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Blog networking study: presenting oneself through blogging

This post is part of the series describing the results of the study of blogger networking practices. Please take into account a couple of things:

  • This is a draft. Healthy scepticism and comments are very welcome. A few specific questions are at the end of this post.
  • Statements are linked to the names of people who talked about particular issue, those might be true or not true for others.

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Weblogs become online representations of their authors, who talk about weblogs as “the core” (Ton), “the record” (Dave), their online presence and a “long-term commitment towards yourself and your personal brand” (Luis), something that continues to represent them as they change (“I can change my job or interests, but the URL will be the same”, Martin). Euan provides an example of the role of blogging in that respect talking about someone he works with who does not have a weblog:

He is using Twitter and some other things… It feels like miasma – I’ve got nowhere I can point people to because he doesn’t got a blog and the other bits are too dispersed. So [the weblog] is like a core, a gravitational pull. (Euan)

The interviews bring several choices in respect to bloggers own presentation through blogging. First, they need to make themselves visible through writing to those they would (potentially) like to reach. Then they shape their writing to address the demands of different audiences that their weblogs expose them to. Finally, they just “let it be”: allowing their “true self” to be revealed through blogging and to be constructed by others.

In order to be present, to exist, bloggers need to be visible to others by writing their weblogs. For Luis the need to start blogging in public came from experiences of blogging internally and his dissatisfaction with a “half-way conversation” with KM bloggers who couldn’t see comments and links from his internal blog. He talks about the need to blog externally to have proper conversations, to become one of KM bloggers, “to build up a community of people to share”, “to help me to position myself as a thought leader within the field”. He says, “[blogging externally] allowed me to have a public face, a public voice”.

For Monica, it was important to be able to put her name on previously anonymous weblog once her authorship was discovered by a journalist and become known in her organisation. She talks about her own practice of checking weblogs of others to find out who they are and dissatisfaction of not being visible in the same way. She also provides an example of a need to become invisible when her former colleagues commented on her presence with them even after leaving the research group (that didn’t support her PhD aspirations), as a result of continuing to blog about her ideas:

I had mixed feelings, so I stopped posting work-related things there. […] I felt used. (Monica)

However, writing a weblog is not enough to be present as a blogger, it is also important to use the language that potential audience will understand. Gabriela tells about creating a blog in English next to the one she wrote in Romanian to be able to connect to bloggers she met at a conference. Monica and Martin, who write primarily in Portuguese and German as a way to connect with their national audiences, talk about struggles to make choices between languages. For them connection with local audiences comes at a price of being invisible to their English-speaking network that they address once in a while by writing in English.

With a weblog one may be also present to different types of audiences: peers, existing or potential clients, and friends. Relations with those people involve different ways of writing and interacting that do not necessarily coexist well together, resulting in a need to shape the way one is represented by a weblog.

Martin provides an example by telling what led him to stop blogging 1,5 years ago, referring to the dynamics around his weblog as one of the reasons for it. In the German-speaking internet his weblog became “quite famous” and got exposed to a “different sphere of people”, who expected him to “be a pundit who knows everything”. From one side he wanted to play that role as it allowed him to get more business. From another side catering for these expectations in his weblog collided with the open and vulnerable style of blogging necessary for learning and networking with peers. At the certain moment there was too much confusion, so he decided to stop blogging. According to Martin, blogging for marketing purposes “has a different attitude and you get clash of the contexts”.

Even when blogging is supporting one’s business as in the case of Dave, it is important “not to push your ideas”:

if you say interesting things or link to interesting stuff people will come and talk to you anyway (Dave).

In additional to managing tensions that might arise around different professional uses of a weblog, there are also choices about the degree of revealing personal details of one’s life in it. While many respondents emphasizes the blurring boundaries between personal and professional, professional contacts and friends for both business in general and blogging in particular, they also limit the degree of exposing personal details in a weblog. Euan notes that weblogs “rely on you having an opinion and expressing it and it’s not the most easy thing in a work context.” Monica considers many bloggers she knows friends, not professional contacts as she observes the details of their lives that “only friends have a privilege [to see]”, however, she is also not comfortable revealing too much on her weblog: “I will not talk about myself. For me blogging and being in public are the same”.

Given the impact of blogging on one’s reputation it is tempting to think of it as a way to construct a favourable image of oneself. However, the interviews hint that while weblogs may be viewed by bloggers as their online representations, their uses in that respect may not be fully intentional and directed. Not only bloggers comment on networking as a side effect of blogging rather than an explicit purpose for it, they also seem to believe that there are limits of how much their image could be controlled.

For example, when talking about his weblog as a “trustworthy anchor point” for his clients, Ton explains that it works that way “because you can’t fake six years worth of blogging”. Dave, reacting to my comment about his experiences of presenting to big audiences says “keynote is a performance, blog is more intimate” and then tells about being surprised with “the degree you reveal yourself on the weblog”, sharing “half-formed ideas” and starting to “chat with people as they were your friends”.

Blogging under one’s own name as a professional might be one of the reasons not to “fake it” as others can eventually get into a closer contact anyway. For example, Euan tells about the temptation to become “more guarded” to address increasing business risks of blogging when getting self-employed and his decision against it: “it’s better if people know what I’m thinking before starting to pay me”. Martin, reflecting on his experiences says that now he would rather express what he thinks and “people will appear who appreciate that”.

