This needs a lot more analysis, I realize. It was my first major graduate level paper and it’s something I’ll be working on in my next semester, as well, so it’s still a work in progress.
The Blogosphere: The Rhetorics of a Womanâ€™s Role in Virtual Communities
We are well into the new millennia and the age-old saga continues: the battle of the sexes is alive and well in cyberspace. That vast virtual frontier that was heralded as free and open and available to anyone who wanted to have a space in it is not so free and open, at least not linguistically. Writers on the internet, specifically in weblogs (blogs), must conform to a homogenous linguistic style in order to be accepted and even ranked as a â€œtop blogï¿½?. As Steven Levy, Newsweek technology columnist writes, â€œThese self-generated personal Web sites are supposed to be the ultimate grass-roots phenomenon.ï¿½? (Levy) However, womenâ€™s blogs are rarely heralded as top ranked or important in the male-dominated blogging hierarchies. If they are considered â€œgood reads,ï¿½? they are typically about politics, dating, or sex, a â€œSex in the Cityï¿½? meets â€œThe West Wingï¿½? type of discourse. Write about the things that men want to read about and youâ€™re in. Write about the things that interest other women or are the typical â€œprivate sphereï¿½? issues, and youâ€™re likely to have your blog read by your family and friends â€“ and intermittently, at that. In fact, Amanda Marcotte, a blogger, speaks of this issue in Stephanie Schorowâ€™s article, â€œBroads on Blogs.ï¿½? â€œWomen often run up against the attitude, Marcotte remarks, that “guys make the rules and they get to decide the impact of a woman’s issue. Women, for obvious reasons, are going to write about women’s issues more.” (Schorow)
More importantly, maybe, should be the question, who doesnâ€™t blog? According to Herring, et. al.,
â€œIn the five years since the introduction of the first free web-based blogging tools (Pitas and Blogger; Blood, 2002b), the number of people creating and maintaining blogs has grown exponentially, from fewer than 100 to over four million (Henning, 2003). Anecdotal accounts also suggest that they are diverse: the mainstream media have reported on popular blogs authored by individuals as varied as university adjuncts, dark horse candidates for political office, and a gay Iraqi dissident (McCarthy, 2003). As yet, however, there has been little empirical examination of the claim that blogs are â€œdemocratic,ï¿½? or that blog authors represent diverse demographic groups.ï¿½?
Herring, et. al. make the argument that this free-range frontier, the virtual wild west, has its Wild Bill Hickocks and Buffalo Bill Codys. There are the famous and the infamous in blogging and, by and large, like their 1800s Wild West counterparts, they are men. Herring, et. al, continue,
â€œAn initial consideration of the demographics of blog authors reveals an apparent paradox. Quantitative studies report as many (or more, depending on what one counts as a blog) female as male blog authors, and as many (or more) young people as adults (Henning, 2003; Orlowski, 2003), suggesting a diverse population of bloggers as regards gender and age representation. At the same time, as will be shown, contemporary discourses about weblogs, such as those propagated through the mainstream media, in scholarly communication, and in weblogs themselves, tend to disproportionately feature adult, male bloggers.ï¿½?
The real dissonance, therefore, is between the mainstream media and the actual numbers â€“ we think. There is no conclusive evidence on who makes up the demographics of the blogging world nor, I suspect, will there ever be. Much of blogging is done anonymously. Some bloggers pride themselves in crossing gender lines or in portraying themselves as gender-neutral. It is only with those self-reporting bloggers do we have some idea about who is actually blogging.
That being said, there is a general media bias toward a certain demographic of the blogging world. â€œMedia reportage about weblogs, even when ostensibly concerned with the phenomenon of blogging in general, tends to focus on adult male weblog authors.ï¿½? (Herring, et. al.)
The Women of Blogging
There are millions of blogs on the internet. Women, men, and children have all gotten into the habit of logging in daily to write about their topic du jour. On the Technorati Top 100 blogs (http://technorati.com/pop/blogs/), the women of blogging have very homogenous voices: political. Save one. Heather B. Hamilton Armstrong, also known to the world of blogging as â€œDooceï¿½? is a stay-at-home-mom (SAHM). However, Heather staked her claim to fame by being fired from her position as a web designer for blogging about her work. In 2002, Heatherâ€™s coworkers and supervisors found extremely derogatory statements made about them on her blog. On January 17, 2002, Heather writes,
â€œIgnore the inane string of email from the Vice President of Spin to the Vice President of Enabling His Fist Up Your Ass, ccâ€™d to everyone in the company because, really, whatâ€™s a cock fight without an audience? Instant message the only other cool person in the office - the only other person whoâ€™s not wearing a belt that matches his shoes – to tell him that Her Wretchedness is once again ordering Prada shoes online and talking about it out loud.ï¿½?
