ethics of blog reviews

I asked my students to write a review of a blog of their choice. Several of the reviewees have read the reviews and left comments, mostly amused, some flattered, some disagreeing with the reviewer. One of them though, upon discovering that he has readers, is considering quitting blogging altogether. Vegard Johansen, another reviewee, is happy that he received good reviews, but writes that

Anmelder man en blogg eller en personlig hjemmeside sitter det alltid en privatperson bak, sÔø? da bÔø?r man heller velge Ôø? skrive en positiv omtale om noe man liker enn Ôø? skrive en lunken anmeldelse av noe man kanskje ikke i utgangspunktet liker eller er interessert i. (If you review a blog or a personal website there’s always an individual behind it, so you should choose to write a positive review of a site you like rather than a luke-warm review of a site you dislike from the start or aren’t interested in.)

Only a few days ago Lilia asked how one ethically uses material from weblogs when doing research. Obviously, I now have to ask a related question: Is it unethical to ask students to write reviews of weblogs?

In principle, a weblog is clearly a publication. Vegard’s argument that there’s an individual behind it whose feelings might get hurt makes no more sense than arguing that you should never give a film or a book a bad review: there are individuals behind them as well. Every literary critic has heard the stories of the guilt of a critic who wrote a scathing review of a novel only to read in the paper the next day that the author was found alone, at night, dead, a heart attack, sudden, his rigid hand still clutching a page of newspaper containing the review. If the writer didn’t want readers, she or he wouldn’t publish openly on the internet. If you publish, there will be responses, sooner or later. These aren’t people participating in a closed community where they have a fair expectation that their words will not be archived or spread outside of the community (there are ethical guidelines for such research) but writers who must surely know that their blogs can be read by anyone and that their words will be archived eternally by the national library (in Norway and probably many other countries they archive everything on the web in Norway, for future historians), by Google, by internet archivists, by stray readers…

Except they don’t know. Or not all of them. Or they know but don’t really feel it, you know?

One solution, in the case of student assignments, is to ask them to review specific blogs carefully chosen for their popularity and for the hardiness of a blogger used to feedback. Scott chose this approach last semester, and one advantage of his choice was that the students spent time reading and considering good blogs. I wanted my students to go to the effort of finding a blog they liked, because I reasoned that having the experience of finding a blog is a necessary part of understanding the genre. I am enjoying reading reviews of blogs I’ve never heard of before, too.

Another solution, perhaps more suited to research, is to simply ask the blogger before you quote him or her. Alex Halavais also suggested this simple solution in response to Lilia’s post. This is an approach that feels right at gut level, but it’s not appropriate for all blogs. I wouldn’t dream of asking Howard Dean if I could please quote his blog in my research paper. Nor did I ask Salam Pax for permission when I cited him. Both are institutions in the weblogging world, though of very different sorts.

For next year’s students? I don’t know. Perhaps we should simply discuss this in class, before the reviews are written. Perhaps we should talk about how to tell the difference between a blog so public and high profile that a review, good or bad, is obviously fine, and a blog so personal that its author might be harmed by a harsh review.

I could require that they choose a blog that has more than N links pointing to it.

In time, I hope that the general public becomes more aware of that to publish something on the internet means to publish it, and that unless it’s password protected it can and will be read by anyone.

What do you think?

29. April 2004 by Jill
26 comments

Comments (26)

  1. Wow. This is a medium where I think the important breakthrough is interactivity with an author, and where communication can go both ways. For an author to categorically reject any criticism is an admission that they aren’t really involved in the medium. I’d say full speed ahead, everything is fair game, and it’s just part of the process that sometimes people will dislike what you say. And if some delicate little flower is afraid their self-esteem might be hurt if someone breathes on their precious words, then they shouldn’t publish them.

    I would tend to agree that limiting reviews to blogs with some number of incoming links is reasonable, not because the little guys need protection, but just because students will be more likely to find something relatively permanent.

