Reflections and stories on six months of life, culture, food and friendship in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Friday, May 05, 2006

The Nature of Blogs: Some Parting Thoughts

It's time to put this beast to sleep. I've called my blog Six Months, but in fact I think I'm into my eleventh month if you include my first post last July before I left.

It's not like there isn't still material - I've still got piles of stories and experiences - but my writing has become more introspective since obviously Hanoi is inside my head no longer around me. More importantly though, my muse has fled. While in Hanoi I often had the odd experience of having my postings writing themselves in my head as if someone were feeding them to me. I don't feel that anymore, although I'm listening carefully; maybe I can find the muse hiding in some other corner of life here.

And so although I'm winding this blog down, who knows? Maybe I'll come out with another blog. If so, I'll be sure to post a quick note here with the referring address.

The truth is, the blog bug has bit me. Writing became a way for me to process what I was experiencing in Vietnam, but it was also an experience in itself. I discovered a virtual community of people engaged with trying to understand Vietnam. I continue to be an avid reader of Vietnam blogs. Although I never got around to creating a blogroll, I would have included Virtual Doug, Sticky Rice, Our Man in Hanoi, Noodlepie, and Xe Maybe. HanoiMark will continue to live in the comments sections of these and other Vietnam blogs.

Now that I am sitting at my desk back home, it's easy for me to wonder if I made a mistake in keeping my blog under wraps for so long. On the surface a blog may seem like an online journal - except for one major difference: a journal is personal and rarely has an audience, while a blog is a public medium and the idea of audience enters into its writing. I think the failure of so many blogs is that they are written as if they were mere personal diaries; they end up being impressionistic scrapbooks, like collections of notes to self.

Other blogs are have more in common with email; the readership in envisioned, but it's a specific audience. Early on I thought my blog would be an efficient substitute for broadcast emails keeping friends and family informed. This I think is the limited goal of so many travel (and family) blogs. There is an intended audience, but it reads as if the author were still filling in addresses in the TO: field. These blogs have little significance beyond those who personally know the author.

When I began writing I was very conscious of those I knew were reading my blog: friends, family and some coworkers back home. Early on I was concerned about how I could balance the demands of such different groups of people. At the same time I tried to keep the existence of my blog relatively quiet and limit my audience. For one thing, I still hadn't figured out how personal I wanted to get.

This strategy proved in vain as readers I didn't even know began to tune in. I think this is because somewhere along the line I had already abandoned the email analogy and started writing as if it mattered. I decided I would only write something when I felt I had a point. I was not travel blogging, and was not interested in posting mere descriptions or lists of places. Those things I would save for private emails when I felt the need. Instead I decided to post observations, reflections, a good story, anything I thought was a window into the culture. Once I began to write for a more general audience I became much more disciplined - not just in the writing process but in the choice of topics.

I don't know if I succeeded, but this is the peculiar potential of the blog, to become a kind of grassroots journalism, personal, engaged and yet disciplined. This is what Global Voices calls the "bridge blog", blogs that are rooted in personal experience and yet can speak to a much broader audience beyond its local context.

Although I wish I had done it earlier, opening up my audience came with certain risks. For one thing, although I adopted pseudonyms, I was still writing about people I knew and I feared them finding out. In any circumstance this would be awkward, but anyone who has read my entries about the dynamics of Vietnamese social groups (The Group, for instance) will know the value placed on confidence amongst friends in a society given to so much gossip, even when it comes to things we wouldn't consider particularly personal in the West. Furthermore, I was often writing about gay men who have more urgent reasons to keep their worlds separate. Consequently I tried not to write too personally about people I knew, even though there were some fascinating stories that were just begging to be told. Same things with pictures of people.

There were other constraints. I think anyone blogging in that part of the world probably has a nagging question about who out there is actually reading your stuff - and I don't just mean personal friends. Let's just say a little bit of self-censorship probably occurs. I'm not even talking about overtly political issues necessarily. It would have been a disaster on so many levels if my workplace had discovered me writing on workplace experiences. It would have entailed a loss of face and trust among other things.

Actually I suspect all serious bloggers probably face at least some of these constraints just by virtue of the fact that blogs are public. The freedom of the diary (even the email) is lost; what is gained is the potential to make your experiences speak to others. And to participate in virtual communities.

Speaking of communities, I'm very curious to know who my readers are. So I'll end off by inviting those of you who have been followed my blog (even just a little bit) to sign in the Comments field like a Guest Book. Or if you don't want to identify yourself, just sign it anonymously but with your whereabouts.

Since I can't guarantee I won't return with another blog, for now I'll say only Hen gap lai!

Labels: , ,