Blurred line of weblogs

Posted on September 10, 2002 
Filed Under Julian, New Zealand Herald

12:00AM Tuesday September 10, 2002

By JULIAN MATTHEWS

On July 26, a veteran journalist for the Houston Chronicle was fired after he was outed for maintaining a weblog, or online journal.

Steve Olafson covered the Brazoria County beat, but on the side - without telling his bosses - he also adopted the pseudonym Banjo Jones and posted personal commentaries and musings on a weblog called Brazosport News.

Olafson confessed the weblog was just a “creative outlet”. But some of the writing belittled rival papers and mocked local politicians, raising the ire of Chronicle editor Jeff Cohen, who promptly sacked him.

The incident makes an interesting argument on what is expected of an employee both on and off duty.

In a world where email, instant messaging, chatting, websurfing and text messages are blurring the lines between what is personal and what is work, a new medium has entered the mix: weblogging.

A “weblog”, or “blog”, is a website that posts news, links and personal commentaries with the latest entries on top. It is usually updated frequently with swift feedback from blog readers.

Ani Moller, a New Zealander based in Austin, Texas, who has run her self-titled website at animoller.com for five years, said her weblog was definitely an “after hours thing”.

“I wouldn’t want to be fired for writing something on my website that didn’t sit well with management. But also, my job is not me, so it doesn’t really make sense to write about it,” she said.

Moller said the internet was still “total escapism” for her. “You can be whoever you want, and say whatever you want. But people need to realise that there can be consequences to slagging someone at work in a public forum when they wouldn’t say the same face to face.”

Moller said the best part of her weblog was getting immediate feedback and making new friends.

“I like making people laugh, and the fact that I can do that by having a website makes me feel good, and makes me want to keep doing it.

“Sometimes the feedback is not so good, but it doesn’t bother me so much, because the good outweighs the bad.”

Award-winning online wordsmith Robyn Gallagher, of Robyn’s Secret Passage, points out that although maintaining a blog may blur the lines between personal and work life, there always has been such overlap.

Gallagher said her two previous employers were both internet companies but differed on access during company time.

“The first started out allowing staff to access websites and chat networks, but then the managing director felt that people weren’t focusing on their work and restricted access to email and the company intranet.

“The second company seemed to be okay with staff browsing websites and chatting during work, although I’m sure if people’s performance suffered, something would have been done,” she said.

Gallagher suggests the weblog, like most online tools, is all about connecting with other people.

“This is a very human thing to do. Keeping a weblog is a way of sorting through all the stuff that comes into one’s life and, like a journal, can get very personal.”

In the US, the weblog is already donning a corporate veneer with some companies integrating weblog capabilities into their intranets and websites. The rationale behind it can be likened to a cross-pollinating water-cooler talk with boardroom brainstorming.

In We Blog: Publishing Online With Weblogs, authors Paul Bausch, Matthew Haughey and Meg Hourihan suggest building an intranet weblog specifically for knowledge management, also known as k-logs.

In a k-log, an employee could publish insights, points of view, links to resources, important documents and emails with annotation, and other thinking to an intranet where it can be archived, searched and browsed.

The authors argue that the low-cost, ease-of-use and dynamic and informal nature of weblogs are far better suited to today’s corporate environment than complex knowledge management systems.

A weblog may put “human voices” back into an increasingly impersonal, cubicle-stifling workplace.

But a k-log begs the question how personal one would get online at your workplace, and when will you know where to draw the line?

Rebecca Blood, author of The Weblog Handbook (www.rebeccablood.net/handbook), points to the dangers of publishing sensitive or critical information about one’s employer or employment.

“The Olafson case was just the result of poor judgment by an individual who felt he could choose when professional standards applied to the pieces he published and when they did not.”

In her book, Blood advises bloggers not to talk about work on their weblogs, except in the most general way, and to be aware that published words have a way of coming back to haunt you.

Blood, who runs the weblog Rebecca’s Pocket and traces the history of blogging to 1998, said, however, that with the weblog we might have entered another “great age of pamphleteering”.