  2. I am not very surprised that to some of these people, being reviewed feels strange. Perhaps partly because although they do not mind having readers, they never pictured that their blogs (if they at all see themselves as writing a blog) would be reviewed as to whether their blog is genre-typical, whether their blog really is interesting to anyone and an analysis of who they are based on their blog postings. You would expect being reviewed if you publish a book or release an album or direct a movie, but then you are reviewed based on your professional work, whereas many blogs are more like public (but yet somehow private) diaries. Therefore Vegard may have a point. That being said, I believe your students should continue reviewing blogs, and people need to learn that by publishing information on the Internet, you make your ideas (and part of your life) public. Just like you write:”Except they don’t know. Or not all of them. Or they know but don’t really feel it, you know?”

  3. >>limiting reviews to blogs

    This would seem to make sense until you realize that most blogs don’t have a lot of incoming links, that by limiting the sample, you miss the opportunity to get a true picture of the blog world.

    This of course, depends on the nature of the course and the goals of asking students to review blogs.

    This reveals, however, what I think is the most unusual thing about the web in our day. People *expect to be obscure*. If you have to get a message out, but you don’t want everyone to see it, the web is the perfect place. It’s so huge, nobody will ever find it. Where do you hide a book? In the library, of course. This thinking is so prevalent on the web that bloggers expect to go unnoticed.

    If they expect to go unnoticed, then why blog? This is a really interesting question, and I’m not sure of the answer. The answer isn’t to tell people, “don’t blog.” I suspect it’s because people like to read their own writing, but I can’t say, since I’m the kind of person who’s pleased when people read my blog.

  4. This reminds me of the sort of difficulties I run into when doing concert reviews of local artists for the local newspaper. The analogy is: A blogger who doesn’t have a very big audience, generally has a very friendly audience (like a local artist will generally have when performing at home – old school friends, family etc.). Now imagine someone showing up who would never even consider paying to see the show (or reading the blog), listening (or reading) impartially and realising (as I frequently do at such events) that what is being performed is hardly excellent.
    I have adopted a double standard for reviews (double standards being, after all, twice as good as ordinary standards): One for amateurs (comparing them to their own best achievements) and another for professionals (comparing them to the best achievements available). This is, however, probably partly because, like in the blogosphere, the reviewee in a small community has generous opportunity to talk back, which a professional artist would rarely bother to do. Amateurs and professionals both need criticism to improve what they’re doing, though. The ethical part is very much about being ready to face whoever you have been reviewing. At the local pub or in your own blog’s comments.
    In answer to your question: I don’t think it is unethical to ask students to write blog reviews. It might, however, be unethical to publish them.

  5. Ethical, smethical… Oh brother, bloggers fear of being public! That strikes me as well, profoundly silly- why would anyone write in a public space and live in fear of what is written about them? Why even publish? They have their own platform (their blog) to counter any thing said about them.

    Anyhow, rather than having your students deal with trying to assess how “public” a blog is (arbitrary), you could go a bit more simple as commented above and ask permission- have the students write the blog owner ahead of time, explain their project, and then ask if the blog owner approves of the reivew. Okay, so maybe Howard Dean may not bother writing back (but some web grunt at his site is surely dealing with email requests), but perhaps no response = permission??

    Unless, you worry about tipping off a blog that it is being reviewed. Hmmmm, a different kettle of fish.

    To me the public aspect of blogging is what makes it powerful, and we should promote that, not hide it under the drapes.

    And old Vegard ought to develop some extra layers of skin or don a teflon overcoat.

  6. Very good Alan, I agree whole-heartedly, since having Blog=public domain=expect to be reviewed. Critical review is *just* what bloggle-earth needs. “Is it ethical to blog” is a more pertinent question, given that its mere existence is burning at least one person’s irreplacable resource: time. And maybe more, if the thing has readers.

  7. I’m surprised the question of ethics even arose. Anyone who publishes material has made it available to the public, and has to accept that someone may comment on/review it.
    We live in a world which has boosted many people’s self esteem to levels not all that soundly supported by their abilities; but since there’s no “magic” means of knowing in advance how insecure a particular person may be, surely it’s not a significant issue here?
    The world is not yet a sheltered workshop. Until it is, I’d assume the way to approach all forms of public statements, is to deal with them seriously as an attempt at meaningful communication, not as some form of psychological therapy.
    Whenever I’ve been involved in assisting groups or individuals with “shortcomings” of one sort or another, I’ve gone out of my way to help them to overcome the effects of their disabilities in as gentle and thoughtful a manner as possible. To do any less would be [in my view] grossly unethical. On many an occasion, I’ve been savagely critical of those who didn’t show the sorts of consideration I deemed justified in these circumstances; but items on the public record?
    In the final analysis, it comes down to whether you believe there can be blanket restrictions on making public comments on those making public comments. While I frequently make personal decisions on blogsites to NOT be too harsh on people who make incredibly foolish statements, I can see no case for any attempt to come up with an “ethical” formula, which restricts students’ freedom to review the public blog record.
    Shouldn’t we be more concerned if a student revealed an inability to come up with a site which contains material worth the effort of reviewing it in the first place?

