Blog different? BlogHer participants illustrate diversity of the Web

Between live blogging and real-time chats, by the time the sun set on the first BlogHer conference in Santa Clara, Calif. last weekend tens of thousands of words already were twisting around the globe — and the posting barely had begun.

It wasn’t long before I realized what we’d taken part in was as much a group Rorschach test as it was a communal experience. No matter how much we shared or talked or had in common, each attendee arrived with a personal agenda and, even though some contents shifted in transit, each left seeing the majority-female conference through that same personal prism.

And, in the end, that may have been the most valuable aspect of all, a unique chance to come as you are, admit you’re not there because you know everything but because you don’t.

I was there, not as a reporter observing events a step or two removed, but as a reporter and registered participant working as a news blogger, trying to find my way around a new personal blog, looking for answers of my own while I learned more about what others needed and wanted to accomplish.

It definitely was different than any of the conferences I’ve attended or covered over the past year — from Bloggercon, ONA and BlogNashville to the combo conferences/trade shows like CES, CTIA , the national cable show and Digital Hollywood. It would be easy to ascribe the difference to the overwhelmingly female majority, but it goes deeper than that.

Part of it came from the cross-section of bloggers self-selected as participants or attending as invited panelists. We could — and did — break into smaller groups (one time slot was set aside for “birds of a feather” groups) but we were there for reasons that pulled us together more than they pulled us apart. Plus, we were determined to make it work.

It helped that the prep for BlogHer included an emphasis on finding ways for people to participate via registration scholarships, sometimes in exchange for live blogging or audio recording. It also helped to have much of the groundwork laid out online before we walked through the door.

BlogHer co-founders Lisa Stone, Jory Des Jardins and Elisa Camahort along with an advisory panel and numerous volunteers pulled off something incredibly difficult: a conference with many of the usual trappings that felt out of the ordinary.

This wasn’t just a kumbaya moment — or, as Nancy White joked afterwards during the informal Saturday night dinner, kum-blog-ya. Many attendees had business on the mind. One was looking for the right way to publicize her mobile accessories. Some people were business blogging or looking for ways to get started in that field. Others wondered how far to go with advertising or sponsorships. One session focused on venture capital.

Vendors mixed in as sponsors — Google provided mini-messenger bags with the BlogHer and feminized Google logo, a notebook, computer kiosks and the WiFi that didn’t deliver always-on; Yahoo sponsored the closing cocktail party; sponsored lunch — and attendees, listening to comments about their products, answering questions, offering up their own experiences. (I wondered if I’d have even noticed the interaction had it not been for the heated discussions about vendors during BloggerCon; I think I would have because I’ve been sensitized lately to the way sponsorships can be considered an exchange for access — not action, mind you, as in a quid pro quo, to people they might not otherwise be able to reach the same way.)

And it wasn’t all sweetness and light. Anger, frustration, disagreement, disappointment – all made frequent appearances during the weekend and after.

The first full session of the day unleashed some of the emotion that had started this all in the first place. Back in March, several women moved past venting about the lack of online visibility for diverse voices and into action. Halley Suitt urged people to look for new voices and publicize them. Lisa Stone responded with her challenge: “Shall we up the ante and build a global gathering place, online and off, virtual and real, for women bloggers: Bloghercon 2005?” She had been discussing the idea with Elisa Camahort, so the two were poised for action when people urged them on and began volunteering their own services.

Stone framed that first session as a debate over playing by the rules of a male-dominated game — creating different ways of gauging success and value beyond A-lists, traffic and the beleaguered Technorati 100. Panelists/debaters Halley Suitt and Forrester analyst Charlene Li stepped back and, along with Stone, let the room become part of the discussion.

Recalling the session now brings to mind the scene near the end of “War Games,” where the computer realizes nuclear war is as winnable as tic-tac-toe. Between the frustration over how links are counted and valued, the assertions that linking is gender-based (or biased), and the desire by many to be recognized within a system, finding a win was about as likely.

I finally piped up when it became clear that people bent on un-stereotyping the net couldn’t get past some of their own stereotypes. Such as the notion that journalists only pay attention to the top 100 — a faulty list, at best — and A-listers. Some journalists start there, some rely too much on usual suspects and some spend a lot of time seeking out other resources through search engines, referrals and other means.

People of the same gender aren’t all alike. Bloggers aren’t all alike. Neither are journalists. Paint with too broad a brush and a lot of it will end up on the carpet.

No real answers but one true fact: if you don’t call attention to yourself, don’t be surprised if you’re not noticed. This theme came up repeatedly. One of the concerns I had going in was getting the right readership for my newish personal blog, a space established for thoughts that don’t fit in here or my other professional haunts. Like many of the people I met at BlogHer, I’m uncomfortable asking for links. I’d like to think the work speaks for itself but the work can only do the talking when people know it’s there.

