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.

A screenshot of the Dyad 2 themed template on WordPress.com, including a block of text explaining the template's equal attention to words and images, and a sample use of the template to showcase recipes. The numbers 1, 2, and 3 on the screenshot correspond to my comments.
In response to the Dyad 2 template, I wrote: (1) This is the first option that caught my attention, probably because of the food vibes. (2) Wow–the phrase “words and images in perfect balance” is such a telling reflection on what food media should be: no text without its corresponding ‘featured’ image. I can’t really imagine a version of my own blog that would have so many images. (3) Multiple levels of discourse here. The second-person ‘you’ is placed right into the template, i.e. ‘you can do this or that…’. And then the lorem ipsum text takes over, to help readers imagine the full life of the blog. There’s also some imagined text of the finished/active blog itself, modelled by blurbs about cookies or tomato salsa.
A screenshot of the Libre 2 theme, including a block of text identifying the template as a space for "longford writing." A sample use of the template includes an image of a disassembled camera, and the numbers 9, 10, and 11 on the screenshot correspond to my comments.
In response to the Libre 2 template, I wrote: (9) I’m not sure that ‘longform’ describes the kind of content I’d share on my blog? Am I imagining more of a works-in-progress collection of project notes/updates, grad school reflections, etc. (10) I wonder who’s behind [the username] Theme Buster? Who does all this populating? (11) Attention to the logo and the subtitle of ‘A theme for free spirits’ gives this a freelancer vibe.

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

A screenshot of the template Penscratch 2, with a block of text identifying this as a template for "sharing your writing." The sample use of the template includes an excerpt of Lewis Carroll's poetry and a sample blog post title, "Writer's Block." The numbers 14, 15, and 16 on the template correspond to my comments.
In response to the Penscratch 2 template, I wrote: (14) This seems much more casual and private, in comparison to Libre 2. The references are more to a work in progress: writer’s block, penscratch, etc. (15) Lewis Carroll, poetry, ‘excerpts’ … establishes the sense of an idiosyncratic passion project. (16) Do I want to use the blog to work out pieces of my research projects, bit by bit?

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” [1]: 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. 

A screenshot of the Baskerville 2 template. The brief explanatory text highlights a "dynamic grid layout," which is modelled with a sample of posts related to a coffee shop, musical composition, and cartographic instruments. The numbers 17 and 18 correspond to my notes.
In response to the Baskerville 2 template, I wrote: (17) “For curators” … speaks to a need for organization but also for styling. Suited to a blog/site that needs to showcase a wide range of voices or projects–brought together by a central collector figure. (18) These adjectives are so weird: such a careful balancing act between appearing too rigid or too disorganized. Also: isn’t Baskerville a serif font?? (19) That balancing act carried over into the sample content, which brings together science and the arts; the ‘technique’ of piano, drafting, photography, brewing coffee..
A screenshot for the template Twenty Twelve, identified in the explanatory text as "readable" and "responsive." The sample use of the template includes a "welcome to our website" banner blurb. The numbers 22 and 23 correspond to my notes.
In response to the Twenty Twelve template, I wrote: (22) Hmm. This idea of an ‘introductory page’ seems to fit with the blog’s (inevitable?) role in foregrounding me as an emerging scholar. (23) This template really dials down the characterization of its theme. It’s the briefest overview of all the ones I’ve clicked on. Alongside other ones in the year series (TwentySixteen, etc.), what it’s really putting on display is WordPress’s history.

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 [2]. 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. 


Notes

[1] Bochner, Arthur P. and Carolyn S. Ellis. “Communication as Autoethnography.” Communication as…: Perspectives on Theory. SAGE Publications, 2006.

[2] Morrison, Aimée. “Facebook and Coaxed Affordances.” Identity Technologies, edited by Anna Poletti and Julie Rak, University of Wisconsin Press, 2014, pp. 112-131.

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