.: bloggers on blogging --> heather armstrong
Bloggers on Blogging, August 2005
Heather Armstrong created Dooce.com in February 2001 "with a post about Carnation milk, it being the best in the land". A year later she was fired from her job for writing about her co-workers, famously becoming the first person ever to be "dooced": fired for blogging. In August 2005, Dooce is ranked #9 on the Technorati Top 100.
Heather, 30, graduated with honors from Brigham Young University in 1997 with a degree in English. She grew up near Memphis, Tennessee, attended BYU, and then moved to Los Angeles where she lived for 4 years, first working as a Web designer...then not. Now a stay-at-home mom and part-time Web designer, Heather is currently working on a book proposal. She lives in Utah with her husband and daughter.
What is the first weblog you read?
Kottke.org or Haughey.com, I can't remember which. There was also a design community around in the late nineties called Swanky (I think?) which showcased a lot of personal websites. They weren't called blogs back then, but they were the same thing for the most part, and I loved browsing all the unique designs.
What about those blogs appealed to you?
I loved that Kottke and Haughey could update so easily and frequently and that their sites weren't part of a bigger corporation. They were just these guys out there publishing themselves and I fell in love with the whole idea of personal publishing.
Why did you start your weblog?
I had written for student newspapers in college, and I once wrote CD reviews for a local music magazine, but my career had nothing to do with writing. I spent all my time in Photoshop. I'd always loved the exercise of writing and I saw this unique medium as a way to practice writing, to get out of Photoshop and flex another muscle. What really excited me was that I got to design the thing myself, choose its name, code it, write it, and then publish it without anyone else saying, "The client wants more purple. Make it more purple." There were no clients.
What is your site about? How has that changed over the years?
My site is primarily about the ridiculous details of bringing up a really stubborn kid. It's about being married and living in the suburbs with a dog and a baby and about how, even though that sounds so boring you'd want to stick forks in your eyes before reading it, boring married couples with kids are some of the best people to make fun of. It used to be a place where I talked about my sex life as a single web designer living in Los Angeles and about the celebrities I used to see shopping at the grocery store. And then there was that one time I wrote about my job. Now I write about my job all the time, but my boss can't fire me.
How do you decide what to write about?
“ There’s a lot of content in life and it’s just a matter of plucking it from the ether and putting it into a Movable Type template. ”
Having a baby is pretty much a book of commentary waiting to be written. I'm rarely left thinking, what the hell am I going to say today? In fact, I pretty much pick and choose stories from the daily craziness of living with a kid who can't walk or talk but can smoke out a room of 15 people with one blip of gas. I also live with a very forgiving husband who doesn't mind if I poke fun at the fact that we're both former band/choir geeks who share an inexplicable fascination for bad TV and gadgets, whether of the technological or domestic variety. And then there's my family, Mormon and Southern, need I say more? There's a lot of content in life and it's just a matter of plucking it from the ether and putting it into a Movable Type template.
How long does it take you to write an entry?
My whole point in starting my website was to get better and faster at writing, and I can write a short entry now in about 10 minutes. Longer entries take anywhere from a half hour to an hour. I just don't have the time that I used to, not with a kid, to devote to the website so I've become really efficient at getting it all down pretty quickly. Usually my husband will say something funny or my daughter will perform an acrobatic feat that has us rolling on the floor. That's when I start writing in my head and by the time I get to the computer I have an entry written. I don't ever jot down notes or write drafts because I have a severe case of ADD and we don't do those sorts of things. I kind of look at the whole process as an event writing itself, or how would I tell this story to my family to make them feel as if they were witnessing it themselves? And it all flows from there.
How has your writing changed since you started blogging?
I write a lot less about things that are happening in the news or on television or in music than I used to. I don't think that was a conscious decision, but I do think that other people do that better than I do. My website is not a place to visit if you're looking for great links or political debate. My writing now is more of a memoir being written as it is lived, and I like to focus more on the little world that happens in my home and living room every day because that's where I am the expert and can give a perspective no one else can. I think I've embraced the fact that I come from a really weird background that provides a unique take on really mundane things, and that's where I've tried to put my energy.
