Master Vs. Slave: Raymi the Minx and her Blog audience both take the reins
In the late 1990s blogs, the abbreviated term of Web logs, began to emerge in the online community. Authors of blogs, post usually brief entries on topics of interest to them (Bell, Berry, & Roekel, 2004). Only 23 blogs existed in 1999 but, by 2002 500,000 to 1 million had surfaced (Bell et al, 2004). A blog can be created by anyone with access to the Internet. With a press of a few buttons a blog can be updated and available for millions of potential readers. An average person knowing he or she has access to so many minds is a phenomenon unheard of until now. Never before have so many “average Joe” types of people been able to create something and then distribute it to potentially millions of viewers without taking much time to do and without being very costly. Now in 2005, everyone from teeny-boppers to professional journalist have discovered the benefits of blogging but, it’s not known why exactly blogs are such a hit. Perhaps, authors and viewers of blogs have simply found another way to sit alone, in front of a computer but, at the same time feel completely connected to another person, no matter the other’s location. Having access to the content of a blog is like someone handing millions of people the key to that top secret diary hidden under their bed, what power those millions of people now have.
The preferred semiological meaning behind images posted on personal on-line web logs can differ drastically from the actual message onlookers take from the images. A part of this conflict between preferred and actual meaning comes from the confusion or disagreement between who controls the blog content, the blog author or the blow viewer. It seems both (author and viewer) can think they control the content, according to this study. Obviously, the creator of a blog would say he or she is in control of the content because he or she is the one writing and uploading images onto the site. However, because a blog is so interactive, for the audience, viewers can easily feel they have a part in a blogs creation. Many blogs have an area for the audience members to comment, for example. Also, a blogger, who posts images and writing that are raw and personal, can seem vulnerable and fragile. For, the audience is empowered by the belief they know the secret inner workings of this blogger. Therefore, the online world, and more specifically the blogging world, is a very complex tricky place where authors of blogs can develop a sense of false-dominance over this world and this brings up concerns, one of which is about the ethics of self exposure.
Raymi, 22, the author of Raymi the Minx (http://raymitheminx.blogspot.com), is one blogger who believes she is in complete control of her creation. She thinks even questioning who controls a blog, the author or the viewers, is an obscure one. “I’m in control of my blog, of course,” she said, responding to an email interview question ( personal communication, November 25, 2005). She started blogging on November 28, 2000, which is relatively early in blogging history. Raymi says she will continue updating her blog until she is “too crazy to write anymore.” According to Raymi, a friend suggested she create a blog because she was quickly becoming a popular writer on the forums at viceland.com, the official website of the magazine VICE. Raymi started a blog to share her life and perfect her writing and says that purpose hasn’t really changed over the years. By December 2005 Raymi has had over 160,000 hits on her blog, 15,330 in an average week and 2,476 on an average day. The content of Raymi’s blog is best summarized by a reader who emailed Raymi (an email Raymi published on her blog.)
“I love to hear about what movies you watched and who you outdrank and who you hate on survivor and what flava chips you ate and about the cats and fil and what bar you played megatouch in and what projects you are working on like what book or movie or drawing and who you zinged and who you spied on and what new haircut you are sporting and you always have interesting stuff to say” (Raymitheminx).
The entries on Raymi’s blog are the same type one would find in a young woman’s diary. Raymi seems to post images and talk about things that would only interest her, but appear to please tens of thousands of people.
The majority of images posted on Raymi’s site from November 28, 2000 to August 31, 2004 where used for this study. These approximate 940 (see images in compact disk attached) images were first coded, based on the method of content analysis. Once the images were coded and patterns emerged three of the most common types of images were picked and analysed using semiotics. Since the beginning of Raymi’s blog, the number of blog entries and the photos that accompany them have steadily increased. In the first 12 months studied 99 images appeared on the blog. In the next 13 months 324 images uploaded onto the site and in the last 12 months there were 520 images.