“Weblogs are vox populi, desktop broadcasting or pirate radio for the web. For anyone with a web browser and an internet connection, the web is now a two-way medium. That’s significant,” she said.

Critics say the blogging phenomenon is a fad, and that it will eventually go the same way as thousands of badly designed, inane and outdated homepages languishing on the web.

Blood counters that weblogs may not always be as trendy as they are now, but they will not go away.

“I believe they will become ubiquitous. Updating a weblog has become so easy that anyone can have a web presence without any coding skills.

“The form of frequently updated entries arranged in reverse chronological order will be also used more and more for practical purposes: planning a wedding, keeping in touch with friends and family, or as the top page of corporate intranets.”

She predicts that in five years the weblog will be routinely used for what it is best-suited for: filtering information, organising frequently updated information in a way that allows readers to quickly identify new content, and summarising complex stories with pointers to more detailed sources of information.

Blood concludes: “Weblogs are a platform that allows people to express their views without the need to please anyone else. I think this is an exciting and important advance.

“There are some unintended consequences that are only now becoming apparent.

“But like any new tool for discourse, we are still learning about what the appropriate limits are and the ramifications of this kind of opinionated, personal publishing.”

Links: Ani Moller | Robyn’s Secret Passage | Rebecca Blood

SIDEBAR: Inside the Blogosphere
Weblogs, or “blogs” are exploding in popularity. Estimates suggest there are as many as 500,000 bloggers online and that a new blogger joins up every 40 seconds. Mainstream online publishers have hopped on the bandwagon adding bloggers to their payroll, while corporations experiment with the form on intranets and websites.

Blogging first began to pick up steam in mid-1999 when push-button, self-publishing tools like Pitas, Diaryland and Pyra Lab’s Blogger made it fairly easy for anyone to maintain a diary or journal online with little coding experience.

In the aftermath of the Sept 11 attacks, when major news sites like CNN, BBC and Yahoo were struggling to cope with the influx of readers, bloggers came into their own, posting exclusive pictures, video, audio, first-person accounts, survivor lists and knee-jerk commentaries.

Some bloggers like Jim Romenesko (MediaNews Weblog), Glenn Reynolds (Instapundit) Dan Gillmor (eJournal), Virginia Postrel (The Scene), Doc Searls (The Doc Searls Weblog) and Andrew Sullivan (The Daily Dish) are regarded as “A-list” bloggers and command avid following.

These solo-driven sites are great filters for an increasingly information-saturated Net. The bloggers post links to interesting news stories, ferret out quirky sites, and add commentaries of their own.

An intriguing site or story posted by a popular blogger is like a returning honeybee on a frenzied dance. The link is visited then reposted exponentially, and before you can say “copy and paste” and an entire of hive of bloggers is doing the click-and-link buzz dance.

Wry humour, loads of sarcasm and a generous dose of thumbing authority seem to characterise the most popular blogs. Bloggers can rant and rave, comment and critique, make us laugh out loud or shock us with the content they produce and find online. The worst blogs though spend too much time navel-gazing and can be as bland as toast.

Like other social groups, bloggers also have their own shorthand vocabulary. Some of the popular ones include blogroll (favourite weblogs) , bloggerrhea (posting to your weblog many times in a short period) blogstipation (the antithesis of bloggerrhea; a condition that results from going too long between blogs), and blog diva (a blog that receives thousands of hits a day…aka ‘The big time’.)

Various group blogs such Slashdot, Metafilter and Blogcritics have also emerged and some are driven by specific hobbies, health needs or social interests such as rugby, pets, breast cancer, photography and Christianity.

Keeping tabs of the most popularly cited news and blog items are indices like Daypop, and Blogdex.

If you want to hop on the blogwagon some of these sites may prove useful: Blogger | The Weblog Tool Roundup | Which Blog Is Best for You? | Creating a Blog | Radio UserLand | DiaryLand | Pitas.com | LiveJournal | Movable Type | GreyMatter

Published as Weblogs blur corporate lines and Inside the blogosphere in the New Zealand Herald, Sept 10, 2002.

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