Tuesday, February 12, 2008

How to talk about other people on your blog: 7 Simple Guidelines---Hump Day Hmm for February 13, 2008


Personal blogs are primarily memoirs in the making. Even professional, topical and niche blogs rely on the art of personalizing and storytelling. So as we tell our stories, how do we tell them? Who do we include? And how do we include them?

William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well*, says a key challenge of writing personal history is focusing too much on victimhood rather than forgiveness.

I believe that's true.

Each personal history extends beyond ourselves. It's impossible to have a personal history that doesn't, at some point, require talking about other people and their role in your story. That creates a challenge: how do we write about others, ethically?

Let's be honest: we all like to see inside other people's lives, and a little drama goes a long way to capturing our interest and emotions. But we can only stare at a train wreck for so long, and then we avert our eyes. Consider the popularity of feel-good movies; people love a story that overcomes. They love even more a story about a person struggling to overcome, and succeeding in little ways, even if it includes one step forward and two steps back. That's humanity, and we see ourselves in these sorts of stories---they are stories of forgiveness.

Pure vitriol is a story of victimhood. I remember some time back a big scandal that was rocketing around the blogosphere. A man broke up with a woman and she started a blog about him. It was not complimentary. At all. Blog after blog and even a few news stories---after the courts got involved and she was ordered to stop blogging about him---provided links to her blog. I followed one, read a few entries and decided that while he might not be a great guy, she was perhaps one step worse. I closed down her blog and never returned.

Blogs are public works, and are accountable to accusations of libel and slander, among other legal charges. And if you think free speech will protect you, think again. In January of this year, a Boston court ordered a divorcing husband to take down his blog and cease and desist in posting about his failed marriage and ex-wife. His ex-wife alleged the blog was harassment, and the judge agreed.

When it comes to what you say about other people on your blog, the law is catching up**:
Erwin Chemerinsky, a law professor at Duke University, said that in the past, courts could not enjoin speech in the context that Judge Devine has and that a defamation suit would have to come first. If the statements were found to be false, Professor Chemerinsky said, damages, not an injunction, would be the typical remedy.

“But increasingly,” he said, “courts are issuing injunctions to stop negative speech. The Supreme Court hasn’t yet ruled as to whether you could have an injunction in a situation like this, or more generally, in a case of defamatory speech.”

Source: The New York Times, "Blog Takes Failed Marriage Into Fight Over Free Speech," by ABBY GOODNOUGH, Published: January 10, 2008

Personally, I don't need a court to tell me that I ought to watch how I say what I say on my blog. I'm not as afraid of a judge as I am of people I know in my real life---and my fear is based on hurting or upsetting them.

So I am cautious about mentioning people I know.
Sidebar: A few of my personal blogging rules when mentioning people...

1. Never use real names unless you have advance permission.
2. Never use the blog as a ranting platform or tool of vengeance against another person.
3. Never use people's images unless you have permission (photos, art, portraits, any kind of image).
4. Use the golden rule when writing about people.
5. Keep it honest, balanced and fair; overbearing portraits of others don't ring true, anyway. Most of us are smart enough to know people are rarely one-dimensional.
6. Eliminate the element of surprise; make sure people you are writing about are not surprised by what you have to say, or the fact that you are saying it.
7. It's never cool to use someone publicly as an example, especially if the exchange originated privately, and most especially if you don't have approval or haven't discussed it with that person, first.

My point here is to engage with readers. That means I remain mindful that I actually have readers. And as such, I am careful what I say, who I talk about and how I mention other people.

Although my family could be extremely rich blog fodder---my single post about my estranged family and the hellish holidays was the blog post heard round the world for me; it was picked up by several distribution services---I don't tend to focus on them, or the quirky experiences with them.

That's for many reasons, but it predominantly boils down to respect (of me and people I do still care about) and expectations. I've discussed that family ad nauseum over the course of my life. I don't currently want to discuss them on my blog. This is primarily because I am finished focusing on them, and am dedicated to living a good life with my family now.

