After she graduated from Barnard in 1998, Heather Currier Hunt’s life started down the path she had more or less anticipated: She earned an MFA in creative writing from the New School, got married, and settled in a tiny Pennsylvania town where she and her artist husband, Colin, could work on their respective media. They bought a house and had a baby.
Then it was discovered that their daughter, Willa, had a rare genetic defect called Costello Syndrome, which causes global developmental delays and other health problems. “After the shock of the initial diagnosis,” she tells Barnard, “you feel incredibly cut off. As a classic Barnard woman, I’d done all my homework about pregnancy and parenting. And then I had Willa and none of it applied whatsoever. I felt cut off from the life I thought I’d have, from other mothers, from my own family.”
So Hunt did something that, as “a complete Luddite,” she never would have anticipated: She started pouring out her feelings on the Internet. Her Web site, a blog called “Living in Invisible Cities” (see sidebar for the URL), describes her life and feelings as a mother to a special-needs child.
“I found that getting my thoughts down, specifically in the form of a blog, was wildly helpful,” she says. “It was journaling, but not just for me: it was public. To my surprise, other mothers I didn’t know quickly started responding, saying they know what it feels like. It gave me a community feeling, the feeling that it’s OK to say the ugly stuff. It was liberating and helped me move forward.”
Hunt is one of 8 million American women who maintain a “blog” (short for “Web log”), an online diary, political soapbox, or creative space open to any reader who stumbles upon it. Blogs have been a popular form of expression for at least 10 years, but have grown exponentially as a phenomenon since the creation of Blogger, WordPress, and other online services that make it possible for those with no technical expertise to create a personal Web site, often for free. Alumnae interested in reading or setting up a blog, but uncertain about where to start, can go to the new Alumnae Network, alum. barnard.edu, and create one or browse classmates’ profiles for their blogs.
Today, “more than half of American women who [use the Internet] go to social networking sites [such as blogs, Facebook, and Twitter] every week,” says Elisa Camahort Page, COO of BlogHer, an online media company focused on women. “That’s 42 million women. It’s more people than download music or share photos online.”
Almost 23 million American women read blogs. Blogging is a “natural medium for women,” she says, because it “fulfills the desire to have conversations, to form bonds. It’s a powerful way for women to change the game for themselves, to create their own platform, be it for personal expression, or political opinions, or business views. For lots of women, blogs have replaced the kitchen table in our time-impoverished lives.”
It’s not just young women who blog. Although only 46 percent of baby boomer women are involved in online social networking, compared to 73 percent of “millennials” aged 18-26, since there are so many more boomers, they number about 3.5 million more than the youngest online social- networkers. According to Camahort Page, almost a third of women age 63 and older are using online social tools, including blogs. (Bloggers tend to be the most active users of all social media platforms.)
The vast majority of bloggers write about their daily lives or thoughts, often with a specific focus—such as the blogs by Barnard graduates on being a young mother with cancer (“Coffee and Chemo”) or on being a Jew who is applying for German citizenship (“Fatherland”)—though some alumnae, such as Caroline Pet Ceniza-Levine ’93, blog on topics related to their businesses (in Ceniza-Levine’s case, career coaching) as a means to garner publicity and new clients.
Those unfamiliar with blogging are often puzzled: Why would one reveal one’s activities and thoughts on as public (and often cruel) a place as the Internet—and who reads these blogs, anyhow? According to Camahort Page, the top four reasons why people blog are entertainment, self-expression, finding a community of like-minded people (since most blogs enable readers to leave comments and thereby engage in dialogue), and sharing information or advice.
Readers often gravitate to blogs that either discuss a common interest or hobby (for example, many foodies enjoy reading “Not Derby Pie” by Rivka Friedman ’05) or, alternatively, expose one to different ways of living or thinking. Heterosexuals may be enlightened by the work of Lily Icangelo ’13, who blogs for the site Autostraddle about her experiences as a lesbian at Barnard.
Not surprisingly, Barnard graduates blog on a wide variety of topics, from becoming a single mother via sperm donor (“Jewish Single Mom By Choice”), to how to dress stylishly and inexpensively for a corporate job (“What Would Krissie Wear”).
Former Centennial Scholar and Barnard Writing Fellow Sasha Soreff ’94, founder and creative director of Brooklyn’s Sasha Soreff Dance Theater, blogs about choreography and the rehearsal process at sashasoreffdance.com. Since 2002, a congenital problem has prevented her from dancing barefoot, leading to the creation of her movement piece “The Dancer Who Wore Sneakers and Other Tales.”
The company’s Web site was already in place, but she added the blog to explore the question of “what it’s like to have my whole style of dance have to change,” she explains. “How do I navigate being a dancer who cannot be barefoot? And how would the act of writing about my creative process change my creative process?”
Now the blog is an important tool for her choreography. “It helps me be more rigorous in what I’m doing,” she says, “more accountable and transparent. It forces me to be more honest about when something isn’t working. I want to be able to articulate what’s going on. Dance is hard for people to understand. It’s not as accessible as theatre or music. I wanted to break down those barriers, communicate what is going on with me while I’m creating, in the hope that it will become more relatable.” She also has open rehearsals, so that audience members can give feedback as Soreff’s work is under construction.
