At least three foregrounded identities present themselves for the African-American mom blogger: African-American (race), Woman (gender), and Mother (work). Each of these identities is embedded with its own history that must be negotiated by the woman. It’s not a one-time negotiation; it’s fluid, changing to reflect new experiences outside and inside the blogosphere. In order to research how African-American moms use blogs as a tool to present themselves online, this dissertation uses as a framework Eisenberg’s theory of identity as mystery and Goffman’s self-presentation theory. Another component of this dissertation addresses Patricia Hill Collins’ safe spaces concept in order to explore the use of blogs as a safe space for developing individual and collective voices.
Eisenberg’s Identity as Mystery Theory
One assumption brought into this dissertation is that the blogger brings her pre-blogging experiences to the blogosphere. Her thoughts about motherhood, about African-American motherhood, find themselves in the space. Beliefs, morals, values developed over time have the opportunity to be in this space, too. It is important to understand who these women are as they come to blogging. What experiences regarding race, gender, African-American motherhood were had by these women? How do these inflections of the women’s identities present themselves in the blogosphere? How do the blogger’s and blog’s identities shift and change in the process of blogging and interacting with others? Eisenberg’s Identity as Mystery Theory provides a means in which to answer the above questions. In the theory, Eisenberg explores the connections found “in a person’s communicative choices with their personal narratives, their personal narratives with their bodily experience of emotionality and mood, and each of the above with the environmental resources available for the creation and sustenance of particular identities” (Eisenberg 244). It is in this relationship among communication, personal narrative, and mood that identity building is reinforced. Aside from the relationship among these three elements, another important component to Eisenberg’s theory is that of the surround, or environmental influences, that consist of the spiritual, economic, cultural, societal, interpersonal, and biological.
Figure 1. Model of Eisenberg’s identity process (adapted from Eisenberg 2001: 543).
The “surround” (seen in Figure 1) is the outer ring of the above figure. It represents the social world that each individual comes into at birth. Each component of the surround is imbued with its own history, narratives, and it is this surround that places the person in an environmental context in which mood, personal narrative, and communication take place. The components that comprise the surround are similar to conditions Hecht, Collier, and Ribeault illustrate in their book on African-American identity and communication: social, political, historical, cultural, and economic. A cyclical relationship is developed “among these diverse elements (communication, personal narrative, and mood) such that they are mutually enforcing in the service of identity building” (Eisenberg 542).
Julia C. Gluesing, in her article “Identity in a Virtual World: The Coevolution of Technology, Work, and Lifecycle,” uses Eric Eisenberg’s identity as mystery theory to tell her story of how personal identity can be reconceptualized through the integration of work, family, and friends within new virtual workspaces. This new identity becomes flexible and multiple and open to uncertainty and mystery. For Gluesing,
seeing identity as mystery, an identity that readily incorporates technological and cultural Change, enables me not only to cope with the demands of mobile life and work but also to thrive in this environment, in spite of frustrations and anxieties. I try to make sense of my experiences by thinking of my own identity as a process that enables me to find meaning in interdependent, open systems that are dynamic and in flux. (85-86)
Several lessons were learned in Gluesing’s use of Identity as Mystery theory: “Improvisation is an important skill,” “Fluid circumstances can be empowering,” “Mobile life and work is enriching,” and “Circumstances are important but not as important as self talk. How we interact with our surround and what we tell ourselves about our circumstances play a large role in identity formation” (86).
Ideas prevalent in Eisenberg’s theory helped to shape questions used in the interviews conducted with the bloggers. Several questions in the first phase of interviews focus on women providing personal narratives regarding race, gender, and African-American motherhood and how these stories shaped and continue to shape their identities as African American, woman, and mother in society. There are questions in the second phase of interviews that focus on how the moods and narratives, reinforced within the surround, play a role in the construction of their African-American mom blogs and in the constant retooling of said blogs. Questions in the third phase of interviews focus on the participant’s reflection on the meaning of her experience. “The question of ‘meaning’ is not one of satisfaction or reward although such issues may play a part in the participant’s thinking. Rather, it addresses the intellectual and emotional connections between the participant’s work [as mom blogger] and life” (Seidman 18).
Goffman’s Self-Presentation Theory
Goffman’s use of the metaphor of theatrical performance is used in several phases of this dissertation research. In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Goffman examines face-to-face interaction and compares this interaction to theatrical performances. An individual in this performance manipulates her setting, appearance, and manner in order to control how others might perceive her. On the other side of that interaction, the other person is working to receive and to make meaning about the individual. In this interaction, this performance, there is a front and back stage. The front stage is where the individual performs for the audience, and the backstage is the private space where the individual can be her “real” self, thus shedding her on-stage identity. Goffman’s notion of identity in face-to-face interaction has been applied to online spaces, to include blogs (Hogan 2010; Gill, Nowson and Oberlander 2009; Dell and Marinova 2007; Nilsson and Svensson 2007; Trammell and Keshelashvili 2005).
Many of these studies use Goffman to explore the motivation of blogging and how various groups create identity online. Some explore gender as a part of that identity; however, there are few that use Goffman’s ideas to look at how race and gender might be negotiated in the development of the identity presented to the audience. These studies also often do not explore the back-end of Goffman’s idea: the person who watches the individual perform, who receives and tries to make meaning about the performer (blogger). In regards to blogging, this would be the reader. Goffman’s theory is a useful tool in examining the ways in which the blogger constructs the blog space in order to create self and a space for the blogger as performer. Many of the interview questions in interview two are tied to how the participant sees herself as blogger and how she tries to bridge that identity with the blog and its content. Goffman was also beneficial in constructing the survey in order to explore the blog reader’s role in the African-American blogger’s self- and blog-presentation.
