Sunday, May 16, 2010

Blogging Rules

And therein lies the problem: There aren’t any.

Awhile back Digger attended a new media seminar at FSI, and this is what she learned. It’s basic, common sense stuff, mostly.

But it doesn’t explain why some people are singled out and others are left alone. It doesn’t seem to matter if you’re funny or obnoxious (or both simultaneously). Positive or negative. I know of several people in my very own neighborhood who blog, and no one seems to care. Why? Why not?

This has become a big deal recently, because there is apparently a line drawn in the sand somewhere, but no one knows where. No one will tell us where the line has been drawn, because of course they can’t. If you’re an employee, you are somewhat limited in what you can and cannot say, by virtue of the fact that you have EERs, and bosses, and onward assignments. But as a spouse, I should be able to say whatever I want, as long as it doesn’t harm the mission. Freedom of speech and all. Lots of Americans have died for that right.

The rules Digger posted seemed reasonable to me: don’t post work details, photos of government facilities, home addresses, medical information about other employees, etc... Those rules all fall under the category of “duh.”

So, what else? Are there less obvious rules that ought to be in play? Are there standards to which we, the FS blogging community, ought to hold ourselves accountable?

I’d argue that there are. We need to find that line in the sand, as a community, and maybe even do some self-policing. One of my favorite FS bloggers mentioned recently that she was warned about posting photos and information about her house that could affect security at her post. She took the post down, which made sense, and she seemed appreciative that someone, somewhere, was looking out for her and gave her the courtesy of a warning. Should we be doing that for each other, letting each other know if something we read sets off any alarms?

I started blogging three years ago. Before that, I was writing group emails home to keep my family and friends up-to-date on my oh-so-fascinating life. But that started to get a little bit awkward, because my address list kept getting longer and longer, and I was no longer sure if people were reading my updates, or rolling their eyes. I started a blog so my addressees could decide for themselves if they cared enough to click through and read my latest drivel. I did not password-protect my blog, in part because I figured people wouldn’t want to memorize another password, and in part because, hello, I’m a writer. I’ve been fortunate enough to have work published in places as big as Newsweek and as small as the Seattle Times. Writers write. They want people to read. So, no password for me. I'm not anonymous, though that would undoubtedly be safer, because I link to my published articles, and that kind of gives away my identity, don't you think?

Three years later, and I know people other than my family read this blog. Sometimes that disturbs me (note to random Chinese guy who keeps commenting: enough already!). Other times, it’s led me to new friends: Jill, and Connie, and yes, I think I can even count the famous Kolbi as a friend now. I’ve never met these people. But we’re all in it together, and we’ve become friends because of our blogs. I’m even rather fond of those anonymous bloggers, No Double Standards and Digger and Diplopundit. I don’t know them (I don’t think I do, anyway), but I enjoy reading their updates.

I loved, loved, loved the Weekly Roundup, because it put me in contact with all of these other FS bloggers whom I probably wouldn’t have searched for on my own. Can someone out there puh-lease start the Roundup again? Because that was a terrific service to the community. That blogger took the time to pull us all together into one room and make us get acquainted. That was a true gift she gave us.

So. Back to the rules. What are they? And do they change from post to post? Who can stop us from blogging? What can they do to you if they don’t like your blog? Does anyone have answers to these questions?

My own personal rule (not FS-specific, but for blogging in general) is not to post anything that I wouldn’t say in front of my mother, or my husband, or my kids. You know: If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. After all, this is a public record here, if only for a very small public. When I’m writing, I picture a few very specific people in my mind. If what I’m writing would upset them, then I generally don’t hit “publish.” If what I’m writing would embarrass my children or my husband, I don’t write it. Nothing’s worth that. And I hold myself to that same standard when I write personal essays for magazines and newspapers. If it’s going to show up in the Washington Post or beijingkids or the Foreign Service Journal, I’d better be darn sure it doesn’t make me or my loved ones look ridiculous. That’s my rule.

But that’s just my rule. I imagine it isn’t the same standard to which the State Department is holding me.

What do you think? What’s your rule? And is it enough to keep you out of trouble? How can you be sure?

(Sorry, I mentioned a lot of bloggers by name, but no links from me today.)


LeesOnTheGo said... [Reply]

I really appreciate the thoughtfulness in the question about where to draw the proverbial line in the sand. It's too easy to say too much when I'm sitting at my computer with a real bee in my bonnet (so to speak) and just need some place to put it. My personal rule is a lot like yours. If I wouldn't say it aloud to my mother, I shouldn't be saying it in arial font to all of you fellow FS bloggers.

I recently wrote about a news article that was negative about USAID by a politician whose opinion matters. My husband couldn't have written it (too naughty) but I felt free to do so so long as I disagreed respectfully. But yes, a fine, fine line...

Excellent reminder!

