While it’s fine and good to leave a comment where neither you nor an anonymous blogger know one another, what happens when you do know the anonymous blogger and it’s clear that they want to remain anonymous? This post tries to engage with this question, and focuses on the challenges that I experience when I want to post on an ‘anonymous’ blog where I know who is doing the blogging – it attends to the contextual privacy questions that race through my head before I post. As part of this, I want to think through how a set of norms might be established to address my own questions/worries, and means of communicating this with visitors.
I’ve been blogging in various forms for a long time now – about a decade (!) – and in every blog I’ve ever had I use my name. This has been done, in part, because when I write under my name I’m far more accountable than when I write under an alias (or, at least I think this is the case). This said, I recognize that my stance to is slightly different than that of many bloggers out there – many avoid closely associating their published content with their names, and often for exceedingly good reasons. Sometimes a blogger wants to just vent, and doesn’t want to deal with related social challenges that arise as people know that Tommy is angry. Others do so for personal safety reasons (angry/dangerous ex-spouses), some for career reasons (not permitted to blog/worried about effects of blogging for future job prospects), some to avoid ‘-ist’ related comments (sexist, racist, ageist, etc.).
I have several friends who blog anonymously, for some of the aforementioned good reasons. At least one has gone to the lengths of ascribing ‘blog names’ for the people who they write about; George might become ‘Happy Camper’, and Dallas the cat ‘Nail Biter’, and so on. While locations may be noted, times are often vague. In essence, there is a clear effort to limit the likelihood that other people will be able to associate what is written in these spaces with the individual doing the writing.
What, then, do I do when I move to comment on a post; do I adopt my own pseudonym for the purposes of posting? Does the context of the writing provide a normative expectation that those knowing the blogger will hide their own name? Should the commenter still use their own name, but avoid making it known that there is an already existing relationship that might link the blogger and the commenter (and thus establish a line to discover who the blogger is)? In effect, what am I expected to do in these situations, and how do I know what to do?
Clearly there is a particular context that is in play here, and the question becomes how to navigate that context. Norms/expectations can be provided through a clearly marked ‘about’ page (which many anonymous bloggers maintain) that note how they expect individuals to behave. Norms can also be communicated through actually talking with the bloggers in question; they can often provide clear direction on how to proceed. Alternately, it might mean that you just stay away from that particular space/find non-blog comment ways of communicating back and forth. I’ll admit that it’s this latter method that I tend to adopt, on the basis that I would rather be conservative in determining how to engage with an anonymous blog than risk either blowing their cover or providing inroads to uncovering their identity.
While this might seem to be a relatively minor point (i.e. this is just an issue for Chris), I think that it extends to other areas of discourse; we manage conversations and networks depending on the contextual expectations of privacy/intimacy in the real world in addition to digital spaces. The questions surrounding commenting are relatively easily extrapolated to ‘meat space’, but in meat interactions there are a wide set of ‘cues’ about expected methods of behavior. With the continuing abstraction from the ways of identifying conversational norms that have developed over the past millennium, we are increasingly in a situation where identifying norms is more challenging. Further, the extension and mutual penetration of social and cultural expectations of privacy (which are often in variance from one another) leads to additional challenges for identifying privacy norms online.
While ‘privacy online’ is commonly something that is seen through the eyes of business privacy policies, how should be think about maintaining privacy online, and realizing privacy norms, in ‘personal’ spaces such as blogs where the bloggers are anonymous? While some movement is being made on something like a Creative Commons for privacy, such a movement doesn’t seem to also indicate the privacy that content owners expect to be accorded – just because someone publishes something online, they clearly don’t expect their lives to become an open book. Perhaps a Privacy Commons statement should then be extensible enough to capture not only the obligations of business/content owners to web visitors, but also the expected obligations of visitors themselves. This would reverse the present norms online (where visitors generally have few normative expectations), and would be unlikely to undo damage once done, though may open clear(er) lines of accountability for actions.
Ultimately, however, this kind of ‘rights’ or ‘license-based’ establishment of privacy norms, in the context of anonymous blogging, doesn’t seem to ‘fit’ – it’s too legalistic for what is perceived as a relatively minor, personal set of actions. At the same time, I wonder if this latter perception of excessive legality is an indication that my own perceptions of norms of privacy are still caught in ‘meat space’ understandings, and I just haven’t caught up to the speed and global nature of ‘personal’ discourse online. Perhaps there genuinely is a need for a globally explicit set of semi-legal norms that visitors of personal sites are hit with, and that such norms are what are actually appropriate for the current web environment. I admit that I hope that it isn’t a case of my being ‘out of touch’ with digital expectations, but if I am behind the times I hope that there is someone out there who can develop an extensible, workable, system for anonymous bloggers and those of us who know said bloggers.