Lessons learned from blogging class, vol. 2

Every teacher will tell you that one of the boons of the profession is the vitality of the classroom.

You can have a real clunker of a class, with disinterested students and hours that feel like days, and then you can have a class that just bubbles with energy and enthusiasm.

The latter kind of class really sustains me. I leave them boiling over with might. (Then I go home and try to get to sleep when I really should have used that mojo to just keep working…)

I’ve had two of those mighty classes now at Clockworks Cafe, and that has everything to do with the excitement that people in this community have about blogging, whatever their current knowledge or abilities with the medium.

Our first free class there became an exercise in the limits pushed by the new journalism as we all struggled with the presence of one silent camera (thanks, David!).

This last one? Well, this one was all about what happens when you put your name behind what you say.

What does it mean to blog as a person and not as an anonymous entity?

One of the students in my class was interested in writing a blog to share her political views, since she had already accumulated quite a few readers of her opinions through the email list that she was serving. This student was intent on staying anonymous to protect herself from the evil whispers of her neighbors and her fellow Salemites.

My response? Don’t do it. If you can’t put your name behind what you say, then don’t say it in a forum that everybody in the world could possibly have access to (disregarding the digital divide).

I’ve paid the price for my comments in a very real way before. Months ago I made some snarky comments about the closing of the scrapbook store on Hawthorne Boulevard. I don’t hate scrapbooking per se, I just hate the idea that you have to buy a bunch of Leeza Gibbons junk to scrapbook. (For the record, I have three from my days living in Germany).

Then one day I was hanging out near the dessert case at Christo’s, holding my baby in a sling, when I was approached by a woman who pretty much told me off for being so mean.

“Those people lost their livelihood!” she said.

“It’s just an opinion,” I told her.

She was actually pretty nice about it. (Strangely, she thought she had read the comments in the local paper. That’s another lesson in blogging. If your site looks good, people might think you’re a legitimate news organization…).

But back to the idea of anonymity. What bothered me most about my student’s desire to go anonymous was her fear that her comments on her blog, if connected to her name, might affect her children and how they are received in Salem.

So my answer to her is this. If you want a blog to serve an audience of people who already know you and your opinion, sure, run an anonymous blog. But if you want a successful blog that engages people who don’t agree with you as well as the ones that do, readers who would likely refuse to have anything to do with text that might as well have been written by a random Internet troll (and this is most readers), then put your name where you mouth is.

And then be prepared to stick your foot in it.

17 Responses to “Lessons learned from blogging class, vol. 2”

  1. Sophie Says:

    Words of wisdom, Emily. This was well-timed reading for me because I was just asked to be a legit contributor to certain blog and I’ve always hidden behind Anonymous comments there. I try to never say anything outrageous or erroneous, but putting my name behind my words would make me watch them even more carefully.

    Sounds like your class has been a smashing success!

  2. Emily Grosvenor Says:

    It’s been really fun! I think I may hold another free one if August if CW decides to do another round of free classes.

  3. Walker Says:

    Obviously, we disagree. There are plenty of people who, if they cannot blog anonymously, would not be able to blog at all, or at least would not be able to do so without suffering severe limitations on the craft.

    What’s interesting to me is why so many non-anonymae feel the need to make a pronouncement on the subject. Obviously, those of us who blog anonymously considered the question. Would the blogosphere be improved by our absence?

  4. Emily Grosvenor Says:

    True. I told the student in my class that there is nothing wrong with having an anonymous blog as long as you understand the limitations of staying anonymous (which is losing readers who won’t taking an anonymous blogger seriously). Obviously, it hasn’t held you back.

    Why make a pronouncement? Walker, why blog about anything? Because we have something to SAY about it. She asked for my advice on blogging anonymously in Salem, and the above is my advice.

    Now, the real question for me is why people can’t speak freely about the most humdrum of topics in Salem (see my blog…). I’ve had tons of people write to me and thank me for saying the obvious since they felt like they would somehow be publicly chastised for stating their opinion. I know it seems silly (and please don’t read any self-importance into my mentioning the thank-yous here).

    Anonymous blogs have their purposes. But in my experience, people want to interact with a person on a blog, not Anonymous.

    This doesn’t refer to whistleblowers blogging about injustices they are seeing in the jobplace. Most of the people in Salem who are on the beginning of their blogging adventure aren’t even comfortable putting themselves out there at all for fear of privacy. If that is the concern, I say sure, run your anonymous blog, but don’t expect a ton of people to stay interested or interact with you.