A successful content analysis starts with the development of an hypothesis, according to Daniel Riffe, Stephen Lacy, and Frederick G. Fico. “Quantitative content analysis is much more efficient when explicit hypotheses or research questions are posed than when a researcher collects data without either,” (Riffe, Lacy, & Fico, 1998). This study did not begin with a hypothesis. But, research questions were formed from the beginning of the project. The questions were developed based on the observation that it seemed the majority of images posted on Raymi’s blog were nude or partially nude images of Raymi. Questions that came to mind after making this observation were: what does this reveal about Raymi? Does the number of nude images grow with the growing popularity of the site? And, is the roll of a blog to exploit its author? Following the general model for content analysis outlined by Riffe et al. (1998) other questions had to be addressed to answer the research questions. One question, “how much is known about the phenomenon already?” (Riffe et al. 1998) is an interesting one. As of yet, there have been few studies of blogs or expert opinion formed. It has been documented in the media that blogs are growing in popularity among all wakes of life but very little scholarly material (let alone other visual culture research) has been written about blogs.
The images were coded based on their size, the medium type and the source of the image, and the subject type of the image (see attached compact disk for the spreadsheet of the coded results). Images were measured based on the length of the longest side. The images were coded as either extra small (longest side 5 cm. approximately), small (longest side 10 cm approximately), medium (longest side 15 cm approximately), or large (longest side 20 cm approximately). 59 per cent of the images analysed were small. The next popular size was medium at 29 per cent. Two challenges faced during coding these images for size were simply technical ones. Measuring only the longest side of an image doesn’t always give an accurate description of an image’s size. This method was used to save time and to make the coding process simpler, possibly with more time a more accurate image size coding technique could have been explored.
The medium and the source of the image were coded together. Images could be coded as computer graphics, photos, paintings, and mixed media and found on the Internet or acquired by some other means (meaning Raymi either created the image herself or acquired them through acquaintances). 76 per cent of the images coded were photos not found on the Internet. Photos that were found on the Internet (by Raymi) were the second more popular medium/source, at 13 per cent. Lastly, 6 per cent of images were mixed media and were not taken from the Internet. In some cases it was nearly impossible to know for sure (without asking the author of the blog) if an image, for example, a photograph of a shirtless man with a protruding stomach wearing sunglasses and sporting a lot of chunky gold jewellery (see figure one in appendix A), was an Internet find or not, this was a limitation of the study.
37 codes were developed to categorise the subject type of the images. 25 per cent of the images where of Raymi. She was clothed and the image was created by someone other than herself. 15 per cent of the images were fully clothed self-portraits. 12 per cent had writing in the image. Raymi was in 61 per cent of all the images analysed. The replicability of this study, especially when it comes to coding the subject type of the images, is questionable. For example, the word “nude” could be interpreted differently between coders. Some may classify “nude” to mean a person wearing nothing at all others could code ‘nude’ to mean at least one breast is showing, for example. As time went by ‘nude’ for this study was defined as ‘at least breasts must be showing.’ For males nude was defined as ‘wearing nothing at all.’ Codes also had to be added near the beginning of the coding process to incorporate parts of images that were overlooked. Also, some potential overlapping of codes was discovered during the coding of subject type.
Challenges aside, the coding of these images helped to uncover what the most frequently posted images are and therefore, what images Raymi’s audience members most frequently have to look at. What this content analysis study uncovered is that the majority of images posted have Raymi in the shot but, Raymi is only nude or partially nude in those images 10 per cent of the time, much less than what was initially ‘observed.’ These results allow for the systematic selection of the most popular images for a semiotic analysis and demand a restructuring of the research questions.
Three images were selected for the Semiology part of the study. The images where chosen because they corresponded well to the most popular medium type, source, and subject type found during the content analysis part of the study. Uncovering the meaning behind these three images will help explore what audience members are exposing themselves to when they view Raymi’s site. Understanding what signs are within these three images will be beneficial.
The first image chosen (see figure two in appendix A) is a photograph. The image is a self portrait of Raymi. She is wearing a cap with the name of her blog on the front of the cap. This image was chosen because the second most popular subject of the images studied is a fully-clothed self portrait of Raymi and the most popular type of medium and source is a photo not from the Internet, this describes figure two quite well. The second is a nude photograph of Raymi (see figure three in appendix A) sitting in a bath tub. The image was taken by someone other than Raymi. The third is a mixed medium image (see figure four in appendix A), the photograph has text written onto the image some time after the photograph was taken. The text says “Promise you’ll never forget me. Never. Even when you’re a hundred.” This photograph is a self-portrait of Raymi.
