I thought fellow bloggers and readers of blogs might be interested to read this doom-laden assessment of blogging – why we do it, and why we shouldn’t do it.  Notice the author of the article, and the title of the book he’s written (shown at the end of the piece).

I take my hat off to those bloggers I’ve followed who have been brave enough to write about some of the worst days of their lives, and in taking that risk have humbled their readers by their honesty, have halved the problems of their readers by their sharing, who have made me laugh, taught me endlessly, become my friend, opened my eyes to different countries and cultures, shown me different ways of seeing things, helped me work out many of my own thoughts, and have changed the world for the better with their words.

Now, read on …

From The Times, 28th Jan 2009

Danger online: Perils of revealing every intimate moment

Anything goes on the web. We find out why we share personal details online and explain our obsession with social networking

So Chelsy Davy announced the end of her five-year relationship with Prince Harry via Facebook alongside a cutesy icon of a broken red heart. Well, of course she did. It’s 2009, isn’t it? And nothing is now too personal, private, painful or indeed plain boring not to be paraded online and reduced to fourth-form abbreviations.

Blogs, Facebook, Twitter – all are forums in which people are suddenly prepared to share anything from heartbreak, marital discord and a diagnosis of chlamydia to what kind of new stair carpet they are getting. Even celebrities, who you might think would have enough public exposure, cannot seem to resist the extra fix of performing to an audience. Alan Carr recently confided that eating broccoli had given him wind. Phillip Schofield provided this gripping insight: “YAY – home-made soup for supper.” And Chelsy Davy changed her online profile to read: “Relationship: not in one.”

Concerns, though, are growing about the decline of the private self. Many people are questioning the wisdom particularly of blogs in which ordinary people write regular updates about their children and spouses, and they are asking whether we are surrendering our privacy too easily.

There are more than 100 million blogs in operation worldwide that are written – and read – with great enthusiasm. Spilling your guts to an invisible audience can feel good. There are undisputed cathartic benefits. But where does it end? A general (though, it must be said, not total) rule is that the more personally revealing the blog, the higher the number of regular readers. Is there then a temptation to expose more and more of yourself, like a striptease artist peeling off her clothes?

Via Times Online, we asked former and current bloggers to tell us their views on the subject. The response has been huge. While many believe that blogging is harmless, especially if you use a pseudonym to protect your identity, others fear a creeping desensitisation towards squandering personal privacy. And there’s a danger that you can spend more time on your blog than with your family. It was a minor thing that convinced Laura Witjens that her blogging career had to stop. After years of writing a lively update about her work, life and family she was attending a conference in France when a stranger walked across the room and inquired about her daughter’s teeth.

Witjens had written in previous blogs about how her child had fallen and broken her teeth. But suddenly in that moment she felt exposed. The realisation hit home that this wasn’t a game: she was imparting real information about her real family to real people in the real world – people who “knew” her but whom she didn’t know. Was this wise? “It just didn’t feel right,” says Witjens, who had previously been shocked by the severity of people’s criticism of her on the blog. “I realised that I had allowed it to spin out of control. I had to ask myself what the consequences are of meeting people who ‘know’ everything about me, have judgments and ideas, even before they meet me.”

The wake-up call for Steve Almond, a US author and blogger, came last year. He started writing his popular blog, Baby Daddy, to chart his experience of becoming a father. But he threw in the towel, saying that he was concerned about his daughter one day growing up and reading it and because he and his wife were becoming anxious about some of the audience. “When you make your private life public, when you seek attention in that broad a manner, you’re inviting not just the cool and the loving, but the angry and aggrieved,” Almond writes. He suggests that we all should focus more on face-to-face interaction.

Witjens believes that it is “human nature to prefer gory details, interesting stories or unusual angles” and that one reason dooce.com, written by a Utah-based mother, is one of the most popular blogs in the world is “that she shares absolutely everything”. This has become highly lucrative for the author, Heather B. Armstrong: advertising revenue on her site is rumoured to be about £20,000 a month.

But this is not the case for “normal” bloggers. So why do it? Why have we spawned a generation of people with a constant need for exposure? Young people will meet their friends for a drink in a pub and the next day the photos are all over Facebook. Couples have a baby and the pictures are on the internet before the child has taken its first feed. Is blogging just another form of attention-seeking?

“All we’re feeding is our need to communicate and our own vanity,” Witjens says. “You quickly work out that writing about anxieties or someone’s irrational behaviour attracts more comments and gets more readers than the ‘another happy day and all is jolly’ variety. ”

The trouble is that, unlike face-to-face conversation, we have no idea how our words are being received. Psychologists say that because we are communicating in a non-personal environment to strangers it tends to make us “braver”, more forthright than we would normally be, the better to impress our personalities on others.

Pamela Briggs, Professor of Psychology at Northumbria University, whose research interest is in computer-mediated communication, says that people compensate for the fact that they don’t get the complex interaction of face-to-face conversation by putting more into their e-mails and blogs. And it tends to be “the sparser the medium the richer the revelations”, she says. We disclose more on e-mail and new media, but we also feel that we are somehow detached from it. “But it can be a dangerous thing because you don’t get the feedback from them. People need to understand the impact that they are having.”