  8. I don’t understand what would be “unethical” about reviewing a blog. A blog is just like any other published medium, open and available for critical analysis by the public at large.

    Most blogs exist in relative obscurity; they’re read by a small handful of friends and the occasional person who has stumbled on the blog and decided to keep reading. I think it’s analogous to the number of websites that feature photography — there are lots of them out there and most exist in relative obscurity. Still, they’re available for some critical review should anyone choose to do so.

    I think the more basic ideas here are:

    * to foster and develop critical thinking and analysis skills in students

    and, then, in the more particular:

    * to have the students develop a set of critical standards by which they can evaluate a given thing.

    Weez was doing a similar thing with her Web Design students. Through the course of the class the goal was to have the students see what worked in site design and what didn’t, and then to be able to communicate that idea back to her and to others. (And I don’t think there was any discussion of Ethics there)

    There are lots of different types of blogs. I’m curious to know on what basis your students decided to evaluate blogs — were they strictly academic? were they personal? were they “confessional”? How did they judge one against the other?

    And most of these judgements would, I would think, have to be very subjective. (I’m not sure how you could Quantify a blog; Quantifying any writing is like the opening pages of the book of poetry analysis that Robin William’s character has his students tear out of their textbooks in “Dead Poets’ Society”)

    I’m also interested to know if any of your student’s opinions of blogs changed over the course of the semister.

  9. There is ethics and there are manners.
    There is nothing ethically wrong with writing a review of something posted in a public domain. I also don’t think they have to be told to only write about things they like either, as disagreeing is fair enough in a public debate.

    What they need to learn and keep in mind while doing this is manners. You don’t slam the person behind a blog based on what they read in the blog. They have to address the written word and the cause, and not make assumptions they cannot back up through theory or facts, and they need to make their background for their criticism or assumptions obvious: give others the rules by which they play this game.

    You commenting on their work in public is perhaps more problematic than the students reviewing others. The students have no direct power over the people they review, and the reviewed bloggers can pick the reviews apart without having any direct power over the students. You are the one who wields real life, formalised power here, Jill. But your students have agreed to, and even applied to be part of this, so they have given their consent.

    Generally, I think this looks like ethical work all around. Just give them some directions on the etiquette, and let them know that if they cross the line to harassment and personal attacks, they are responsible for their own weblogs, and will be the ones to be sued.

  10. Det kan kanskje vÊre nyttig  gi studentene i oppgave  g gjennom “vÊr varsom” plakaten og diskutere hva som kan brukes i blogging derfra?

    http://www.nored.no/presseetikk/varsom.htm

  11. As you’re quoting me I guess I should comment this too.

    First: no, it’s not unethical to ask student to review blogs, infact I think it’s a brilliant idea, and I really enjoyed being reviewed myself.

    No, you don’t have to ask or notify the person behing the blog.

    Yes, anyone having a blog or posting to Usenet or other online forums will be read, and should expect to be read (this goes for the reviewers as well).

    I don’t however buy into the argument that a blog is *the exact same* as a book or a record, and can be treated as the same. This is as a book or a record most of the time have been approved by a publisher or a record company, and belongs in a more professional domain than many of the reviewed blogs do.

    What I did react on was clearly personal blogs (where target audience is family and friends) being treated as professional published magazines, and where the reviewer thought the blogger should *stop* blogging because the writings wasn’t interesting for the reviewer. Of course it wasn’t.

    This is *bad reviewing* and shows that the reviewer has a profound lack of knowledge when it comes to genre, different levels of professionality etc. It’s like accusing a young jazz band of not being the new Pixies. And yes, these reviewers should probably consider reviewing blogs they like rather than blogs they dislike. Or just get some more knowledge about the field they review before asking others to stop blogging.

