Wednesday, November 5, 2008


Sorry for the grumpy title. I just finished the paper, and now I've got about 4 hours of sleep before I'm university bound again. No matter how much I overprepare for a paper, it seems "the night before" is always the final completion date. Sigh.
Anyway, for the pleasure of the masses:
“oh, so THAT'S what this is”: Fragmented Unity and Unifying Fragments in the Experimental Progress Blog
For the past two months, my blog, Experimental Progress, has provided me with firsthand experience in online life writing. Over the course of the project, I have become increasingly aware of different blog-related issues. Right from the blog’s origin, I was forced to make decisions regarding formatting and content that had long-term effects. In time, I came to feel that the blog was reflecting a fractured, fragmented view of myself, by producing both a fragmented audience and a fractured tone. However, further analysis brought me to a new conclusion: blogging demonstrates how both fragmentary and unitary interpretations of the self can be exercised and evaluated in simultaneous performances.

The first issue in constructing the blog was choosing which blog server to use. I chose Blogger not because of any analytical consideration of the various servers, but because the majority of the blogs I read used it. This choice, made quite cavalierly at the time, suggests an awareness of online community on my part and even a faint indication of my early concept of audience: most of the people I knew as bloggers used Blogger, hence, I could best precipitate interactions with them by doing the same. In contrast, the choices of blog title and blog handle were extremely calculated. I wanted a title that appeared witty and clever, but could be construed as generally as possible. Experimental was an indirect reference to the class-project impetus of the blog, and Progress was meant to be a mild, tongue-in-cheek mockery of the idea that the blog would progress to a set goal. Taken together, Experimental Progress could mean virtually anything and thus, in terms of practicality, meant nothing. Only in the context of the rest of the site could the intended meanings be attributed. In essence, the title of my blog was a supplement to the content.

The choice of my blog handle, Person of Consequence, is slightly more complicated; while it tries to invoke the same sort of contextual tone as the title, it also arises from my own personal notions of online privacy and self-protection. My personal experience with other bloggers is that few used their real name, and only a small fraction used more than their first name. I decided to follow suit. While there are certainly enough “Michael”s in online existence to avoid easy identification, I chose “Person of Consequence” both to further obscure my identity and to adopt a more flamboyant title. My devotion to anonymity was somewhat questionable; while I avoided proper nouns and place names in my blog posting, in other avenues I was a shameless self-promoter. Hiding on my blog was fine, but I felt no compunction in repeatedly advertising my blog in my Facebook account, nor in emailing the link out en masse to the members of the blogging class. In her studies on blogging, Kennedy concludes from interviews with her subjects that they felt “a distinction between being anonymous and feeling anonymous” (“Technobiography” 130). To this observation, I can further add that my own desire to feel anonymous seemed to travel a one-way street. While I feared readers who stumbled onto the blog transgressing into my pre-existing social networks, I encouraged members from those social networks to participate in my blogging process. At the site’s inception, at least, my feeling anonymous and safe extended only to feeling anonymous among those with whom I did not have a pre-existing relationship.

Autobiography scholar Phillipe Lejeune places crucial importance on the inclusion of a proper name to the author of a text: “The entire existence of the person we call the author is summed up by this name: the only mark in the text of an unquestionable world-beyond-the-text... [the name] is linked, by a social convention, to the pledge of responsibility of a real person... a person whose existence is certified by vital statistics and is verifiable” (On Autobiography 11).

An autobiography, he goes on to state, formalizes this relationship by unifying the author, subject, and protagonist into one “real person,” by means of the autobiographical pact. This definition creates new areas of discussion regarding my handle choice. First, in terms of the medium, the blog is not as complete a unit as the written text Lejeune describes.[1] My own blog is awash outside links and references, from the discreet headings provided by Blogger to my own included links to various other sites depicting lists of urinals or voting stratagems.[2] But while these references indicate a world-beyond-the-text, they do not provide what Lejeune would argue is the true pact between the auto biographer and the reader: they do not prove that the actual text of my blog represents authentic, actual events. Though it is in no way part of the actual blog text, my proper name still provides a verifiable confirmation of my blog, but only to a select audience, those who were lead to my blog through prior established relationships. To those who have reached Experimental Progress through other means, the veracity of my posts is met through other criteria, more specific to the blog form. The subjects in Kennedy’s blog trials felt that they still possessed anonymity despite baring very specific factual information because this information was revealed in the context of the blog. In an inverted relationship, I felt that blog readers would accept my posts without verification because of blog social conventions towards respecting anonymity in bloggers. Lejeune’s social convention that links responsibility of the text to a real person is still present, but it applies differently to different aspects of my audience.

