Once a collection of off-the-cuff ramblings in cyberspace read mainly by online devotees, local blogs are now reaching a more personal level and a bigger audience
In the infinite crevices and cubbies of the World Wide Web, people fitting seemingly every description have set up house and become the celebrity narrators of their own lives. They’re bloggers, residents with addresses in the worldwide blogosphere. Their visitors, who may live across the country, suddenly become story-sharing neighbors online. The messy and unfathomable cybercommunity includes Sacramento-area bloggers who quote Bible scripture while analyzing current events, post passionate but inscrutable love poetry and show off digital photos of their favorite breeds of rose. Masters of their own single-page Web sites, local bloggers may fancy themselves essayists, diarists, humorists or political wiseguys making valuable contributions to a cacophony of blog monologues on life’s minutia. Even if they only post links to weird tidbits, they’re providing readers with lots of info on such major-media stories as the Virgin Mary’s visage as it appeared in the crusty color variations of a grilled cheese sandwich for sale on eBay. Original or not, each of these online voices is competing for your attention.
To understand locally specific blog behavior, we turned to a unique Web site called the Sacramento Top 25. Created by one-time political-campaign strategist John Bressler, it’s a list of Web sites, including blogs, automatically ranked and based on popularity (there are actually almost 100 sites in the database). Popularity is gauged by how many people follow links to and from the Sacramento Top 25 list. Although this isn’t exactly verifiable, Bressler thinks his compilation may be the only ranked list of regional content online. (In the spirit of full disclosure, it’s necessary to mention that a small number of Bressler’s listed sites feature employees of SN&R or their friends.)
Based on the number of hits, blogs are gaining on content-rich Web sites like Sacramento Top 25’s frontrunner, RetroCrush, which claims on its banner to be about “monsters, sex, and rock n’ roll” but really favors trivia about popular television from the 1970s and 1980s. One of the other favored Sacto sites consists entirely of real-time video from a camera pointed at some Sacramento resident’s fish tank. That’s it. Just fish. But Fish Voyeur often is ranked in the top 10.
Recently, the best bloggers have come in right behind the fish.
Cori Crooks began posting to her own unique version of a blog after years of playing in bands, making jewelry and pottery, and writing. She’s obviously attracted to a variety of creative outlets. When she discovered free blog software, Crooks realized she could augment a narrative with uploaded pictures and audio files for complete multimedia storytelling. From Blogger (at www.blogger.com), Crooks chose a template and began filling it up with text and images of family artifacts. She didn’t have to know HTML or pay a fee. Online, free blogging software is the ultimate equalizer.
Like lots of creative people, Crooks experimented with the form and content of her blog. Rather than maintain just another personal diary, she tried something more provocative. She chose to grapple with the murky history of her family and ultimately create a “historical fiction” about a journey of discovery she began this summer.
Crooks’ decision to blend fact with a little fiction is probably one that many bloggers make, but no one is obligated to disclose that to the reader. There have been hoaxes and false dramas played out in blogs that have led involved readers to feel used. Debate continues in the real world and online about how much truth is out there.
On A Gag Reflex, at www.agagreflex.blogspot.com, Crooks introduces her story this way: “This blog documents the search for my identity… and the discovery of my family. Join me as I battle personal demons and sort through a wack-ass legacy left to me by my Dead, Drug Addict, Con-Artist Mother.” What an opener.
Crooks said that she learned, beside her mother’s deathbed, that her biological father might be an old friend of the family. More than a decade after this confession, Crooks wrote to the family friend with the news of her mother’s death. She asked him to help confirm her parentage. In August, she published the letter online as the first entry in her blog.
According to Crooks, her mother relied on a lot of fantasies, exaggerations and lies while raising, and sometimes abandoning, her seven children. Only as an adult did Crooks learn to question and dismiss much of what she’d heard: that the family was under the protection of famous Hells Angel Sonny Barger, for instance. In her blog, she recreates that confusion for the reader. Without disclaimer, Crooks retells her mother’s fantastical stories, weaving them together with her own memories of her mother’s outrageous behavior. The resulting narrative is an account of one complex woman’s life, seen through the eyes of her daughter—who’s pissed.
