When is a Blog in Public Meant to Remain Private?
- 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?
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