at the BlogHer conference did see that. Many of them saw it better than I did. For in addition to its glories they spoke of the terrors of truly free speech that actually reaches people. This seems to me a more balanced picture.

By the way, it’s one of the facts about journalists the public is least likely to know. What every reporter who has come up through the ranks remembers about starting out is the dread: the fear of being wrong, of screwing up a story big time, of being responsible for a falsehood that gets printed in the newspaper or aired.

That fear is actually an awareness of the power of the press to damage the truth. In that sense it is a healthy thing and to completely unlearn it is not at all wise.

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links…

Rebecca Blood comments:

Jay can’t possibly understand the ‘safety’ messages women are inundated with from the time they are born. Don’t go out after dark by yourself. Don’t walk in dangerous parts of town. Don’t accept rides from strangers. I don’t hear these women expressing a fear of the Internet — in these issues I hear a very familiar fear of the world.

In my pre-conference post, I said that hers would be one of the voices I most missed at BlogHer.

Shelley Powers at Burningbird responds to this post, and links to many other reflections on BlogHer, arguing with some: “I don’t think the conference focused unduly on ‘terror’ or fears of this or that exposure.”

I think that Jay’s journalism background played a major part in how he framed the discussion and he naturally did as a journalist would: he opted for the catchy phrase. Let’s face it, “terror” is a grabber. This isn’t, necessarily, to imply a criticism of what Jay wrote, or the terminology he used.

Burningbird also has an illuminating reply (same post) to Halley Suitt’s: He-conferences and She-conferences. Knowing Halley, I think she’ll answer.

I agree: the conference did not focus unduly on terror. I said it frequently went there, and not just in one session, either. In fact it did. But as I wrote, this is “not to say bloghercon was dominated by expressions of terror (because it wasn’t, at all.)”

Jory Des Jardins took a trans-Atlantic flight home after BlogHer, and on the plane she wrote this jam-packed post about how it all went down. A must if you were there. If you weren’t, I recommend it, and her. She was one of the triumphant co-organizers of the event. And thanks for the kind words, JDS.

Christopher Carfi was one of the cooler participants in BlogHer. I should have cornered him for a discussion. He does an excellent job in BlogHer: Stretching Outside The Comfort Zone.

Equally fine—a work of writing, linking and thinking—is Jarah Euston’s post at Fresno Famous, Hot chicks who code: BlogHer 2005. She interprets a national event for local users with great skill.

I admire the job Evelyn Rodriguez did in her reflections: All the Maps Change When…

“Hot chicks who code” was a phrase introduced to BlogHer by Anina, “a fashion model based in Paris and known by her first name only…” (according to cell phones etc., which says: “Blog your way to the top - mobile behaviour from a geeky supermodel.”) (A pitch, in other words.) She also said fashion models rarely speak out on anything, which I’m sure is true. “It’s great to be among so many hot chicks who know code,” she told the crowd. Here she is with conference heroine Lisa Stone, photo by JD Lasica. Anina is on the left.

Lisa Williams, a PressThink regular and BlogHer presenter, has some similar reflections: Fear and Blogging in San Jose:

The “fear talk” I hear from people when I tell them that I blog— well, I realized, I do have an idea about where I think that comes from. It comes from other people’s well meaning and unconscious enforcing of social norms.

Also see, on the same theme, Arieanna at Blogaholics, who says my description of Net fears at BlogHer is “fairly accurate.” The ones she noticed: “fear of security, personal violation, flames, stalkers, of letting go of inhibitions, of voice.”

Roxanne Cooper at Rox Populi: “To me, it seemed there was an inordinate amount of whining about flamers, trolls, etc. at Blogher. And I think this is why the fellers believe the girls aren’t up for the ‘food fight inherent in blogging.’”

Ronni Bennett of As Time Goes By (which has the best logo and header of any blog I have seen): “In no way did I have any sense that fear, let alone terror, was as big a concern as Jay indicates, aside from practicalities… I didn’t feel the women at Blogher were overly concerned about it.”

Well, I didn’t say overly concerned, Ronni. Notably concerned: that was my observation. In my pre-conference post, PressThink, Live from the BlogHer Conference, I told my readers I would be especially interested in comparing BlogHer to the three Bloggercons (80 percent men) that I attended. At the three Bloggercons these expressions of Net terror were extremely rare. Thus: “notably concerned.” I also think it’s rational to express such fears, and irrational to completely avoid them— “not at all wise.”

For observations that give a sense of being at the conference, see Beth’s Blog.

Adina Levin in comments:

Upon reflection, it’s the “definition wars” that are tired and stuck. “Are bloggers journalists?” “Should we call it ‘citizen journalism’ or something else?” “Should bloggers who report be “credentialed.” These conversations are about trying to constrain a new genre to fit the constraints of an older genre, and trying to preserve a cartel against new entrants.

