Part 2: Anonymous Bloggers

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August 26, 2009

Thank you to everyone who read and commented on yesterday’s post about the rights of anonymous bloggers, or any bloggers for that matter.  There were so many detailed comments that I think it’s fitting to dig a little deeper today in another post.

So, I asked a couple questions yesterday about the rights of anonymous bloggers.  I basically wanted to hear what people thought about having companies like Google being forced to disclose the names of anonymous bloggers.  The people who commented really hit on some key takeaways from not only this specific case (blogger ‘SkanksNYC’ and her struggle with being identified) but with other cases as well. 

It seems like the consensus is that regarding the First Amendment, there has to be some line drawn in the sand that says when you begin attacking someone in a libelous, defamatory way that act is illegal and you should no longer be protected under the First Amendment.  Free speech until you break the law.  Steve Boese said, “I am sure many anonymous bloggers love the freedom of being able to write pretty much whatever they want, with little to no consequences. But this anonymity can’t be used as protection in the case of likely illegal activity.”  This idea of there being consequences for bloggers if they break the law permeated most of the comments.  Lisa Rosendahl summed it up nicely when she said, “legal rights, precedents aside, if you aren’t willing to put your name on it (whether you choose to or not) don’t write it.”  April Dowling and Shennee Rutt agreed.

There was also talk about bloggers in general and whether or not they should be, or remain, anonymous.  The interesting thing for me is that when I think of all the “anonymous” bloggers I follow, or bloggers that do not share their name on their blog, I can’t think of one that I have not been able to eventually learn who they are.  If you begin commenting on blogs, get to know the blogger on Twitter or Facebook, get to know them through email, etc. you will find out who the person really is.  Often, it’s not that they do not want anyone to know who they are, but they may not want their employer to be attached to the blog, so when they write, they remain anonymous. 

The commenter’s were split on whether or not to blog anonymously.  Paul Hebert and Mike VanDervort each talked about believing in transparency when blogging.  Mike VanDervort, who does not blog anonymously said, “My personal feeling is you should blog out in the open. I do realize not everyone can do that, but it does enforce a certain transparency.”  I agree with Paul and Mike.  To the extent that it is possible, I believe the benefits of blogging as yourself  outweigh the reasons not to.  It does not mean you have to identify your employer or organizations you are affiliated with.  It means that you may have to state somewhere on the blog that the views you express are your own.  But, at least you’re stating to the world that you take responsibility for your words.

Contrast this with Shauna Moerke, the HR Minion, who started out with an anonymous blog.  Shauna says, “On the one hand, as a former anonymous blogger I would have hated to have been forced to identify myself. On the other hand, I would have never done anything like this chick did. Free speech is not meant to protect lies and if that’s what this blogger was doing then she should be held responsible.”  April Dowling  of Pseueo HR had similar views as Shauna.  April said, “I get why some people do the anonymous blogging thing, I did it myself for a while. The way this woman has chosen to be anonymous is cowardly. I’m all about free speech and freedom of the press but if you are going to publicly bash someone, have the nerve to at least own your words.”  As you can see, I couldn’t have said it better myself.

The last theme that ran through most of the comments was the blogger MUST assume responsibility for what they write.  That means whether they are anonymous or not.  Anonymity does not mean freedom.  I loved when Darci Stitt said, “Freedom means you can say it, write it, etc. It doesn’t mean you are free from the responsibility.”

So, the key takeaways were:

  • Be as transparent as you can when blogging
  • Don’t write anything you won’t take responsibility for
  • Don’t use blogs for personal attacks that cross the line into illegal behavior

Thanks to everyone for their comments.  Comments are what make a post better because it opens up new discussions.  Also, if you haven’t read the entire comment posted by Darci Stitt, check it out.  She gives a great example of the case of “Pitt Girl” in Pittsburgh.

13 Comments

  • My issue with blogging anonymously is managing my brand. For as much as I love HR, I also work as a professional comedian, and my name is my value there. I don’t want jim the comedian to have to compete with jim the blogger for attention. I enjoy making people thing as a blogger, but I really love making them laugh and smile as a comic.

  • Yikes! Somehow I missed the blog and comments yesterday, but, being a lawyer, I think it’s imperative to get my two cents in!

    I’m not sure if anyone crying about the First Amendment has actually ever studied the case law, but the government has always been able to place reasonable restrictions on speech that takes place in the public forum. As you and your commenters wisely noted (even without benefit of an expensive law degree!), these restrictions are allowed in order to balance the public interest of freedom of speech and the public right to be free of defamation, fraud, noise, litter, etc.

    The right to anonymity has been upheld in some cases, and not in others. It’s all about the balancing test.

    Legal analysis aside, I am a hard-liner about anonymous public speech. I don’t read it, write it, or pay attention to it. I won’t “listen” to it, regardless of the content. I don’t even think letters to the editor should be published if they are anonymous.