How much traffic do you get?
I see about 55,000 unique visitors and 200,000 page views every weekday. As for monthly data, that's where things get weird because the stats program on my server crashes every month because of the size of the data, and my host can take up to two weeks to reset it. I estimate that I see a little over a million unique visitors a month. Some months I can serve up to 270 gigs of data and over 400 poop stories.
Did you set out to be widely read? What steps did you take to do that?
No, actually, I only set out to write things for my friends. I had about thirty various people in mind whom I thought might visit the site and I wrote it with them in mind. I never set out specifically with the goal to be widely read, but I do think that some of the things that have happened to me during the time I've had it up and running (being fired for my website, my pregnancy, the birth, the postpartum depression) have fueled my traffic. My first traffic jump happened when I lost my job and several community sites picked up the news. However, I don't recommend this route to increased traffic. It can lead to an inability to enjoy life.
“ I try to tell a story that someone’s mother as well as someone’s drunk uncle might find amusing, even if neither of them have anything in common with a housewife who lives in Utah. ”
Why do you think your site is so popular?
I really do think my site is popular because I say things people are afraid to say, and many people feel a catharsis when they read all the shit that goes down in my life because it has gone down in their own and it's good to know they are not alone. I also think that the way I say things has a bit to do with it, that I try to tell a story that someone's mother as well as someone's drunk uncle might find amusing, even if neither of them have anything in common with a housewife who lives in Utah. Ultimately, though, I think I represent a reality that many women my age can identify with and they read me to feel connected with someone who understands their ups and downs, their joy and their sorrow.
Do you make money on your site? How?
I do make money on my site, but I would say that it's less than what a part-time fry cook makes at McDonalds — but don't think I'm knocking fry-cooks as they provide an indispensable service to the pregnant community. I use the Google AdSense program and AdBrite. Many of my readers have also donated money through PayPal and Amazon. All of the donations go right back into the website to help pay for hosting costs.
Which tool do you use? Why?
I use Movable Type for several reasons. I love the way it looks, and while that may sound superficial to some programmers, it has a lot to do with what websites I read as well. I don't like to read things that visually give me a headache, and the interface on Movable Type doesn't give me seizures. I used to code my site myself, but then I wanted it to do wild and crazy things that only my husband knew how to make happen. We're really pushing the limits of the tool right now with category includes and hacks that make the site a bit inflexible, and I had to take comments down indefinitely because comment spam was breaking my server. But I like where the site is right now and I don't need it to function much differently.
What would your ideal blogging tool do, that is not currently offered?
I'm actually pretty happy with everything mine does, and I like the emergence of things like Flickr that enhance what I'm doing on my own site. If there were one thing, though, I wish there were a blogging tool that could infect comment trolls with genital warts.
How often do you update?
I try to update my website at least once every day on the weekdays, even if it's only a one or two sentence update. About six months ago my husband sort of forced me to stop updating on the weekends because even HE needed the break.
When do you blog?
I blog usually in the morning before my husband leaves for work or when my daughter is sleeping. I also have a babysitter come a few hours a week so that I can run errands without a screaming baby attached to my body, and I'll occasionally blog during those hours. Sometimes I can distract my daughter long enough with a cartoon that I can write a one or two sentence post, but she usually catches me with the laptop open and realizes, "Mother is no longer giving me her full attention and now she must suffer."
Do you have a formula for writing a winning entry?
Oh my God, no. The only formula I have is asking myself, would my brother laugh at this? Because although my brother's barometer for humor is pretty embarrassing and not much of an objective or brag-worthy test, I really like the sound of his laugh. He sounds like a 13-year-old who's high and stuffed with Nutter Butters.