This entry is a rather mild one in comparison to many of her entries. Heather continues her attacks on March 6, 2002,
â€œWhen she talks with her hands she looks like sheâ€™s molesting the air around her, sticking her fingers in holes and around forbidden curves. Often the air around her is the air around me, and my air doesnâ€™t appreciate it. Sheâ€™ll walk from her desk to mine, stand behind my chair and say, â€œI just thought of something.ï¿½? She always says this and wants me to believe that she has really just thought of something.ï¿½?
Heather writes about her work situation from June 2001 until February of 2002 when she writes, â€œI lost my job today. My direct boss and the human resources representative pulled me into one of three relatively tiny conference rooms and informed me that The Company no longer had any use for me. Essentially, they explained, they didnâ€™t like what I had expressed on my website. I got fired because of dooce.com.ï¿½? (Armstrong) The firing doesnâ€™t stop her from writing negative comments about her former co-workers and supervisors. In fact, she continues, to this day, to write an anniversary entry about the day she got fired. One of the reasons Heather is so popular (number nine on Technoratiâ€™s top 100 list), is because she was contacted by the mainstream media regarding her situation. She was well connected throughout the Los Angeles area and made her connections work for her. She was written up in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and linked by several prominent Los Angeles community websites. Reading Heatherâ€™s blog today is similar to reading Womanâ€™s Day or Parenting but with more slang and profanity. Heather has a monthly entry that she writes for her daughter, chronicling the things that have changed in the last month. In November, she writes,
â€œDear Leta, Today you turn 21 months old. To celebrate we filled a shot glass with apple juice and let you slam it back. Not really, but what I would give to be in the room when my mother reads that. Itâ€™s my way of getting back at her for teaching you how to fold your arms and be reverent while someone is praying.ï¿½?
Heather is still irreverent and sassy. She may write about messy diapers and cleaning up dog vomit and complain about her family members but she does so in a way that amuses her readers.
The other top women of blogging write specifically about the politics of the United States. The Huffington Post (#5), is Arianna Huffingtonâ€™s entry into the blog world. She has guest writers as well as Associated Press newsfeeds. Huffington, who has been producing this blog since May 9, 2005 (yes, itâ€™s that new!), writes on various topics such as â€œKatrina Relief: It’s Iraq DÃ©jÃ vu All Over Again,ï¿½? â€œBush’s New Plan for Victory: Stop Saying ‘Insurgents’,ï¿½? and â€œThe Liberal Love Boat.ï¿½? For Huffington, who writes nearly every day and often more than once a day, everyone is fair game. In writing about Bob Woodwardâ€™s lack of exposÃ©s on the Bush administration, she says, â€œSome would say it’s because he’s carrying water for the Bushies. I disagree. I think it’s because he’s the dumb blonde of American journalism, so awed by his proximity to power that he buys whatever he’s being sold.ï¿½? (Huffington, November 28, 2005) Huffington calls Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to the mat after his proposition defeat by stating, â€œAnd it struck me, isnâ€™t this exactly the way an abuser operates? Bully, browbeat, name-call — to say nothing of spend millions on attack ads — and then desperately try to kiss and make up.ï¿½? (Huffington, November 9, 2005)
Huffington is witty and intelligent. She is often the requested pundit when hosts like Bill Maher want someone who is not afraid to speak her mind, no matter who is on the other end. However, I canâ€™t help but notice that she is also playing the political game in quite the same way men do: she calls names, she attacks like a pit bull, and she doesnâ€™t let up. She is playing politics according to the language that has been established by her male counterparts.
