Tuesday, March 14, 2006

BlogHer @ SXSW: Increasing Women's Visibility on the Web. Whose Butt Should We Be Kicking?

This will be the last of the BlogHer sessions that I can live-blog, as it conflicted with Anastasia Goodstein's Meet Judy Jetson panel, I was unable to recap hers.

The panel consisted of:

Moderator: Ayse Erginer

Virginia DeBolt
Liz Henry
Tara Hunt
Jan Kabili

Ayse kicked off by asking each panelist is She felt she was visible, and how so.

Jan: Jan has been around for 20 years and has always believed in looking for opportunities. She has had to kick her own butt and ask for it if she wants it (whatever it maybe.) She had some presence in the offline world because She wrote books and magazine articles, so when she migrated online she didn't attempt to write about what she wasn't already an expert in. Jan writes for WeblogsInc, and she basically emailed Jason and asked for the gig. Being part of a network is a great idea, according to Jan, because she gets to benefit from the network, while focusing only on what she likes to do, which is write.

Liz: Agrees with Jan that sure, you have to kick your own butt, so she is becoming increasingly self-promotional. And she also sees the value of support from a network...and specifically a network of women. She feels a barrier to visibility is lack of focus. When she started to separate her single potpourri blog into multiple topic-focused blogs, it resulted in better visibility. But this is partly because tools suck, and findability is really hard unless you are keyword-driven.

Tara: She has worked very hard to be visible. Tara made a controversial point that blogging about marketing while living in Toronto wasn't very visible, but once she moved to Silicon Valley and blogged the same basic topics she had betetr material and became more visible. Tara also acknowledges that she has a lot of privilege.

Virginia: She is a SXSW veteran, but until this year was invisible. She sat in the back, the silent gray-haired lady. She didn't fit in and listened only. But she became a convert and believed and wanted to put herself out here more. She started down her writing path by not being able to find books that taught design properly (in her humble opinion.)
Now I'm in front of you instead of hiding in the back, where I'd prefer to be.

Audience Member, Meri: But who are you? I'd never heard of any of you before today. (Big laugh)

Jan: The internet is comprised of lots of sand boxes, the issue is being visible in the one in which you're playing.

Audience Member Lisa Canter: Shouldn't we focus on the pursuit of excellence?

Me: I have never worked in an industry where the smartest people advance and the bad ones are kept back. There's so much more than quality, skill and talent that plays in...like networking, contacts, luck, timing. (This is my regular rant that the idea that the Web is a Meritocracy is hopelessly naive.)

Tara: There are hierarchies. The question is what is valued? And should we work on changing it. She feels that MommyBloggers aren't treated seriously...and that if she blogged more about her kid, she'd lose readers.

More than one person pointed out she'd gain others. My personal interjection: I think MommyBloggers can pretty much stop caring if tech-heads don't take them seriously, the truth is that companies and businesses are taking them very seriously and recognizing their POWER.Screw the tech-heads!!

Liz: Maybe the 23-year-old techie guy reading Tara needs to shut up and listen to something outside his experience!

Jan: Her goal is to teach and to reach as many people as possible, so yes, she cares about traffic and visibility.

Audience Member (I think Meri again): For tech it's no big secret: stay on topic, have a focus, write good content.

Audience Member Question: so how are you leveraging your blogs for professional gain?

Virginia: First she was asked to review books. Then she got the deal to write a book.

Tara: Her current job could be traced to blogging. Now she's head hunted, gets speaking engagements, writing gigs. It just raises her value in the marketplace.

Liz: Considers herself more of an outsider, so she's not as worried about what she says.

Jan: It takes a long time to write a book. Pre-blog authors go into hibernation when writing a book. The blog gives her a way to be visible during the process. She also gets more speaking and writing gigs.

Audience Member Question: Aren't there negatives to the visibility?

Tara: You open yourself up to criticism. Sometimes the people in her life are uncomfortable with her writing about them. She has a big mouth and occasionally gets called on it. No problems with her boss, because she thinks he doesn't read it.