Are you fairly accurate in predicting which of your entries will be widely linked?
Never. In fact, I'm usually surprised at the things that get the most attention.
Do you ever write to deliberately provoke a reaction? Any tips on how to do that?
I don't ever set out to provoke a reaction, although sometimes I can get carried away when I am mad at something, and then I usually regret having posted anything in that state. Everything I do and say on my website gets a reaction, though: the colors I choose to design with, the content of my masthead, the fact that I took my daughter's pacifier away when it was causing the Earth to split in two. EVERYTHING. Someone always has something to say about every single pixel on my website, and that's something I've had to become hardened to.
How much reader email do you get? Are you able to answer it all?
I get about 40-50 reader emails every weekday. If I were to answer even a third of it I would do nothing but answer email all day, so no, I don't answer most of it. When I started to fall behind in answering my email I went through a pretty rough period where I beat myself up about it, the guilt was suffocating. But there was no way I could answer all my email while simultaneously being a wife and mother. So I re-wrote my contact page to say specifically that I most likely won't answer email, and my readers have responded positively to that (most of them). I once thought of having an auto-reply go out to anyone who sent me an email but I realized that I wouldn't want to receive an auto-reply and I stuck with my gut and didn't go that route. I do read every single email I get, though, (except for a few of the hateful ones) and even that sometimes can take up a huge chunk of my free time.
Do you ever receive abusive email or comments? How do you handle it?
Since I turned comments off a few months ago the amount of abusive email has increased, but it still only makes up a small percentage of my overall email. I get at least one or two really hateful emails a day, but I understand that my type of writing is going to inspire that. I'm writing about motherhood and depression and what it's like to live life without religion, and if I tried to be safe about any of it then it wouldn't be interesting.
If I start reading an email and I can tell within the first sentence that the person who sent it wants me to feel physical pain then I immediately copy it to a subfolder called "Hate is all you need" and then delete the original or bounce it back to the sender (I keep it for legal purposes). That's one way to deal with it, to not read it, to not allow it space in my life. Other times I'll read it and forward it to my husband so we can laugh about another person sending me hate packaged in exactly the same words a hundred other people have used. Sometimes I'm really hurt by what people have to say, but I've forced myself to get to a place where I dwell not on that email but on the really positive things so many other people have sent me. It hasn't been easy, and like anyone else who has received their fair share of hatemail I've asked myself, is this really worth it?
Have you ever had to take legal action?
Not yet, but I have threatened to pursue legal action a couple times against people who have sent me a slew of really scary email. In both cases I got to a point where I asked them nicely to stop, and when they didn't I had to let them know that if I couldn't make them stop then perhaps someone else could, whether that be their internet service providers, the companies hosting their email addresses, or our lawyers. I keep all of my email in case I need show a record of behavior from a certain email address.
I get the feeling that humor is one way you manage the world. Your writing about your daily life is very funny. Even the name of your folder for hate mail is humorous. Have you always used humor in this way, or has your sense of humor developed as you've dealt with some of the less comfortable parts of being well-known?
I come from a very funny family, my brother and father in particular have always used humor to cope with life. My father grew up in horrible circumstances, poor and hungry in what was essentially a single-parent home, and yet every story he tells from his childhood is a funny one. He's always trying to connect with strangers at the grocery store or in line at the post office through humor, and I think I got that from him. I have a desire to reach out and say, "We're all in this shit together, why not laugh about it?"
I'm also terrible at confrontation, terrible at holding grudges, and I find that humor can defuse a really uncomfortable situation almost instantly. In this sense I would say that I use humor as a defense mechanism, and this has definitely developed into something bigger having had to deal with hate mail and very public criticism.
One of the reasons I married my husband was his sense of humor. He's the funniest person I know, and I wanted that in my life and in my children's lives.
“ There are things I won’t write about because I know it would hurt my family or friends, and I’ve come to terms with those compromises. I’ve come to terms with the boundaries I’ve had to draw to maintain order in my life. ”How does the possibility that you may be flamed--or just that everyone has an opinion about your life--affect your writing?
