Queen of the Mommy Bloggers
Catherine Ledner for The New York Times
By LISA BELKIN
Published: February 23, 2011
O.K., then, I say, almost begging at this point, almost to the point of tears, is there anyone I can talk to who might see what I’ve been through and understand? And here’s where I say: “Do you know what Twitter is? Because I have over a million followers on Twitter. If I say something about my terrible experience on Twitter, do you think someone will help me?” And she says in the most condescending tone and hiss ever uttered: “Yes, I know what Twitter is. And no, that will not matter.” AUG. 28, 2009, Dooce.com
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The washing machine at Heather Armstrong’s Salt Lake City home — as millions of her followers already know — is a Maytag. To be specific, it’s a Performance series 4.4-cubic-foot-I.E.C.-capacity front-load steam washer that retailed for $1,599 and that she and her husband, Jon, bought on sale for $1,300, plus the 10-year warranty. They made the purchase near the end of her second pregnancy, a pre-emptive strike against the mountain of soiled onesies that accumulate when a newborn joins the family.
As her followers also know, that machine stopped working a week after it was installed. Instead of washing clothes, it produced electronic error messages. By that time, the summer of 2009, the baby was home, the laundry was piling up and 10 days of waiting for a part turned into 10 more days of waiting for another part, and June became July which became August, which is when Armstrong threatened to bring the wrath of the Internet down on Maytag.
She is one of the few bloggers who wield that kind of clout. Typically, there are 100,000 visitors daily to her site, Dooce.com, where she writes about her kids, her husband, her pets, her treatment for depression and her life as a liberal ex-Mormon living in Utah. As she points out, a sizable number also follow her on Twitter (in the year and a half since she threatened Maytag, she has added a half-million more). She is the only blogger on the latest Forbes list of the Most Influential Women in Media, coming in at No. 26, which is 25 slots behind Oprah, but just one slot behind Tina Brown. Her site brings in an estimated $30,000 to $50,000 a month or more — and that’s not even counting the revenue from her two books, healthy speaking fees and the contracts she signed to promote Verizon and appear on HGTV. She won’t confirm her income (“We’re a privately held company and don’t reveal our financials”). But the sales rep for Federated Media, the agency that sells ads for Dooce, calls Armstrong “one of our most successful bloggers,” then notes a few beats later in our conversation that “our most successful bloggers can gross $1 million.”
By talking about poop and spit up. And stomach viruses and washing-machine repairs. And home design, and high-strung dogs, and reality television, and sewer-line disasters, and chiropractor visits. And countless other banalities of one mother’s eclectic life that, for some reason, hundreds of thousands of strangers tune in, regularly, to read.
I lost my job today. My direct boss and the human-resources representative pulled me into one of three relatively tiny conference rooms and informed me that the company no longer had any use for me. Essentially, they explained, they didn’t like what I had expressed on my Web site. I got fired because of dooce.com. FEB. 26, 2002
Today the sleek headquarters of Blurbodoocery Inc. — the corporate identity of Heather and Jon Armstrong’s company — is on the 1,000-square-foot third floor of their sprawling six-bedroom home on a cul-de-sac in Salt Lake City, where they have lived since June.
In one corner is the glass-walled office of their newest employee, John LaCaze, who came aboard a few months before that move, and whose job description — everything from answering e-mail to ordering lunch to making sure that time is not wasted because, after all, it is money — has earned him the nickname “Tyrant” on Heather’s blog. Next to LaCaze’s office is the studio, equipped for audio and video. In the center are Jon and Heather’s work spaces, each dominated by two enormous computer monitors and an array of cartoons and kitsch.
Next to the door of the office is etched “Heather B. Armstrong, President,” but by her desk is a nameplate that reads “Heather Hamilton.” That was who she was in February 2001 when she wrote her very first Dooce post. She was 25, with a degree in English from Brigham Young University and a job at a start-up in L.A. “In those days when you said you had a blog, people thought you had a venereal disease,” she says now.
Dooce was a nickname that grew out of an inside joke — a takeoff of “dude.” Unlike many bloggers (particularly women) whose initial goal was to update family living far away, her postings were never meant for her relatives. She wrote of the liberation she felt leaving her parents’ Mormonism behind, of sex and caffeine, of dating and work. In the summer of 2001, Armstrong’s site was receiving 58 hits a day. On a whim she e-mailed Jason Kottke, one of the earliest online aggregators (whose own site was still a hobby and had not yet become kottke.org) and asked him for technical advice. He linked to Dooce, and her readership leapt to 2,000 daily hits.
