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?
Hi. I really appreciate the thought you’ve put into this. I think about personal disclosure all the time.
It’s very hard to judge what is right for someone else. So you are just going to have to trust me that in my marriage, writing about it is fine. My husband is a video artist and he has created videos of me that make me look like a lunatic, but have shown in musesums all over the world. And that was before we got married, and I still married him. By the way, the best discussion of the issue of boundaries within a family is when Sally Mann published gorgeous photos of her kids, naked, in the early 1990s.
But that’s not the important thing in my comment. This is: I blog at least once a week about the importance of having a career that works with one’s personal life. I blog all the time about what makes people happy, what makes marriages work, and how people can make career decisions to make a happy life.
How can I blog about those topics and not confess that I have as many problems as the readers do? I am not an expert because I have a perfect life. I’m an expert because I have managed to create a community of people who admit their lives are not perfect but are trying really really hard to make their life the best it can be.
We are doing it together on Brazen Careerist. All working together to make the intersection of work and life a good spot. I can’t pretend that I am not having problems. It wouldn’t be honest. If a blogger isn’t honest, then what are they doing?
Interesting, Meredith. I deal with this, too, especially because my future readership is teenagers, and I feel like I have a responsibility to keep things at a PG-13 level.
For me, it usually comes down to a few questions:
* Would I want the person I’m writing about to read this?
* Is it the kind of things I want languishing in the Intertubes when I’m old and gray?
* Does it serve the content of the blog?
Sometimes I get personal, but there’s definitely a line I’m not willing to cross. And I always try to tie it back to writing or the content of my books. And some level of personal connection is a must unless you’re writing a strictly professional blog.
Hey Penelope, thanks for commenting. I totally agree that self-disclosure is a personal thing, which is why I said that it only went beyond my personal threshold for reading disclosures. I’m sure other people wouldn’t be phased by it at all, while I bet there are people who are completely appalled by some of the fairly mild things I’ve disclosed in my blog. I know someone who didn’t even want to write about the book he’d published on his blog because it was too personal. I’m glad you and your husband are comfortable with that kind of disclosure; I couldn’t imagine that you’d write that if he wasn’t.
I think transparency is a great thing. I love the “human expert” much better than the “sage on the stage”. That’s why I read your blog, even though it’s outside of my normal area of interest. If it was just an expert pontificating on work, I’d be bored to tears. You make it interesting because there’s a lot of you in it. I definitely see value in relating your couple’s counseling experiences to what you write about in your blog (your other post on the topic was great). This one just felt different to me… too private. But, like I said, maybe it’s just me. It’s interesting to think about what our boundaries are, both as writers and as readers and what those boundaries say about us. I guess I’m not the voyeur I thought I was. But I still enjoy your insights and how you challenge your readers to see things in a different way. Keep it up! 🙂
Meredith, I’m with you on a personal level (even though my blog is only tangentally about my work). I have one friend who blogs about work in a not-so-disguised way and blogged about her attempts to get pregnant, her life, etc.. Sometimes I wonder if that isn’t TMI, particularly if people with whom she works are reading the blog.
It all comes down to personal threshold, doesn’t it? There are many things that I just couldn’t blog about, even on a personal blog, because I’m not comfortable letting “everyone” know about them. Many people feel that the blog format is perfect for this type of venting and sharing. Some people even get rich blogging about their sex lives, or attract some measure of fame from their blogging about their personal lives. With the exception of my close friends, I tend not to read those blogs because I feel like a voyeur (or a rubbernecker at a car crash).
My “Golden Rule”? If I wouldn’t want my mother to hear about it from a friend… out it goes.
I’m using my blog as a professional journal, so I write assuming that my principals, superintendent, and BOE will read what I post. Since I’ll be teaching a course next fall using techtools like blogs, there is also the possibility that some of my students might check out what I’ve written.
I try to inject a bit of my own personality and family history, but I don’t feel that this particular blog is the place for rants or venting!
