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On May 22nd, The New York Times Magazine ran a front-page feature about blogging. The author, Emily Gould, a twenty-six year old former editor of the website Gawker, as well as publisher of her own blog, Emily Magazine, revealed the problems of leading what had become a very public life. She’d written about friends and family, and in two instances about relationships that had ended badly and of which she ultimately wished she’d never shared the details. The article, much like the blogs that Gould had written for, allowed readers’ comments to be posted on the site. By the afternoon of the next day there were over nine hundred of them.
In Gould’s article, and other articles on blogging, the question arose of why anyone would write so personally about themselves for a potentially mass audience. There are blogs covering politics or music or restaurants, that retain anonymity for the author, but there are more personal blogs too, where the author gives a look into their lives, not unlike a reality television show or a tabloid magazine. Because of the subject matter, sometimes as ordinary as what someone ate for breakfast or a weekend on Cape Cod, the personal blog becomes a sort of journal and the view that it offers is in turn candid.
By expressing so much personal information and allowing comments to the author, bloggers develop very direct relationships with readers. In her article Gould admitted to becoming dependent on reader comments, pining over the reactions of strangers and the link created between her and an invisible audience. While comments on Gould’s Emily Magazine site, the benign journal of a twenty-four year old Brooklynite, tended to be sympathetic, those from her writing on Gawker, a media gossip site, were often hateful. Since Gawker covers media and celebrity gossip with unflattering sarcasm, readers’ input could be expected to be incendiary, but even in the case of the New York Times article, reader comments were overwhelmingly negative. Taking up ten pages of on-line space and a front page photo spread elicited questions of why the Times thought Gould’s story was of interest in the current political and economic climates. Gas hits four dollar a gallon, mortgage foreclosures are rampant, the war wages on, and the Democrats still don’t have a nominee – and yet the Times chooses to allow coverage of what could easily be seen as the vacuous story of a gossip-mongering twenty-something. “Thanks for exhibiting the empty narcissism of so much blogging,” wrote one reader. “Awful,” added another. “Why is this New York Times worthy?” It should be noted that abusive comments were vetted by the Times staff, although much of what appeared on the website seemed to push the boundaries of constructiveness. “Since when is adolescent blather Times material?” asked a reader. “Dreadful, uninteresting stuff.”
When criticized for giving so much attention to Gould’s article, Times editor Gerry Marzorati argued that the number of comments to the piece alone demonstrate its importance. Certainly Gould herself was able to attain a wider spectrum of fame through the Times than she did through Gawker, even if the fame was followed by waves of angry commentary. In today’s publishing world, blogs are a stepping stone to editorial jobs, book deals, or even (as happened to celebrity blogger Perez Hilton) a television series. Gould’s predecessor at Gawker is now the on-line editor for Vanity Fair. Blogs get picked up by publishing houses and re-worked into books that have an established readership well before their release date, effectively blurring the lines between content and marketing. Going by the Times comments, blogs may not be well liked, but they do have proven track records, which for publishers and editors is more than most authors can guarantee.
For all the reasons to write a blog, despite the costs of exposure and potential reader backlash, what is it that compels people to read them? On most blogs fact checking, balance of opinion, and well edited writing are rare. Even if a blog merely recommends a restaurant or tells the story of a visit from in-laws, it is still an un-edited viewpoint directly from the author to the reader. In terms of artistic or educational value, looking at pictures of what a stranger ate for breakfast, the same as pictures of Britney Spears in a convenience store, can produce a negative result – a feeling of numbness or upset over having read something so uninformative. As Gould pointed out in her article, “reading Gawker left me feeling hollow and moody, as if I’d just absentmindedly polished off an entire bag of sickly sweet candy.” Like an issue of Us magazine, reading the celebrity sightings of a gossip blog can be like watching someone get picked on, while the one dimensional stories that crop up in many personal blogs can be like watching a hidden camera in a room full of people doing nothing. And yet people read them obsessively, tuning in for each new post or gossip installment as though it were a worthwhile saga.
In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud argued that the super ego, by battling the more primal instincts of the ego and the id, led to an inability to find happiness in society. Civilization, Freud argued, was something that limited the individual by provoking cultural frustration and the restriction of liberty. Laws and social norms hold us back, and the benefits of society are merely the things that allow us to overcome the problems we’ve created. Freud, by measurement of his proclamations, was not entirely progressive. While it was, and remains, a common belief that individual behavior is the result of community, Freud argued that community itself was the result of individual behavior, and that behavior, when confronted with civilization, led to an inability to realize happiness. “Civilization,” defined Freud, “describes the whole sum of our achievements and the regulations which distinguish our lives from those of our animal ancestors and which serve two purposes – to protect men against nature and to adjust their mutual relations.” In examining society, a product of civilization, Freud argued, “a person becomes neurotic because he cannot tolerate the amount of frustration which society imposes on him in the service of its cultural ideals,” adding that, “the abolition or reduction of those [society’s] demands would result in a return to the possibilities of happiness.”
