Friday, April 29, 2011

"Blogger journalism": Pinning down "what it is", could pose new risks; and a note about "due process" with "free services"

Once again, I come to the topic of sifting “blogger journalism” with “social media”.  They serve different purposes – and that could be legally or practically significant – even if in practice what they achieve overlap one another.

I definitely entered this ménage as an “amateur journalist”, with the emphasis on self-publishing and distribution, originating in the desktop publishing culture of the early and mid 1990s.  But I think it’s useful to characterize what I think I did.

Some of the characteristics (almost as in a biology class, describing a phylum): 

.  Content that reports on current events with bibliographic references, usually (when online) with hyperlinks, sometimes video embeds.
. Content that adds some personal experience to give perspective on media-reported current events
. Content that offers commentary or interpretation of the news item with respect so some particular issue or controversy.
. Content that is intended to be available to “everyone” and indexed by search engines.

That is what I would call “blogger journalism” today (even if the personal components isn’t always necessary or even desirable).  This was largely how the Web 1.0 environment worked in the late 90s. True, content could be excluded from robots by metatags, but that typically didn’t always work. In general, most “free content” that had any substance got indexed for free by search engines.  It turned into a way to “get published” without the usual competitive process (convincing a conventional media outlet your content would make them a profit).  The desktop publishing world stayed in step with this by offering “print on demand” for self-publishing of books.  And generally whole books started to get indexed by search engines as well as web pages and blogs.

A practical result of this effort, say around 2000 or so, was “social networking”, even if a little more of it still had to happen in the real world (for me, that included the indie film community in Minneapolis then).  
Friendster, then Myspace and Facebook, and in slightly abbreviated way Twitter, would develop the “social networking” world as we’ve quickly acclimated to it. And these could, as a converse, somewhat be viewed as platforms for publishing. But usually the content was primarily seen by a list of “friends” or “followers” (as had been the case with listserver “publishing” in the 90s). So this was not “publishing” in the same sense.  It turned out, however, that social networking sites (most of all Facebook) could be extremely effective in advancing calls for social and political reform, especially overseas, and especially recently.

It’s important to note here that “publish” has more than one meaning.  Sometimes in libel law (both in the US and in Britain and Europe and western countries in general), to “publish” means to convey content (verbally or in writing) to at least one person who understands it. That certainly comports with the concerns over the way social media can affect “online reputation” and affect employment.  In practice, sometimes content that is announced to a specific “friends” or “followers” list does go viral. That can be especially true with someone who has many followers.

Still, there is another practical sense of “publication”, and perhaps “distribution”, which is making content available to anyone who wants to pay a fair market price for it, or often for free.   The author or publisher may not know who saw the content, and in fact is not entitled to know.  (One can in fact, limit blogs to a private audience and restrict Facebook or other social media content to specific parties, and one can even block specific IP addresses or servers (as with the “.htaaccess” file on Apache) from accessing a personal website; but that certainly contradicts the “spirit” of publishing in this sense.)

In view of all this, it may make sense to define “blogger journalism” in terms of the four dot-points I listed above. But that could provoke some problematic situations. Employers could adopt policies banning associates from engaging in “blogger journalism” even on their own time, while still allowing “subscription” model social networking as a practical reality (or perhaps even requiring it as part of the job).   In fact, around 2000 I had written a paper saying that people with direct reports in the workplace or who made decisions about other stakeholders (like underwriters) probably shouldn’t engage in what I call “blogger journalism” at all.  This suggestion had seemed sensible in the days before social networking, as, paradoxically, a way to get around censorship. The alternative was “pre publication review”, which some government agencies require of any publication by any employee with access to certain (classified) information.   Even so, employers did not, as a whole, start getting much wind of these potential risk until 2001 or 2002, when the term “blogging policy” started to appear, and when now lucrative “mommy blogger” Heather Armstrong was “dooced” for what she blogged (without mentioning names) about work.

Many jobs involve exposure to or accessing client-specific or customer-specific PII (personal identifying information) and adhering to confidentiality agreements, sometimes with severe legal penalties for violation, even for lifetime, after leaving a job.  Protecting specific information sounds like it is not a big deal (don’t “name names”, to quote gay journalist Randy Shilts).  But sometimes an “interpretation” of well-published events (as backed up by traditional media sources) may be colored by a personal experience that others can track back from the specificities of a particular comment, particularly when that comment occurred in conjunction with work. 

For all the kind words about blogger journalism (and Electronic Frontier Foundation has a major page on it), it’s rather significant to recognize the commitment that it involves.  This is, as I noted, usually commentary as well as “traditional reporting” (which in old media companies involves very strict standards of “objectivity”).  Once you are commenting or evaluating what you discover going on in your world, it can become harder to work for other people’s goals (to “sell”, for example, or even to teach or mentor), not to mention the risks of “accidentally” crossing legal lines on confidentiality. And others may not consider your content “valid” if you don’t have a real personal stake in “their world” (the “privilege of being listened to”).

When you publish, it’s a good idea to own or pay for some of the web space that it is on, rather than over-depend on free services (whether in social networking or self-publishing or both), who can pull the plug without much due process.  Just today, there was a story about how Ars Technica got bounced from Facebook for a while (it’s back now), because a possible “enemy” made an accusation of “copyright infringement”.    It can be very hard for free services to respond to bullies who are determined to get rid of low-cost competition. We’ve all heard about the recent problems from “copyright trolls” (Righthaven), who seem to be trying to shake down publishers who don’t have the resources to “compete” the “old-fashioned” way. It’s all too easy to imagine other ways trolls could operate.   

A "blogger journalist" (or "citizen journalist") may face questions about his or her "purpose", and these can become significant (leading into the "implicit content" area).  True, citizen journalism "keeps them honest" and that's a source of satisfaction. But that goes against the idea of being responsible for providing for specific people, which almost implies loyalty and partiality. 

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