Thinking with Templates
When first brainstorming this blog post, I imagined an autoethnographic exploration of the power dynamics of WordPress templates. I had briefly analyzed the gendered language of food-themed blog templates in a previous post, and thought expanding on that theme would also help with a goal of mine: to establish my own website/blog as an academic studying food, domesticity, and digital culture. I was nervous about the latter prospect, so I decided to explore theme templates from WordPress with no predefined goals related to analysis or academic blogging, but equipped with a note-taking practice that could record my thoughts and observations. Using MarkUp, a platform for commenting on websites and digital content, I annotated the first few templates that caught my attention.
Several of these annotations do the work of a preliminary analysis, connected to my research questions about how people and media interact to produce certain understandings of culinary, technical or ‘creative professional’ expertise. I noticed myself noticing the type of blogger persona each template put forward: a presentation-conscious food professional in Dyad 2, a process-oriented creative writer in Penscratch 2.
More in keeping with autoethnography as a reflexive mode for analyzing cultural phenomenon, the notes also captured the uncertainty of being “in the process of figuring out what to do” : my comments were in effect calibrations of the kind of public scholarship practice I wanted, or envied, or thought I should have. The neoliberal expectations that orbit the idea of a ‘public presence’, scholarly or otherwise, were certainly embedded in the type of blogging life each template assumed. But watching my own investments in and anxieties about that ‘presence’ unfold in dialogue with the template was a confounding experience.
As I reviewed various comments in preparation for this blog post, I also considered how my investigation of blog templates had engaged template logics in the process of critique. “Commenting” is a typical feature of blogging—but comment sections, which normally follow at the bottom of a blog post, were deemphasized or altogether excluded in each template. MarkUp, which I selected because it allowed me to add free-floating comments to text and image elements alike, extended the capacity for adding commentary but was unenthusiastic about commenting as a practice:
MarkUp is a visual commenting platform that empowers individuals and teams to give real-time collaborative feedback on live websites and digital content. Built by a team of frustrated designers and engineers, MarkUp streamlines an otherwise cumbersome step in the creative process: the feedback loop.“About Us,” MarkUp.io
The message from WordPress and MarkUp was clear: commenting is an afterthought to the establishment of an individual blogging practice, or it’s a necessary evil in the process of (digital) cultural production. Both of these understandings imply that something—be it a platform or a public presence—should be “live” or up-and-running in order to receive feedback. In comparison, my template experiment suggested a commenting practice that troubles such goal-oriented linearity, and that exceeds the designated spaces of feedback to bring that designation itself under inspection.
Ultimately, I’ve come to think of this exercise as co-autoethnographic. In media theory terms, my observations and reflections emerged in tandem with the “affordances,” or delimited uses, of the platforms I was using, analyzing, and being interpellated by . And the feedback loops I shared with my residency community members were anything but an afterthought: these colleagues drew out other features of the templates, helped me bring out the ideas expressed here, and shared their own in-process blog posts with me. With their help, I see this collaborative and non-linear commenting practice, not as cumbersome, but as a constitutive element of our residency’s public scholarship practice.
To extend that practice, I invite you to view my comments and add your own (no set goals or designated spaces!). You can find those comments here; click “fit horizontally” at top right for easier viewing.
 Bochner, Arthur P. and Carolyn S. Ellis. “Communication as Autoethnography.” Communication as…: Perspectives on Theory. SAGE Publications, 2006.
 Morrison, Aimée. “Facebook and Coaxed Affordances.” Identity Technologies, edited by Anna Poletti and Julie Rak, University of Wisconsin Press, 2014, pp. 112-131.