Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Busy. Oh, But I'm Thinking A Lot About Blogging. State-Blogging, To Be Specific.

I had my first school board meeting last night. And basketball season started for the boys this week - twice a week, in the evenings, for both of them. Kyra starts ballet and basketball next week. Ainsley, thankfully, doesn't have any after-school activities for the next couple of months. Aidan has after-school soccer starting soon. Oh, and he had his first after-school play-date today.

I, meanwhile, am working half-days. And still studying Arabic! And trying to work out. And packing lunches. And making dinners. And cooking bran muffins every second day because the kids don't like cereal and I'm too cheap to pay $8 for a box, anyway. And updating this blog.

What's that? Okay, I admit it, I'm kind of failing at updating this blog these days.

But can you blame me? I mean, I'm kinda-sorta busy. Also, there's the fact that various factions in State seems to have worked themselves into a swivet over a few of my blogging pals. What gives, State? It might be time to put some specifics in the FAM, so people know what the rules are, sort of the way we know about cost constructing travel to CONUS and applying for special needs allowances. We could use some rules! As Diplopundit pointed out today, the letter writer in this month's FSJ suggested that we all go back to writing in diaries and stuffing them under our pillows (ummm... not recommended in China, I hope!), or apply for jobs with the Huffington Post (wouldn't THAT get people's attention, if all of us State bloggers suddenly picked up that sized audience!). I get it: the writer doesn't like blogs. But to try to pretend he doesn't want to ban them outright, and then offer those flippant suggestions as replacements, is a bit disingenuous.

Look, people are going to blog. More and more and more, you will have employee bloggers and spouse bloggers and even kid bloggers. We've built this community, and we turn to each other for advice and support and laughter. (Also, pictures of nasty gigantic spiders lurking in bathtubs - you know who you are....). Many of us, myself included, started our blogs as a way to keep far-flung family members in the loop. So not only do these blogs tie us into our communities, but they help us keep our ties to our families back home.

We're not going away, even if the Huffington Post does come calling. (oh, but Arianna? I'm right here if you need any new writers...)

Now, don't get me wrong: if some senior official gives me a call and tells me that either I take down my blog or my husband loses his job, there isn't even a question but that my blog will be gone tomorrow. I'm not willing to fight that fight if my family's livelihood is on the line.

But does that have to be the choice? Why not give us some basic rules, FAM-style, so we know where the lines are drawn?

So here they are: The Rules. Written by someone with no departmental clout whatsoever (yes, that'd be me), because the people in charge over there haven't had the time to develop a list themselves. This is just my starter list - any of you other bloggers have rules to add?

First: Don't Bite The Hand That Pays You. We are all of us, employees, spouses and children alike, representing the United States government every time we walk out our doors. I might be "just" a spouse with a spouse job and not much say-so in the Embassy, but when I'm here, to many of my neighbors out in the wide world, I AM the US government. So as a blogger, I am not allowed to criticize the work that the Department of State is doing, in Jordan, in the region, in the world, even. That's not my place. I won't do it at a dinner party, and I certainly won't do it on my blog. Doesn't matter what I think of our position on Palestine: if it differs from the USG-position, I can't put it on my blog. Even if it's the same as the USG-position, I'm likely going to avoid discussing it, anyway. This is a personal blog, after all, not a government-sanctioned one, so those types of discussions really don't belong here.

Second: Use the Past Tense. If you're going somewhere tonight, don't tell me about it until tomorrow. It doesn't make sense to advertise your whereabouts to complete strangers, through your blog or any other means. It's like cancelling your newspaper before you go on vacation, so no one realizes you're gone. It's just safer that way.

Third: Limit the Details. I might tell you my street is narrow and crowded and full of Land Rovers, but I won't tell you if it is three streets up from the Embassy, right side, next to the Mexican restaurant. That's too much detail. I'll show you pictures of my house (assuming it's presentable), but only from the inside. You won't see the front of my house. You won't see pictures of my alarm system. You won't see any of the measures that keep me safe here at post. And speaking of pictures:

Fourth: No Pictures Without Permission. Don't post pictures of non-family members without their permission! If your colleagues don't permit you to post their pictures, don't do it. And don't post their names, either. First names, I think, are generally okay, but again, with permission! If you're not sure if they'd like it, don't put it out there.

Fifth: No Gossip. About those colleagues: watch what you say about them. I, for one, have had the privilege of working with some smart, talented, funny people over the years. There are some seriously smart people working on your behalf at most Embassies around the world. (Also some odd ones, but hey: you'll find those strange birds in any profession. Just don't call them out on your blog!) But, really, even if what you want to say about someone is a compliment, you really ought not talk them up without permission. There are loads of people who agree with our FSJ letter writer that blogs are scary things, and you don't want to draw attention to those types of people, or to your blog, by posting details about such colleagues.

Of course, some colleagues won't mind being talked up in your blog. Say, for example, you have an acquaintance named, oh, I don't know, let's call her Kate. And let's just suppose, for the sake of argument, that "Kate" - who reads and adores your blog - has compiled a master list of names of people in the Embassy, ordered according to which Harry Potter character they resemble. Now that's funny! But - while you might feel free to mention "Kate's" list on your blog, it would not be appropriate to publicize which employee most closely resembles Dobby. (For the record, if there were such a list at an Embassy near you, my name would most certainly NOT be on it. I don't bear a resemblance to any of the characters.) (But of course this is a fictional example. Heck, I'm not even sure if there is anyone named Kate here at post.) Point is, if your colleagues say it's okay to mention them, then you can. But ask, first, so they don't go all Snape on you.

But, as usual: I digress.