Halley Suitt urged us to read “Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide” by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever. She said ask three times; I heard someone from the audience shout “seven.” But here’s one of the perception problems I can’t shake: men who ask are assertive; women are nags. Then there’s the link-whore issue – that the description of a person begging for links is a pejorative for women didn’t escape this group’s attention – and the fear that of having someone I respect not link after I send a “this may interest you” note. (Suitt was confronted by someone who had asked her for a link and didn’t get it; she has since rectified the situation.)

Now just imagine how daunting is for someone coming in cold, without media or networking experience.

One of the oft-repeated complaints was there were too many choices when it came to sessions. Luckily, between intense live blogging, chat transcripts and the eventual podcasts coming on IT Conversations, it should be possible to get a good sense of the sessions. I skipped the “birds of a feather” session on citizen journalism for one called by the Newspaper Association of America’s Melinda Gipson to talk about fixing traditional media, traded political blogging for blog design, venture capital for “how to get naked” and moblogging for Suffragette Journalism, where I tried very hard to remove the term “citizen journalism” from the lexicon.

The blogging naked session moderated by Des Jardins may have been the greatest eye opener – and not because of the subjects covered. The panel featured three identity bloggers, people who are trying to blog their true self through the reality of their lives and are coping/thriving with the consequences. Exposing yourself so completely is beyond the pale for most of us. Heather Armstrong, who blogs as Dooce and whose firing over her blog created the Internet verb “dooced”, threw me a little by talking openly to a room full of people about details she decided not to publish on her blog. Armstrong, who is number 10 on the Technorati 100, uses a PO Box and obscures pictures of her home but posts photos of her toddler daughter.

Koan Bremner was a portrait of courage as she explained how she unveiled her transgendered life using her blog. “I’ve already outed myself in every respect that could possibly hurt me,” she said, during an exchange about how much to post. She warned would-be naked bloggers to think it through very carefully and to make boundaries they will keep. Ronni Bennett actually started a private blog in addition to her public writing about aging after a family member figured out who was who in her public posts using initials.

Many in the packed room became part of the discussion. Six Apart co-founder Mena Trott, who has taken grief for everything from software decisions to going on vacation, warned, “For people who are looking for traffic be careful what you ask for because you may regret it.” It’s more rewarding to write for people who care about you, she added. Lots of advice came through about how to decide when not to blog about something — imaginine it on the front page of the New York Times or think of the worst person possible finding it. (It’s easy for me: I know my mother reads everything I write online.)

I hit a TMI wall – too much information – when Amy Gahran of Contentious mentioned her plans to add a sexual preference description to her professional web site. She and her husband are polyamorous, open to relationships beyond each other. I admire Gahran and knowing this doesn’t change that but the idea of injecting that kind of information into her work setting still strikes me as, well, distracting. Gahran since has backtracked, opting instead for a new personal blog called Mass of Contradictions. She was surprised by the controversy. “Some of the people who advised against this move I respect greatly – others frankly appear ignorant, fearful, or mean-spirited.”

Earlier, explaining her decision to go public at BlogHer, Gahran wrote: “I outed myself in that forum in order to make the larger point that humanity is not one-size-fits-all — that many people who are out of the mainstream in one way or another, or who or endure difficult circumstances in silence, often feel alone and vulnerable. That not only hurts them worse — it hurts society by allowing us to remain less aware and compassionate.”

So I should have been the tiniest bit prepared when I read about someone else’s reaction to Koan Bremner. “What I didn’t expect was a male dressed up as a woman (commonly referred to by the progressive society as a ‘transsexual,’ a term I will not use because it consciously validates our society’s dysfunction),” wrote Ambra Nykola. It gets worse from there, saying a lot more about the author than the subject.

Like I said, it wasn’t all sweetness and light.

Take the lunch session “Flame, Blame & Shame,” about some of the most difficult aspects of blogging. Moblogger Debi Jones suggested using anger as a tool. “There are times when I use anger to get attention for issues that are important,” she said. She also said that she “finds it easier to get angry with men. … Men won’t take it personally.” (She must know some very different men than I do.)

The most perplexing member of that panel moderated by Liza Sabater was author Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, the former LA Times staffer whose 4,000-word resignation letter reverberated around the industry; she spoke of learning communication skills to deal with her online readers and of worrying about the effect her blogging could have on sales of her novels. She talked, sold some books, left the conference and shut down her blog. Worse – from my perspective – she literally deleted it. Now she’s asking if it she should start blogging again. (The responses.) “It was a certain kind of release for me. Doing this blog. And I think the good vibe people far outnumber the bad. I didn’t realize that before,” she wrote a few days later. Valdes-Rodriguez also has an active Yahoo group so by dropping her blog she wasn’t disappearing; still, the timing of her act on was a tad odd and offputting enough to make me think twice about buying her new book.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the “Suffragette Journalism: Op-Ed Pages Of Our Own” discussion led by Lisa Stone with political journalist Chris Nolan, youth culture blogger and Current TV staffer Anastasia Goodstein and consultant/blogger Evelyn Rodriguez. One of the questions that bubbled up was whether personal narrative is journalism. The answer from Nolan and others: It depends.