In addition, bloggers are not only “revealing themselves” to others, but also exploring who they are, through their writing and reactions of people to it:

I existed and had a life apart from my existence, just because of the insights I put in the blogs I created… I also discovered things about myself I didn’t know… when more people started saying something about me. (Monica)

One can have a preferred image of oneself as a professional, but readers of a weblog construct their own anyway based on weblog writing, as, for example, with Nancy, who tells about others positioning her weblog as a “KM blog” or “educational blog”, when she doesn’t view it this way.

Participants view their weblogs as their online representations and also shape their actions accordingly. In order to “exist” for the audiences they may want to reach and potential connections to emerge bloggers not only need to be blogging, but also do it in a way connected to one’s name, continue blogging over time and written in a language that the audience can understand. While there they have to draw boundaries of what and how to include in their writing, they also let their image to be shaped by their writing and their audiences.

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This is the part of the results that I’m most unsure of, so any comments are welcome. If you are a blogger I’d love hear how much what I say here is true for you personally.

Things that are not covered here, but would be interesting to discuss as well:

  • how “my blog is my online identity” works for people with multuple blogs and mainly contributing to a multi-author blog
  • how bloggers deal with addressing multiple topical audiences of their blogs – are there any struggles there?

I’m also thinking about this whole issue in respect to identity management and playing with a couple of ideas from Goffman (giving vs. giving off via the weblog, weblog as a backstage), so if you are into those things I’d love to talk.

{ 10 comments… add one }
  • Jason Priem November 28, 2008, 20:19

    I think that bringing in more Goffman sounds like a wonderful idea; I would also drop some authors like Turkle in as well. The issue of identity construction in blogging is a great one to explore, and I think would benefit from a closer inspection of the last decade of work into online identity in general.

    I would love to see you expand a bit on how the audience helps guide that identity; you mention how Nancy’s audience has placed her in a role (as Goffman might say) that she’s not entirely comfortable with. Is this a common occurrence? To what extent do these unanticipated audience reactions alter the performance of blogging?

    You do a good job of looking at how bloggers may filter their identities less in blogging than in other types of discourse; as you suggest, I would bring out Goffman’s concept of ‘backstage’ here: by revealing ideas that aren’t yet fully structured, the blogger is letting the reader into a privileged area. Goffman’s ‘masks’ might be good to bring up as well.

    I’ve been busy working on my rss tagcloud project (your post on using word clouds to compare two texts helped launch that one–thanks), so this is the first of this series that I’ve read; I’m looking forward to going back and checking out the other ones.

  • David Brake November 29, 2008, 15:07

    Perhaps you could dig more into why these people feel they should be sharing personal details on their “public” (work) blogs? Do they consider it something people expect from the blogging medium? Is this ‘personalisation’ of business relationships linked to larger social trends? Do some or all of them have separate private blogs for friends or family? If not, why not? And how does this relate to use of SNSes by your interviewees? (Mind you I am guessing it’s probably too late for you to address this with your interviewees now…)

  • Lilia Efimova November 29, 2008, 19:26

    Jason, David, first a bit of clarification – things discussed in this post were not central to the study, but emerged as a theme, so some questions that you ask I can only address as “further research questions”. Also, my knowledge of the (online) identity research is pretty much on the surface…

    Now to the specific things:

    On unanticipated audience reactions and how they shape the performance of blogging. One of the reasons that I’m a bit concerned about bringing performance/identity management as a frame in this case is that I see blogging as both identity exploration and performance. Also, in a sense, all audience reactions in a case of blogging are somewhat unanticipated and they do shape what happens next. (Just remembered an old blog post on networked identity).

    Don’t know for sure in Nancy’s case, will see if I can catch her to ask 🙂

    On personal issues on the weblog. I guess I should extend this part to say a bit more. From what I can see most of the reasons of bringing “personal” issues come from the belief in the importance of personal side at work and partly from learning over time that those things are normal, not scary and might be beneficial in a case of blogging (btw, those things were more explicit in the Microsoft study). A couple of participants have more personal weblogs, but those far from the diary-style personal blogging. As for the SNSes – still have to post the part on making choices between tools, there is a bit there.

    But in general, I think both of you touch the issue that I should make more explicit – there seem to be some degree of agreement that getting to know another blogger happens as much “between the lines” as in the text itself, which has implications on how much one can actually “perform” and also on how “personal” a weblog is.

  • Lilia Efimova December 3, 2008, 16:02

    David, just realised that the issue of whether the participants had private blogs is more complicated – most of them are on Twitter that serves many functions of the personal diary…

  • David Brake December 11, 2008, 13:30

    This is of course a constantly-changing field of study – I’m guessing that your respondents weren’t twittering until fairly recently (when is the “cut off” when you decide fieldwork is over?). And Nancy (for one) appears to twitter both publicly and privately (using different accounts).

  • Lilia Efimova December 13, 2008, 02:47

    Sure, they started using Twitter relatively recently (however, many are early adopters of it). There are some glimpses of how things changed over time in the interviews, but I didn’t even try to focus on those.

    As for Nancy: she doesn’t use her other Twitter account. She has a more private (content-wise) travel blog, but hardly writes there. I also had an opportunity to ask her about her reactions to discovering how others position her blog (re: Jason’s comment), she said it didn’t have any effect on her writing (well, it was something like “I just ignore it” – have to check the audio).

    That’s one of the reasons why I really do not feel like talking about blogging in terms of performance – it assumes too much intentionality…

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