  12. Fivecats> I’m not sure you can quantify a blog

    I think it was meant can you “perform an objective assessment” of a blog rather than can you measure the hit rate or some other quantity, which clearly you can. An objective assessment need not itself be quantitative, it might be qualitative. I believe that you very definitely can perform such an assessment. (Perhaps the English word for this ought to be quantify or qualify but it isn’t. They mean something else. The nearest we have is “grade”. Okay, so English needs fixing.)

    Fivecats recalled Robin Williams’s character rejecting the notion of assessment of poetry. That’s not a very apt analogy. A poem is something different, being a work of art with almost an abstract existence outside of its medium. A blog on the other hand is not a work of art. It is a complex document, which may or may not contain works of art. Blogs are more like documents in general, like websites at large, project plans, telephone directories, restaurant menus, newspapers even.

    Like any complex document or performance, the quality of a blog depends on many things other than the literal content of the works within it. We have to consider who the author is and what they are trying to achieve, what the stated and implied objectives behind the publication of it are, who the audience is meant to be, and actually is, the infrastructure provided by the document mechanics as well as the raw content, and on and on.

    All these things can, and should be, the subject of critical review.

  13. Everyone, thanks for your many wonderful comments!

    I think my conclusion so far is that yes, we’ll do this again but we’ll also discuss the ethics of it beforehand. Torill and Lars’s comparisons to journalism are interesting, and also Torill’s point about being polite, showing respect for the author of what is being reviewed.

    I went and reread the review that spurred this particular blogger to nearly stop blogging (he’s changed his mind this morning) and do you know, I think it’s a very respectfullly written review. I still have twenty reviews left to read (it’s pretty intensive work this grading), but so far I haven’t seen one that I think crosses the borders of respect – although some of them (not the one I just linked) strongly criticise details like a single broken link which make me wonder whether they’ve actually considered that their own blogs are hardly perfect in every respect.

    Ah well. Back to the grading salt mines.

  14. (This is meant to be general, and not about these particular reviews).

    I’m with Torill on this one (“VÊr varsom-plakaten” came to my mind too).

    Someone is shocked to find out that someone is actually reading their blog? The naivety! Are they stupid? Hm, let’s look into it for a bit (and find that it’s not that simple).

    We are all naive in some area or another. We are all new sometime. Some of the comments in this blog indicates a naivety to what blogging might mean to an average blogger. Most bloggers might not be well-read academics who has spent a lot of time reflecting upon the phenomen and its implications. The “elite blogs” make the most fuss and are most visible. But they are still the minority.

    I am not saying that you shouldn’t be able to review something that is in the public domain. But you must be ready to accept that the reviewee might be uncomfortable with it. When (if) most bloggers don’t feel that what they do is comparable to publishing a record or a book, then it isn’t. Just saying “he should have known the implications of publiching” won’t do.

    It’s not that we aren’t aware that people have opinions on us in our daily life. We are very conscious about this. (“Did I give a good impression in the job interview”? “I think she doesn’t like me.”) However social contracts of courtesy and “face-saving” prevents us from saying just what we think about eachother face to face. If we do think our new neighbours have ugly hair we probably won’t say so in front of them. Sometimes it’s not in our or the other party’s interest to be brutally honest.

    Finding out that your blog is the object of a review then, might compare to overhearing someone speaking about you behind your back. (If I understood it right, some of the reviewees in question learned about their reviewee status more or less by “network chance”, and not because the reviewer told them.) At least if the review makes conclusions about the blogger’s personality from reading the blog (like “this is clearly an average person”). We aren’t experienced with being judged and reviewed so openly. No wonder some people get their claws out.

    What is lacking is an understanding of what it means to publish. The full implications of this aren’t clear to the novice. One of the persons whose blog was linked to in this post seemed shocked to find out that people would be able to identify him, even though he wrote under full name(!) Many people have never reflected upon that what they write on the web might still be available for all to read in 20 years. And many haven’t thought through the consequences of writing about and indentifying other people without their consent.

    All because this form of publishing is new to us. If we have an audience it is often “hidden”. The Internet’s durability and omnipresence is hidden too, through its abstract counter-intuitive form.

    So what the kids need to learn in their IT-classes isn’t how to calculate a budget with an Excel spreadsheet. They need to learn how to deal with the new media reality, adapt to new ways of thinking, to understand what the internet is.