Rounding out the women of the Top 10 at Technorati is Michelle Malkin. Malkin, a career news journalist and current commentator for Fox News, writes conservative-centered entries. Malkin writes about Janeane Garofalo, â€œJaneane Garofalo, left-wing actress-turned-Air America radio host, is a miserable woman. Last week before the holidays, she turned up on cable TV. No, not to count her blessings but to rant against conservative journalist Bob Novak, author Ann Coulter, and the Fox News Channel. She didn’t have anything better to do for Thanksgiving?ï¿½? (Malkin, November 30, 2005)
Malkin doesnâ€™t actually write a whole lot in her blog. She allows others to do the research for her and then posts their findings. She will write a short, attacking blurb, â€œLots of blog buzz over MoveOn.org’s latest, noxious anti-war propagandaï¿½? and then follows it up with commentary from another site, â€œBest of the Web reported yesterday on a sharp-eyed Army captain’s reaction to that scene in MoveOn’s fund-raising ploy.ï¿½? (Malkin, November 30, 2005)
Malkin, like Huffington, is intelligent and witty and yet still resorts to name calling and finger-pointing. She uses to the same discourse that is heard on the Drudge Report written by Matt Drudge or in Bill Oâ€™Reillyâ€™s opinions or in Rush Limbaughâ€™s commentaries. The message is clear: If you want to be recognized, you must write in the same language that men use. In Justice Interruptus, Nancy Fraser affirms this theory, â€œThe least powerful are faced with cultural and symbolic forms of exclusion such as cultural domination, nonrecognition, and disrespect.ï¿½? (Fraser, 13-14) Jacqueline J. Lambiase confirms this sentiment as she recalls the German feminist Christa Wolfâ€™s writings on the mythical figure, Cassandra. â€œSince Cassandraâ€™s time, Wolf asserts, women compulsively still feel the need â€œto adaptï¿½? to the patriarchal discourse â€œor disappearï¿½?, even in the twenty-first century.ï¿½? (Lambiase, 111) She continues, â€œâ€¦not only have male voices almost exclusively created the framework of language that gives meaning to information technology, but these same voices also have claimed a disproportionate textual presence through this technology.ï¿½? (Lambiase, 112)
The Topics of Blogs
Mommy blogs. Baby blogs. Parent blogs. David Hochman, columnist for The New York Times, writes, â€œAs stomach bugs go, the one that hit the Allen family of Redmond, Wash., this month certainly got a lot of play. Barely an hour after Jaxon, 5, showed his first miserable symptoms, his mother was posting her satirical account of Pukefest 2005 on her Internet blog, Catawampus.ï¿½? (Hochman) Blogs that post about every day life (including Armstrongâ€™s Dooce.com which is mentioned in Hochmanâ€™s column) are found in abundance on the internet. However, they are treated with some degree of scorn. While Hochman chose to write an entire column on this phenomenon, his second paragraph reads, â€œThe world’s most thankless occupation, parenthood, has never inspired so much copy. For the generation that begat reality television it seems that there is not a tale from the crib (no matter how mundane or scatological) that is unworthy of narration.ï¿½? (Hochman)
That private sphere is supposed to be kept private. Emotions, family matters, childrenâ€™s illnesses are to be kept within the walls of the home life. Alison M. Jaggar writes, â€œWithin the western philosophical tradition, emotions usually have been considered as potentially or actually subversive of knowledge. From Plato until the present, with a few notable exceptions, reason rather than emotion has been regarded as the indispensable faculty for acquiring knowledge.ï¿½? (Jaggar, 145) She continues, â€œNot only has reason been contrasted with emotion, but it has also been associated with the mental, the cultural, the universal, the public, and the male, whereas emotion has been associated with the irrational, the physical, the natural, the particular, the private, and, of course, the female.ï¿½? (Jaggar, 145) Women write about what they enjoy. They write about the subjects they know. They write in a voice that gives them status within their communities; communities frequently devoid of men. These voices are often filled with emotion, speak of the private, and are, largely, female. Tenn, a SAHM, writes,
â€œDuring some recent web surfing in the blogosphere I noticed a disturbing trend. I noticed that while political blogs are getting lots of attention due to the bloggers at the convention it has led to some downsides as well. I have read many “Why can’t it be me” or “I’m just a mom” or “My blog is boring” comments. That saddens me – because we may be mothers and we may be blogging about our children and our daily lives but that does not make a “mommy blog” insignificant. On the contrary some of the most inspiring blogs I have read have been written by other homeschooling mothers.ï¿½?
A Sense of Community
Tenn points out, indirectly, one of the draws of the blogging world: community. Tenn has connected with other mothers who, like her, are homeschooling mothers. The sense of community, the sense of having a kindred spirit, if online, is one that draws the typical blogger back again and again. Sibylle Gruber writes, â€œSupporters of virtual communities have argued that cyberspace moves beyond the restrictions of face-to-face communities and creates opportunities for communication that do not exist in â€œrealï¿½? space.ï¿½? She emphasizes the connection by quoting Derek Fosterâ€™s idea of online cohesiveness that is â€œthe subjective criterion of togetherness, a feeling of connectedness that confers a sense of belonging.ï¿½? (Gruber, 79) In a world where neighbors seem farther away and where interpersonal connections are increasingly difficult to make, the online blogging community is a place to meet others who have the same interests or same concerns.
