What’s the Harm in Blogging?

Uncategorized / Monday, March 10th, 2014

By Deborah Brandt

Deborah Brandt is professor emerita of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she was a longtime writing teacher and writing program administrator.  She is author of the award-winning Literacy in American Lives and a 2011 Guggenheim fellow.  She just finished a new book about changing relationships between reading and writing, as seen through the experiences of workaday writers, and is at work on a co-authored book about writing development across the lifespan.

The first two times Writing Center director Brad Hughes invited me to contribute something to Another Word, I didn’t respond.  This resistance puzzled me in some ways.  My career has been dedicated to teaching and studying writing.  I am a champion of all things writing – with the UW-Madison Writing Center high on the list.  Some of my happiest moments in life are spent writing. Besides, aren’t blogs among the most appealing forms of expression?  Breezy, easy, low stakes, anything goes—an embodiment of the best democratic potential of the Internet?  So when Brad asked for the third time, I thought, okay, what’s the harm?

Professor Emerita Deborah Brandt, Department of English, UW-Madison
Professor Emerita Deborah Brandt, Department of English, UW-Madison

But blogs can do harm – especially, although not exclusively, to the people who write them.  We have all heard the stories of the flight attendant, teacher, tech worker, political aide, among others, who were fired for blogging on private time in ways that put their employers in a bad light.  Even a pseudonym may not guarantee protection.  In the civilian context, prospective jurors have been dropped—and sometimes a conviction has been overturned—after aspects of court proceedings leak out via blogs and other social media in violation of judges’ instructions.

Now you might say:  Blame the blogger, not the blog.  Feckless or reckless writers can get themselves into trouble via any genre.  But blogs seem to invite—and even demand—intimate (or provocative or entertaining) revelations even as those same features may become incriminating in the eyes of employers or government or anyone else with a browser.  Consider how one West Coast citizen came to be dropped from jury duty after blogging light-heartedly about her attraction to one of the attorneys on the case.  It just so happened that a newspaper was planning a story on the problem of jurors’ use of social media.  In a search for examples, the newspaper found her blog and sent it to a jury consultant for a comment.  But that jury consultant felt compelled to turn the blog entry over to the judge in the case, and the prospective juror was dismissed.  Just as blogs invite heightened expression, they enable heightened policing.

We may want to let our hair down in a blog and be ourselves. We may presume to represent only ourselves. When we write about our jobs or how we spent the day in a jury pool we may want to see those experiences as our experiences, with implications only for us (and maybe our circle of readers).  But blogs foreground the difficulty of separating the private individual from the corporate body—a difficulty inherent in nearly any kind of public, published writing. We can’t seem to write in public without implicating others and maybe incriminating ourselves in the process. Personal blogs may make us feel like freewheeling journalists but they come without the sturdy first-amendment protections afforded to the press.  The tendency of the Internet in general and blogs in particular to jumble up the private and public, the lay and the professional, the civic and the commercial– and to archive this jumble in enduring, searchable form—can, under certain circumstances, make the stakes around personal blogging anything but low.

For all the troubling free-speech questions that personal blogging can raise, I am actually more concerned about the potential harm of another kind of blogging—the kind I am doing right now—in which the private writing voice is recruited to advance institutional or corporate interests.   Blogs have become a ubiquitous appendage to many kinds of websites because they can attract and engage clientele, put personal face(s) on a business or a bureaucracy, and serve as a soft sell for products and services.  An editor for a literary magazine recently explained to me why her boss required all the staff members to maintain blogs: “She wanted each of us to have a blog that mentioned the magazine’s name every once in a while.  She thought that was a good idea for getting the magazine’s name out there.  She also wanted authors who send in manuscripts to know that we are also writers and that we are into it.”  I think some of that same logic is at work here at Another Word.  The blog raises the Writing Center’s visibility on the Internet, keeps like-minded people connected, and showcases a staff of engaged and engaging writers.

Unlike the personal blog, the organizational blog intentionally jumbles the life experiences and viewpoints of the individual writer with a company’s image and viewpoints in order to create publicity value.   Under these writing conditions, the harm can come in allowing your personal life to be commodified.  The harm can come in developing your own viewpoints (one of the greatest gifts of personal writing!) through the constraints of public relations.  The harm can come in writing something that really matters to you only to realize that many readers will treat it as just another info-mercial for your sponsor.

I especially cringe when I see so many blogs bouncing around the Internet that appear to have been written under compulsion in a college class. In these blogs students gamely write responses to assigned readings, responses that are often followed by comments from the overseeing teacher and/or fellow students.   These digital practices defy well-guarded legal privacies that have traditionally surrounded learning and literacy.   Exchanges between teachers and students are supposed to have the same confidentiality status as doctor-patient exchanges, no doubt in recognition of the vulnerabilities involved.  Further, the right to reading privacy has long been considered a cornerstone of first-amendment freedom, necessary for citizens to maintain independence and critical thought free of government surveillance.  Now, assigned reading blogs posted to the Web preserve for anyone to see connections between particular individuals and particular books, connections that librarians throughout history have fought hard to conceal.   That all of this happens as part of a course requirement makes the practice that much more troubling.