    In Norway the press has guidelines in the form of “VÊr Varsom”-plakaten. It’s a good idea for everyne who publishes to have reflected upon these kinds of guidelines.

  15. Look, here’s Ine, a journalist who writes a very amusing blog, and who suggests that a basic journalistic technique her reviewer doesn’t use is to write and ask when she has questions.

    It does seem that reviewing a blog is rather a different matter than reviewing a novel or a film. You wouldn’t dream of ringing the author of a novel to ASK how something should be interpreted.

    Perhaps the intentional fallacy – that oh-so-false belief that authors actually have any say in what their works mean – will be completely overturned by the radical increase in accessibility you get with blogs and email addresses.

    Or it won’t, I suppose. The power relationship will always be there, it’s just with blogs, it’s not a matter of officially published or not, there’s a continuum.

    Hm.

  16. Matt said

    I’m not sure you can quantify a blog

    I think it was meant can you “perform an objective assessment” of a blog rather than can you measure the hit rate or some other quantity, which clearly you can. An objective assessment need not itself be quantitative, it might be qualitative. I believe that you very definitely can perform such an assessment. (Perhaps the English word for this ought to be quantify or qualify but it isn’t. They mean something else. The nearest we have is “grade”. Okay, so English needs fixing.)>>

    And, yes, I was not meaning Quantify the number of hits a particular blog receives but, rather, the content of the blog itself.

    I think any time you’re assessing the written word, outside of proper sentence structure, spelling and the rules of the language, it is extremely difficult to Quantify the relative value of the writing. You can judge the Quality of the writing by your own standards, but that’s a separate issue.

    (and, yes, the English Language does need some fixing)

    Matt also said:
    >

    I disagree. I think you’re interpretation of “What is Art” should be expanded a bit.

    Blogs are, I believe, a different form of art. They’re constantly evolving, immediately public and interactive. Just because they don’t hang statically in a museum doesn’t make them barred from being art.

    Even documents, web pages and phone books are studied for proper layout, visual aesthetics and effectiveness with it’s intended audience.

    In terms of an > that, like beauty, would be in the eye of the beholder.

  17. Could be interesting, fivecats, but I think your comment was garbled. Edit again if you want me to understand it. Even then I think it’s OT for this post of Jill’s.

  18. I forgot that my use of double chevrons for quotations don’t translate well into Jill’s comments. It’s a Moveable Type thing, I believe.

    And, actually, I think if the discussion is about critical analysis, Art has to play into it somewhere.

  19. One point I forgot to mention: Asking students to review only blogs with a certain number of links pointing to them is a lot like saying to the guy who does the music reviews: Only write about records that sell. Or to ask book critics to concentrate on bestsellers (oh, they do that already? O my!)
    This would be most unadvisable, because sometimes good reviews are what can make an obscure writer, musician or whatever break out of obscurity. Much better, then, to suggest that students review blogs they like, or even better, blogs they feel strongly about, negatively or positively (it is uncommon to feel strongly about something that is average, amateurish or uninteresting, which likely covers a lot of the bloggers who would feel uncomfortable about being reviewed).

  20. Sure, fivecats, notions are of art are probably important somewhere, but I can’t begin to respond unless you repost e.g. with what you think I said! I’ve got no idea what your point is! I’m giving you C- for use of the technology, and deferring my evaluation of your content 😉

    By the way I have a pretty broad definition of Art. If I implied that blogs couldn’t be connected with art that was wrong of me. I meant that blogs, rather like say “an image on a surface in a frame on a wall in a room in a museum with some people” isn’t *just* a work of art, but a whole system of things (“signs” they all mutter at the back there) working together in some way. To get to the art you have to wade through some other stuff hence the complexity of evalution (a lot of which – and here’s where I think I disagree with you – is not purely aesthetic but objective). Oi Canelletto yer paint’s cracking! That’s an objective non-aesthetic evaluation of the packaging of an example artwork (which might actually have functioned in its time as a Venetian virtual reality fluff to promote tourism).

    Unlike a poem which is so tightly packed, and portable, in its light wordy form, that a near-pure aesthetic repsonse is almost possible directly. Hmmm strange how abstract works have more of this quality, I’m beginning to think Kandinsky wasn’t a raving loon after all. Lordy what’s this to do with blogs? Throw us off, by all means, Jill.