Normally it doesn't affect what I write because what I write about seems to piss people off anyway no matter how careful I am. But there have been times when I really want to write about something but I won't because I know I'll be hit with a couple hundred hatemail if I do (bad mother! racist! ignorant Democrat!). And that doesn't necessarily bother me because there are things I won't write about because I know it would hurt my family or friends, and I've come to terms with those compromises. I've come to terms with the boundaries I've had to draw to maintain order in my life.
Have you ever burnt out? How did you handle it?
About a month after I lost my job I sunk into a suffocating depression and couldn't bring myself to write anything anymore. After that I took my site down for about six months. I think I had a bit of a pre-mid-life crisis and I didn't want to carry it out in public. I had been so successful up to that point in my life, and I thought I was happy with myself, with the choices I had made to get to that place in my life, and all of a sudden I was out of a job, not because of the economy or cutbacks but because I had done something really stupid. I was asking myself all sorts of questions, like, "Who the hell are you?" and "Is this what you really wanted?" And I lost my voice for a little while.
Is there a certain type of entry, or a certain kind of day that is most satisfying for you?
I really enjoy those days when my daughter is in a good mood and not throwing food at me. Those are special days. Some days I feel my website writing itself, and those days are so much easier than the days when I sit there grasping for one word or one sentence that will not come out, and I'm like, BOTH ENDS ARE STOPPED UP. I find that the more I write the easier it is to write the next time, and the longer I wait in between posts the more stopped up I become. My favorite days are the ones when I can write a small entry before my husband leaves for work and then read the email response to it throughout the rest of the day.
Has your weblog led to any other opportunities?
Only this year have people started asking me to speak at conferences (I spoke at a digital video conference in Vancouver and was a panelist at the Blogher conference in Santa Clara). I just agreed to be a speaker at SXSW next year.
I haven't accepted any offers to do writing elsewhere, but that's because I'm concentrating on my site and on a book proposal and that's taking up all my time right now. I've had offers from publishers who want to package my site and put it into book form, but I don't think that's the smartest thing to do. I'd like to put out some new material, and while this poses quite a challenge while maintaining my site, I really do feel like this is what I want to do with my life.
How many weblogs do you follow?
I follow about 40-50 weblogs regularly.
I've tried to use RSS but I find that I like to read a blog in its surroundings, in its context, even if that context is a Blogger template. The design of the site (or even the choice of template) gives something to the voice of the blog, and I don't like that RSS takes that away. I'll use RSS to follow news headlines, but even then I'll usually click to read the rest of the story on the news site.
What catches your attention in a weblog?
“ The person who keeps a weblog so that his mother and father can keep up with his life from across the country is just as relevant as someone who keeps a corporate blog for Microsoft. ”
The first thing that catches my attention is the design of the site, although that has much less to do with whether or not I stay. If a site is clean and easy to read I'm much more likely to get past the first sentence even if the first sentence says nothing but, "I ATE SHIT FOR BREAKFAST AND THEN I BRUSHED MY TEETH." The newest Blogger templates made it much easier for me to browse new sites because, ta da! I could finally read the text without wanting to throw up. But then, if someone is just yakking about their cereal and how many errands they have to run and here they are living their life and describing it in the most banal way possible then it doesn't matter if it's the best looking site I've ever seen, I probably won't go back. I don't mind reading about someone's cereal if it's written in a way that doesn't put me to sleep. A writer's style has everything to do with whether or not I'll bookmark the site. And that goes for all types of blogs: technology, politics, fashion, gossip, etc.
But that doesn't mean that anyone who does write about cereal in a really boring way is irrelevant, and here's where I think weblogs in general get such flak. Not everyone who maintains a personal website is out to be a Pulitzer Prize winning writer. Most of us aren't and most of us aren't claiming that. The person who keeps a weblog so that his mother and father can keep up with his life from across the country is just as relevant as someone who keeps a corporate blog for Microsoft, just perhaps on a smaller scale and to a different set of people.