    I like your summation, because if bloggers can’t follow those few basic suggestions, who wants to read their content, anyway?

    Joan

  • Trish, I am happy to add my legal opinion when I can. As you may know, I am pretty new to the whole online community experience, including blogging and social media. I have been hanging back a little, trying to learn the ropes, before I jumped in with my opinions. This is actually hard for a lawyer to do, and I hope you don’t ultimately regret being so welcoming. 😉

    Perhaps my hard line stance comes from the print media, where the word “anonymous” makes my blood boil a bit. I’ve always equated that phrase with being able to do or say whatever you want without fear of the consequences. I find it a little cowardly. I will try to crack that door, as you suggest, in this new (for me) online world.

    Given that online writing may be different, I still don’t understand WHY people want to blog about HR anonymously. You mentioned one reason – keeping a personal blog detached from an employer. That would make sense except for one thing – a disclaimer would do the same thing. In fact, if people are easily “discoverable”, as has been suggested, how does an anonymous blog help keep the writer detached from the employer? Much better to have the disclaimer. In fact, I would suggest the disclaimer in any circumstance.

    Also, if the blogger’s identity is easily discoverable – why remain anonymous? Or is the blogger not anonymous by definition? I find that reasoning pretty circular.

    Maybe you or others can help me open that door by helping me understand why anonymity may be desirable, UNLESS it is to prevent anyone from knowing who actually wrote something. In that case, I’m shutting my door again! 🙂

  • We can all agree that free speech is a cherished value in our nation and that it is fundamental part of our value system. Yes, there are certain restrictions that are placed on some speech as a necessity, but overall we have an incredible openness and freedom that is unmatched in most of the world.

    I do not personally not put much stock in anonymous blogging, and do agree that people should not hide behind the cover of anonymity if they are bold enough to write the words they are publishing.

    However in an oversensitive environment, I also recognize it is difficult to simply use a disclaimer as means of protection. Employers are very sensitive to public blogging / online activities for their employees. While they may not easily retaliate, they can make life difficult for the employee. There are plenty of firms, including many large law firms that I know of in particular, that actually monitor the online activities of their employees and punish them for inappropriate postings or usage. It is really a matter of understanding the line of work you are engaged in, the company’s policies and your intended online topics.

  • Disclaimers offer NO protection from retribution at all, and I hope I didn’t imply that they did. I was speaking of using a disclaimer to differentiate your personal opinion from a statement made on behalf of an employer ( I believe Trish said that people may blog anonymously because they want to “keep it separate” from their employer). A disclaimer states right up front that it’s separate. But that is all it does.

    Many employers punish employees for blog posts. I’m sure many law firms do, too. The first amendment (the free speech amendment) does NOT protect employees from this, or give them any free speech rights, because the first amendment only protects citizens from adverse government action. The first amendment reads “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, . . . Employers do what they want.

    Which brings me right back to my question – WHY do people blog anonymously, particularly HR people? The days of getting your head lopped off by the monarch’s guillotine are long over, so fear of death isn’t the reason. Is it fear of reprisal or retribution from the employer? I compare that to doing something negative without wanting to suffer any consequences. We don’t want our employees to behave like that – so why would we want to?

    I really think there may be other reasons that I’m not familiar with. I’d love to hear them!

  • Sorry I’m late in commenting.

    I blog by a simple rule. If I can’t have my mother read it, I don’t write it. I know that sounds silly. But, while I tend to comment on the absurdities of my corporate experience, of my life and the world around me, I will stand by anything that I write. If asked I will identify myself. I’m not that hard to find. Really, my blog is simply a creative outlet for myself.

    Too many people feel safe in the anonimity of the expanse of the blogosphere. They feel the blogosphere is their own personal graffti wall, say what you want, draw what you want, dang the consequences. The problem is nothing goes away in the internet. The mean-spirited, slanderous bad-day that a person had can be dug up and resurrected time and time again.

    Slander and libel are the same no matter the venue.

    If you want to make a difference, a thoughtful, insightful, well-research commentary can pack a bigger wallop than an invective-laced diatribe about someone’s parentage, or current state of living.

  • I love reading anonymous bloggers. The Evil HR Lady is my absolute favorite. Like anything, you have a risk of being discovered but I think there is a lot of truth that can be said without exposing yourself to your friends or potential employer.

    Another great anonymous blog I love is http://www.hisboyscanswim.com. This couple blogged their entire pregnancy and now raising their son anonymously including labor and delivery. I was hooked!

    Good stuff!

    Jessica Miller-Merrell

    http://www.blogging4jobs.com
    @blogging4jobs

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About Trish

A former HR executive and HCM product leader with over 20 years of experience.

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