Once a popular anonymous blogger, Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan had to face the preconceptions of readers once she revealed her identity. Who was she and who was the ‘she’ her readers imagined?
The word ‘blogger’ has been relegated to a time gone by, along with ‘dial up’ and ‘landline’. Recent technology that is already obsolete, from an age when we didn’t carry miniature computers around in our pockets, didn’t have the world at our fingertips, just waiting for us to ask a question. There are children born 10 years ago who don’t know why the ‘save’ icon looks like a floppy disk, why we extend our pinky and thumb fingers out of a closed fist and hold it to our ears to gesture ‘call me’. However remote our pasts look now, certainly the gap between old and new technology seems wider now than it was between ours and our parents’ generation. I got letters when I went to boarding school, I had to actually stockpile stamps. We had an old LP player, we had cassettes, we had CDs and DVDs and LCDs, and all sorts of things that begged and pleaded with us to become the next best thing. Cleaning out my things at my mother’s house, I found my collection of tapes, all shelved in the little rack made just for them, and though I flirted with the idea of turning them into some kind of art installation—that creative person’s excuse for hoarding—I threw them all away in the end.
I was a blogger, rejecting the word ‘blogger’—it sounded too much like “plodder”. I wanted to be a writer, and I rejected my twice-weekly updates on my website as writing. That was just blogging, that was just for fun. The real business of writing required my real voice, someone I saw as a person who actually considered her words, as opposed to the lazy, slapdash way I chronicled my daily exploits on the internet. My real voice was also mostly saved for my fiction where I felt, by slipping into different people’s heads, I could be myself more than I could with plain old me.
But when you write about yourself, and you are a fiction writer, something odd happens. You begin to invent even as you’re telling the truth. You smooth the rough edges off conversation, you leave off whole bits where nothing happens in order to get to the meat of the story. You make yourself smarter or dumber as the situation calls for. You are the Everywoman and your readers are meant to identify with the ‘you’ character. It is your POV after all. I wanted a beginning, middle and end. I began to write like that on my blog, telling stories when nothing much had actually happened in real life, but which I thought were exciting enough to write about if I pulled back at this point, stopped here, embellished a little there. There’s this bit in Hannah Gadsby’s now-viral Nanette, her stand-up special on Netflix, where she says, “Punchlines need trauma, because punchlines need tension and tension feeds trauma… You learn from the part of the story you focus on.” I told stories about meeting men and going to the gynaecologist, about my break-ups and nights out, and I learnt, through the telling, how to omit, how to edit, how to build it up. In short: I learnt how to be a writer.
The word ‘brand’ comes from the old English related to German, to burn. An identifying mark burned on livestock or criminals or slaves with a branding iron. After the birth of modern advertising on Madison Avenue in the 1950s, branding became about products, but with the internet age branding became about ourselves. When your brand is you, you’re burning everything in sight with your stamp—your clothes, your cats, the view from outside your window, all slapped with your particular identifying mark. This belongs to me.
My friends call me Minna. They always have. I don’t know how it spreads like it does, but even when I introduce myself to someone at a party, I say, “Hi, I’m Meenakshi” and if they stick, which they sometimes do, they’re calling me Minna within the month. When I was younger, I’d say, “How can people take you seriously if you’re called Minna?” but always with a certain amount of anxiety, because I didn’t know what I’d do in a world where everyone said “Meenakshi” and it was a relief when people said, “Oh, but you’re such a Minna.” Two names mean, effectively, you have no names at all, which, when you’re trying to build up an identity, is a schizophrenic place to be.
So when it came time to naming myself on the internet, I went with eM instead, like the letter “M” which I liked, because it was the first letter of both my names as well as the 13th letter of the alphabet, and I was born on a 13th. I felt kinship with M, I doodled Ms over the pad kept next to our landline and in the margins of my notebook. By the time I called myself eM, I had added devil horns, a tail and a halo over the letter in my doodles to indicate my contradictions. Plus, eM was Me backwards. Even as I stayed anonymous for the first two years of my online life, I dropped enough breadcrumbs for anyone hunting to find me.
