Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Lies, Damned Lies, and Blog Posts

What is the nature of truth in blogging?

(Veronica Mitchell threw down the gauntlet in her recent post on Truth and Blogging: Here’s my response, which outran comment length by a mile.)

For starters, truth in blogging has very little to do with factual accuracy. If I publish a post a few days after I write it, I may or may not bother to search out all uses of the word “today” and replace them with “two days ago.” Reported conversations are rarely complete, and the omissions may or may not be signaled with ellipses. Anecdotes are replete with alterations made for the sake of brevity: two separate events may be telescoped into one; three or more bit players may be merged into a single person. Personally, I avoid these kinds of inaccuracies whenever I can (I’m a bit nitpicky that way), but when I have to choose between deceiving my readers and boring them, I’ll usually opt for the former.

Bloggers also take on no obligation to be impartial. My representation of Dr. WRE last week was anything but impartial (and I rather depended upon Mr. B&P to show up and point that out). Perhaps an impartial way of characterizing the psychiatrist’s behaviour would be to say, “He wasn’t trying to humiliate me, but he couldn’t have done a better job if he had tried.” (Or maybe not – I’m still not quite impartial about that yet.) The anger in that post was real – the post was truthful in that respect – but as a representation of someone else, it was anything but objective.

The central subject of a personal blog is, by definition, the blogger herself. My theories and anecdotes are not scrupulously fact-checked; when I express an opinion I do not assume that I have an obligation to give equal weight to all sides. I am by nature an exaggerator; to curb that tendency here would, perhaps, elevate the truthfulness of my blog in general, but it would make it a less faithful representation of me.

The person I write about in this blog - Ms. B&P, Professor Bubandpie - is a construct. She leapt into being when I clicked "Create Blog" one spring day last year, and she has grown through a kind of awkward adolescence into what strikes me occasionally as a brash and over-confident adulthood. She is not me. And yet, my satisfaction in blogging arises almost entirely from my sense that she is me, a truer, realer me than the one who is so fettered by the conventions of real life. When I see my blog mentioned in a post, the little shock of recognition that goes over me is closely akin to the reflex that whips my head around when I hear my name called out on the street.

Truthfulness in blogging does not require objectivity, fact-checking, or even a willingness to lay bare the dark secrets of the soul. It is, I think, more social than that: it has to do with the claims we make on our readers. Even the most innocuous sort of fact-bending – the use of “today” for events that occurred yesterday – can be false if it elicits an outpouring of support for a crisis that no longer exists. Outright fabrications violate the spirit of blogging – but never more so than when they are employed to manipulate readers’ emotions, to elicit sympathy to which one is not entitled.

Our culture places enormous pressure on mothers to represent ourselves falsely – to smile stiffly when round-the-clock nursing has filled us with sleep-deprivation and rage, to mouthe platitudes like “It’s all worth it” rather than speaking honestly about our fears, our obsessiveness, our chronic indecision and self-doubt. The blogosphere is not so much a place where we are required to speak these truths as an open invitation to do so. This kind of truth-telling isn’t an obligation – it’s an opportunity and sometimes even an addiction.

45 comments:

Chaotic Joy said...

This was thoughtfully written. I have had the experience with not changing my "Todays" to "Sometime last week" and have felt guilty about sympathy - or some other response - I have received that no longer applies. As a result, I try not to do this anymore, on emotion laden posts. Funny stories I will tell at any time.

I also use my blog to portray emotions on motherhood that I may not express in real life. (which is ironic since many people in my life read my blog) And sometimes it's just that I am not able to express myself verbally. My ablilty to articulate my feelings outloud has always been, at best, inadequate, especially in comparision to putting them in writing.

"This kind of truth-telling isn’t an obligation – it’s an opportunity and sometimes even an addiction."

dawn224 said...

I figure as long as no one is fabricating something and trying to benefit from the care of other then polishing the gem of a story is fine. A blogger saying that s/he is sick when they are not to get attention is entirely different. (I've seen it done on some boards.)

Aimee said...

Amen, Amen, I say to you . . .

kgirl said...

If I wanted just the facts, ma'am, I'd read the newspaper. (though I'm not sure which one actually offers just the facts.)

I'm happy with the personal truth that gives you your unique voice. As long as you're not making a chump out of me, I'll believe you.

MsPrufrock said...

What a great post.

