Sunday, November 27, 2005

Digital Social Norms

I ran across a really interesting article, “Bloggers’ Expectations of Privacy and Accountability: An Initial Survey,” by Fernanda B. Viegas. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 10 #3 (Apr 2005): article 12. It available freely on the Internet here.

We as a society have come to some general understanding of personal space in a public setting. Unless an elevator is crowded we don’t stand close to each other. Smoking is prohibited in many public spaces. We have decided it violates our privacy when our social security numbers are used on everything from student id cards to health insurance cards.

The blogosphere, though, is still sorting through these things. A sense of what is private and what is public blurs in online journals. Where does someone’s virtual smoke end and where does our personal space begin? We’ve all read about people who lost (or found) jobs by virtue of their blogs. Many of us have heard about people who lost friends or significant others because of something written on their blogs. This isn’t really new. I remember Ma telling me never to put anything in print that I wouldn’t want to see in the newspaper the next day. When I was in college the student newspaper ran a photo of an elected student government official nude, from the back. It was taken and published with the man’s permission. Stories circulated about him nearly (or actually) losing a job when someone mailed the photo to his post-college employer.

Viegas looks at some of the emerging social norms among the 492 bloggers surveyed in January, 2004. They may not have been the most usual bloggers, as most had been blogging for over a year and only 10% were under 20 (46% between 21 and 30, 28% 31-40). A little over 40% said they had gotten into trouble over something written in their blog either to some extent (34%) or frequently (6%). One passage that really struck me was this:

Bloggers write not only about themselves but often also about other people with whom they interact. When asked whether they sought other people’s permission to blog about them, 66% of respondents almost never asked permission, and only 3% said they always asked permission first. Interestingly, only 9% of the survey respondents said they never blogged about people they knew personally.

This one also stood out for me:

Nevertheless, most bloggers must rely on limited indicators of past actions (access logs, comments, and trackbacks) in order to form a mental picture of who is reading their posts. This paucity of clues indicating identity and presence can cause distorted views of readership to emerge. For one thing, bloggers may begin to perceive the people whose presence is more tangibly obvious (e.g. commenters) as their entire audience.

And later:

This has significant implications for privacy in the sense that, once people start thinking about a small part of their readership as the whole of it, they may customize their postings for that particular group of people. For instance, if all the comments a blogger gets on his site come from close friends, he might forget that his actual readership is broader and might start blogging about things that he would only talk about with close friends.

75% of the bloggers responding to the survey thought they could not be sued for what they wrote.

These are issues I have struggled with as well, from both sides of the coin. Once I have posted an entry, even if I edit or delete it later, the original post can still be reposted or quoted by someone else somewhere else. When I blog I try to always be conscious of the fact that anyone I write about could read it or that the people who know me could read it. In part this is because a few of the people I interact with or whose lives intertwine with mine in some way blog and more than once me or mine has appeared in these blogs. In one case I have minimized my contact with someone because of how people were described in their blog. In one case it was me being described in less than glowing terms, in others it was people I care about. We were not mentioned by name but by circumstance described it was obvious. In another case the blogger was so mean spirited that I just didn’t want to be around them anymore, even if they were pleasant in person. In a third I have changed my route on a weekly trip because if even a small percentage of the things I have read about happening in that house actually happen I don’t want to be anywhere near it when the bullets start to fly. I doubt any of these people are aware that I know of their blogs because none of them use their full names (although some use photos).

If I know of these people I can only assume that at least of few of my readers know me, in addition to those I have told and who may stop in from time to time. There have been times when something interesting has happened and I have wanted to blog about it but could not shake the nagging feeling that it might infringe on someone else’s privacy. In some cases I have changed some of the details and gone ahead, but wondered if it was wrong to do so. If something is said in public it seems okay to blog on it, but if it was said in private or in a personal email I don’t, unless permission is explicitly given, but in the future I might. I struggle and want to stay on the right side of the line but am aware that I may have sometimes crossed it. As a parent I struggle with what can be said about my children. Much of my life revolves around them but their stories are their own and I try not to talk about them too much. Someone I knew years ago has a blog and discusses her children’s lives in detail and while I enjoy reading it, I wonder how her children will feel when they get older about this information floating around out there or how they will feel about some of the comments she has made about their father.

More than most people I am aware of how permanent the Internet is. Yes things do disappear but someone persistent enough can often find them again. Dumb questions I asked on listservs back in 1990 are still out there and come up every once in a while when I am looking for something else. It never fails to crush my ego when they do.

The digital social norms are still forming; I think Viegas’ article is a fascinating snapshot of what they were in early 2004.

(cross posted to PSOTD)


Anonymous said...

As an old journalism student, I was perhaps better educated on the consequences of the published word (which probably pin-points the first step in misunderstanding personal responsibility on the internet: the second you hit submit on your blog post or in the comments section, you are, in fact, published).

The way I look at it is like this: if you post something to a blog that you would be afraid to post on a public bulletin board, perhaps you should reconsider your words.

There are privacy issues, as well as copyright and libel concerns that should be respected.

But I think the first mis-step in understanding our obligations on the net come from us believing that what we publish here is somehow private, when it is absolutely not.

In fact, I've seen people put disclaimers on their sites suggesting that they really don't understand this public nature of online writing. Some of them are quite brazenly ignorant that the onus is squarely on their shoulders if they post information that's libelous or violates someone else's privacy.

AboveAvgJane said...


Very thoughtful. There was a journalism program where I went to college so maybe it permeated the rest of the campus, the knowledge of the power of print. I worry about it a lot.

Anonymous said...

Interesting timing on this post. I just had a friendship go "poof" because of some venting that I did.

Not that I regret much that I said, I didn't mention names, lie, or defame. I'm not even sure I would have done things differently if I'd had the chance. I just wish the person involved could understand.

Live and learn, I guess. Well, it's an interesting topic, I'll grant you that. :)

AboveAvgJane said...


What is it you wish the person involved could understand?

Anonymous said...

Just where I was coming from. As in, not a place of hostility, but a place of hurt, etc. Don't know if that makes sense or not.