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The death of the momblogger Who was Heather Armstrong trying to influence?

She never intended to be a mommy blogger. Credit: Paul Chinn/Getty

She never intended to be a mommy blogger. Credit: Paul Chinn/Getty


May 19, 2023   6 mins

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?


Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work

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Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 year ago

Thoughtful and insightful. Made me care about someone I have never heard of.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 year ago

Thoughtful and insightful. Made me care about someone I have never heard of.

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
1 year ago

It’s another predictable tragedy. She sold her soul and it didn’t end well. The usual trajectory: initially she was in control, or had the illusion of being in control, then she was controlled. It happens with drug addiction: at first the drugs make the user feel better then addiction takes control and misery ensues. Also prostitution as depicted by William Hogarth’s series of paintings: The Harlot’s Progress. To survive, prostitutes often try to separate body and soul by making it clear their body is for sale but not their soul, for example by refusing to kiss their clients.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la mĂȘme chose.

Last edited 1 year ago by Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
1 year ago

It’s another predictable tragedy. She sold her soul and it didn’t end well. The usual trajectory: initially she was in control, or had the illusion of being in control, then she was controlled. It happens with drug addiction: at first the drugs make the user feel better then addiction takes control and misery ensues. Also prostitution as depicted by William Hogarth’s series of paintings: The Harlot’s Progress. To survive, prostitutes often try to separate body and soul by making it clear their body is for sale but not their soul, for example by refusing to kiss their clients.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la mĂȘme chose.

Last edited 1 year ago by Aphrodite Rises
Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago

This article very much feeds into the discussion around identity in the internet age that few people seem to wish to fully engage in – possibly because it’s “too close to home”.
There are elements of engaging with online communities (and that includes Unherd) that can lead to a distortion of all but the most secure personalities, many of whom fall by the wayside or seek to re-invent themselves under a different username.
The most telling thing about Heather Armstrong was her vulnerability, not her skill as a blogger. It would appear there was nothing left to sustain her personality once the decline of affirmation set in. It really does open up the discussion about what exactly constitutes a “person” who holds this personality, but as said, few wish to go there.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago

This article very much feeds into the discussion around identity in the internet age that few people seem to wish to fully engage in – possibly because it’s “too close to home”.
There are elements of engaging with online communities (and that includes Unherd) that can lead to a distortion of all but the most secure personalities, many of whom fall by the wayside or seek to re-invent themselves under a different username.
The most telling thing about Heather Armstrong was her vulnerability, not her skill as a blogger. It would appear there was nothing left to sustain her personality once the decline of affirmation set in. It really does open up the discussion about what exactly constitutes a “person” who holds this personality, but as said, few wish to go there.

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 year ago

Good article. Part of the problem is the woke insistence that we can only write about what we know directly, for fear of “appropriation”.
Nowadays, every pop-singer, every story-teller, they’re all banging a drum about “my journey”.
If, like writers used to do, you just make shit up, then you swerve this self-cannibalism, and this tail-wags-dog effect.
With the likes of Adele, you get the feeling she needs a divorce to give her something to write about.
My fav rock band is 1970s/80s era Manchester post-punk contrarians, The Fall. Never a hint of “my journey” slop with them. Instead, you got obscure rants about German athletes, Scottish uprisings, Australians in Europe, fat vicars being ripped to pieces, British people in hot weather etc. All miles better than that awful Taylor-Sheeran navel-gazing which is part of the solipsist culture which leads to the kind of tragedy outlined above. Poor woman. Sympathy with her family.   

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 year ago

Good article. Part of the problem is the woke insistence that we can only write about what we know directly, for fear of “appropriation”.
Nowadays, every pop-singer, every story-teller, they’re all banging a drum about “my journey”.
If, like writers used to do, you just make shit up, then you swerve this self-cannibalism, and this tail-wags-dog effect.
With the likes of Adele, you get the feeling she needs a divorce to give her something to write about.
My fav rock band is 1970s/80s era Manchester post-punk contrarians, The Fall. Never a hint of “my journey” slop with them. Instead, you got obscure rants about German athletes, Scottish uprisings, Australians in Europe, fat vicars being ripped to pieces, British people in hot weather etc. All miles better than that awful Taylor-Sheeran navel-gazing which is part of the solipsist culture which leads to the kind of tragedy outlined above. Poor woman. Sympathy with her family.   