Kottke also warned Armstrong that her family would eventually find out. Despite her certainty that they were as likely to search the Net as they were to vote for a Democrat, her brother did wander onto her site on Sept. 13, 2001. The first post he saw was one she describes as “a martini-fueled diatribe against the Mormon Church” that she wrote in anger about the attacks on the World Trade Center, committed in the name of religion. Tears, screaming and weeks of silence followed, and for a time Armstrong thought her family would never speak to her again.
Soon she would be in trouble for something else. Venting about work, she nicknamed her co-workers (as she would later nickname Tyrant) — things like That One Co-worker Who Manages to Say Something Stupid Every Time He Opens His Mouth — and, in what she considered the safety of her blog, she dished amusingly (and disparagingly) about them. “I hate that the Tech Producer doesn’t know how to use e-mail,” she wrote one day. “He’s the goddamn TECH Producer, for crying out loud. I hate that one of the 10 vice presidents in this 30-person company wasn’t born with an ‘indoor’ voice but with a shrill, monotone, speaking-over-a-passing-F16 outdoor voice. And he loves to hear himself speak, even if just to himself.”
An anonymous e-mail sent from a generic Hotmail address blew her cover. According to the Web site Urban Dictionary (and an episode of “Jeopardy!” last year, as well as the latest edition of Trivial Pursuit), the word “dooced” now means “getting fired because of something that you wrote in your Web log.” It could also mean capturing public attention for getting fired because of your blog. Her traffic jumped to 25,000 hits a day as her tale went viral.
Overwhelmed, she shuttered the whole project, eloped with Jon (fittingly, she proposed to him in the comment section of his blog days before she was fired), adopted a pound puppy that she named Chuck and eventually moved back to Salt Lake City because Jon, too, lost his job in online marketing and design. (He was laid off as part of post-9/11 tech-industry budget cuts, not because of anything either of them wrote.)
Jon found new work fairly quickly, and for months the couple (and Chuck) lived in Heather’s mother’s basement while they saved to buy a house. Heather thought she was at her nadir in the windowless room, and she started blogging again — craving the daily discipline of words on a screen and the freedom to explore her emotions.
But before she did, she made a promise to her family. “I will never write anything that I wouldn’t say to your face, with 50 people watching,” is how she describes the agreement.
And that has been her rule ever since.
Readers found her after she returned to the Web, and her traffic stayed steady at about 6,500 hits a day. Then, in April 2003, she announced she was pregnant, and the number of visits jumped again. Most of the comments were from readers who worried that hers would become a sappy “mommy blog,” a term just barely coming into vogue at that time. She was pretty sure it wouldn’t, because she didn’t plan to be a mommy with a blog.
“I figured there was no way I could keep up the writing pace after the baby was born,” she says. “In my mind, through the whole pregnancy, I was composing my final blog entry in my head.”
She never wrote that one. In the months after her daughter Leta’s birth, Armstrong spiraled downward, hardly eating, barely sleeping and taking many combinations of psychiatric drugs but only getting worse. “I was out of my mind,” she would later write. “Out. Of. My. Mind. Crazy.”
She began to worry she would harm herself (though she was sure she would never hurt her baby). Still, she resisted in-patient treatment out of fear that “if I check myself into the hospital, no one is ever going to read me again because I’m that crazy person who checked herself into the hospital,” she told me. Then, one morning, as she watched Jon getting dressed for his day, she stopped him. “You can’t leave,” she said. “If you don’t get me checked in today, I am going to kill myself before you get home.”
It took four days for large doses of the right drug combination to bring her “as close to sane as I get,” she says now. When Jon visited her in the hospital, she gave him notes scribbled in longhand to type onto her blog. Two thousand readers wrote back. By the time she came home, her Web traffic had quadrupled.
There are really good days, days when I feel strong enough to handle this, days when I look at the future ahead of us and I get excited about the ride. On good days I can go several hours without crying.
