Weblog survey on expectations of privacy and accountability

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Fernanda Viégas from the MIT publishes a weblog survey on Expectations of Privacy and Accountability. Summary of findings:

  • the great majority of bloggers identify themselves on their sites: 55% of respondents provide their real names on their blogs; another 20% provide some variant of the real name (first name only, first name and initial of surname, a pseudonym friends would know, etc.)
  • 76% of bloggers do not limit access (i.e. readership) to their entries in any way
  • 36% of respondents have gotten in trouble because of things they have written on their blogs
  • 34% of respondents know other bloggers who have gotten in trouble with family and friends
  • 12% of respondents know other bloggers who have gotten in legal or professional problems because of things they wrote on their blogs
  • when blogging about people they know personally: 66% of respondents almost never asked permission to do so; whereas, only 9% said they never blogged about people they knew personally
  • 83% of respondents characterized their entries as personal ramblings whereas 20% said they mostly publish lists of useful/interesting links (respondents could check multiple options for this answer). This indicates that the nature of blogs might be changing from being mostly lists of links to becoming sites that contain more personal stories and commentaries
  • the frequency with which a blogger writes highly personal things is positively and significantly correlated to how often they get in trouble because of their postings; (r = 0.3, p < 0.01); generally speaking, people have gotten in trouble both with friends and family as well as employers
  • there is no correlation between how often a blogger writes about highly personal things and how concerned they are about the persistence of their entries
  • checking one’s access log files isn’t correlated to how well a blogger feels they know their audience
  • despite believing that they are liable for what they publish online (58% of respondents believed they were highly liable), in general, bloggers do not believe people could sue them for what they have written on their blogs

The findings in this survey suggest that blogging is a world in flux where social norms are starting to flourish. For instance, many bloggers reveal the names of companies and products when they blog about them, except when they write about a company for which they currently work or have worked in the past. More bloggers are becoming sensitive about revealing the full names of friends on postings as well. But for all of the careful publishing guidelines that are starting to evolve, bloggers still do not feel like they know their audience. For the most part, they have no control over who reads their postings. The study also shows that bloggers usually have some idea of their “core” audience (readers who post comments on the site) without really knowing who the rest of their readers are – in many cases, this latter group makes up the majority of their readers.

When confronted with questions of defamation and legal liability, respondents in this survey paint a conflicting picture. In general, they believe that they are liable for what they publish online. However, bloggers in this study were not concerned about the persistent nature of what they publish – which tends to be a major aspect of liability – nor did they believe someone would sue them for things they had written on their blogs. Moreover, 75% of respondents said they have edited the contents of their entries in the past. Even though most respondents explained that they usually edit typos and grammatical errors, 35% of respondents said they had edited for content as well: entries they decided were too personal, entries they thought were “mean”, some respondents mentioned having gone back to entries to obfuscate names of people. These results reveal a certain naiveté in how most bloggers view persistence and how it can operate in networked environments such as the net where information is being constantly cached and where there is ample opportunity for the misuse of personal information. As blogs become more pervasive and their audiences grow, defamation and liability issues linked to the ever-persistent nature of entries are likely to become even more of a burning issue.