Privacy in the age of blogging

by Eszter Hargittai on December 20, 2004

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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10.23.05 at 2:58 pm



pedro 12.20.04 at 4:51 pm

Interesting post. My wife just discovered yesterday that her students have blogs referring to her by name. One of the bloggers is quite rude, actually. The other three references found are just amusing, even flattering. But I do wonder if these kids realize that it’s quite easy to find these things online.


brayden 12.20.04 at 5:05 pm

Professors as public figures can expect to see their names ridiculed (or praised) from time to time in a public domain. The article refers to, a website that hosts student reviews of their professors. Some of those reviews are pretty harsh and, given the site doesn’t censor students’ views, some can be downright insulting.


des von bladet 12.20.04 at 5:14 pm

My own bladet’s ethics committee holds that it is not our business to blog other persons’ stories, so we don’t. (With the occasional and limited exception of blogmoots.)

But we’ll have to wait and see what view the courts take in jurisdictions covered by privacy laws. My lay opinion would be that blogs are a medium like any other, but I am not especially the European Court of Human Rights.

Courrier International had a round-up (in French) of German media coverage of the case of prinsess Caroline of Monaco and the resulting legal imbroglio.


harry 12.20.04 at 6:35 pm

Not a legal matter, but what about the ethics of insulting people under the mask of anonymity? I sometimes have a very hard time with commenters who feel entitled to let out an insult which, if they were not pseudonymous, they would never use. Similarly with bloggers who insult from behind their own false identities (for example some of the psuedo-left pro-war blogs I’ve seen).

Even commenters whose comments I’m eager to read soemtimes do this. It especially bugs me when the commenter/blogger is clearly an academic.

Compare with directly sending an anonymous insulting letter or email. This (of which I ahve been a victim a number of times including, most recently, from a student in a course of mine — I knew it was a student because it referred directly to things said in the previous day’s class) is despicable. How does blog posting and commenting differ?

By contrast, if pedro’s wife’s student is blogging under his/her own name, that seems fine to me (though hurtful, and evidence of bad manners, etc).


pedro 12.20.04 at 7:17 pm


My wife and I certainly don’t think there’s anything wrong with her student’s public rant. It’s pretty harmless, and if it helps her vent, great. By contrast, I would consider it strictly unethical for my wife to punish her student with harsh grading.

Incidentally, the student’s blog is psuedo-anonymous (her first name is disclosed but her last name isn’t—like some of us commenters’). She does call every professor in the Department by name, which is very amusing. Her blog cannot be found via Google, so I’ve no idea how my wife sumbled upon it. I’ll have to ask.


eszter 12.20.04 at 7:58 pm

Harry, I definitely think there are issues with insulting people or being overly critical anonymously (actually, there are issues with insulting people with one’s name signed as well). Comments I get on here that are clearly completely anonymous I tend to take much less seriously (or I try to in any case). It’s just way too easy to be critical without having to sign your name to it. It’s also much easier to blog that way. Of course, it’s hard to verify people’s identity and people could be making up names and email addresses in their comments.

On a different point, although there is a large occurrence of “psuedo” online, the correct spelling is actually “pseudo”.;) (Since it’s been misspelled by two people on this thread, I thought I’d interject.)


harry 12.20.04 at 8:01 pm

I just thought I’d confirm that, unlike most of the errors I make, ‘psuedo’ reflects an inability to spell, rather than an inability to type.


Jake 12.20.04 at 8:23 pm

I thought it was a basic of blogging ettiquette to never refer to some one other than yourself by a false name or at least to hide their identity in some way unless you have their implicit permission.

some people are a bit funny when it comes to privacy, I saw quite a few blogs discussing people who exercise their right to a secret ballot when asked who they were going to vote for, which is probably relevant


pedro 12.20.04 at 8:55 pm

perhaps ‘psuedo’ occurs very frequently online precisely because it is an easy typo to incur in, and a hard one to detect, rather than because of widespread ignorance of its correct spelling. At least for us Spanish speakers, the transposition of the “u” and “e” has a significant effect on the pronunciation of the word that it is very hard for us not to know how to properly spell it. That doesn’t prevent me from repeatedly making that typo.


Zed 12.20.04 at 9:51 pm

I noticed the same story. It’s silly, there are a very limited number of blogs with expose their sex lives.


JennyD 12.20.04 at 11:48 pm

This is an interesting problem. Let’s think about from a publishing perspective. If you are a publisher, and you publish information about a “private person” (rather than a celebrity or politician or someone who has pushed themselves into the public eye) you have a much higher burden of accuracy. You can’t say anything about anyone, or else they can sue you for libel.

The wronged party doesn’t even necessarily have to prove intent, if the party is a private person.

The other thing is publishers are not anonymous, which is part of the bargain of the libel law.

I suspect that some anonymous blogger is going to wake up some day to a pretty decent libel suit. I welcome it, to some extent, as it will legitimize blogging as a form of publishing. I feel sorry for the dopey blogger who gets hit, but maybe he should know better than to publish nasty things about regular people.


R J Keefe 12.21.04 at 1:31 am

Anonymity automatically lowers the quality of Web log postings.
Until human beings do some currently-unforeseeable evolving, we will continue to want to "place" the people to whom we’re listening and talking. The difference between a sixty year-old man and a thirty year-old woman is not altogether without significance, particularly where personal responses (by which I don’t mean "intimate" ones) are salient. So are all the other small characteristics that distinguish us.

Secrecy and publication don’t go together. The well-written
roman à clef
may be irresistible, but few Web logs are likely to attain such distinction. In general, I’m not interested in the details of a hated job, much less those of a troubled romance, so anonymity in these areas doesn’t bother me. But where matters of a general, private or public intellectual nature, I really can’t see that anonymity is justified. Perhaps I’m being naive; perhaps I put stock in the likelihood that my dependence upon semicolons will repel troublemakers.

I do realize that women are bound to feel somewhat more cautious about revealing their identities.


rea 12.21.04 at 1:55 am

“I do realize that women are bound to feel somewhat more cautious about revealing their identities.”

Goodness! What concerns might a woman have about revealing her identiy online that aren’t equally applicable to a man?


R J Keefe 12.21.04 at 8:03 pm

I wrote with the long thread on academic women bloggers (see Kieran’s post of last week) in mind.

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