By Deborah Brandt
Deborah Brandt is professor emerita of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she was a longtime writing teacher and writing program administrator. She is author of the award-winning Literacy in American Lives and a 2011 Guggenheim fellow. She just finished a new book about changing relationships between reading and writing, as seen through the experiences of workaday writers, and is at work on a co-authored book about writing development across the lifespan.
The first two times Writing Center director Brad Hughes invited me to contribute something to Another Word, I didn’t respond. This resistance puzzled me in some ways. My career has been dedicated to teaching and studying writing. I am a champion of all things writing – with the UW-Madison Writing Center high on the list. Some of my happiest moments in life are spent writing. Besides, aren’t blogs among the most appealing forms of expression? Breezy, easy, low stakes, anything goes—an embodiment of the best democratic potential of the Internet? So when Brad asked for the third time, I thought, okay, what’s the harm?
But blogs can do harm – especially, although not exclusively, to the people who write them. We have all heard the stories of the flight attendant, teacher, tech worker, political aide, among others, who were fired for blogging on private time in ways that put their employers in a bad light. Even a pseudonym may not guarantee protection. In the civilian context, prospective jurors have been dropped—and sometimes a conviction has been overturned—after aspects of court proceedings leak out via blogs and other social media in violation of judges’ instructions.
Now you might say: Blame the blogger, not the blog. Feckless or reckless writers can get themselves into trouble via any genre. But blogs seem to invite—and even demand—intimate (or provocative or entertaining) revelations even as those same features may become incriminating in the eyes of employers or government or anyone else with a browser. Consider how one West Coast citizen came to be dropped from jury duty after blogging light-heartedly about her attraction to one of the attorneys on the case. It just so happened that a newspaper was planning a story on the problem of jurors’ use of social media. In a search for examples, the newspaper found her blog and sent it to a jury consultant for a comment. But that jury consultant felt compelled to turn the blog entry over to the judge in the case, and the prospective juror was dismissed. Just as blogs invite heightened expression, they enable heightened policing.
We may want to let our hair down in a blog and be ourselves. We may presume to represent only ourselves. When we write about our jobs or how we spent the day in a jury pool we may want to see those experiences as our experiences, with implications only for us (and maybe our circle of readers). But blogs foreground the difficulty of separating the private individual from the corporate body—a difficulty inherent in nearly any kind of public, published writing. We can’t seem to write in public without implicating others and maybe incriminating ourselves in the process. Personal blogs may make us feel like freewheeling journalists but they come without the sturdy first-amendment protections afforded to the press. The tendency of the Internet in general and blogs in particular to jumble up the private and public, the lay and the professional, the civic and the commercial– and to archive this jumble in enduring, searchable form—can, under certain circumstances, make the stakes around personal blogging anything but low.
For all the troubling free-speech questions that personal blogging can raise, I am actually more concerned about the potential harm of another kind of blogging—the kind I am doing right now—in which the private writing voice is recruited to advance institutional or corporate interests. Blogs have become a ubiquitous appendage to many kinds of websites because they can attract and engage clientele, put personal face(s) on a business or a bureaucracy, and serve as a soft sell for products and services. An editor for a literary magazine recently explained to me why her boss required all the staff members to maintain blogs: “She wanted each of us to have a blog that mentioned the magazine’s name every once in a while. She thought that was a good idea for getting the magazine’s name out there. She also wanted authors who send in manuscripts to know that we are also writers and that we are into it.” I think some of that same logic is at work here at Another Word. The blog raises the Writing Center’s visibility on the Internet, keeps like-minded people connected, and showcases a staff of engaged and engaging writers.
Unlike the personal blog, the organizational blog intentionally jumbles the life experiences and viewpoints of the individual writer with a company’s image and viewpoints in order to create publicity value. Under these writing conditions, the harm can come in allowing your personal life to be commodified. The harm can come in developing your own viewpoints (one of the greatest gifts of personal writing!) through the constraints of public relations. The harm can come in writing something that really matters to you only to realize that many readers will treat it as just another info-mercial for your sponsor.
I especially cringe when I see so many blogs bouncing around the Internet that appear to have been written under compulsion in a college class. In these blogs students gamely write responses to assigned readings, responses that are often followed by comments from the overseeing teacher and/or fellow students. These digital practices defy well-guarded legal privacies that have traditionally surrounded learning and literacy. Exchanges between teachers and students are supposed to have the same confidentiality status as doctor-patient exchanges, no doubt in recognition of the vulnerabilities involved. Further, the right to reading privacy has long been considered a cornerstone of first-amendment freedom, necessary for citizens to maintain independence and critical thought free of government surveillance. Now, assigned reading blogs posted to the Web preserve for anyone to see connections between particular individuals and particular books, connections that librarians throughout history have fought hard to conceal. That all of this happens as part of a course requirement makes the practice that much more troubling.
I can’t conclude without recognizing the positive attributes of blogging, which are many. I have talked with plenty of bloggers, students and employees alike, who feel a sense of growth and connection to others when they blog, even increased levels of assertiveness and courage, not to mention celebrity. Blogs can be effective forms of political and humanitarian action as well as grounds for the display of enthusiasms and a means to find genuine audiences and allies. Another Word is clearly building camaraderie and professional wisdom among the writing center community and beyond. But to me blogs are a reminder that all writing is inherently risky, filled with unmanageable implications for others and ourselves. When we project our words into the world, we lose control of them and their consequences. Words will always mean more than what they say. Writing always has the potential to harm you.
*The word cloud for this post was created using wordle.net.