[Mega-long post alert! You’ve been warned!]
By any other name, this year’s BlogHer conference would be as big a deal. I mean, not as Woodstock. But in the same way. Which is to say, it was a Happening for those in attendance, something that helped to illustrate, maybe even define a moment in our online media herstory.
Many of us have known it already: a hell of a lot of us are out there in the blogosphere writing to and for each other, and the online communities we are participating in — as readers and as writers — are clearly making a big impact on us. This may not be breaking news, but it’s news. BlogHer’s recent study of women’s use of the internet quantified this for the first time: BlogHer’s Lisa Stone’s synopsis of the study here, the findings in PDF format here; and here, the Reuters coverage, “New BlogHer Study Shows U.S. Women Increasingly Shifting to Blogs as a Mainstream Media and Communication Channel.”
The gist is that over 36 million women write and read blogs every week and “approximately half consider blogs a ‘highly reliable’ or ‘very reliable’ source of information and advice about everything from products to presidential candidates.” (From the Reuters re-cap.)
My own wee survey of LD readers a week or two back corroborates this on a micro scale (you can see the results here; use “LDsurveyresults” as your password; if you’d like to take it, please help yourself!). With a little over sixty respondents (at most recent count), over half said that the blogs you read influence your sense of community “somewhat” (this would be: your sense of community as a woman, or a progressive, or a lesbian parent, whatever community your blogs circled around). But another nearly forty percent said the blogs you read influenced your sense of community either “a good deal” or “very much.”
Now I’m no sociologist, and heaven my beloved knows I am not good with numbers. Also, this is a sampling among people already reading a dang blog. But the point is still evident: these things matter to a lot of us, in important ways. You don’t have to be a statistician to believe that over 36 million women online is a lot.
This is not to say, however, that the revolution has arrived at our doorsteps. Or rather computer screens. In a recent piece for the New York Times, “Slumber Parties Go Digital,” David Carr writes:
It’s just odd that while there has been a significant advance in sites by and for women, much of what is being produced replicates, rather than revolutionizes, the template set down by women’s magazines for decades.
“The lack of evolution is disappointing to me,” said Caterina Fake, one of the founders of Flickr.com. “Back in 1996, it was going to be this brave new world where women were finally going to take control of their stories, and to me, it is often more a crushing sameness.”
Even so, she is unsurprised that in an era built on communities of interest, women are on the rise. “It is a rule of Web development that if you want a vital community, it has to start with women. It is just a higher level of discourse and behavior. If a site starts male, it stays male.”
More response to the more disparaging of the above points in a moment. But first: this past weekend’s BlogHer conference definitely started female and stayed female: in all the glorious, paradoxical ways that women’s communities can be, online and off. Straight gals’ menstrual cycles got sync’ed in ways they hadn’t been since they were roomates with gals in college (for us lesbians, that stuff is old hat. or should I say, old tampoon). It was a world run by women (with means): there was a lactation lounge and on-site childcare. There also was a “spa”-ish kind of “makeover”-ish kind of room, and a floating, big-ass party in the handbag/pumps/furniture sections of Macy’s to close the conference. (To Lindsay and Serena, I have only three cryptic words: gem-encrusted stiletto.)
Folks at BlogHer ranged from the supportive to the cliquish, from (deliberately) inclusive to (unconsciously) exclusive. Tech tips and hankies were shared with equal frequency. Some folks were concerned primarily with the material, some concerned primarily with the spiritual, and many, at different times, were concerned with both. I would be dishonest were I not to report that I nearly choked on my sandwich when I heard the words “sponsored laptop” and “sponsored camera” come from somebody’s mouth at the “Monetizing Your Blog” panel. And I mean “choked” in a good way.
One of the few evident downsides to the conference was that overall, folks there were not as heterogenous as I think women online are, racially and class-wise. Most of us there (but by no means all) were white, for instance. Says yet another white chick, intending not at all to invisibleize the women of color there, but to nod thanks, and note that I’d have liked it if you had more company in that regard. But I’ve organized conferences before, and know how hard it is to get BIG plus NATIONAL plus WE DON’T GO INTO THE RED all overlapping. I don’t know about the organizing of the annual BlogHer conferences so much as what I observed at this one. So I’m reticent to throw stones. Just an irritating reminder pebble or two.
