Heather Armstrong didn’t mean to become a “mommy blogger”. In 1997, she taught herself to code, and began working at a Los Angeles tech start-up. When she started writing about her life online, her focus was Dilbert-style office politics. The title of the blog, “Dooce”, which eventually became better-known than her own name, came from a misspelling of “dude” in a group chat. Eventually, her unwise online disclosures got her fired — “Dooced”, as the process of sacking incautious bloggers came to be called.
Armstrong started mining the rest of her life. Dooce pivoted to offering carefully-scripted “unvarnished realities” on parenthood, marriage, and Armstrong’s struggles with depression. The market in the early 2000s was far less crowded than it was even a decade later, allowing a cornball line like this to land in a way it probably wouldn’t today: “I am here to tell you that there is no possible way to have an 8-pound creature GUMMING your tender nipple without the slightest bit of discomfort……the only way to describe it to a man is to suggest that he lay out his naked penis on a chopping block, place a manual stapler on the sacred helmet head, and bang in a couple hundred staples.” Off the back of insights such as these, Armstrong gained a monthly readership of 8.5 million fans, raking in anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000 a month at her peak. In 2011, Forbes ranked her 26th on its list of most the influential women in all media. Federated Media, the entity responsible for managing advertisements on her blog, celebrated Armstrong as one of their most prosperous bloggers, a top performer who generated over $1 million a year in ad revenue.
The same year, Armstrong contributed a foreword to Mom Blogging for Dummies, writing: “Some women who do what I do reject this label altogether because they consider the term mommy to be belittling. I understand this complaint, but I’m quite proud to be a member of this movement, this revolution of women determining their own destinies.” Hers is a cautionary tale, however, for those of us who write and consume content for a living.
Armstrong’s fame and online presence had greatly receded by the time she committed suicide at home earlier this year. In The Valedictorian of Being Dead, published in 2019, she details a life spent battling depression — on ten occasions, she went into a medically-induced coma, simulating brain death, in an attempt to alleviate her symptoms. Somewhere between introducing a guide to making money from nonstop mommy blogging and declaring mommy blogging dead, Armstrong came to recognise — or decided to admit — the negative impact her work was having on her mental health. In the foreword, she writes with a sense of pride, “I don’t get to go on vacation.” In The Valedictorian of Being Dead, she expressed her longing for an escape “the hamster wheel of my day-to-day existence”:
“I knew I just couldn’t do it anymore when I was trying to get my kids into the car to play a word game while driving to a ranch in the mountains. This would be the third of three posts I was to write for an automotive brand about quality time with my kids in the car … Marlo did not want to participate in yet another ruse, and I had to bribe and threaten and cajole to get her in that car. Right as she opened her door, she looked up at me through tears and begged, ‘Please, Mom, don’t make me do this.’”
Armstrong’s transition from viewing her work as a fulfilling occupation to a trap reflects the paradoxical reality of life as a content creator: the same facts, framed differently as market conditions changed, transformed from a testament of her dedication to a cry for relief. But it also speaks to a universal experience of life lived in the digital age. Her journey — from a person who wrote about her life on the internet for fun to an entrepreneur supporting not only her family but also employees with her blog revenues — illustrates the tremendous opportunity of the dotcom boom. But it also reveals the precarity inherent in what was then a burgeoning marketplace of intimate stories that would, as one critic observed later, gradually evolve into a “personal-essay industrial complex”.
Armstrong was praised for offering humour, heart, and what some perceived as unflinching honesty. Long-time editor of The Rumpus, Lyz Lenz, likened her to the Hunter S. Thompson of domestic life — “a wild, weird gonzo journalist of domesticity and dog poop”. She had a knack for transforming ordinary experiences into amusing anecdotes, comparing her sick toddler to a “drunken blues singer whose wife done kicked him out of the house” — an utterance that would be described as “problematic” today — or injecting making a trip to the gynaecologist sound less horrific with a quip: “Somewhere there has to be a Garfield comic that talks about how Mondays aren’t bad enough already, and here you have to go and throw an enlarged ovary into his soup?”
