My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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“you can’t blog this”

So, i’ve gotten used to friends telling me that i can’t blog something. And teachers. Professors always stare me down and say that i can’t blog something that they said. Of course, every time someone says i can’t blog something my ears perk and up. The weird thing is that the vast majority of times that they make that precursor, i wouldn’t have blogged it anyhow. It’s something personal, something vulnerable. And i’m just not that mean.

Today, i got that statement from a reporter. She didn’t want me to blog our conversation until after the article comes out. Baroo? I found this request startling. I probably wouldn’t have blogged the conversation because the vast majority of what i said i’ve said here plenty before. But now there’s a temptation. What does it mean that mainstream media wants to control my ability to speak for myself rather than through them? The threat there is that they won’t quote me. That is less of a concern to me than my horror that they would think this is wise. I want the right to control my voice, especially given media’s tendency to misquote. Why should i wait to react to their article? Why shouldn’t i make it clear what i believe i said right after i said it? It’s not like the journalist is only talking to me. My hope is that the journalist is doing synthesis. My role is to provide a particular voice so why can’t i make it clear what my voice is ahead of time?

Of course, what stops me from fleshing things out here and naming names is that i actually like the reporter concerned and have spoken to her before and enjoyed the conversations and what she writes. I don’t want to embarrass her. But i am horrified that this is considered acceptable in mainstream media. Perhaps i should make it explicit and clear that i won’t talk to reporters who want to control my blogging?

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23 comments to “you can’t blog this”

  • I was interviewed by the Chronicle of Higher Ed a while back, and the reporter made a specific and rather heavy-handed point that I was not to blog anything regarding his interview with me, and nor was I to mention in public (and especially in a blog, I suppose) the several misunderstandings that I tried to correct by email after he submitted the report.

    Which is funny. I humored him.

  • So why did you humor him? Especially if he was reporting inaccuracies. I am far more likely to blog an interview if i am wary of the reporter’s ability to be accurate. And if they misquote me, i’m almost certain to make the truth public. And to make it clear that the writer misquoted me. I also keep a list of journalists that i will not speak with again.

  • Funny.

    Isn’t it weird we always want to act on something we are told not to do. It’s more or less human nature, but I agree with your “voicing of your opinion”; it’s your right after all.

  • Dav

    She obviously realizes you’re not just an interview subject, you’re also a competing journalist.

  • I agree with Dav.

    With the journalists, I’m sure it boils down to a combination of having to convince their editor that an article is indeed new (i.e., not picked to death by smartmobs of blogerati), and a desire to preserve their privileged place w.r.t. information distribution.

    With your friends and colleagues, it boils down to the fact that you’re a microcontent publisher. You can think of it as just blogging, but it’s still publishing. You’re going to have your conversational partners holding back, partly out of fear that their voice (or intentional silence) will be subsumed into yours. They have no control over what you say to the world (besides asking you not to talk about something with others), and you have no ability to control how a piece of information spreads from your blog. Someone tells you something, you post it, and it’s going to be stored in Google’s cache for eternity, in your voice, with your editoral content.

    That’s pretty intimidating. Imagine you’re dating someone, and you find out an embarassing personal detail about this person. They’ll know that, if you wanted to, you could out them on that detail to the entire world, for all time. You’ve got a high enough page rank that your opinion might even make it into the search engine results a potential employer sees. “Sorry, ____, anal fissures are too weird. Not covered by the office health plan.”

    Take Spiderman’s word for it: with great power comes great responsibility. Respect the wishes of your friends, family, and colleagues. But if a journalist tries anything, give ’em both barrels. Don’t take any guff from those swine. 😉

  • I always hear that reporters consider “off the record” to be an on switch. If you say something, you can’t retroactively declare it off the record. If you do so, you’ve violated the implicit contract of your exchange.

    Of course, it’s best to treat ongoing relationships the other way around.

  • Right – so why are they asking me to be off the record?

  • i think it’s common that publications with lead times have time based embargoes. so things go to print on a certain date, go on their web sites on a certain date, and aren’t pre-announced. all to control marketing, buzz, or maybe avoid cannibalizing sales of current publications.

  • It seems like you’re making a mountain out of a molehill here. If you define yourself by what you blog, then that leads to the emotion of getting upset by people asking you not to blog certain things.