Once or twice a week, Crooks moves the story along with a new chapter, about either her evolving relationship with her new family or something pulled from memory: one about sending pictures to a potential sister who recognized Crooks’ nose as a family trait, another describing in loving detail the various couches she slept on while growing up with her unreliable mother, and a third about her possible father’s response to her request that he take a DNA test to prove her parentage. He said he would, claimed Crooks, “as soon as the season slowed, as soon as he wasn’t driving those 13 hour shifts—as soon as he stopped dreaming of hauling apples and my Mother’s face.”
In her blog, Crooks’ story evolves as it evolves in real life. But Crooks is also highly aware of her audience. Her posts are short, poetic. They let time slip forward and back. They are not a true chronological list of events.
“Art needs an audience,” said Crooks, who’s now a stay-at-home mom shattering many of the stereotypes that title implies. Online, she’s referred to as a “hip Gen X Chick.”
“My blog works with this really attractive young lady,” said Crooks, referring to her mother, and “the story of how she ruined the lives of seven people,” she added, referring to herself and her siblings. In one snapshot, Crooks’ mother, a fresh-faced beauty, dances in a frilly white bikini and shiny high heels, thrusting her pelvis forward like a go-go dancer while a full-length mirror reflects her almost-exposed backside. She’s magnetic.
The blog wouldn’t work as well, Crooks said, if her mother were presented as she was in middle age, a tired woman who’d lost a lot of her sparkle. What Crooks posts and what she leaves out are chosen strategically to interest the reader—and to satisfy the blogger herself.
But not all readers understand her artistic intentions. Crooks was recently attacked by one site visitor offended that she’d Photoshopped the messages “A good child will pay honor to their mother and father” onto a fortune-cookie fortune and “Who’s your Daddy?” onto another one. Her fans defended her.
In spite of the support of most visitors, Crooks is sensitive to issues of truth and lies. Even though her mother was unreliable, Crooks still retells her stories in her posts. Why not? They make great reading. And they were part of Crooks’ personal mythology growing up. She’s given the reader enough background to question whether such stories are her mother’s fictions: that she danced in Beach Blanket Bingo with Annette Funicello, or that some of Crooks’ siblings were related on their father’s side to the real von Trapp singers portrayed in The Sound of Music.
On a regular weekday afternoon, with her dark hair hanging in her eyes, Crooks watched her 2-year-old son from a backroom in her West Sacramento home. She shook her head. “She was not in Beach Blanket Bingo,” said Crooks. “In this day and age, the reader is obligated to know that not everything is true.”
In spite of Crooks’ stated feelings, she still vacillates, grappling with the fact that her blog only tells a portion of her own story—the portion that “gives my mother a good ass-kicking.” The blog doesn’t celebrate the life Crooks lives now with her partner and her son in their own home. It doesn’t include artifacts like her mother’s last driver’s license, showing the sunken cheeks of a tough old broad who’s lost her teeth. Instead, it faithfully recreates the rambunctious, man-eating young fireball with star quality—and a lot of bullshit stories.
The blogosphere has responded with huzzahs. On Sacramento Top 25, A Gag Reflex has been rated as high as No. 8. Crooks’ tracker claims she’s had more than 6,500 visits in her first three months online. As the ultimate compliment, other bloggers have posted links to Crooks’ site and left her haunted comments praising her writing style. Her site boasts a small number of awards and a somewhat self-aggrandizing list of friends who’ve read her blog since it debuted. The list is titled “I Swallowed.”
As the blog progresses, Crooks moves, just like a narrator, toward the climax: the day her potential father takes a DNA test. Because the line between Crooks’ life and art is so thin, one might assume that she’s tempted to affect the story, actually alter her life to improve her material, but she denies this. She does, however, buy into the idea that writing for an audience can be a type of therapy.
Crooks loved her mom intensely, she said, but writing down the screwy details reminds her to parent her own son devoutly and avoid unnecessary contact with drug-addicted family members.
“It’s very cathartic,” said Crooks. “My adult way of detaching. Or maybe it’s my way of making it more dramatic. … I’m so used to drama.”
Crooks’ creative mix of life and memory and myth and blog has inspired other people to use blog software adventurously. Kim Mordecai, a freelance writer in Orangevale (who freelanced for SN&R briefly a couple of years ago), is another stay-at-home mom who hates all the mommy clichés of women in smocks who have nothing to talk about but their kids. And yet, Mordecai’s first blog was all about what? Her kids.
She still maintains the site at www.bluehavenboys.blogspot.com, a running diary of her sons’ early years, as a gift to her children, though it also resembles a diary for herself. Very cute kid moments emerge next to guilty confessions regarding real and perceived bad mothering: “I’ve yelled at both my kids recently. Yes, the 6 month old has apparently been very bad.”
