How Bloggers Create Online Followings and Make Us Think
BY KARA SCHWEISS
Ashli Brehm initially just wanted to talk about the realities of pregnancy, never dreaming she’d one day be using her blog to share the frank details of a breast cancer diagnosis at an unusually young age. Morgann Freeman was simply contemplating issues and working through ideas for herself, not expecting her posts to go viral and not intending to emerge as a thought leader or social influencer. Heidi Woodard started out by sharing stories of parenting her three kids juxtaposed with a friend’s perspective as a new mom; she figured family and maybe a few supportive friends would enjoy her online musings.
She wasn’t trying to build a following. It may not have been a calculated effort, but today, all three women have a substantial social media following. Brehm’s blog, “Baby on the Brehm” (babyonthebrehm.com) has evolved to reflect a diversity of experiences connected to her life. It also serves as a platform for what Brehm calls “sharing goodness,” and has led to a regular schedule of speaking engagements. Through several channels, Freeman speaks to a breadth of social justice issues and has seen her words directly empower and motivate others.
Woodard became part of the first team of Omaha World-Herald “momaha.com” bloggers and now writes through two sites with a host of followers: “MaternalMedia,” rooted in her original topic of parenting, and “GiveTheGameBack,” which explores youth sports from a multifaceted view of parent, former standout athlete and coach. Brehm says that although she studied journalism and advertising in college at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and worked for a stint in public relations, her early response to the emergence of social media was skepticism.
“I remember saying, ‘I just don’t get it. Why would you want people to constantly know what you’re doing?’” she recalls. Brehm hadn’t even joined Facebook yet when she stepped cautiously into “blurnal” —stream-of-consciousness-style blogging as a first-time expectant mom in 2008, planning to relate a he said/she said perspective with her husband, who ended up fizzling out after a few posts. Brehm is still going strong 10 years, three kids, 1,000 posts and countless topics later.
Her candor belies her original fear “that people would think all I ever did was talk about myself,” but it wasn’t until 2014 that she began promoting her blog on Facebook. “It was this massive decision to share it there. You see then who likes it and who actually comments on it. That terrified me.”
Brehm likens her social media community to growing up in a small town. “The reality of it is that there are parts of growing up in a small town that are beautiful and there are parts of it that are not so beautiful. You feel this great sense of community in a small town and can feel this great sense of community in social media,” she says. “But then there’s also crazy Uncle Larry over there shooting his mouth off and you’re rolling your eyes.”
Fortunately, there are very few crazy Uncle Larrys among her followers, Brehm says. Her audience is about 80 percent female, and most are parents age 25 and up, including a subset of breast cancer patients and survivors who skew a little older. This group finds her through entries chronicling her diagnosis, treatment, double mastectomy, reconstruction and recovery.
“When I got sick, (my blog) was my life raft. Not only because it allowed me to share, but it’s much like a CaringBridge site. I wanted to share the story of what I was going through, but I didn’t want to tell it a million times,” she says. Brehm speculates that social media experts would probably advise her to split her blog into multiple, focused blogs, but her all-inclusive approach has netted thousands of followers and she has no plans to diversify.
“That is not what my goal is,” she says. “It’s to be Ashli and go wherever life takes me, and if someone wants to follow along and that helps them with something, or something resonates with them, then I’m happy that’s occurred.”
Slow Progression to Blogging
Freeman says her online writing as a contributor to a blog called “Melanin and Honey” and her own Facebook page started as a way for her to learn, connect and contemplate. “It really was a slow progression,” she says. “It was more an opportunity for me to just try to work things out for myself.” She knew early on that she was interested in social justice. Her education at the University of Nebraska Omaha focused on black studies, Spanish and communications. She was also interested in learning more about feminism, turning to online resources instead of textbooks to look beyond the stereotype she laughs at now — “that it was just a bunch of people who burned their bras and hated men.”
Online platforms presented a means to examine things more deeply, she says. “That became an opportunity for me to explore what black feminism was and social justice and all those ‘isms’ that intersect.”
Freeman’s words were reaching a lot of people, which came as somewhat of a surprise to her. Not only were friends sharing her posts, but the then-new Facebook ‘follow’ button built more audience. Then a post reflecting on the Black Lives Matter movement went viral. “When that happened, I became known as a Black Lives Matter activist and a feminist without even truly claiming that for myself,” she says. “And so I went through this whole evolution of just wanting to figure out who I am and what I believe in, and how I can help other people within those beliefs, and other people seeing themselves reflected in that directly and indirectly. And taking that on and sharing it with their families and their friends and their networks, those networks sharing it with their networks. It was this evolution and the snowball factor.”
The responsibility associated with “recognizing that I actually had the capacity to change people’s behavior” caused Freeman to take literal pause and step away from social media briefly. But she also saw that her online voice could be a powerful tool to stimulate positive change.“I have this privilege now. I’ve always wanted to make change happen for other women and women of color. Now how am I going to use that? How am I going to go into these spaces and make that change physically possible?” she says, adding that her heroes—women like Angela Davis, Assata Shakur and Elaine Brown—took on that burden. “They had to carry the same weight, so what makes me so special where I don’t have to carry that same weight?”
