Writing About Others: Four Constructs

14 Feb

Hump Day Hmm: How do you handle writing about people? What are your criteria for discussing the people who affect you? Have you ever dealt with someone finding themselves in your writing and reacting (in any way)? Share with us your ethics and mores as a writer, when it comes to characterizing others.

The connection between last week’s Hmm and this one, might not seem obvious at first. Certainly, they both involve blogging, the internet, and living online; but how you view the ethics and mores of blogging about people you know has a lot to do with what construct you view your blog through.

Sound too Sociology 101? Let me take it slower.

Construct 1: My Life, My blog

If you believe that your blog is an extension of your internal world (i.e. it’s a diary, with stream of consciousness thoughts spewed on the screen), and you process your emotions, problems, sex life, etc. through writing, then you are most likely to use names, cite details, and post candid photos. You are also more likely to believe that people should not take what you write too seriously. You’re simply getting things off your chest. You don’t hate/love anything or anyone as much as any individual post might lead us to believe. Your blog is best understood in context of the Whole Story of You. Reading one post (rant) in and of itself may/can be misleading.

Construct 2: Life Scrapbooker

You started your blog to document a specific event (the birth of a child, moving to a new city/country, your wedding, dealing with an illness, etc.). As such most of your initial audience consisted of close friends and family members. Though you have moved past the original purpose, and much of your audience has changed, you are still keenly aware that people who are close to you read what you write (though they do so less often than before). That initial audience brought with it a certain amount of built in censorship: you don’t discuss anything on your blog that you wouldn’t want to bring up at the Thanksgiving table. It has also brought with it a certain comfort. You use names of friends and family because everyone who read you in the beginning knew all of the people you mentioned in your writing. You post pictures of yourself, your kids, your friends, because it was the easiest way to share these events with the family members and friends who originally read your blog.

Construct 3: The Prosumer

You come to blogging by way of another (usually writing) profession. You may be a journalist, or English-major-turned-critic -of-some-kind. Frequently, you are a lawyer (not currently practicing, but may eventually some day). As such, you bring to blogging the rules and restrictions of your previous or current profession. You also have a keen understanding of The Big Picture: What you write on your blog can have (read: legal) consequences. You think about privacy and may write under a pseudonym. You are likely to use pseudonyms when talking about friends and family members. You get permission before writing about certain events. You change dates and times to protect the innocent. You’re careful about posting photos of others, always considering the legal ramifications and professional ethics of your craft.

Construct 4: The dramatis personae

Your blog is a consruct. You write as a character. The people, places, and events you write about may or may not exist. Your readers are attracted to your wit, humor, outrageousness, writing style, etc. You may use real names, but since no one knows or certain who you are, it doesn’t matter. You elude to certain personal facts about you, but you rarely reveal anything outright. You more than likely live in LA or New York, or DC and are hoping for a book deal. You may post pictures of your face blurred out standing next to known celebrities and politicians, or artistic macro shots of dew drops and manhole covers. You usually present an extreme guard for your own privacy, but consider your anonymity open season on all others.

So once again, I’ve identified the problem, but offer no solutions. Not that the different ways that people approach personal blogs is a problem, per se. What’s a problem is that there are 175,000 new blogs started each and every day. While certainly not all of them are personal, a lot of them are. Few of the people taking pictures of, or writing about us (or our children) will approach their blogging under Construct 3, which means your name, image, alma mater, etc. can become a searchable part of the Googlesphere without your even knowing it.

And try though we might, I’m not sure that it is not a futile pursuit to seek anonymity. The blogosphere is an extension of private space, but there is no privacy in it. The low barrier to entry, the instant circulation, make privacy impossible. The sheer magnitude of new blogs being created make the circle of people who will ever find your writing both vast and small and the same time. This is a comfortable duality of you live online, value your virtual friendships as strongly as your real life ones, and see the online space as YourSpace. But if you see the online world as a doorway–a portal that you enter and exit–with excitement (and potentially danger) waiting on the other side, you are more apt to feel guarded about maintaining the separation between your life in the real world, and that other life through the looking glass.

As for me, I fall pretty heartily into Construct 2. I use my real, full name (currently, because I still have living-as-a-professional-writer fantasies that are quickly being replaced by another reality). I post pictures of my family and friends (but mostly my child). I use real first names when I write about people. I don’t ask permission or tell people that I’m writing about them.

I’m conscientious of the fact that most of the people I write about (and to be honest I don’t write about others much) read this site, or they live with someone who does who will in turn tell them about it. This has actually made me less-likely to write about some things. Things that I would explore in depth, that I’m not afraid to discuss, but that I don’t necessarily want to discuss with them as an audience. Because so many in my audience are people I love, I feel that I owe them more than to only reveal myself here. (If and when my audience shifts, I’m certain that I will feel torn between my desire to be honest with with my readers without constantly surprising those who are close to me.)

I certainly have strong sympathy for the idea that those of us who write online need to be good custodians of the characters we fold into our narrative. I fear, however, that once again the technology has been unleashed and we are stuck with the consequences as we live with them. No one knows for sure whether a child’s life being documented online since its birth will int future make him/her a plugged-in digital god, or a vulnerable, overexposed adult. Maybe it will just make him normal. When everyone’s nude first bath picture is online, the ubiquity of it will remove any sense of privacy these images now have.

I wasn’t born online, so there is a part of me that is afraid of that kind of future, who shakes my head, and wants it all to stop. But I just don’t think here’s any stopping it. In the mean time, that side of me that is giving up on that dream of a writing life, that side that wants to get off the train more often than not, has been thinking a lot about removing my name, and my family’s from this site. I haven’t made a decision about the necessity of it, yet. Like so many things, I just don’t know.

This post was written as part of Julie Pippert’s Hump Day Hmm for February 13, 2008. You can read the posts from the other participants here.

Updated to Add: When it comes to the blogging community I do have some very specific rules that I follow, because I feel that what people write on their blogs becomes part of the public discourse, and is therefore open for discussion and link backs here.

  1. I visit the blog of anyone who comments. I don’t always find something to comment on there, but when I do, I leave one.
  2. I try and acknowledge every person who leave me a comment on a post. Right now I am doing a combination of e-mail and commenting back.
  3. If a post was inspired by something someone else posted, I always link back to that original post and give credit.
  4. The same is true if I am responding to a meme or prompt (such as the Hump Day Hmm). It’s simply a matter of understanding the value of traffic and how linking affects your Goggle ratings.
  5. If someone writes something that is beautiful or thought-provoking and makes sense out of context, but I have nothing to add, I will usually link to them on my tumblr page. I don’t usually tell the author about this, it’s just me showing my small audience of readers all the great things I read while hopping around.
  6. If I read something on a blog that is relavant to many, I sk*rt or digg it. I do this especially for posts that have digg counters listed, even if it is an old story and would never make it to the front page. I digg the story and acknowledge that I found it worthy.

2 Responses to “Writing About Others: Four Constructs”

  1. Julie Pippert February 14, 2008 at 11:07 am #

    Hmm, you categories were intriguing. I’d like to see you do it for the pro bloggers, too. :) And it is so intriguing to see your ideas about what we ought to expect wrt to privacy of us…as done by others, make sense? I think it’s true; a part of me supposes that out there is someone who know me or crossed paths with me sometime.

    I believe that’s one of the ideas behind my post about being someone’s bad day. ;)

    Great deconstruction…thanks for joining in!

  2. Terry Finley February 14, 2008 at 6:45 pm #

    This is insightful. Thanks.

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