Give a Blogger Enough Velvet Rope And She Will Hang Herself: (Very) Extensive Notes on BlogHer 2009, Social Niceties, Social Media, and Branding The New Web Order
Are there cliques within the parenting community at BlogHer conferences? Is there an “in” crowd of mommy bloggers, or does blogging really allow us to finally break free from the social, geographical, political, racial, ethnic, and class boundaries that still alienate us in our daily, “in real” lives?
Based upon my experience the past few days, the short answer to this common question about social politics at the annual BlogHer conference is a resounding no. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of people I encountered at BlogHer 2009 were exceptionally friendly and welcoming, even to an admittedly difficult and socially awkward newcomer like myself, and even during those moments in which we silently acknowledged the improbability of our friendships, marveling at the fact that, under other circumstances, we were unlikely ever to have become friends, if our paths had ever crossed in the first place.
A more accurate response to this admittedly complicated and multilayered question about the community created by blogging is that yes, there is a “cool group” within the parenting blogging community, and within the community that annually attends the BlogHer conference, and that the odds are that no, this “cool group” probably doesn’t like or even care much about you, who you are, or what you have to say except insofar as it concerns them directly. If you approach them, they will become unconfortable, and if you follow them on Twitter, they will probably not follow you back. And if you try to go to their parties, you had better well adhere to their admission requirements and forms of compliance or else expect rejection. And even if you do adhere to these forms, you might get rejected anyway.
The good news is, though, is that this “cool” group is comprised at least in part–though not exclusively–by shallow, self-important, immature, and extremely insecure fucksticks to whom you shouldn’t give the time of day anyway.
Nowhere was this more apparent to me than at Friday night’s Sparklecorn Extravaganza party thrown by MamaPop, a smart, slick website on popular culture that I happen to frequent myself, which boasts among its (unpaid) writing staff some of the best writers I’ve found in the tiny corner of the internet that I like to call home. I have a lot of stuff to say about this event but before things get very clouded by my structural analysis of social media branding and sponsorship, let me just summarize what happened to me when I tried to get into this party on Friday night. I will start by acknowledging that, as usual, I didn’t follow the rules: I did not RSVP for this party, a practice which was stated clearly as a requirement for admission to the Sparklecorn Extravaganza, due to constraints of space and resources. And I cannot plead ignorance on this front, either, because I am a reasonably frequent reader of MamaPop, so it’s not like I didn’t know about the RSVP requirement
I just didn’t do it.
I expected to sweet-talk my way into this party because, let’s face it, it was being thrown by a bunch of bloggers and, honestly, how fucking hard could it possibly be to get in? I have successfully sweet-talked my way into plenty of trendy LA and New York bars and clubs, and I quite frankly could not imagine the door policy at a BlogHer 2009 party presenting a challenge more formidable than that of Jones in 2003, Sway in 2001, or the tasting menu night at Geisha House in late 2004.
This refusal to follow protocol, to jump through hoops (even if they are reasonable), is a product of my own arrogance, and I fully acknowledge and accept responsibility for this. But I am not everybody. What about the other thirty or so conference attendees lined up outside the door of the not even one-quarter filled ballroom holding the Sparklecorn Extravaganza? Many of these (mostly) women were hand-wringing and hair-tearing about getting into this party, having not known about the RSVP policy in the first place, not being regular MamaPop readers, not being deemed cool or important enough to have received a private, unsolicited personal invite from a party organizer (I know this happened in at least one case), and ultimately, being surprised by a strict door policy that was not used by any other party at the conference, with the exception of the official BlogHer policy of checking BlogHer 2009 conference badges for admission to conference panels.
But what about the people who DID jump through hoops, who DID RSVP, and were still turned away because their RSVPs were “lost”? Personally, I know of two people to whom this happened, and since I only know a grand total of about four people all together, that’s a (counting on fingers) 50% failure rate right there. A quick search of Twitter yields two other cases of “lost” RSVPs (examples here and here), and a public mocking of somebody’s method of trying to finagle a way into the party. (Incidentally, these are just the people talking about it publicly–if we could search DMs and email who knows what kind of debauchery we might find?) Coincidence? Poor planning? Selective email recall? Mac-versus-PC related screw up? A zero where there should have been a one? A glitch in the Matrix? You tell me, ladies.
But are there hurt feelings? Oh definitely, that we can confirm.
Sponsorship and Branding Implications of the Velvet Rope
The Sparklecorn Extravaganza had several sponsors, including Federated Media, (the advertising network of both MamaPop and several of its proprietors), Six Apart Media (an advertising network used by some sites run by or affiliated with MamaPop’s owners and/or contributors, and an affiliate of TypePad, the blogging platform used by several MamaPop contributors and on which MamaPop itself is run, and a BlogHer sponsor that has been criticized in the past for scheduling exclusive private parties to conflict with the BlogHer community keynote); Dove (a cosmetics company that has received acclaim in recent years for featuring campaigns encouraging women to accept and love their bodies as they are, and which at present runs a public service campaign to encourage body image acceptance among young girls); bTrendie (a commercial website targeting the parenting blogging community that offers special deals and admission to special discount sales of baby and children’s gear and the sponsor of several other events at BlogHer 2009) and Yahoo! (an internet mainstay named after the Houynhnms’ perjorative term for a hairy, stinky and uncivilized version of humans that so disgusts his horse superiors in the third book of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels).
