SAN JOSE, CALIF. — Compared to last month’s fiesty, combative BloggerCon IV conference in San Francisco, the BlogHer conference here is almost a revival meeting of mutual support and warm emotion. During the jam-packed opening session today, BlogHer organizer Elisa Camahort had women come to the stage to describe how blogging had changed their lives. With each personal story, the audience applauded or laughed along.
From all accounts, this year’s BlogHer has about twice as many people — 700-plus — as last year’s conference. The first session today (the second day of the conference) was in a huge ballroom with chandeliers that was filled almost to capacity. While every table had plenty of power plugs for live-bloggers and their laptops, there weren’t enough Ethernet hubs available and WiFi bandwidth was scarce. Only later could I plug in to get Internet access, and it was very slow. Ah, the pains of runaway success.
So what is it like being a man at a women’s blogging conference? The audience here is about 5% male, so it feels different being here, and not necessarily bad. I feel more like an observer rather than a participant, and have held off in joining the discussions even though I usually chime in with an opinion at most conferences. So far, about the same number of men and women have come up to me to network and schmooze. When I went to the men’s bathroom, I had to wait for the women to come out, as they used the men’s room due to overflow demand at the women’s room. They laughed and apologized politely.
But I knew what I was getting myself into by attending BlogHer, so it’s not upsetting being in the minority. If anything, the experience is pretty eye-opening, similar to what I felt when I got to attend my sister-in-law’s baby shower (in drag). The women here have a special way of relating to each other that’s more open and less combative than men do in the blogging world.
Of course my experience is colored by the panels that I attended: “Identity…and Obligations” and “Outreach Blogging Is Not for the Faint-Hearted.” In the Identity panel, the women talked about their racial identity and how their audience views them and what they write about on their blogs.
Blogger Dawn Rouse (pictured here) goes so far as to put a note on her blog explaining that she’s a white woman married to a black man with an 8-year-old mixed race daughter.
“I blog about everything in my family,” Rouse says. “I talk about racial issues, gender issues, my depression, finding my way as a woman and mother, feeling angry sometimes, and overwhelmed. What I don’t do is represent Black America. I want to be a white ally, and testify to things I’ve seen as a wife of a black man in the U.S. We were driving back from Canada and we were pulled over by the Canadian police. I documented that. The policeman was assuming my husband was a Guyanese smuggler.”
Another panelist, Carmen van Kerckhove, has a blog called MixedMediaWatch and a podcast called Addicted to Race — both of which she does with partner Jen Chau. But van Kerckhove tries to focus on pop culture references to mixed race, and tries not to get too heavy.
“Jen and I are both of mixed race, Asian and white heritage,” she said. “We’re interacial activists. We’re very open about it. We don’t talk about our personal lives but we’re very open about who we are, and how we are informed by our racial identity. We used to have a regular segment called Racial Spy. Things you hear when people don’t realize you’re from a particular ethnic group. We just want to have a way to talk about race without being a ‘celebration of diversity’ or stupid things like that.”
Moderator Maria Niles was a counterpoint to the emphasis on racial identity by saying she was on the panel to “represent the people who don’t want to represent anything at all.” While it’s OK to explain who you are and how your background and ethnicity informs your writing, it’s just as OK to just be who you are and damn the misperceptions. But still, one lesbian blogger in the room said she had to “come out” to her audience practically every week because of all the visitors who came by and didn’t know who she was.
One audience member named Amanda said she had done some research on bloggers, and noted that people use blogs to showcase a different identity than one we might have out in the public face-to-face world.
“Maybe we have multiple identities,” she said, “but our blog forces us to be a certain way. It might not be the way we present ourselves to our mom or to our bosses. I wonder if that’s what we’re up against here, because we have so many identities for ourselves.”
After a pleasant lunch by the hotel pool, I was back for another session, this time even more intense than the last one. This was about “Outreach” bloggers who share their personal struggles with others to help them by sharing those issues so honestly and openly.
The session was moderated by longtime blogger and social researcher danah boyd (pictured on the right, with Mary Hodder on the left). The panelists not only spoke about their difficulties with eating disorders, mental and physical abuse, and addictions, but also talked about how they have to draw boundaries in helping out others who ask for help.
Blogger Leah Peterson explained that she had had a disorder similar to multiple personalities, and had to deal with the stigma of mental illness.
“There’s a huge span of where everyone fits in with mental health — it’s not all normal or insane,” she said. “One of the things I’ve struggled with is writing back to everyone who writes to me. It would be great to write back to all of them, but I can’t. So how can I be myself online, have a bad day and not be perfect? People expect me to be a certain way.”
boyd noted that she tries not to post to her blog when she’s angry. Instead she created a private email list with close friends called “Don’t Post Angry,” where they can let off steam and share how angry they are about someone’s comment on their blog or whatever gets under their skin. “We post the hate and everyone makes fun of it,” she says. “It relieves the heartbreak with all the hatred. To have people you know and love laugh at you, it’s one of the best things I’ve used to deal with hate [without having to post it to my blog].”
Blogger Denise Tanton she did so much outreach in the past she had to stop.
“I don’t do outreach blogging because all these stories [of people in pain] grab me,” she said. “So I will do anything to help them. For seven years, even though I have three kids and a husband, I have been the one who organizations turn to to help people. My entire life was fixated on helping people and it was causing me to not take care of myself. So I had a change of employment and lifestyle. I can’t be the person that everyone calls at 2 a.m. not to binge and purge. I can’t be that person.”
Along with all the warmth, sharing and camaraderie at BlogHer, there was also a good amount of commercial messages and tchotchkes thrown about to snag the female consumer — and the influential women bloggers who might reach those consumers. Saturn had cars available to test-drive, and some booths were giving out schwag outside next to the pool.
All in all, I’d say that male bloggers could learn a lot from the women and how they really connect and share their stories online and offline. And how they work together and support each other rather than viewing everyone else as rivals. Even so, I headed to a friend’s house afterwards for a game of poker, just to counterbalance the day with male energy.
[Photo of opening session of BlogHer Day 2 by Heather Powazek Champ.]
[Photo of danah boyd by George Kelly.]