There are still bloggers today, and Tumblrs, and WordPressers, and a few have shiny professional websites. But what’s really happened to blogging is that nearly everyone ‘blogs’ but on social media websites. The ‘best’ ones have changed their names too: they’ve moved from bloggers, always such an unattractive word, to social media influencer. They’re like consultants. You want them to influence—hence the name—people to buy what you’re asking them to sell. Most pretty young things will do it for the free handbag, the free lunch for a Zomato review, the free hotel stay for a few captions saying #blessed.
If you have enough followers, you’ll have a rate sheet that promises ‘deliverables’, a dull corporate word beloved of the dull and corporate. But it’s those companies that will pay you to hang around in their shoes, sulk sexily as you hold up a camera, a phone, a vacuum cleaner even. No longer do they need to pay models and a photographer and hire a studio, they’ve got you and you’ve been building up your brand for just this moment.
I now use the internet under my own name. I’m not a social media influencer, my passions are too pedestrian to bring in the big bucks—I love bargains and street food and second-hand books. Try becoming a Kardashian sister off that. Nevertheless, I notice that when I recommend something, my engagement goes way up.
(Engagement used to mean promising to marry someone. Now it’s about how many people interact with you via social media. From faithful to faithless, monogamy to “come on, everyone, talk to me at the same time!”)
For example: what I know about designers and labels is confined to who the guest judge is on Project Runway that season. However, I know how to stand in front of a mirror, how to stick one leg out and one behind me (the baby giraffe), how to hold my mouth so it looks as though I’m very serious about what I’m doing (the duck face), how to place my arms on my hips, at angles, so it looks like I’m thinner than I am (the chicken wings). And when I post pictures of my clothes, I get messages, comments on my posts, and when I don’t for a while, people actually check in. “Can you post more pictures of your outfits?” they ask, and I am flattered but also slightly bemused that my travel pictures, all high HDR and pretty sunsets, or my photos of what I’m reading—surely as a professional writer and reader, I know more about and can recommend better books than clothes—don’t get these kinds of requests.
And I know how to write a caption—I think I know how to do that better than my actual posing, I’m not meant to be in front of a camera, my product isn’t my face but my mind, so I play down the anxious duck face of an ageing woman in her thirties with ironic captions. “Ignore my face,” I’ll say blithely, because everyone knows once you make fun of yourself, no one else can hurt you in the same way.
Speaking of looks, here are some of the things that have happened to me, a woman, when I interacted with the world as a no-longer anonymous blogger.
When I chose to reveal my entire name to the Telegraph in an article about my blog and sexuality in India, before my first book came out, it was a decision that brought me far more publicity than I thought I’d ever get. Including from people who decided to look me up online, see my face on my Orkut, pre-Facebook profile, and record their disappointment online, in spaces on other blogs that existed for such thoughts back then. “Not that hot,” they opined. “Actually not great looking.” It was a long roll call of “that’s the blogger we’ve been thinking was all that?”
I was sort of anticipating this. After all, eM was a character I invented, like Spider-Man, like Batman, my secret identity. I put on the costume, I fought the bad guys of patriarchy, and I had a good time telling people that life in India wasn’t all elephants and poverty and darkness, that we could be just as modern as everyone else, that the life I lived wasn’t that different from a life in any big city around the world.
Another story: I go out to dinner to a friend’s house. Around me are some people I know and some I don’t. It has been approximately a year since that Telegraph article came out, about eight months since my first book was published. One of the men asks me, “Are you that blogger lady?” “Yes,” I say, somewhat warily, because I am used to all sorts now. “Wow, you’re really not as hot as I thought you’d be,” he said. I was speechless. It was almost as though he was accusing me of cheating him of something. How dare I—someone “not as hot” as he thought I would or should be—write these hot-sounding stories of my life?
I began to wonder if I was somehow getting away with something. Was my anonymity a veil, something I used to hide from the gazes of men? I don’t think I’m particularly ugly, by the way, before you start to feel sorry for me. I’m certainly not “roll up and look at the circus freak” hideous. I’m average looking, I guess I’d say. Someone has to be. I don’t stand out for my looks. Maybe that’s why when I became un-anonymous, a public person, I began to put up my picture everywhere. This is what you’re getting, Instagram/Twitter/Facebook followers. This is my face. This is my body. I’m exactly as hot or not as you think I am. I don’t want to be surprised again.
Emily Dickinson would have made a great Instagram poet. A great blogger, even. Who among us introverts has not thrilled to I’m Nobody / Who are you? / Are you—Nobody—too? / Then there’s a pair of us!