Disclaimer: I’m not familiar with the terms of sponsorship for the Sparklecorn Extravaganza, and I do not know, for example, if the terms of sponsorship included clear instructions for how the branding should be handled by party organizers. I have to assume that there were some ground rules, though, since many of the sponsoring companies are multi-billion dollar enterprises with fairly standard practices for brand management. Here’s another problem with social media and branding, though: if MamaPop is first and foremost a business, a money-making endeavor that can procure sponsors for its events, then surely it owes those sponsors some consideration in how it handles the social niceties that fair or unfair will reflect on its sponsors.
What I do know is that the signs posted outside of the event associated those brands with what was happening at the door of this event. And I also know that the sponsor’s logos that appeared on signs posted several places, inside the event on the step and shoot (a promotional tool which is traditionally placed outside of an event for maximum exposure of the brand to the largest audience possible–marketing tip is free of charge,). Inside, sponsors set up booths or stations, as is their practice at the BlogHer convention, and gave away promotional products in some cases to party guests, which is also standard practice for these kinds of events.
The most positive thing I can say about the branding done at the Sparklecorn Extravaganza is that I was able to procure for myself a free tube of Dove Cinical Protection antiperspirant/deodorant, a product that I had used regularly and loved before going to the Sparklecorn Extravaganza, and which I will continue to do now that the Sparklecorn Extravaganza is over. But I’m not sure that this is wholly good news for Dove, since now I will use their product whilst remembering that I got it at that fuckstick party thrown by MamaPop at BlogHer 2009.
Blogging Implications of the Velvet Rope
A lot of the problem with what happened the other night, for me personally, is operating at a symbolic level with oodles of plausible deniability, naturally, and for which many people (if they’ve even read this far) will dismiss as once again “reading too much into things.” I get accused of this a lot, as you might imagine. That’s OK. I do know what a degradation ritual is: I spent 11 years in academia. I had to walk into oral examinations knowing at the outset that I knew the material like the back of my hand, that they knew that they were going to pass me ultimately, but not before they stuck it to me, just a little bit. Not until they made me feel—in spite of all the empirical evidence to the contrary—just a little bit stupid and not good enough. They would let me in—would have to let me in–but not until I agreed to do it their way, acknowledged that they—still—were the ones in power.
The way that you get people to participate in a degradation ritual is that you pretend, while adopting a voice of authority, that what you are doing is legitimate. You get people to allow you—nay! to implore you to jump them into your bullshit gang by making believe, making yourself believe, that what you are doing is necessitated by some other, higher outside force beyond your control. That you will run out of alcohol at a party, even when the person wanting to gain admission is a sober alcoholic who certainly won’t be taxing the spirit resources of your party, or by claiming that the hotel has strict limits on space and occupancy, even when a room is not even a quarter full of bodies, and the sponsorship tables are still full of deodorant samples and free promotional thumb drives.
But most of all, you get somebody to participate in their own degradation ritual by holding out a promise to them—a promise that, if you play by the rules that you’ve set up for everyone based on ephemeral, (if any) authority, maybe they’ll one day get to be the one to do the jumping-in. If you do it our way, maybe one day you’ll get an assistant professorialship for $38,000 a year. If you do it our way, maybe one day you’ll get a contract with Federated Media and get to write for somebody else’s website for nothing or worse. Keep dreaming that impossible dream, comrades!
Being told that you cannot enter a party that is even not halfway full due to space constraints is not a humiliating experience on that scale by a long shot. Not for me, and probably not for most people, but it still sucks donkey dicks. Mostly that is all I felt like saying, believe it or not. But as I thought about it more and more, I started to think about other people and what they might have thought when being faced by the same situation.
And I started thinking about the woman who left her kids for the first time to attend this conference in Chicago, from a small town in a flyover state somewhere south of Nowhere You’d Ever Go, who scraped together just enough money to attend this conference and meet some people that she reads and idolizes on the internet? Who weighs a little more than she likes? Feels like her clothes maybe aren’t quite as nice as they could be? Feels already a little bit insecure but is hoping that this time–maybe this time she ‘s found a place where she can be a part of it all? How do you think your policy “necessitated by space and requirements of the hotel” makes her feel? Do you think she’ll notice that nobody else used a similar policy during the entire conference? Do you think that she’ll overhear someone say that the majority of the party’s budget (provided by its five corporate sponsors) was used to buy a giant cake shaped like a unicorn? Do you think that when not even the person working the door can commit to the “necessary” policy of exclusion enough to enforce it without hedging with “It’s not my policy, it’s Tracey’s,” or “Tracey paid for my ticket, I have to do what she says,” do you think she’ll have read Hannah Arendt on the banality of evil, or will she just think, wow, who is this Tracey person and why doesn’t she like me?
Do you suppose she’ll be buying any Dove products any time soon? And if she does, do you think she’ll write about it on her blog?
Before you object, no, you are not obligated to be friends with anyone and everyone who reads you: this is neither desirable nor even plausible. But if you are first and foremost a business, then you do have an obligation to your sponsors. Or, alternatively, if you are first and foremost a community that craves the respect of its readership, then you have an obligation to treat them fairly and with consideration. And I think you are smart enough to know what that means without the hair-splitting and deflection.