BlogHer ’08 is a week over, but it goes on for many of us who were given a lot of food for thought at the conference. Here at this blog, my critique of one of the panel discussions that I found disappointing has sparked great debate and tripled my traffic. (Okay now there are nine people reading.) Here’s the first post on the subject and here is the second. They’ll give you the thread, and the comments, especially, will give you
lots to chew on.

At one point, Evany Thomas, who was on the panel I criticized, bravely weighed in with explanations and a very generous and professional offer to answer any questions I thought weren’t covered.

But the discussion has gone far beyond that panel (which in the scheme of things was only disappointing when judged by the high standards of the rest of the conference). Now, thanks to some very articulate readers who have posted comments or emailed me, the topic evolved to “What do bloggers owe their audiences?” and “Can bloggers, who are putting the most intimate details of their lives out there, complain that people are judging them?”

The debate was sparked by my observation that many so-called “A-List Bloggers” and bloggers who identified themselves as having a high readership are sending up a collective moan that “People think they know me. People are judging me. People are posting mean and critical comments about me.”

Again, we are far beyond that original Conference panel, who did NOT voice these comments, although many in the audience did.

Is a personal blog business or something else? What are the rules?

We’re still at odds over this question. And much of the debate centers on whether your blog is a professional space governed by the need for professional behavior. Professional behavior such as not getting all weepy if someone doesn’t like the “persona” you put out there.

My contention is that a blog that invites readership with personal revelations in return for reward for the blogger (monetization, increased professional opportunities, fame or just an ego boost) IS a business, whether you want to call it that or not. And if your “customers” want to complain or comment about your “product” (which may be you or the “you” you put out there), they have that right.

However, Evany says she sees a separation or at least more grey area between a personal blog and something that can be termed a business.

People who write about their lives online are not quite the same thing as reporters or even actors because bloggers are writing about themselves, not covering news or playing a role. Of course we do so voluntarily, so for that reason, we give up our right to complain. But still, when we lose that clear line between “work” and “me,” there is a new level of difficulty to the art of how to negotiate criticism. 

Evany also has no problem saying she’ll act “unprofessionally” on her blog and in relation to her blog if that is defined as being upfront and honest about her desire to be liked. (See her comments on my second post.) I’m starting to see her point.

If I may interpret, I think she’s saying “Why can’t we make our part of the Internet a kinder place? Why should we blindly follow the old business rules?”

And there is a part of the blogisphere where different rules seem to apply. For instance, blogs where people gather to share sensitive and emotionally-charged information about topics such as cancer, autism, children with disabilities, weight issues.

Even if such blogs are heavily monetized, they are healing spaces where you should tread lightly and respond only to further the discussion in a positive or helpful way.

Sadly, some people don’t, just as some people are incredibly rude in real life. Unfortunately, the anonymity of the web seems to encourage the worst in the worst of people.

Stephanie Klein shared a horrifying story related by a woman who attended BlogHer’s forum on children with disabilities. In response to her shared stories on her blog about a child with autism, one troll flamed:

“Why don’t you drink more mercury so you can give birth to another vegetable?”

Obviously, people like this should be expunged from the Internet. And have a fork stuck in their mousing hands. And their laptops thrown under a bus.

What’s allowable for responding to a personal site that is more along the lines of “A Day in the Life”?

Evany, judging from her engaging site, owes her popularity to projecting herself as “The Bestest Girlfriend Ever”. I would assume if you didn’t want her as a best friend — whether in life or CyberSpace — you would just not visit her site.

But people who can’t stand certain blogging personalities do seem to keep haunting their sites or critiquing them on other sites – almost to the point of obsession. This apparently happens a lot to Heather Armstrong AKA Dooce and she’s one of the biggest moaners about “being judged”, “being treated like a character” and “people say mean things about me.” (Here’s just one example.) I suspect many fellow moaners, especially among those who would like to duplicate her success, are adding their moaning in a “monkey see, monkey do” kind of way.

Can We Say New Media, New Rules?

While it’s tempting to want Evany’s desire for a kinder, gentler Internet, and certainly this seems to be a desire shared by many bloggers I met at BlogHer, a nagging bit of history keeps haunting me.