Rupi Kaur tries it now, and is as successful as poor Emily was not. Kaur is extroverted, she recently hung out with Emma Watson and earlier this year read from her poetry to screaming crowds at the Jaipur Literature Festival. She’s a star, not a nobody, and yet it seems that more people identify with her than they did with Emily’s Nobody. Is that fair to say? Is it fair to compare two young poets, one a reclusive, shy person, the other so bold that she posted a photo of a period stain on the back of her pants on Instagram? Is it fair to say Kaur is more popular than Dickinson when both were a product of their times?
Here’s where I take my comparison and draw conclusions—we want our heroines to look like heroines. We no longer want to identify with the meek, the shy, the mousey girl in a corner spinning her tales. We want our women, the ones we follow obsessively, or whose lives we dip in and out of, to be strong, confident, always polished, always fierce. We want this so much, we can’t understand why we turn when someone does too much of this; Taylor Swift, once a media darling, is now decried as “trying too hard”. We want our women to look fierce and yet vulnerable, we want the vulnerability to perform across our screens so we can say, “Look, if Beyonce can be sad about her husband cheating on her, so can I.” And yet we have less sympathy for the actually vulnerable—we don’t want ‘crazies’, we want polished women crying marble tears. We are quick to form mobs, join Twitter riots, feed Instagram backlashes.
It’s a dangerous time to be political online—especially under your own name. I never talked much about politics, it was all background drama. But the trolls still found me, way before Hindutva became mainstream, before mobs were a scary, many-headed monster, and would tell me I was a “disgrace to Indian women”. Why? Because I smoked and drank and had sex and talked about it. Mostly they were upset by the smoking, they saw every drag as directed against them, every puff a spell to draw other, ‘more Indian’ women into my wicked den of vice.
What I missed about my blog, and my blog’s heyday, was having a small community of people who were checked in to my life. Sometimes you get more intimacy from a stranger on the internet than your friends. No, let me rephrase that, sometimes your audience is listening to you more than your friends are. Basically, what I want, what I need, what I miss is conversation. I’m like an ageing rock star, or one of those old men who corner you at parties and talk your ear off. Listen to my stories. I am relevant! I used to be famous on the internet back when hardly anyone was! Now everyone is—even your mother has 50 likes on her last Facebook post.
I suppose one upside to everyone being online now is that I’m intimate with people I haven’t seen in years. I don’t think I ever will see them—my high school classmates have scattered around the world. Some of the people I’ve met, I literally never saw again, they died and I learnt of their death on Facebook, and mourned on Facebook, and recovered on Facebook. I have friends who live within a few kilometres of my house, and I don’t see them, but a friend in France posts every day, and I know the minutiae of her life. Am I closer to my friends who I meet once every two months for two hours or the ones I don’t see at all in real life, but under whose life updates I post heart emoticons? I don’t even need to use words anymore.
Some of my friends rely on social media to keep tabs on each other’s lives. “Haven’t you moved to Goa?” several people asked me recently, and I explained over and over again that we had gone just for a month. How does a month become “moved to?” I realised, eventually, that they weren’t reading into my omissions as much as I thought they were. They were making small talk. I leave things out when I post online, of course I do, I’m not on The Truman Show, my life broadcast to you 24/7, but no one cares that much anymore. They go for the surface—the one photo they saw that one time that the secretive algorithms chose to bubble above the noise of other photos. No one cares and it’s liberating and heartbreaking at the same time.
But, as the blog died, and intimate ‘only belonging to you’ audiences seemed like they were on the way out, a new trend appeared. This time it’s email newsletters, once mostly the domain of companies wanting to spam you about their products, now it’s become a way to blog without blogging, a way to engage without trying to send people to another, external link, it’s so easy, it just appears in your inbox, and you just scroll through it. Or not. It’s admittedly a little more invasive, emails are the last bastion of being a private person on the internet, but it’s also the one place people will keep looking, even as they delete the rest of their social media accounts. I love my newsletter, I love my tiny following (less than 500, this from a blogger who used to have tens of thousands of hits every day). I love how it feels like I’m going back to the beginning, writing about my life in long form, instead of pithy little updates. I get a greater thrill out of new subscribers than new followers. And I’m under my own name at last.
This essay was published in the Oct-Dec 2018 issue.