Blogging and Vanity [+ a NSFW video in case the post is boring]

Vanity is a difficult thing to sustain for long. It takes real planning and effort. The thing about vanity, which is defined variously as “an empty showy display”, “unsubstantial thing” and “boastfulness”, is that it involves facades or putting up some kind of performance in order to make the performer feel specially noticed and seem important. It is one of the symptoms of narcissism.

The reason I’m bringing this up is that there is an awful lot of disparagement of blogging as a narcissistic or vanity based activity. And I strongly disagree with that as it is generally stated.

That is not to say such elements don’t exist. In a blog tour a few days ago I came across one which seemed abandoned about a year ago. There were perhaps a dozen posts on it. In the sidebar was a big notice, in bold, This is an Awards Free Blog followed by a long paragraph on the subject and a link to one of the earliest posts wherein the author went on at length about the same topic.

Now if one’s first or second blog post is a request to readers not to nominate the blog for awards (plural) it has something of a whiff of vanity to it from the start. Vanity disguised by faux humility still shines through.

Then there’s the opposite and more obvious expression of vanity where the blogger fills columns alongside their posts with awards, praiseful quotes and ratings galore from both legitimate and dubious sources or sets up various fan forums to pump up the volume of readers. This kind of vanity is not too far from the commercialization of one’s personal brand. It’s the message that comes across in websites such as Huffington Post with the masthead containing Ariana Huffington’s name and elephant journal, wherein the last time I counted the publisher’s name appeared 19 times on the front page alone.

Often with these kinds of vanity projects the personality tied up in them becomes the focus rather than the content. If one reads these kinds of sites it is generally quite a mixed bag of contributors buying into both the general theme of the site, which is invariably vague,  as well as the branding and promotion of the personality involved. And there is usually an attempt to involve others who have a strong personal brand, such as Deepak Chopra, who interestingly participates in both the above websites to some extent, in order to boost readership.

When blogs become ersatz journalistic exercises without much oversight or direction and particularly when they become ad driven they become some other category of web item. I would not count them as blogs any longer.

I’ve no problem with the existence of these kinds of sites, sometimes I read them myself, though with a grain of salt as to the veracity of some of the material. What does cause some problems is to identify these sites with blogging and to label all bloggers with similar motivations.

When being important is of primary importance then one is dealing with vanity. When communicating personal experiences, thoughts and ideas one is conversing, socializing and examining life as it is being lived.  I’ve found very few bloggers who put forth much vanity. Not only in the Buddhoblogosphere but in the entire blogosphere.

Blogging is a form of autobiography. It is the beginning of democratization of autobiography. Most of us will never have books written about us, songs or movies made about our life experiences or appear in newspaper articles or on televised interviews. That doesn’t mean that the voices and experiences of “ordinary” people are unimportant though. Every one of us has an equal stake in the human experience. And to put forward the perspective of that experience is the basis of our human social interactions.

This putting forth in writing doesn’t make it that much different than conversing with someone in the work place or at a bus stop or wherever one might strike up a conversation. There seems to be some hang up regarding the “posterity factor” though. Writing in every culture has been a hallmark of those deemed more successful or entitled. Writing has long meant leadership in human society. Those who can manage and even manipulate words know how to persuade. Persuasion is certainly a necessary quality in cultural leaders. So the act of writing itself carries with it certain subtext. And occasionally blasts of condemnation if not outright statements of anti-intellectualism appear that reflect this sentiment. I think this strand of thought that equates blogging with vanity is a hold over from that bit of social history to some degree.

This gets further into the style of language used or even the subjects discussed. It iterates throughout various aspects of human communication. Even in conversations this kind of feeling emerges. In a conversation I overheard recently one party stated, “Don’t talk posh!” The other party replied with something like “I talk how I talk. How can I unknow what I know?”

If we get into comparisons of manners of expression there is a quagmire awaiting. No one is going to say what we want them to say or how we want them to say it. Because everyone is unique. That is one of the great values of blogs and the democratization of autobiography. Rather than allege vanity or “posh talk” or even the very right to speak or write there are other ways to look at the phenomenon of blogging. I learn from blogs that I am not alone in my uniqueness. None of us are any more or any less special than another.

