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RIP pioneering blogger Dooce, the cost of exposure and implications of ambient intimacy

I was deeply saddened to read about the suicide of pioneering blogger and influencer Heather Armstrong, aka Dooce, recently. The simple fact that I felt so sad to learn of the death of a woman whose blog I used to read ages ago, reminded me of two great terms to describe two key effects of the early social web: ambient intimacy and ambient exposure.

I was alerted to the news of her death, at 47, by this brilliant post by Adam Tinworth: "The queen of mummy bloggers, the first influencer… Call her what you will, the tragic loss of Heather Armstrong means that one of the web's true pioneers is gone…

"...Heather didn’t just write about her children, although the candour and conversational prose style she used thoroughly changed how people talked about motherhood online. Her voice was unique, and compelling. She built an audience — and then grew closer to them as she wrote about her battles with depression, and, eventually, her struggle with alcohol addiction," he writes.

Armstrong launched Dooce in 2001. “At its peak, just after Armstrong appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2009, Dooce had a monthly 8.5 million readers, and the blog was reportedly earning as much as $40,000 a month from banner ads,” according to this profile by Vice.

For me, Dooce was a blog I came across and started following early when I started using social media, say somewhere between 2003 and 2005, and a blog that used to live in my RSS-reader – at least back in the days Bloglines was alive. I must have come across her blog via the blog roll of a blog I followed, or perhaps via a blog post, and enjoyed her voice.

I don’t quite remember when I stopped reading her, it must have been more than a decade ago: Perhaps because she took a hiatus from her blog, perhaps when I switched RSS-readers.

But the news of her death felt personal because I must have read her blog, and through that her deeply personal musings on very wide range of topics, many deeply personal, for many years. She’s someone I’ve "known" personally, without knowing personally at all – like so many people in the blogosphere of old.

Which brings me to the terms “ambient intimacy” and “ambient exposure” coined by Leisa Reichelt in a blog post in 2007 (I stumbled across the terms via Jeff Jarvis and blogged about them, though Reichelt’s own blog doesn’t seem to work anymore):

“…ambient intimacy is about being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn't usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible.”

“Reichelt also talks about the flipside of this, ambient exposure: the publicness that makes this possible but also creates some vulnerability. And each force us to define our societies, the people we want to share with: one person on an email, a few people in a chat, a defined group in Facebook or Pownce, a group we don’t define (if we’re public) in Twitter, anyone at all in a blog.

These two terms neatly sum up key pros and cons of social media to me:

“Ambient intimacy” is one of the best terms I’ve come across to describe the way social media often leaves you with a strong feeling of “knowing” someone you do not really know through their blog or social media profiles (though I have also met many of the people I’ve met online physically and feel I know them a bit better for it).

“Ambient exposure” points to the potential hazards and woes of exposing so much of yourself and your vulnerabilities via social media, especially when your content goes viral as Dooce certainly experienced.

I mean, 8.5 million monthly viewers. That’s a massive number of viewers, and perhaps one at odds with the term “ambient”. I’ve been reading Ben Smith’s engaging book “Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral” recently, and found the book, which chronicles the rise and fall of BuzzFeed News and Gawker media group, engrossing.

For someone who’ve followed social and digital media closely since 2002/2003, it’s a fascinating walk down memory lane, and Dooce, intentionally or not, was a part of the media landscape the book describes vividly - and at times harshly. The Gawker blogs, for one, was known for their “bitchy, breezy, snarky, chatty style”, and her blog must have been a topic there at times – it may even have been where I first came across her blog. Bloggers made the news back then (both in old school and new school news outlets), as they do now. Dooce attracted a lot of exposure.

“It’s very difficult to tell whether sharing her issues online was a useful form of catharsis, or something that amplified the difficulties she faced. I suspect many papers and theses will be written in the coming decade by academics exploring the impact on selfhood of living in this way,” writes Adam.

Penelope Trunk takes a harsher view. She mentions an interesting sounding book:

“John Gallagher wrote his dissertation about how people with a large following online relate to comments from their audience. Over many years he interviewed people who were top Redditors, top Amazon reviewers, and he interviewed Heather and me…  Gallagher’s book came out in 2020: Update Culture and the Afterlife of Digital Writing.” Certainly, something for my TBR-list.

However, ambient doesn’t really translate well in Norwegian – the best synonyms I could find, which translates a bit better, are enveloping, encircles, enfolds, or surrounds.

In an article from 2015, Reichelt also seems to say the term doesn’t quite fit anymore: “Over the last seven years, ambient intimacy—along with the Internet itself—has changed. Somewhere along the line, it broke out of its ambiance.”

“…I don't think my definition has changed. But the world where that definition made sense has definitely passed,” Reichelt says. “The sense of wonder has kind of gone now, I think.” What’s changed isn’t so much how we interact with others online but the scale at which it happens.”

Also, blogging has changed so much I’d be hard pressed to name a single new blogger I’ve started following in recent years. Social media profile? Perhaps, but then it’s on some other platform.

Still, there are so many people I still care about because I “know” them via first blogging, then other platforms – and it was devastating to read about Armstrong's death. My deepest condolences to her family.