I'm also hesitant to relate too much about my friends or people I know, but it's impossible to omit them entirely from my narrative. Therefore, I ensure that if I do include them, it's necessary to the narrative and I stick closely to my rules.

I keep these in mind even when blogging about another blogger or another blogger's post. There are some incredible thinkers and writers in this blogging community, and I am often inspired by them and the things they write. Sometimes I agree, but other times I disagree. Constructive disagreement can---and should---be a value because it can enrich us. In fact, that's one reason I offer the privilege of anonymous posting here: I'd usually rather an opinion with no name than no opinion at all. I encourage people to use their words. So far, I've been really impressed that my trust has been validated; people mostly use this encouragement and anonymous privilege wisely, and not as "dickwads." (Click here to read more about why Muhammad Saleem says encouraging dissent can be a good thing on your blog, and to see John Gabriel's Greater Internet Dickwad Theory.)
Sidebar: Basic rules to keep in mind when you blog about another blogger or his/her post...

1. Always name the blogger and blog name.
2. Always provide a link.
3. If you participate in a roundtable or carnival, always link to the host(s).

The trick is to balance revealing and concealing, honesty and privacy. In the end, if I review carefully why I might need to mention a person---what my goal is, what my expectations of outcome are---then I can easily find out if it is necessary and how to manage the mention with respect.

Kids? And kid tales? Are another post entirely...

In short, though, I keep in mind the same concept behind all of my personal rules for my writing and make sure that what I write about them now is something I'd be okay reading to them later.

How do you handle writing about others on your blog?



* A couple of years ago, the publisher re-issued this book, and Zinsser added in a section about memoir writing.

** Limiting free speech on blogs is also another post, entirely. Keep an eye out for the upcoming post, "Blogs are no longer arenas of absolute free speech, say courts."

Copyright 2008 Julie Pippert
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35 comments:

SciFi Dad said...

You and I have very similar views on this subject, although I must admit to using my blog as a venting platform in one instance. (In my defense, I was not over-the-top, and was merely recounting a story - all true - that helped explain sidebars and asides in my blog over the year and a half.)

It's a very dicey thing to write about someone in your life. I once witnessed a complete marital breakdown in a post's comments. Fortunately, they came to their senses, deleted the post, and sorted out their issues in private. Unfortunately, it took them 2 days to stop bickering online and figure out that the whole world was watching.

Robert said...

I have certainly read plenty of blogs that are open vents towards some negative experience. They are, like you described, an ongoing train wreck in the making. In most cases, they are part of a circle of people "recovering" from the issue they all share (I am being vague intentionally, so as not to shine a light on this group's shared problem). In all cases, though, I found the latent negativity too much to bear. So now instead I read the blogs of liberal women (mostly) so I can keep my conservative juices flowing (mostly kidding, I actually really enjoy the exchange these sites offer us all with our viewpoints).

I appreciate the rules and guidelines you provide. They are a good framework to consider when deciding whether or not to post something about another person.

To Scifi Dad's comments, it is interesting how people can have "public fights" that they don't realize others "watch" even online. It's like seeing a couple throw drinks and food at each other in the mall while screaming at each other, neither of them realizing a whole food court just stopped talking to watch them. No, I can't say that I recall ever having that actually happen while I was around.

wheelsonthebus said...

I struggle with this a lot, as you know. I am trying to find ways to shield people, because making my story personal does no one any good.

Love the guidelines, Julie.

liv said...

and here's another that i struggle with since we're talking about legal ramifications: mommy blogs that spew about what slackers they are, the poor nutrition they deliver to their kids, the choice words they employ to their children, the making fun of their husbands. yeah, it may be fine now if they're happily married, but what happens on the other side? do they get their kids yanked away because they left an open record of their habits? i just don't think they (and we know who they are) get the potential for disaster.

we_be_toys said...

I think you summed it up beautifully - and those are basically the rules I follow. Ever think of publishing the guidebook to blogging ettiquette? I think you have it in the bag!

bubandpie said...