I am a dithering blogger when it comes to truth-telling. Despite all the internal drama I almost always opt to be completely honest, hence my many new-mother posts talking about jumping off cliffs or out of windows. Sadly, I wasn't exaggerating those feelings.

The benefit of truthful blogging, regardless of how insignificant the truth, is that someone else might find what you have written helpful. I have received numerous emails from desperate new mums who have read my entries and have gotten a lot of relief out of knowing that they are not bad mothers after all.

I do worry that I seem really melodramatic sometimes, what, with all the truths flying around. Basically it comes down to the fact that it's my blog and I can say what I want. Within reason of course...

Swistle said...

I loved this SO MUCH, my heart leapt out of my chest (not literally).

I think it's possible to be over-careful. People say "LOL" when they didn't actually laugh audibly--and that's okay with me.

I'm with you: outright lies or deliberately misleading information are wrong; the other stuff you mention is fine.

Kyla said...

You know, I always change the "today" to "last week" or whatever the case maybe. I try and recount conversations accurately, if I don't quote correctly, generally it is because I've forgotten the exact wording. I try my best to be honest and I shy away from exaggeration, due to the nature of what I blog about mostly. I don't ever want to give anyone a reason to question anything I've written.

It doesn't bother me that others sometimes do these things, as long as they are employed as literary devices. If they are used to actually mislead, then I do feel like it is a violation of trust. All we really have in these spaces it honesty of emotion; we don't know each other past the portrayal we put forth on blog. Although, I've never met a blogger who didn't match her on blog persona. I think for the most part, honesty of emotion is as real as you can get.

Mad Hatter said...

I was thinking about this the other day but I was thinking through the lens of audience. When I write, who is my truth for? Sometimes it is solely for me (as it was in yesterday's dark post), sometimes it is for my daughter so that she will know the little bits and pieces of her development in a way that is far richer than scrapbooking offers, sometimes it is for my extended family in Ontario (a lot of the photos and memory pieces), sometimes it is for a faceless audience of people who just might find these words (the Just Posts, posts about my real trials in parenting--breastfeeding, rage, isolation), sometimes I write for the laugh-track and sometimes I write for you, B&P. OK, not exactly you but sort of you. There are about 12 bloggers who I feel I know so well now that when I write I think to myself, this is for B&P or I hope Sin likes this, or Mimi will see the then-me in this, or I wonder if Beck thinks this way too...

It's this last group (and there are a bunch more names I could have listed above) that I find I write to the most and that I am eager to bring the most honest version of my constructed self to. It's this last group that brought me back when I had all but walked out the door.

Uh, so I guess, in short, YOU are my truth in blogging. Cue music now...

Blog Antagonist said...

What a thought provoking post. I am not by nature a duplicitous person, but I too do the things you describe. I think we all do. That said...I think those kinds of embellishments are fine, even expected, as long as the tone and the intent is honesty, and I think that by and large, this is true of most of us.

Swistle said...

Ooo, I have more. It's this: the difference, to me, is how my readers would feel if they found out. If they found out I'd written "the day before yesterday" when it was actually "the day before the day before yesterday," my guess is they would brush that aside as totally unimportant. But if I wrote that my mother-in-law said something she didn't say, and my readers got indignant on my behalf, they'd feel foolish if they found out she hadn't said it at all.

Also, I use pseudonyms for my children. I say so occasionally, to remind people, because otherwise there can be issues where someone says, "Oh, I LOVE those names!" and then feels silly. I'm trying to find a way to make it even clearer, without mentioning it every single time I post about the kids, because it DOES result in those "feeling foolish" moments. It's the only time I wish I'd chosen names that didn't seem real (more along the Bub and Pie line).

DaniGirl said...

I find these "truth in blogging" posts very interesting. Like you, I'm prone to exaggeration, but I am also extremely self-conscious of the factuality of how I represent myself and the stories I tell. For one thing, way too many IRL people read my blog, including my boss, my husband and my mother - and they won't let me get away with too much stretching, even for comedic effect (my biggest weakness).

But also, and I see this in the context of the recent trend toward ultra-hip parents who tend to write to shock, I think readers have a pretty good sense of when someone is manufacturing a persona rather than using a lens to magnify or dimish what's already there. Both are, to an extent, untruthful, but the former is also distasteful, IMHO.

Plus, yanno, keeping track of lies, or exaggerations, or falsehoods, or whatever you want to call them - that's just too much work! And when it slips, kind of like Kevin Costner's accent in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, it's just that much more obvious - and ugly!

Andrea said...

