The Gnome in the Front Yard and Other Public Figurations: Genres of Self-Presentation on Personal Home Pages

By Killoran, John B. | Biography, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

The Gnome in the Front Yard and Other Public Figurations: Genres of Self-Presentation on Personal Home Pages


Killoran, John B., Biography


In light of empirical research showing that personal home pages are not as personal as their reputation suggests, this paper proposes that sustained self-presentation on the Web by ordinary people has been hindered, in part, by the feeble legacy of suitable genres. Drawing on a sample of over one hundred personal home pages, this paper illustrates how, in the absence of generic precedents, public self-presentation is instead achieved through innovation with past genres.

SELF-ADVERTISEMENT AND SELF-CENSORSHIP

If, as Paul de Man observes, literary autobiography looks "slightly disreputable and self-indulgent" (67-68), then one can well expect the reek of dis-reputability that has stigmatized the new genre of personal home pages. Such is their notoriety for self-indulgence that a dismissive quip by New York Times technology journalist Edward Rothstein--"Sartre had it only partly right. Hell is not just other people, it's other people's home pages"--has earned acknowledgment even in the scholarship of home page researchers (e.g., Buten; Chandler; Dominick 647; Doring). Rothstein indicts personal home pages for being, among other things, "advertisements for the self." Such disdain toward the public airing of the normally private lives of ordinary people is familiar enough in the autobiographical tradition. As Julia Watson observes, autobiographical writing customarily has been "externally authorized" by the status of the writer: "those denied the subject status achieved by white European-oriented males-women, people o f color, or those of low social status-lack the public dimensions of the life 'worth' living and recounting" (58). Yet like the personal writing of those denied such subject status, the personal home page can be read not just for its particular autobiographical details but for how it struggles to present in public someone denied such subject status.

As is readily apparent to Web surfers, ordinary people, long positioned as consumers of media, have been taking advantage of the opportunity for a new status as media producers. In a casual 2000 enumeration of just the sites hosted by the major free Web hosting services like Geocities, Charles Cheung reported numbers that would tally well over ten million (43)--a tally that would no doubt be significantly higher if it included personal sites hosted on commercial and educational servers. Some of the fledgling authors of these sites have achieved considerable attention for their efforts, such as Jennifer Ringley of JenniCam fame (www.jennicam.com), whose Webcam, broadcasting continuously from her home since 1996, has made her private life a public spectacle. Jay David Bolter situates such new media forms of self-display in the tradition of older autobiographical forms which also, in their time, employed new media to transgress the public forum with private lives:

The homepage thus blurs the distinction between the public and the private, and this blurring also has antecedents in earlier media. In the medium of print, as Elizabeth Eisenstein has argued... the personal essay, as pioneered by Montaigne and other Renaissance writers, and the autobiography were simultaneously public and private forms: they painted an intimate portrait of the author and yet published that portrait to thousands of anonymous readers. (21)

As our contemporaries strive to fashion a public status and voice from their newly acquired position as Web authors, their new form of publishing offers us a glimpse of what a more democratic practice of autobiography might look like. Personal home page researchers Hugh Miller and Jill Arnold predict that "[t]here are likely to be changes in ways we understand the idea and use of 'autobiography' from all those creatively making individual and collective Web pages." Such changes were suggested early in the Web's development when Web researcher Thomas Erickson observed that "individuals. . construct portrayals of themselves using information rather than consumer goods as their palette. …

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