Friday, October 2, 2009

Brainsick in Bloggerland: Certifiable or a Writer's Dream?

Guest Post by Paula L. Silici for Talking Writing

Is blogging making us mentally healthier—or the reverse?

Cyberspace is filled with well-written, thought-provoking blog sites. These bloggers clearly know what they’re doing. As a writer and editor, and especially as a fellow human being, I believe their posts enrich my world and make me proud of my profession.

Yet most of us have visited those “other” blog sites, too. You know the ones I mean: poorly written, poorly punctuated, rife with misspellings, and written by individuals who apparently find it liberating to post every banal detail of every waking moment. And here’s the kicker: most come with illustrative photos.

These “other” blog sites intrigue me. I wonder what motivates this second type of blogger to so publicly exhibit such intimacies. Even when the posts aren’t all that intimate, what would compel someone to while away several hours or more each day sitting at the computer emptying oneself out to an ambiguous audience who may or may not care? There must be a pay-off beyond monetary reward that I have yet to understand.

A sizeable amount of hubris is apparently a blogger necessity. I’m a wary blogger myself, barely touching a toe into the metaphorical whirlpool. I worry about the kind of false comfort this medium offers—especially to young people. Are we truly keeping in touch, or are we actually distancing ourselves farther from the human connections we seek?

I feel we're heading toward the latter, but I’d love to hear what others think. I’d especially like to hear from mental health professionals about the impact of blogging on their patients—positive, negative, or neutral.

Consider the following scenarios, one positive and one negative:

Scenario #1: A blogger I know casually and spoke to last weekend at a writers’ meeting raved about how wonderful blogging is. It thrilled her to know that others were reading her daily posts. It thrilled her even more that she was gaining a growing readership and that many had begun to regularly respond to her posts. Their comments gave her “a high like no other,” she claimed. She ended the conversation by stating that her blog validated her and confirmed her as a person of substance in a deeply profound way. People, she gushed, actually cared about what she had to say. She hoped to someday support her family by writing a successful blog.

All right. There’s something to be said for the dizzying gratification writers feel when a piece evokes an immediate response in others. Professional writers who have suffered the gut-blows of rejections by agents and publishers love the fact that they can now be in control of their work’s destiny. In spite of the current brutal publishing industry, audiences are able to instantly read and respond to an author’s work. This is a good thing, right? A healthy thing.

Then there’s the down side.

Scenario #2: I’ve talked to other bloggers who rarely, if ever, receive comments on their posts. Their reports, of course, aren’t so glowing. Full of hope, they began blogging out of a genuine desire to share with others who they are and what they think and feel. But when nobody responded, the rejection cut deep. One blogger I know, crushed by this experience, quit after only one week in the arena. He later told me he discussed this with his therapist.

There are other scenarios, too. Another blogger writes because, he says, it’s a cathartic, therapeutic experience. He doesn’t care if anyone comments. He simply loves the fact that he’s been provided a “really cool” platform to vent. (He blogs under a pseudonym.)

Oh, yes. And what about those bloggers who publish fictitious “true-life” experiences and post a bogus photo of themselves? Perhaps making up sensational stories that titillate readers is a means of transporting them beyond reality and into a fantasy world where anything and everything is possible. When readers respond to those posts favorably, it’s as if the blogger is given permission, indeed, encouragement, to continue the ruse. Healthy? Unhealthy? Hmmm.

The Internet allows us to visit blog sites anonymously. Hidden in the shadows of cyberspace, we can look through the windows of our monitors and act the voyeur. Blogs allow us into the sometimes outrageous, sometimes shocking, sometimes totally boring lives of others.

But when communicating online, we can no longer touch the person we’re communicating with. We can no longer look them in the eye or hear inflections in their tone of voice or witness the frown or smile on their faces. Yes, photos and videos can be posted; but still, we are once, twice, sometimes thrice removed.

Everyone wants to feel loved and accepted. We all want to feel that our opinions count. Blogging (and for that matter, FaceBook-type sites and Twittering) can provide a certain sense of belonging, a sense of community. Yet who are we kidding here? I know of people who begin first thing in the morning and spend countless hours blogging, reading, posting, and commenting. By doing so, they attempt to perpetuate those warm-fuzzy sensations of community and rightness and well-being. But an addiction is an addiction is an addiction. Any addiction that replaces reality with fantasy is bound to be unhealthy.

