The Affordances of the Blog in Navigating Personal Identity and Building Community: Examining “Rachel Held Evans”
Megan Faver Hartline
In late 2007, Rachel Held Evans began writing her eponymously titled blog. Her first post reflects the focus and central tenants of the blog that she both started with and continues to use, particularly a focus on community. Although Evans began writing her blog in order to deal with a period of doubt in her Christian faith, she crafts a dual focus encompassing her own journey in faith and a desire to create a community of people who struggle with similar issues. In her first post, Evans explains that she hopes her blog will be a place where people can come together to discuss these struggles, a practice often ignored in Christian circles. She writes, “I would like this little spot on the Web to serve as a sort of traveler’s forum, a place for exchanging adventure stories, survival tips, and those priceless hole-in-the-wall recommendations that make a journey memorable. I look forward to sharing my own ideas, and I look forward to hearing from you.” Evans is creating a place for her own writing, but also placing importance on the writing and ideas of others.
This dual focus on the personal and the communal is possible because of the medium Evans has chosen for her writing. In choosing a blog, Evans makes available the various features of this form, particularly widespread viewership and the ability to comment. Publishing on the internet on a blog allows Evans to reach a wide audience, therefore offering her a better chance of finding others with similar goals and stories and helping her build a community.
Evans uses a number of blog features to help craft both her personal identity and the community identity that are present throughout her blog, but these identities are more easily perceived through the writing itself. Jens Brockmeier in “Autobiographical Time” (2000) discussed how language choices within autobiographies, or in this case blogs, help construct specific identities and stories. Time is told differently in stories, particularly stories about oneself: “what happens in the autobiographical process is an interplay of positioning possible pasts and possible beginnings in the light of an end, that is the present of the story at the time, and in the context, of its telling” (Brockmeier, 2000, p. 55). In this way, everything that is past comes together to affect the present and work toward the story being told in that moment. In addition, Brockmeier (2000) asserted that his narrative models are “dialectical hinges between individual and society,” and “while they are forms of thought and imagination that help the individual to re-invent the culture in their minds, they bind the individual into culture” (p. 70). Both his conceptions of narrative time and the way personal stories act as a bridge to community are relevant in the discussion of Evans’ blog. In this paper, I use Brockmeier’s constructions of time to look at how Evans builds her personal identity through her writing and examine the ways that she uses the blog and the navigation of her personal identity to bind herself to a particular community. This analysis shows the ways both personal and community identity can be built through writing and the particular affordances of the blog.
Navigating the Personal
One way Evans constructs her identity is by relying on the metaphor of a journey to discuss her life. She does it in the very first blog post she writes, and a quick search within the blog reveals hundreds of hits for the term. She sees life as a series of highs and lows that she experiences and shares on her blog. These types of metaphors represent one of Brockmeier’s (2000) constructs of time. “Rhetoric and discourse devices” like metaphors or idioms about time help “express the temporal dimension of our experiences, memories, intentions, and imaginations” (Brockmeier, 2000, p. 58). This particular metaphor speaks to the linkage between all life events in constructing this particular present. All things, good and bad, work together in a life to create the endpoint that is currently happening. And as a person moves forward in the journey, the present becomes the past and yet another curve on that road. The metaphorical device of the journey is central to Evans’ blog, but the ideas put forward by this metaphor, that all things work together to form a person, are also seen in the most basic aspect of her blog—sentence construction, another of Brockmeier’s constructs of time. By looking at smaller temporal markers found in the way Evans grammatically structures her stories, one can see how Evans constructs an identity based on the evolving nature of belief.
Evans’ posts frequently vary between two subjects: her life experiences and her beliefs. In both cases, she is often working through her opinions, discussing why she thinks the way she does. In the former, she is rarely sharing a life story simply to tell people about her life. In a blog post about a recent flight that was plagued with turbulence and the pilot having to take a second shot at landing after coming in too high, Evans talks about surrendering to fear in order to experience greater things like love and joy. Though she is telling a story about a terrifying flight, she writes toward the end that “sometimes it seems like the more I love, the more awful and dreadful it is to face the inevitability that everyone I care for will experience pain and suffering in their lives. Everyone I love will die. And I will die too. No exceptions” (Evans). She ends by saying that “love demands surrender.” Evans begins with a story about a personal experience, but she ends by discussing belief and how hard and scary it is to love other people. Similarly, Evans normally starts her posts that center around statements of faith or conversations about her beliefs with some sort of story, whether it is a story about a current global event of significance or something from her past. The unifying forces between all of these posts is the commitment to a portion of writing that works through what Evans thinks and believes. She uses her blog as a place where she can wrestle with ideas and try to ascertain exactly what she thinks and why she thinks it.
One way this is evident is in the verb tenses that she uses during her posts. When she writes about anything other than what she believes, she uses the past tense. Even in a short post titled, “Mark Driscoll responds,” Evans begins by explaining that earlier that day Mark Driscoll “responded” to “public outcry” about his recent comments, but as soon as she starts speaking about her own thoughts on the subject, she switches to present tense saying that Driscoll “seems to miss the point” and that she “is convinced that Christians can talk about gender issues with gentleness and respect.” The switch between past and present reflects the way her beliefs are presented as constantly changing and growing with the blog functioning as a space to write through much of that construction.
