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On Character

On Character

Here’s the thing: we are all creating characters, all of the time, whether we intend to do so or not.

Heather Armstrong at Mom 2.0

Swallowing the idea that the character of a blogger is a cultural construction is difficult — if not distasteful — for many readers. This was apparent last weekend, when Heather Armstrong (of Dooce) told the audience assembled for the Mom 2.0 Summit keynote that people read blogs because “they care about the character [you’ve] created.” It would be an exaggeration to say that Heather’s comment resulted in a collective gasp from the audience, but I do think there was a moment while we were all processing it, and the moment was punctuated by Maggie Mason (of Mighty Girl, and another of the keynote panelists) quickly interjecting that blog readers, “care about you,” as an add-on to Armstrong’s statement, as if to spare her from the repercussions of having used the word “character” in this context.

Heather Armstrong keynote

I don’t think she needed to do that, though.

I think that the sooner we understand the multiplicities of character involved with texts, the better.

Because it’s not just in the case of somebody like Heather Armstrong, who has been writing a personal blog for years, and now finds herself at the helm of a brand built on a lifestyle and personality that might have changed over the course of the past ten years, that somebody might realize that the notion of character is always shifting. Corporations change their “story” all the time — why should people be different? When — as is the case with Heather Armstrong and Dooce — there is a lot of money involved, it might sound strategic to use this kind of deflection, but that doesn’t make it any less accurate of a description.

Heather Armstrong, Maggie Mason, and Gabrielle Blair

The perception you have of me, upon meeting me in person, is not going to be the same one I have of myself, or the same as the one Mr. Right-Click has of me, or the same as the one Mini has of me. Mini thinks I’m a rock star — he thinks there is no person cooler on this earth than Mommy, except perhaps Daddy, and on some days, not even him. What are the odds you’re going to have the same characterization of me? (And trust me, it’s not because I don’t want you to think I’m a rock star.) Readers bring their own set of contexts, associations, and meanings to your text. That affects their interpretation of you, like it or not.

Bloggers make themselves into texts for all the word to interpret. When you meet people face-to-face who are familiar with that original text, you are presenting them with another, auxiliary text to interpret. Each time you tweet, each time you email, each time you make a public appearance or share a link on Facebook, you are creating another text. Somewhere in the amalgamation of all of these texts exists what people’s assessment of your character will be, and no matter how hard you try, it won’t match everyone else’s. That is the nature of cultural production.

At the conference last weekend, I felt somewhat uneasy going in because I knew there were people at the conference who were uncomfortable with me. But I also knew that the vast majority of the people there did not know who I was, much less what I looked like, so for the first day or so there was a comfort in anonymity. During that time, I made a bunch of well-intentioned, if snarky, tweets about the drama of it all, being in close proximity to Dooce after our recent Twitter exchanges, et cetera. I started to feel a little bit more comfortable. I felt like I could get through the conference after all. Then, about halfway through the second day, I met somebody who connected me, the in-person character, to me, the character on the internet with a blog, and she said, “Oh, you’re the one.” And I came to find out, that somebody, somewhere, was talking about how I had come to this conference “to make a name for [myself] off Dooce,” and that I was going to do something disruptive to try to get attention.

As difficult as it was for me to hear that kind of stuff about myself, I had to acknowledge, as the dust settled, where somebody might get that impression, based on the texts I had put out into the internet. In my mind, the snark and the tweets were not something that suggested I was a troublemaker, but I had to look back at what I had said, and put myself in the context of not knowing my character, or not knowing my inner dialogue, or what moves me to say what I say and do what I do. And I realized that some people might have a legitimate textual basis for that interpretation. And that those people must have been really disappointed with the fact that I didn’t cause some kind of disruption, and that I just asked Dooce a few questions and got a picture, and went on my merry way.

I’ve had several people email me this week saying something to the effect of “When are you going to spill the dirt on Dooce?” But there is no dirt, people — what I said happened, happened. She gave a talk, she looked like she might be a little wary of me, at first (though this could have been in my imagination), I asked her some questions, and she answered them. We took a picture and we both look reasonably happy. The truth is that I’m not much of a troublemaker in person, and besides, Dooce is far more interesting to me as a source of information for my business writing and analysis than she is as a source for snark or a flame-war companion. Dooce is not going anywhere, she’s a player in this industry and I’m going to be watching her every move. And even if I’m not convinced that her deal with HGTV is a good choice for her, her brand, or her family, you can bet that I’ll be glued to my TV set to see what happens.