I shudder to imagine a lonely world where people no longer gather together in person to discuss issues important to them, or where heated conversations no longer end with a warm handshake or hug. Oh, wait! I-M the psychologist. We just may be there already.


  1. Blogging has enabled me to be in contact with writers I would otherwise never have 'met'. I enjoy reading other people's take on the issues writers face and also enjoy reading their comments on my blog. Writing fiction is an isolating profession. Any contact is good, but face to face is always best.


  2. Paula,
    I think/hope a balance is possible. I love the idea of having a platform to write for. As someone who earns her living by writing for a specific organization in a pre-defined area and with a voice not entirely my own, blogging has freed me to write about the topics I'm most interested in. It is an opportunity to write in and develop my own voice and an opportunity to experiment.
    But I too share some of your concerns. With the ability to self-publish suddenly everyone thinks they can write. Not everyone can. Just as not everyone who can click the shutter of a digital camera is a photographer.

    So will blogging lower the standards for good writing? I don't think so as long as there continue to be good writers blogging.

    I also share your concern about the way all these forms of communication have made real communication more elusive. I have had to put my foot down a bit about that with my friends.

    In some cases I tell them, if you want to reach me, if you want to make plans, please pick up the phone. I spend all day at work chained to a computer. I want to spend my leisure time interacting with you directly rather than through my computer.

    I've had lots of fun reconnecting and joking on FB and Twitter -- today I posted a whole stream about my silent "protest" at work because casual Friday was cancelled because a 22-year old job applicant was going to be on the premises. What was the protest? I wore a tie and let off a lot of steam tweeting and leaving posts on FB about the difficulties of doing so.

    It may not have been as effective or as dramatic as Norma Rae standing on the factory table holding a sign saying 'union' but it sure was fun.


  3. With the work "protest," Judith, you're talking about an interesting interaction between real world--you on the job in a tie--and riffing about it on social networking sites. This allows you to riff both with people physically at your workplace as well as those online, an overlap that potentially extends the camaraderie far beyond the water cooler. I like it!

    As a professional writer, I find blogging both liberating and also extremely necessary for promoting my work. I don't think writers can avoid the marketing side of it now, at least most of us can't.

    But I often find myself debating about the quality and content of blogs, and whether and how much they add heft to the literary universe. I find Paula's post provocative for this reason.

    It's another version of the old question of how personal should one's writing really be?

  4. Great post. And good points with the comments. I think of the blogging universe and social networking sites as a very nascent technology still. It's pretty clear that the publishing industry needs to figure out how to use "Web Log" technology to supplement, or supplant, the magazine function.

    Also, I think the writing's on the wall, so to speak, for marketing books, stories, essays, mags, etc. through FaceBook (as far as I can tell, publishing houses provide writers two main functions: 1) quality control through editing; 2) marketing and distribution of product). As always, we humans lag behind our inventions.

    Nice and thought provoking piece!

  5. Thank you, Elspeth, Judith, David, and Martha for your honest, thought-provoking responses.

    I have always had a love/hate relationship with my computer, and especially with the Internet. While the Internet is a fabulous information and networking tool comparable to none, I often find it a huge time gobbler.

    Elspeth, you mentioned that writing is an isolating profession, and this is so true. But blogging is lonely, too, to a certain extent, as we're still not face to face with our audience as we communicate with them.

    Martha, I thank God that the Internet allows me to "push" my work and advertise inexpensively in a grand way like no other. I am constantly amazed when I receive email from strangers who've just happened to surf into my Website and like what they saw there. So I agree. We writers should feel liberated. We've got a marvelous, effective tool in our hands at last, which in turn gives us autonomy and independence from the traditional publishing industry. We can reach audiences instantly as never before, and this is a good thing. Unfortunately, as Judith pointed out, cyberspace is also rife with some really bad writers out there thinking they're Steinbecks. Yet, I suppose, like all societies, there's room for everyone on the Internet, and each individual must decide for him or herself what satisfies.