Ambrose said... [Reply]

It certainly must be a challenge to navigate this potential minefield. Mommybloggers of the world often find themselves exploring the boundaries of their own self-censorship, though you in FS have the added hazard of potentially endangering your mission or the mission of others. But as you are also a professional writer, does the FS have standards for the features you publish as well?
Of course, I'm not in FS, just another Mommyblogger abroad, but I have myself wondered if there will ever be a point where I cross some line for our host country. I don't blog about sensitive hot-button issues really. I remember, though, when I first came here four years ago, I secretly hoped that my out-in-the-open Christian activities and blogging would somehow be grounds for visa denial so I had an excuse not to move to China (my husband had already accepted the permanent position). Four years later and I am still here. I haven't resorted to writing in code (some Christian bloggers believe that if they write pray backwards and refer to Jesus as My Friend or some other obvious alias, the govt won't notice), but I have self-censored on occassion. For instance, if I ever met any Chinese people who were Opus Dei (which I haven't, because I've never knowingly met any OD anywhere on the planet--this is just an example), I wouldn't blog about that. Any time that people have tried to connect me with others involved in unregistered activity, too, I've declined because I wouldn't want to jeopardize their group.

I hope you can continue to blog candidly because I really do enjoy reading about normal life abroad. The added FS angle is just so interesting to me as well because you have lived so many other places.

i hope your days leading up to your move is going well!

hannah said... [Reply]

Excellent post, and like you, I'd come to appreciate the weekly roundup - it's part of what convinced me to go public. I'll give it a whirl, until I'm told otherwise. I'll take nominations at stateroundup2.0 {at} Hopefully I can put something together before Friday!

Ken said... [Reply]

It's not easy, and it's largely governed by the sub-sphere of the blogosphere you choose.

I don't limit myself to things I'd say in front of my family. Some family members and friends and associates read my blog (I link it on Facebook often enough, after all), but it's still semi-anonymous as to the outside world. Two reporters have called me directly to show off that they could figure out who I am, and I'm sure a reasonably talented novice could eventually do so as well, but for the most part it's successfully semi-anonymous (meaning I don't use my full name, or name any clients or colleagues or my firm), so I have more freedom.

I enjoy that freedom. I talk about controversial things, and sometimes do so in a satirical or blunt way, using occasional uncouth language. I couldn't do that if I had to worry about the hordes of nuts on the internet calling my secretary and screaming at her, or something like that. Plus, I couldn't talk openly how difficult relations with clients, judges, and opposing counsel might be if they could read about it the next day and use it against me.

Oscar Wilde says that a gentleman never causes offense unintentionally. I try to use that as a guide. If I say something mean, it's because I think the person I'm talking about has earned it. (Hence, I feel no sympathy for the spammers I've criticized by name, for instance.)

Donna said... [Reply]

@Lees - I remember that post. It was great - and you're right, probably your husband couldn't have written it. But that doesn't mean it should'nt have been written.

@ Hannah - good for you! Big shoes to fill. Hopefully she'll be back to work on the round-up soon... or at least back, in one form or another.

Donna said... [Reply]

@Ambrose - I love your blog. You walk a fine line given your faith - and without diplomatic immunity! But you do it well.

Donna said... [Reply]

@Ken - I think, if I had it to do over again, I'd consider making my blog semi-anonymous, too, because I do stop myself sometimes when I'd really like to say something not-exactly-nice. Hmmm, maybe I should start a second blog. I really like the community you have on your blog - lots of commenters with different POVs.

Connie said... [Reply]

I don't worry about my parents reading my blog, they've passed on, altho if there's internet in heaven, I'm sure Dad's on it... in between golf games and fishing... but I always keep in mind that I have young nieces and nephews, as well as my own 7 and 9yos reading... yes, they do sometimes read what mom has to say about them, so I won't embarrass them. They know I started my blog to keep in touch with family back home, and sometimes will suggest photos to 'show to grandpa and grandma'. I also try and keep in mind that I am a guest in my host country. I don't think it should keep me from complaining or pointing out fun/difficult situations, but there's a good way to do that, and a not so good way. I try to mind my manners. I do wish there were some more concrete guidelines, but then again, maybe not... they might err on the side of 'no'!

globalgal said... [Reply]

Fascinating! I hadn't really thought too much about what it means to be a blogger in FS land, but it must be difficult at times. I just enjoy reading FS blogs because I love expat experiences and boy do you guys have expat experiences! :)

I self-censor because my parents read my blog and they're of a religion that wouldn't approve of some things I want to write about. I've recently come out as an alcohol drinker, and that was a big deal. I also self-censor about my husband's work, mostly because I think if I told the truth no one would ever fly on a Chinese airliner again. (I joke!)

It's good to have conversations like this from time to time, to evaluate what we are doing as bloggers, especially since so many of us are not professional journalists with education in ethics and libel and all that.

Daniela Swider said... [Reply]

Lees, you are so right about the "bees in the bonnet" feeling. I get that from time to time and I know it's smarter to just let it roll off my back for everyone's sake but it's hard. That's when I get kinda quiet and let myself calm down before I can blog normally again.

hannah said... [Reply]

It's Friday, time for the weekly State Department Blog RoundUp - and you're on it!

Here is the link:

(If I quoted your text or used your photo(s) and you would rather I had not, please let me know. Please also be sure to check the link(s) that I put up to you, in order to verify that they work properly. If you would rather that I had not referenced you, and/or do not want me to reference you in the future, please also contact me at stateroundup2.0 {at}


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