Blogging and Privacy in the Times

George Washington University law professor Jeffrey Rosen has an article in the Sunday New York Times Magazine that explores the ways in which blogs are redefining the boundaries between public and private. For most bloggers, this type of story is probably old news, especially given the infamous Washingtonienne “scandal” and other lesser-known stories about bloggers losing jobs or relationships because of their blogs, but I think the article does raise some valuable legal and ethical questions about the ways in which blogs blur that boundary.

A similar thread of discussion has been floating around this corner of the academic blogosphere, with G. and profgrrrl weighing in. Like profgrrrl, Rosen notes in passing that “although men and women blog in roughly equal numbers, personal bloggers are more likely to be women than men.” I won’t revisit all of the points that have been raised on this topic, but it’s worth noting that Rosen addresses the gender disparity in terms of how it plays out in the discussion of the personal.

I think that what I find more interesting is the way in which Rosen treats blogs as personal documentaries, using some of the same formulas that were used to analyze popular webcams such as the now defunct Jennicam.org. Specifically, he describes Justin Hall’s links.net as kind of a “gonzo documentary” (Justin also has a blog about his studies at USC where he is a student in the interactive media division of their film school). I’m not quite sure what I find unsatisfying about Rosen’s characeterization of blogs as “documentaries.” It may be that in Rosen’s description, these “documentary” blogs still seem to have a voyeuristic quality, as if blogs were meant merely to be read or seen, like a low-budget reality TV show, while I see blogs as far more interactive.

But I think there’s also an unstated assumption about (and fear of) the process of “recording,” one that seems connected to the unruly audiences who read (and write) blogs. When Rosen discusses law blogs (or blawgs), he acknowledges some discomfort at what his students might be writing about his public performance as a teacher. He reflects that “now that I know that students may be reporting my after-class comments without my knowledge, I’m more likely to be circumspect in private conversations.” While some version of privacy may be lost here, I do think we’re seeing the emergence of a new form of cultural literacy that while redefining the boundary between public may also become more acutely aware of the role of language and communication in daily life, with Rosen, echoing former FCC chief Reid Hundt in acknowledging that blogs make “controlling audiences” impossible. Of course, “controlling audiences” has never been as simple as Rosen implies here, although I would agree that blogs make the multiplicity of audiences far more evident than before.

Not sure I have a conclusion here, but I’m intrigued by this discussion of privacy, especially as it pertains to the question of documentary and “reality TV.”

2 Comments »

  1. Steve Said,

    December 19, 2004 @ 5:44 pm

    I’d rather some people not know about my blog, and so I take precautions to protect my identity. I have also been cyberstalked, which is easily ended, but not so fun to deal with.

    Some things need to be left off the internet, and i think younger people (which many bloggers are) can be too trustful of strangers at times.

  2. Chuck Said,

    December 20, 2004 @ 12:28 pm

    I’ve mentioned before that I’ve thought about starting another anonymous blog weher I could talk about more personal issues.

    When I talk to my students about blogging (and granted I’m talking to college students who are adults), they seem pretty savvy about these privacy issues (i.e., not mentioning their full names on their blog, etc).

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