Reckless Theorizing Without A Net: Women, Blogging, and Power

Two things prompted the rampant display of theorizing you’re about to see unfold in real time. One was a chance conversation with a group of powerful, accomplished women academics. The second was an article that came across my twitter feed about women bloggers.

The conversation with the women academics was not too uncommon for me at this point. Whenever a group of academics are gathered and the idea of social media comes up, I have found extreme resistance to the very idea of online engagement. I don’t mean just dismissive attitudes about that new fangled technology but virulent, vocal attacks on social media that usually include things like it’s a waste of time, it distracts from “real” life, and that it is some kind of elaborate fad for “other” people.

As a sociologist I’ve been intrigued by the piling on that happens during these conversations. They quickly devolve into a game of Who’s The Best Luddite. And it is most definitely about hierarchy and power. The most senior academics who, by virtue of being senior, tend to be older start by waxing poetic about how they wrote their first books on legal pads. Then a slightly less senior academic has to show that they are in the cool Luddite group and they talk about how they refuse to buy a smartphone. Then the next junior scholar slaps his or her Motorala Razr phone, circa 1998, on the table and regales us with stories of the stupid cuss who checks into foursquare when they are at an organic farm-to-table unpretentious pretentious eatery. Finally, by the time you get to a grad student or some poor new hire the only place left to go is to a discussion of their technological ineptitude and wistful longing for the days of Laura Ingalls.

That’s interesting enough in itself except there’s an added gender layer. I’ve found that women academics, regardless of rank, are the most vocal about their dislike of social media.

A recent conversation with a tenured professor  makes my point. After preemptively apologizing to me, she expressed not just a dislike but a profound hatred of blogging. She had several reasons for this but the most consistent ones were that blog posts exist in perpetuity and that people comment too fast and too often.

Of the women who expressed some shock about that as even a consideration both of us were black.

That brings me to the provocatively titled blog post about women destroying their careers by blogging. The author isn’t speaking to academics but she makes several salient points. Chief among them is that blogging is hard. It can be easy to overlook this because blogging platforms (and other social media) are so accessible but engagement can be time consuming, challenging labor. The second point she makes is about the honesty required to have a blog that is worth  a damn to any readership worth having.

She talks about losing friends, upsetting potential employers and clients and all-around making a fuss because of an opinion she staked out in a blog post.

That started a dialogue on twitter that beget this post:

That issue of validation led me to a discussion I’ve had here before about relational expectations with power and how that is different for different types of women.

The angst about participating in an illegitimate or low-status medium speaks to a desire to be made legitimate by others. Who we think has the power to legitimate us speaks to who we think we are in relation to who we consider the power that matters.

I do not expect to have a chance in hell of being validated by a white, male power structure. As a woman I imagine that being possible in one of two ways. I can become Oprah or I can marry a beneficiary of white, male institutional privilege. Oprah ain’t giving up being Oprah without a fight and the chances of me marrying a white man who benefits from whiteness and maleness is akin to my chances of winning powerball WHEN I NEVER BUY A LOTTO TICKET.

As such I assume a distant proximity to that power structure. Therefore, there is little risk for me in engaging in an illegitimate, low status online medium (as constructed by a specific type of academic hierarchy). No, my online work will likely never count towards tenure and promotion, as one tweep rightfully pointed out. But, the vehemence of the disregard for social media I most often encounter from women in academe suggests there is something more fundamentally threatening about writing a blog post than just a simple time cost-benefit analysis. If it was that they’d just say, “I’m too busy to blog!” And that would be perfectly OK.

Instead what I sense is a rejection of the form of social media as a means of procuring bonafides in a white patriarchal power structure. I suggest that even considering such a structure as an acceptable avenue for one’s legitimacy speaks to a person’s understanding of her social proximity, no matter how tenuous, to that structure.

