Once upon a time, I featured a post on Freshly Pressed in which the author spoke very frankly about her family and their differences. I assumed that since it had been published it was fair game, and she was thrilled to be chosen…
…until her blog attracted more traffic, including family members who didn’t appreciate the notoriety (or who hadn’t realized she was writing about them at all). She asked to have the post removed, deleted much of her blog’s content, and had to patch up the remnants of some severely strained relationships.
It’s a gnarled question: where do you draw the line on what you share about family and friends in a medium that’s fundamentally about letting readers into your life?
First, take a step back. Here’s a helpful diagram that illustrates the relationship between the internet and privacy:
As this extremely scientific analysis shows, putting things on the internet is not conducive to keeping them private. (This diagram may overstate the case a tad, but it’s still useful and I like the colors.) Fundamentally, when you publish a post, you release the content into the wilds of the internet. Others are free to leave their commentary and share it with their networks. Public information takes on a life of its own.
That drawback is also one of the benefits of blogging: as you share, you forge connections with others and come to more deeply understand yourself. Therein lies the challenge: you want to invite readers into your life (to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the focus of your blog). Your family and friends are an important part of your life, so seems natural to write about them — but they’re not the ones who invited the strangers over.
What are your options?
You’re trying to build an engaging blog but would prefer to stay on your mother’s good side. What are your options? There are a few, each with its own challenges.
- A hard and fast rule — no family, no friends. On one hand, you don’t run the risk of offending anyone close to you with what you choose to share (you can always offend them in other ways). On the other, you’re imposing a significant constraint. If your blog has a focus like book reviews or fantasy football, excluding personal issues might not be much of an impediment; if it’s about you, a place to muse and reflect on your experiences, it becomes tougher.
All bets are off! Let those skeletons free. You might decide that it’s your blog, your rules, and you’re going to say what you want to. Depending on your family and friends, that might be a-okay… but it might not (refer to the cautionary tale that opened this post). We could also throw in an “Option 2A:” speak freely, but blog anonymously so neither you nor your friends are identified.
- A constant series of judgment calls. The least cut-and-dried but most workable answer is to use your good judgement. Find the balance between letting your readers in and maintaining the privacy of your relationships.
The hardest answer is always the right one, isn’t it? Luckily, there are questions you can ask yourself to help pinpoint this balance, and it will get simpler as you go.
The million-dollar question(s)
Not all of these questions will work for every blogger; some of us maintain blog personas quite different from who we are in the flesh. These questions also can’t predict how your family and friends will actually respond to seeing their experiences recounted on your blog — there’s no substitute for asking them. Still, they help you think through the ramifications.
There are no right answers, and your responses will differ depending on who your subject is — the privacy you’d extend to you brother’s small child may differ from what you extend to your brother.
- What if it were me? If you were reading your closest friend’s blog and saw a similar story about you — perhaps something you hadn’t shared with others yet — how would you feel? (What’s that; your closest friend doesn’t have a blog? Why not?)
- If I were telling this story to a group of people, would I share these details? Picture the real-life equivalent of your blog readers: you’re at a party talking to a group of people, some you know well, some less so, some not at all. You’re telling the story. Are you okay with those to whom you’re less connected hearing it?
- Am I talking about children? My children? They’re not in the same position to assert themselves and ask not to be mentioned; that goes double for other people’s children.
- You’re browsing Facebook and see that someone’s shared the post with less-than-positive commentary; how do you feel? Do any protective instincts kick in? Blogging isn’t just about what you share, but how others run with that. Are you comfortable if someone takes the story and sprints in the other direction?
- If a prospective employer or partner found the story, would reading it hurt your friend’s chances? This is unlikely, especially since you’re probably not using your friend’s full name with loads of identifying details; the underlying question is whether the story puts your loved one in any kind of compromised position. Whether or not they’re identifiable, it’s probably not ideal.
Lots of stories are fine to tell — the hilarious story about the UPS mixup your cousin told you at Thanksgiving probably doesn’t impact anyone, except maybe the UPS man. In other cases, it’s worth thinking through the what-ifs.
Tactics? We don’ need no stinking tactics! (hint: yes, you do)
In cases where you’re still not sure, there are a few things you can do, including one that’s pretty foolproof.
- Ask! Hit “publish” worry-free by asking the people in the story if they’re okay with what you’re sharing; you can’t beat approval that comes from the horse’s mouth (or your roommate’s). It’s also a good opener for a bigger conversation about your goals for your blog, and how the person wants to be represented — or not. To make this easy, you can use the Request Feedback tool to email them your post before publishing, and you’ll see their comments alongside your draft.
- Use pseudonyms. Many bloggers use pseudonyms when writing about children, and some use them for themselves, to keep their blogs as separate from their personal lives as possible. Some think pseudonyms create unnecessary distance between a blogger and reader, but it’s a workable option for protecting the privacy of others, especially children and significant others who have recurring roles.
- Alter unimportant details — keep the crux, lose the cruft. Presumably, you have a point you’re trying to make with the stories you choose to tell. What’s central to that, and what can be omitted?
- Take advantage of the privacy settings. Sometimes, simply getting things off your chest is all you really need. Use the visibility settings to set sensitive posts to “private,” or restrict them to those with a password. Now you can write your heart out and share it only the people that really matter (or with no one).
We know this is something many of you deal with every day on your blogs, and would love to hear your stories. What questions do you ask yourself? Have you created any personal guidelines? What was the stickiest spot you’ve found yourself in, and how did you work it out?
Ed.: I received a note from the blogger whose experience being Freshly Pressed inspired this post, and through I’d share some of what she had to say:
When I started my blog, it was a form of therapy. Not only was I bored and unsatisfied in my job, but it was a tool for me to release the pain of an abusive childhood and marriage. I had no internet presence, was totally incognito, and never used real names.
At the time, no one was reading. I was lucky to get 20 hits a day. It felt good to get it out of my system after all of those years. It was only when I was alerted that I’d been Freshly Pressed that things got ugly.
Of my three family members, one was upset, but we talked it out. We are now closer than ever. More than a year later, I still have not spoken to the other two.
Through this blogging experience, I have learned not that I should keep my mouth shut, but that there are some people who are not worth your time.
Was this post useful? You’ll find more good stuff here:
- Parenting bloggers talk about sharing details and photos of their kids in “Mommy and Daddy Bloggers Shoot the Poop.”
- Writing about family matters? Keep things light — learn to inject humor with “Make ‘Em Laugh: The Art of Humor Writing.”
- Learn about how posts spread and how to manage your presence on social networks in “Cast a Wide Net: Promoting Your Blog with Social Media.”