The TopoFiles: A Study of Regional Identity in American Lifestyle Blogs

When everything else has gone from my brain—the President’s name, the state capitals, the neighborhoods where I lived, and then my own name and what it was on earth I sought, and then at length the faces of my friends, and finally the faces of my family—when all this has dissolved, what will be left, I believe, is topology: the dreaming memory of land as it lay this way and that.

(Dillard, 1)

For most of America’s history, our childhood and adult homes were one and the same, or nearly so. The known world was impenetrably vast, but the accessible world was small: a hamlet, a proper town,  perhaps a city, perhaps even two. In Sense of Place, Barbara Allen writes that “the expressive behavior of people in a particular place is necessarily shaped by their interactions with their physical environment” (5). The physical and cultural characteristics of our surroundings played an instrumental role in shaping our perspectives–in many cases, our home places played as instrumental a role as did the people who populated them. Imagine Willa Cather without Nebraska, Faulkner without Mississippi, Steinbeck without California. But first came steam, then electric rail, then telephones, then automobiles and airplanes and suburbs and sprawl and cell phones and the internet. Our nation shrunk, continues to shrink. From my home in New York City, I can fly to California in 6 hours, Hawaii in 9, Florida in 2.5. Better than that, I can have a video conference with a client in Shanghai, exchange instant messages with a friend in Auckland.
These facts are known. What is less understood is the impact they have on our regional identities, on what Yi-Fu Tuan calls topophilia: “the affective bond between people and place or setting” (4). Does the homogenization of the region’s man-made landscape impact our sense of the region as a distinct entity? Does the ubiquitous availability of instant communication? Marshall McCluhan thought so, warning, in The Gutenberg Galaxy, that “electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village,” one where “‘Time’ has ceased, ‘space’ has vanished” (36).
To find out not only if the global village was real, but where, and to what degree, I looked to lifestyle blogs, those online diaries edited (or not) for public consumption. First started by then-Swarthmore freshman Justin Hall in 1994, lifestyle blogs really began to catch on in the early aughts; today there are millions of them in America alone. I found blogs in all fifty states, analyzed their voices, linguistic styles, vocabulary, and content, and compared it to those traditionally considered characteristic of the bloggers’ regions literature.

Read the full thang: Topophiles

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The TopoFiles: A Study of Regional Identity in American Lifestyle Blogs