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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