The notion of a divided, fragmented audience suggests that even attempting to create a unified persona in the context of a blog will be fraught with difficulty, and this has indeed proven to be the case. When I was first beginning the blog, one commenter suggested that he or she “definitely recommend getting StatCounter set up on here. Then you can counter-stalk all the people who are stalking you” (“Let’s Get Things Started”). I followed through on this comment, and the results immediately showed a sharp divide in my reader demographic. One group of readers consisted mainly of acquaintances and friends who had been lead to my blog through existing social connections. The other group consisted of those who came purely to peruse my comic book reviews, in the regular “Comic Book Wednesdays” feature.

The feature itself was included on Experimental Progress only through great hesitation on my part. Out of all the possible blogging topics I considered, I felt that it contained the least genuine life-writing, since it was not about me at all, but a critical examination of comic books. Paul Hodkinson, in his essay “Interactive online journals and individualization,” examines the evolution of the online goth culture from close-knit forums to more loosely connected blogs (“Interactive online journals”). Unwittingly, my comic book posts had tapped into a similar subculture, one devoted to comic books. Simply by my choice to make my blog searchable on Google, my comic books entries were found and linked by both dedicated Fables fans at Clockwork Book and by the publishers of the comic book No Heroes, Avatar Press. The “real-life” book posts were often of a more personal nature. While not quite what Laurie McNeill refers to as an extremely “localized textual world” that appears on first glance to wallow in banality from an outsider’s perspective (33), posts such as “Not a Good Start” and “Wait, what time is it?” both involve contexts more easily recognized by those who have established a pre-existing social relationship with me. The two distinct audiences made me uncomfortably self-conscious of the purpose of my blog. Who was I writing for?

I continued both types of posts for the duration of the blog, but I felt uncertain which one I should devote more effort towards, which one would cultivate the best audience. In a nutshell, which “type” of writing was more popular, the comic book feature or the “real life” entries? The answer hinges on one’s blog-based definition of popularity. The comic book audience was more numerous, and infinitely more varied; according to StatCounter, this audience included people from India, Brazil, Italy, and other distant locales, all of them led to my site as a result of the comic book community linking. On the other hand, to date, none of this audience segment has posted a single post within my blog. Without StatCounter, I would be entirely unaware of their presence, demonstrating the impact that inclusion of such technology can have on the blog’s development, and on my perception of its development. MacNeill notes the typical blogger’s extreme desire for feedback (35); the only feedback I received from the comic book audience was their presence. Furthermore, it was difficult, if not impossible, to determine what percentage of these readers were repeat readers, or merely came to read a single review and then left the site forever. My “real life” audience provided more concrete commentary and suggestions that guide future blog entries, and I could measure their continued involvement in my blog through repeated commenting. I found I was unable to choose which measure of popularity was preferable, and taking steps to further secure either of these audiences felt like abandoning the other.

In addition to audience, I also felt fragmented in terms of overall tone. The tone within Experimental Progress determines the audience I could expect, and my conception of the audience frequently colored my tone. Originally, I felt a tongue-in-cheek, lightly sarcastic tone was necessary to work against the formal, structured purpose for the blog, and this tone was present in everything from the title to the “About Me” section: “As part of my course work, I'm constructing this blog. So every word I write in it, and every word you write in it, will be finely combed for intent, routinely searched for rhetoric, and dissected into pieces until all possible meaning has been extracted. But try not to be self-conscious about it.” The warning to not feel “self-conscious” was a warning to myself as much as to the reader; by approaching it in the style of a joke, I hoped to relieve some of that anxiety.

I tried to keep the tone consist as the blog developed. Further entries such as “Bathroom Humour” and “Life is Weird” continue an emphasis on joking, light-hearted topics. Even my choice of images reflects this tone. Kress and Van Leeuwen describe several image interpretation patterns common in Western culture and the larger world. The templates of Blogger itself follow these patterns: the Blogger heading is located at the top of the page, suggesting its status as the ideal, and my own blog as the reality; more significantly, the format of the blog emphasizes what Kress and Van Leeuwen call a “margin-centre-margin” structure (211), with the blog entries in the centre as the main purpose, and made everything else, from previous posts to the“about me” section, marginal. As a personal choice, I tried to eschew anything that differentiates my images from the rest of the text, and instead integrate them as closely as I could. To date, my blog contains ten images, half of which are found in “Comic Book Wednesday” posts. Nearly all of these images are intended either to be humorous in themselves, such as the birthday-capped Gaskell in “Birthday Wishes,” or complement a humorous observation, such as the Tim Horton’s cup in “Coffee Cup” and the sink photos in “Bathroom Humour.” The images I included act as supplements to a broader context.