The articulation of one’s life experience on a blog is not much different than creating scrapbooks, assembling photo albums or writing in a diary in many cases. My grandmother kept a diary for over 40 years. It was often about the weather, visitors, community activities she was involved with, newsworthy events in her area, the problems of farming, medical issues, to do lists…the experience of one person’s life.

Sure more people are going to read a blog than read my grandmother’s diaries (unless I put them in a blog) and the blogger may have that in the back of their minds, but over time, whether one develops a regular audience or not most bloggers don’t resort to drastic acts of attention getting. And those that do usually abandon it after some time or abandon the blog completely since they don’t have the serious vanity to sustain that kind of effort. And when a blog takes such a turn regular readers start to leave as well. It becomes uncomfortable for everyone when the writer puts the lampshade on their head and starts shouting “Look at me”. It seems a little desperate in a blog, on TV or in face to face interaction. Though for a personality driven commercial website that may be exactly what is required to drive further interest, initially. People may come for the party but will they stay and discuss it afterwards or just move on to the next show? It’s difficult to take vanity too seriously.

One may vehemently disagree with certain ideas, viewpoints or statements but to use that as a basis for either decrying the blogger, just for the fact of blogging, regardless of content-driven disagreements, as vain or to engage in the ad hominem “bully” labeling (you’ll remember that episode) just for the sake squelching such viewpoints is highly disingenuous and far more self-serving than what may be on the original blogs themselves.

The same goes for self evaluation. I’ve noticed more than a few people putting down their own efforts at expressing themselves as vain activities. It’s not. Nor is it self-indulgent [the other word whip that gets flung about].  If one follows that line of thinking then every thought, word or action in the world is an expression of vanity.  There is quite some distance between expressing one’s self and blatant self-promotion.

Most bloggers are fairly realistic with regard to their personal desires or abilities to influence.  We know we are not likely going to become feature writers for the New York Times or something like that. Really considering one’s relative importance within human society at this present moment it seems to me that only about 0.0000000001% (I think that’s one one-hundred-billionth of a percent but am not quite sure) of what is happening on the planet at this moment actually involves me personally. And that doesn’t even include the rest of the universe or the dimension of time. That’s not much of a foundation to build a vanity palace upon.

Looked upon in this way it’s quite a relief not to have any more responsibility or importance than that. Blogging isn’t vanity any more than putting on make up turns one into a movie star or running around the block turns one into a top iron-man contender. We’re talking scale, purpose and context. 

What also tends to get lost in this rush to avoid being identified as vain, often by owning or self-declaring the “blogging as vanity project” label, is the intention of generosity that is behind many blogs.

Humans, in my experience are far more interested in sharing than in claiming turf for their own. If you ever watch very small children this is quite noticeable. They try to stick their toys in your mouth so you can have a chew too. And then they watch your reaction. They seem to want to know how others, as amorphous as others may seem to a toddler, experience things.  [Little children are not nearly the polymorphously perverse bundles of id impulses that Freud saw them to be nor are they the tabula rasa that the educational system seems to declare them to be nor are they the “enlightened” beings some would like to see them as either. But that’s all for another post]

We all may get a little self involved from time to time. We have a choice about how far we want to carry on with that once we become aware of it.  People can only share what is within their experience to share. I can’t for example share anything about having children since I opted long ago not to have any. For those that opted otherwise that comes within their specific experience realm. Similarly I’ve never been in the military, competed in the Olympics, worked in a software company, officiated a marriage, written music, sold cars, seen the Pyramids, dived off a high diving board, played the harmonica, been a widow, woven a bedspread, had a parent with Alzheimer’s, baked a wedding cake, motorcycled across America, had a tattoo and about a gajillion other things.  So I’m glad that others can talk about these things as being within the realm of their experience, and I’m glad that some touch upon things that are also within the realm of my experience so I get the benefit of another perspective, since in both cases it enriches my experience. This is all without me having to go and experience all those things or things I already have encountered from another viewpoint, not that there is time enough in this one life to do that. There isn’t.