And then there are bad days, days when I can’t see ever leaving the house again, days when I think that by the time I do leave the house again my hair will be past my waistline because how can I ever get my hair cut when the baby needs to be fed every 2.5 hours?? On bad days I think I’ll never be able to walk the dog again, I’ll never go shopping again, I’ll never see a movie in a movie theater again. On bad days I cry all day long. FEB. 20, 2004
The month Leta Armstrong was born, Technorati estimated that there were two million blogs on the Internet, a number that was doubling every five months. Of those, Armstrong’s was one of the few — one of the earliest — successful personal narratives. It was a life lived as a cautionary tale. A daily reality show on a smaller screen. Readers had already shown they would click through for breaking news, Hollywood gossip and techie inside dirt. Now they were showing that they’d also come to hear a blogger say what others might have thought, or feared, or wondered, but had kept to themselves.
It was the start of an explosion, a meeting of 18th-century journaling, 19th-century magazine serials and the intimate universality of cyberspace. Click almost anywhere on the Internet on any random day and you will find yourself in the middle of someone’s story. Dawn Meehan’s blog, Because I Said So, for instance, was a funny chronicle about life as the mother of six children. But then her husband walked out over Christmas, and two of her sons were hospitalized with depression, and the family lost health insurance and the boiler died and a colony of black mold was found behind the walls and Dawn needed surgery.
Mama Pundit, Katie Allison Granju’s blog, was mostly about her blended second family. But then last spring her 18-year-old son, Henry, who had been struggling with addiction, was beaten in a drug deal gone wrong. After an overdose and several precarious weeks in the hospital, he died. Thousands of strangers followed her grief and rebuilding, as she went on to give birth to a daughter weeks after losing her son.
Before that was Stephanie Nielson, known as Nie Nie, a mother of four who was severely burned when her plane crashed during a flying lesson three years ago, and has shared her story of living in a scarred and broken body. Or Heather Spohr, whose 17-month-old daughter, Madeline, died suddenly of a respiratory infection in 2009, and whose blog has become a gathering place for thousands of parents who have lost babies.
The most screenplay-ready tale, hands down, is that of Ree Drummond, a former L.A. party girl who met a cowboy in an Oklahoma bar on a visit home and became a ranch wife a year and a half later. They now have four children, whom Drummond home-schools while raising cattle and chronicling it all on The Pioneer Woman, which she began on a whim in 2006. The site is a down-home smorgasbord of photos, anecdotes and recipes, and for more than a year it included installments of the story of how she and her husband met and married. She has just compiled those into a book titled “The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels.” Reese Witherspoon has expressed interest in playing Drummond in the movie.
Among women who blog, Drummond and Armstrong are at the top. There are almost as many ways to measure reader traffic as their are blogs right now, but Nielsen estimates that Dooce sometimes has as many as six million visitors a month, and Pioneer Woman is in the same range. Both bloggers have best-selling books: “It Sucked and Then I Cried” is Armstrong’s story of postpartum depression; “The Pioneer Woman Cooks” is Drummond’s first book, a cookbook illustrated with photos of food and cowboys, including rear views of her husband, clad in Wranglers and chaps as he bucks broncos and brands calves.
Having a tale to tell is only the first step, of course. Still evolving is the art of making a living from that tale. Heather and Jon both worked in online marketing, yet they were hesitant about adding advertising to Dooce early on. More specifically, it was Heather who hesitated. She feared “selling out” and the reaction from readers. But after her postpartum breakdown, her therapist prescribed that she hire a baby-sitter to come every day. Ads became a way to pay for child care.
The Armstrongs started small at the end of 2004, with Google ads (the kind that appear on registered sites and pay anywhere from a few pennies to a few dollars, depending on Web traffic). Before long they had contracted with an agency that actively sought display advertisers, making Dooce the first personal Web site to accept significant advertising.
When monthly income from the blog exceeded Jon’s paycheck for the same period, he quit his job to manage the business.
Armstrong’s readers responded as she’d feared. “They screamed, ‘Who do you think you are?’ ” she remembers. “ ‘What made you important enough to make money on your Web site?’ ”
It is a question that hovers over all personal blogs — if they are based on trust, do you violate that trust by introducing commerce? Readers of personal blogs return again and again for the connection, the feeling they really know the writer — and ads can break the “we’re all friends here” mood.
“At its best we are seeing the empowerment of women,” says Elisa Camahort Page, a co-founder of BlogHer, one of the leading ad-placement companies for blogs. “They can turn something they love into something that brings income into their household. But that has to be done with care.”