Benjamin Greco
Benjamin Greco
1 year ago

Is it any wonder that a in a consumer culture we have turned life itself into a commodity.

Paul Hendricks
Paul Hendricks
1 year ago
Reply to  Benjamin Greco

We may indeed have done so, but I don’t see any evidence in this piece that this blogger’s suicide had to do with her loss of readership. Note the author’s resort to phrases such as “seems like”, or general claims that may or may not have to do with this specific example–though he attempts to finesse these connections. In any case she apparently already suffered from depression.

Now, blaming the cruel world of “content creation” or “personal branding” to an audience unfamiliar with its details and easily moved by an innocent victim: that strikes me as a lucrative and relatively easy source of content.

Paul Hendricks
Paul Hendricks
1 year ago
Reply to  Benjamin Greco

We may indeed have done so, but I don’t see any evidence in this piece that this blogger’s suicide had to do with her loss of readership. Note the author’s resort to phrases such as “seems like”, or general claims that may or may not have to do with this specific example–though he attempts to finesse these connections. In any case she apparently already suffered from depression.

Now, blaming the cruel world of “content creation” or “personal branding” to an audience unfamiliar with its details and easily moved by an innocent victim: that strikes me as a lucrative and relatively easy source of content.

Benjamin Greco
Benjamin Greco
1 year ago

Is it any wonder that a in a consumer culture we have turned life itself into a commodity.

Paul Hendricks
Paul Hendricks
1 year ago

Does the author of this piece believe that the blogger believed her blogging was truly “therapeutic”? Or is it more likely the case that she said it so often because of course that’s what her audience wished to believe?

I can’t help but notice the author of this piece mentions his own “therapist”. Does he ever get the impression that therapists also tend to tell their clients what they wish to hear?

Christine Thomas
Christine Thomas
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul Hendricks

“wish to hear” or (the therapists) wish to hear themselves saying?

Christine Thomas
Christine Thomas
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul Hendricks

“wish to hear” or (the therapists) wish to hear themselves saying?

Paul Hendricks
Paul Hendricks
1 year ago

Does the author of this piece believe that the blogger believed her blogging was truly “therapeutic”? Or is it more likely the case that she said it so often because of course that’s what her audience wished to believe?

I can’t help but notice the author of this piece mentions his own “therapist”. Does he ever get the impression that therapists also tend to tell their clients what they wish to hear?

Paul Hendricks
Paul Hendricks
1 year ago

To my mind, the unanswered question is, once her business failed, what kept her from creating a new product? Didn’t she have an agent who could offer advice?

But perhaps the most interesting thing in this piece, which unfortunately goes unaddressed, is that, if indeed she committed suicide because of business failure, that is far more typical of men. You don’t hear that of women so often. Did she put the same career pressure on herself as a man would? Again, you just don’t hear about that from women. Ironic for someone whose content and brand is quintessentially female.

Paul Hendricks
Paul Hendricks
1 year ago

To my mind, the unanswered question is, once her business failed, what kept her from creating a new product? Didn’t she have an agent who could offer advice?

But perhaps the most interesting thing in this piece, which unfortunately goes unaddressed, is that, if indeed she committed suicide because of business failure, that is far more typical of men. You don’t hear that of women so often. Did she put the same career pressure on herself as a man would? Again, you just don’t hear about that from women. Ironic for someone whose content and brand is quintessentially female.

B Davis
B Davis
1 year ago

If you design your life for consumption, it will be consumed.
And then what?
Is it surprising that the resultant void is terrifying?
When your existence is a sold joke, a good story paid for, a cute anecdote, a telling illustration of what to do and not…when your lived experience becomes simply a search for new monetizable content, and your life choices are made with a wink & a nod towards subscribers and boosting ad sales….what do you become when there’s nothing left to laugh about, make fun of, satirize, or ridicule? Who are you after you’ve sold it all? What really is left?
“And you may ask yourself, “Well, how did I get here?”
“You may ask yourself, “What is that beautiful house?” You may ask yourself, “Where does that highway go to?” And you may ask yourself, “Am I right? Am I wrong?” And you may say to yourself, “My God, what have I done?”
Not the first and clearly not the last to discover that the absolute, objectification of Self is a ‘Dorian Gray’ kind of bargain. In the end, it seems the sad Ms. Armstrong found the end result too much to bear.

