BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.
Manchester

When is a Blog in Public Meant to Remain Private?

  • Robin Hamman
  • 20 Apr 07, 11:33 AM

When it began to become clear that a horrific tragedy was unfolding at Virginia Tech University earlier this week, I did what a lot of bloggers did and looked to the blogs.

I quickly found a whole cluster of Virginia Tech students on LiveJournal. As I fed these personal accounts to my colleagues in TV and Radio news, I also blogged. For me, it was the most natural of things to do.

I wasn't the only person working for a news agency who turned to the blogs to find stories. One of the LiveJournals that I blogged, and which eventually ended up being read on-air, caught the attention of journalists from around the World, many of whom used the comments facility on the post to approach him, often clumsily, for his story.

But he'd already told his story, right there, on his blog for all the World to see. Or maybe not.

Upon reflection the following day, I realised that I didn't feel particularly proud of the way that journalists, including myself, had descended upon the bloggers. Some of the LiveJournal posters voiced their opinions too - needless to say, they weren't too impressed.

I'm told by people with years of experience in news journalism that there is nothing at all unique about dozens, perhaps hundreds, of journalists working the phones, sending emails and doing whatever they can to secure stories from the victims of tragic incidents such as this. Nothing unique, that is, other than the fact that because many of those approaches, including a particularly unfortunate one asking the blogger to "shoot" the journalist an email, are, like the blog itself, published there in public for everyone to see. And guess what, just as some LiveJournal users were upset at the use of the post by the mainstream media, some journalists weren't too happy when they saw that lots of blogs were now quoting them.

Onemanandhisdog makes an interesting point about the public yet private nature of LiveJournal posts that, I think, is quite worthy of discussion here. He writes:

"I can't help wondering if the nature of Livejournal is partly behind the outrage....the characteristic of Livejournal that triggered the creation of this blog was its community nature. Its system of "friends" and the "friends page" means that most Livejournals are read through Livejournal - it's for talking to a circle of friends, not to the world at large. Barging into that community and asking for comment feels not unlike barging into a pub and asking somebody for comments.

Now sure, journalism has a long and dishonourable tradition of doorstopping the victims of tragedies. But in the digital age, the communities around the victims have voices to express their outrage at the media's behaviour - and that's what we're seeing here."

I think it's a valid point. People can and do use LiveJournal, Myspace, MSN spaces and the dozens of other social networking sites to publish content online. But, for many of them, it's likely they do so only with the intention of reaching an audience consisting of their friends.

My wife and I have a blog that documents the life of our toddler so that friends and family who live overseas can feel miss out just a little bit less on her development. It's all there - the baby scans, the photo taken by a nurse moments after the birth, our first Christmas and some of her first steps. If I linked to it from here most of you would think it's utter rubbish because, let's face it, one family's cute kid is just a smelly, messy, noisy and expensive monster to many others. But for the audience that particular blog that is intended for it's the best blog there is, an irreplaceable repository of memories and moments - some of them very private. At the moment we don't have it password protected, although like on LiveJournals and Myspace pages, that functionality does exist. We don't use it because we don't think anyone is every going to stumble across the blog and because some of the people who read it find it easier when they don't have to remember a username and password.

We watch the statistics closely so we know who visits, when and for how long. It's meant to be private. It feels like it's private. But I know how I'd feel if, suddenly, that blog ended up being read out on some of the most watched Television news outlets in the World.

The opposite is true of my main non-BBC blog, where I willingly include links to my photos on flickr, my bookmarks on delicious, my dis-used Myspace profile, my often up to the minute twitter posts, a list of RSS feeds I read, the last ten songs I've listened to on my iPod and a map that uses my mobile phone to plot my exact location at any one time. That's a lot of personal information but the blog is intended for public consumption and, like many bloggers, I enjoy knowing that there is an audience that visits, reads, and discusses my blog. I wouldn't care, in fact I'd probably be delighted, if the BBC or CNN or whoever showed a screen capture of my blog and read some of a post out.

But how can a journalist, or anyone wanting to link to or draw attention to a post know when something that's published publicly online is private?

If I had to email a blogger everytime I linked out to one I'd spend half my day doing that and writing a single post with lots of links would take twice that long.

I suppose a badge showing that a blog has a creative commons license, particularly the version that basically amounts to "do what you please" would be one way to make a fairly educated guess as to whether a blog is or isn't meant to be consumed by a wider audience. But such a badge is only really likely to be used by someone who wants their content to spread, not those who might want to keep their content more private.

So it's over to you - let's hear your thoughts on how the media and other bloggers can better make decisions about whether your content is public or private. Are there some sorts of blogs, profiles or online places that you wouldn't link to if you weren't part of that community? Is there some stuff that is always ok to link to? How do you, as a blogger, make those decisions yourself?

Comments   Post your comment

Maybe it is conversations like this that will make people realise that what they are writing on their blog is public, unless they take steps to protect it in some way.

Putting a letter in an envelope is password protection of some description and if someone tampers with your mail then they are breaking the law.

So making it easy to protect a site and invite friends to read it should be promoted, and if someone hacks in then maybe the site owner should have some form of legal protection.

(As a techie aside maybe something like openID should be backed to help enable this.)

