I answered an e-mail from a reader of my blog today who asked a question that I think is one of the most difficult to answer:

I work for a rather large consortium in _______ and wondered if you have any advice on navigating around issues of privacy and professionalism when writing your blog?

What we choose to disclose on our blogs depends on so many things; the policies of our place of work, the or attitudes of our colleagues, how we feel about our job, and how comfortable we are with self-disclosure. Some people are so limited by their work that they have to write anonymously. Some people love their jobs so much that they write about what goes on at work all the time. Most people fall somewhere in the middle. I don’t write too much about what I do on a day-to-day basis and I definitely don’t complain about those things in our workplaces that annoy all of us from time to time. I know my colleagues don’t read my blog, but I still write posts under the assumption that they, and all of my patrons, are reading it. My take is that if you have to question whether or not something you’ve written about your work is appropriate to disclose, you probably shouldn’t write it.

I’ve walked the fine line between disclosure and overdisclosure and probably at times have disclosed too much. But I don’t feel like I’ve ever disclosed anything inappropriate about work or someone I care about. It’s usually just me writing about me. And whenever I do self-disclose, it’s usually to some end; it’s usually because I hope that people can learn from my experiences, my mistakes, my successes. I don’t feel very comfortable disclosing things about other people because I know that I wouldn’t feel comfortable having other people disclose things I’ve done or told them in private. But I think self-disclosure is essential to my style of blogging and I can’t imagine that anything I write would be very interesting if there was no “me” in it. I also prefer reading blogs where the writing is full of the writer’s personality. There are bloggers I’ve met just recently that I feel I’ve known for years because there is so much of them in their blog. I know other people don’t like to read blogs that involve personal disclosure; the great thing about the blogosphere is that there’s something for everyone.

Right after I sent the e-mail this afternoon, I looked in my Google Reader and found a post that stopped me in my tracks. In fact, I immediately sent it to my husband with the subject line “I never want us to be like this.” In addition to not wanting my marriage to go in that direction, I also never want to be like that as a blogger. I’m a big fan of Penelope Trunk’s blog, Brazen Careerist. I think she’s a really smart and talented woman and I enjoy the advice she offers. I love that she discloses things from her life in an effort to educate others; the personal touch is what keeps me coming back to her blog. She actually reminds me of a far more successful version of myself in how she uses her personal experiences as a teaching tool and how she’s not afraid to put herself out there. However, I think her post today is a perfect example of how one can take personal disclosure too far, especially when it comes to disclosing things about someone else and about something that is going on in the present:

At this point, I think my husband is going to tell the mediator about how he gave up his career for the kids and me and he is totally disappointed. But instead he says to me, “A lot of people I talk with say that I am being abused by you.”

I am shocked. It’s a big allegation. But I say, “A lot of people I talk with think I should get rid of you.”

That’s as bad as it gets, right there. Because the mediator interjects and says that if you want to try to stay together for the kids, it’s worth it. He says, “The research shows divorce is very hard on kids, and especially kids under five.” But he adds, “You won’t be able to hold things together just to parent the kids. You will need some love for each other.”

I say quickly that I have that. It is easy for me to remember how much fun I had with my husband before we had kids. It’s easy for me to remember that every time I look-but-don’t-really-look for men to have an affair with, I find myself looking at someone who is like my husband: I still love him.

My husband is not so quick to say he still loves me.

I felt almost embarrassed to read her post, like I was eavesdropping on a very personal conversation. It seemed wrong for everyone to be reading about what was supposed to be a private session between two people and their mediator. I felt like the post was more about the author venting her emotions than about her offering her experience up as an object lesson. It was the sort of thing you vent to your best friend, not to the Internet. Obviously, I have no idea how her husband feels about her writing this (according to her, he’s used to her doing this… but does “used to” equal ok with it?), but I felt uncomfortable reading it. Maybe it just went over my own personal threshold for blog disclosure, but I must admit that I found myself thinking less of her for writing it. I hate to say that. And I don’t think less of her as an “expert” because she has a messed up marriage (lots of folks do and all of us do sometimes), but because she doesn’t seem to know how to make prudent choices about what is ok to discuss publicly. Then again, we sometimes do things we wouldn’t normally do when going through a bad time in our lives. We’re all just human.

I know we all have different comfort-levels with self-disclosure. There are some bloggers who I feel I know well even though we’ve never met. I see pictures of their family and frequently hear about how they spend their time. There are other bloggers I’ve spent time with at a number of conferences whom I feel like I hardly know on a personal level. They write just about library issues, without even mentioning their own library or their own life and feelings. I don’t think there’s an absolute right or wrong when it comes to self-disclosure. If you want to be an open book, great! If not, that’s fine too.

When I was a therapist, we were taught to use self-disclosure carefully. It can be an important tool in building rapport with a client; it can get them to see you as a human being and as someone who understands them. But self-disclosure can be self-serving. A therapy session is not a give-and-take like a regular conversation where they say something and you say something. Everything you are doing in the session is supposed to be for the benefit for the client. When self-disclosure is just about sharing and not about helping the client, it is self-serving and has no place in the session. And too much self-disclosure from a therapist can upset the balance, putting the therapist too much on the client’s level where the client can no longer respect their expertise.

While I don’t think there is such a delicate balance here, I think self-disclosure on a professional blog should follow similar guidelines. There have been times that I’ve wanted to write something I was feeling passionate about, only to stop myself when I realized that my only purpose in writing it was to vent. If I can’t think of how my writing will inform, educate, challenge, make people think, or start a conversation, I won’t publish it. Perhaps this only reflects my thinking on the subject of personal disclosure, but I think it’s probably a good rule of thumb for a blog in which you are representing yourself professionally. I hadn’t initially intended for my blog to become a “professional blog,” but after it leading to a book deal, speaking gigs and a column, I can’t pretend that it’s anything else.

I don’t have all the answers about the boundaries of disclosure in a professional blog. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on the topic. Maybe I disclose too much. Maybe I am being a puritanical Luddite to think that post I quoted was TMI. It is certainly up to each of us to decide what our own personal boundaries are on our blogs, however, it’s also important to consider our readers and what may just be TMI for them.

So what do you think is an appropriate level of disclosure for a professional blog (and I use that term rather loosely and not to mean something you write representing your employer)? For you bloggers, what rule of thumb do you use to decide whether something is appropriate or inappropriate to post to your own blog? And also, has you view of self-disclosure changed over time as you continued writing your blog?