Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Are blogging and privacy incompatible?

The launch of Google Wave this week, where, according to my very amateurish understanding, you can drop into any open conversation and edit things, made me reflect on the issue of privacy and the Internet, particularly in blogs and social networking sites.

Closed Facebook vs Open Twitter
I must admit: I am addicted to the Internet and I'm a social media queen. These days I often find Twitter a more useful and balanced source of information than reading a paper. Because reading tweets can be like skimming several newspapers in one go.

Of course you must be following the right people, preferably reliable news sites and reliable journalists, but the variety of information is so vast on Twitterville that I can simultaneously inform myself about who said what at the Labour party conference while I find out what the lastest environmental issues are, how many copies of Dan Brown's latest book have been sold and what the reaction to a popular TV programme was.

Twitter is a completely different tool from Facebook, which, for me, is mainly recreational and exclusive to people within my personal circle. A bit like your Contacts database on Outlook, only with added pictures and status updates.

My Facebook page is set to be only viewable to people I personally know, or at least know virtually, and I feel free to announce going on holiday without worrying about burglers finding out about it. I can upload pictures of my holiday there without fear of being exposed to the prying eyes of strangers.

In contrast, Twitter is a very public platform, so much so that when I google myself, several random tweets of mine come up on the results page. I use Twitter as a news gathering and disseminating tool, a networking platform, a place to make new friends with similar interests, meet other journalists and writers/editors, find out about job opportunities, share my views on the world. I could not do that too well by "protecting my updates", which is the private setting option on Twitter.

Naked blogging
Then I also blog. And in my blogs I am an open book. Here on Blogger, I write about my thoughts, which are inspired by daily occurences. I write because I love writing. Because writing is as natural to me as breathing. Because writing keeps me sane.

My first experience of blogging was on MySpace. I started experimentally blogging there because someone I was going out with at the time did so, and on a "public view" page too. I questioned him at the time how he could possibly write on the Internet, which could be accessed by virtually anyone in the world at any time. Wasn't it frightening? Did he not value his privacy? Did he not feel exposed? Ashamed? Then I got hooked myself.

Ironically, it is now my husband who asks me the same questions. He does not have a Facebook account, nor does he tweet or blog. Not his cup of tea. He always errs on the side of caution and doesn't even give away his email address address, or any other personal details, on online registration forms unless it is absolutely mandatory.

He'd be horrified to find out a Google search of my name returns almost four pages of links to my tweets, articles and blogs.

I can understand his concerns. When you have never done it – blogging in particular – it is difficult to understand what the excitement is all about.

Too intimate for comfort
I wear my heart on my sleeve, and I write as honestly as I live. I chose journalism as a new career because I thought it was more befitting than fiction writing. I love fiction, reading it, but when it comes to writing, I like real stories and real, raw feelings.

This can be a problem when I write in semi-confessional style in my blogs. I agree my husband has a right to privacy and so does his family members, but I am a journalist and a writer, and my daily life provides me with rich material for reflection and writing, which I am keen to use.

I always think of former Marie Claire editor and Mail on Sunday columnist Liz Jones, the queen of confessional journalism, when the issue of privacy comes up. She has recently had a book published, The Exmoor Files, in which she made such unflattering comments of people in her village, that someone put a bullet through her postbox in protest, as reported in The Mail. In the book she also talks about her failed marriage to her much younger husband in intimate detail. I have never read her columns, but I understand even her sex life is very much in the public domain.

Although I am not familiar enough with Jones' writing style to criticise her, I refuse to defend her the way Tanya Gold, another renowned confessional journalist, did in her Guardian column. I do find passing judgement on your townsfolk in a biographical book objectionable.

Unlike Jones, I would never make fun of old people's lack of teeth nor would I ever expose any intimate details relating to my partner, friends or family in a public blog, but in order to make a point, I often need to state a fact about them, a detail – which they might perceive as an intrusion of privacy. Especially if, like my other half, they are web suspicious types.

Boundaries
So my question is, where do I draw the line? As a writer, as a journalist, should you keep your own family completely out of bounds and only talk about the lives of others? Should you stick to commenting on politics and social trends but never let your public know whether you are married or single, whether you have children or not, especially not their names, in case someone is plotting kidnapping them.

By definition a journalist is in the public eye. Even if you don't use a single social media site, even if you don't have a profile on LinkedIn, or bookmarks on Del.icio.us, the moment you get bylined, anyone can find you on a search engine.

And you want to be found, especially if you are just starting your career and have a reputation to establish.

The point of blogging for an aspiring journalist, apart from the personal therapeutic benefits already mentioned, is to showcase their talent for putting an idea across, arguing a point convincingly, to prove you know how to insert links and hyperlinks, are aware of SEO and tagging. I see it as a type of parallel CV and as good as any portfolio for proving to a prospective employer, or publisher (many bloggers are discovered by publishers and land book deals-see link below), you can write and engage the public.