Anita Blanchard, in trying to understand the need for online communities, defines their importance as two-fold.
â€œFirst, virtual communities are considered important for social reasons. As CMC [computer-mediated communication] groups initially became popular, community activists argued that they would help replace the relationships lost as people became more isolated from their neighbors (Rheingold, 1993; Schuler, 1996). Some researchers even argued that virtual communities could allow people to connect with others from around the world who share similar interests (Wellman & Guilia, 1999) This would not necessarily create a global village, but it would expand a personâ€™s village around the globe (Hampton & Wellman, 2001). As people became more connected with others through these virtual communities, they would reap the benefits of social relationships with like minded others.
A second, more practical, reason for the importance of virtual communities relates to the CMC groupâ€™s sustainability. The term â€œcommunityï¿½? implies an emotionally positive effect to which even critics of the use of the term agree (Harris, 1999). Information science professionals and psychologists argue that this positive emotion creates an intrinsically rewarding reason to continue participation in the group (Kuo, 2003; Whitworth & De Moor, 2003). When participants experience feelings of community, they are more likely to increase or maintain their participation in the virtual communities.ï¿½?
What is the issue in blogging? Are women really being blocked from recognition by the mainstream media or other men or is it because they write about life outside of politics and are not the witty pundits that make for good sound bites?
The truth of the matter is that women are frequently silenced in male-dominated societies. The technology world, and the internet in particular, have long been the domains of men. Cheris Kramarae writes,
â€œWomen (and members of other subordinate groups) are not as free or as able as men are to say what they wish, when and where they wish, because the words and the norms for their use have been formulated by the dominant group, men. So women cannot as easily or as directly articulate their experiences as men can. Womenâ€™s perceptions differ from those of men because womenâ€™s subordination means they experience life differently. However, the words and norms for speaking are not generated from or fitted to womenâ€™s experiences. Women are thus â€œmuted.ï¿½? Their talk is often not considered of much value by men â€“ who are, or appear to be, deaf and blind to much of womenâ€™s experiences. Words constantly ignored may eventually come to be unspoken and perhaps even unthought.ï¿½? (19)
Why are women muted? Why might men feel that their discourse was not as important as a more male-centric discourse? Kramarae writes,
â€œThe public areas of life â€“ and public discourse â€“ in most societies appear to be controlled by males. The work, interests, and talk of women are not considered as important to men as menâ€™s own work, interests, and talk. Women do, of course, speak. However, in public discourse especially, â€œthe appropriate language registers often seem to have been â€˜encodedâ€™ by males, [and thus] women may be at a disadvantage when wishing to express matters of peculiar concern to them.ï¿½? Unless their views are presented in a form acceptable to men, and to women brought up in the male idiom, they will not be given a proper hearing. (S. Ardener, 1975).ï¿½? (20)
Paula Span reiterates this (but in a more enjoyable fashion) when she writes,
â€œAs for cyberspaceâ€¦no oneâ€™s hung a â€œNo Girls Allowedï¿½? sign on the door. Itâ€™s often a male clubhouse nonetheless, one girls can enter provided they are willing and able to scramble through the briers, shinny up the tree, ignore the skinned knees and announce that they can spit a watermelon seed just as far as the guys inside can. Figuratively speaking.ï¿½? (410)
But is it really the language that is keeping women from enjoying the same popularity as men or is it something else? Can we blame all of the blogging worldâ€™s seemingly sexist viewpoint on the differences of language and how men and women relate to one anotherâ€™s discourse?
Herring, et. al. claim that it really may be the way blogging â€œfavoritesï¿½? are chosen and how the system works rather than any single group of people trying to suppress the voices of other groups.
â€œBlog authors themselves contribute unwittingly to creating a hierarchy within the blogosphere with adult males at the top. They do this by linking to â€œA-listï¿½? blogs, which tend overwhelmingly to be filter-type blogs created by men, thereby contributing to these blogsâ€™ perceived popularity and status. The â€œA-listï¿½? blogs, in turn, link mostly to other menâ€™s blogs: in a count of links from the blogrolls of the top ten blogs (as determined by number of incoming links), Ratliff (2003) found that only 16% led to sites of female bloggers. As we have seen, men are more likely than women or teens to comment in their own blogs on political issues. They are also more likely to post entries to public-access group sites such as Metafilter (cf. Krishnamurthy, 2002). Thus male blogs are more likely to be very popular (where popularity is defined in terms of number of incoming links), and males are more likely to frequent popular blogs. To the extent that those who write about blogs focus on those that are most popular or otherwise have the highest public profile, the tendency for men to be featured is partially explained.