That’s why I and the other black woman in the space both looked befuddled by the reactions to social media engagement as somehow dangerous. Dangerous is relative, after all. And maybe our kind of dangerous — being black in academe — had recalibrated our tolerance levels. It is why Meredith’s post on the risks of honest engagement was so striking to her readers. It’s why, I think, we see the cultural bifurcation of online spaces: white men who feel entitled to be heard and minority out-groups who seize upon such spaces as opportunities to be heard, seen, and connected.

Now, I fully admit to never having thought this through before an hour ago. I could be full of shit but isn’t every hypothesis full of it until it’s been tested?

However, I leave you with one other piece of my proffered puzzle. The area in which middle class, white women have been particularly dominant in online spaces is the mommy blog phenomena. The “mommy blog” emerged as a space where women could speak as authorities. That the subject matter focuses on the safest, least contested, gendered and classed domains of femininity — particularly of white femininity — is interesting. Just as interesting is an ongoing discussion among women of color who blog, often about the same issues of mommy bloggers, but who, because of their racial identity, felt inclined to speak to broader social issues found themselves marginalized in mommy blog spaces. Is blogging somehow less dangerous for white women when they restrict their authority to motherhood talk? Why are they so resistant to whole self talk about race or bigotry or social justice from black mommy bloggers? Could it be that venturing that far out beyond acceptable waters puts them at risk of making a dangerous observation? And dangerous to who, exactly?

It suggests that for some women, the risk of being honest in plain view in a low status medium might be as much about their fear of disrupting their tenuous claims to white male patriarchy as it is about being too old school cool for the internets.

Or, not.

Again, I’m thinking out loud here. And without n’ary a fear.

Funny how that happens.

11 thoughts on “Reckless Theorizing Without A Net: Women, Blogging, and Power

  1. Wow! What a great article!

    First, thank you for linking me. I noticed the link in my traffic reports. You clearly have an audience here.

    Second, you are a very smart lady. You went way deeper into my rant about blogging and women ruining their careers, than I had ever thought of going.

    I have seen this trend lately, women who think they should just throw away a career to become a blogger, and that’s who I was speaking to. If you want to make money – it’s not an easy row to tow. And if you decide this is the career path you want to take, you had better be real. Or? Just keep your day job.

    That being said, I am not a mommy blogger. As a matter of fact, I don’t even talk about my children unless they somehow cross paths into the story that I’m telling. I blog more about career advice (because I do HR) and relationships (because I think interpersonal relationships mean everything).

    But you bring up a great point. White, female bloggers rarely (if ever) talk about the races. Why is that? I would honestly say it’s because we cannot relate. Besides being a woman, we’ve never been in the minority. So most of them (us) tend to stay with what they know. And what they know is super vanilla, and to be honest, it’s also super boring (but it wouldn’t be if they talked about the relatable things going on in their lives: divorce, girlfriend issues, honest feelings of insecurity, etc.).

    But I’ll do this for you, now that you’ve pointed out something that REALLY isn’t discussed in white, middle class circles (I know, because I fit that mold), I will write about the races. And I’ll use personal experiences. You know, since it has to be real.

    I’d love for you to reach out to me, so I can get your take on the first thing that came to my mind about the subject. And trust me, this article, it will cause a stir.

    1. One can never know how a writer will respond to a tangential engagement with her words. Thank you for being open to my own reading of your post, Meredith. It’s no small thing to invite the inevitable blow back that comes with being honest. But to deal with the blow back to being honest about race?!! Woo, doggie. I’m glad you seem like the kind of woman who can deal.

      I look forward to our chat!

  2. Tressie, something that stood out to me in this blog post was your mention of danger and how it is relative. This spring when we were having a lot of discussion sessions on campus about Trayvon Martin and White privilege, the topic of “safe space” came up again and again. The was in regard to having a place on campus that was considered safe to discuss controversial, sensitive topics – like racism and privilege.

    I remember so clearly one of my favorite students turning the conversation in a whole different direction by asking (I’m paraphrasing), “What exactly is so dangerous about talking?” She reminded us of a few dangerous things one might truly have fear of, like being attacked. But talking about a sensitive topic in grad school and being scared your feelings will get hurt – THAT is considered dangerous to some people?