From blog virgin to It girl
My husband tells me I should not upload pictures of his family on Facebook, or anywhere on the web, without the express consent of the people in the photographs, as "people can be funny about these things". He says images can be googled by anyone to find. I don't think so, as there are privacy settings in Facebook, which I can control. But he wouldn't know that of course.

So, as not to ruffle feathers any further, I stick to photos of myself and my dog...or those of my own friends or family, as I know they wouldn't mind. But if anyone told me they were offended by any photos or personal information I had used on a site, I would take them down immediately. The good thing about the web, as opposed to print, is that information can be corrected – or "redacted" as our MPs might say – even after publication.

I realise now my love for journalism and the pleasure of blogging, have transformed me from a shy, ultra-private, Internet-fearing person, into a unabashed web socialite, an Internet equivalent of an "It" girl, for whom any publicity, as long as not scandalous, is good publicity.

Even if I have no intentions of ever washing my dirty linen in public, it raises the question of how moral and acceptable – even fair – it is to expose oneself and one's family's life to the scrutinity of the cyberspace while building up one's profile as a blogger. And where to stop.

I would welcome discussion on this topic from journalists, writers and bloggers.

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4 comments:

  1. I understand the dilemma many of us bloggers face when writing on the internet, or in the media. To expose yourself is one thing, and to expose your children, spouse or family is another. I see your husbands point, but I do agree with you. This is the face of reality, and the reality is that we are all exposed. Hopefully for good things, not for airing the dirty laundry.
    Maybe I am stepping over boundaries by sharing my children's names. Maybe I am doing them an injustice for showing their pictures in social media. I am not sure, and you give me something to really think about.
    Writing for me is like writing in a journal, it is me in , like you said, an open book, naked exposure.I welcome feedback, and maybe that is simply because I want to know that I am not alone in how I am feeling.
    Nice Post Chie!
    Hugs!!

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  2. I think a blog is a valuable tool for any writer. Of course the kind of blog you have can dictate how much of your personal life you reveal online. I have a personal blog, so of course I'm going to write frequently about my husband and daughter. If I had a blog that was more professionally focused, I'd probably include fewer family anecdotes, if I included them at all, and would thus not have to consider censoring myself as much.

    Even though I don't use pseudonyms on my blog, I am still careful about what personal information I provide. I don't reveal exactly where I live or work. When I talk about past jobs, I don't name companies (except for Target which is everywhere in the U.S). In the end though, this is all information someone could find if they wanted to find it badly enough, though I'm not going to freely stick a thumbtack on a map and help them along the way :-)

    I also frequently Google my own name to see how many hits I generate and what's being listed. Some of the results are surprising and it makes me think twice when I'm joining certain communities and creating user names.

    Thanks for the link back to my post. This is a great article and I hope you get more comments. I'd love to hear other opinions.

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  3. Hi Dina and Heather,
    Thanks so much for your comments. I believe when the safety of your children is involved, I agree you can never be too careful. But apart from safety, I think children could also be prone to bullying at school, depending on how well-read your blog is locally (see my next post on the closing of the Petite Anglaise blog).

    Having said that, if every blogger in the world only wrote comments on news, etc, we would be missing out on invaluable opportunities for sharing raw, personal experiences. Isn't blogging all about creating a "community" with similar interests?

    I am with you Heather re not mentioning exact home location, company names etc in blogs, even though if someone was determined to put together our profiles, they could very easily do so (I too do Google myself occasionally and am horrified to find out what comes up).

    Blogging is my lifeline...the thing that keeps me alive from day to day because writing is the most pleasurable activity in the world for me. The irony is that even though every blogger wants to appear as high as possible in search engine results, the less well-known we are in the blogosphere the lower the risk of trouble.

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  4. My blog not well known at all and I'm VERY comfortable with that. I'm lucky if I get over 20 visitors a day. Sometimes that does frustrate me because I have been doing this for four years, but I have to keep in mind why I started the blog in the first place. I did it because I wanted to write about my experiences as a mother and the changes I've seen in my child as she has grown. Along the way I've picked up a handful of regulars and a few dozen subscribers, but I don't actively promote myself. I kind of like the anonymity.

    I imagine at some point I will close up shop or move the focus away from my family. I do eventually want to make a living as a writer and I'm not sure how effective a marketing tool a personal blog would be. My story is not compelling enough to warrant a book deal.

    I also think we're still a few years away from seeing how personal blogs, especially parenting blogs, will affect our children. Will these "mommy" blogs incite bullying or will they be so prolific that it would be unusual for a child not to have a parent who writes online? Who knows?

    Just to be safe though, I do plan on taking the blog down before my daughter hits her teen years. Adolescence is bad enough without having your mom writing about her life on the internet.

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