What It Means to Be a Public Blogger: danah boyd's Hard Truth
[Editor's Note: The following is an edited transcript of danah boyd's 10 x 10 project presentation at BlogHer '14. This post first appeared on Medium.]
I started blogging in 1997. I was 19 years old. I didn’t call it blogging then, and my blog didn’t look like it does now. It was a manually-created HTML site with a calendar made of tables (OMG tables) and Geocities-style forward and back buttons with terrible graphics. I posted entries a few times a week as part of an independent study on Buddhism as a Brown University student that involved both meditation and self-reflection. Each week, the monk I was working with would ask me to reflect on certain things, and I would write. And write. And write. He lived in Ohio and had originally proposed sending letters, but I thought pencils were a foreign concept. I decided to type my thoughts and that, if I was going to type them, I might as well put them up online. Ah, teen logic.
Most of those early reflections were deeply intense. I posted in detail about what it meant to navigate rape and abuse, to come into a sense of self in light of scarring situations. I have since deleted much of this material, not because I’m ashamed by it, but because I found that it created the wrong introduction. As my blog became more professional, people would flip back and look at those first posts and be like errr ... uhh ... While I’m completely open about my past, I’ve found that rape details are not the way that I want to start a conversation most of the time. So, in a heretical act, I deleted those posts.
What my blog is to me and to others has shifted tremendously over the years. For the first five years, my blog was read by roughly four people. That was fine because I wasn’t thinking about audience. I was blogging to think, to process, to understand. To understand myself and the world around me. I wasn’t really aware of or interested in community building so I didn’t really participate in the broader practice. Blogging was about me. Until things changed.
As research became more central to my life, my blog became more focused on my research. In December 2002, I started tracking Friendster. (Keep in mind that the first public news story was written about Friendster by the Village Voice in June of 2003.) I was documenting my understanding of the new technologies that were emerging because that’s what I was thinking about. But because I was writing about tech, my blog caught the eye of technology folks who were trying to track this new phenomenon.
I became a blogger because people who identified as bloggers called me a blogger. And they linked to my blog. And commented on it. And talked about what I posted. I was invited to blog on group sites, like Many-to-Many, and participate in blogger-related activities. I became a part of the nascent blogging world, kinda by accident.
As I became understood as a blogger, people started asking me about my blogging practice. Errrr ... Blogging practice? And then people started asking me about my monetization plans. Woah nelly! So I did some reflection and made a few very intentional decisions. I valued blogging because it allowed me to express what was on my mind without anyone else editing me, but I understood that I was becoming part of the public. I valued the freedom to have a single place where my voice sat, where I was in control, but I also had power. So I struggled, but I concluded that at the end of the day, I couldn’t keep this up if this stopped being about me. And so I decided to never add advertisements, to never commercialize my personal blog, and to never let others post there. I needed boundaries. I’d blog elsewhere under other terms, by my blog was mine.
I started thinking a lot more about blogging, both personally and professionally, when I went to work for Ev Williams at Blogger (already acquired by Google). My title was “ethnographic engineer.” (Gotta love Google titles.) And my job was to help the Blogger team better understand the diversity of practices unfolding in Blogger. I interviewed numerous bloggers. I randomly sampled Blogger entries to get a sense of the diversity of posts that we were seeing. And I helped the engineering team think about different types of practices. I also became much more involved in the blogging community, attending blogging events like BlogHer ten years ago.