    I agree with David that our Internet Universe is a nascent technology, and that we're raging just beyond the starting gate of where this technology is heading. It sort of reminds me of when the telegraph was invented, and for the first time lightning-speed technology made it possible for people miles apart to communicate quickly. Same with Bell's telephone. Soon telephones appeard in every home across the country. Neighbors could talk with with one another, albeit once removed, without having to haul the kids into the buckboard (or whatever) and travel five or ten miles to do so. And when engineers set the trans-Atlantic cable in place, Europe ended up in our laps. Wondrous stuff, that. So as much as I gripe about the Internet, I respect it for the fabulous invention it is. I understand it isn't going away any time soon, nor would I want it to. It will evolve just as we watched the telephone evolve into the cell phone, and just as we're currently watching cell phones evolve. I know this is cliche, but it's a Brave New World we're stepping into and I am curious to find out what that World will be like decades from now--the psychological and social impact the Internet will impose upon us. Interesting subjects to think about, anyway.

  6. I find two issues here: blogging to build a readership and blogging for social contact.

    The published writer or the writer hoping to be published feels much pressure from agents and publishers to establish a platform. A platform, as I understand it, is defined as the aggregate of a writer’s marketing efforts: the work (obviously, but alas often not most importantly), the website, the blog, and how many hits/comments/mailing list sign ups received.

    When Max Perkins was representing both Ernest Hemingway (well-known) and Archie Binns (not so much), publishing was a much more nurturing world. Authors selected to be published were allowed 1) time to build a readership and 2) the full support of publishers and their resources. Things are different today. It’s a more bottom line driven world. Often the first question out of an agent’s or editor’s mouth is, “How much of the promotion can you take on yourself?” The second: “Are you able to put together a promotion team to ramp up marketing efforts?” That is because, unless you are Sarah Palin or a best selling author with a well-established readership, a publishing house is wary about sinking too much money into producing your book.

    It would be lovely if these houses would use their networks and contacts and resources to promote, much more efficient and less scattershot. But a publisher will be cautious about investing up front, waiting instead for a more proven sales track record. The artist, wearing two hats, often wears the money-oriented marketing one uncomfortably but has to suck it up and do it. Or turn out his or her own pockets and pay a third party PR group for marketing help.

    A blog (or a fan page or a website) can be a low cost marketing tool. It can also be the direct path to being read. Read immediately, in the case of a blog; or being read somewhere down the line, by building up publication interest through exciting updates on a website. I once had a writing teacher who, when I told him I was painfully shy about having others read my work/reading my work aloud, asked me point blank, “Then why the hell do you want to write? Writing communicates. In order to communicate you have to be read. No one works in a vacuum.”

    Exactly. My epiphany moment.

    And these days, a writer’s being read more and more often means being read digitally.

    When we start talking about writing on cyberspace as a way to communicate essentials about the self to as many people as possible because of isolation in today’s work-driven, cubicle-centered world, then we’re into really huge questions about what we’ve become as a society.

    There are many lonely people in today’s world. Their combined commute and workday may total upwards of 12 hours, leaving them little time for more than their TV and a computer to experience contact with others. They may not have the benefit of time to get out and interact face to face; or perhaps they do occasionally have time but are so out of practice they can’t figure out the wheres and hows (Where do I find people? How do I meet them?) of real social interaction. For a lot of these people, blogging may be their way out of loneliness– not the best way perhaps, but the way they’ve chosen for themselves.

    All humans, not just writers, have mouths for speaking and ears for listening. In fact, I might take my writing professor’s statements one step further: Humans communicate. In order to communicate as a human you need to speak and be heard by another. No one human should live in a vacuum.

  7. Jane -- I love your "epiphany moment." I wonder if we could get you to write a guest post about these issues, or the epiphany you had regarding getting your work out. You are so right that the social-connection aspect of blogging raises huge questions about what we've become as a society. I persist in finding hope in this trend, because as we cycle into increasing anomie in our real workplaces, here we are typing away our thoughts, still using (primarily) text to convey who we are. I think storytelling is basic to being human, and it's still shining forth amid all the media noise.

