Last week, I was pretty shocked to hear that Dooce (aka Heather Armstrong) and her husband, Jon, have decided to to separate. No, I’m not accidentally posting on my professional blog a topic that belongs on my personal blog (or maybe I am, but I’m choosing to do it anyway). What I’m interested in exploring here is the reaction I observed (both surprise and concern among my real life and FB friends), the shock to our reaction by people who do not follow Dooce, other media reactions to Dooce, and Dooce’s own reaction to this announcement.
I need to preface this by referencing some of my previous research on Julie Powell’s blog The Julie/Julia Project (which became the movie Julie & Julia starring Meryl Streep). My Julie//Julia research started because there was a call for research on blogs and I wanted to study her blog, which I really liked reading. I decided to study sense of virtual community on it because although I liked it very much, I did not believe it was an actual community. Imagine my surprise when I found that a small group of people on this blog actually did experience a “real” feeling of community on it. The quantitative results are linked above and my recent analysis of the qualitative data, which examines the differences between those who feel community and those who “merely” like it a whole lot is looking for a publication outlet. This experience has informed much of my research on other groupings in that I should never assume that I know what is going on for people in their online experiences (a assumption that has prompted me in some of my current research on Facebook).
So back to Dooce. I was honestly so shocked about her announcement that I immediately posted her news to Facebook. (If you didn’t see that announcement, it means you are on my professional FB list instead of my personal list. Should you like to see more status updates about personal things, mostly my children, let me know; if you’d like to know less personal info, let me know that, too!) I needed to understand if my other friends who read Dooce were as shocked as I. I don’t usually talk about Dooce to my real life friends, although I had a funny experience in which a colleague and I were shopping and noticed a pretty light fixture. My colleague told me that a friend of hers had recently bought a similar fixture, but she couldn’t remember who. We both paused for a minute, thinking. I mentioned that Dooce had recently bought one like that and my friend replied, “Oh, yeah. That’s who it was.” We laughed, albeit a bit uncomfortably.
So two things occur to me here: 1) Dooce is stored in the “friend” section in the conceptual map of our social networks, even though we don’t know her. 2) When something unusual happens to her, at least some of us feel the need to sensemake about her experience with “real life” others.
Even more surprising was that Dooce’s separation was covered in mainstream media. For those of you who don’t know Dooce (and if don’t, you aren’t following Mommy blogs–or even personal blogs–are you?), she gets over 100,000 readers a day, was featured on Oprah and makes $40,000 a MONTH blogging*. And if you click on those links, you’ll see that that information was posted on the Salt Lake City Tribune and Jezebel.com, only some of the mainstream newspapers (the Globe and Mail) and web sites (HuffPo, Parenting.com) as well as a boatload of other personal and syndicated blogs talking about Dooce’s separation. Television is even covering it (ABCNews and Dooce’s own local TV Station). As we say in south, and I mean this will all sincerity and not as a put down: Bless her heart.
So this is a surprisingly big deal that people wan to talk about. Why? Is she like Kim Kardashian or some other reality TV star that we’ve been sucked into following? That suggestion has gone around and it doesn’t ring true to me. It may for you, but it doesn’t for me. Why? I (like other mothers who are strong willed, earning a living, and potentially difficult to live with) identify with her. I found this to be very important in Julie Powell’s blog fan base and I think it’s important here. But people (whom I don’t know) identify with Kim Kardashian, too. Right? I think the bigger issue is how mediated Dooce’s blog is compared with Reality TV. Yes, they are both edited: all communication is edited. I am editing right now. I edit my thoughts when I talk. I think Dooce is a good writer because she edits her posts for truth and clarity. But Reality TV is heavily edited, for a truth I think that comes from the producers and not the “star.”
Dooce reveals a lot about her mental illness and her personal disposition that do not put her in a flattering light even if it puts her in a truthful light. That’s why I’m surprised about the reality TV comparison. Yes, a blog is a computer mediated technology, but if you can trust that the blog author is being honest, it’s a very personal, intimate form of communication. (It’s one of the reasons I think CEO Blogs are quite popular with their employees.)
So why is this post here and not my personal blog? Clearly, there is some overlap. I am surprised and concerned about her breakup, a reaction that is not “independent and objective” as we psychologists are theoretically supposed to be in our research. (I don’t believe that is true, but many psychologists do.) I think it’s interesting that someone’s personal blog is having this much affect outside of her readership. I think it’s interesting that even in this day and age, we still don’t agree on what a blog is, which I think has to do more with what computer mediated communication (CMC) or information and communication technologies (ICT) someone reads and the purpose they read them for than what the communicators actually experience on any one site. I think this provides more evidence (do we really need it?) that mediated communication has real effects on people who are distant from each other. I’m not sure this experience calls for more research on blogs, although I do think much of the research I’ve seen has not fully dealt with case studies like Dooce (popular, highly personal, and providing a living through multi-media endeavors). I think it echoes back to my previous research on the Julie/Julia project: I can’t fully anticipate what others feel about her blog and her breakup announcement. For some, maybe this is reality TV. For others, a “friend” we identify is going through a break up.
I’m interested in these outcomes and differences in interpretations. From an organizational science perspective, how does this sort of communication and identity move over to employees, organizations, and professions? From a social psychology perspective, how does such an experience become integrated into our personal and social lives, when we don’t really have others to make sense about it? Or just personally, why do I find this so interesting when others find it so remote? Of course, this is why I like doing what I’m doing. It’s fun. I get to think. And I get to talk about it.
*Should you want to sponsor this or any of my other blogs for even a fraction of that amount, let me know.