I can’t conclude without recognizing the positive attributes of blogging, which are many.  I have talked with plenty of bloggers, students and employees alike, who feel a sense of growth and connection to others when they blog, even increased levels of assertiveness and courage, not to mention celebrity. Blogs can be effective forms of political and humanitarian action as well as grounds for the display of enthusiasms and a means to find genuine audiences and allies.  Another Word is clearly building camaraderie and professional wisdom among the writing center community and beyond.  But to me blogs are a reminder that all writing is inherently risky, filled with unmanageable implications for others and ourselves.  When we project our words into the world, we lose control of them and their consequences.  Words will always mean more than what they say. Writing always has the potential to harm you.

*The word cloud for this post was created using wordle.net.

9 Replies to “What’s the Harm in Blogging?”

  1. I can see Deb’s point here. There is harm in blogging, much as there is harm in the many kinds of autobiographical writing that have appeared over the years–both pre- and post-Internet–that have jumbled the personal and the private to serve the purposes of sponsors (slave narratives, travel narratives, self-help narratives, and many other kinds of personal writing serve larger missions that may or may not be within the writer’s control or field of awareness).

    What I fear more than the exploitation and commodification of the private writing voice is the selective reading that blogs promote. The sheer number of blogs, the vagaries of Internet searching, and the personal expectations of the writers seem to me to pose a perfect storm. Blogs are so easily read, selectively, out of context by people who aren’t part of the intended audience (as in Deb’s example of the would-be juror). With print narratives, it’s much easier to get a sense of the context for the personal writing, and much less likely that the actual audience will be radically different than the author’s intended audience.

    For me, part of the excitement of a blog is that it could be read by anyone. I’ve assigned blogs in classes and have been thrilled when some unknown person has responded. It makes the idea of audience so much more real. But I think most of us who blog, if we’re honest, have a pretty specific audience of “anyones” in mind–and that audience doesn’t include reader-bots who home in on individual words out of context, let alone human readers who aren’t much more appreciative of our carefully chosen, personal words.

    All that said, I’m glad that Deborah Brandt has chosen one of my favorite blogs for her first post!

  2. Deborah Brandt’s writing always compels, and this post is no exception. I take the point that an ill-considered blog post can come back to bite the writer in unexpected ways. I would add only that it’s more than blogs. The entire world of social media, including Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube and the rest, has the potential to expose, abash, and otherwise damage an incautious writer. Even e-mails can be a hazard, as a University of Wisconsin professor recently learned (http://chronicle.com/article/One-Email-Much-Outrage/145227/?cid=at&utm_source=at&utm_medium=en). We are all still figuring out the new rules. Given that these new forms of communication will not go away, however, we will need to articulate these new norms of property and privacy (assuming the latter is still even possible).

  3. Thank you for a wonderful post, Professor Brandt! Your closing line couldn’t be more true. I feel like I am constantly hearing about people who have written something online, whether it be in a blog, on Facebook, or another social media outlet, and have suffered dire consequences. I was recently interviewed for a podcast, and as I prepared my answers, I was purposely vague on certain points and really tried to edit out really personal details. In fact, I tried to tailor my answers to what they should be rather than what they really were because I was being interviewed as a student and employee of my institution; it wasn’t me as student or me as a person that the interviewers wanted to know about, but rather the combination of student and employee. To say I was nervous would have been an understatement; I wanted to represent myself as well as I could, but I also had to be cognizant of the institution I was representing in my dual role.
    Thanks for continuing to nurture the camaraderie within the writing center community!

  4. Deb is always deep in her reflections on what we take for granted as just “there”, like blogs. Thank you, Deb.

  5. Thanks, Deb, for this post. It was a timely one for me, since this semester marks my first foray into assigning blogs in a college classroom: students created a blog and authored a series of short posts that “translated” the content of an academic paper for a specific, not-academic audience (e.g., a parent, co-worker, sibling, roommate).

    Sure, it’s a limited use of the medium, but here’s why I jumped on the blogging bandwagon: as a writing teacher, I feel obligated to account for how digital technologies are shaping writing/communication. I especially want to help humanities students acquire some facility with technologies that could help them productively “translate” their writing/communication skills from academic to non-academic (e.g., professional) settings. Blogs seem to be an easy entry point. The benefit of blogging, I’ve found, is in Julie’s point about a changed sense of audience for one’s writing: not (only) the teacher, but also someone else.

    I’d like to think that having students experiment with blogging as a classroom exercise can help them develop rhetorical facility (critical awareness of purpose, audience, context, etc.) that could, in turn, help students blog in ways that minimze their potential to harm. But I’ve love to hear what more experienced bloggers/teachers have to say about this.

    Tim? Scot? Annette? Are you out there?