Amy Oztan, who blogs at SelfishMom.com, is particularly transparent when it comes to her sponsors. She has a lot of them — companies who pay her, in money or in product, to advertise on her site or to mention them. Oztan has an entire section explaining how she makes her money, including an extensive index of tabs she uses to alert readers to the economics of everything she writes. It starts with Level 1 — “The product or service mentioned was provided to Amy free of charge (or at a considerable discount not available to the public)” — and goes up to Level 13: “This is a sponsored post. Amy was compensated to write this post. While Amy’s opinions in the post are authentic, talking points may have been suggested by the sponsor.” In between these extremes are compensation for inserting links to a certain Web site, attending an event or administering a product giveaway. Which pretty much explains why, between daily witticisms, she so regularly describes how she offered Kleenex to the woman next to her at a conference or placed her HTC HD7 Windows phone on the tray table next to her when she lucked into an empty row on her last plane trip.
Others are not quite as comfortable making their Web pages into billboards. Drummond’s site carries ads but runs giveaways only of items that she pays for herself; she does not accept direct sponsorships (that is, ads with her photo) because she worries that this is at odds with a Web site about “the simple life on a ranch.” True, she does write periodically about how the only thing missing from that life is a venti caramel Starbucks latte, but Starbucks does not pay her to say it.
Drummond works with BlogHer, which sells ad space on parenting sites in bundles. Armstrong in turn works with Federated Media, which bundles as well and also charges some companies a premium to appear specifically on Dooce.com. A key advertiser is Suave shampoo, and a Suave banner ad with Armstrong’s photo sometimes appears at the top of the site. Suave also sponsors a “Community” section, where readers can interact more extensively. This summer, the renovation of the office was sponsored by Verizon, and Jon shot a series of videos of Heather describing the new furniture and the computer wiring. Each one ran as a post on the site, opening and closing with the Verizon logo. Part of the deal was that the Armstrongs had to switch from iPhones to Droids during the renovation. When the sponsorship ended this fall, Heather and Jon immediately went back to their beloved ATT-powered phones.
Is the commercialism turning off readers? Yes and no. Being powerful on the Internet is an odd and contrary state. “Influential” can mean strangers love you, but it is just as likely to mean that they hate you. What it really means is that they read you. And if you infuriate some and have others rising to your defense, all the better. When your fans and your critics tangle in the intimate anonymity of your comments section, that ups your page views and, in turn, your ad rates.
Good for business, but the criticism can feel very personal. Because on a personal Web site, it is. And as Armstrong’s impact grows, so does readers’ anger — and so, too, her creative ways of turning the critics to her advantage. Take the Maytag incident. After getting no satisfaction from her washing-machine company, Armstrong did take to Twitter. Then she fielded frantic, apologetic calls from Maytag and not only got her washing machine fixed but also had a second one donated by a different company to a nearby women’s shelter (that one was a Bosch). She wrote about it all on her blog, and many readers got very angry. “The mommy-blog community was up in arms, because I was wielding my power in an irresponsible way and I would cause people at Maytag to lose their jobs,” she says. “And then there was a discussion about my sense of entitlement and my narcissism. Do I think I can rule the world with my finger on Twitter? And why don’t I ever use my power for good? Or give back to my community?”
The anger, in turn, upped her page views. “Heather was huge,” Jon said. “It was the biggest thing she’d ever done in terms of traffic. Bigger than going on ‘Oprah.’ Bigger than giving birth to Marlo” — the Armstrongs’ second daughter. “I mean, Marlo was good for business, but the hate was better.”
All this came while she was caring for a newborn, and also suffering with a painful case of shingles and distraught over her grandmother’s imminent death. So one morning, after reading, yet again, about the pointiness of her chin, she fought back. She had Jon create a new section of Dooce, with a new and separate ad base, where she posted her hate mail and invited readers to scroll through. As they scrolled, the ad revenue accumulated.
The Armstrongs won’t say how much money they made from the hate, just that it was “a large, large sum.” Heather says they gave most of it away at Christmas in 2009, paying the past-due mortgage for a neighbor who was struggling, and treating Heather’s sister, who’d never had her hair done professionally, to a cut and color. They made donations to the women’s shelter where they sent the new washing machine. And they didn’t write a word about that on the blog.