Being a lawyer, my husband immediately commented (IRL, not on my blog) on yesterday's post that if I'm ever in a custody battle, I've just screwed myself. In general, I agree in keeping the negativity to a minimum, but I also find that such a policy can be too stifling. If the whole purpose of a blog is to spew negativity, that's going to become tiresome after awhile, but I think that sometimes it's more authentic to go ahead and say things that are not wholly reasonable - to write in a way that reflects the whole range of human emotion rather than simply the cold result of rational reflection.

Joy in Chaos posted yesterday about a post she had chosen not to publish, a kind of rant about the humiliation she felt after an unpleasant conversation with her daughter's pediatrician. I think those one-off rants often emerge from feelings of powerlessness, and that there is value in expressing some of that emotion honestly, even if it's followed up a day or two later by a partial retraction.

mommybytes.com said...

Hi Julie,

Thanks for putting up my link, I thought I was lucky number 6 to push you into social media ;).

Love the guidelines and very similar to those I wrote about. I think like minded people tend to hang out with each other. I especially liked your examples that have entered the legal realm that I had not heard about.

And to Liv's comments, I agree that you shouldn't hang yourself on your blog. There are so many times that my husband and I have joked "Good thing DSS isn't around" because we've made some parenting faux pas (nothing major, I better not hang myself on this comment). It makes for a good joke in real life, but writing it on the blog can easily be misconstrued and used against you. Blogs are in the public domain and as such must be treated accordingly.

melissa said...

Excellent guidelines as always. And that kid is quite adorable!

BTW...I'm number six. Get that social media going! :)

Mary G said...

Damn, you're smart! And way ahead of me, as usual.
Love the topic, and love your incisive list.

Space Mom said...

I try to use fake names except when talking about bloggers. My few posts filled with venom are behind a password.

I would love to hear your views about Kid posts because there is SO MUCH I don't post about my girls..to not embarress them when they are older...

Kyla said...

Do you know about Dr. Flea? He was a pediatrician who blogged anonymously, but he was also being sued for malpractice. He blogged about that situation and he spoke harshly about the case (venting, which was probably necessary under the circumstances, but nonetheless risky). He was unmasked as the anonymous blogger and the blog posts were used against him in court...he ended up settling and taking his blog down.

Blog content can be risky and we should always weigh the risks and benefits when including other people.

Dana J. Tuszke said...

I'm having deja-vu! I just read Zinsser's book a month ago. I do wonder about whether or not to write about others, mostly family members. Just saying "my aunt called today" sounds risky to me.

Gwen said...

I just tell myself that no one is reading me anyway. That's my defense (although outside of my immediate family, I do use fake names). I am, I think, terrible at this issue, which is why I'm not contributing, since I am acutely aware that I am often on the wrong side of these lines. I liked Bubandpie's comment, though. It helped me feel better about the ways I fail by your standards almost weekly. Did I say weekly? I think I meant daily.

Julie Pippert said...

Okay guys, I asked and you are delivering!

A deal's a deal!

I have the ball rolling! But I need your help. I've put this up at sk*rt, so go vote for the topic there so it's gets popular. Feel free, also, to use your own channels. Stumbleupon, Digg, Share This, etc.

I have some handy dandy links at the bottom of the post.

Andrea said...

In general I agree wiht you--though I suck at always providing a link back to the carnival hoster, as you know. (*ahem* Sorry.)

But I do worry about the greater cost extracted by each of us minimizing our smaller costs--about what it does to hte public perception of marriage, for instance, when none of us are willing to bare our own flaws for the sake of our own family.

It's understandable but I don't think we so much avoid the cost as move it elsewhere. And I find that I, personally, am willing to take greater risks if I can see some good potentially coming out of it. I mean, sure, that marital fight was embarassing. But you know what? I had fights with Erik when we were living in a semi or in the apartment that I'm sure our neighbours could hear. Who hasn't been there? Maybe not in that medium, but never?

jennifer h said...