  6. Last week, I happened to hear a presentation about a writing center blog aimed at an international audience (Connecting Writing Centers Across Borders) that was struggling to find an audience exactly because the directors of these writing centers were concerned about the political consequences of sharing opinions in a public space. Thank you, Deb, for reminding us that these conditions are not unique to international writers.

    And thank you for posing this as a paradox! We are all smarter for having read this challenge to the value of academic institutional blogging, but how would we have read this challenge but for a blog? Any other venue would almost certainly exclude me from your audience: would you have published it in a journal (perhaps behind a paywall), or shared it at a conference, or raised it in a seminar? I see the risks of writing to an audience wider than we can tidily imagine, but doesn’t silence also have risks?

  7. It’s true that email or blogs can be dashed off unthinkingly, and that those hasty words can acquire permanence in digital networks, haunting their authors for years to come. But that’s no reason to not write. It’s a reason to write carefully. And to teach students to write carefully–especially when they write online.

    Because I think it’s critical for students to learn to write in online spaces, I use blogs in every class I teach. I run all of my student blogs through WordPress, on my own website. They’re fully public (most are linked on my teaching page on my website). As any responsible writing teacher might for any genre, I lead conversations about what writing in this space means, how we should conceive of audience, and how to work with—and against—the conventions of the genre. After discussions about the public nature of online writing, I encourage students to use pseudonyms (most do). As a result, students practice writing in a more “realistic” writing context than they might if they write just to me.

    I quote the word “realistic” from an ongoing student survey study I’m doing about blogs in the classroom. Students report on these surveys that the blogs in my class are more “realistic” than the writing they do in locked-down university course management systems like Blackboard. My impression as a teacher has always been that blogs build community within the classroom, promote confidence about writing, and help students think more carefully about their writing because it’s directed to a wider audience. My surveys of students suggest that they feel this way, too. They read each other’s writing and enjoy it, and they think about how to write not just for grades but also for respect and attention. (I’ll have a link up on my blog soon about this, and will be writing more on it later.) Perhaps I’ve thought a bit more about blog-specific pedagogy than most instructors who try them out, and so not all uses of them in writing classes is productive. But rather than to just give up, this is a reason for writing instructors to learn more about how to teach with the medium.

    Mike alludes to the benefits of writing in public: a wider audience, greater sharing and debating of ideas. As an infrequent blogger and regular Twitterer myself, I’ve enjoyed many of the benefits of putting my writing in a public space. Most recently, my blog post on Code.org was responded to by its founder. The professional connections I’ve made over Twitter are impossible to count. I use these networks to publicize my other academic writing, and enjoy hearing about new work from my network in turn. My personal and professional identity are impossibly merged. But haven’t they always been for most of us who write for academic purposes?

    This isn’t to say that pseudopersonal-corporate blogging or forced student blogging shouldn’t make us feel uncomfortable. The point about hard-won teacher-student privacy provisions is important. But I remain convinced that writing teachers should engage with blogs in their classrooms—carefully, critically, responsibly, so that students can do the same when they write in online public spaces. And when students do write carefully, critically and responsibly in online spaces, they may be able to reap the benefits of more widely circulated ideas, more diverse personal networks, and greater facility with the many communicative options now open to them.

  8. As many others have observed above, Deborah has challenged me to think critically about an issue I previously had not really thought all that critically about before!

    Prior to reading this piece, when I would think of blogs, my first impulse would be to think about the ways that they can be “liberating”: how they allow individuals to reach large audiences and, to use the Quaker expression, “speak truth to power.” Perhaps I developed this impression based primarily on the incredible and profound blog posts written by an Iraqi woman using the pseudonym, “Riverbend.” Her posts were subsequently collected and published in a book by CUNY Press entitled “Baghdad Burning,” a book I have taught many times in different classes over the years. This book, quite simply, never ceases to electrify and move students. Here we have an Iraqi woman, fluent in English, writing about her experiences during the American occupation of Iraq. She reached a huge international audience, including many within the United States. The analysis of the conditions in Iraq during the occupation, in my opinion, vastly surpassed the reporting done by most American mainstream media outlets. Had it not been for her blog, there simply would have been no way for Riverbend to express herself and reach such a large audience in such a profound way.

    But Deborah rightly reminds us with all forms of writing, it ultimately comes down to “use” and power relations. This feature of writing is by no means new, in fact it’s as old as writing itself, but as my good friend Duffy notes above, with blogs and so many other forms of social media, it seems as if “we are all still figuring out the new rules.” While I was happy to write a post of my own for the UW Writing Center blog, I would want to do quite a bit more research and thinking about blogs before incorporating them into my writing classes. Perhaps I’m overly cautious here, but it’s one thing for me to write a post for a blog and assume the responsibility of my words, but it’s quite another to use my institutional authority as a professor to “require” students, particularly first year students, to engage in this form of writing given some of the stakes involved. Again, maybe I’m too cautious but I’d want to give this some real thought first.

    Thanks, Deborah, for this provocative post.

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