I must be a real blogger now, as I am beginning a post by apologizing for not having posted more often and vowing to do better. In the month since I last posted, I spent a fabulous week at the Lewis & Clark Faculty Technology Institute. I’ve been working with the artNOW program at the Portland Art Museum, the Northwest Narrative Medicine Collaborative, and StoryCorp Legacy at Oregon Health Sciences University. I continue to add blogs to my reading list and contact authors for interviews. This is what sabbatical looks like and I only wish it weren’t passing so quickly!
It has also taken me a little while to formulate this current post because I needed to dive deeper into scholarship about online activism. I am conceiving of the book as situated at the intersection of three controversies: How and who should mother? How should we think about autism? What potential does online interaction hold for political engagement? Previous posts have addressed research on the radical potential of mommy blogs, contested definitions of autism, and the role of mothers in autism policy and advocacy. Now I have a chunk of text to share about online political engagement.
Enthusiasts have written about the democratizing possibilities of social media, while skeptics have questioned whether individualized online engagement is simply “slacktivism.” As McAfee (2015) points out, how we assess the political promise of new media depends upon how we understand “political.” For example, new media theorists have encouraged us to re-think what political action looks like in an age of connective action (Bennett & Segerberg, 2012), networked social movements (Castells, 2015), and participatory culture (Jenkins, Ito, & boyd, 2016) and to explore relationships between new types of online action and more traditional, offline forms of protest, movement formation, and advocacy. Papacharissi (2010) proposed that the times in which we live and the capabilities of new media technologies have expanded the available forms of personal, social, and political engagement while blurring boundaries amongst them. Actions such as signing online petitions, expressing political views in a blog, viewing or posting videos on YouTube, sharing or retweeting news or memes, or commenting in an online discussion are political insofar as they dissent from a public agenda set by mainstream media and political actors.
The call to broaden our understanding of political action also comes from critiques of how the public sphere and citizenship have been conceptualized. Even before the advent of social media, Fraser (1992) and Young (2000) argued that limiting our understanding of political engagement to only some modes of discourse (i.e., rational, deliberative) and to that which occurs through official channels (legislative, judicial, institutional) excluded from citizenship marginalized groups, including women. They proposed a more encompassing understanding of the ways communication enacts citizenship that included multiple and diverse publics who interact not only through rational political argument but also through narrative, emotional appeal, style, idiom, and acknowledgement of difference (Fraser, 1992; Young, 2000). Allen (2015) encouraged attention to “flows of discourse” that include traditional political processes directed towards institutions as well as influence attempts to change individual attitudes and behavior and expressive communication that creates shared identities, alliances, solidarities, and network connections. Papacharissi (2010) goes further to suggest we replace the metaphor of public sphere or spheres with fluid “individually-sketched-out” (p. 129) private spheres created by individual actions that spring from private reflection, expression, and behavior and can then be connected with other like-minded individuals and with the larger society and polity.
It is not inevitable, however, that these communication practices will be conjoined for a greater good; instead, we should study the contexts and processes through which this may occur, as well as the limitations of new forms of engagement. For example, although self-expression in blogs creates a plurality of voices that can expand the public agenda it may simultaneously be limited in political impact by lack of coordination or focused civic objective (Papacharissi, 2010). In this book, I join other ethnographic, micro-discourse analytic studies of the political dimensions of mediated personal expression that focus on describing what these forms of engagement look like, and how and under what social and technological circumstances they constitute political action (e.g., Gabriel’s study of black British women bloggers, 2016; Gunn’s analysis of how women of color use Twitter, 2015; Keller’s study of young feminist girl bloggers, 2016). Analysis of particular media in social context is essential for, as Papacharissi (2015, p. 112) observed, “Impact is derived from context, so a statement that is perceived as ordinary in one context may appear provocative in a different one. Similarly, the nature of the impact will vary depending on context, so statements that bear political potential may generate actual or symbolic impact.”