This is something I have been struggling with for a long time. I used to just be 100% honest about everything (even changing all the "today"s to "sometime last week"), but am now actually legally barred from it, and have no idea what to do.

I hate being dishonest. Certain forms of dishonesty have become unavoidable lately, and it's made the blog a much less fun place than it used to be. Similarly, if I get the sense that someone else is tryign to pull a fast one, exaggerating their difficulties or misrepresenting their intentions especially, I'll avoid them like the plague.

Mimi said...

I like your measure of deceit / boredom. It's all about the good story, because that's the most true, in a way (writes the literary scholar).

We're all lucky, in a way, because most blog readers are also blog writers, and, as such, are kinda attuned to this tension between truth/story, unvarnished/retold, experienced/narrated. We set our expectations of others accordingly.

Julie said...

Teaching literature, I have this conversation with my students more or less every single quarter. I love to teach memoirs/novels that blur the boundaries and I love to have my students debate their own personal limits (each person is more and less willing to allow for certain deviations from the Truth). We enjoy very interesting conversations about the difference between literal truth and emotional truth and discuss where and when we care which an author is giving us.

Veronica Mitchell said...

Intriguing.

As far as representing ourselves truthfully, I suppose we first have to decide if we really know ourselves truthfully. My constructed self on the blog is inevitably inaccurate because I have blind spots about myself in real life, too. I suppose a more truthful blog would be a group blog written about me by me and my friends and family, but who on earth would want to read such a thing?

Your approach to things also leaves me with a lot of questions about the reader. To what degree do we assume competence in our reader? I don't know how to write well AND write for stupid people, but there's no doubt many people are stupid (well, no doubt to me anyway, but I'm a snob).

If the gauge of honesty is the appropriateness of the response I am seeking from my readers, how is that affected by my awareness that not all readers will respond appropriately? There are, for instance, always a few readers who will never get irony, and I know to expect that, but I don't let that should impinge on my freedom to use irony "truthfully."

Lots more to say here, but too much for a comment.

NotSoSage said...

About six months ago, I joked on my blog that I had typed "bottomless tart pans" into Google and got a number of less-than-desirable links. I hadn't actually done that. But a helpful anonymous commenter (who I discovered had done the same thing) suggested that I put all of the terms in quotation marks to narrow my search.

I couldn't believe that someone took me seriously.

Perhaps the touted alternate forms of media and "underground" writing are given a little too much credit in the truth-telling department.

nomotherearth said...

Here's my conundrum - I am an irrepressible over-exaggerater in real life, so if I don't exaggerate on my blog, does that make me less truthful? Hmm.

It's your last paragraph that really go to me, though. The reason I started my blog is that I felt I was surrounded by all these new moms to whom everything about their babies was "wonderful" and "special" and "miraculous". I felt like I couldn't express what I was really feeling inside, without being seen as a Bad Mother.

Emily said...

I think it is a mistake for people to assume that just because any kind of writing takes license with "facts" it is not "truthful." All writing has to adjust small realities to allow for more truth in the big stuff. THoreau, after all, condensed two years on Walden pond to one.

painted maypole said...

very interesting post. And I'm with you that we write OUR truth, and while we aim to not LIE, we don't worry about the small details being perfect, and we don't expect that from the blogs we read. We also know that there are omissions, and other sides to the story, even other sides within MY version of the story... but you can't get all bogged down by that. The blog is a place to tell MY story in MY way - a way that strives to not be dishonest, but doesn't focus on the facts, but rather the STORY

painted maypole said...

by the way... i came back to an old discussion (july) on your blog today to try to make sure I used lie/lay correctly in my post today. ;) I hope I did!

Mary-LUE said...

My brain is complete mush as my daughter was up last night for a couple of hours after throwing up.

But this is a fascnating topic, post, comments, etc.

It makes me think of what Tim O'Brien said in his book The Things They Carried about story truth versus happening truth.

It makes me think of Madeleine L'Engle's recent passing and her surviving children (not sure what I think about their doing this) proclaiming to the world that what she wrote about their family life was complete fiction. She swore it was truth to her.

I think it has so much to do with intention. I definitely want to believe the the core of what I read about people's lives are factual. I've never experienced it but I've always had a little fear that I would buy in to someone's story only to be James Frey'd.

But we have to surround our stories with a structure, don't we? To make our posts comprehendable, we have to give them a beginning, a middle and n end of some sort. Actually, I think I could be much better at this. Writing it more creatively than merely reporting the facts (as I see them).

