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FATHER KNOWS WORST
  • July 16, 2012 : 13:07
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The branded snake had begun eating its branded tail. My partner, Ben, normally an easygoing, fun guy, sent me the most frustrated e-mail I’ve ever received from anyone. “Everyone else out there on the site who is still writing, they have worked hard with no return,” he wrote. “Yet you, the majority owner of this site and the person who would potentially benefit the most, are the one complaining about not making any money, complaining about the site not growing, complaining about our enemies.”

He was right.

The shadows had only begun to descend.

I took two paid Alternadad blogging gigs to support my branding habit. The first was with the website for Parents magazine, which refused to do anything related to search-engine optimization and buried its parenting bloggers deep within ugly pink graphics and shampoo ads. No one read that column. The other gig was with the food site Epicurious.com, which people did read.

My assignment was to write a column about kids and food. I did an entry, “Intro to Turophilia,” that described a trip with my son, Elijah, then four years old, to Whole Foods, where we sampled cheese. He didn’t like one sample, spit it out and said, “This cheese is too boring for me.” In the end I decided that all the cheese was too expensive, and we went home.

A blogger for the website Gawker saw the post and wrote a response, titled “Elijah Pollack Is Going to Be a Horror.” The writer quoted my post, using it as evidence to describe my son as “big, big trouble in the making” and said this about the kid: “He is essentially a formless mass that has been fashioned into what he is by his father. But if we were to come across a sculpture that resembled, for instance, a large penis, we would be remiss not to mention that fact simply because the statue was created by a sculptor and did not form itself.”

The moment I read that, I lost my taste for the whole branding enterprise. I recognized that, largely by my own design, I was a public figure of sorts. And when I said something obnoxious in public, or even just appeared in public, I was fodder for snarky websites like Gawker. I didn’t always like what they said, but for the most part I didn’t mind the press. And I had certainly slung enough snark in my time to warrant what they dished. But when they started calling my sweet, innocent son a “horror” and “the worst” and barely even mentioned me at all, that’s when I started to doubt the brand I’d tried to create.

I sent a self-pitying e-mail to various friends and media people. Gawker got hold of it, which I knew it would. The writer did a post in which he referred to “Elijah blowback” and made a snide reference to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. He started getting positive attention for attacking me. As such, he created a fake son character for himself named Mordecai, about whom he began to blog. After I made a few histrionic phone calls to the editors of Epicurious, they made the decision to “rotate me out” of their daily blog mix.

Everyone was leaving the Alternadad business.

In two years, I had taken a potentially lucrative media property and reduced it to an unread blog on Parents.com. But I still had Offsprung. I cashed in a couple hundred bucks of my ad profits and gave it to a local print shop in exchange for a box of glossy promotional postcards, which I took to the BlogHer convention in San Francisco.

BlogHer is a kind of consortium of mommy bloggers and one of the foremost proponents of the art of personal branding. Its support has brought along quite a few excellent writers who otherwise wouldn’t have gotten much attention—as well as quite a few terrible ones. Every year, its members gather in large numbers to share strategies for generating online revenue, to talk about their kids and to drink lots of cocktails. Occasionally men get to attend, but the women run the show.

I rode buses to parties, passing out my postcards and trying to talk up an enterprise in which I no longer believed. Everyone was trying to brand herself, but it was all the same brand: I have a kid or kids, and I am manic-depressive/a former beauty queen/from Kansas/24 years old. It seemed like the world was vanishing into its own navel. The BlogHer crew didn’t care about Offsprung. They had their own branded parenting empires to create, and they were doing it a lot more smoothly than I had. How had I let things get like this? How had we all?

My fellow BlogHer attendees, many of them nice, kind, smart and sincere, and some of them sleazy phonies who filled my soul with dread, made me sad. We were a mostly college-educated and largely middle-class group with no skills other than word processing and a little graphic design and no resources other than our wits and our amusing anecdotes. Our business cards bore retro logos and winky slogans that turned our adulthoods into small-batch branded products that most humans would never consume. I’d joined an army of Erma Bombeck clones all marching toward the same slender piece of leftover cherry pie. Arianna Huffington made millions aggregating content. We made hundreds doing the same thing to what passed for our lives. A generation had strip-mined its collective domestic memory for grocery money.

I returned home. Ben lost focus on Offsprung. It began to develop technical glitches, and he was slow to fix them. Members started sending me panicky e-mails, and I didn’t know how to respond. Eventually, a kind Offsprung couple, Alan and Kathy, came to me with a proposal. They could see that my heart had gone out of Offsprung, and they offered to take the site off my hands. It was a relief to get the offer, like when you finally decide to put down an elderly pet.

They wanted to move Offsprung to a low-maintenance social-networking platform called Ning. I told them they’d have to pay for any transfer fees themselves, but otherwise they could have it for free. The transfer took about a month. Most of the community went with them. I agreed to contribute an “advice” column, to which I’ve submitted seven entries in two years. The brand died like a dog in the sun, and yet it still lives, in a way.

Last fall I was in Seattle on a book tour. A longtime Offsprung member attended my reading. Afterward, she came up to me. “I just want to thank you for what you did with Offsprung,” she said. “It helped a lot of people through a lot of hard times.”

I thanked her, but it felt bittersweet. My ego and greed had blinded me so much that I’d barely even considered the idea of establishing a site to help people. The fact that it had was a fortunate by-product. Offsprung is still out there, still limping along and still helping more or less the same people it was when I was in charge. It’s not flashy or particularly interesting to nonmembers, and it’s certainly not a brand. But it’s a good thing. Knowing that I helped make it will have to be enough.

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read more: Sex and Dating, issue july 2012

4 comments

  • Anonymous
    Anonymous
    Always a pleasure to read your thoughts, Neal.
  • Anonymous
    Anonymous
    Brilliant. Funny. Sad in a way. But crisp, honest writing. Great work, Pollack.
  • Anonymous
    Anonymous
    Alternadad - the OG Single Dad Laughing.
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