For me, so much of this comes down to the purpose of one’s blog. When I started my blog, I was extremely hesitant about writing anything personal – or even identifying myself by name. I started my blog as a way to document my experiences in library school – not as a professional tool. However, I felt it necessary to disclose that I had a professional librarian position. My work experience is a critical part of what I write about. I see my blog as a personal tool where I discuss my personal thoughts about library school and librarianship. That being said, blogs can take on a life of their own. My blog has morphed a bit into a professional tool – something that I admit that makes me a little nervous (and for which I was not prepared).
I honestly believe that some level of personality is a wonderful addition – even for professional blogs. It helps the reader get a sense of who the writer is. But like others, I don’t want too much information about people’s personal lives. The story to which you refer would have put me off also. Not because I think the author shouldn’t have written it, but because there may be some part of most of us that would be horrified to think that our partner would not be as quick to say they love us as we would be to say we love them. I don’t even want to think about it.
Lazygal, I also use your gold rule. In addition, I never write something about someone else that I would not want them the write publicly about me.
Meredith, Excellent post–and timely. I’m pondering an “ethics and disclosures” post or essay, and (as seems to happen a lot lately) you provide some things to think about at just the right time.
In a combined personal/professional blog, the line between transparency and TMI can be tricky at times. Jennifer’s last para. is certainly a good start.
I’ve tried to keep my blog professional, but the impending move my wife and I will be making has somewhat altered its nature. Although I’ve tried to keep it more professional, it has become more personal and a bit political. (In fact, I’m currently working on a review of Sicko.) Ironically, since I’m looking for a job, I know that I should try to write more professional stuff, but it has been hard for me to “focus” since getting ready for the move has occupied my thoughts and I feel an urge to write. I don’t know when the professional side of the blog will re-emerge, but I’m hoping that it will do so soon.
That is a very interesting issue, and I’ve thought a bit about it too. I agree with you, Meredith, that the post was quite different from the other posts that she writes. It acted more as a personal diary entry on the blog than a lot of her other ones.
The idea of publishing personal journals online is just such a fascinating one, and is fraught with many related issues. The fact that many people can read our thoughts and then interact with us in real life is both frightening and powerful. It can change the course of our lives, in ways we can’t really imagine.
As usual you have eloquently expressed the zeitgeist of our blogging and social networking culture, especially since our online expressions are meant to be expositions of the various aspects of “I and me”. It is only natural that we deal with the the cognitive dissonance that accompanies the disclosure of our personal lives in an open, and often professionally oriented medium.
I love people and often strike up friendships with people that most others shun, for one reason or another, and sometimes it’s good – others not so much. Besides being outgoing, I try to just be myself, which often involves sharing my personal experiences as they relate to those of the people in my life. Not a “one-up” kind of sharing, but honestly trying to relate as an authentic person. I am who I am.
When I started blogging back in 2004 I did so in response to the presidental election and I pulled no punches in how I expressed myself. Later, when I wanted to start writing about my professional life, I found that those old blog posts came up with a name search and I regretted expressing myself so vehemently and “colorfully”. I didn’t want my personal views to affect my peers perceptions of me as a professional, so I erased the political blog and it only rarely shows up in caches now.
You are so right in that our blogs, if intended for a professional audience, should use the rules of thumb expressed so well above. Additionally, your point that the expression of our personality in our blog is often what makes it interesting reading, and more fun than just reading a journal article is dead on in my opinion. Blogging is often like an Op-Ed piece, in spite of the fact that many of us are experts on something or other. As an example, in my mind, “Jane”, at “A Wandering Eyre”, does a great job of writing on professional topics with a very personal flair.
For me it is that personal expression that I find missing in my blogging life, since I try to keep most personal disclosures off of my blog. So, I try to use my My Space blog for personal stuff and limit it only to friends that I trust and who I am confident won’t judge me too harshly. Not that I am afraid of judgement, because there is still a huge part of me that still doesn’t give a bleep (for lack of a more accurate expression).