Heidi Woodard looks back at her first blog entries with amusement. Even the debut name of her blog “TSI Bananas” (TSI being short for“This S**t Is”) suggests that she didn’t take herself too seriously. She and friend Melissa Cruickshank began the blog in the spring of 2009 to share their stories of parenthood from both a veteran (Woodard) and newcomer (Cruickshank) point of view. “That very first blog was just a couple of good friends sharing,” Woodard says. “It was really fun for us to compare and contrast where she put a lot of value and effort—and stress—into versus me. It started out of nowhere. We thought we’d get a handful of people and our spouses, who would support us in anything, and it would be our online therapy.”
By the end of the year, The Omaha World-Herald had approached the two women to be among the first group of contributors to “momaha.com.” Woodard was part of “momaha.com” until 2014, an experience that introduced her to a larger audience and created opportunities for the Creighton University journalism graduate in multiple media channels, including the print version of the Omaha World-Herald and the “Pat and JT Show” on radio station KQKQ-FM. In 2012, Woodard started “MaternalMedia,” a general parenting blog evolving from “TSI Bananas.”“MaternalMedia provides online therapy for those who are easily distracted and overly committed,” she explains. “I joke that once I got out of my 20s and even early 30s, I considered myself a recovering perfectionist.
You know, life gets real and you realize ‘I’m not going to be the perfect mom and I’m not going to be the perfect wife and perfect manager.’” In 2015, she launched GiveTheGameBack, a website-based movement to reclaim the game for developing athletes everywhere, “encouraging parents and promoters of youth sports to get out of the way and let the kids play.” GiveTheGameBack draws on her experience as a parent of young athletes but also carries Woodard’s outlook from when she played youth sports and was a college softball standout who was inducted into the Creighton Athletics Hall of Fame in 2006. She’s also added amore recent third perspective: coach.
Despite her educational credentials and years of blogging, Woodard still hesitates to use a particular label. “We’re not going through the hardship of trying to sell content. I caution on saying I’m a ‘writer.’ I’m more of an online storyteller,” she says. All three women say they became more aware of writing for an audience as they gained a following. “I wrote a little safer for “momaha.com” than I do for ‘Maternal-Media’ because ‘MaternalMedia’ was my own home-grown brand. I’m not super-controversial in my writing but I could be a little ‘realer’ in my own brand,” Woodard says.
Freeman says she recognized that her messaging appealed to different groups of people, including social justice activists and political influencers, people of color, and relatively privileged individuals attempting to understand and help other communities. “It’s really interesting when I’m crafting a message because now I’m hyper cognizant of it,” she says, adding that although she doesn’t shy away from controversial topics, she also doesn’t try to alienate anyone. “Whenever there is something that is potentially contentious I will walk through it with you. I will ask clarifying questions even when it’s something that’s really emotional. I’ll remove my personal emotions out of it until I can get to a place where I fully understand where you’re coming from. Then, if emotion is necessary, I will bring my emotions to the table,” she says.
Some of that approach stems from the fact that detractors have at times tried to reduce her to a cliché, she says. “It’s interesting. I feel that I’ve been continuously branded with this ‘angry black woman’ trope,” Freeman says, adding that sometimes anger is an appropriate response relative to a topic at hand. But her writing covers the gamut, and she has sometimes been narrowly characterized. “I’m seen as angry, period … not seen as someone who is even capable of complex emotion.” Brehm says she has also felt somewhat stereotyped. “I feel like any woman who blogs and has children is given the label of ‘mommy blogger,’” she says. “That doesn’t offend me or anything. I just find it interesting that there has to be a label for everything.” Woodard says her friends were less likely to judge or criticize her first posts compared to her much-broader readership of today. “It’s a lot easier to type out that comment when you’re never going to see someone face-to-face,” she says. The vast majority of feedback has been kind and supportive, however, and she knows occasional criticism is a given with a larger audience. “You have to grow a thicker skin,” she says.
Real Life Implications
Freeman says she has worried at times about real-life implications stemming from her online presence. For example, when she worked in public relations, she was afraid of saying the wrong thing and losing her job. Fortunately, her employer not only knew of her social media activity but considered it a factor in the decision to hire her. Brehm says she has chosen to share personal, even intimate details of her life — from her reconstructive surgery after a double mastectomy to stories of everyday life and parenting. “I’m an open book; if you have questions for me I will answer them honestly and share my experiences with you,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean that every moment of my life is on social media.” She’s careful to withhold certain details, like where she lives or where her children attend school, with her family’s safety in mind. And as her children become older and more self-aware, Brehm says she’s increasingly conscientious about respecting their privacy. “I do feel at some age it’s up to them to decide what to share,” she says.
For similar reasons, Woodard says she made the decision early on to limit her social media channels and what she says, even if it means losing cross-promotion opportunities. “I know I’m probably losing engagement not being on Instagram, but protecting my personal life and relationships was more important than getting additional readership,” she says. Because she posts about some controversial issues, Freeman says she’s received negative feedback. Disagreement she can handle, but sometimes people use offensive language and one person in particular made graphic, disturbing and personal threats. “That letter was the first thing that scared me and I decided to take a break from social media,” she says. “Most of the time these things are coming from someone who wouldn’t actually do anything but that’s what they want — for me to be silent, to crawl into a hole and disappear.” Freeman felt what she had to say online was important enough to risk returning to social media and social justice work.
The good of engaging on social media outweighs the bad, she says, and it not only connects people, it gives direct voice to individuals. “It now allows populations to speak for themselves rather than a conduit to speak for them,” Freeman says. “Social media is a channel for lived realities to be shared, and narratives that may not otherwise reach the public eye.”