Heather Armstong at a book signing. Photo by Rick Bucich and used under a Creative Commons attribution licence

RIP Dooce

The queen of mummy bloggers, the first influencer… Call her what you will, the tragic loss of Heather Armstrong means that one of the web's true pioneers is gone.

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

In the very earliest days of blogging, many of us lived in fear of being “dooced” — fired for our work. Writing on a blog in the very early 2000s was a very different experience to today. Not everybody was online, and we certainly weren’t carrying the internet around in our pockets. You could write online with very little expectation that anyone you knew in “real life” would be reading.

Dooce, a blogger who’d adopted that pseudonym from a typo for “dude” in a chat, got busted. She was writing about her life in a tech start-up, and her writing was cutting and satirical. They fired her:

I lost my job today. My direct boss and the human resources representative pulled me into one of three relatively tiny conference rooms and informed me that The Company no longer had any use for me. Essentially, they explained, they didn’t like what I had expressed on my website. I got fired because of dooce.com.

And so, Dooced became the phrase that meant “fired for blogging”. For the first few years of this blog. I feared being dooced. In fact, the company offered me a better job instead.

In the following years, Heather Armstrong continued to write about her life, essentially becoming the first of the parenting bloggers when her children came along. And now, shockingly, she’s dead. She was five years younger than me.

Living your pain in public

Heather didn’t just write about her children, although the candour and conversational prose style she used thoroughly changed how people talked about motherhood online. Her voice was unique, and compelling. She built an audience — and then grew closer to them as she wrote about her battles with depression, and, eventually, her struggle with alcohol addiction:

On October 8th, 2021 I celebrated six months of sobriety by myself on the floor next to my bed feeling as if I were a wounded animal who wanted to be left alone to die. There was no one in my life who could possibly comprehend how symbolic a victory it was for me, albeit it one fraught with tears and sobbing so violent that at one point I thought my body would split in two. The grief submerged me in tidal waves of pain. For a few hours, I found it hard to breathe.

Those battles eventually consumed her:

Heather Armstrong, the breakout star behind the website Dooce, who was hailed as the queen of the so-called mommy bloggers for giving millions of readers intimate daily glimpses of her odyssey through parenthood and marriage, as well as her harrowing struggles with depression, died on Tuesday at her home in Salt Lake City. She was 47.

And the news many feared, as the rumour spread through the remains of the old blogosphere:

Pete Ashdown, her longtime partner, who found her body in the home, said the cause was suicide.

The First Influencer

She was one of the first people to monetise her online presence. When OM&HB was stumbling through its first year, she was putting ads on Dooce:

When Armstrong began putting ads on her blog in 2004, though, she recalls a firestorm of criticism. “Fans were really pissed,” she says. “It was empowering, though, because I realized I didn’t need some male executive in New York to tell me that my story’s important enough to publish because I can just do it myself.”

You can draw a direct line from that decision, to today’s influencer culture and its reliance on sponsorship and ads. As the NYT piece on her death put it:

As the blogging boom approached its zenith in 2009, Ms. Armstrong was a blog powerhouse, appearing on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and attracting some 8.5 million readers a month, according to a 2019 article in Vox, while tapping a gusher of income off banner ads, sponsored posts, books, speaking fees and other sources. The news media christened her “the queen of the mommy bloggers.”

I’d call her the first influencer, instead – but she would have rejected the term — and grew critical later on of the impact it had on her life:

I have found that since I have stepped back dramatically from this website that my desire to document my life in photos has increased tenfold. And I know it’s because the joy in doing it has been restored. I also see other people online who are headed straight into the arms of the monster who crushed that joy, headed for panic and frustration and burnout because the living of their life has been commodified. The living of their life has been filtered down into the number of unique visitors. And I’m not saying that living that way is wrong or bad. But I am testifying that not living that way has intensified every color that fills in the lines of the world around me.

She withdrew more and more from public internet life in the last few years, with a since-deleted post that caught her in the middle of a transphobia storm as one of her last notable posts. It was, even at the time, a sign of someone who was struggling with herself and her life.

And, sadly, that struggle is now over.

So, why am I writing this?

I didn’t know Heather. I’m from the generation of bloggers after her, and I very early on decided that I didn’t want to expose the inner core of myself in my work in the way she did. But I mourn the loss of a pioneer, one who genuinely forged the path that so many have followed, both by living so much of her life online, and by turning that into a living.

It’s very difficult to tell whether sharing her issues online was a useful form of catharsis, or something that amplified the difficulties she faced. I suspect many papers and theses will be written in the coming decade by academics exploring the impact on selfhood of living in this way. But that’s the nature of being a pioneer — you put yourself in unknown territory, and find out what happens.

And, for those of us who work in online media, it’s important to understand our own history. To remember the people who built the ecosystems we now live and work with. Heather was undoubtedly one of those people.

Already the early days of blogging are being forgotten, and the ability of the web to quietly erase history as sites fail and go offline means that those incredible, exciting, experimental days are being lost. But we shouldn’t forget those who forged the future of digital media, and Heather Armstrong was one of them. Let’s remember that — and her.

Rest in peace, Dooce. And all my sympathies to her children, who are far, far too young to lose a mother.


Adam Tinworth Twitter

Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.