Privacy in the age of blogging

This on CT.

Jeffrey Rosen has a piece in yesterday’s NYTimes Magazine about the practice of blogging intricate details about one’s dating and sex life on one’s blog. (I was going to say “one’s private life”, but how private is it once it’s been blogged and read by hundreds?) As usual with journalistic pieces such as this one, it is hard to tell how widespread the phenomenon is, but it is out there to some extent and may be worth some thought. I certainly know that people in my social circles – friends, family members, colleagues – do wonder what I will and will not blog about from our interactions and sometimes even preface comments by saying “this is not for blogging”. I always reassure these people that I never blog information about other people without permission and in general rarely mention any names or other identifying information (except to give credit, but I check in such cases as well). However, from reading the article one would think my practices are more the exception than the rule.

Since I do not blog anonymously there is more social control over what I decide to make public. After all, everything I say reflects on me in return. Outing information about others that many may find inappropriate will have negative repercussions on me. So even if I had no concerns, whatsoever, about the privacy of people around me – but I do – a solely self-interested approach would still dictate that I keep information about others’ lives private in order not to upset people and in turn lose credibility and trust in the future. However, such social control operates much less effectively among those who can hide behind the veil of a pseudonym.

As I prepare for my upcoming undergraduate class in which students will be required to maintain blogs, I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about how to comply with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). According to FERPA, I have to make sure that certain details about student enrollment in my classes are kept private. In the process, I have realized that this is a one-way street. There is nothing preventing my students from blogging whatever information they decide about me. Of course, social sanctions may still exist. Students may decide it is not worth upsetting their instructor through such practices. Nonetheless, there will be plenty of opportunities for blogging things after class is over. Moreover, they may have individual blogs not associated with the class that are written anonymously and can serve as an outlet for commentary about others.

Of course, we all have different selves depending on the social situations in which we find ourselves and there is no reason one should let down certain guards in front of a classroom or when with a group of colleagues. Perhaps the most disturbing part about the phenomenon described in the article is that people are blogging intricate details about their private lives, which in turn includes the private lives of others. Of course, as long as this is a known fact one can accept it and behave accordingly (or not accept it and stop spending time with the person assuming that’s an option). But it sounds like this practice often only becomes clear after the fact, which seems to put unfortunate added pressure on private interactions.

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