  8. Paula, this was an interesting article, but I think, overall, that blogging is NOT a healthy activity. I only do it to promote Moonlight Mesa Associates and the titles we for promotional stuff, blogging is a "free" form of advertising. Personal blogs are pathetic. Few people have that many original ideas. We just become more and more isolated and addicted to our electronics.

  9. I beg to differ with "few people have original ideas." Based on my experience with magazine journalism, I'd have to say that the mainstream media is the greatest purveyor of conventional wisdom. I see far more original thinking in online discussion forums and blogs than I do in newspapers these days. And the discussion fostered by a NY Times blog—or more mainstream book review blogs like Paper Cuts and Book Bench—is arid compared to what you see on many non-corporate sites.

    As with so much in the media, it all depends on the niche and readership you're building with a blog. But I find it hard to condemn even the most diary-like of blogs as pathetic. When in human history have we not wanted to share our thoughts and feelings with others? What's wrong with that?

    Blogging and Facebook and the myriad ways to interact electronically can become addictive, of course--but I would ask why it is addictive. The need for connection with other humans is very, very strong, even if we've lost some of the art of doing it face-to-face.

  10. Yes, Jane and Martha, the Internet as forum for thoughts and ideas--no mater how profound or how trivial--and especially as the new social arena, is here to stay. Indeed, we human beings possess an intrinsic need to belong, to feel connected to others, and to feel accepted. It is astonishing to me how in just a few short years the Internet has so widely influenced nearly every aspect of our everyday lives.

    I've spent the last two weeks in California caring for my 86-year-old mom who underwent some minor surgery. Mom doesn't own a computer, which means no wireless connection in her home, no Internet access whatsoever. She says she's not missing a thing. Of course, you and I know she's missing plenty, but in her uncomplicated, WWII-generation world, the thought of navigating the Internet terrifies her. She tells me she doesn't want to get caught in its Web. (Pun intended.)

    Before I left for California I decided that lugging my laptop along would be more bother than benefit, so I left it home. I also had the bright idea that it would be good for me to sort of "fast" my computer time while away, or in other words, discipline my urges and tame my mild addiction to email, blogs, Facebook, and my favorite sites. Well, I'm sorry to have to confess that after three days of abstinence I about went stark raving mad. I NEEDED to check my email. I NEEDED to connect with all my Internet "friends," even if those friends have never met me and have no idea I'm checking out their sites. Thank God for public libraries!

    Becky, thank you for your comment. I agree that some personal blogs are pathetic as far as structure and content, yet even those deplorable posts represent the effort of some lonely soul out there who may not have any social outlet or means of expression other than via their blog site. This "loneliness factor," and not so much what is said and how it is said, is what makes those particular blogs pathetic.

    Despite the Internet's many pitfalls, it's also a marvel like no other. This is why I wish my mom would let her kids buy her a computer. As it goes in every other aspect of life, the World Wide Web will be whatever each individual wishes to make of it.

  11. Lovely reflections about your mother, Paula, and I love your admission that you went "starkers" without your laptop(!) Yep, we're hooked. And I want you to write more for TW.

  12. What a pleasant set of comments here. I hope others are lurking and paying attention. Good, strong women writers and editors serving up wisdom and thought provoking ideas (and me...). I will say one last thing on the blog/social networking malaise we are all so sensitive too:

    As a part-time writer for 25 years, I have struggled to get agents and editors to pay attention to me. I have to admit that I went through a phase with blogging first and then FaceBook where I was just addicted to having a way to put myself out there. I put soooo much into some of the pieces I've written. And yet soooo few people have read them. Now that I'm a full-time writer, while I struggle still, I am no longer addicted to the allure of "putting myself out there." It's so liberating. I see this technology mostly as a set of marketing tools and don't let my ego drive what I'm working on. It's much better that way.

    This, I think, is not so much a function of maturing as it is simply going through the doors of the Internet blogosphere/FaceBookasphere and getting over the sexy, bright lights of the video representation of my words on the screen.

    For what it's worth, though, take a look at my essays on David Foster Wallace and Ralph Ellison at my Formality of Occurrence site.

    Thanks again for the great discussion here. Time to get back to work.


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