    What it comes down to is akin to the dangers of “burning a source.” If you burn an interviewer, there will be few reporters to follow who would want to interview you again if you are just going to scoop them. It’s sort of expected that if someone– a journalist or even a blogger-doing-an-act-of-journalism– initiates an interview, they have first publication rights.

    As for me I’ve had conversations with peers who then say, “don’t blog this!” and I respond, I don’t even blog. And as Coda says, I gain nothing by breaking the shared confidence of my friends. Besides, I love keeping secrets, and using anonymous sources makes my writing seem more impressive.

  • Liz

    So what is the standard way that journalists would treat each other? Or is there a standard? Does it depend on power relationships, so that a big-newspaper or TV journalist who interviews a small local one expects to be able to say “don’t write about this (before I do) (or ever)”? If so, would that still hold if the local interviewer had initiated the contact?

    It seems bad because — one of the problems with journalism as we know it is that the journalist has all the power and gets to tell the story. What if newspapers all had comment fields? What if everyone mentioned in a news story got to answer back and say, “Actually, that is not how it was at all, and that’s not what I meant.” What would be so dangerous about that? It would destabilize the model of there being one truth about a situation, and it would turn the newspaper into real public discourse.

    So what if that’s what blogging is doing? And journalists are freaking, and want only to interview and write about people who can’t write back? The same situtation is true in any field – what if patients wrote up doctors, and anthropologists were also subjects of study?

  • Liz

    So what is the standard way that journalists would treat each other? Or is there a standard? Does it depend on power relationships, so that a big-newspaper or TV journalist who interviews a small local one expects to be able to say “don’t write about this (before I do) (or ever)”? If so, would that still hold if the local interviewer had initiated the contact?

    It seems bad because — one of the problems with journalism as we know it is that the journalist has all the power and gets to tell the story. What if newspapers all had comment fields? What if everyone mentioned in a news story got to answer back and say, “Actually, that is not how it was at all, and that’s not what I meant.” What would be so dangerous about that? It would destabilize the model of there being one truth about a situation, and it would turn the newspaper into real public discourse.

    So what if that’s what blogging is doing? And journalists are freaking, and want only to interview and write about people who can’t write back? The same situtation is true in any field – what if patients wrote up doctors, and anthropologists were also subjects of study?

  • brendalynn

    You’ve hit upon some of the other main differences between online blogs and print journalism–time and audience–both issues that define each type of publishing.

    It sounds like the only reason the reporter asked for your confidence was because of her relationship with you. She probably considered it a concession you could make in exchange for your opinion reaching a different audience (her paper vs. your site), and a way to save her part of the intellectual property that is the article and its timely corner on the newspaper market.

    But Garfunkel is right to identify this as mostly a people problem, rather than a technological one. Because really, before blogs, what would have stopped you from calling a competing newspaper and offering them the same story/opinion/angle? Probably the same thing that stopped you from publishing it elsewhere this time.

  • Brendalynn– unless you grant an “exclusive” interview, you’re free to give the same opinions to another interviewer. Provided, of course, the questions are not of the sort, “So, what was that interview like…?”

    Liz– the standard here is the Golden Rule. Yes, obviously, reporters have had greater leeway with lesser-known interview subjects, who can only seek a correction through a letter-to-the-editor (“I was misquoted here,” etc.) And yes, the Internet does change the balance a bit, so reporters are probably more careful these days.

    danah, how do you feel about this now?

    Jon

  • I’m fascinated by the conversation here, but i don’t feel any more resolved. Part of the problem is that i’m not giving them “the story” – i’m giving them AN opinion on the topic they’re covering. Thus, whatever i blog about is not the story, but my side of the conversation.

    It’s funny… In ethnography land, i interview people all the time. Human subjects makes me go through all of these protect-the-subjects steps and yet a good 50% of the time, my subjects blog about the interview within 24 hours, often naming me as having interviewed them. So much for confidentiality. But when i see this, i absolutely love it. I get to read their perspective on the interview, that which they would put out to their peers. And in a few occasions, it was that blogging that motivated me to do follow-ups and understand the difference between what i had recorded and what they said they said. Of course, in my line of work, i’m trying to understand people in their own words, And i’m not looking for exclusivity, i’m looking for human beliefs and experiences.

