The Coming-to-Be of a Dissertation on African-American Mom Bloggers: Part One [Intro]

In the summer of 2010, I took an Internet Writing course, and in the class, we had to write a paper that focused on some aspect of writing for the Internet. At the time of the class, I was in my last leg of course work and was trying to firm up a topic for my dissertation research. I knew I was interested in online spaces and that I was also interested in race, gender, and identity and how those aspects were developed and shaped in online spaces. I was also interested in African-American women and they used these spaces. What I couldn't fully develop develop at the time was WHO in this group and WHAT about this group I could develop a dissertation on without making the project unwieldy.

It was at this time that I happened across a commercial on HGTV about Heather Armstrong, probably the most well-known mom blogger. She goes by Dooce on her blogsite. In the commercial, I learned that HGTV had partnered with Armstrong to assist "online and on-air production teams to create innovative convergence programming for the network."

Watching the commercial, two questions came to mind: “Are there African-American mom bloggers?” and “What are they doing online to develop their identities?”

Those questions propelled me to take an exploratory look at the thoughts of African-American mom bloggers in regards to who they were, how they represented themselves on their blogs, what messages they wanted to convey in their blogging, and how they developed relationships with their blog readers.

The paper for the Internet Writing class would become the pilot study that would birth my growing interest in African-American mom bloggers and my dissertation project.

The paper barely scratched the surface of the complex layering that is found when examining what it means to be an African-American mom blogger.

For the paper, I conducted short interviews with four African-American mom bloggers, four educated, pro-black, pro-community, pro-discourse, pro-blogging women, and in doing so, I learned a few things. And I was left with even more questions.

In talking with these bloggers, I learned that many of their reasons for wanting to blog are similar to the general population’s reasons for blogging: to share a part of one’s self, to receive feedback from others, to bond with others, and to form a community with like-minded people. I also learned that race is a main vehicle for the decisions they make in their blogging practice. It was important for these bloggers to portray their race in a positive light and to promote a “joining of forces” with others who are about showing the world that African-American mom bloggers wield a lot of buying power, too, and deserve to be acknowledged—not so much for the marketing/promotional perks, but for companies to realize that all mothers (and children for that matter) are not the same, and products need to be developed that cater to all, not the “representative” sample.

Overall, the bloggers noted that their blogs’ main purpose is to shed light on the journey of African-American motherhood. To do that, transparency is key for them. As their blogs’ identity is to cater to the journey of the African-American mother, they found that their blogger identities must be reflected within the content they provide, and they work hard to show all aspects of being African-American, of being an African-American woman, and of being an African-American woman who happens to be a mother. These women also saw the blogger-reader relationship as the most important aspect of blogging because it facilitates community building—both on the blog and off it. What's important to these bloggers is that they keep their readers interested and active in the conversations that are created through the blog content. Because these bloggers are interested in expanding community beyond the blog, these women happen to be knowledgeable in social media tools that enable their content to be single-sourced to other spaces, such as Facebook and Twitter.

In the interviews, I also learned that these women paid attention to their blog’s structure and design and found these components connected to the messages they wanted to convey in their blogs.

Blog design (choices regarding blog colors, title, header, “About Me” page, sidebar, tag/category clouds, and footer) are also important to those interviewed. I asked the mom bloggers what their blog design said about their intended identity--if the two aspects, identity and blog design, were congruent. All four women stated that the overall development of their blog illustrates their passion in their content and their dedication to providing positive portrayals of the African-American mother experience. When thinking about the blog’s design, two of the women specifically stated that race is the primary thought behind their blog development, from using images of African-American children in posts to designing a header logo that features an African-American woman wearing dreadlocks.

It is my belief that who you are shapes what you choose to write about and how you choose to write about it. I asked the four mom bloggers how their identity shaped what they wrote, and all four women found that race plays an integral role in their writing. For them, their “mom blogger of color” identity is a vehicle to voice the positive portrayals of the African-American experience in general and the African-American motherhood experience specifically. Blogging for them shows that their stories, their lives matter. In their blogging, whether it's to generate content or response, these women make their identities the subject of conversation. It was evident in the interviews that race and gender play pivotal roles in how these women shape their online identities, their online spaces, and the content developed in these spaces.

I asked one parting question to the women: what came first, the blog or the message you wanted the blog to convey, and all four stated the message came first. Each of them had something she wanted to convey, and the blog gave her the space to do it. In addition, for some of them, the blog gave them more focus in how to structure the message and design it for the reader. For others, the blog gave them success they hadn’t even thought about achieving. Despite the lack of awareness of African-American mom bloggers, this group seems to stand in the midst of the blogosphere, individually and collectively; they are connecting, and they are growing through their experiences within the blogosphere.

At the conclusion of the pilot study, I was left with many questions: How can African-American mom bloggers construct their communities in order to spread awareness? Is that even their goal? Would race and gender be as prevalent to other African-American mom bloggers as they were to the pilot study group? How significant did bloggers feel readers were to development of the blogger’s and blog’s identity? Did the readers find their roles significant?

My dissertation furthers the research that began in the pilot study, and attempts to answer the above questions. It examines the blogosphere as a space where race and gender are negotiated to not only develop identity both individually and socially, but to also foster community amongst the blogger, her readers, and the blogging group community at large. The dissertation specifically focuses on African-American mom bloggers, a popular group that has been blogging since the mid-1990s. Drawing from Eisenberg’s theory of identity as mystery, Goffman’s self-presentation concept, and Patricia Hill Collins’ concept of safe spaces as underlying frameworks to understanding race, gender, and identity, this research will explore the overall process in which African-American mom bloggers consider their identities as African-American, woman, and mother to create their blog and blogger identities. In addition, this research aims to analyze how these identities are represented within the blog space by way of three aspects: design (color, blog title, header, “About Me” page, sidebar, tag/category clouds, and footer), content (blog posts [text, image, audio, video, and links], advertisements, badges, “About Me” page, and other uses of images, audio, video, and links on the page, and interaction (comments, social sharing tools, e-mail, and other contact information).

In future posts, I will discuss the frameworks and methods used in the dissertation.

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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