What do you think makes a successful weblog?
If a website has a soul people will come to it, read it and pass it along. It doesn't have to be perfectly coded or designed or written, it just has to say something that connects with people on a fundamental level, whether that be through humor or story-telling or enthusiasm, whatever. One of my favorite websites and one that achieved quite a level of success was Chez Miscarriage (I think she's taking a break now). Here's this website, written anonymously, using a template that is used thousands of other places and it doesn't have any photos anywhere. But her story and the way she told it was so spellbinding that I and every one else who read her started hoping for her and hurting for her and checking back every day for updates. It's a perfect example of how a website with a great voice and no press can amass a huge and adoring audience.
Whose writing do you particularly admire?
I admire David Sedaris, and I like how much of his work isn't completely linear, which is probably why I like weblogs so much. I'm always setting down a book and forgetting about it, and when I go and pick it back up I have to read back at least one or two chapters to remember what's happening. I don't really have to do that with weblogs, and even if I do have to go back because I've missed something it's much more of a treat than it is a labor.
Online, I really like Sarah Brown, Mimi Smartypants, Fireland, and Tremble. Unbelievable writers, each one of them, and I continue to learn a lot from them. I like that none of them are writing what would be considered a standard weblog, although I'm sure they'd be shoved into that category if some scientific study demanded it. I think what they are doing is transcending the idea of the personal website and making it into something bigger, something much more profound (although all four of them would probably gag if they heard themselves described that way). They are the types of writers who could make me buy a subscription to a magazine if I knew their work would be featured in it regularly, and here they are giving it away for free.
How many hours do you spend on offline media?
Probably two hours a day, even less on the weekends. My husband and I like to wind down at night and watch the same shows, so most of that time is spent in front of the television together. Before I had my daughter I used to spend hours and hours downloading new music but I just don't have the time to do that anymore, let alone a place where I could listen to it at a volume that would make it worthwhile. I have a really nasty habit of reading junky tabloids at the gym while I do my 30-minute workout on the elliptical trainer because I find that looking at pictures of Paris Hilton's wardrobe and skin color do a better job at distracting me from the pain of the workout than well-written, meaningful journalism.
Is most of your reading now done on or offline?
Sadly, most of it is online. Maybe that has to do with access or my attention span or all those pretty pictures, but I don't read nearly as many books as I should what with my English degree and collection of John Steinbeck novels.
I do so much work during the day — chasing after the kid, preventing the kid from swallowing dangerous poisons, feeding the kid, dodging flying toys flung by the kid, plus all my writing — that by the end of the day I usually just want to sit on the couch, nurse a bourbon on the rocks, and watch a drama involving cops, district attorneys, and corpses.
How does offline input contribute to your blogging? To your other writing?
I get a lot of feedback from my friends and family. I never thought I would see the day when my mother would call me up and say, "I just read your post, and even though I had to close my eyes during a few words, I laughed really hard." But I never write anything with the thought in mind that I'm going to talk to my friends or family about it afterward. That's just an added bonus. While I have had to make compromises so that I don't hurt those who are close to me with what I write, I still write from the heart and from my point of view with thoughts that are wholly my own.
How has your site changed over the years?
When I first started publishing I was writing HTML documents and then manually uploading them to a server via an FTP program and that seemed to take FOREVER. Now I use Movable Type and I can update within a few seconds. I've also had to change my attitude about writing publicly, and I think there is an interesting phenomenon when it comes to starting a personal website. There seems to be a set of phases that everyone goes through and bloggers either come out the other end of these phases with a different set of boundaries or they give up blogging because the consequences are too hard to handle.
