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
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