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Volume 5, Number 2, Spring 2007 Gwendolyn Beetham and Jessica Valenti, Guest Editors
Blogging Feminism:
(Web)Sites of Resistance
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The Vulnerable Video Blogger:
Promoting Social Change through Intimacy

Patricia G. Lange

We'll put someone's personal, intimate, creepy, gross, whatever, anything online 'cause we want to relate to other people. I mean things that people would never want to talk about, we're like all about that.
—Ryanne Hodson, December 3, 2006

Many people cannot understand why it would be important or interesting to watch intimate, spontaneous events in the lives of bloggers. People who are unfamiliar with the diary form of video blogging are often critical of this genre, seeing it as self-centered and obsessed with filming micro-events with no particular point or relevance beyond the videomaker's own life. Yet, many video bloggers argue that it is precisely by putting these intimate moments on the Internet for all to see that a space is created to expose and discuss difficult issues and thereby achieve greater understanding of oneself and others. Public access to intimate moments and the discourse surrounding the video artifacts on the Web allow social boundaries and pre-existing assumptions to be questioned and refashioned. In this paper I explore some of the themes that women have raised on video blogging sites by exploring their intimate moments. In particular, I wish to discuss videos made by women video bloggers who explore ideas about self-image, diversity, and helping Internet strangers.

Video blogging is an umbrella term that covers a wide number of genres, including everything from short video footage of spontaneous, real-life, personal moments, to scripted and preplanned "shows" with characters, narratives, and professional acting. A blog is a Web journal with entries that may include text comments or other media (such as photographs). The entries are placed in reverse chronological order so that the site's visitors encounter the most up-to-date entry first.[1] A video blog or "vlog" usually contains text and often photographs, but it also features video as a central mode of communication. Many video blogs are for the general public, although some are restricted to a small circle of friends. Video blogs may be diary-based, artistic, journalistic, entertainment-based, or they may take any number of other forms. What unites members of the video blogging community is a commitment to video as a crucial means of expressing and understanding issues that the video blogger wishes to share.

This paper is an exploration of how certain woman video bloggers' work and personal choices use intimacy to create reactions in viewers that encourage reconsideration of the blogger's own and viewers' ideas about social action and values. Intimate moments are more personal and involve experiences not ordinarily seen outside a person's small circle of friends and acquaintances. The research discussed here is part of an ongoing MacArthur-funded project on Digital Youth. The project analyzes how people increasingly use media to interact with other people in daily life.[2] My research project focuses on video production, sharing, and reception, and on the complicated ways these acts intertwine in online sites such as video blogs and video sharing sites. For the past eight months I have been attending video blogging tutorials and social events to understand aspects of the video blogging community as it is experienced both online and locally in the Los Angeles area. I have analyzed video blogs and interviewed women, men, children, and families who video blog to understand how they use video to mediate their social and cultural experiences. This paper draws from an analysis of video blogs and/or interviews with 17 video bloggers. The project is ongoing, and I encourage video bloggers to contact me if they wish to participate.

Many video bloggers find tremendous value in sharing intimate moments with the world to gain greater insight about themselves and others, and about social interaction. But as Behar pointed out years ago, exposing oneself through writing and art constitutes a kind of vulnerability.[3] Whereas analytic writing that does not involve self-disclosure is merely boring if it fails, she argues that "when an author has made herself or himself vulnerable, the stakes are higher: a boring self-revelation, one that fails to move the reader, is more than embarrassing; it is humiliating."[4] Yet it is precisely in taking this kind of risk that a space is opened for others to relate to the video blogger's concerns about self-image, about how others treat her, and about how social change may occur.

Vulnerability takes many different forms for video bloggers. Circulating personal information to a vast Internet audience creates risks that range from humiliation to emotional and physical harm. For instance, early in one interview, a woman told me that she had a stalker. I was shocked and concerned, and I was at a loss for how to respond. As I review the transcript, I am disappointed that my response was to talk about the risks of being public. But I felt that the way I expressed my initial "shock" was perhaps naïve, given that these problems can and do occur among people with highly public profiles on the Internet. My response was not meant to judge women who expose their personal lives on the Internet; rather, it reflected my social discomfort at having been told something deeply troubling about the life of someone I did not know well.