Patricia Hill Collins’ Safe Space Concept
There are many reasons why someone might choose to blog. In 2004, Nardi et al., along with others at the time and since, wrote about the motivations behind blogging. Several of Nardi et al.’s findings still hold true today: “documenting one’s life; providing commentary and opinions; expressing deeply felt emotions; articulating ideas through writing; and forming and maintaining community forums” (43). In discussing the latter motivation, maintaining community forums, many scholars have examined the idea of community in the blogosphere. Some, such as Anita Blanchard in her article “Blogs as Virtual Communities: Identifying a Sense of Community in the Julie/Julia Project,” start at the root of the discussion and first choose to define what virtual communities are, what constitutes them, and if blogs can act as virtual communities. In Blanchard’s study, the Julie/Julia Project was found not to be a virtual community, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist, and it hasn’t kept others from exploring this topic.
Scholars have sought to understand authority among bloggers by analyzing popularity and influence based on the hypertext links within a blogger’s writing (Marlow 2004), to illustrate how virtual communities can help people develop their professional selves (Quesenbery 2005), to explore the use of images in promoting visual conversation in web communities (McDonald 2007), and to take into the account the role of reader in the blogging activity in general (Baumer, Sueyoshi, and Tomlinson 2008). Although there are one-stop blog communities where a collective of African-American mothers converge to discuss topics important to their community, such as the Mommy Too! Blog Network and Black Moms Club, most African-American mom bloggers maintain their own blogs. With such individuality, can community be formed? Is community even what the bloggers seek? And if they do, does the community take place at the blog level or at the level in which blogs are connected by interaction? What is the consequence of this community building effort that can arise? For African-American mothers, many of whom know of the negative portrayals that are often seen of their group in popular media, can this blog space act as a safe space, a place where thoughts and ideas can be shared and a rebuilding of a group’s portrayal commence?
In her seminal work, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, Patricia Hill Collins states, “While domination may be inevitable as a social fact, it is unlikely to be hegemonic as an ideology within social spaces where Black women speak freely. This realm of relatively safe discourse, however narrow, is a necessary condition for Black women’s resistance” (111). These social spaces, these “safe spaces” have traditionally been places like the home, the church, the salon. These spaces allow for women to share their experiences and their feelings openly and honestly, and can also be spaces in which women begin to resist objectification of the other; “in these spaces, Black women ‘observe the feminine images of the larger [emphasis added] culture, realize that these models are at best unsuitable and at worst destructive to them, and go about the business of fashioning themselves after the prevalent, historical black female role models in their own community” (O’Neale; qtd. in Collins 111).
Traditionally, these safe spaces have provided African-American women the opportunity to construct individual and collective voices: “Black women’s relationships with one another, Black women’s blues tradition, and the work of Black women writers.” These spaces enabled women to develop “alternatives to prevailing images of Black womanhood” (122). Rapp et al. argue that in the new millennium, the Internet can offer these safe spaces for African-American women, citing the African-American feminist bloggers they studied as examples. In Rapp et al.’s study, they investigate the aftermath of the 2007 Dunbar Village rape case, specifically focusing on how “Black women . . . used the Internet as a tool for explicitly challenging the dominant, Black male-centered racial injustice story employed by nationally known organizations such as NAN [National Action Network] and the NAACP” (247).
In 1997, in a time when talk of race online dealt with the digital divide and lack of access, grassroots activist Phile Chionesu connected with many African-American women in the United States and abroad to get the Million Woman March in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, off the ground. In the end, at least half a million women attended the protest march (Everett, Digital Diaspora). African-American women, to include bloggers, have used digital spaces in order to congregate, discuss issues prevalent to their cultural group, and to eradicate and/or change a problem affecting their community. The digital spaces they used can be considered safe spaces. Are African-American mom bloggers using their spaces in likewise manner? If the bloggers from my pilot study can be used as evidence, then yes, some are attempting to use their spaces in this way.
All four African-American mom bloggers discussed the need to promote positive African-American parenting and to provide a space where African-American parents and parenthood are seen as positive entities. African-American mom bloggers could very well be the rhetors who are blogging to eradicate the continued negative portrayal of African-American women, especially African-American motherhood that is often perpetuated in all forms of media. The bloggers interviewed appeared to be using their blogging spaces as a place of discourse to assist in the positive modification of the exigence; hence, these spaces can be seen as safe. The dissertation research furthers this idea by investigating not only the bloggers’ perception of their blogs as safe spaces, but also the blog content itself and the readers to read and share the content on the blogs. In the interviews with African-American mom bloggers, questions are asked specifically regarding their perception of their blogs as safe space and the African-American mom blogging community overall as a safe space.
Likewise, in the survey to African-American mom blog readers, participants are ask to evaluate whether these blogs can be seen as safe spaces and to articulate in what ways these blogs are seen as safe spaces. In the content analysis of the blogs, via all three elements – design, content, and interaction – examination will take place in order to see if the design of the space provides a welcome of sorts for African-American moms to come and interact, if content articulates topics, concerns that reflect the community specifically, and if interaction – via replying to or sharing content – 1) is an active activity and 2) if the act of interacting moves beyond the confines of the group.
If you are a reader of African-American mom blogs, consider taking my survey located on SurveyMonkey. It is a 22-item survey, and should take no longer than 20-25 minutes to complete. Your participation will lend an added voice to my research. The survey will close at the end of August, beginning of September.
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