Even within Evans’ more personal writings, the affordances of the blog can be seen in the way she is able to interact effortlessly with current events and ideas but also wait to share more personal stories until she can properly find the words for them. As evidenced in the Driscoll post mentioned previously, Evans often uses her blog as a space to react to events as they happen whether they are of importance to the Christian sphere or events of greater national or international concern, like typhoon damage in the Philippines. But Evans also sometimes holds back, waiting to tell a story, particularly one of a more personal nature, until she can adequately tell that story in the words that fit the events, as evidenced by the opening of the post about her flight where she begins by writing, “Fine. I’m ready to tell it,” an apt opening for a post that she writes several weeks after the event described. The blog is a space where the writer can choose to tell whatever story or write whatever post she wants at any time. She can dredge up stories from the past if they are fitting, or she can react to current events if desired. There is no set formula, but the space to do either is an affordance when working to shape identity through writing. In allowing the writer to choose the subject of their writing, the blog becomes a stronger medium through which writers can form their identity. The writer is not constrained by prompts, by the past, or by the present when choosing her particular subject; instead, she can write on whatever is affecting her at that moment. In allowing choice, the blog permits the writer to construct her identity in whatever way she wants. For Evans, this means that she is not constrained to writing only about current events or moments from her past, but she can instead choose what is most fitting for her feelings or beliefs at the time.
Building a Community
The community formed on and through Evans’ blog is one that binds Evans to a particular culture, a sect of Christians who values asking questions and building faith through interrogation and sometimes doubt. Brockmeier’s (2000) assertion that autobiographical writing can help tie an individual to society is relevant here; this connection between individual and community can be seen in Evans’ goals for the blog and the way she works to form community within the blog. While Evans utilizes the typical blogging style of writing that relies on personal stories and writings from the author, she also frequently (at least twice a week) moves outside of the spotlight and features the writing of others on her blog. Evans has incorporated three different types of blog posts that perform this function: Sunday Superlatives, Ask a [insert identity here], and Guest Author posts. Each of these types of posts shifts the focus from Evans to another writer. Sunday Superlatives feature a large number of links that Evans has collected throughout the week encouraging her readers to go to other blogs and read what others have been writing. “Ask a …” posts involve Evans soliciting questions from her readers about a person who identifies with a particular identity (e.g. Liberal Rabbi, Interfaith Couple, and Funeral Director). And guest posts share “stories and reflections that are personal, that give us a sense of who you are and where you are in your journey” (Evans). The focus on other writers creates an additional sense of community that builds on the more expected ways that community is created on blogs through the comments section. While this is still clearly Evans’ blog, she shares the spotlight with so many other writers who are on sometimes similar but also divergent journeys so that readers are able to gain a wide view of this dialogic discussion of faith.
More specifically, Evans uses a particularly communal method of writing when she is discussing the writings of others. In her post requesting that other writers submit guest posts, she specifically writes that the outside authors will be sharing stories with “us.” By including herself in the readership of the guest post, she places herself within the community, rather than above it. Although she does not offer a specific reason for soliciting guest posts, the idea that the writers would be sharing with “us” promotes the communal nature of the posts and the blog as a whole.
Similarly, For the “Ask A…” series introduction, Evans explains that this new series will “give us the chance to interact with some interesting people” and specifically asks that the questions sent in “will help us understand one another better” rather than proselytizing to or challenging the beliefs of the responder. In addition, she asks readers to “like” questions that they find particularly intriguing. This really builds on the communal nature of the blog. Again, note the use of “we” rather than only “you” (the readers) or “me” (Evans). This series springs from a place of inquiry and desire to inform the community of other ideas and journeys of faith, no matter what that faith (or lack thereof) looks like. The series could easily be Evans interviewing people of different backgrounds, but instead she asks her readers to be a part of the series by asking the questions they want answered rather than having Evans do that part of the blog as well.
Evans is able to build this type of community because of the particular functions and form of the blog. The community element of the blog hinges on two main factors: the wide audience she is able to reach and that audience’s participation through comments and guest posts. Much of Evans’ personal identity could be built through similar writings in a journal or diary, but obviously she would not be able to reach many others or garner their opinions as she can with her blog. This community could not be built through another medium. The ability to interact with others in the comment section (whether it is Evans or visitors to the blog interacting) and to include guest posts from a variety of readers builds the community on the blog.
While Evans regularly engages comments in that section of her blog and responds to outside criticism in her posts, it is the way she splits the writing duties of her blog between herself and other writers that builds community identity. She continually works to create a spirit of inquiry but also acceptance of and sensitivity toward different opinions within this community. She displays this attitude in the way she tries to wrestle with others’ ideas respectfully in her own posts and tries to steer her readers toward doing the same by encouraging guest posts and question and answer posts from people of different backgrounds and faiths than the majority of her readership. She encourages people to look in a multitude of places for answers to their spiritual questions, a practice she inhabits by using her blog to interact with people of other faiths or no particular faith at all.
The blog works as a space for Evans’ goals to write through her own identity and to construct a community of people who share her questions and, sometimes, her doubts. She is someone who wants to talk about her faith and her beliefs, and she seeks out others who want to do the same and encourages them to do so within her blog, whether in the comments or in a guest post. These two types of writing and identity construction would not be possible elsewhere, at least not at such a scale as happens on Evans’ blog. It is because of the particular form and function of the medium of the blog that both identities can be constructed simultaneously.