I mean, we’ve sort of got a rhythm going, one where the drummer and guitarist are playing two different songs, and the lead singer is just making up words as it goes along, and the sound is just awful but we’re calling it “art.” JULY 20, 2009
Lunch at Blurbodoocery Inc. is a family affair — Heather and Jon, 18-month-old Marlo, LaCaze, and Heather’s cousin McKenzie (who baby-sits for Marlo during the day, and for 7-year-old Leta when she is home from school), all gathered around the table in the stone-and-glass kitchen. The ability to blur home and work is one reason they bought this house when the company began to burst the seams of their smaller one. They considered just renting office space, as most start-ups do when they grow. But “my life is the business,” Armstrong says. “It wouldn’t work without the chaos nearby, without being able to wear my workout clothes all day and nap on the bed with the dogs.”
On a frigid day in December, Leta was home for Christmas break, and a classmate was over. While we adults (and Marlo) cheered them on, the first graders played with the Xbox Kinect — an advertiser on Dooce — running in place while their avatars raced on the screen. Leta was losing, again and again. Her frustration grew and then spilled over, until the little girl was on the floor in tears.
Armstrong tried joking with Leta, then hugging her, then distracting the two children with another game that didn’t require as much coordination. Noticing that I’d been taking notes during the meltdown, Armstrong winced but didn’t ask me to stop. “It’s all fodder,” she said. “It’s all material.”
Or is it? It’s true that the most-trafficked personal bloggers appear to have few boundaries, in part because so many found their followers, and their voices, in times of crisis. Yet the most successful of the genre, the women who manage to turn this into a living, or at least part of one, pull off the neat trick of seeming to share more than they do. “Nobody reveals every piece of themselves online,” Drummond says. “It’s not really inventing a personality as much as shying away from certain subjects.”
She will casually mention the “self-diagnosed” agoraphobia that makes it an ordeal to leave the ranch, for instance, but she will not allow herself to become “a poster child” for that cause. She will talk about her husband the cowboy, and their country lifestyle, but she never mentions that he comes from a family of wealthy ranchers. And while her relationship is best known to her readers for its Harlequin-steamy romance, there are no actual sex scenes in the 40-chapter online version of the serial. “Hanky-panky is off-limits” she says. Her rule is that if she would not talk to her sister about something, she won’t write about it on her blog — and she wouldn’t dream of talking to her sister about her sex life.
Armstrong talks far more openly about, well, everything, but look closely, and even she is practicing restraint. She is circumspect about mentioning either her own or Jon’s family, who have made it clear they prefer not to be discussed on Dooce. And lately she writes far less often about her oldest daughter, Leta. In a post last summer, Armstrong explained (without actually saying so directly) that Leta was acting like a door-slamming, eye-rolling teenager — years ahead of schedule.
I think it’s a combination of reasons why I’ve started writing less about her. One, she expressed displeasure at having her picture taken several months ago, and now she actually runs out of the room when I break out a camera. Two, I didn’t expect our relationship to become so complicated so early in her life. In fact, I thought that some of what is going on in our house wasn’t going to happen for another 10 years. But here it is, and the level of complexity is not really something I want to talk about publicly. . . . For the last several months, if I have mentioned Leta here, I have most likely asked her if I could do so, even if it has been something totally innocuous. I intend to practice this going forward, so I guess maybe I am censored to some extent. Ha! Look, Leta! You’re more powerful than Verizon!
It is perversely fitting that the child whose birth was the catalyst for Dooce now shies away from having her life chronicled. But it’s hardly surprising. Armstrong says she has always known that babies’ tales belong to their parents, then as they grow, ownership shifts. She wishes it were otherwise — the sharing that got her through postpartum depression would sure be helpful when dealing with a moody teenager. It would also be great material. How do you keep readers coming back while also keeping things to yourself?
There was a hint of the changing balancing act in mid-February, when Jon landed in the hospital because he was experiencing shortness of breath. Heather chronicled it all on Twitter and Dooce. She shared her fears. She cracked a few jokes. But she told readers only that the diagnosis turned out to be “inconclusive.” (She left it to Jon to point out on his blog that it might have been a side effect of new depression medication.) In other words, she will write about Leta . . . but not really. She will tell readers something is going on . . . but not what. She will let strangers feel as if they know what she is going through . . . but not completely. It’s a sleight of hand that seems a necessary part of this evolution from online diary to online business.
“This is where Heather has become a master,” Jon told me earlier when I asked him whether a blog like Heather’s was sustainable as children grow up and families tire of the magnifying lens. “She has the ability to take a single episode and turn it into an epic, and then, if you go word by word and ask, ‘What did she reveal?’ it’s really not very much. David Sedaris once said that his stories are ‘true enough.’ Blogs, the ones that last, are also ‘true enough.’ ”