I want to be truthful in my blog. I want to be accurate. But, as some other commenters have mentioned, I only know the "truth" as perceived by my, myself and I. (This is where I also start to worry that my blogging is narcissistic.)

Well, I'm ricocheting all over the place here. I'm looking forward to coming back to read the other comments as they come along.

bubandpie said...

Mad - You're making me cry!

Veronica - I, too, have been burned by irony on my blog. I don't consider myself responsible to write in a way that cannot possibly be misunderstood - but I do find that the immediate response aspect of blogging discourages certain types of writing: satire, showing-not-telling. When you know, immediately, that you've been misunderstood and/or failed to convey your intended meaning, it's almost impossible to avoid revising your style in response - explaining more, relying on irony less. Andrea has talked about this before on her blog - there is probably some value in deliberately resisting that tendency to over-explain, to aim for total clarity.

Eve said...

Hey, I love your post. You expressed very well the peculiarities of blogging. We're not paid journalists; we're more like diarists. We can (and do) take poetic license. We're human.

Thanks for your usual thoughtfulness. It's always a treat to read here.

Beck said...

I know that I do not represent myself accurately on my blog - my written persona and my actual self are two different people. They might be sisters, but in writing I have a more assured, competent voice than my actual shy, cautious self has ever had.
And so I get lots of "You're such a GOOD MOTHER" comments, which makes me feel like SUCH a liar. I don't know - really - what to do about it.

Janet said...

The blogosphere is not so much a place where we are required to speak these truths as an open invitation to do so.

Yes, that's exactly it.

The community in the blogosphere appears to be so genuinely full of concern and interest for one another, to tell lies would feel like a betrayal.

Julie Pippert said...

You know I am going to volunteer this as a guest post on the BlogRhet docket after Veronica's post...don't you? You know I simply MUST, right?

Awesome explanation...that "caveat" paragraph really nails it for how I view it too.

My blog is MY world and it is my version of it, although I try to be accurate. Still, it's all about me, and I like it like that.

I also like it like that at other blogs. I like hearing how people interpret things. It makes me feel more normal. :) (By comparison yes, but no, not as in "okay she's more crazy than me so I'm normal" as in "oh yeaaahhh I take things like that as such too!!" It's a joining, KWIM?)

Julie
Using My Words

Julie Pippert said...

Oooohh awesome comment by Veronica.

My blog is an outpouring of my new honesty and self-discovery, actually.

It's ironic considering many people mask identifying details...but I have chosen not to. It creates a wall, a barrier, from some truth, but forces others. I think the latter is, in a way, more important, anyway.

Julie
Using My Words

Pieces said...

Then there is the whole anonymity thing. If we blog under true anonymity we are free to be completely truthful--no veneer, no smiles after a sleepless night. And yet, when we know that some of our readers actual KNOW us...then we are more inclined to avoid hyperbole and manufactured details.

So which blogger would be the real me? The anonymous one or not?

Lisa b said...

I was reading this thinking you were going to bring up truthiness, that domain of a certain president. Truthiness to me is choosing your story with intent to decieve. Truthfullness is your personal truth, as in your example with the Dr.
As for making up stories to elicit sympathy, someone who was sad enough to do that would get my sympathy, though probably not in the way she intended.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

Monday I posted about something that had happened in my neighborhood the week before, and I didn't clarify the timeframe. I did it deliberately -- I had noticed that all my blog posts start with "Today I..." or "This weekend we..." and it was beginning to sound tedious to me. Anyway, Monday evening one of my neighbors saw me outside and came running, saying, I saw your blog post! What a horrible thing! And I felt SO TERRIBLE. It was as if I'd lied to her.

Other than that: I have no idea if my blog represents me truthfully. Sometimes I feel like it's more negative or more earnest than I am in reality; other times I feel like it must be the 'real me,' since I did the writing. Still other times I wonder if I'm a good enough writer to portray myself accurately.

Angela said...

I like how you put that

Luisa Perkins said...

I don't understand how, after all this time (MONTHS and MONTHS ;)), you still can astonish and inspire me so thoroughly. You're such a gift.

KC said...

This post, I love. Truly.

I'd like to think that my blog is my truth, even if posted a few days behind, it was my truth at the moment. And I tell my truth in the way I would if I called you up as an old friend and relayed the events: exaggeration, omissions, telescoping and all.

mcewen said...

