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De File
Does Collecting Make You Feel Dirty?
The Box Canyon of Personal Blogging
In response to a series of recent experiences that have left me feeling distressingly exposed to danger, I'm trying to decide a couple of things: 1) whether I should make this Live Journal anonymous; 2) whether I could live with myself if I made that move; 3) whether the real problem is that I'm being forced to make a decision I've deferred until now, one whose very structure I loathe with ever fiber of being, about whether to comport myself in the blogosphere as either a "professional" or a person.

You see, when I started this journal I made an exhaustively considered decision to use my pre-existing nom de plume, one which happens to be awfully close to my real name. While I have total respect for other writers who use the protection of anonymity, I've never been able to countenance using that protection myself. Simply put, I have always believed that anonymity would be a cop out for me. Further, my convictions have led me to do whatever I can to bring transparency into my computer-mediated interactions, providing ample material with which interested parties could piece together a clear sense of what I do, where I do it, and whom I like to do it with.

For better or worse, I concluded long ago that the best means of protecting one's personal space in an era where privacy is under constant assault is to inflect one's interactions in the public sphere with a heady dose of the personal. By consciously constructing a personal identity for a public, people are able to decide which aspects of their private lives to conceal and which to reveal. And, since there are so many different spaces in which that sort of other-directed self-fashioning can transpire, the opportunity to define different layers of privacy is there. Indeed, one of the major appeals of the Live Journal model for me is that the defining of levels of acquaintance in between absolutely public and absolutely private seems to do a good job of mirroring the way real-world interactions work for someone who is using an offensive approach to defend personal space. Even though I've always made my LJ entries public for all to see, the knowledge that I could fold the space of interaction into a hybrid topology, never wholly inside or outside, made me more comfortable with the process of making things public.

What's happening to me now, though, is that I'm caught between the free expression of LJ friends who post under assumed names and the implicit disapproval of non-LJ friends who declare that their privacy is too important to them to reveal their personal lives in an electronic medium. The fact that one of my LJ friends happens also to be my partner and best friend outside of cyberspace further complicates my situation. Lately, I've been hearing advice from both sides to either go anonymous or to sever my public ties with those who use anonymity to achieve a freedom that would otherwise be barred to them. But the thing is, my entire reason for starting this journal in the first place was to stake out an "in between space": between the academy and the so-called "real world," between the personal blog and the professional blog, between communicative abandon and the constraints of rigid self-control. That is, the raison d'etre for this project was to not give in to the pressure to choose one side of a binary over the other, to leave things deliberately indeterminate.

The reason I blog about everything from my frustrations as a sports fan to my theoretical fixations, from my experiences as a parent to my excitement at radical art, from my love of my wife to my love of a life lived beyond the prison of terms like "husband" and "wife" is that I believe there is liberation in not choosing one side over the other. Back in high school, I quoted lyrics from the Rush song "Free Will" on my yearbook page, a source of considerable embarrassed amusement these days. But the sentiment those lyrics expressed, "if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice," is one that I've spent the past two decades trying to read against the grain, regarding the failure to take a stand on one side or the other -- the position that Rush's Ayn Rand-influenced lyricist Neal Peart means to ridicule -- as the potential foundation for an anti-extremist ethics, in which choosing not to decide is transformed from a sign of weakness into a show of strength. In my personal mythology, middle men stand up for the value of moderation, the virtues of mediation, the function of the hyphen that both separates and brings together. And that is why I can't imagine continuing De File as a free-wheeling anonymous venture or a sanitized professional space where all traces of excessive personality are sucked up by the janitorial staff.

I really hate it when other people post entries in which they think out loud about making their LJ existence disappear. I'm vigorously opposed to both virtual suicide itself and the manner in which publicly contemplating it -- even if the likelihood of following through on the threat is slim -- invariably inspires a series of "Don't do it!" comments that reinforce a structure of mutual obligation that I find deeply troubling. And yet, I find myself approaching what feels like an impassable wall of rock, hoping all the while that the flatness I discern right now will turn out, on closer inspection, to be an illusion produced by the distance I still have to traverse before reaching that terminus, revealed instead to have a depth and spacing between the rocks that will make it possible to discover the razor-thin defile that I can pass through to the other side. I fear, though, that this time the dead-end I spy ahead may be precisely that. Maybe I should invest in some rock-climbing gear or, barring that, some high-powered explosives.