Liz: "Obscurity through verbosity" (The most excellent quip of the panel.)

Liz: Thinks there should be specific system changes allowing people to tag and self-identify...makes it easier to be found. The patriarchy makes us invisible even to each other. (She might have said that earlier...I didn't write it down, but I was just reminded that she said it.)

Audience Member Melinda (I'm assuming I mean SourDuck): Why seek a technical solution to a cultural problem??? [Side note: I liked this question a lot.]

Jan: It's nothing new, you're right. I've run into the same problems in 3 professional careers. [Side note: me too...I've been in very male-dominated industries...Commodities, the cable industry and now Internet tech.] Why reinvent the wheel? Look to other realms where this happens and how they've dealt with it. She doesn't want to blame, she wants to work our way out of it.

Audience Member: Her mom was a female minister. She thinks women are hyper-critical of ourselves and each other and very competitive. Women are blogging and online, so we can make the difference and make the change. We are already represented, now let's do something with it.

Question from Audience Member: The web is a whole new space for society. Why would we replicate the same old categories and social structures.

Either the same or a different audience member added: The web is self-organizing. It has the potential for anti-patriarchal and anti-hierarchal-ness. (I'm sure they articulated that a little more elegantly)

Me: It's too late. It's not so new anymore, those hierarchies are already taking hold.

Jan: One obvious way that has worked in other spheres is mentoring.

Audience Member Meri: There are assumptions made about who wrote something. A white male until proven otherwise. (or unless it's Live Journal, in which case you're a 14-year-old girl.) [Another big laugh for Meri.]

Audience Member: something along the lines of no one knows you're a dog.

Virginia: She gets overlooked in the physical world, but her online writing frees her, so people don't know she's a gray-haired older lady.

Me: But this exactly explains why I think that we should self-identify. I want the world to know Virginia is a gray-haired lady who kicks ass in the technical sphere. It's the only way to change the assumption is to prove it's wrong!!

Audience Member Ronni: Blogs about aging. She can understand Virginia's enjoyment of that freedom, but she want the world to know this is what she is. And she feels it's an obligation.

Audience Member Skye: Another reason to self-identify: can't communicate certain info without self-identification. If she wants to blog about sexism for example or other issues.

[Note: I hope I got that right, my notes are a little garbled at this point.]

Audience Member who is a comic book blogger: Male comic book bloggers are always asking "where are the women comic book bloggers", but they don't really want to know how to find them, they just want people to spoon feed them.

Panelists Last Words:

Jan: I want to go out there as a respected person in my field.

Liz: We didn't talk enough about sexism or about the interruption of careers that comes with motherhood.

Tara: Send her your URLs. She wants to read the women with diverse perspectives.

Virginia: She wants to meet teachers.

Virginia and Jan will sign books.

My final thoughts: This is just too big a panel for 5 people and an entire diverse audience to cover in one hour. This was also the only BlogHer session where I do not think a single man engaged in the conversation. Perhaps it seemed like the touchiest subject? Although at least one guy blogged this panel and found Virginia's particular story very moving:
I was very moved...wow. One of the most inspiring and uplifting stories I've heard here. It occured to me that it wasn't so much visibility as it was the desire for meaningful recognition that was at the heart of the issue. And of course this applies to everyone, not just women. Learning to make yourself visible is just the mechanical part of it; being truly appreciated and acknowledged for who you are and what you do is pretty universal.

So I'll close with his quote, since it's so warm and positive.

Elisa, thanks for liveblogging this. I was too involved to hear half of it! ;->

I agree that the topic was too big for this sort of discussion, but I was heartened by the audience's desire to participate and consider that the real success of this session. I've said it many other places now, but I do wish that our panelists, who were all very thoughtful, had had a chance to get their views out there even more. But no biggie, as this discussion continues online -- another success!

Thanks for all you did and have done in the past to bring so many of us into the mix.
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