Back during the Dot.Com bubble, my design firm was making a lot of money trying to help start-ups with too much venture funding brand themselves. I can’t count the number of times I sat down with a 24-year-old Grand High Poo-Bah of Whatever (who just six months ago had been a Starbuck’s barista) and struggled to get a straight story on their targeted market, their product’s benefits and draws for that market and their marketing strategy. I was often airily waved away with “Oh, we don’t need to bother with that stuff. This is the Internet. It’s all different now.” Cue the Dot.Com Bust.

Seems, even with new technology, people buy for roughly the same reasons the Sumarians did: They need it. They want it. Or they’ve been convinced they SHOULD need or want it.

So even though blogging is a relatively new form, can we expect human nature to be any different? Based on your actions, words and even appearance, some people will like you, some people will hate you. And various people have more or fewer inhibitions about telling you.

Add to this mix, a medium that invites intimacy among total strangers and is it surprising that readers you don’t know may weigh in and make personal remarks: “God, are you going to wear THAT? Have you gained weight? What you said was stupid.”

In her insightful comments, M of M’s Blog, pointed out that, even in this grey area, there’s a product and a buyer. And the “product” is the blogger or the persona she puts out there. Michele thinks there’s no room for hurt feelings in this mix and most comments, within reason, are fair game:

…if readers positively relating to and bonding with bloggers based on their blog content is considered acceptable and even encouraged, but readers who dislike or misinterpret that same persona based on the exact same content are complained about and seen as inappropriate.

Many blogs are successful precisely because readers relate to the persona of the writer and feel they “know” him/her. Why should the reception to interpretation of the blogger persona be a problem only when the audience perceives the writer in a way the writer does not wish to be recognized?

Interesting point. And she further states, this is just one more area where, sadly, we can’t have our cake (the fame, the monetization) and eat it too. (We’ve got to accept there will be consequences to being public.)

When you put yourself out there. You become a brand. Own it.

It’s not often I quote the wisdom of Super Models, but I always admired Cindy Crawford’s clear-eyed assessment of her “product”. She always tells new staff members: “You work for Cindy Crawford. I work for Cindy Crawford. Cindy Crawford is NOT me. Cindy Crawford is the brand.”

I would posit that any blogger who puts themselves out on-line is not only “a character” (despite Dooce’s assertion that she isn’t). You are also a brand. You can take control of that brand or you can sit and whine that someone doesn’t like you or is misrepresenting you.

Angelina Jolie, in the face of constant tabloid press, has done the former brilliantly. She’s reinvented herself as a humanitarian and now rises gracefully above the noise and scum of the tabloids. I’ve rarely heard her dignify any rumor with an answer as she keeps herself focused on the presentation of herself she wants to make.

Now how many of us think of her and immediately conjure the blood amulet wearing, the Lebian experimentation, the brother kissing, and the Billy Bob Thornton weirdness?

We as bloggers have a secret weapon Angelina doesn’t. We can just delete negative comments or block trolls from our site. It doesn’t stop comments on other sites, but we can always ignore those and keep the discussion on our site where we want it to be. Why get bogged down? No matter what was said about her, if Evany just kept being Evany on-line, she’d still attract her core audience. (And again, I’m using Evany as an example. She evidenced only an upbeat, engaging sense of wonder and gratefulness at the audience that showed up at her conference panel and on her blog.)

We also have another advantage. The people who hate us, yet still show up on our sites or put our names out there are just adding to our traffic. And our monetization potential. So to Dooce and her fellow “they say mean things about me” moaners I would say: whether they love you or hate you, as long as they show up and keep your name out there, they’re keeping you in Ikea furniture. How’s that for Instant Kharma?

Have these burning questions been answered? Decidedly NOT.

I’ve answered nothing here. But I think we’ve uncovered a hot topic that needs to be debated more. I’d love to see a BlogHer ’09 panel covering this. They’d never get some of us out of the room or make us shut up. But I’m betting it would be really interesting.

Let’s suggest it to Jory Des Jardins, Lisa Stone and the other fearless BlogHer leaders.