But at times, it struck me that trying to stay consistent in this tone seemed to undercut not only perceived notions of formalized structure, but my own attempts at self-expression. In “Self Reflexive,” I constantly interrupt larger ideas with parenthetical asides, building to the final set of parentheses: “Very special music plays in the background to ensure everyone realizes that Person of Consequence has learned an Important Lesson. He bows, and the stage curtain closes slowly. The applause light flickers on.” The drippingly sarcastic conclusion virtually attacks the notion that any serious conclusion can be made. Even the reflective essay that I felt indulged in the fewest humorous digressions, “Politics Talk. Worse, Canadian Politics Talk,” is sandwiched between a self-deprecating title and a flippant conclusion: “See you at the Conservative majority in two weeks!”. My tone seemed to indicate a secondary split inside my blog, between serious discussion and a light-heartedness I appeared unable to avoid.

My blogging experience came to embody two different splits, one dividing audience and one dividing desired content and tone. In terms of audience, much of the split arose from my interactions with the comic book reading community. Since I felt that the comic book posts were of a different nature than the “real life” posts (a separation I felt was so critical that I was willing to create the divide between comic books and “real life” in the first place), I resolved to keep them separate. The general format of Blogger made separation apparently simple: I could create distinct posts for both audiences and allow them to pursue what they found interesting. However, upon closer examination, the two were not as divided as I thought; both sets of entries clearly contained text directed towards exactly the audience I thought I was excluding. In “Wait, what time is it?” and “Not Soy Good,” I explain my provincial origins and vegetarianism respectively, details that my pre-established audience all ready know. In the Comic Book posts, I frequently explain elements, such as X-Factor being “a team of mutant private investigators” (“Anti-Life Equation”), that would be superfluous for my comic book readers, but necessary for my other readers. This writing extends to off-putting comments such as “if you don't know what that means, you're standing in the wrong line,” as they are ultimately aimed towards helping the non-comic book audience members—albeit helping them by suggesting that they come back tomorrow. Despite the concerns I created by being overly attentive to my StatCounter, my blog functioned in a manner similar to those Hodkinson describes: it allowed me to engage larger communities, while also making entries that were “significantly more varied and individually distinct” (636). The inclusionary measures suggest that while I am aware of my fragmented audience, I was also trying simultaneously to integrate them as well.

In a similar fashion, my tone was not actually contradictory to my intent in my more serious posts; rather, it allowed a new venue for analyzing the text. Just as the “self-conscious” reference in my “About Me” spoke towards my own feelings of self-consciousness, the tone in the other entries signaled deeper involvement with my writing, and often reflect my awareness of audience . References to “Bathroom Humor” and oatmeal cookie martinis in “Not a Good Start” attempt to create a comical preface to dull the edge of the personal self-examination that follows. The mocking conclusions to “Politics” and “Self-Reflexive” arise from a concern that my audience may find the preceding too judgmental and alienating; rather than undercut the message at hand, such utterances are meant to enforce a camaraderie with the readers and a unity with the greater blog whole. The result is a tone that remains somewhat consistent throughout the blog, but is used for entirely different purposes in different areas of the text.

To say that my understanding of Experimental Progress and the resulting self-interpretation have progressed from fragmentary to unified is an oversimplification. No matter how inclusive I make individual entries, there is still a noticeable and sharp divide in my audience, and despite the new associations it may create, a constant tone can be detrimental to deliberate attempts at self-expression. Rather, I believe that the blog has shown me how unitary and fragmentary conceptions of the self can exist and be expressed simultaneously. Even the format of the blog—individual, highly specialized posts with specific titles, mixed with links, keywords, and an overarching uber-text—lends itself to both a fragmentary and unitary reading. The result is an increased understanding of how different links can be created, combined, and separated to create something that is at once familiar and new.

[1] In fact, Lejeune’s statement that the proper name is the “only” mark in the text of an unquestionable world-beyond-the-text is hyperbolic, in a printed or electronic context.

[2] “Bathroom Humour” and “Prisoner’s Dialectic,” respectively.

If anyone's still reading this, the Works Cited is available on request. Please do not request it.

Later Days.


Kate said...

I got about halfway through that. :) Not because it's (as the kids say) "tl;dr", but because I'm not braining too well tonight and the words started to become the visual equivalent of the voices of grownups in the Charlie Brown cartoons: "woh-woh-woh-waaaaahn." Quite impressive, what I did read. I like the fragmented/unified binary. It reminds me of some of the IT theory we have to take in library school, and the concepts of "one-to-many" and "many-to-one" and "many-to-many" and how that might work in terms of diagramming the theoretical relationships between your blogger identity and your blogger audience....

Like I said, not braining too well, but good for you on getting the paper handed in.

Also: Did you stop getting "No Hero"? After I reviewed it in the comments and everything? :P

Person of Consequence said...

"one-to-many" and "many-to-one" and "many-to-many" brings back fond mathematic memories concerning the difference between countable and uncountable infinite sets. And ssshh on the binary! If my professors suspect me of proposing the existence of a fully unified self, my fragments will be tarred and feathered.
I totally forgot that the new No Hero had come out. Expect a late review next Wednesday.