But if someone's site is open to everyone then I think you must accept that one day it may be quoted and featured elsewhere - as soon as you start to restrict what can be linked to when in the public domain you cut the strings that make the internet what it is.

How journalists approach the owners of such sites and link to it is something that should be decided upon from within the newsroom.

But if you put things on a website they will be read, and can be found, so people need to be aware of this.

Complain about this post

Post a complaint

Please note Name and E-mail are required.

Required
Required (not displayed)
 

One Man and His Blog, not dog. I'm far more of a cat person, truth be told…

Thanks for the link, though.

I suspect that blogging applications like Vox may be the way forward for a lot of folks. It's built from the ground up to be a tool for communicating with a circle of friends and family only. 80% of my posts on my Vox are completely inaccessible to the world at large.

Complain about this post

Post a complaint

Please note Name and E-mail are required.

Required
Required (not displayed)
 

Journalists, I imagine and hope, know if what they are doing is ethical or not. The simple tool for whether reproducing any online content elsewhere is ethical or not can be decided with the use of common sense.

Of course, Journalists have something of a reputation for overstepping ethics boundaries, and this is just another case of that. In which case blogs aren't really adding anything to the mix, it's either hounding them by phone for a story, pulling it from their livejournal, or covertly befriending them in the pub or something.

Complain about this post

Post a complaint

Please note Name and E-mail are required.

Required
Required (not displayed)
 

I think if you put something on the Web without access rights then you are complying with the inherent nature of the Internet. It's open, maybe ten people will access your content or maybe ten million.

Do be amazed when you observe a flurry of visitors but don't be surprised that this is possible. Fundamentally, if you're not comfortable with random people talking about and making noise about your Web content then make it private.

That's what I think anyway.

Complain about this post

Post a complaint

Please note Name and E-mail are required.

Required
Required (not displayed)
 

I agree with Lewis and Craig on this. I've got a blog with LiveJournal myself, and 'the circle of friends' that Robin has quoted a user mentioning is exactly the same as your Blogroll. By itself, a blogroll (or a list of friends on LiveJournal) doesn't make your content private or even semi-private. Likewise, contrary to a popular proverb, your list of friends doesn't tell who you are. If you're a "friend of" several dozens of people, it simply means that these people read your journal. It's like subscribing to an RSS feed, only through your journal's interface. Again, it doesn't suggest that what you're writing is intended for only a small group of people.

With Blogger, there is a way to make it private, so that only people that you gave a permission will read your post. With LiveJournal, the option is the same, and if people wanted to restrict their content to a narrower circle of readers, they could write their journal in the "friends-only" style. Several of my friends on LiveJournal use this option, so I can only read their posts when I log in to LJ.

Some of the comments Robin has quoted highlight - for me - our (un)awareness of the fact that the web is a massive publishing tool. Like publishing, it's not private, unless the user makes it such. And it's the user, to begin with, who has to make such decision. With journalists using a potentially private content, a lot will have to do with the angle they take on developing a news story. But if you publish any content on the web, you've got to be aware that it can become public.

Also, here we're talking about people blogging and expressing their feelings about a terrible tragedy. When these feelings make their way into news, "ethics" suddently becomes an issue. For a journalist on this occasion to use someone's blog is the same as to do a live interview with a tsunami victim; all the same rules apply. But why not people think about ethics when they record erotic podcasts for all the world to hear? Or talk explicitly and lavishly about their sexual encounters in their blogs? Is it me, or have we all got a very blurred definition of privacy?

Finally, let's not forget about search engines syndication. Any "private" blog is already in search engines and can end up in anyone's browser simply because a particular post has been read by your friends enough times for it to build a click-through-rate according to which your content is being displayed in search results. And, as we all gather stats, we all know of some totally crazy keywords, searching for which people land on our blogs.

Thanks a lot to Robin for bringing this up. There's an idea for a good discussion here - the notion and limits of privacy. :-)

Complain about this post

Post a complaint

Please note Name and E-mail are required.

Required
Required (not displayed)
 

It seems fairly simple to me. If information is posted into the public domain then it is public. I don't see this as an ethical issue as the information is freely available to anyone.

Rather the issue may be that sometimes, we may forget how public the web really is. We may think that its merely our circle of friends who read our blog/myspace/whatever however that simply isn't the case.

People must be prepared for their information to appear in the public domain if they post openly on a blog. Even this comment I am making now will end up on google in a while...

Paul Hurst
www.paulhurst.blogspot.com

Complain about this post

Post a complaint

Please note Name and E-mail are required.

Required
Required (not displayed)
 

It looks like there is pretty much general agreement, at least amongst this group, that blogging is publishing and publisher should beware.

I guess that means that more needs to be done to help new bloggers, live journalers, etc to understand that they are in fact publishing and, because of that, they need to think carefully about the choices they make in so far as what to publish and whether to password protect it.

Thanks for all the input!
Robin.

Complain about this post

Post a complaint

Please note Name and E-mail are required.

Required
Required (not displayed)
 

Post a comment

Please note Name and E-mail are required.

Comments are moderated, and will not appear on this weblog until the author has approved them.

Required
Required (not displayed)
 
    

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites



About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy