Monday, August 25, 2008

Readers' Panel: Internet Privacy Issues

Privacy on Your BlogDear Michelle:

Have you ever addressed the issue of security and pictures on your blog? How do you decide what you should or should not publish and do you worry about publishing personal things or pictures of your children?

Mary at
Not Before 7

I've been asked this by many people but most recently by Mary so I'll give her credit. It comes most frequently from people who don't have blogs who, puzzled by the phenomenon of blogging, will ask me why on earth I would expose so much personal information but sometimes bloggers want to know how cautious they should be when posting pictures or information.

I don't want to be flippant about this, as with much of life there is potential for danger, even disaster, but it's a matter of evaluating the issues and acting with wisdom.

First let's look at the benefits of sharing a bit of your personal information with your readers.

Sharing personal things connects you with your readers, lets them know a little bit about you and gives you credibility. If I tell you that I've been happily married for 16 years, I'm six feet tall, I hate touching raw chicken, I once made myself sick from eating too many yummy Brussel sprouts, I love the smell of hospitals and I can say the alphabet backwards in five seconds then suddenly I'm not just a name on the other end of the line I'm a real person.

You can, of course, share too much of a good thing and while I do share some of my life here on Scribbit there are actually many things I'd never divulge. I wouldn't share sensitive information about my children. For example, if I had a child who was caught shoplifting or taking drugs I wouldn't write about it because of the repercussions it might have for that child. They don't need a permanent record of those kinds of mistakes even though discussing parenting issues such as that might help others navigate difficult circumstances.

I wouldn't share intimate details of my marriage or my relationships with other family members, some things (at least around here) are better left unwritten and I'd never want to write something about another person that I wouldn't feel comfortable saying to their face.

I wouldn't write anything about my husband's work environment. It isn't my right to talk about things he's experiencing there and I wouldn't ever want to write about sensitive information that could jeopardize his office or his job. Not gonna do it.

I'm also not very good about sharing deeply personal feelings but that's just a part of my personality and not due to any great rule I set for myself--I just have a hard time talking about personal issues with anyone but Andrew or my children and I tend to be a little stand-offish and difficult to know until I feel comfortable with someone. Writing about personal tragedy, for example, isn't something I could do easily though maybe someday I might feel differently. I've wondered if this is a shortcoming of mine because sometimes there are benefits of sharing trials--makes them more bearable for those who are going through them for example--but for me I feel awkward about it so it usually remains in the background.

The point is, despite what many people might think I don't share a great deal of personal information here at Scribbit--unless you consider pictures of my kitchen probing and raw--but I do think that infusing your blog with a bit of what makes you you and giving the characters in your life real names and faces makes them believable, helps your readers feel at home and makes you feel more invested in your writing.

So then what are the cons of sharing?

The world is a crazy place with crazy people who do crazy things and there is the chance that one day you wake up and find that you're the next victim. It's possible for nasty people to find your blog, exploit pictures of your family or steal your identity--you could even grow your very own stalker and find yourself in real personal danger. It could all happen and I'm sure if I put this out to a vote that I could find someone who could tell me a story of what happened to a friend of a friend of a friend who had that exact thing happen to her.

But is it realistic?

We do a lot of dangerous things each day: crossing the street, eating fast food, sunbathing, driving a car, in fact most of the things we do each day carry some amount of danger. When I was a kid we played this goofy car game called "It Will Kill You" where someone would name some boring item and the others would have to imagine a scenario where that otherwise commonplace thing could kill you. Yea we were a cheerful family.

I remember laughing about how raindrops were deadly because you could get one in your eye at just the right time to cause a car crash or how enough of them together could drown you or how a raindrop might carry a toxic pollutant--all sorts of ways for that innocent little drop to wipe you out. It was funny but it's come to the point that this is how we tend to view life.

Yes, it's possible for the right brand of crazy to stumble upon your blog and make your life into a Hollywood horror flick but you've got to look at the odds. Think about how much personal information is available on the internet--look at My Space alone--and think about the pages and pages of private things people are sharing. Then think about your blog and compare--which would provide a greater incentive for someone who was truly out to find someone to harm? They're not going to be shopping around in the momblogs if they're looking for a victim and even if they were I don't think that reading about our family vacation is going to inflame them enough to track me down, travel all the way up here to Alaska and stalk me. Really, I'm just not that attractive.

Your odds of coming to harm are about the same as being hit by a sniper at the mall. It certainly could happen but the odds of it occurring compounded with the odds of it ever doing any damage are so minute that it's hardly a possibility let alone a probability.

Of course you don't have to do things that raise those odds any--for example I don't use my real name I use a pen name on my blog and for my offline writing. I don't publish my phone number or address and use a P.O. Box for mail service associated with Scribbit and I don't reveal information that could be used toward identity theft--such as birthdays, middle names, etc.

I also keep an eye on my Google Analytics and the key word queries people do on the search engines that lead them to my blog just to be aware of the kinds of words people are searching for when they find me and I don't use words that would provoke visits from less-desirable visitors.

So, weighing the pros and cons, I long ago decided to share personal things on my blog and I post pictures that add to my posts. I mention things about my life in a hope that they're entertaining to read and I love exchanging emails with people to get to know them a little better. I love the personal nature of blogging and the immediacy of each post or comment so if telling everyone that right now I'm sitting in a pile of rubble while my house is under construction, dry wall dust between my toes, is dangerous then I don't know that I care to continue writing here.

But those are just my personal feelings, you'll have to make up your own mind.

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Plano Aesthetics said...

Great post! There's lots I don't share on my blog either. Good idea about hubby's work. I've never blogged about that either.

Lori said...

Great post! There's lots I don't share on my blog either. Good idea about hubby's work. I've never blogged about that either.

chelle said...

Thank you for being so candid about the subject. I post pictures, but readers only receive a small portion of our lives. I am not sure everyone realizes that it is not my life wide open, but I also believe that not everything belongs online.

thordora said...

While I don't share everything, I don't get paranoid. I know from experience that the people to worry about are generally the people IN your life. So I'm careful, but not freaked out.

I think it also corresponds to the fact that everyone shouldn't trust all the people they meet online. You can be what you want, and I've never understood why people fall for that hook line and sinker.

Jolanthe said...

I try to be really careful too - but dumb me didn't think about how RARE my name I suppose by not using a fake name, I give myself a strike in that area.

I do try to be careful in not mentioning where I live, names of places we go, etc...

Appreciate the thoughts in this post. :)

Jennifer said...

I started out blogging just for my family so it never occurred to me to use a pseudonym. I had no idea you did either... are your children's names made up too?

I have always said that safety is an illusion. That is why I, gasp, don't carry anti-bacteria stuff in every bag and compartment of my life. :)

Chris said...

I have my own rules too. I don't post pics of my family- unless it's the back of their heads.

Your name's not Michelle? I have to admit, that threw me. I've never thought not using my name. Of course, that name is Chris. Like Pat it doesn't give much away.

Mary@notbefore7 said...

Great answer. Thanks Michelle. I definitely feel very much the same way about my blog. I try to be careful with information, but not overly paranoid. I even went back to full RSS after our email exchange. A few friends had me concerned, but when it boiled down to it, I felt the full feed was fine for my own personal blogging.

Thanks for sharing your views on this. I think a lot of people struggle with finding their own balance.

Mary@notbefore7 said...

I must admit, you not being Michelle does certainly throw things off in my mind :) LOL!

Jenny, the Bloggess said...

Perfect post, my friend.

I have a lot of people concerned that i post pictures of my kid but honestly, more people see her at the grocery store than on my blog and the difference is that they could actually snatch her at the grocery store.

Great. Now i'm not going to be able to take her to the grocery store again.

I need stronger meds.

michelle of bleeding espresso said...

It sounds like we have very similar views on this subject; I also use a pen name and keep a lot of actual personal stuff to myself (most, actually).

I think it does help that for us in particular, we live in places that people would *really* have to want to stalk us to do it...and yes, the odds of that are really quite low. I agree that we can't live in fear of what might happen--too restrictive!

I'm actually not sure I'd blog the same way if I lived in a more accessible location, though, so it's certainly an interesting question and one that we each need to address for ourselves.

Doll Clothes Gal said...

Great post - although I don't want to share everything, I think it is important to keep a sense of reason and acceptability when posting on the web.

Mandy said...

I think these are great tidbits on what to do or not do when blogging. I think most people who blog know their own personal boundaries and don't cross them as others may not think it is a big deal so it is all what one feels comfortable. I don't talk specifics about my hubby's job either or share deep and spiritual experiences as they go in a journal at home.

LK said...

Interesting. I was kind of wondering that myself, but then realized that while you share what seems like a lot of information, you leave out a lot of personal details. I think the key is to not post EVERYTHING. For example, I tend to get kind of emotional on my blog and write about things that do tend to be sensitive. As a result, I don't post where we live, what kind of work my husband does, what kind of work I do, names, etc. I also try not to post where we are at any point in time until after we're back. I suppose it just comes down to what you're comfortable sharing and how much of your life you're willing to expose. Excellent post!

MommyK said...

I'm more concerned with someone stealing my identity from something I threw in the trash than I am about someone victimizing my family because of my blog. And I didn't have an exact idea of what I was getting into when I started blogging 18 months ago, or I might have chosen to use initials or different names for my kids.

That said, I have been gaining more readers, and while I love new readers and comments as much as the next blogger, it does make me rethink what I post. It would be stupid to write about my job in detail or a coworker I don't like when some of my coworkers read, and I'm hesitant to write about a problem we had recently with our neighbors, because what if it got back to them?

As my kids get older, I'll definitely edit what I write about them.

Kelly @ Love Well said...


Janelle said...

Well put. I agree completely. Ironically, I have a private (login only) personal blog, but it's because a family member asked met o make it that way for a very specific reason. Not my choice. Well, technically my choice, but you know what I mean.

Cagey said...

Thank you for writing a thoughtful, reasonable post on a subject that can get very personal, very quickly. I have had a few folks act as if I am putting my children at risk by talking about them on my blog - an idea that I find highly insulting because it infers that I am putting my children at great risk through carelessness on my part.

While pregnant with my first child, I carefully debated sharing his name and whether I would share his pictures. I discussed it at length with my husband. I did a variety of Google searches on his full name/our location and discovered that his name is quite common. Ridiculously common, given that his first name is Indian - turns out, his full name is VERY common in Kerala, India.

Overall, I have a Middle School Rule: if it is something that I think would horrify my children should their middle school classmates discover it, then I will not post about it. It is one reason why I talk very little about diapers, toilet training, "self-discovery", etc.

Shannon said...

Well said. And BTW, I'll be checking out the ilunchbox site next. I just wrote a post recently about wanting to get some new ideas for school lunches this year. Thanks for the tip.

Scribbit said...

LK, Cagey and Mommy K--good point to bring up. I didn't even mention things that might embarrass your kids so thanks for mentioning these points.

And Cagey I've had the same feeling, that people are slightly insinuating that you're irresponsible if you put the pictures up and it irritates me. I had one man talk to me about it who didn't think I was being very safe and I happened to find out his daughter has a Facebook page that gives out far more private stuff than I do about my kids. He didn't even know it existed :) In fact I bet there are a lot of parents out there who don't realize half of what their teens are putting up that's far more invasive.

Anonymous said...

Well said. I've received some odd search terms and am getting a few readers that, although seemingly innocuous at this point, have my eyebrow raised a millimeter.

I am a person who's always lived life out loud (that was so my line before the Oxygen channel stole it) and with few regrets. That said, I have a few rules to add:

1) Never fight online. If you care enough to fight. Care enough to call.
2) Never ask the blogosphere to fix your marriage. If you don't want your in-laws to butt in, do you really want someone you've never met (in person) to play Solomon?
3) Remember you want your kids to get a job and leave home. Before you hit "publish" pretend you're 25 and think of how you'd feel having this out there about you as you walk into a job interview.

Keep up the great work!

Jordan (MamaBlogga) said...

I've had paranoid people tell us that they'd be concerned that someone would see how cute Hayden was and want to kidnap him.

Um, what? Let's be realistic. If an evil person is looking to kidnap a cute kid, they'll head to the local park. Same for the pervs.

It still bothers me if I find stuff in Google Analytics that indicates pervy people have been peeking at my son's photos, and I've become more careful about what I post. But at the same time, I'll save my true concern for people who could actually hurt him.

Scribbit said...

Well I don't know Jordan, I mean Hayden is REALLY cute. The temptation to kidnap might be more than anyone can stand! :)

Heather said...

Good points. I use initials for my kids' names. I try to not post stuff that's too personal. But I'm a pretty open person anyway so what I don't consider a big deal, others probably would. I'm hoping to write a novel (have very little written so far) and am debating what name to use if that should ever be published. (Probably not something I need to worry about that much though.)

luckyzmom said...

I've said so often that too much water can drown you. And recently I learned that drinking too much water can actually kill you. There's a bad side to most things. You just have to be cautious.

therapydoc said...

Well said, Scrib

Julie said...

I agree. I know my privacy line, and I know what the rest of family's privacy lines are too. How much we share on line is a personal decision.

Lisa said...

I dont share intimate deals or things like that. I also do not post our last name, city we live in, school names, etc., etc.
My blog started as a way for my family that lives 1400 miles away to see my kids grow through pictures. I could not imagine not having pictures of my girls all over my blog.

I sort of cringe when I pop on someones blog and it has their full names all over the place complete with pictures of who is who and the name and details of the city they live in. Maybe people that do that dont truly realize that it is open to everyone to see.

Janet said...

I know my SIL is still concerned that I post too much info but I changed everyone's name and I blocked Google searches, since I don't have ads and am not lookign for THAT many new readers.
But I still think that it's more dangerous for me to put the kids in my ancient Jeep with 263,000 miles and drive on unpopulated, unmaintained rural roads where crazy people drive.

However, Marcia at "Are We There Yet?" mentioned that her work server has blocked my blog as pornographic! So I don't know what on earth is on there. She thinks maybe I said "butt" one too many times. I guess I have to reread everything. I don't want a bunch of pervs showing up thinking I'm a porno site.

chickadee said...

enjoyed this and i'm sharing it on my google page because people have asked me the same thing and i've come to the same conclusions you have.

Flea said...

I feel the same way. My basic rule of thumb is that I don't share anything which I believe might bring harm to myself or someone I know. Embarrassing is fair game. Harmful, no. For instance, I won't talk about my in-laws on my blog. Even though I can't be in the same state with them anymore, they are the grandparents of my kids and parents of my husband. I don't want to slander them. Talking about them in the comment section on other people's blogs? See, that's where the line gets fuzzy. :)

One Big Happy Family In Utah said...

Great ideas and reminders!

Our blog started as a means to share details about our newly adopted son (last year) with both our family and his birth family - extended out both ways to distant relatives and people who wish us all well. We have, as you can tell, a very open adoption. It really evolved out of the desire to try and keep up with the monthly emails and photos, but not doing a very good job. So we're relatively new to the world of blogging. But the medium has allowed everyone to go out and check in on Cole and post questions about progress or crazy pictures. I've left off last names for us and friends and family on purpose (part of that being careful tact).

Initially we were plagued by the 'good intentions' of others telling us to cut off all contact. But luckily for us, Utah is a pretty adoption-friendly state and so we err on the side of being careful , which I hope we continue to remember, knowing there are a lot of people who love him as much as we do.

Stephanie said...

What that is not your real name?! I feel so deceived! LOL! No, I totally understand and if I'd known more about blogging I may have done the same thing. Too late now. Like others have mentioned I started blogging for family. Besides where I live I doubt anyone could find me! Even people we want to find us can't find us! :)

When I want to talk about something that will embarrass the kids, including the shoplifting example you gave, I try to talk about the issue while keeping the child anonymous. I've done this with other family situations too.

We learned early to be very careful about what we say and that family sometimes take posts in unexpected ways. We've actually had family members get mad that we haven't posted about things. Ah the joys! :)

Amber said...

It's a tough balance. I kept anonymous until I started at the newspaper and then was required to include my name.

Like you, though, there are certain things I won't write about. I think Dooce nailed it at BlogHer when she said there was a large percentage of her life that she does not reveal, though people feel like she is an open book!

Leslie said...

It was great to hear your perspective on this subject. Great post!

John and Laura said...

I used to be so paranoid about our blog. We have relaxed a little, but we still use aliases. It makes me feel better, anyway, and it's kind of fun, too.

Kim @ What's That Smell? said...

A lot of people think that posting your names and your families names on the internet makes you a prime target for identity theft and things like that.

We had an employee at a local pizza joint use our names and credit card number and rack up hundreds of dollars one day at local shops before we noticed it.

Drug store employees have even more of my personal info, and what about bank employees. The have EVERYTHNG. If someone wants it, they'll get it not just because I've posted my name on the web.

Celebrities, news anchors and others have their names plastered all over TV and newspapers and some people even know where they live. Do they get kooks, sure, but they also have millions of dollars. I have about 100 dollars.

I concur with you about the extent of what personal stories you share. I don't write about family "issues" I don't write about my husbands job. I don't write about anything that I wouldn't want my neighbors to know about. Occasionally I get a little mushy about my kids, and I will write something embarrassing about myself, but that's it.

MommyTime said...

I think this is a great post, and my boundaries seem to be about the same as yours. I do think pretty carefully about what I write in terms of whether others will be offended or overly revealed. I don't tell any stories about my kids that I wouldn't tell around the dinner table. And there is a lot of personal locational information that I've left off.

I'm curious, too, about whether you use your kids' real names or pseudonyms (though perhaps you don't want to say). I struggle with that, and just refer to them as Son and Daughter (which of course only works because I only have two kids and happen to have one of each). Do you think it's important to be anonymous about kids' names? I think it's a good idea not to reveal things like what school they go to, or what days they're always at soccer practice waiting to be picked up...but to what degree do you think children should have privacy online unless they choose otherwise? I'm curious.

Gabrielle said...

Great post! There are certainly risks for everything in life and if we don't take risks, then we just aren't living!

Alison said...

Thanks for sharing. I'm pretty new to blogging and I thought a lot about privacy before I started. My kids are already middle school and high school age so talking about them is pretty much off the cards already in my book.

I'm a rather private person, but I love to write so it's taken me many years to even think about sharing stuff online. I think that blogging is so different from something like writing letters or being a regular writer to a newspaper simply because the internet is so searchable.

Maybe there is safety in numbers. With so many of us blogging that likely reduces the risk for each of us as individuals.

I'm not much of a one for taking photos and my kids don't like to be photographed so even just having my photo on an avatar is a stretch (I've not done it yet)!

Hopefully putting safeguards in place about the things I'm not prepared to write about does not lead to inane blogging, which I want to avoid.

Lisa Milton said...

I adhere to many of the same rules.

I guess because I share a lot, many folks don't realize how much I keep private.

crazy working mom said...

Very well said. I post personal stuff on my blog, but there is a lot that I don't post as well so I feel like I'm keeping a happy medium.

Tracee said...

I don't tell the town in which I live and I don't share my family's last name - which is not the same as mine.

I use first names for my kids. I don't tell a lot of locals about my blog - for fear they'll tell other's where I live.

I do post our photos but I have a national audience so it's not like we're findable in the whole state of Texas.

I think of it like putting my stuff out there in a national magazine. Kids appear in magazines all the time and it's not that dangerous.

Yes, my name is Arizona said...

I think the most important thing is to decide what you are comfortable with. The more I blogged, the more I became uncomfortable with blogging. I don't think I put too much out there; I didn't blog about work or my husband and his work. But, I put a lot of photos of my kids on my blog and talked about the places we liked to hang out and that made me grow increasingly uncomfortable. However, I'm a very private person, so my comfort level with exposure is pretty low to begin with. I recently deleted my family blog and am happy I did. I still keep a sewing/knitting/crochet blog so I can keep in touch with crafty bloggers, but I no longer blog about my family.

Boxing equipment said...

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Kathy G said...

I find that when I'm composing I include WAY too many personal details. After I let the post sit for a while and go back to edit it, I take out a good deal of the personal stuff.

I figured no one but my family and friends would read my blog, so I identify DH and children by their first names, and only include an occasional picture of them.

carrie said...

good points. Once I self published my books and made them available through my blog, I knew my days of anonymity were over.

If someone really wanted to find me, they could. But like you said, a lot of things are dangerous.

I guess I could've put a pseudonym instead of my real name, but I'm not really into that.

Organizing Mommy said...

I've never thought through this issue, but I would agree. I think I've been sort of following the same guidelines already. Thanks again.