I started out thinking that I could say anything in my space and that everyone else needed to get over it, including my family and friends. Of course, I ended up alienating my family and losing my job and pissing off my friends, and it took WAY TOO LONG for me to figure out that while there is great power in personal publishing, there is also great danger. My supposed right to say anything I wanted got me into hot water in so many facets of my life that I finally realized that it wasn't worth it.
My boundaries are constantly changing as more people read my site, as my daughter gets older, as neighbors walk up to me and say, "Saw you in the paper! Funny stuff!" Do I really want my neighbors to know how constipated I am? I guess I really don't care, but I never thought I'd have to ask myself that question. I would say that now I am much more conscious about how what I write is going to affect the people in my life.
Apart from what you've already talked about with regard to writing, design, and setting boundaries, is there any advice you would give to a new blogger?
My only other piece of advice for a new blogger would be for her to ask herself, who is the one person you would not want to read what you have just written? And now imagine that person finding your website and reading it because it will happen. Are you comfortable with that? If so, carry on. If not, maybe you should consider keeping a private journal. If that person doesn't exist, well then aren't you lucky.
Why do you blog?
I blog because it feels natural for me to chronicle things, and I derive immense pleasure from designing it, writing it, and reading the feedback. As a stay-at-home mom I also feel more connected to the world through it as this can be a very lonely and isolating job.
What are your hobbies?
I like to hike and camp and snowboard, although motherhood has put a bit of a damper on all three of those things. I think that as my daughter gets older I'll do a lot more writing about our outdoor activities. I like to discover new music, watch Discovery Channel shows that take place in the ER, and take long walks with the dog.
How has your weblog changed your life?
I think I have found what I want to do with my life in terms of career and art. No other artistic endeavor has been more fulfilling, and where I used to wonder what I might do when my kids were old enough to spend their days in school, I now think I know. I'm really excited to see where things go from here.
With regard to blogging, what was your most memorable moment?
About three months after I started my blog I got an email from Jason Kottke warning me that I might want to be careful about the things I was writing concerning my family. HA! I wish I had kept that email. And then there was the time I proposed to my husband on his website and he said yes.
But honestly, the most memorable moment has to have been a few days after I returned from my stay at a psych ward and I was reading through all the supportive email from my readers. One girl wrote to tell me that her sister had tried the previous day to take her own life, and that because I had written about checking myself into the hospital she was able to convince her sister to do the same. She was able to tell her sister, "Look, Dooce got help and she came out the other end. You can do it, too." It just blew my mind and I sat there and bawled my eyes out.
What are three blogs you think deserve wider recognition, and why?
Laid-Off Dad. I like reading about parenthood from the father's perspective and not only is the blogging community lacking in writing about fatherhood, it's lacking in good writing about fatherhood. I really like LOD's voice, he's brilliantly funny and at times heartbreakingly warm and personal.
Twelve Two Two Fondue, written by a man named Bill who lives in Sugarland, Texas. The man can spin a yarn, whether it be about cooking filet mignon, or doing yard work, or describing his rocket scientist daughter. He offers up this really unique slice of life. Even his recipes are fun to read.
3Hive.com, an MP3 blog maintained by several friends (and I'm not plugging this site because my husband codes it). Had this blog been around when I was still working in an office I would have been fired for bandwidth reasons alone. It's the perfect website for people who like to discover new music across genres. It has a great, personal voice that puts the music in context helping you decide whether or not you want to download it, and you can search by genre or label or artist, etc. I wish I had more hands and more hours in the day to listen to everything this site links to.
Mac or PC?
I used to be a devout PC user, but I did not know religion until I used OSX on the Mac. I work on an iBook, and we have three other Macs in the house. I almost get physically ill now if I have to look at a Windows operating system.
Would you read your site?
I would, absolutely, even though I'm probably my toughest critic. I think it's important that I would want to read it, otherwise why put the time into it? I hated working for companies who were making products I would never use because it made me feel like I was wasting my life and pouring my soul into something worthless. I don't feel that way now, and I haven't ever been happier.
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