    Walker, you’ve clearly found a way to walk the line in a way that satisfies your need for privacy and your need to engage. So the other question is… why don’t you tell us all how you do it!

  5. nick lopez Says:

    Would the “blogosphere” be better? Probably. Don’t take this as a personal attack, because its not.

    Writing anonymously practically invalidates your point before you even make it. To me it says, “I don’t believe enough In what Im about to say to put my name on it” and if that’s the case, maybe you shouldn’t say it. It’s the internet equivalent of having one of those “coexist” bumper stickers on your car. Marinate on that one for a minute.

    With as much garbage as is available on the internet, you only do yourself a disservice by joining the white noise through anonymity.

  6. Capital Taps Says:

    The 19th century – and preceding ones! – was much more comfortable with pseudonyms. Practically every letter to the editor used one! I think we are often at risk of assuming very recent fashions are more persistent and “real” than in fact they are.

    Writing in Forbidden Knowledge, literary critic Roger Shattuck devoted the better part of a chapter to Emily Dickinson’s “banquet of abstemiousness.” He says

    In her letter soliciting help from Higginson and well as in her Veil poem, Dickinson gently yet firmly resists full revelation, full knowledge. Don’t hope to learn my exact age, my entire appearance, my inner soul. Let your imagination serve you. We all live behind scrims, look through scrims; they both impede us and protect us. The true dance of veils leads not to utter nakedness but to an ultimate coyness we do well to honor.

    More recently rockstar and media maven Dave Allen has written on “Social Networks, Privacy and the New Obscurity.” At SxSW interactive this spring in a keynote address a Microsoft researcher had offered a contemporary aphorism: If the old school was “private by default, public by effort,” social media is public by default, private by effort.

    Blogging behind a pseudonym isn’t always an attempt for 100% anonymity. Sometimes the New Obscurity is just a scrim for a little bit of privacy.

    • Emily Grosvenor Says:

      Yes, every blogger weighs how much to put out there and some work their mystique (CT!) through anonymity. I do believe that a writer is present in the text enough. But me? I’m public like a frog.

  7. Rebekah Says:

    This is a really interesting topic. I just read a book called “You Are Not a Gadget” by Jaron Lanier, a Silicon Valley visionary since the 1980’s. One of his main topics is the anonymity of the Internet. He is forcefully against it. He claims that online anonymity easily leads to mob mentality.

    Here is a part of his argument from pg 60:
    “There is never a lesson learned, or a catharsis of victory or defeat. If you win anonymously, no one knows, and if you lose, you just change your pseudonym and start over, without having modified your point of view one bit.”

    Definitely worth a read!

  8. Emily Grosvenor Says:

    I’ve been thinking about that a lot. Blogging isn’t just about stating your mind, it should also be about being open to changing it — like in any conversation. My husband gave me a (admittedly crude) metaphor to explain what it is like to interact with someone anonymously. Many people just prefer to know where someone is coming from when engaging in a conversation. I suspect my own conversations with CT and LS are so good because I read their (very good) blogs, and thus have formed a sense of who they are as people. They are writers who are very present on the screen. But convincing someone new to read your blog ain’t so simple, so your person is part of the draw. We are all free to decide what to tell and what not to tell…

    Thanks for the excerpt!

  9. Paula Says:

    I’m fascinated by the fact that all the comments are about the Anonymous vs. Brand-Called-You blogging identity crisis, which is indeed pretty interesting.

    Yet, did no one else (but me–and I was in the class!) pick up on the profound weirdness of the “student was intent on staying anonymous to protect herself from the evil whispers of her neighbors and her fellow Salemites”?

    It may be generational, but people over about 60 in Salem worry a LOT about what “people” (vaguely assumed to be “powerful”) think of them.

    I am approaching that age range but find this attitude both astonishing and unique (in degree) to Salem.

    If you’re younger (and I assume most blog readers are) and live in Salem, this quite genuine Fear Factor may explain some odd interactions you’ve likely had on job interviews, on the street, or in volunteer situations.

    • Capital Taps Says:

      There are a lot of silences in Salem! I think this is related…

      I am fascinated by, for example, the fact that there was a flourishing red-light district downtown, popular/infamous enough that it had its own name, “Peppermint Flat.”

      Clearly there has been a deliberate consensus, instantiated by individual decisions over-n-over, both by ordinary people and by establishment historians, to suppress this indelicate side of Salem history. It’s not a conspiracy, but the culture deemed it not polite to talk about. So Salemites forgot.