Mode: heat-beaten
Muse: Thelonious Monk on the family-room stereo

18 comments or Leave a comment
chefxh From: chefxh Date: July 17th, 2005 11:52 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

rambling disorganized reply

Perhaps it's because I know relatively few LJers in person, or because I make free use of the varying levels of access afforded by custom security. There are times when I squirm over posting something, perhaps to take it private (but almost never delete it) later. I worry, at times, about what presence I have in the occasional dark corner of the Web, more than anything in my LJ.

(You detour me to my insistence on being visible as gay. I dislike the concept of "gay pride" as superfluous, yet I have rainbow colors on my car and my house and my keys. It's crucial for us to be visible. Silence still equals death.)

I abhor the forced abandonment of one's personality for the sake of being "professional." Since I have insisted on being out at work, I care less about what links to my private life may be available online. (My ex's family already plotzed> en masse from my first web page, a decade ago.) But there is still a strong, stubborn Stonewall-era defiance in me about such things:

"You think homosexuals are revolting? You bet your sweet ass we are!"

"You think I'm different? Well, let me tell you how different I really am." -- Truman Capote

I figure if my being queer is the worst people can find out about me online, I'm lucky.

I frown to realize that Livejournal supplies a good deal of my human interaction. What happens to friendship when digitized? I hate those LJ-suicide threats; I never reply.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: July 18th, 2005 01:46 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: rambling disorganized reply

Those are very helpful thoughts. Thank you. I'm struggling with pressures from outside that don't really have much to do with my internal perception of things, but which still leave me feeling rotten.
From: jsterne Date: July 18th, 2005 12:47 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

the choice is relatively simple

Think about it like this: will your LJ cost you tenure at your institution? Will it cause problems in your professional life that you can't ignore? If so, then it's worth considering going private. If not, then what you're really worried about is people passing judgments that have no concrete effect on you. In which case, those people don't matter. Or am I missing some other concern?

Keep in mind that your professional website doesn't link to your blog.

cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: July 18th, 2005 01:03 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: the choice is relatively simple

What professional website? Seriously, if I had one, I wouldn't link to my blog. I honestly don't know what's real and what's fantasy these days. People talk a lot. I feel their pressure as an extremely unpleasant presence in my life. Beyond that, I have no idea what to think. It might not even be my own LJ that's the problem, either. What I do know is that I don't want to compromise my own principles for the sake of meeting diffuse and hypocritical institutional standards.
From: jsterne Date: July 18th, 2005 02:31 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: the choice is relatively simple

Sounds to me like you have your answer then. It's about negotiating the "extremely unpleasant presence" rather than what you do with the blog (or others do with theirs).

cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: July 18th, 2005 02:38 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: the choice is relatively simple

Yes, I suppose it is. This morning I was thinking that it was so unpleasant that I might want to stop doing this LJ. But I feel like I'm getting over that initially extreme response. There's a lot going on right now that's clouding my vision.
bitterlawngnome From: bitterlawngnome Date: July 18th, 2005 01:54 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
you could also not-choose by having multiple blogs ...
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: July 18th, 2005 02:05 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I've thought of doing that. But it's a lot of work keeping track of what goes where. And I feel like there would be something compromising about it, like I'd be half giving in, if not fully. I don't know. Maybe I need to stop fetishizing the proper name. Maybe a little impropriety is in order!
elizabeg From: elizabeg Date: July 18th, 2005 02:14 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I have been thinking about this post all evening. Here are some nouns and nounish phrases that point to lines of thought that have been leaping around like mountain goats amid my rocky mind. They keep me from writing much besides this now. Maybe some of the mountain goats will arrive in cyberspace as sentences sometime soon.