Partly because she’s raising two boys while wars in the Middle East are so prevalent, Mordecai’s been thinking about her father’s service in Vietnam. Or, rather, she’s thinking about how she’s rarely thought about it before, because his experiences were quietly and systematically hushed up.
Mordecai got up the courage to ask her father to submit to a series of filmed interviews about his service in Vietnam. Already a friend of Crooks, she began reading A Gag Reflex, and with Crooks’ help, conceived of a blog that was part diary and part documentary—what she calls a “real-time blogumentary.”
Mordecai now posts short— sometimes graceful and sometimes creaky—narratives about watching her father tell stories, at www.dioxinresidue.blogspot.com. Her father hasn’t yet come completely alive as a character, but Mordecai, as a blogumentarian, has. She chides herself for soft-serving him questions that he can deflect easily, and she wonders whether she’s capable of being a cool and impartial interviewer. Unlike Crooks, Mordecai seems to agonize over her responsibility to always write the truth. The journalistic concerns are as interesting as the war so far, but Mordecai admits that she and her father are just getting to the tough stuff.
“It’s scary,” she said, not yet sure of how her father handled himself at a time when atrocities were commonplace. “I think he’s really honest with me,” said Mordecai, who spoke glowingly of her relationship with her father. “But he doesn’t talk to me like a war buddy,” she said.
Titled “Diary of a Baby Killer’s Baby,” Mordecai’s blogumentary is another chaptered blog that’s right up there next to Fish Voyeur on Sacramento Top 25. It’s still young, and Mordecai can barely find time to post once a week, but already there are chapters devoted to her mother’s miscarriages, perhaps a result of Agent Orange, and chapters about her own fears: “I’m beginning to lose sleep over my own story. Beginning to wake at 3 a.m. and wonder if it is my story. Is it mine to tell? Am I good enough to tell it? Am I reliable? Competant? What exactly does this job require? I scan my qualifications and they always appear to fall short.”
This responsibility to objectivity and getting the story right is an interesting trait of Mordecai’s. You won’t find posts about the issue on Crooks’ blog, or on most others. Crooks’ fluid approach to the truth might make some purists, including journalists, a little uneasy, but she has no obligation to meet their expectations. A blog, whatever else you can say about it, is entirely individualistic.
Categorizing blogs by their topics or intentions is a risky endeavor, but BlogExplosion (at www.blogexplosion.com), one of many Web sites devoted to people who blog, has tried. Its list of categories suggests a few emerging archetypes in blogging. Based on registration numbers, “personal diaries” are the most popular type of blog. Crooks and Mordecai probably fit into this category, but they’re obviously different from one another and diverge completely from strict logs of everyday events.
Diarists usually post once a day or once every few days, and they favor intimate details: daily routines, romantic feelings, ennui, personal drama, the details of high-school band practice. These blogs are like open windows into your neighbor’s front rooms. By blogging, people provide you with a pair of binoculars.
The second-largest category, excluding the category “general/misc.,” for commitment-phobes, was the “political” blog. These come in various shades of red and blue, and can be screechy and preachy, or include a hefty mix of religion, or tend toward the biting and ironic. Only one rule applies: Right after the presidential election, most Democrats apparently felt obligated to sound pathologically depressed.
Behind politics, the third-largest category was the “kids/family” blog, great for showing off pictures of new babies looking dimpled and bald and profoundly fragile. A quick way to tell whether the site manager is the father or mother? If it’s a daddy blog, the family photos will be gleeful but unflattering, especially of the wives.
There are other popular groupings: the humor sites that feature, without apology, grotesque pictures of things friends do to friends who pass out at parties; Hollywood-insider sites featuring celebrities bearing their nipples; and sites that include links to content “for guys constantly searching for free porn.” BlogExplosion didn’t include a category for sex, but not for lack of material.
There are also well-known news-linking blogs. They filter stories posted by newspaper Web sites and other, less reliable, Internet media through someone’s unique point of view. Instapundit.com and Rebecca’s Pocket (at http://rebeccablood.net) are popular examples. This was the first known style of Web log, and these sites still include links to some of the most interesting news and commentary emerging out of the huge national soup of reliable and unreliable Internet reporting, and then go a step further by including the blogger’s comments about it.