These are good guidelines. I might be guilty of a few low-level offenses, but I try to steer clear of the big ones.

thailandchani said...

Julie, I screwed up.

I came here to create a link when I was barely awake and notice that it has entered twice. Plus it's bold and has a smiley face next to it.

I would never do that. Really. Help!

Laughing here.. but I really am still on Thai time. Completely out of it. LOL

PunditMom said...

It's such a delicate line to walk. Of course, we all have free speech rights, which the judge in that case seems to have ignored. But when we're talking about family and friends, it's about more than that. For me, I feel that unless I want to alienate people, I need to stick to myself as much as possible.

There have been times when I've written what I thought were nice and thoughtful things that backfired. Some things I can do by keeping people anonymous or creating "blog names," like my daughter PunditGirl. But I think we each have to decide what's worth more -- freedom of expression on our blogs or any other writing or our personal relationships.

Magpie said...

Good post Julie - well said.

I generally keep the dark and venomous out of my blog, except once in a while regarding Large Corporations and/or Republicans. I don't identify family or friends, I don't bitch about family or friends, and I try to always link to bloggers and give credit where credit is due.

Family Adventure said...

Awesome post, as always.

My mantra is to keep my blog as positive as possible.

Further, as in life, I would not want to criticize someone without giving them an opportunity to explain/defend themselves.

Heidi

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

I've struggled with this issue & your guidelines are so clear, they really help. So thanks : )

Kathryn said...

Ugh. I meant to tackle this Hmm today but I never got a chance.
I pretty much agree with everything you've said. The guidelines are fab.
Even in my private (hand written) journal I struggle with writing something negative about someone else. I guess that is the people pleaser in me. I would never want anyone to stumble upon my journal (or blog) and find something hurtful about themselves. I would never want to hurt someone's feelings. I guess if I don't have anything nice to say I try to say nothing at all.

mommybytes.com said...

Chani, I did exactly the same thing because Julie beat me to it and posted my link before I stopped by. You can delete the one you entered by clicking on the smiley face and selecting delete.

Maybe she was afraid we wouldn't stop by to put in our links ;), but I'm pleased that she stopped by mine before I could come by (and I'm not even a regular humper :O, I mean hmmer!)

Julie Pippert said...

**thud**

Me hitting the floor in happy shock!

Okay I know I expected a lot of good points in comments and I know I hoped for (demanded) a good participation but this is seriously really well above what I'd even dreamed of.

ARGH I want to comment in more detail...so many points.

Soon!

I will be home soon and hopefully with time to comment.

Just had to say wow and thanks.

Cathy said...

Great stuff here ...

Twice, I've hit the publish button and later regretted my very public meltdowns.

I'm still getting comments on one of those posts.

I deleted the second rant (about my in-laws), but it was up at least a couple of days until I could get to a computer.

Anyway, I've tried to watch myself since then. Several times, I've refrained from posting something until I've re-read it later, when I'm not as emotional over the given subject.

Again, great topic.

jeanie said...

Oh, it is a very fine line to walk, as we blog in a public place.

I have been tarred by two experiences, and the fact that I thought I was blogging about me turned out to be no defence.

It is funny, reading the linked posts, how similar so many of us are in our personal guidelines.

Christine said...

um, no real rules at my place, but i aim not to hurt anyone. i have a post up right now that will be taken down because if the person ever found it i'd feel bad.

i guess that is in a good sense sort of a good "rule." would you say what you wrote to someone's face?

Aliki2006 said...

I love this topic! I posted my response to this--I'm off now to check out the other post about this.

Yolanda said...

"In the end, if I review carefully why I might need to mention a person---what my goal is, what my expectations of outcome are---then I can easily find out if it is necessary and how to manage the mention with respect."

So so so so true. A tremendous topic once again, with much to think about. Will be reading and commenting on the rest over the next few days.

alejna said...