-embodiment and authorship, readership
-reach of embodiment, of fantasy/virtuality, relation of
-my insistence on typing "reach" where convention first had me saying "limit" (reach of vs limit on? semantic implication?)
-guilt, blame, exculpation
-red herrings
-plot as noun, plot as verb
-autobiographical fiction, fictional autobiography
-how I fell in love with Laurence Sterne
-The Scriblerus Project
-what you only know by subterfuge
-to what end, why this phrase makes me shudder, why I don't think that's always a bad thing and yet realize a danger in refusing it (refusing posture of defense it often asks of me) is my forgetting that this is a choice and hence a sort of end or aiming to
-if to what end is a question can my answer be another question, what is the meaning of my asking this
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: July 18th, 2005 02:40 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Thanks so much for this list! It really helps me to see things from a more productive, less self-involved perspective. I think I'm ready for a chat. . . :-)
From: thewhitaker Date: July 18th, 2005 05:15 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Your apprehension is troubling. I am having difficulty understanding whether your blog-fate is in jeopardy becuase of personal pressures or professional pressures. I doubt it would be professional given your ability to couch comments pertaining to work. Moreover, you are not a minority in the field of teaching when it comes to personal blogging.
Your personal LJ is, at turns, didactic and humorous. I sincerely hope whatever pressures are plaguing you will dissolve. These "journals" are opening a new dialogue about the private and the public, and if you would like to think of your LJ as an "experiment," it is one that has gathered power because it confronts important questions about the future of communication. I hope for the best in your case, Dr. Bertsch.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: July 18th, 2005 05:33 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Thanks for the very kind and inspirational words. I'm feeling better about things now. Still shaky, mind you, but better. There have been recent developments in the backlash against personal blogging, particularly in the academic setting, that have added to my sense of being pressured. But I need to remind myself that other people are not me. Paranoid delusions are only healthy when they bring bliss!
masoo From: masoo Date: July 18th, 2005 05:50 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
The New York Times had an ugly piece today that seems related to this thread. Bosses suck.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: July 18th, 2005 05:56 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
The backlash is widening, apparently. That they would run a piece like that is telling. I can't tell whether I should be paranoid or whether I should let my paranoia about being paranoid rule the day. Thanks for the link.
From: zokah Date: July 18th, 2005 01:16 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I also read this and continued to think throughout the day about how the story played itself out. I thought about the motiviation of the nanny to share her blog with her employer.

I also (and I'll stop here) was prompted to think again about the way we live vicariously through that which isn't our reality; a theme I've found myself returning to over and over this week.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: July 18th, 2005 01:25 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Right. It's astonishing how transparent the author of the NYT piece is in demonstrating that she punished her nanny for living a life that she could only live for herself vicariously. I've long been interested in the way that personal blogging generates both problems and possibilities of identification, making it easier to see the complexities that come into play when one writes an "I" intended to be read by an audience of multiple others who will each respond somewhat differently to that pronoun.
From: zokah Date: July 18th, 2005 01:32 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Which threads to the question, When we blog, aren't we indeed writing for an audience which is different than journaling?

How much is a characterization based on what we want or what the audience perceive based on "what is real" - all stemming from what we choose to share and the tone in which we share it?

We're creating our *fandom* based on how we've learned they'll respond. Pavlovian.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: July 18th, 2005 01:42 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I'm always hesitant to invoke behaviorism, whether of the Pavlovian or Skinnerian sort, it being a prime bete noire of the theoretical tradition I inhabit. But there's clearly something useful about writing "Pavlovian" in this context. What interests me even more, though, is your deployment of the notion of "fandom" here. There's something startlingly accurate about using the language of celebrity culture to describe what goes on in the blogosphere. Audiences keep fragmenting. But the possibility of an audience that is, in some sense, one's own keeps us blogging in the hope of securing a precarious micro-celebrity, perhaps with which to offset our sense of being oversaturated with macro-celebrity.
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