B Davis
B Davis
1 year ago

If you design your life for consumption, it will be consumed.
And then what?
Is it surprising that the resultant void is terrifying?
When your existence is a sold joke, a good story paid for, a cute anecdote, a telling illustration of what to do and not…when your lived experience becomes simply a search for new monetizable content, and your life choices are made with a wink & a nod towards subscribers and boosting ad sales….what do you become when there’s nothing left to laugh about, make fun of, satirize, or ridicule? Who are you after you’ve sold it all? What really is left?
“And you may ask yourself, “Well, how did I get here?”
“You may ask yourself, “What is that beautiful house?” You may ask yourself, “Where does that highway go to?” And you may ask yourself, “Am I right? Am I wrong?” And you may say to yourself, “My God, what have I done?”
Not the first and clearly not the last to discover that the absolute, objectification of Self is a ‘Dorian Gray’ kind of bargain. In the end, it seems the sad Ms. Armstrong found the end result too much to bear.

William Miller
William Miller
1 year ago

Heartbreaking article.

William Miller
William Miller
1 year ago

Heartbreaking article.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 year ago

I could not read after a bit – I do not know where you went with this tragic woman – but it seemed you were like a vampire with her horrible story to score some point you had figured to sell a story. The up down votes will tell If I am totally wrong – which may be – but why even burden us with this gratuitous bit of misery? Why make some morality tale out of her horrendous suffering? Just write your ideas standing alone and leave her in her sad grave. Or not – maybe you did a great job of it – but I could not keep reading after her medically induced comas to try to break her out of her hellish affliction, not after beginning with her bit of comedy – then moving to her children.

Sorry if I am wrong….

RIP

Robert Hochbaum
Robert Hochbaum
1 year ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

“…but why even burden us with this gratuitous bit of misery?”
I read it as a cautionary tale for all of the ‘influencers’ out there. It’s become a career path for many – create content, make money, create more content, make more money, etc. It becomes a hamster wheel, it seems – you must always be creating content or you become old news and lose your sponsors/advertisers. Many seem to be exposing themselves to the world as they think through whatever is ailing them. Doing it publicly (creating ‘content’) maybe isn’t such a good idea but it’s everywhere on the web. Eventually people get bored with you and you have to deal with the fallout of that. His suggestion of keeping a private journal seems like a good one for struggling people as an alternative. But, clicks and likes are addictive, in addition to being profitable

Robert Hochbaum
Robert Hochbaum
1 year ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

“…but why even burden us with this gratuitous bit of misery?”
I read it as a cautionary tale for all of the ‘influencers’ out there. It’s become a career path for many – create content, make money, create more content, make more money, etc. It becomes a hamster wheel, it seems – you must always be creating content or you become old news and lose your sponsors/advertisers. Many seem to be exposing themselves to the world as they think through whatever is ailing them. Doing it publicly (creating ‘content’) maybe isn’t such a good idea but it’s everywhere on the web. Eventually people get bored with you and you have to deal with the fallout of that. His suggestion of keeping a private journal seems like a good one for struggling people as an alternative. But, clicks and likes are addictive, in addition to being profitable

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 year ago

I could not read after a bit – I do not know where you went with this tragic woman – but it seemed you were like a vampire with her horrible story to score some point you had figured to sell a story. The up down votes will tell If I am totally wrong – which may be – but why even burden us with this gratuitous bit of misery? Why make some morality tale out of her horrendous suffering? Just write your ideas standing alone and leave her in her sad grave. Or not – maybe you did a great job of it – but I could not keep reading after her medically induced comas to try to break her out of her hellish affliction, not after beginning with her bit of comedy – then moving to her children.

Sorry if I am wrong….

RIP

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

Very easy on the eye…

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
1 year ago

This is an absolutely relevant comment. Maybe if you are beautiful enough it’s always hard to adjust to losing the attention/admiration.

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
1 year ago

This is an absolutely relevant comment. Maybe if you are beautiful enough it’s always hard to adjust to losing the attention/admiration.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

Very easy on the eye…