By Felicia Wu Song
Five years ago, a New York Times article, “Honey, Don’t Bother Mommy. I’m Too Busy Building My Brand,” caught my eye. It described a world of “mommy bloggers” who convened at conferences that combined social media workshops and corporate networking, with a dash of pink boas and mimosas. It made me curious: Who were these women? What motivated them to blog? Was it just another fad?
In search for answers, I began attending social media conferences myself. I quickly learned that, while everyone tacitly understood that “mommy blogs” were a significant source of social support and community for contemporary mothers, mommy-blogging had also become a major source of economic revenue. These mothers had become recognized by major corporations as powerful influencers over one of the largest consumer markets and that is what seemed to drive the conferences. It was eye-opening to see how these conferences brought 5-star hotels, corporate sponsorships, celebrity presence, high-end swag, and networking opportunities into the lives of women who otherwise typically find their labor—as bloggers and as mothers—undervalued in society. While most of these women were college-educated and financially positioned to have broadband service in their homes, the conferences challenged the stereotype of “mommy bloggers” as just white suburban stay-at-home mothers with the presence of women of color and women working full-time with careers in public relations, programming, or marketing.
Whatever anyone might think about mommy bloggers, it was clear: This was not just scrapbooking redux or Pampered Chef 2.0. These were women working incredibly hard to re-create themselves as social media entrepreneurs, and interestingly, the commercial entities were listening. What wasn’t clear was whether social media was actually empowering these women, or if it merely created a platform through which corporations and brands could commodify their authenticity.
When I began my data collection, my anxiety about being an outsider—as a non-blogger and non-reader of blogs—was met with a reassuring welcome as the mom bloggers were often curious to hear a sociologist’s take on “their world.” Indeed, their frenetic entrepreneurial energy and hyper-extroversion felt wholly foreign, and while these women seemed nice enough, they felt sufficiently “Other” to me as I approached each encounter with my ethnographic antennae up, trying to sniff out the world of meaning behind their words and actions. This cultivated gaze, so carefully tuned to “neutral,” seemed to work….until it didn’t. Intellectually, I took for granted a feminist standpoint epistemology (Collins 1990) and understood how debates over the ability to represent “others” had consistently problematized the researcher and the researched in a messy and reciprocal relationship (Schrock 2013). But in practice, I was hounded by the nagging fear that I wasn’t being sufficiently “objective” in my stance. But, as Gerry Philipsen (1992) once wrote: “It is hard to immerse oneself…and be unchanged by it,” and fortunately—like so many feminist ethnographers (Delgado-Gaitan 1993)—I was soon to discover that this attempt to hold my subjects and their world at arms-length was simply untenable.
For a season, data collection was sidelined as I switched jobs and moved my family across the country. When I returned to the field, I was delighted to find that Blogher, the premier women’s social media conference, was celebrating its 10th anniversary and that one of the special features was the 10×10 Talks: ten community leaders would share their thoughts on the industry’s last ten years in ten-minute talks. Jackpot! This would give me the perfect opportunity to hear leaders reflect on the evolving industry and catch up on any developments that had transpired in the rapidly-changing landscape of social media practices.
After two days of re-immersing in conference life and as the 10×10 Talks drew to a close, it struck me that the majority of the talks told personal stories about weathering divorce and unemployment, becoming a lesbian dad, or life after the autism diagnosis. These leaders were not reflecting on the industry; they were testifying. The conference hall was often electrified with clapping, tears, and virtual hugs. Not unlike the old-time testimonies of religious revivals, they were sharing about how blogging had “saved” them through cathartic self-expression and as a conduit for finding people who supported them in their journey.
It’s not that I hadn’t witnessed the communal aspects of mommy blogging before. Early in my observations, I could see that the network of mom bloggers was a pretty tight-knit group and had heard stories of mobilization that helped one of their own through cancer. Plenty of times, I had listened to women give thanks and recount the benefits of belonging to the blogging community. But, until that moment, the celebration often felt exclusive and I was on the outside looking in.
This time, something had changed. I could viscerally feel myself being drawn in to the saving power of blogging. “This is For Real,” I muttered to myself. At first, my attraction to the blogging community was quite alarming: Had I been careless in my ethnographic stance? Had I lost whatever meaningful “objectivity” I was supposed to maintain? But as I have reflected more on what it means to see through a feminist interpretive lens, I have found myself returning to Weber’s classic notion of verstehen–that empathetic level of sociological understanding that can see from within. Somehow, in the midst of immersion, I had inadvertently set aside my position of power as the researcher and actually gotten past the veil of the “Other.” I was able finally to observe my subjects and their experience more clearly and to my surprise, regardless of all the discursive cheerleading, it turned out that these mothers blogged and attended the conferences because it really was about community. And now, having experienced the power of the community myself, I stood a chance of properly conveying the reality of the mommy-blogging phenomenon. Now that I was feeling not distant but desirous of the experiences my subjects had, perhaps I had stumbled into a more squarely feminist ethnographic stance of letting my subjects have the power to speak their story—rather than mine.
Felicia Wu Song is an associate professor of sociology at Westmont College. Her article, “Women, Pregnancy, and Health Information Online: The Making of Informed Patients and Ideal Mothers,” is published in the October 2012 issue of Gender & Society. To view the article, click here.