Really, all I want to say is that, if no one will make the rules for us, maybe we need to make them ourselves. It should be basic common sense, in most cases. But your ability to blog should not and cannot depend upon the kindness of your boss. If you are following the rules, you shouldn't get slammed simply because your new boss doesn't approve of blogging. They cannot tell you that posting a picture of your baby at a doctor's appointment is a violation of your child's medical privacy rights, because that's simply not true (trust me: I asked a lawyer). But they can restrict things you want to say if those things contradict the work of the Department. Of course they can. They do it in the private sector, too. That's how Dooce got dooced.

So that's what I think: Don't discuss policy; don't endanger yourself or others by posting details of upcoming events; don't post pictures that show the front of your house, or the school, or the car; don't talk about colleagues; don't post photos of colleagues without permission.

Of course, some of these rules vary a bit from post-to-post, which is why common sense comes into play. I wasn't so concerned about posting photos of my street in China, because the threat level there was quite different from here. But I still looked at every single picture before I posted it, and I weighed whether the picture had a potential to give away more than I intended. When in doubt about something I plan to post, I often run it by my employee-husband: if he were to tell me that something didn't seem right, I wouldn't post it. I trust his judgement on these types of things. (That said, he hasn't read this, and yet here I go posting it.)

What say you, fellow bloggers? Do these rules seem right? What did I get wrong? What did I leave out? Because I'm not going to start keeping a diary under my pillow. But the State Department has been very, very good to my family over the years, and I don't want my little blog to cause a diplomatic incident. I want to blog, in a way that makes me happy but doesn't endanger anyone or break any rules.

So, what are the rules? Let's go ahead and update the FAM ourselves, you and me, so State bloggers like us have some guidelines to follow. That way, when State is ready to sit down and print up some rules, we'll have a place at the table and a place for them to start.


Camille said... [Reply]

Do you know how awesome you are?

Very. You are very awesome.

Emily said... [Reply]

I agree with Camille.
Really. Great. Post.
Thank you.

Becky said... [Reply]

I have been thinking about this a ton too. I am glad that someone with better writing skills than me tackled this. I think you covered it really well.

The only rule I would add is to remember that security situations can be fluid. "Your" house will soon be someone else's house. "Your" street someone else's street. So, even if you feel like it's okay to plaster it all over the net right now, the situation could be dramatically different a year from now.

Also, your China diary comment made me laugh out loud. You are awesome.

Daniela Swider said... [Reply]

I read that letter and got irked by it because I too like blogging and would like to keep doing it. I have the magazine open on the page with the letter sitting in my bathroom (where I do a lot of reading - too much info, I know). I wanted to do something about that letter but I wasn't quite sure what.

You figured out what needed to be done and what should have been done a while ago. Thank you for that! You ARE brilliant!

I like your rules a lot. They are common sense but that's pretty much all that's needed, in my opinion. I figure if we don't act stupid on our blogs, we'll be OK.

If there's one thing I'd add to your rules is: Think about how you write about your host (post) country. With that I don't mean that you should never say anything critical but there are ways to do that so it won't create an international incident. Maybe you covered that with your Palestine policy example...

Anyway, thanks once again

S said... [Reply]

I'm not a FSO, or related to one, or even American, but I read a lot of American diploblogs. I'm working towards joining the Canadian Foreign Service, and there appear to be *no* Canadian diploblogs at all (feel free to correct me, I'd love to read them!). Maybe Canada has stricter rules already :(

Jill said... [Reply]

You. Are. Right. On.

I agree wholeheartedly, though I'll admit that I often don't follow "the rules" (whatever they may be) ... and I'm OK with that. Like you, if there's anything I am worried will put my husband in a bind, I have him read it first. Which does sometimes mean I don't post something.

But I'm not afraid to rock the boat - because really, there are instances that just have me shaking my head. Though, I don't recommend that to everyone!

However, the reality in all this is ... despite there actually being 'rules' one day, it still falls back on the boss, and what they deem appropriate. And sadly, some bosses are just d**che bags.

Kelly said... [Reply]

Excellent post!

Kristen said... [Reply]

Great post and very helpful for us who are newbies to the overseas posting! But I have to say I'm very curious as to who you think looks like Dobby ;)

Connie said... [Reply]

Very good rules!

Lynne said... [Reply]

We've had some issues with mail so I haven't gotten the FSJ with that article and now I am drooling for it (maybe this week's mail run will have it?!?)

Your rules are spot on, pretty commonsensical and I hope they are about all we need as they are pretty much the ones I already follow.

btw - not just China, Russia too! We are simpatico :)

Lynne said... [Reply]

oops. I see the link I opened in "another tab" IS the article.

Jenn D said... [Reply]

Well said, as always, Frienda. And for the record, I agree with everyone're kinda awesome.

Adrian Pratt said... [Reply]

Well done and said.

Consul-At-Arms said... [Reply]

I've quoted you (with commentary) and linked to you here:

Nomads By Nature said... [Reply]

Completely agree with your rules list. Even though it isn't exactly blogging I would add FB in there as well for the no pictures guideline. It is still a form of social media. A pet peeve of mine is being invited to a gathering and then having the host/ hostess snapping shots with the intention of posting on FB later.

Just US said... [Reply]

Well stated!

Ruth Anne said... [Reply]

Public diplomacy types have actually been giving a lot of thought to these issues, as we try to balance the need to post relevant, interesting, and fresh content on blogs, social media sites, and web pages, on the one hand, with the gantlets of clearance and security processes on the other. There are working groups that discuss these issues back in Washington; it would make a huge amount of sense to have some family bloggers at the table for these discussions too.

Please. Write your own stuff.