Arthur Asa Berger (1984) compiled a list of questions to be answered in order to address concerns regarding “the various kinds of signs being used [by an image], how they generate meaning, how they relate to one another, what they reflect about our society and culture, and the problems they pose for the semiologist or other “interpreters’ of signs,”” (Berger, 1984)). I will attempt to answer the questions Berger outlines in order to better understand the signs within figures two, three and four.
The general ambience of figure one is a vivid yet laid back, clutter free and casual one. The vividness of the photo comes from the very bright shades of pink in the photograph and the bold splash of deep blue (her hat). While the more casual feel of the photo is brought on by Raymi’s un-brushed hair and the ‘trucker’ style cap she is wearing. Raymi is centered in the frame and the way her hand holds the camera to take the photos has left her one arm looking abnormally long and unnaturally bent. The wall, bookshelves, and art pieces behind Raymi are very crisp, slightly more crisp that Raymi herself. The only text in the image is on her hat reading: “RAYMI the minx.” Wearing this hat explains to viewers that Raymi is raymitheminx.com. She has labelled herself as the blog and nothing more – she has become the blog; her body is the blog; her actions are the blog. Therefore, viewers of the blog, believe, they have access to the ‘body of Raymi.’ Raymi’s facial expression helps to strengthen this point. Her lips are pursed and are slightly open as if she had started to speak. This kind of expression is usual when a person is caught off guard when a photo is taken, bringing on a sense of weakness. But, Raymi was taking the picture. Therefore, Raymi, seems to be allowing viewers to feel like a fly on the wall, but a powerful fly, seeing everything without being seen (a kind of surveillance).
Figure three’s ambiance is drastically different than figure two. It is spooky yet intimate and inviting. This mood is created by the only light in the photo coming from a candle and a lit match. Both light sources create a warm glow but where the light does not reach it is murky and bleak. Raymi is obviously the main subject of the photograph; however, only the right side of her body can easily be seen. This is a very intimate photograph, one could say sexual, but more intimate than sexual. Because of the angle of the photograph it is as though the viewer is sitting with Raymi in the bath tub. The shot was taken looking slightly down on Raymi, indicating the viewer’s dominance over the subject. It is interesting that from the neck up, taking into consideration the harsh shadows on her face and the curl of her lip, Raymi looks like a callused 1950’s detective lighting up after a hard day’s work. She seems in control and stubbornly alright with herself. Yet, from the neck down the light softly glows on her body and she is obviously naked in a tub, a very fragile state.
The feel of the last image (figure four) is at first childish. Text is ‘hand written’ on the photograph by using the spray paint tool from an image making computer program. The text surrounds the left side of the image and Raymi takes up the rest of the frame. She is holding the camera above her to take the shot. Like figure three, this angle allows the viewer to dominate over the subject. The image of Raymi is taken in a low light condition and is blurry. She is wearing a plain white tank top with no bra, giving off a raw ‘plain Jane’ feel, and a pearl necklace lies around her neck, a symbol of delicate femininity. The part of her eye you can see looks exotic and her lips are slightly puckered. The message “Promise you’ll never forget me. Never. Even when you’re a hundred,” seems to be an emotional plea. Raymi bluntly tells her audience that she needs them and will always need their support. Her audience now knows for a fact they are important and their presence is necessary for Raymi to live happily, a lot of power is put on their shoulders. For, if the audience chooses to forget Raymi’s blog, she, the actual person, will be powerless and forgotten as well.
An all powerful audience is the last thing Raymi thinks her blog inspires. She considers some members of her audience to be easily addicted and lonely people. When asked why her blog gets so many hits each week she responds, “Because they’re addicted, either to the photos or the comments. Or, they enjoy my writing style and how I write about every fucked up thing that I do. Some are lonely, I inspire them” (R. Laure, personal communication, November 25, 2005). There is no question in Raymi’s mind she is in control and that she effects her viewers. Raymi may be in control but she still gives viewers a sense of control based of the content she uploads onto her blog. The audience is led to believe they know the intimate truths of Raymi the Minx and knowing those secret truths lead to a sense of power over the blogger, the viewers may not be as pathetic and needy as Raymi envisions.