Rodriguez learned this first-hand when she switched course in December after surviving the tsunami in Thailand. She wound up reporting about it and being reported about, knowing that her first-hand experiences and those of others she could share were more real than most of the “journalism” being done. Why should it have to be funneled through mainstream journalism to be considered news? Her coverage helped raise money for tsunami relief. She tried to apply for a follow-up fellowship from a media organization but it was limited to professional journalists. Now she’s starting a micro-fund “to support ‘real people, real story’ artisan journalism type projects.” The first one will be an anniversary trip for her – and possibly others – to the tsunami zone.

A chunk of the discussion went to ways to break through the barriers between those who want to have a voice in mainstream journalism and the news outlets. Goodstein urged those looking for experience to “Work it out on your blog and get your writing chops up.” NYU professor and blogger Jay Rosen suggested they contact local news outlets about blogging their communities. (I was reminded of the very different worlds represented at BlogHer when I read a reference later to Rosen as “some journalist dude?” who “greatly needs feminism 101 class.”) Stone gave pitch advice and solicited some from the room. Much more in media lawyer Cathy Kirklands’ live blog.

One of the most difficult aspects of journalism for me is knowing that just my presence — even if I don’t say a word beyond identification — can alter events, sometimes in imperceptible ways like someone choosing not to say something, sometimes more noticeably.

That affect isn’t limited to journalists as Latthanapon “Ponzi” Indharasophang of Ponzi’s Schemes realized after BlogHer. Part of it boils down to definitions: when she asked if she could podcast the hiphop session featuring Spin/Vibe GM Lynne D. Johnson, other people heard her asking to record it. That’s not her podcasting style, though — she is an active participant, not a recording observer.

One perturbed blogger wrote: “Instead she proceeded to take over the session, interrupting Lynne to ask questions, and otherwise being rather intrusive. Even I felt uncomfortable. Brave new world indeed.” Ponzi explains her thinking on her own blog but wonders post mortem about the difference between her proactive podcasting (my term) and asking questions from the audience. “Would it still be considered ‘taking over the session and being rather intrusive’ or is just amplified because of the mic in hand? … If I choose to hold a mic again does that mean I have to forfeit my place to ask questions of the speakers who speak into my mic in order to please those who do not hold the mic?” (The protesting blogger, Justin, later amended his post to say he wished he’d offered constructive criticism.)

Taking on the role of a journalist comes with baggage.

Did 24 hours in Santa Clara change anything?

The creation of BlogHer ’05 may have ignited as much — or more — change than the actual gathering. I don’t say that lightly. This post from co-founder Elisa Camahort illustrates the kind of chain reaction that starting to organize the conference set off by explaining how the nearly 60-person roster of speakers came to be through a mix of organizer ideas, suggestions, research and self-recommendations. Broken down by stats, about 20 percent volunteered; 30 percent were recommended from the community of people interested in BlogHer; 25 percent came from “traditional ‘power’ channels” and 25 percent were “blog crushes” — bloggers the organizers didn’t know but wanted to have on board. Providing the ability for people to create their own topics at break-out sessions increased the mix.

Expanding the speaker roster at conferences beyond the usual and all too-often white male universe is one of the hottest topics going. (The BlogHer roster still had usual suspects — some of “the” women at those male-laden conferences.) Here’s how the thinking goes: expanding voices will expand interest; people who feel represented are more likely to attend, which will change the tone and the impact; various circles will widen and new circles will be formed.

One of the concrete results from BlogHer: Mary Hodder started the Speaker’s Wiki as part of her post-BlogHer to-do list. The database is completely self-selecting with no parameters other than this description: “A listing of speakers, their websites and affiliation, contact information, past speaking engagements and other important information to help conference organizers choose speakers to talk on important topics.” (Want to contribute? Think of someone you’d like to see on the list and send them the link; share the list with various conference organizers; add constructive comments about speakers you’ve heard.) At the same time, the organizers of SXSW Interactive sent out a call for submissions and suggestions from BlogHer attendees and already are getting feedback.

Conversations sparked by the conference are continuing. Online communities have been extended or are being built. Plans for BlogHer ’06 are in the offing and a survey is being conducted. People left with ideas about how to do what they do better or how to do something news and lots of contacts. Post-BlogHer to-do lists are popping up all over and items are being crossed off.

As Evelyn Rodriguez wrote with a thank you to the organizers, “I think all the lights went on for me Saturday.” Personally, I don’t think it had to be majority women for me to leave with more energy but that majority is what made it stand out among the plethora of conferences and it’s what got a lot of voices heard beyond the event.

Nancy White identified these measures months ago:
“– We each hatch plans to support/mentor other women who want to blog (but not guilt them into it. We have enough guilt, eh?) We have a way to share what we learn/do in the process.
— We tell the stories of women bloggers in all their diversity, richness, and messiness – and hopefully we unearth stories that fall on the long tail, not just the spike.
— We identify and point to blogging resources that are useful to us – no matter our technological savvy. We celebrate what what we know and learn what we don’t.
— We identify strategies for second wave adoption (which follows on that last point.)”

So far, so good.