I made a lot of judgments about character last weekend, but I know that they are all subject to change as I get more information. I think we will all have to accept this as we move forward in this medium, because it’s never been clearer that things are constantly changing, all of the time.

Comments (17)

  1. Feb 25, 2010

    I will forever be grateful for finding your blog through Kerry. Your writing — it’s like it’s massaging my brain or something. You are awesome.

  2. Feb 25, 2010

    I’m blushing. Don’t stop.

  3. genevieve Davis
    Feb 25, 2010

    Thinktink from Twitter here.
    great observations and even better writing. I’ve always found the whole blogger world interesting (and have a blog I rarely post on) but your perspective on this world is so interesting. Plus I actually learn something when I read your stuff!

  4. Feb 25, 2010

    I think about this daily, all the time. You’ve said it so astutely. Great stuff here.

  5. Feb 25, 2010

    I actually found your blog when Dooce offered you a hug via Twitter. I can see how there is a separation between the real live person and the blogger -especially the ‘big’ bloggers. I can’t imagine putting so much of yourself and your business/family out there for public consumption, nevermind the attacks and criticisms. I’ve blogged off and on for about 10 years on a very low level, but yeah, I can’t honestly say what I wrote was ‘me’.

  6. Feb 25, 2010

    This post? This is how I imagine you to be in person.

    I’m glad you had this experience — I think you’re a little bit of Kick Ass Pie and I think this post is only more evidence.


  7. Feb 25, 2010

    This is exactly how I imagine you in person, too. I like you, though, and have always liked you. Yes, you call bullshit, but so do I, and I don’t think, given that for you this is a professional endeavor, that it’s a bad thing. At all. (Even if it weren’t, it’s still not a bad thing.)

    I am softer, too, in person than I come across online sometimes. I’ve had people comment about how they never thought my voice to sound so “small and sweet” (hork) and that they thought I’d be more abrasive, somehow. It was somewhat eye-opening to me, and made me look at how I present myself online without the constraints (freedom?) of my in-person persona and social habits.

  8. Feb 25, 2010

    This is the truest post I’ve ever read anywhere.

    (And I don’t even care if you English majors are laughing at me for pretending “truest” is a word)

  9. Feb 25, 2010

    Great post. The discussion on texts and character is completely fascinating for me. I have certainly encountered that sort of dissonance myself, when people (usually who know me in person) don’t seem to like the character my blog presents. It’s a strange thing to think about that happening on the kind of scale it must with bloggers who have a large audience.

  10. Feb 25, 2010

    This is a great post, Anna.

    I thought it was interesting, as well, that you used Twitter as a little bit of a lifeline/security blanket when you first got there. I’m sure you were a titch intimidated and ‘familiar’ voices helped to grease an uncomfortable situation.

    I have the exact same delivery in facespace, but am told that my tone and inflection (most of which are lost, of course, in print) soften it exponentially, as does my propensity for loving to laugh. My first conference will be an interesting thing indeedy, because I’ll call an asshole an asshole in a minute, but I am also a total hug machine and like for everyone to feel at home.

  11. O agree that online is no different than real life, it’s better to recognize it & deal with it, we can’t control the impressions others have of us all the time but we also do craft who we are for our different roles to some extent. It’s not being a fake it’s just not possible to be all we are all the time, instead we are often seen in snapshots.

  12. Ellen
    Feb 25, 2010

    Enough with the deconstruction. Can we talk about how stupid Heather’s shirt looks?

  13. jana
    Feb 26, 2010

    Thank you! I don’t understand those shoulders.

  14. Feb 26, 2010

    I think of Anna as a total hug machine. The smart stuff comes from her head, but she’s really all heart. You’re busted Anna! The multiplicity of character comes up in interpreting the written texts and real-life actions, gestures, etc., as Anna said, but it also changes over time. Memory fades or evolves, and events are remembered differently. You re-read the same text years later and interpret it in a completely new way.

  15. Feb 26, 2010

    Well, I’ve met you in person and I agree with Mini…you are awesome. You are funny and smart and everything I thought you’d be. I’m glad you managed to navigate your way through the conference without the use of napalm as was suspected you might have on hand. 🙂

  16. Denise
    Mar 1, 2010

    I heart you, Anna. Go on with your bad self.

  17. Mar 19, 2010

    I’ve only just discovered your blog and I’m bookmarking it. Very well-written, insightful, and witty. Thank you for the insights and inspiration.


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