Dave Winer links to this post and comments: “Interesting that I find it easier to read and point to a man’s account of the conference…”

Here’s a page of links for who blogged each session, if you’re interested. (by Antonella Pavese.) Also see this post at the BlogHer site for where conference posts are being indexed.

Renee Blodgett took down part of what I said at the closing session:

“My second discovery was — and I didn’t expect this part — terror. Lots of people brought up the terror of the Internet and what to do about it. People attack me, what if I have a stalker, how do I protect my kids, my family, how do I not get fired. This is an important consideration. We live in a world of terror. Instead of accepting it, the people at this conference are bringing the terror on. There are ways to defeat that. There are ways to blog where you can’t be attacked anymore. There’s something important about going out and meeting this terror….”

According to this report from conference co-honcho Elisa Camahort, there were some who felt my comments patronizing or clueless or both. (She thinks I was being genuine.) See: My personal view on Jay Rosen’s “terror” comment: “I could tell the room was taken aback… Most of us were feeling so uplifted, empowered and energized by the day that we couldn’t imagine what he meant.”

But then see the comments, where there is a change in tone. Nancy White: “I realized I didn’t ‘get’ Jay’s comment on the first go round. When I read his Sunday blog post, I did. And BIG time. What I got was that we made it DISCUSSABLE…

For a different view, see Tish G on my improper use of the T word.

Nancy took down my other observation at the closing plenary. She has me saying:

I wrote on my blog, a weblog is a First Amendment Machine. After hanging out with you I understand that a lot more. It is an extension of free speech and press to the people. Not a press on their behalf… If blogging is a practice of freedom, it is completely inadequate unless it is a whole practice and to be that it must have women.

Kevin Drum, the Washington Monthly’s Political Animal, has published some of his observations from the conference. I excerpt two from a substantial post:

If your goal is to influence public discourse, then links and traffic matter whether you like it or not — and I think it’s important not to kid ourselves about this, especially among people who are having trouble making their voices heard…

For a group of people whose contempt for mainstream journalism is so furious you’d think they’d all been abused as children by Dan Rather, bloggers sure do spend a lot of time kvetching about not being considered journalists. Here’s a hint, though: if you’ve never picked up the telephone to call some newsworthy figure and ask a question, you’re probably not a journalist. Just a thought.

Read Drum. He gets a lot of comments, so if you are interested check back with his post. I added one at Drum’s place. Excerpt: “To be crude for a moment, I felt they should have gone ahead with a heavyweight showdown between very accomplished women bloggers, with traffic, who are in the political blogging game— two from the left, two from the right.”

Roxanne Cooper in comments: “I think it would have been great if some very accomplished, heavy-weight media critics with a sizeable readership covered Blogher. My match-ups: David Carr and Jack Schaefer.”

Courtney Lowery of New West Network, who moderated the politics panel (missed it while at something else.) Consider the Discussion Opened.

See Lauren Gelman’s reflections on the confounding language of citizen journalism at BlogHer: “I think what many bloggers who call themselves citizen journalists are doing is more akin to the role of ‘sources’…” She says: “I’d rather be a source.” Gelman directs Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society.

Mary-Lynn Bragg at SFist has a comprehensive overview of her day at BlogHer, with photos.

Robert Scoble of the well-read Scobleizer:

You know I was a skeptic about this conference when I first heard about it. But Lisa Stone, one of the organizers, won me over. I’m really bummed I wasn’t able to be there. But, actually, it’s almost better than I’m not. As I read the blogs here I realize I’m part of the problem and need to just sit back, read, and hear what’s being discussed there.

It’s time to learn, not time to participate…

Liza Sabater in comments: “It is not fear of being harmed but the fear of doing something that you were never trained to do before.”

Hey, PressThink made the list of “10 blogs I’d choose if forced to read only 10,” put together by the Houston Chronicle’s tech columnist and blogger Dwight Silverman. Thanks, Dwight. I admire his work, especially this coverage.

It’s an honor to have been included in a similar Top Ten from John Robinson, the blogger and editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, NC.

Given the attention it got at this conference (see Halley’s Comment) and what it has come to stand for, the Technorati Top 100 is a sloppy product. The list seems like an after-thought. I doubt it has an owner within the company tending to it. For example, while the list says it is organized by number of inbound links, it actually counts the number of sites, not links. It includes in the Top 100 meaningless pages (this Corante page is not a blog, but a summary of what’s on other blogs) and sites that are not blogs and have nothing to do with blogging.

Tag: . Not that Technorati tags actually work. For me they neither work (my tagged posts do not show up) nor make much sense when explained to non-techies. (Yes, I’ve pinged Technorati.) But this is par for the course in the tech industry, which—in general—has never cared about non-techie users (bad enough) and doesn’t know that it doesn’t care (worse.)

Posted by Jay Rosen at July 31, 2005 1:42 AM