In contrast to research on political bloggers or other mediated expressions of political opinion, I examine how the personal stories in a journal-style blog may also produce a kind of online political action. McAfee (2015, p. 273) explained how channels of ordinary talk can change cultural norms and “engender communities of expression with shared horizons of meaning.” In turn, these communities shape citizen identities in ways that contribute to political choices. “[T]he ordinary discussions of informal publics that circulate throughout society structure our feelings, shape our identities, open up new worlds and possibilities, identify ‘macrosocial problems’ needing the attention of formal structures, and spur collective action. Undervaluing everyday talk can lead to a thin conception of how citizens can (and in fact do) use new media politically” (McAfee, p. 275). This is particularly appropriate for understanding the work of “mother activists” who, motivated by their identity as mothers, do not initially see advocacy on behalf of their children as “political” but do end up “foster[ing] a form of social citizenship by coming together as women to compare notes, confront authorities, and to stand up for what they believe—all touchstones for democracy” (Panitsch, 2008, p. 28).
Whether they intend it at the outset or not, mothers who blog about raising an autistic child tell their stories in the context of politically charged public conversations about motherhood and about autism. Scholars have long recognized that stories have both a personal dimension and a social dimension (e.g., Frank, 2013; Riessman, 2008; Williams, 1984). Although the events we narrate and the particular way we choose to tell about them come from an individual’s own experience, we use the building blocks of our culture to communicate individual experience to a listener: our language, the way we sequence action and represent actors, the resemblances or disjunctions between our story and other stories we know, the parts of the story that do not have to be told because it can be assumed the listener fills them in. Neither the individual nor the social components of stories are politically neutral. When a mother of an autistic child tells a story, it is told by a mother (and not by a father or a physician) and it is told about an autistic child (and not a neurotypical child). It is also told in the context of dominant narratives of what mothers should be like and what children should be like. In a social climate in which those “shoulds” are being publicly contested, an individual’s story will be heard in relation to the different positions that circulate in that larger public discourse. In this sense, these stories are political because they come from a particular position in a social hierarchy and can be read as taking a particular position in a social controversy.
In these blogs, the personal intersects with the political through three discursive processes: (1) the formulation of counterstories (Nelson, 2001) that support alternative, empowered identities for mothers and for autistic children; (2) the formation of dynamic communities through affectively attuned networked publics (boyd, 2010; Papacharissi, 2015); and (3) the raising of consciousness (Hanisch, 1969/2006) to recognize structural sources and solutions to shared personal problems. These processes, and their connection to narrative as a particular genre of discourse, will be the subject of another post. Likewise, a future post will make the case that personal stories and their political significance take shape in distinctive ways through the medium and practice of blogging. Blogs are serial, interactive, connective, public/private media (Karlsson, 2007; McNeill, 2003; Miller & Shepherd, 2009). In contrast to stories told interpersonally, blogs can bring together storytellers and listeners who might not otherwise meet and stories can be stored and circulated outside of their original relational context. In contrast to stories published in traditional outlets (e.g., memoirs), blogs are self-published and they unfold across time. They need not have a single coherent theme and neither author nor reader knows how the story turns out as they are producing it together.
An account of the personal and political potential of blogs must also take into account the lifecycle of blogs, both individual blogs and the genre of mommy blogs. The blogs and the communities of bloggers on which this book is based have changed considerably over the past decade. Some of the bloggers I have followed continue to post, but with reduced frequency, with more guarded disclosure, or with a different sort of focus. Others simply stopped with no explanation and their blogs remain online, frozen at a final post that apologizes for blogging less frequently and promising to do better. Some migrated their public site to a private platform, some are devoting to Twitter or Facebook the energy and presence previously given to the blog. Some shifted from a journal-style blog to one that focuses on reviews—of products or of issues. Some became authors, some are now more active in co-edited blogs or blog aggregators. These sorts of changes are mirrored in the larger blog-o-sphere. I propose that both the potential that existed for blogs and the trajectory of that potential to the present state of affairs afford a unique opportunity to reflect upon the power and the limitations of online narrative for personal and political empowerment.
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