Wow, what a great response you've gotten. I really hoped I could contribute a post on this topic, as it's one I've thought about often, but I haven't managed to swing the time to write it. (Maybe I'll submit something tardy in a few days...)

But I did enjoy reading your own guidelines on the topic. I share many of your philosophies.

Lawyer Mama said...

OK, so I JUST got mine up. Hey! It's still Wednesday!

It's funny what Liv and B&P mentioned about the legal ramifications of blogging. T and I have often talked about that after reading some screwy story on a blog or after reading something ranting about a spouse. Lawyers know how to Google. In fact, it's one of the first things I do when preparing for a deposition.

Julie Pippert said...

A general clarification of my position, which I fear a few people may have misinterpreted.

I did not go through my wherefores, as the eloquent Andrea did. I hope you guys read hers (she number 10). I did, of course, more of an outcome post, without too much elaboration on the how I arrived at this, merely a brief summation of the why: to be respectful.

But I fear omitting that (for length's sake) cause it to appear that I advocated sanitizing life when blogging about it.

So...with that concern in mind...

My entreaty is not for excluding discussion of others or sticking only to the sunshiney side of life.

I don't think ANYONE could accuse me or my blog of that LOL. I vent about politics, injustice, bad schooling, and annoying drivers who steal my parking spot in the zoo.

My guidelines are a reflection of my underlying desire to be respectful but also to question the goal and expectation of my narrative.

Is this vitriol relevant to the narrative? Will it add meaning and depth? Give the reader more insight?

I have depicted my paternal family once, and it was a remarkably one-dimensional illustration of complicated people. It's why I tend not to do short story character sketches like that. I found myself feeling incredibly defensive and yet validated in the comments. I didn't feel good about that post. I didn't feel good about how I thought it made ME look, never mind them. That was a post of victimhood.

I gripe, I whine, I malinger on my blog. People have said, "Thanks for sharing how crazed parenting makes you feel." Jenny kindly awarded me on her Houston Chronicle blog for that zoo post, because it helped her to know she wasn't the only one who felt that way and had a kid who said horrid things to her.

I've criticized the school and teacher for educational failings, used that personal story to launch broader discussion about how far our educational goals have fallen, ironically.

I discuss people, problems and so forth.

But.

I don't vilify.

Does that make better sense, what I'm saying?

I guess it depends upon what you think your audience obligation is and why you blog.

Yolanda said...

I just hopped around and read all of the posts (some really fantastic and lengthy takes on the topic). I noticed in many of the posts (my own included, which is probably why I identified with it) and in the comments, there was a bit of sadness, especially amongst people who identified themselves as writers, or having a passion for writing, about the burden of "knowing the audience." I'm not sure if there is enough to explore in that topic to make it a Hmp Day Hmm, but there is definitely something more that can be said about this. It's a burden one does not have in a diary, or even (in many ways) in print. The audience is removed, the time between the writing and the reaction is further apart.

Wayfarer Scientista said...

Excellent post - I too always aim for respect.

the calm before the stork said...

Great post! I also stay conscious of that line -- between telling my story and appropriating someone else's. And I try to avoid being snarky. Every time I fall into that trap, the few times it's happened, I feel a little dirty afterwards. It's hard though, because snarky gets the cheap laughs.

I used to do improv theater and we'd often talk about the difference between trying to be clever, and doing something that MOVES the audience. Clever is easier. And when the actor's ego is obviously involved, not terribly pretty.

Staying personal, rather than attacking someone, or telling the stories of others, I think that moves people.

But not too personal. I recently had to show my husband a post I was working on because I suspected he wouldn't want me sharing this one story that concerned him. He asked me not to publish it, so I didn't.

The other trap I find is that it's sometimes harder to be positive, much easier to complain. Why is the victim role so magnetic?

Ah well. It's a good exercise, to be nice, to be real, to mind the feelings of others. Maybe it's just me that I have to stay conscious about these actions sometimes, but I do. It helps that my parents and in-laws read my blog. I don't want to offend them, even though they often provide very tempting "material."