Bloggers carried away by some recent media hype believe blogs could be the newest, and most vital, form of gonzo journalism. No editor holds the blogger to a set of journalistic standards, which can be a negative, but no advertisers guide content, goes the argument, which can be a positive.
A site called Sifry’s Alerts claims to be keeping track of the size of the blogosphere; a post from October 2004 claimed, “We tracked the 3 Millionth weblog on July 7th, just 3 months ago. In addition, the blogosphere has been doubling at a regular pace, and it is now more than 8 times as large as it was in June of 2003… there are about 12,000 new weblogs being created each day.”
However, San Francisco resident Rebecca Blood, one of the earliest bloggers (1999), and the manager of Rebecca’s Pocket, claimed that any estimate of the size of the blogosphere is flawed. Some blogs exist behind firewalls, she said, and others have been abandoned for years and don’t really count; an inactive blog isn’t really a blog at all since regular posting is an integral part of the definition, according to Blood.
Blood published an essay on the history of blogs (at www.rebeccablood.net/essays/weblog_history.html) as early as 2000, and a book on the subject in 2002. In her essay, Blood claimed there were only 23 known sites identified as Web logs by an early enthusiast at the beginning of 1999, but as free software for creating blogs emerged, so did the number of people willing to join the national and international conversation.
Blogging versatility, anonymity and visibility have made it irresistible to a broad spectrum of the population, and with each new voice, some innovation creeps in. Some of the older blogs are even evolving, and a look at their archives proves it.
Karin Gillingham beat both Crooks and Mordecai to the blogosphere. Her blog, which began as a place for people with like-minded interests to check up on her artistic endeavors—which included sweaters, quilts and online dating—has evolved into a witty, playful diary of fun things she does. When friends like Mordecai and Crooks began asking what she knew about blogging, Gillingham had been posting for many months already. Like them, she’s not a celebrity with a celebrated life, but a regular person, an underwriter with an insurance company.
Referring to herself as a “candyass: two meanings” and a “color addict” on her blog (at www.badcat.blogspot.com), Gillingham also calls herself the granddaddy among her blogging friends. She started writing short notes about quilting and “fiber craft” projects more than two years ago, before she expanded the emphasis. The knitting blog community is now considered one of the healthiest, but Gillingham is no longer so crafty. Now, she gardens, she said, and not much happens in a garden day to day. “My blog is really dorky,” she said, “and people read it.”
Dorkiness or geekiness of any kind demands respect, according to Gillingham, but in the peach-colored living room of her new house in Roseville, Gillingham doesn’t look exactly geeky. With pale, perfect skin and long, blond waves—along with the deceptively high, childish voice of popular girls everywhere—she actually seems a cutesy kind of edgy.
She does deliciously hip things, like dancing all night at undisclosed after-hours clubs—at least, according to her blog—and posing nude for friend and photographer Charr Crail. This is verifiable. There are pictures.
Her archives hide all kinds of extra-cute posts like this: “It makes you feel so special when you think a boy likes you. You feel all sparkly and beautiful, like the way you think he sees you.” That post is preceded by this one: “I just realized why I love my fingerless gloves so much that I’ll wear them inside even with a short sleeved shirt. They remind me of Judd Nelson in ‘The Breakfast Club’ when Molly Ringwald gives him the diamond earring.” And those are followed by this one: “If you are ever on a date with a girl, do not under any circumstances, do the joke where you pretend there’s something on her blouse and when she looks down hit her in the nose. It is only acceptable for grandpas to do this. I didn’t realize this needed to be expressed but…anyway, nuf said.”
If she were walking down the street in Sacramento, said Gillingham, she might find three people interested in what she’s doing. Online, it’s another story. She estimates the site has between 50 and 100 lurkers each day, people who stop in to visit but don’t comment.
Although Gillingham hasn’t applied to Sacramento Top 25—“I’m the least ambitious of my friends”—she was very frank about the importance of popularity. “Everyone wants publicity,” she said. Gillingham was the first blogger we interviewed to say out loud that all bloggers want to make money off their blogs—either as writers going on to bigger projects like books, as Crooks hopes, or perhaps writing a column about family and children, as Mordecai hopes.
Another blogger, Chad Vander Veen, admitted that he wanted to attract enough readers to convince advertisers to buy advertising space on his blog.
“We’re happy being narcissistic,” said Gillingham.
In the race for readers, Crail, Crooks, Mordecai and Gillingham even have helped each other out, clicking links on Sacramento Top 25 and thereby improving each other’s rankings. Other bloggers have gone further.