    But Jon, i also don’t see myself making a mountain out of a molehill here. I’m more cocking my head and going Baroo? this is fascinating. Just like another little social observation that fascinates me. There are lots of things that i don’t blog, but i’m always intrigued when someone explicitly tells me to not blog something. When it’s a friend, sure, but when it’s someone who wants to control my voice, i still have to wonder what gives them that power. In some cases, i’ve signed away certain abilities to speak (work being an obvious one). But mostly, it’s an ethical question. And i don’t know why it’s OK for the press to try to exert power over their subjects – this is certainly not cool in my field. I will offer respect, but it makes me feel unhappy to offer submission.

  • I say it’s your “job” to “expose the unexposed” there is a quailty of the private that is universal. As writing instructor I always say to “write as if you parents were dead.”

    People will come back to you because you had the balls to say all the things that others were too afraid to say.

    As for the journalist. Okay. Fine. Wait a few weeks. But really, what serves the reader? Are we here to cater to ourselves, or to serve the reader?

    What’s important to you about withholding? If it serves you and the reader, sometimes patience can be a key link. However, if withholding doesn’t serve the reader than who are you serving?

    Just a few thoughts.

    I like your blog a lot.

    –zz

  • TaraK

    I’m interested in the idea that danah could effect the outcome of the story by blogging in advance of it. Not w/r/t scooping it, but in changing the reporter’s writeup or perspective or point if you will, during the writing/editing process.

  • Journalists are living in a Gutenberg past – that’s the worldview that has been trained into them based on the ground of physical-world-mediated journalism. The traditional value of the “scoop” is a competitive mandatory in a world of scarcity – in the case of traditional journalism, it is attention, eyeballs, and mindshare that is considered scarce.

    But in a UCaPP (ubiquitously connected and pervasively proximate) world, none of these are scarce, so long as there is something new to know (aye, there’s the rub! Journalists have to come up with something originally synthesized, as opposed to merely a collection of opinions sewn together) You blogging the complete (more or less) context (ie. interview) from which a quote will be taken is actually a natural form of the blogosphere. By rights, the excerpted quote should have a hyperlink leading to your blogging of the interview.

    But inkstained minds take a long time to change…

  • I find this interesting. I can relate on having friends, family or peers saying that to me. It’s always a case of something personal that I wouldn’t have blogged because it’s personal (though I have seen bloggers that blog all and treat their blog like an under-the-bed kind of journal). I haven’t experienced a published interview and this kind of thing yet. I have a feeling that it may have to do with the “original interview material” thing that some commenters have mentioned though. I don’t think a journalist should worry or care much if you blog about it ahead of time in this situation though, as it’s on opinions. I’m also curious in how it’d affect the journalist’s story, like TaraK said.

  • “I’m also curious in how it’d affect the journalist’s story”

    That’s like saying that you’re curious about how scratching someone’s car will affect the car and the owner of the car. The car will still take them somewhere but IT WILL GREATLY ANNOY THEM.

    And I’m tired of reading about “old worldview” and “Gutenberg past.” It’s a matter of respect.

  • TaraK

    I meant that if danah wants to give her side of the story on her blog, the reporter might learn something, and reflect that in their story. It is no different from conducting an interview with someone, and then going back to discuss some more. You get more context and material.

    And there is a way you can do this without blowing someone’s scoop (in some cases). For example: story is about the “deep web”. danah says a journalist interviewed her for the story, that they discussed various aspects of the deep web, most of which has been chatted about in research or media circles in some fashion or another. danah said this and that.

    She mentions all this on the blog, and extrapolates, says stuff the journalist didn’t ask her about. Stuff that really matters but didn’t come up. Journalist can use this, and there has been no violation of scoop rules.

  • Nooo

    “It’s a matter of respect.”
    Jon, you’re not from the gutemberg era but from the stalinian one, keep up the good work 🙂

  • nathan

    I’ve worked with the press and journalism students on several occasions, and if I have learned anything, the cardinal rule of journalism is that you do not show people your story before you publish it, and everything said is free game. I can recall several occasions in the beginning of my interaction with journalist where I asked them not to print something and they did it anyway. Conversations with them later revealed this was SOP. It is disappointing that a journalist would assume such a dual standard for bloggers. As journalist they should know better. It strikes me as tad hypocritical.

  • Nice. I have even gotten demand letter from a local resort for my site WildernessClubSubdivision.com because they say I can’t use their “mark” or their “good name” All I was doing was reporting updates on the progress of the private golf resort and it was positive, WAS. They are upset that I come up higher than they do in search engines so they want me to stop talking about them. It should be an interesting legal battle. Keep bloggin folks, your doing great.