blogging about cancer and the narrativity of blogs

As one of the very few official blog researchers in Norway I get a lot of phone calls and emails from journalists. Often this is how I find out what the big issue of the moment is in blogging, or at least what the mainstream media thinks is the big issue of the moment. Today two different journalists called about a Norwegian woman who’s blogging her battle against cancer.

Photo of a hospital corridor by Adrian Boliston. Creative Commons Attribution licenced.
Image by Adrian Boliston. (CC)

Disease blogging is one of the classic blog genres (though I’ve not actually heard it called that – is there a name for the genre?). Kaycee Nicole, a teenager with cancer, was one of the most well-known early bloggers – although of course she turned out to be a hoax or a fiction. (Goodness, the Wikipedia page about her is very brief – there’s a bit about it in my PhD thesis (pdf) if you want more.)

The reason Mirakela’s cancer blog appeals to journalists today in particular is that her boyfriend has started a support group on Facebook to collect money for alternative treatment for her tumour that for some reason she’ll have to pay for herself, even in Norway, and despite that alternative treatment having worked better than the state-funded chemotherapy that didn’t work last time she had a brain tumour. The group has already collected 20,000 kroner.

So the journalists obviously want to know how many people blog about their diseases and whether this is a phenonemon that is gaining popularity and how effective blogs are in raising money for diseases. The media likes numbers. Instead I tell them about the narrative qualities of a cancer blog.

Narrative blogs work well when they fit into a familiar narrative scheme, an archetypal narrative if you like. As in most narratives, blogs work well when there’s a clear protagonist (the blogger) trying to achieve a goal. The goal can be many things:

These goal-oriented blogs work well for the reader because we know how the plotline works, and yet we can enjoy the cumulative suspense of seeing how things go, day by day, in real time. Will the blogger achieve her goal? They work well for the blogger because the act of writing helps to keep you focused on your goal. It’s a way of coping. And there is satisfaction in seeing your life as part of a greater narrative.

The most serious goal of all is to stay alive. No wonder blogs telling of the fight against cancer engage us.

Anthony McCosker has written an interesting article about these blogs, “Blogging Illness: Recovering in Public”. He sees these blogs as emphasising the shifting boundaries between private and public that blogs in general challenge. Blogs about illness are doubly interesting because being sick in itself is an abdication of privacy. Your most intimate boundaries are crossed when you’re in hospital. Strangers examine your body, discuss it with students, stick foreign objects into you, palpate you, inject you with chemicals, remove organs or tumours. Privacy is a luxury that the very ill to a great extent lose. But there is a taboo against talking about this. We’re often too squeamish to even mention the word “cancer” around a friend who is battling it.

So in some ways, blogging about your illness is to take back control over your body and your life by owning it, by expressing it yourself, on your terms. That’s certainly what the pioneering researcher of online communities (the social media of the 1980s and 1990s) Howard Rheingold is doing with his blog “Howard’s Butt”, where he writes about his rectal cancer. (He has a dedicated twitter stream too: @rheingoldsbutt. And here’s his explanation of why he’s blogging about his cancer.) Another person in the same situation might have turned inwards instead, finding it easier to manage their battle in private, away from public view.

Are there other ways of thinking about this that I should consider?

11. August 2010 by Jill
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