Using Freud’s premise, if community behavior is the result of combined individual behavior, and the individual’s creation of civilization is reflective of an inability to find happiness, it would reason that individuals would seek refuge from community. Places of seclusion, physical or otherwise – art, music, or fictional or narrative worlds that are removed from a world of reality. But in recent years our places of refuge have increasingly become communities that mirror civilization. Blogospheres, myspace, reality television – all of them regularly turned to in times of leisure — are in fact alternate forms of society, the very thing that Freud argued was driving our neuroses. Reality television hosts cooking and hairstyling competitions, jobs that fall well within the realm of ordinary. Tabloid magazines show pictures of celebrities who, without their tabloid celebrity, have little reason to be famous. And personal blogs show journalers in everyday situations–working temp jobs, dating, satisfying their urge to sample every pizzeria in Queens.
Yes, these are situations that an audience can identify with (I too can eat at In-N-Out, just like Britney) and they are also situations that an audience can compare themselves against (I can sing just like contestants on American Idol). The thrill of comparison is the reason it’s always the initial rounds of reality contests that are most interesting. Contestants fail miserably and the audience gets the chance to believe they could have done better. By the end of the competition the remaining hopefuls are no longer the same as the rest of us; they’re professional dancers or chefs or fashion designers, and to an audience craving an extension of their own society, they are hardly interesting at all.
Freud wasn’t shy about suggesting our ability to hate ourselves. His initial theories on the pleasure principles of the id and ego later evolved into what become know as the "death drive", focusing on sadism and later masochism – an organism’s instincts not only to live and experience pleasure, but also to find death and pain. With his idea of a death drive Freud also argued that eroticism and libidinal satisfaction came with psychological costs that complicated the notion of a simple instinct towards pleasure. Reading a personal blog, watching strangers live together on The Real World – a show that could be credited with starting reality TV– is this not voyeurism repackaged as family entertainment? And who, by nature, is the voyeur? Not someone with high opinions of themselves; otherwise they wouldn’t spend time watching the lives of others.
Reading Gould’s Emily Magazine posts, the topics range from her reactions to news and television shows, to reviews of books and gossip about authors, to short mentions of the coming and goings of her and her friends. There’s a story about being selected for jury duty, one of hanging out in a bar, one of how hard it is to make any money as a freelance writer. There’s a story on buying and then returning a dog and a few about Gould’s cat and one about the cat getting diabetes. Some posts are only a few sentences long, as was the case on the fourth of July. “Happy Independence Day!” wrote Gould. “I am not going to touch a computer all day. I feel like I’ve been, like, hogging the internet.” Other posts are simply a title with a link to another website. Click on "What words have been added to your cell phone dictionary", and up pops the blog of Gould’s friend Ruth who posted something about text messaging – a paragraph of random words and then the statement, “That list is pretty much the most perfect 100 words written about the last six months.” Had someone followed Ruth’s blog for six months then the words, pompadour, potty, probs, prosecco and puked might be relevant, as they apparently were for Gould.
"Over sharing" is an accusation common in blog criticism. The details of a person’s life are their own and shouldn’t be made public. Why do we need to know about someone’s text messaging habits let alone the fact that they’ve just been dumped by their boyfriend? But more than the content it’s the means of delivery that implies such openness. Not only are details revealed but they’re revealed in real time – here I am being dumped, here I am at the computer telling the world. In her essay "The Love of My Life," Cheryl Strayed tells the story of cheating on her husband and then being left by him. None of the gory details are spared and the essay is wrenchingly personal, but because it wasn’t told on the spur of the moment its sincerity seemed to override its over-divulging. Strayed’s essay made her life public, but it did so in a way that told readers she was comfortable with telling her story. That Gould regretted being so open in her blog was inevitable given her means of instant exposure, which in turn gives readers an unpolished snapshot of something they probably shouldn’t be looking at in the first place. Peppered among tales of holiday weekends and sick cats are the clues to someone’s life, spied on by an audience ready to draw knives.
Is a guilty pleasure something we partake in because we know that it’s bad but we like it anyway? Things like donuts or suntans. Or are they things that bring no pleasure at all, things with the benefit, as it were, of not only being detrimental but of making us feel miserable too? Many of the nine hundred comments on the Times website expressed worry that the newspaper was headed downhill, that coverage of topics like Gould’s blog would mean less coverage of actual news. It’s an obvious argument but the fact is the Times still covers actual news and, barring any ownership changes, will continue to cover actual news. The comments may have been written with the intention of debunking blog writers, of making Gould feel like her story was worthless, but the fact is that the readers had just willingly plowed through a vacuous ten page essay. After, say, negative reaction number five hundred, wouldn’t people stop commenting? Does it become hating merely for the sake of hatred? No one made them read the article, no one made them take the time to write such angry comments, because no one needed to.