Safe blogging, part 2

So, at my boss’s insistence on using the word “blogosphere” around the office just to annoy me (use of that world is almost getting as bad as “
the Information Superhighway
” once was and anybody who has read Microserfs knows what to do to those who use that term), I will revisit my initial post on the idea of “safe blogging.” About six months ago, I touched upon the challenge of practicing safe blogging– getting out what you want and should say in your own personal forum, but still riding the fine line between appropriate and inappropriate content (whatever those words mean), whether you’re talking about yourself, your friends, your family, other people you know, your job, your boss, or your co-workers. To be honest, the challenge of safe blogging is just the Internet version of people talking to each other about their personal and professional lives, commenting on political issues and world affairs, and in all the crosstalk, dealing with the consequences of people and companies getting mentioned. The reality is that no matter hard you try or no matter how much you might not realize, even the most trivial comments and definitely the most controversial ones will somehow get back to the subject of discussion. Everyone can attest to saying the wrong thing at a party and hearing about it the next day from someone else. Or telling somebody what you really think of your boss and then getting dirty looks (of course, a lot depends on what you said and what kind of dirty looks) the next day. Gossip is considered a sin and aside from the fact that it’s just not nice to be talking about other people’s business, it’s just plain dangerous. The shit will get back to you!

But because we’re talking about “technology” and this new phenomenon of “blogs” (which, by the way, let’s admit, have existed in many forms long before personal publishing systems, RSS feeds, and commercial blog services/sites), we think that somehow, the rules of engagement are different. On one hand, people think that because of the feeling of anonymity on the Internet (which is only a feeling for the most part and you’re probably easier to track online than most places), putting things out there on the Internet isn’t somehow going to bite you in the ass someday. On the flip side, some think that just because it’s on the Web, blog entries are factual, representative of something, and/or important. But outside of official news blogs (and even then), they are actually rarely factual, representative of the blogger only, and not that important to anyone, including the blogger himself. There are “blog celebrities” out there with extremely high readership, but for the most part, opinions expressed on somebody’s blog usually only represent that blogger’s opinions and are read by a very small audience usually made up of people he knows.

The real difference between online and offline opinion spouting is that for the most part, what you put online (and unprotected) is completely accessible to everyone, even if no one really looks at it. And with that key difference in mind, my rule of thumb before putting something on my blog or posting to another blog or putting anything on the Web in general would be, if I’m not willing to stand up in a crowded room filled with my enemies and say it through a bullhorn, then I probably shouldn’t do it. Also, when talking about specific people or topics that involve specific people I know (even if they aren’t mentioned by name or description), I wouldn’t say anything I’m not willing to say to their face. The point is that, it’s the fucking Internet people: it’s really hard to cop out and say things behind someone’s back. And while nothing may come of it most of the time, you have to be prepared for the worst case scenario– could you lose a friend, could you get sued, could you lose your job? If you’re not ready to face the worst case scenario (I’m not saying you have to accept it– you just have to be ready to face it and deal with it, whatever way you decide), you probably shouldn’t do it.

Now, your line between appropriate and inappropriate might be in a very different place than mine. And others around you, after reading your words, will most surely take the opportunity to tell you where to put your line. Personally, I think that there are general guidelines that bloggers, depending on the nature of their content, should use and then after that, it’s up to you. Ah, the sweet taste of personal freedom.

First, personal blogs that are like diaries– essentially, “live journals.” This is where you can get into a lot of trouble in your personal life if you get a little carried away and forget the aforementioned rule that if you aren’t willing to stand up in a crowded room and say it through a bullhorn or say it directly to anybody who is involved, you probably shouldn’t say it. If you secretly lust after young children and have and never will tell anybody that you do, you probably shouldn’t write about it on your blog. If you’ve been thinking about breaking up with your boyfriend, but haven’t and aren’t ready to talk to him about it, blogging your break up thoughts is probably a bad idea. If you had a horrible time at a party and you’re not prepared to have the host of the party bitch you out, even if her name isn’t mentioned, you probably shouldn’t write about it. Blogging bad or private things about your friends is a good way to have no friends fast and while blogging deeply personal things about yourself might seem cathartic at first, it’s also a good way to invite people to judge you, attack you, critize you, and further invade your privacy. And last but not least, if you’re going to get into talking about any public topic– politics, social issues, current events, sports, anything– be ready to hear every supporting and dissenting opinion in every degree of politeness and reason possible, including none. This is the price we pay, but for every bunch of assholes out there, there are a bunch of people who aren’t and who are genuinely interested in discourse. Some of them might agree with you, but more of them will probably disagree with you and while nobody may change their opinions, effective communication could bring increased understanding and some type of cooperation.

Now, on the other end, there are the corporate blogs where people maintain blogs as official representatives of their employers, such as IEBlog, the blog for the Internet Explorer team at Microsoft. These are usually pretty tame, even if they offer insight into what’s going on at a company that’s otherwise unavailable. And because they’re “official,” content is filtered through PR, legal, and the like and there’s not much trouble individuals can get into.

Of course, most blogs, from my experience, are a combination of personal and professional content in the same way that a person usually isn’t just about his personal life or his professional life. I mean, even if you don’t live to work, you spend around eight hours a day at work– everyone’s got something to say about their job, even if it’s just to say that you hate it. Especially when you work in tech, one usually bleeds into the other and when you want to talk about something going on at work, you usually want to talk about other larger topics and related issues and you end up talking not just about your job or your employer, but the larger industry you work in or are a part of. One pretty well-known example of this category is Rob Scoble’s Scobeleizer (Microsoft). The blog branches out into looking at technology in general and some personal notes, but much of it is about working at Microsoft, things Microsoft is doing, where Microsoft has been and where Microsoft is going. And of course, the dilemma faced by these bloggers is getting into trouble with their employers or even other corporate entities they discuss, the worst case being sued or dooced (although in the example, Scoble is obnoxiously supportive of Microsoft). And of course, the prime example of the latter (and the term’s namesake) is Heather Armstrong who was fired for posting stories about her coworkers and workplace on her Web site. There are a couple of other well-known examples of this too– the woman who was fired by Friendster or the man who was fired by Microsoft.

When people first started getting fired for blogging, I think many were surprised that employers were looking at employee Web sites and that you could get in trouble for it. That’s a little naive, isn’t it? Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but considering how much we’re online these days, I think we’re all a little wiser and we’re all a little more wary– or at least should be. I’m not familiar with the details of all of the aforementioned cases, but I’ll bet that for the most part, the company was overreacting or reacting inappropriately and if it happened to me tomorrow, I’d probably sue for wrongful termination. As unfair as it might seem, you have to go into it knowing that you could lose your job for what you write online (and probably most of what you do online) and be prepared to fight it if you don’t think you should have lost your job. What you do online can get you in trouble offline, but even broader than that, there’s always a chance that you’ll get in trouble for something you say or do for no good reason– no matter how much you might think you had a right to say or do it and no matter how much you think the First Amendment and other laws protect you. Get used to it. As a minority, it’s a way of life.

Yes, it’s a pretty cynical way of going about life, but unfortunately, it’s a reality. The more important lesson though is, like I said, that you should protect yourself as much as you can along the way and if it does happen to you, be ready to fight. More on this in my next post.