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Blogging and Ethics, Part 4: Don’t Stand So Close To Me

I’ve been busy baking for today’s party for church parishioners (body count: conservatively, ten pounds of butter, ten pounds of flour, five pounds of nuts, and for the first time in my life I’ve used up a can of baking powder in less than a month), but in “Your Blog or Mine,” an article in the magazine section of today’s New York Times, Jeffrey Rosen, law professor at George Washington University, did me the favor of addressing an issue I had brought up earlier and wanted to expand on: drawing the line between private and public.

This afternoon, while pouring punch and serving cholesterol and carbohydrates, I may overhear some interesting conversations, or I’ll put together two or three stray comments and come to a conclusion about someone’s life. And those thoughts will stay where they belong, firmly embedded between my ears. I will not run back to Free Range Librarian to tell all.

Honor and prudence drive this discretion. I cannot imagine the kerfuffle if I blogged facts (or, as happens so often on blogs, near-facts or pure speculation) I had learned about members of my partner’s church. She would lose her job, and I would be out on the street. No marriage (even a marriage declared invalid by the California courts) could survive this breach. Beyond the practical considerations, I would not, could not do anything that low. I have my growing edges, but I cannot imagine breaching the confidence of people who trust me.

Apparently I have a very limited imagination, because Rosen’s article is filled with examples of bloggers who live to tell all (and the readers who gobble up their revelations). Part of the joy of Rosen’s article is how delicately but decisively he points out the double standard exercised by bloggers who stretch or simply violate traditional standards of confidentiality. The blogger known as Deb, who lives out her relationships online, rankles when her boyfriend wants to see her posts in advance; the blogger “Smitten” comments of another tell-all blogger, Washingtonienne, “She was anonymous, but the other people she wrote about weren’t given that benefit. She had the right to privacy, but no one else did. Gag.”

“Gag” indeed. But as Rosen points out, many bloggers point to their First Amendment rights to say whatever they want–not only about what went on in class (fair game) but in what was said behind closed doors while talking to someone else. (Memo to self: three points for deciding not to go to law school.)

We librarians are all about free speech. But the First Amendment won’t make you less of a chump for kiss-and-tell blogging, and it won’t expunge the stain to your professionalism for knowingly crossing the line between private and public.

Which brings me to a practical example that arose last week, when a librarian blogger quoted another librarian on an issue I was sure was confidential. (I’m going to leave out the specifics so I don’t cause further damage to the person whose privacy was violated.) I contacted blogger A, who said, oh yes, that conversation took place; in fact, Blogger A was able to produce the instant message with the exact terms used on the blabbed-on blog. The idea that it might be wrong to reproduce an instant message on a blog without permission to do so, or holding this conversation in the first place without establishing whether it was public or private, flew right over blogger A’s ethics-dar.

I’ve had discussions with that tell-all blogger (can we call their ilk “blubbers?”) that I assumed were clearly off the record. In fact, that blogger has shared some things with me that I have assumed were not for public consumption. These confidences are safe with me. But you can bet I’ll be far more careful with what I say to blogger A in the future (and so will blogger B, if he has any sense).

Part of the problem here has to do with how you represent your blog, and how you represent yourself when you are communication with people. I made fun of this phenomenon in my “guidelines,” but it’s a serious issue: if you are publishing material on your blog, you have a moral obligation to clarify when you plan to take a conversation on the record.

As Rosen notes, stating your intention to publish may mean your sources don’t share as much as they would if they thought the conversation was confidential. “That’s why they call it work, Rossy.” Oh, but your blog isn’t work, right? Yes it is; we all run our blogs for personal gain. Blogging is labor in the most direct, unavoidable, un-outsourceable, artisan sense of the term. We write about others to benefit our blogs, and when we do so, no matter how tempting it is to do otherwise–to get those hits up, to bask in the tell-all moment–we have an obligation to be honest and honorable with the information we acquire.

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