Right after I started blogging at InfoSciPhi, I wrote about something that happened at our library and mentioned a generic faculty reaction to it. My boss, who had read it unbeknownst to me, called me into her office and lectured me on the dangers of relating specific professional experiences in this medium. I had thought it innocous, but took down the post anyway just to keep it from being an issue.
What I started out commenting on here is that this is a prevalent issue in our online lives since the very nature of social networking is to share about ourselves and learn more about others. I find I am much less likely to add someone as a “friend” in a network if I can’t find out anything personal about them.
I have enjoyed the Twitter experience for this very reason. While I can read my peer’s professional blogs, and check out their Facebook profiles, I have found that Twitter posts have helped me learn much more about their personalities and personal lives.
Sometimes I wonder if I share overmuch on there, but it is a sign of my growing trust and comfort level with all of you that I let myself be more “me” in that forum. I wonder at times how I am perceived since we lack the physical and verbal cues that we rely on so much face-to-face.
Since many of our professional relationships start out as just that, it is a judgement call regarding how much of the “true” us that we express to our colleagues and the world through the intertubes. We deal with the same issues in our face-to-face work environment where we might share more personal stories with one co-worker than another.
In the past, in my personal profiles, I express the evolution and convolution of my personal philosophical framework and belief system since it is such a huge part of who I am and how I came to be me. However, I eventually thought that it might detract from my credence as a professional if people knew that much about me, so I again pulled those expressions of myself back behind My Space privacy settings.
I think we are all (well most of us anyway) socialized early on in childhood and adolescence about how best to present ourselves to others. The online environment bends all of these rules with easily achievable anonymity in one forum, and open personal sharing in others. Moving back and forth between the various networks and places we share info online has forced us to rethink TMI (along with the spiders who index everything we write).
In the end it is a personal choice and our readers will consume as much as they feel comfortable with or leave. I am willing to accept that, but I want to be considerate as well. Personally, I read more blogs because I am interested in the writer, who they are, & how that affects their professional opinions more than the technical aspects of their message. Personalities make the reading more interesting for me…
Thanks for discussing this. It needs to be talked about to help us all figure out where we stand in regard to this – not that there is a right and wrong position, but to help develop our personal preferences.
Ironically, your post and Penelope’s post have inspired me to be MORE self-disclosing on my blog. I think that’s one of the things I’m missing. I don’t know if I’d go as far as Penelope did — I had no problem reading it, but writing it about myself would be a completely different story — but your point is good about it not being interesting if there’s not enough “me” in my writing.
This post hits me squarely on – disclosure is a question I’ve been thinking about daily for several months as I have been launching my own professional blog.
I blog under my full name now in my personal professional blog – thanks greatly to the insight and encouragement of Penelope Trunk. That was a big leap for me, and the questions about disclosure and transparency and authenticity and integrity still plague me every day.
I have to tell you, I also wrote a post in response to Penelope’s post yesterday. I had a similar “stopped in tracks” moment when I read her post too. I thought to myself, wow, that is a lot of disclosure for such a public person. Maybe I react to this so much because of my journalism background or because in college, on my first blog, I had a roommate move out of my house because of a whiny post I wrote about her Christmas decorations. I don’t know, but I do realize the profound implications of blogging about your real life.
But when I read her post yesterday, I didn’t think merely: “I don’t want that to happen to me” or, “Man, no one should write that much about their personal life online to strangers.” Nope. I just felt like I knew her so much better, I understood her writing and perspective even more, and I realized that as hard as we all try, crappy things can happen to anyone. They could happen to me.
It made me reflect on my own life and how I need to experience it, what I can change, what I can learn from her and others like her. And to me, that’s what the best writing in the world does – it makes you think about your life. So I’d personally thank her for her post and for having the courage to write it. It may be too much for some, but that’s okay. There are meant to be some people in the world who will put it all out there and others who don’t. It’s up to each of us how much we will share, and with whom. And that’s perfectly okay.