So I get all the benefits of many lifetimes of experiences without having to go through all of it. Not that I could, in that particular way at that particular time or location as well.  That’s what’s so valuable about autobiography. [and art and a lot of other human activity]

A lot of times I find on blogs the answer to the unasked but always present question

How is it for you? This life?

I’m glad some people are answering that.

 

Musical Accompaniment

Frankie Goes to Hollywood-Relax-the banned version (NSFW)

bears absolutely no relationship to the post above [maybe] but it’s one of the songs I play-listed as I was writing.

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4 comments on “Blogging and Vanity [+ a NSFW video in case the post is boring]

  1. I agree that blogs are important and shouldn’t be dismissed as fluffy and vain attempts to get attention. Certainly, there are people who end up getting caught up in wanting to be seen, or in having arguments, or getting some level of fame. But I do think you’re right that most people out there blogging are offering a slice of their lives, their interests, their life observations and even a bit of wisdom, and I, for one, am glad to be able to read them. (And write one.)

  2. I used to label my photography website as a “pure vanity project.” There were a number of reasons for this.

    One, I am somewhat opinionated. When I was actively writing stuff for the website, I was deeply involved in discussing cameras and photography on a forum dedicated to that. My opinions were rather well known. Some of them were regarded as elitist. For example, I have a preference for smaller and simpler camera gear over larger and more complex camera gear. I don’t like to think of photography as a competitive sport where the one whose piccie gets the most thumbs-up wins. I prefer photography that communicates something individual and personal to photography that simply recreates pictures commonly regarded as “pretty.” I think that a requirement for making successful photos of people is to get close to your subject instead of sniping at them from a distance. And so on.

    I got called “snobby,” “elitist,” “arrogant,” and any number of other things a lot. It didn’t really bother me as such, but labeling the site a “vanity project” gave me mental license to say whatever the hell I want.

    The other reason was that once I started getting a readership, they started telling me what they wanted me to write about. That was nice, because it felt good to be read. However, it also created a sense of obligation. Thing is, I didn’t write that site out of a sense of obligation. I wrote it because I wanted to write about things that interested me. Again, labeling it a “vanity site” reminded me that I am obligated to no one; that I can write, or not write, whatever the hell I want. I could promise myself never to have to put in filler stuff just to put in something, or force myself to finish an article that I really didn’t feel like finishing. It was quite liberating.

    I do write for other people too, on occasion. That’s different, and I like to keep my “vanity projects” separate from that. “Vanity” is a useful label to state “I write what I write, my motivations are my own.”

    But then, that doesn’t really have much to do with vanity, does it?

  3. Blogs do represent autobiography (though I purposefully make mine impersonal, it still no doubt reflects on my concerns). I think for many people a collection of blogs and even awards, like a collection of numbers on a cellphone, form part of an ersatz community – a substitute for a sense of belonging, and social status. Blogs are a bit like messages in bottles sent out into the ocean by shipwrecked sailors. We hope to connect, to love and be loved, but we communicate with people we will never meet, never share a meal with, and never share an emotion with. I find the internet quite a sad phenomenon at times. We may at best write something evocative, but of course writers who can really move us, are rare, and even the best of them usually benefits from editing, copy editing, and proof-reading.

    Reading this post brought to mind a Samuel Johnson quote: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

  4. Nice call on pure vanity efforts being hard to sustain. It’s much more of a restless insect than an enduring landscape. AFA the blogging, it all kind of goes to the essence of what writing itself is, I think. Authors have always written out of a need to access, control and direct their own inner voices so others can be exposed to them(and I agree a lot of that is the sharing principle you evoke with the image of the child as much as the show-off instinct.) Almost always, they have something to say. Though whether it’s something others want to hear is variable, nonetheless it’s a participatory event, and authors have done all kinds of things to lessen people’s isolation, prod thought and actions, and influence the human flow. Blogging, vain or otherwise, is just one kind of modern, easily accessible way to get at that basic human need to connect through language. I find it kind of like the oral tradition of pre-literate cultures–storytelling around a campfire. If you’re good at that,or even if you’re not, the dark will drive people to listen.

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