What are blogs? Aside from the software the blog runs on, what exactly is a blog? Well, a blog is a conversation. Blogs are structured to facilitate interaction between the blogger and the blog’s readers and use simple tools like RSS feeds, comments and trackbacks to keep those conversations going. Blogging lends itself to informality because of the emphasis on the expression of an authentic voice as an essential element of a blog. The problem is that in expressing that voice we often forget that there is an appropriate way to express that voice.
Many moons ago I wrote about a blogger by the name of Mark Jen who was fired by Google because of comments he made on his blog about being hired by Google and the salary he was paid. He was interviewed extensively about his dismissal because, back then, there was a sense that bloggers should be able to say what they wanted in their blogs. There simply wasn’t a sense that blogging about certain things was stepping over a line drawn in the sand.
Mark Jen wasn’t the first blogger to lose his job because of his blog posts and he wasn’t the last. Michael Hanscom had his 15 minutes of fame when he was asked to leave his contract position with Microsoft after he published photos of a few Apple G5 computers in a Microsoft loading bay. He was soon asked to leave and in his post mortem, Michael acknowledged that he had made a mistake. He had ignored signs forbidding cameras and hadn’t taken into account contractual limitations on his activities (for example, a non disclosure agreement).
It is important to bear in mind that as casual as a blog may be, it is a publication exposed to a potential audience of millions. There has been a considerable amount of discussion about the power of a blog and its ability to reach a huge audience both directly (through visitors to the blog itself) and indirectly (through links and feeds). While this potential is a tremendous selling point for marketeers and new media evangelists like myself, it is also open to considerable abuse by bloggers who would strike out at a competitor, employer or some other party that displeased them. Sometimes great harm arises from blog posts that were not well thought out and it doesn’t matter whether there was malice behind the post or momentary frustration.
A local blogger made derogatory comments about a popular speaker (I am intentionally not disclosing details because the parties have expressed a desire to put this matter behind them and the more often this matter is discussed, the more it will pop up on the Web) in his blog post. The speaker concerned took issue with the comments on the blog post and instituted proceedings against the blogger concerned for defamation. This case is a good example of how devastating a blog post can be. Like much of the material published on the Web, Google cached the post concerned and it remained in the top 5 search results for over a year after the original post was removed.
You are probably familiar with the law of defamation in the context of the media. Publishing a blog post puts you at risk of being sued for defamation if your blog post satisfies the test for defamation. It doesn’t really matter whether you are blogging in your personal capacity or whether you are blogging for an online news publication. The consequences are pretty much the same. Your right to freedom of expression or the freedom of the press will be considered in the context of the blog post’s target’s right to dignity and privacy. The casual nature of a blog or the respect for a blogger’s authentic voice is no protection from legal liability for a post that crosses that line.
So, what is a blogger to do? Mena Trott, founder of Six Apart (creators of TypePad, Movable Type and Vox), suggested that we, as bloggers, work at being nicer to people we blog about. In a recent interview with the Times Online, Mena suggested that we adopt a golden rule that if we are not about to say something to someone’s face then we shouldn’t blog about it. She sees the relative (or apparent) anonymity of the Web as something that emboldens bloggers. Going further there may even be a sense that something said on the Web isn’t real, not like saying it face to face, so what harm could possibly result? Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. Blog posts can have serious consequences for both the blogger and the person blogged about.
Perhaps another way to put it is to paraphrase Uncle Ben in the first Spiderman movie during his last conversation with Peter Parker:
A blog gives a blogger great power and with great power comes great responsibility. Use that power wisely.