(Partial digression paragraph to follow: If you’re curious about demographics online generally; this study at FirstMonday does help sketch things out a bit, and is based on the Pew Internet Project’s frequently updated Internet Users chart. Want to know a really interesting current stat? The largest racial demographic online is “English-speaking Hispanic”: 80%; compared to 75% of white folks, and about 60% “Black non-Hispanic.” Which leaves the rest of the brown rainbow a bit in the dark, but those stats are a start at least, I suppose. Glad it’s “English-speaking Hispanic” because my Spanish-language page, helping to un-befuddle poor schmucks looking for “lesbianism” — or lesbiandad in Spanish — got absolutely devastated by my recent jump from WordPress 0.0 to WordPress 2.5.1, and it has not recovered yet.)
As with all people, the attendees split and re-formed over and over again along so many different lines that had more to do with affinity than identity. Academic folks in the fields of feminist and women’s studies have been talking about this stuff for years: we’ve known for a long time that it’s not who you are that counts so much as what you stand for; that identity itself is more fluid than we think (e.g., those of us who are “able-bodied” are provisionally so, and sooner or later — if we’re lucky — we’ll be old enough to experience ageism); that the benefits or constrictions that flow from the facets of our selves change as we change, and the world changes around us.
Evidently these truisms have not been lost on those who study marketing online. Years ago, a piece in E-Commerce News noted that
“When people go onto the Net, they think of themselves as consumers interested in information or a product, but not as any particular kind of identity,” IDC e-commerce analyst Barry Parr told the E-Commerce Times. “This is why sites that have attempted to distinguish themselves demographically and not behaviorally, such as Women.com, seem to be experiencing so much difficulty.”
In other words, recognizing that different segments of the population are online is important, but successful e-commerce ventures should also pay close attention to the specific online behaviors and trends that groups exhibit.
“It’s no longer enough to think of women as the target audience,” explained Jupiter’s Anya Sacharow. “To reach the women’s market, sites must pursue deeper relationships, based on interests, personal identities, and affinities.”
Of course the marketplace I’m interested in is the marketplace of ideas, e- and otherwise, and in this realm the same truths hold. Which is at the root of the most powerful impact of this past weekend’s BlogHer conference, for me and I’ll bet for many others.
The disembodiment of our online selves, as I alluded to earlier this week, is what enables us to sidle up next to folks very, very different than us, and listen in to their conversations in a new way. Call this the “If you prick us, do we not bleed/ if you tickle us, do we not laugh” effect, if you like (Shakespearean literary analysis for those of you who were throwing spit-wads or passing notes in class, here). Throughout the BlogHer conference, conversations were actual, not virtual, and in room after room we could see and touch the arms/shoulders/hearts of the women (and some men) who shared our concerns.
And it was powerful. Laurie Edison, for instance, described a moment in the panel she moderated on body image for women and girls. A woman whom most would presume to feel conventionally beautiful shared the kind of private pain that Laurie said probably no one would have expected her to feel. I co-taught an Intro to Women’s Studies class as a grad student, and I can tell you that revelations like these are the bread and butter of that work. One: they make it a whole hell of a lot harder to remain isolated from one another. And two: they make it a whole hell of a lot harder not to point the accusing finger at the forces seeking to keep us separate.
My favorite illustration of all this was at the Community Keynote the first night, at which 21 women (and one man) read a selected blog post under the categories “Best Rant,” “Blogging About Blogging,” “Parenting,” “Letter to My Body,” and “Humor” (full disclosure to most of you readers not present: er, I was semi-in shock to be among the assemblage reading, and am utterly incapable of being objective about the event). Much has been written by others about it all. I’ll just say that the thing about that night for me was that we all of us, for that ninety minutes, enacted and experienced what we know happens all the time online. All — the — time. A great, great many of us do indeed “take control of” our stories, and tell them to each other, daily. We touch each other. We keep each other company, get each other through the day, enlighten, challenge, make each other pee with laughter. Some of us are phenomenally brave. And that bravery, most certainly, saves lives. That shit ain’t virtual, baby, that’s actual.
I may have picked up a reader or two this past weekend (if I were still single, lord knows I may have picked up a gal or two! fox in the hen house, people, fox in the hen house!). If this new reader is you, and particularly if you’re different than me in any way, I want to say: I’m honored to have the pleasure of your eyeballs here. And I’m gonna bet — I know you know this is coming — we’re more alike than different. If you’re an old LD hand, I want to say: Hey, sister (brother)! There’s more love out there than I thought! (Did you know all along? Why didn’t you tell me!)
Bathe in it, all of you, splash it around, pass the joint. And then, sisters and brothers, let’s us change the world for the better.
[Live-Blogs From BlogHer ’08 now provides citizen-journalist accounts of all the panels.]