I try and be truthful on the whole, it's more a question of editing - no-one wants to hear me count to 15 [with ands] waiting for the next utterance.

I think of it more as the edited highlights if that doesn't sound too pretentious.

Sharing our emotional responses to situations is only fair.
Best wishes

A Whole Lot of Nothing said...

I just stood up and clapped for you.
Figuratively.
BRAVO!!!!!!

slouching mom said...

Our selves -- blogging selves, selves in real life -- are all constructed, are they not? Is there such a thing as an unconstructed self? I don't think so. I don't feel my blog self is any less true than any other conception I hold of myself.

Terri said...

Hmmmm, interesting. I've thought about this also, though not in as much depth. I do find that when I'm blogging about, say, something one of my children said or did, but I don't remember the exact words, I'll fill in the gaps while trying to stay true to the spirit of what was said or done.

As far as how we represent ourselves in our blogs, I do try to "construct" my blogging self as true to my real self as possible. But the difference is that when I blog I can be more clever or at least more coherent because I have time to think through what I write before I write it; whereas, in real life I'm not nearly so clever or quick on my feet.

I do agree with you that blogging is an opportunity for truthfulness though not an obligation to it. As much as I would like to have the freedom to completely express myself in my blog, I do find I hold back in some areas because people I know personally read my blog and would be offended. In that respect, I guess I'm not completely true to myself.

AmandaD said...

Thank you for this. I had an experience with a family member who took umbrage with a story I wrote.
It was difficult for me because I though I was honoring the unspoken tenet of respecting the players in our lives who deserve their privacy. We had a no-holds barred conversation. It was tense and made me evaluate what the blog was for me and what my rights were within that very vital outlet for me. Ultimately we found common ground but I have carried the struggle with me in the year since, informing my decisions with my writing. That said, unflinching honesty, whether with regard to joy or failure, is the very part of this realm that nourishes me in a way nothing else before it has.

Lawyer Mama said...

I think your blogging "truth" is very similar to my own. LawyerMama isn't me, but she is. Or maybe she's the me I wish I was. Now you've made me think about it & I may have to weigh in on my own blog.

I don't know how I missed the Dr. WRE post last week. Unfortunately, I've had appointments for my children that have made me feel similar. I wouldn't put up with it from another lawyer, but when it's a specialist who can help my child.... Oy. I hope the next part of the evaluation is better.

Antique Mommy said...

I am not a reporter, I am a story teller. Big difference. I aim for my stories to contain a sort of truth, maybe a central truth, about my life and my existance, but when I say my head it exploded, it in fact, did not actually explode.

ewe are here said...

Yes. yes yes yes.

Great post.

Suki said...

Interesting. I like your honesty. But my sense of truth in blogging is pretty absolute. I blog with the same freedom as I talk... and when "today" should become yesterday, I usually specify that the post is being made a day later.

For me, blogging is me-time. Which also explains why I NEVER blog about the news unless I absolutely need to, in my efforts to articulate my innermost thoughts.

I love Chaotic Joy's quote on truth-telling. It does apply. It's the one way we can get back to who we are, instead of what society has made us become.

Momish said...

Right on B&P! I agree with everything you said. I have found myself doing the same tiny manipulations to save time and confusion for my readers. I will often say my husband said something rather than writing my husband's sister's friend's son told me...

Sometimes I even consider it as fibbing a bit when I write about something in a humorous way when at the time it left me in tears. I often consider tacking to the end, "but really when it happened I had a nervous breakdown" to be truthful. I always end up leaving it out though, because it is like me to find the underhanded humor in a situation days later.

I completely understand and agree with what you are saying.

thordora said...

I blathered about this awhile back. http://vomitcomit.wordpress.com/2007/09/05/being-honest-again/

I find it odd, and almost amusing that there's this split-that in the midst of all the pay per post and "reviews" in blogs, we're sometimes held to task over being honest.

Those of us who blog anon wouldn't create a name if we were going to be totally honest now would we. It's just another facet we show to those around us. Thordora is just another voice I hold in my head.

As creepy as that sounds.

Susanne said...

The truth and the facts can be two different things indeed. And on top of that there is the story, something that we as bloggers better pay tribute too because as you pointed out, readers don't want to be bored.

But I know that sometimes the exaggerations and alterations can make a post more true emotionally than sticking to the facts as such.

I don't do it often but just yesterday I posted without changing all the "todays" to "yesterdays". But it wasn't to grab sympathy, I swear. It was irrelevant.