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.