Heather Armstrong speaks at XOXO conferende in 2015. Photo: Ian Linkletter via Flickr, published under a CC BY-NC 2.0 Licence.



New AI-powered title generator and how journalists won’t be replaced by AI, but by journalists who can utilize AI

A few quick tidbits on AI and journalism, based on a recent seminar arranged by The Norwegian Online News Association (NONA) on Norwegian media and AI.

New AI-powered title generator

On the day of the debate, Labrador CMS announced the launch of its advanced AI-powered title generator at the PPA Festival held on Tuesday, April 25, at The Brewery in London – a UK version of the story, on the launch (Labrador is lead by key former NONA-folks)

“A few thousand reporters will soon have direct access to machine learning writing support in CMS. This is one of the coolest things by delivering a SaaS Publishing Platform. When we roll out new functions, we do it to all customers. The latest function is to integrate directly with Open AI and suggest better titles to the story and then automatically send them to A/B test,” said Jan Thoresen, CEO, Labrador CMS.

“Journalists won’t be replaced by AI, but by journalists who know how to utilize AI,” laughed Inga Strümke, Associate professor in AI at NTNU and author of a popular, recently published, and currently sold out, book on AI “Maskiner som tenker”, at the end of her talk at the NONA-event.

Though it seems from the debate (which I watched via live stream) this might have been a conclusion derived from, or shared with, other key people in the audience (such as Torgeir Waterhouse) before the debate. You can still see the live stream on Facebook here, though the debate is in Norwegian (starts roughly 15-16min into the recording)

She also said the recent call to pause AI development is an ineffective way of dealing with the issue, but that we are in dire need of proper regulation of AI. She said the EU’s proposed AI act is an interesting piece of proposed legislation to follow in this respect.

As of last Thursday, Strümke's non-fiction book on AI was in fact Norway's most selling book.

Another interesting thought I made a note of from the seminar was this:

“I think there’s a lack of wider journalism about AI. Now it's being covered as a cool new thing. But I’m concerned with how it is already affecting us – e. g. Snapchat's My AI is in the pockets of very many people now, also very many young people. What kind of effects does it have?,” said Janni Frederiksen Kalafatis, UX lead in Schibsted-owned VG. Among other things, he’s been central to the development of the transcription tool JOJO and AI-generated article summaries.

As a former tech reporter I always thought covering tech should be about a lot more than just the cool new, new thing/gadget and its specifications: technology and the way it is used has so many ramifications for society as a whole (not only new tech, but also old and bad IT solutions that we’ve seen get in the way of effective legislation or even effective health care).

So it will be vital to see journalism about AI move beyond the new cool thing phase. In fact, I have read about international media hiring AI reporters. Googling, I find Muck Rack has this list of 10 top AI in 2023 – and it seems like a good list to explore. Speaking for myself, I am only familiar with the work of Madhumita Murgia, AI editor at Financial Times, as of writing.


Inga Strümke, Photo: Mona Haugli / Kagge Forlag

The newspaper using AI to clone the voice of a journalist to make journalism more accessible

Schibsted-owned Aftenposten has used AI to «clone» the voice of one of its journalists and podcasters.

The project started when the newspaper was working on Aftenposten Junior, a digital news service specially developed for students in primary school where, due to strict accessibility requirements, text to speech was business critical.

The result is an AI voice with unlimited possibilities. Product director Karl Oskar Teien and product manager Lena Beate Hamborg Pedersen talked about the project at a recent meeting of the Norwegian Online News Association (NONA). has an article about the project here (in Norwegian). Some quick notes:

  • 5-8% in Norway have reading difficulties, so we believe this is an important democratic project
  • Video streaming eats up more and more of the market, and the battle for users' attention year by year
  • Scarcity of information: The newspaper used to be portal to the world. Now: Information overload – lots of sources, too little time.
  • We’ve gone from from local physical distribution to global digital distribution
  • Visual attention - reading on paper and screen
  • Audio attention – screen-free news consumption
  • More people are listening and each individual is listening more to online audio (all audio that is not radio).
  • More and more people are using AirPods and other earplugs
  • We are seeing more and more audio startups - one of the biggest augmented reality offerings available today. Sound facilitates more multitasking and less screen time
  • Correlation between listening and customer loyalty: Aftenposten has a strong position in audio and podcasts. 200k users now pay for podcast.
  • Challenges in scaling up sound production - e.g. costs, time, prediction, updates (news is fresh)
  • Text to speech can be a solution (opposite of speech to text) = unlimited output and available everywhere
  • Our ambition is for all of Aftenposten's journalism to be made available in audio format
  • The technology we use: BeyondWords
  • Used Anne Lindholm's voice, at the time she was the presenter of "Explained"
  • We have had a robot trainer who has worked with this - a student who sat and listened
  • Sound resonates better with younger target groups
  • Users who listen complete more of the article
  • Possibilities going forward: playback from the front page, playlists for different needs, play my saved articles, etc
  • This is groundbreaking work both legally and technically.
  • Has, among other things, a contract with Anne Lindholm which states that the voice should only be used in editorial and not commercial products.