Hello Meredith–thanks for blogging about this gray-area subject. I’ve thought about it a lot, and wish more people would address it. I want to be honest, though tactfully so. I want people to describe their workplace culture as it really is, but at the same time, there are lots of privacy issues and it doesn’t seem professional to be totally frank with who-knows-who.
So far, my decision has been to just blog about personal stuff for friends, and just subscribe to a lot of professional blogs I admire. But one day, I’d like to write the blog I’d like to read, and be able to put my name on it and take reasonable and purposeful risks in writing.
I have to agree with Meredith. Reading Penelope’s post about marriage counseling made me squirm in my seat. It might be fine with her, and with her husband, and that’s great – I applaud their willingness to be so open. But it bothers me greatly – personally – to read stuff like that on a professional blog. It does cross some line, and I don’t know where the line is – but it’s somewhere east of the “abuse” line and the “enough that you care about her life” line, and somewhere west of no disclosure at all.
I think Penelope could have discussed her experiences and shown her readers that she’s dealing with the same issues they are, without the TMI approach, simply by mentioning the issues, instead of scripting out the personal drama. But – on the other hand – I do believe, firmly, that it’s (A) her blog and (B) her right to write whatever she wants on it, and (C) there *is* something admirable about the bare-all approach. It’s very courageous. As others have said – this is a highly personal thing, that “TMI” line and where it lies, and this is mine, period. So – definitely – YMMV.
What I actually felt uncomfortable with was the reposting and specific mentioning of the offending blog. I found myself wondering whether the self-disclosure issue could have been raised without letting us know who was doing the self-disclosing, thereby making even more people aware of her current personal events. I don’t have an answer though and don’t have a beef with it; I just wanted to mention it. Thanks overall for the post–it was effective and perhaps for that reason, all of it was purposeful.
I’ve been struggling with this myself and I’ve decided that my general rule of thumb is that if it’s not something that I would discuss with a random person in a conversation, then I probably shouldn’t blog about it. Of course, what I find acceptable in a conversation may be different than what somebody else may find acceptable in a conversation. We all have our own limits. It made me slightly uncomfortable to read that post also. I’m married and reading about somebody else’s marriage falling apart is something I don’t enjoy doing.
What Are My Boundaries of Disclosure?…
Over at Information Wants To Be Free Meredith has an interesting post up about The Boundaries of Disclosure. It stems from another blog post that gets a little personal. I’ve been thinking about what I will say and won’t say on this blog an…
Just wanted to add my comments on the subject of professional/personal blogging.
I have been writing about the workplace as a syndicated newspaper columnist and book author for more than 15 years, and I can tell you that employers are very nervous about blogs. I talk to companies all the time who tell me they DO search for employee blogs, either before they hire someone, or even after someone is hired. This is done for several reasons: 1) they are very aware that in this global, highly competitive marketplace, perception and reputation matter a lot and they are nervous about employees creating negative publicity because of professional or personal postings; 2) they fear legal problems if a company employee posts something discriminatory; and 3) they don’t want any company secrets/procedures/issues revealed online.
So, does it matter what you blog online? You bet. Now, and 20 years from now. It is a written testimony to who you are, both professionally and personally.
Of course, if you’re independently wealthy and don’t need a job now or in the future, then you can blog about what you want. Until then, I’d caution you to be very, very careful.
The bottom line is this: the EMPLOYER gets to decide what is permissable to blog about, not you. That means they can fire you for something they find objectionable. I even know of one case where a woman was fired for being sarcastic in her blog about her employer’s recognition program.
If you want to blog about work, get your employer’s permission first, or at least make sure you understand your company policy (some employers are making it up as they go along, so be clear about the issue). And, don’t think you can blog anonymously. Companies are too smart to fall for that, and all your co-workers need are a ffew details to hunt you down online.
Blogger beware, indeed.
If you want to know more about blogging at work, you can check out my blog at http://www.45things.com or my book, “45 Things You Do That Drive Your Boss Crazy,” which gives more tips on blogging.