Moneymaker or Hobby
Like other forms of writing, the blogging genre is rarely lucrative, but in some cases it can lead to, or create, income. Eventually, Soreff hopes her blog will draw potential producers or investors, just as Ceniza-Levine’s blog— in conjunction with her newspaper articles, bi-monthly newsletters, and column for CNBC—helps her recruit new clients. “It’s a way for people to get used to [my approach],” Ceniza- Levine says, “and see if what I do will work for them.” Sarah Walker Caron ’01, whose food blog, “Sarah’s Cucina Bella,” attracts 15-20 thousand visitors each month, earns enough revenue from advertising “to pay for the month’s groceries, in a good month.” And Kathy Ebel ’89, author of “Fatherland,” is shopping her blog to book publishers. However, garnering publicity and readers for a blog is a science unto itself, and most people who blog do it simply as a hobby.
Unlike Soreff, who has always considered herself a writer, current student Melissa Lohmann ’10, started as a reluctant blogger. A psychology major, she received a Gilman Scholarship to study Japanese language and culture this past summer and fall, first with the Hokkaido International Foundation program, and then at Doshisha University as part of Barnard’s Study Abroad program. The Gilman Scholarship requires participants to share their experiences or promote studying abroad, so Lohmann started a blog.
“I’d never been interested in reading friends’ blogs,” she says. “I didn’t understand the concept of posting things for everyone else to see until I kept my own.” She quickly discovered that her blog made it easy to stay in contact with friends and family in the States, who could check the Web site to read about her exploits. It also became a journal of her personal growth and a happy introduction to the writing life.
“I almost forgot about the whole service requirement,” she says. “It allowed me to be creative. Before, I used writing to express myself only in school papers and e-mails to friends. This was more voluntary. Now, after writing a good blog post, I feel accomplished, and that I could be a writer. My aunt printed the whole thing—it’s 200 pages—and put it in a binder and is reading it as if it were a novel. It makes me feel passionate about writing.” Still, once she finishes recording the last few weeks of her trip, and the “re-entry” process to the United States, she’s not sure whether she’ll continue the blog project. Blogging, she says, is extremely time-consuming; in the time it took to write an “interesting and factual” post, she could have been experiencing something new outside.
(Gretchen Young, Barnard’s dean for study abroad, maintains a list of blogs by Barnard students abroad at www. barnardabroad.blogspot.com.)
Proceed with Caution
Demonstrating the openness—some might say naïveté—of many young people who blog, Lohmann “never thought about potential employers or professors looking at my blog. If they did, I have nothing to hide. I’m not ashamed of anything. I’m not scared of putting anything on my blog.”
There can be reasons to be scared, if not ashamed. Many authors of “personal blogs”—including Hunt, until recently— write anonymously to maintain their privacy. Others publish their names but blog about extremely limited subjects— Israeli politics, orphotography, rather than one’s marriage or children—so as not to reveal one’s private life on a public Web site.
Including too many details on a blog can lead to awkward situations, such as the time that Kristina “Krissie” McMenamin ’05 wrote on her fashion blog that she’s only once seen her boss in a skirt. “Someone told me later that [my boss] had read it,” McMenamin says. “I freaked out because I didn’t know my boss read my blog. She never said anything to me, and told someone else that she was flattered that I wrote about her. But since then I haven’t mentioned anything about anyone else’s personal style, unless I think it’s really great.” (Camahort Page said that only 3 to 5 percent of abandoned blogs come to an end because the author’s family or employer finds out about it; the most common reasons for giving up blogging are lack of time, and loss of interest in the topic.)
One Barnard alumna, who graduated in the late 1990s, asked to remain anonymous because her blog, “Breeding Imperfection,” focuses on her two children’s multiple, deadly food allergies, and on her older son’s hemophilia. Although those who know her can easily connect her family with the Web site, she doesn’t want her husband’s potential employers (she herself left graduate school to care for her children) to be able to discover, by Googling their names, that their health insurance must cover the older boy’s $11,000-per-month treatments. Nor does she wish her son to be denied health insurance in the future because of her blog.
She blogs partly because writing about parenting helps her evaluate her own performance, and partly because, as an ex-academic, she needs the intellectual exercise, but “the more ruthless aspect of why I blog,” she says, is that problems like bleeding disorders and anaphylactic shock are not “appropriate topics for casual conversation, unless you want to end the conversation.” Like Hunt, she often feels invisible.
“I make my audience listen to me,” she says of her blog, specifying that her site gets only about 30 “hits” a day, and she is writing to “a pretend audience, the girlfriend to whom you can say anything.”
“I have a kid who needs me to stick needles in him,” she continues. “He needs to be comfortable with the needles. So we empower him by teaching him to perform the procedure himself. This gives people the willies. I can’t talk about it. But I can blog about it.” Still, she adds, there is much about her personal life she does not post, since she knows that her parents and in- laws are regular readers.
Camahort Page confirmed that a large percentage of women bloggers are new mothers, mothers of special needs children, or grieving mothers—in other words, women who feel isolated and use blogging as a way to reach out to others who “get it.”
“I’m surprised by the random people who leave comments on my posts,” Hunt says. “It’s a funny feeling—it’s lovely. There are people out there connecting with me. Even if they don’t know the whole me, they know the ‘Living in Invisible Cities’ me. The community of parents online with special-needs kids is so supportive, full of caring people who reach out and offer a kind word. It’s special to be part of that.”
More Barnard bloggers at alumnae.barnard. edu/magazine.
-by Sarah Bronson '95, illustration by Katherine Streeter