    Until then, all of us, even those of us who *ahem* work hard on unpacking our privileged backpacks had gone along with the discussion of safe spaces being necessary to the furthering of our discussion. So if we want to talk about topics that might make you squirm, we need to make sure it’s in a “safe space” (i.e. no one is allowed to make you squirm TOO much) and if women academics (especially women of color) want their voices to be heard, they better do it through traditional scholarship.

    Everything else is just the Wild, Wild West . . . I guess?

      1. Yes, Ashley, I know your name. 😀

        Thanks, as always, for reading. Yes, the calibration of danger is interesting. I don’t want to say that it is as simple as privilege. I think there is something to having lived with very little psychological discomfort that is a result of privilege but more complex than just being clueless? I will think on that some more. Of course, I’m also a fan of telling people to get over it already. But, you know, my give a d*mn is occasionally busted. 😀

  3. One: you hang around the wrong academics! I say as a tenured faculty member just off a Fulbright on digital humanities. As a long time blogger, I felt completely alienated by mommy bloggers because of their mommy status but also because of the privilege they represented (for the most part). They were, however, identifiable as a cohort and somehow ‘women bloggers’ got associated with one group with a disproportionate amount of attention. I think the survival of academia will require faculty who engage with social media — and failure to do so will continue to allow the enemies of accessible education to paint us as irrelevant anachronisms.

  4. So interesting. Interesting enough that I’m commenting on a blog post for the first time ever 😀 Why am I so nervous!?

    I especially enjoyed this bit:

    “Who we think has the power to legitimate us speaks to who we think we are in relation to who we consider the power that matters.”

    I get caught up in this idea often enough and am working on untangling my own assumptions regarding authority and power structures, specifically those surrounding my cultural definition of personal success.

    You’re spot on when identifying the mommy blog as the only blog medium in which many women feel safe expressing themselves. I’m not knocking the mommy blog, but I think we as a gender should feel confident expressing ourselves openly and respectfully about about any number of topics and expect our expressions to be received openly and respectfully.

    Thanks again for your piece. Blogging was a good example and the concept is much further reaching.

  5. You blew my mind with the thing about proximity to white patriarchal power. As an academic in the life sciences, female, white, and lucky enough to be schooled in the globally dominant language, this rings true – although not specifically regarding social media. I think wanting to be taken seriously by the men can push women in life sciences away from areas of research stereotyped as feminine, such as finding the best ways to help people, and towards areas stereotyped as masculine, such as statistics.

    As for social media, the democratization of information flow is a huge threat to the power of the academic elite. I can find out what foster care is like by reading a blog written by a girl who grew up in foster care, is homeless, and is blogging from the library. That makes any priviledged prof who wants to publish on the topic from the comfort of his ivy league office seem much less relevant.

  6. In my experience, it’s simply a matter of age – the older folks have not been as exposed to the internet as the younger ones and simply don’t value it as much or don’t want to take the trouble to learn how to use it. I went to a symposium at a major university on academic publishing in medieval studies and all of the older white men were utterly contemptuous of the idea of publishing academic material on the internet so it would be more easily accessible to their students, even though hard copy academic publications in that field can run to hundreds of dollars for school libraries to have to shell out. They were willing to continue costing publicly funded institutions unnecessary expenses in a time of economic crisis in order to protect their ivory tower status and avoid the unwashed masses online. The younger academics looked at them like you would look at the dinosaur skeletons in the natural history museum. I think it will be a self-correcting problem as time wears on, the dinosaurs will simply die off. But it really struck me as absurd how people that work in education rejected a tool that expands the potential of education stupendously. They were simply more interested in protecting their privilege. It’s probably the same gated-community mentality that allows well-compensated tenured professors to look the other way as the new crop are paid only starvation adjunct wages. Maybe they welcome anything that holds back competition from below.

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