      This pattern appears to extend. As I read it, Salemites built up over time a city-wide culture that discourages dissent, wackiness, and much of anything that is not mainstream. Most of the wackos leave. It’s a strong inertia towards normalcy – like Harding conservatism! (And maybe a lot like Harding, who kept a White House stash of liquor during Prohibition! – the id cannot be entirely suppressed!)

      • Emily Grosvenor Says:

        Ooohh! Peppermint flat! Sounds like a drink to me. Carbonated water left to lose its fizz, with gin and some peppermint leaves.

        My concern isn’t just that the wackos leave, it is that the very definition of wacky here is much too staid to even be that wack.

  10. Emily Grosvenor Says:

    OMG, Paula! I was thinking about this last night — and wondering how I could steer the conversation that way (mwa ha ha!).

  11. Leslie Says:

    This is all so interesting and I can’t believe I stumbled upon this blog at such a perfect time. I have been thinking of ways to learn more about blogging and have actually been trying to find some local classes. Would you please contact me if you have another free class? I would love to attend as I have much to learn. Thank you!

    • Emily Grosvenor Says:

      Welcome, Leslie! Clockworks was talking about having another round of free classes in August. I said I’m in, but haven’t heard back yet (see other post on blogging for how this happens). I’ll post on this blog and on Twitter (emilygrosvenor) if it happens, so keep checking back! (Blogging lesson, encourage people to check back! And then don’t be surprised when they are annoyed that you haven’t blogged in two weeks). You’ll find the Salem blogging community a refreshing alternative to your usual over-the-fence chatter.

  12. Mike C. Says:

    Great discussion. The P&PC Office has put its heads together and come up with many possible reasons for blogging anonymously or under a pseudonym:

    1) Fear of retribution from one’s employer for what one publishes (while on or off the clock). Increasingly, as lines between “work” and “home” disappear, employers are holding employees responsible for what they say and do even when off the clock.

    2) Fear of retribution from one’s government or other policing agencies. (Would we benefit from blogs by and about illegal immigrants? Sure. Would I out myself as an illegal immigrant in writing that blog? No way.)

    3) Fear of other people. Many people escape abusive individuals and, to protect their families from those individuals, need the cloak of anonymity or pseudonymity.

    4) To disavow Authorial privilege. Along with “Authorship” comes a fair amount of symbolic or cultural capital that structures a blog, its comments, and its relationship to a reading public. Refusing the cultural authority of the “Author” can be a way of democratizing — or at least changing the dynamic on — a particular playing field.

    5) To pluralize the self. None of us are unitary in our opinions or desires, and claiming to be a single coherent person indebts us to a notion of the humanist self that’s not the entirety of human experience anymore. Writing under multiple pseudonyms acknowledges that we are, each of us, legion.

    6) To explore/claim subject positions that would be threatening/damaging if linked to one’s real-life self. Many people don’t have the confidence or ability to simply come out of whatever closet they’re in — the consequences may be too high for a whole range of reasons — and anonymity/pseudonymity can be a gateway to the expression of an authentic self or, at very least, a pressure valve to allow one to go on living.

    7) For rhetorical reasons. I blog under my real name (well, not really: I blog as “Mike” rather than my given name of “Michael,” and without my middle name “David”), but I’ve created a fictional Office — an entire administrative structure complete with interns and paper shredders and tax write-offs — which is not (yet) real but which I say helps to produce the writing I present on “Poetry & Popular Culture.” So, while I’m not blogging anonymously, it can’t really be said that I’m blogging “authentically” either, since I’m presenting a fictional/fake corporate “Author” on the blog. This corporate authorship allows me to claim multiple subject positions, explore different selves, set up straw men, evade taking responsibility for some positions, etc. (My interns, for example, say the most outlandish things, but what can you expect from an intern???!!!) Part of this is storytelling — one reason why Dash and Adam appear in DSS — but part of it has to do with how we make and sustain arguments over time.

    Those are some thoughts we here at the office had. Thanks for giving us a good water cooler discussion topic!

  13. Emily Grosvenor Says:

    Pour the Pellegrino! Well, I also think that a good concept executed brilliantly — and whose time has come — can work for an anonymous author quite well. See the Shit My Dad says author.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/11/10/twitter-to-tv-shit-my-dad_n_352354.html

    TV deals aren’t necessarily the end-goal of blogging, and there are no universal criteria to gauge the success of a blog. As I told the woman in class, each writer should have individual goals for her blog. Your only competition should be yourself.

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