The Vulnerable Video Blogger:
Promoting Social Change through Intimacy
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
—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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
Patricia: But still when it actually happens, that must be
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,
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,
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)
thanks to MyHeavy. . .. without my permission."
Video bloggers in
general face the risk that their material will be used in unintended and
undesirable ways, without their permission or consent.