Armstrong describes her blog as a “therapeutic outlet”, initially to process her postpartum depression. The carefully-composed, yet candid-sounding revelations of her struggles — often leavened with a bit of circa-2000s gross-out comedy — fostered a sense of virtual community among readers, who developed a strong attachment to, and a sense of entitlement over, Armstrong, their “queen mother”. This was a world where people were becoming ever more isolated — “bowling alone”, as Harvard professor Robert Putnam put it. These sad folk, existing at the murky “IRL/URL border”, turned to screens to soothe existential hurt and validate what were gradually becoming identities.
But the challenges of sustaining a profitable blogging business in an ever-evolving digital economy started to fracture the authentic voice that had once resonated with readers. Ad revenue declined. The need to shoehorn sponsored content into her blog posts became more pressing. Instead of writing about experiences, Armstrong had to manufacture them, experiences to fit the expectations of brand partnerships. The connection between the real Armstrong and the commercialised version of herself that the audience saw became increasingly flimsy.
So when Armstrong announced she was getting a divorce, her loyal readership felt betrayed. Here was an unwelcome reminder that her carefully-told story of a perfect family life was nothing more than fiction. Parasocial followers commented, “If you’ve read a blogger for years, you feel like you know them…the saddest thing I’ve read today“, “they’ve always seemed like a good couple”, and even the ironic “I wish you could have privacy“. Such intimate reactions echo those experienced by uber-public figures such as J.K. Rowling, whose stance on gender ideology has alienated fans who were clearly identifying far too strongly with her books, and now by Taylor Swift, whose fans are obsessively calling for her to dump her supposedly “problematic” new boyfriend. In any case, the story Armstrong was telling no longer fit what the marketplace desired; it had been corrupted by the complexities of a real life. And that led to the difficult realisation that she was, as she told Vox in 2019, an outdated product.
As many in the sales and marketing world can attest, the process of constantly reinventing yourself to meet external expectations can be a maddening endeavour — there is no escape, only yourself and your content, and if people aren’t buying, it’s hell on Earth. The hardest thing about her obsolescence, Armstrong writes in The Valedictorian of Being Dead, is that “writing was therapeutic”. And yet, no one forced her to stop writing; it’s just that fewer people wanted to read her. She could have kept writing without monetising it — many of us keep private journals, even in 2023 — yet she seemed to conflate writing with being read. So, what was it that she feels was therapeutic: writing, or creating a fictionalised version of her life that other people bought into?
I have argued before that blogging — indeed, many forms of social media — allows people to unhealthily distort themselves for profit. This isn’t therapeutic, despite Armstrong’s repeated claims to the contrary; in fact, as my own therapist has pointed out, reminding everyone around you that your creative work is “therapeutic” is a sure-fire sign that it probably isn’t. When personal reinvention for commercial success becomes the norm, it’s easy to lose sight of your own needs, while focused on catering to an audience’s demands. There is a vast difference between performing wellness for an audience and actually achieving it.
The relentless cycle of selling and repackaging the self not only creates a dizzying array of personas to uphold but also lays the foundation for an existential crisis when the demand for one’s curated identity dwindles. In the final years of her life, Armstrong was already posthumously known; writing on Instagram to a fraction of her former audience, her past was better-known than her present. Many of today’s top posters, podcasters, and pundits will have the same experience. Countless people have invested themselves in the game of personal content creation — making moves that will invariably lead to diminishing returns, until they have no moves left to make.
Intriguingly, those most drawn to this lifestyle — and to social media in general — seem to be those seeking an escape from their present realities. Consider Armstrong’s aforementioned quip about her gynaecologist visit — the lame Garfield joke about her enlarged ovary. Clearly, this is a heavily filtered version of her experience in the doctor’s room, designed for the consumption of her audience. While the joke may have elicited a polite laugh, it detracts from the genuine fear anyone would feel at a medical diagnosis.
Armstrong saw herself as being in the business of making herself better. But did she write about it for herself, or for her audience? Even her final autobiographical work, The Valedictorian of Being Dead, was ultimately designed for consumption. So the question remains: who was she really trying to influence?