Notes on the Atrocities
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Friday, May 30, 2003  

Ethics and Blogging
This is slightly tangential to our theme here on literary week, but I think it's relevant. As Blogging emerges as a new medium of communication, issues of ethics arise as surely as issues of style and language. Three that I find particularly pressing involve the blogroll, linkage, and anonymity.

The Blogroll
Blogs have innate interest individually, but as a means of communication, they don't become fully realized until they function as part of a network. Or so goes my thinking. Lone blogs are like lone columns--interesting, but not comprehensive. Put several of them together, though, and you have something roughly akin to a newspaper.

When you find a blog you like, then, there's a certain expectation that the links on the blog roll will reflect the tastes and interests of the blogger (or at least that was my expectation when I started reading blogs). But the blogger is beset by a competing desire, as I discovered once I started blogging: to expand readership. Thus, the blogger is immediately confronted with the dilemma about how to get on other bloggers' blogrolls while maintaining a blogroll reflecting her (or his) own personal tastes.

Kos sums it up nicely:

"As you can no doubt tell, I am extremely stingy on links. As a marketing tactic, that's not very smart -- link exchanges are a great way to promote one's site. It's also not the best way to be a good blogosphere citizen -- I should be helping promote new up-and-coming blogs and playing nice with the established ones as well."

Ethically, however, I have one quibble. I think being a good blogosphere citizen means putting up only links to sites you read and enjoy. There's a lot wrong with publishing, but it does have one virtue: it filters. There's no such mechanism in the blogosphere. Anyone who wishes can start a blog--and millions have. It's as if John Updike had no special status over any of the other millions of writers in the world. From a consumer's perspective, that's not a good system--we have to wade through a half million John Smiths before we randomly happen across Updike's book.

Therefore, ethically, I think bloggers are duty bound to constrain themselves to listing only the bloggers they like. Otherwise, the blogosphere will become to chaotic and too thin to function as an independent medium.

Asking for Linkage
If the blogroll is supply-side, then what about demand? That is to say: what's the etiquette regarding the practice of emailing other bloggers and requesting that they link to a post of yours? As blogs proliferate, this is going to become an increasingly pressing question.

My suspicion is that those who have traffic in the thousands or tens of thousands have a different attitude than those with traffic in the tens or hundreds. I think there are some rules of thumb, though, that make good, common sense.

1. Emailing someone a link is fine, but once you've sent the request, your job is done. The reason we mail the links to the more prominent bloggers is that we wish to be seen more broadly. It seems only reasonable to expect that you'll get the link if your post warrants it.

2. Keep it short. For folks receiving buckets of emails every day, keeping it short and to the point is nice.

3. Reciprocity is fair play. Part of being a good blog citizen is noticing good content and referring your audience there.

4. I also think it's a nice gesture to send links out that don’t promote your own site. People have learned that I'm interested in the theocracy meme, and so I often get links from folks who've discovered some source material there. That's great, too.

5. Don't over-email. Sending out a link when you hit on something especially interesting is one thing, but spamming with every post is another.

6. I don't know if this is relevant or not, but I'll mention it: if someone has a commenting feature, use it. That's a nice way of supporting someone's site.

[Update: In an email, Kos suggested a seventh point: "I would add one more item -- if you ask for a link, make sure your subject matter is relevant to the topic of the blog you are approaching. While I can be broadly characterized as a "political" blogger, I consider myself a specialist in elections (despite my notoriety as a "warblogger"). I am far more likely, thus, to link to those who have particular emphasis on elections."]

On Anonymity
If we wish blogging to be a useful and usable medium, don't we have a right to know whose words we're reading? It's a good question. For obvious reasons, I think anonymity has its virtues.

The chief function of a pseudonym is to separate the blogger from the blog. The benefit is that the reader can judge the material on its own merit, without having to take into account the writer's history, biology, or personality. The downside is that there's no context.

I originally started using the Emma Goldman pseudonym when I posted regularly on the Atlantic Monthly message boards. They were at that time dominated by slightly dim conservatives (I haven't been back much since starting the blog). I chose the name to let people know where I was coming from, just by looking at my name. A secondary benefit was that I noticed people tended to speak to me as if I were Jewish and female, exposing their own assumptions. (If I had chosen Che Guevara, as I considered, would they have thought me male and Latino?)

Interestingly, I've discovered that so far, readers in the blogosphere don't tend to hold such solid assumptions going in. If I were to do it all over again, I'd probably just use my real name.

Most bloggers who use pseudonyms do tend to include many facts of their lives. When this happens, we don't have any way of verifying them. I think that after blogging goes through a few more stages, this might create some problems. (Raed, for example, might be an office manager from Topeka.) If it does, I guess we can come out of the dark. Until then, sign me--

Emma Goldman

(Oh, there's also that Ashcroft's America thing, but with the Total--err, Terrorist--Information Awareness thing, I figure there's a dossier in Langley with my real name on it already.)

posted by Jeff | 3:11 PM |
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