In the hunt for more eyes, two fans of Crooks even staged a fake catfight to drag readers to their sites. They settled things with a virtual writing contest. Such collaborations are indicative of what Gillingham referred to as the “little cliques” that spring up between anonymous bloggers.
It was actually a real-world friendship with a Web site manager that dragged Vander Veen, one of Sacramento’s political bloggers, online. Categorizing himself as right of center, but left of right, Vander Veen’s The Wrong Blog (at www.myfolsom.com/wrongblog) originally was developed to draw regular visitors to the site at MyFolsom.com. Sharing the political bent of the site manager, Vander Veen was asked to comment on the news occasionally. Now, that’s what he does most every morning. His site is also creeping up Sacramento Top 25.
Vander Veen claims that blogging is the marriage of two of his greatest passions: writing and politics. But recently, his politics have given way to humorous Dave Berry-wannabe responses to modern news. One of Vander Veen’s goals is to prove that some conservatives do have a sense of humor. The recent story of a lottery winner began like this: “Juan Rodriguez … lives in Queens and has been working as a parking garage attendant for nigh on 20 years. Juan makes around $28,000 per year, which in New York is roughly the cost of a hot dog.”
Other posts are frustrated rants or lectures on morality: “We as a country are doing a terrible disservice to our youth, especially the African-American youth, by promoting and celebrating thugs and elevating their music to an artform.”
In a rant about how AIDS is preventable and Africans and gays should keep their pants on, he claims: “At least in the gay community some semblence of understanding is going on and the numbers, while not diminishing, are stagnant. Africa, on the other hand, is apparently a hot bed for not only AIDS but for extreme idiocy.”
Such stodginess even surprises Vander Veen, who is mild-mannered and even a little shy in person. He said he sometimes can’t believe what an old man he sounds like.
In trying to explain the popularity of blogs, Vander Veen focused on the fact that most people are too fearful of confrontation to speak their minds in public anymore. Blogs are often anonymous, and they offer people a chance to be entirely honest without repercussions. In three-dimensional conversations, Vander Veen would have to consider the political correctness of his opinions, temper his temper and be polite. Online, he’s not held to the same constraints. He could even make up an identity, if he wanted to.
Although Vander Veen includes a picture of himself and his name online, Mordecai and Gillingham don’t include their whole names anywhere on their sites. Mordecai even claims in one of her profiles that she lives in Bangladesh. She finds the anonymity of online blogging delicious. “People can be brave,” she said, “even if it’s done secretly from their computers at night.”
That anonymity has led to a number of outrageous sites from people who may or may not really be living the outrageous lives they blog about. Is the person with multiple personalities, who’s keeping diaries for her various personalities, really suffering from a mental disorder? Is the bragging prostitute really a prostitute?
Why, when the cyberworld is so full of the hyperbolic, the nutty, the artsy, the dramatic and the political, would anyone choose to add yet another voice? Isn’t everything out there already?
“I handle that on my site,” said Vander Veen. He points to his introductory paragraph: “The Wrong Blog was created because of the millions of current event and political satire sites, I was courageous enough to decide there ought to be one more. With the help of www.myfolsom.com webmaster John Gladding, you now have access to one of the top 1,954,342 websites on the internet.”
That was hardly a satisfactory answer. When asked what he was adding to the online community, Vander Veen opened up his arms. “Nothing!” he said with pride. He’s simply another uniquely individual voice in the void. “It’s a giant isolated community,” he said.
Smarty-pants blogger Chris Benson probably would agree, though he never responded to SN&R’s e-mail requests for an interview. However, he’s all over the Internet. It’s easy to follow his progress.
Benson runs Asparagus Pee, Gooblek, & Other Neat Stuff (at http://home.inreach.com/chrisandjanet/weblog/blogger.html), a reliably clever, good-natured look at science and politics. It’s also creeping up Sacramento Top 25.
Benson recently decided to bring the virtual world to the real world, away from all the cyberstuff. He set up an online meeting place specifically for Sacramento bloggers. Thirty-four signed up and left a few words describing themselves. Then, Benson asked the other bloggers to join him, in person, for a monthly meeting.
A photo from the first meeting appears to represent a warm, glowing, friendly get-together. But, suspiciously, it only shows about four people.
Benson tried again. He set up a meeting for November. How many showed up this time to represent Sacramento’s blogging community? Well, if you can believe what Benson said online, he was the only one.