ethics and guidelines for personal bloggers: advertising, privacy and honesty
Quite often I receive emails from high school students writing papers about blogging who have long lists of questions they’d like me to answer. Unfortunately I don’t often have time to answer ten questions in detail, but I do try to send some general suggestions and references. This morning’s questions were about guidelines for blogging and how some of Norway’s most popular bloggers follow them. The student plans to look specifically at the blogs of Regine Stokke (she’s the 18-year-old who recently died of cancer and wrote about her illness, bringing me to tears) and Voe (the fourteen-year-old I wrote about last week).
I don’t think I’ve ever explicitly listed guidelines for bloggers – I think that’s very dependent on context and on what kind of blog you’re writing. I’ve certainly discussed various guidelines, for instance in presentations like this one.
When it comes to personal blogs, I think there are three main kinds of guideline or ethical issues you need to consider:
- Privacy – both your own and your friends’. How much information do you want to share? How much do you think its OK to write about your friends and family? Think about your audience, and your potential audience. Will your friends and family read this? Will they be able to recognise you or themselves? Will your teacher or employer read it? Would it bother you if your (perhaps still unborn) children read this in ten or twenty or thirty years? What about photos of your friends and family? (Thanks to lskwew for reminding me of this.)
- Dooce was the first prominent blogger to be fired for her blog. I’ve written a fair bit about this in my book Blogging, but you can also find lots about it online, including her first post about it. In a recent article from Forbes, you can read about the continuation of Dooce’s blog – and about how she among other things decided to delete anything she’d written about her family that she wouldn’t have felt comfortable saying in front of a bunch of strangers. That’s not a bad guideline for blogging and privacy: don’t publish things you wouldn’t say to a bunch of strangers.
- Justin Hall is another famous and long-term personal blogger. In 2005 he posted an emotional video explaining that he was quitting blogging because it drove his friends away from him. Since then he has begun blogging again, but in a much less intimate manner.
- Advertising and disclosure The FTC (Federal Trade Commission, the US equivalent, more or less, to the Norwegian forbrukerombudet) recently issued guidelines for bloggers requiring them to say so if the products they’re writing about were sent to them for free by the company, or if they have been paid to write about something. This is still not required in most countries. In fact, popular Norwegian bloggers like Voe don’t necessarily disclose that they have received products for free. For instance, it’s not entirely clear from Voe’s enthusiastic endorsement of her OnePiece suit that it was sent to her for free, as this article in Aftenposten clearly states. She does clearly feel a need to defend her integrity in writing product reviews, however, as you can see in this post, “My opinions are not for sale“. In Blogging I argue that bloggers who aren’t honest about when they’re being paid will lose their credibility, meaning fewer readers and less advertising money. Anyway, if you’re a personal blogger and receiving freebies (and most personal bloggers don’t, to be honest you need a lot of readers to get to that point) you need to think about if and how you want to write about those products.
- Honesty – how truthful do you want to be in your blog? There are plenty of examples of fictional blogs that have presented themselves as real. When readers discovered they were fictional, they felt cheated and became very angry (I’ve blogged about why readers get angry at this. On a smaller scale, most bloggers leave out the ugly bits and maybe play up the good stuff, as in the quote from Lars Tangen in this blog post. I’m not saying you need to be utterly honest (in fact, the more literary blogs get, the less factual truth matters, in my opinion, but you do need to think about this.
Do you think there are other ethical issues that personal bloggers should consider?