  21. Reviewing blogs seems like a good idea once a student has a body of experience with blogs. A range of them should be read. And I think I’d like students to write their own blog before they review others. That’s the best way to understand what the constraints and possibiities are.

    And, for what it’s worth, I’d take a similar approach to having students review poetry.

  22. Oh, I’m not going to throw you off the comments, I’m happy for you to sit and argue 🙂 So long as you don’t start throwing beer at each other or anything!

    Clancy posted about this today, linking the Association for Internet Researchers’ ethics guidelines (which I meant to but forgot to connect to all this, so thank you Clancy!) and also pointing out the difference between reviewing the BLOG and reviewing the BLOGGER. Most of the comments here seem to agree that making judgements about the person writing is not good. And where the reviews my students have written make me uncomfortable is where they get close to doing that.

    OK: for next time I run this assignment, we’ll discuss the following beforehand:

    • Difference between writing about a text and about its author
    • (might get into lit. theory and the intentional fallacy)
    • What it means to publish. How does blogging relate to traditional publishing?
    • VÊr varsom plakaten, Norwegian ethical guidelines for journalists, protecting people from themselves, considering what kinds of blogs to review.
    • Awareness that reviews might/will raise the visibility of a blog, at least of a small blog.
    • People WILL read what you write about their blog, unless they’re superstars. Realise that.
    • How is a review different from a simple post with a link to a blog and commentary?

    OK, so that could fill a whole lecture… What else?

  23. “English needs fixing” !?!?!?!?
    The two main problems with English are the richness of its vocabulary, and the lack of precision increasingly found among most of its users. Sadly, I not infrequently find second language speakers of English having a better grasp of the language’s nuances, than most of the native speakers.

    With regard to blog reviews, I’d argue that the only justifiable restraint to place on students, is that they try to avoid unnecessarily unkind comments. Quality evaluation often entails frank analysis of material. I’d suggest students should be encouraged to accept three basic points: —
    1] Their opinions may not [in one sense or another] be “correct”.
    2] Their analytical skills are developed by being brave enough to say what they currently believe to be correct.
    3] Their improvement, in common with the rest of us, often begins with a disagreement, which hopefully spurs us all on to analyse that conflict of ideas more carefully.

  24. Norman, that’s beautifully simple and yet sums it all up almost completely.

  25. When a teacher sends a class into an online community or discussion forum to learn about the Internet, I usually file a complaint with the teacher’s supervisor for unethical interference with the public, especially since the class totally disrupts the community. This is exactly the same as if an entire class walked into a, say, lawn bowling club unannounced and uninvited, and then started yelling, screaming, knocking things around, standing in the pit, and so on in an attempt to better understand the nature of “lawn bowling.” While the lawn bowling pitch is open to the public, that does not justify the researcher from exceeding common social norms.

    From an ethical point of view, professional universities these days require that all interactions with the public must be approved by the university ethics review board. There are certain exceptions like when interviewing an *expert*, but someone’s personal blog is not that. It is their personal front lawn.

    http://usemod.com/cgi-bin/mb.pl?FrontLawn

    Just because most front lawns is open to public access, does not mean that researchers have the right to criticize the owner of that property directly. As private citizens they might be allowed to yell at the owner, but not in an academic setting.

    The claim that writing on a blog is publishing is really bogus. Most people do not feel that they are publishing. People on the net have a reasonable expectation of privacy. When I am talking to my friends on the street, that conversation is still private even if you are watching it. The reality of the ‘Net’s traffic patterns suggest this. Anyone is physically capable of walking across my unfenced front lawn in real life, but demonstrating this directly to my face will make me feel less secure, and thus it will do me harm.

    Similarly it is improper to pierce the blogger’s bubble that they are writing for themselves and their friends. While again this is technically possible, that does not sanction research.

    The real problem is identifying what is a private blog and what is a public blog. Perhaps that makes this conversation moot. But I think a professional blog (i.e. one about my career) is public, whereas a personal blog (i.e. one about my life) is private, unless you can justifiably claim the person is a celebrity.

    Anyway, it is not as cut and dry an issue as the others here have made it out to be.

  26. Weblog research ethics (3)
    Just to make sure I have it somewhere:

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