Interviewee: Yeah, I'm getting stalked right now for sure.

Patricia: Oh really?

Interviewee: Oh yeah.

Patricia: [shocked] Oh my God.

Interviewee: In a bad way.

Patricia: How do you know?

Interviewee: This creep keeps leaving comments on [my blog]. It's been happening since [last year]. Like really, really nasty comments.

Patricia: Really nasty?

Interviewee: Mm hmm.

Patricia: Like threatening?

Interviewee: Well he isn't directly threatening, but he says like you should kill yourself. I posted something about getting a [sports car] and he's like oh, I'd buy that [sports car] for you just to see your face smash into your windshield. I'm like yeah.

Patricia: Oh my God. Well I guess you kind of knew the risks about, like—

Interviewee: I'm super public. I mean it's bound to happen.

Patricia: But still when it actually happens, that must be very different—

Interviewee: It sucks.

Later, she went on to say that her presence on the Internet had brought her so many benefits, including many positive connections with other people, that she did not have any intention of scaling back the publicness of her online and offline experiences and interactions. After her disclosure, I was curious whether this problem had changed her attitude toward video blogging or prompted her to reconsider being so public online. We talked frankly about how more people, including many academics, are choosing or are being asked to have a more visible Internet presence. In the midst of concern about teenagers disclosing too much about themselves on their MySpace pages, it is also true that many adults are encouraged or required to have their workplace address and contact information prominently displayed on a Web page. We discussed how public participation and related self-disclosures are increasing on the Internet.

Patricia: People put personal information [on the Internet] all the time.

Interviewee: Yeah they do. And that's not going to stop. That's definitely not going to stop.

Patricia: Can it stop really?

Interviewee: Yeah, I don't know. I mean I've gotten so many positive contacts from being on the Internet. I mean my whole social life is online. I mean obviously I go out and have fun, [but] most of the people I know, I know on the Internet. And like that's been really valuable for me. I work on the Internet. You know what I mean?

It's important for me to be open and social online. And I've gotten so much benefit from that that one annoying person leaving ridiculous comments that don't make any sense on my blog . . . it's like yeah, it's frustrating. But as long as it's not dangerous, whatever.

Although video bloggers are aware of the risks, they often continue to share personal insights and intimacies that can promote social change in a variety of ways. In writing about how certain women video bloggers communicate vulnerably to promote social change, there is a risk that this paper will be misinterpreted. People may accuse me of arguing that women can promote social change exclusively or most effectively through intimacy, or that women are better suited than men to promote social change in intimate ways. Some may accuse of me suggesting that women, more than men, are predisposed to intimate types of video blogging. In fact, I have seen plenty of male video bloggers expose personal moments that people can relate to on their blogs. Jay Dedman, for instance, posted a haunting video on his blog in which he admits eating McDonald's food and revealing, through images and words, his guilt.[5] The supportive comments he received illustrate how Jay became vulnerable and, through that vulnerability, made a connection with others who had similar feelings about what they eat. As a pioneer in the video blogging community, he has firsthand experience of the problems associated with posting intimacies. He explained how one video site called MyHeavy appropriated images of his fiancée's engagement ring (without permission or attribution) online, complete with advertising. As he put it, "so here they have grabbed my video of Ryanne and I buying our engagement ring. Now I got ads all over it. Great. This personal moment from my life has now become my worst nightmare (see video)[6] thanks to MyHeavy. . .. without my permission."[7] Video bloggers in general face the risk that their material will be used in unintended and undesirable ways, without their permission or consent.

Tools 5.2 Online Resources Recommended Reading S&F Online in the Classroom
S&F Online - Issue 5.2 - Blogging Feminism: (Web)Sites of Resistance - ©2007