This leads to the question of what defines a blog. Is it the listing of ideas and links to other sites on a webpage (the basic definition of a filter weblog)? Or is it the daily entry of anything and everything, depending on the bloggerâ€™s choice of topics. Herring, et. al. contend that those who first called themselves bloggers, those who write filter blogs, do not consider the daily journal-type entries â€œblogs.ï¿½?
Bloggers â€¦ are presumably not intending to exclude women and youth from the definition of blogging. Rather, they are defining the weblog based on their own activities and those of the people they know, and extrapolating back in time to the antecedents of those activities. In so doing, however, they overlook an important phenomenon that predates [the] first filter, and in which women and teens play a central role: the online journal.ï¿½?
In fact, â€œFrom the outset, online journals, like the tradition of hand-written diaries they draw from, have been associated with women (McNeil, 2003). Flynn (2003) describes the rise of online communities of women journaling about weight loss, illness, pregnancy, child rearing, and other topics of special concern. Women (and men) also journal about events in their everyday lives.ï¿½? (Herring, et. al.)
In all fairness, even journalists, scholars, and the blogging community as a whole are not trying to marginalize women and their private-made-public discourse. Herring, et. al, sum it up well when they state, â€œparticipants in such discourses do not appear to be seeking consciously to marginalize females and youth. Rather, journalists are following â€œnewsworthyï¿½? events, scholars are orienting to the practices of the communities under investigation, bloggers are linking to popular sites, and blog historians are recounting what they know from first-hand experience.ï¿½?
These actions have the unfortunate outcome of marginalizing a selected group of bloggers and promoting the notion that the male bloggerâ€™s voice is the voice of reason, of authority, and of importance. Only when the issues that are important to mainstream women become â€œnewsworthyï¿½? or hold scholarship merit among academicians, will womenâ€™s voices in weblogs be equal to menâ€™s.
That time seems to be a long way off.
Armstrong, Heather B. Dooce.com (2005): November 23, 2005 .
Blanchard, Anita. Blogs as Virtual Communities: Identifying a Sense of Community in the Julie/Julia Project. Into the Blogosphere: Rhetoric, Community, and Culture of Weblogs (2004): November 23, 2005
Fraser, Nancy. Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the â€œPostsocialistï¿½? Condition. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Gruber, Sibylle. The Rhetorics of Three Women Activist Groups on the Web: Building and Transforming Communities. Alternative Rhetorics. ed. Laura Gray-Rosendale and Sibylle Gruber. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2001. 77-92.
Herring, Susan C., Inna Kouper, Lois Ann Scheidt, and Elijah L. Wright. Women and Children Last: The Discursive Construction of Weblogs. Into the Blogosphere: Rhetoric, Community, and Culture of Weblogs (2004): November 23, 2005
Hochman, David. Mommy (and Me). The New York Times. January 30 (2005): November 23, 2005
Huffington, Arianna. The Huffington Post (2005): November 28, 2005
Jaggar, Alison M. Love and Knowledge: Emotion in Feminist Epistemology. Gender/Body/Knowledge. ed. Alison M. Jaggar and Susan R. Bordo. New York: Rutgers, 1989. 145-171.
Kramarae, Cheris. Women as a Muted Group. Readings in Feminist Rhetorical Theory. ed. Karen A. Foss, Sonja K. Foss, and Cindy L. Griffin. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 2004. 19-26.
Lambiase, Jacqueline J. Like a Cyborg Cassandra: The Oklahoma City Bombing and the Internetâ€™s Misbegotten Rhetorical Situation. Alternative Rhetorics. ed. Laura Gray-Rosendale and Sibylle Gruber. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2001. 111-126.
Levy, Steven. â€œBlogging Beyond the Menâ€™s Club.ï¿½? Newsweek March (2005): November 15, 2005 .
Malkin, Michelle. Michelle Malkin (2005): November 30, 2005
Schorow, Stephanie. â€œBroads on Blogs.ï¿½? SadieMag November (2005): November 15, 2005 .
Span, Paula. The On-Line Mystique. Literacy, Technology, and Society. ed. Fail E. Hawisher and Cynthia L. Selfe. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997. 409-423.
Tenn. School@Home (2004): November 18, 2005