Daniel Wegner, a Harvard psychologist, says that we have been “shaped to be sensitive to each other on a face-to-face basis” but when we are alone in a room typing it is easy to become oblivious to the consequences of sharing information. And people can be cavalier about protecting their privacy. Who, after all, bothers reading the privacy box on a website? Briggs, who works with people developing the technology to protect information on the internet, says that in future privacy tools will get better.

Ella, who responded via Times Online and writes a “no-holds-barred blog about motherhood”, confides that it is not the people she doesn’t know who have caused a problem but those she does. “I regret writing some of the posts.I’m sure that my private thoughts – private, even though they were read by friends, family and others and who understand that they are reading something that I might not otherwise discuss with them – have been used against me.” She is now considering starting a new blog that none of her immediate circle will know about. But Franziska, who blogs under her real name, rejects the idea that she feels the need to reveal more to stay interesting. “I have blogged about very personal things such as having lost my baby,” she writes, “which drew more responses than any other post. But if someone said that I did this only to keep my blog interesting I’d be offended. Blogging for me is the silent way to ensure staying sane sometimes.”

Another blogger , who writes under the name Nappy Valley Girl and satirises the baby-centred area of South London in which she lives, says that you have to be careful if you tell your friends and family you are blogging and in sometimes censor yourself. “I wrote a fairly personal post about my experiences at boarding school and got hauled up by my father about it at a family party,” she says.

There are others who worry that blogging can be so obsessional that the author sometimes puts the virtual life before the real one, never really living in the moment.

Kelly Graham-Scherer, a Toronto-based blogger who writes as Don Mills Diva about her life with a young son, admits that she once “pulled out a camera to capture a temper tantrum rather than deal with it straight away”. She writes: “ I think all writers who document their experiences for the public run the risk of falling prey to the desire to give people something truly gripping to read.” She adds that when her partner Rob suggested taking their young son to the zoo she found herself saying: “It’ll be great. I’ll take so many pictures – it’ll make such a cute blog.”

“Not until Rob gave me a look did I realise that without thinking I had considered whether an activity we all enjoy would also translate into something my readers could consume,” she says. She thinks that blogging, especially about children, are positive things. “What are any mommy or daddy blogs, if not love letters to our children?” she says.

Few blogs can backfire as badly as Jessica Cutler’s did. The former congressional staff assistant wrote a blog detailing her sex life, some of it with high-powered lovers, under the guise of The Washingtonienne. But her identity was revealed by another blog and she was fired. Later she said that she thought an anonymous blog a safer medium than private e-mails to friends, which could be forwarded.

But another blogger known as Potty Mummy says that “experience has shown me that it’s impossible to remain anonymous once you’ve disclosed your approximate location, your profession, the number, age and gender of your children, and the nationality of your husband. I was ‘discovered’ by friends who found out that I had a blog and when I refused to give them its address, they simply put in a few relevant search words on Google and there I was.”

She says that something has always stopped her from lapsing into bitchiness. “Without getting too pious about it, my approach to blogging is ‘Is it going to upset anyone I care about if they read it?’ If the answer is yes, then I don’t post it. Aside from the fact that once your most intimate thoughts are on the internet they can never be recalled. At the back of my mind was the thought that someday one of my loved ones might discover my hidden scribblings.”

But how authentic are blogs anyway? Are we totally truthful in them or partly acting? In an article in Psychology magazine entitled “The Decline and Fall of the Private Self”, Jamie Pennebaker, Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas in Austin, believes that blogging has elements of theatre with people, say, blunting the edges of ugly revelation with humorous comment, always with an eye on self-presentation. “If you’re writing and you know lots of people are going to be looking at it you’re going to change things to make yourself look good.”

Even those who choose to extricate themselves from the virtual world, are encouraged to do so with a dramatic flourish: why just quietly fade away from a social networking site when you can commit virtual harakiri, aka “Facebook suicide”? Admittedly, the Facebook Mass Suicide Club has attracted only a cult membership of 168, but the futurist Richard Watson, who makes predictions for 2009 in his book Future Files, believes that this is the year when we’ll start to “unplug” our lives, and begin reclaiming personal or family time. Just as owning a mobile phone or BlackBerry was once seen as aspirational, he says that not owning one (or using one sparingly) is becoming a signal that a person has his or her priorities in order or has staff to take mundane calls.

For the time being, though, the future of blogging seems as bright as Chelsea Davy’s face. People just like the act of writing – and most of all keeping an audience, however small, rapt. “I know I might regret it one day,” says Alison, another blogger in Hertfordshire. “But at least I can always say that in a tiny way, I made my mark.”

Fears of being out of the loop

Time was when the internet was only for bored young men and technology geeks. Not any more. According to a survey last month, bored British housewives spend 47 per cent of their free time surfing the web, a higher proportion than workers, the unemployed, students or the Chinese. So how, in the past decade, did we get to a point where millions of us spend vast tracts of our time hooked up to sites such as eBay, Google and Facebook?

Few people know that the story of the net starts with Norbert Wiener, a mathematician who was asked to build a more responsive anti-aircraft gun for the Allies in the Second World War. As the enemy was constantly moving, Wiener concluded that its design needed to recognise that human beings were becoming messengers on a continuous information loop, responding to a continuous stream of information. Later, with the emergence of computers, some theorists began speculating that human beings could be treated as processors on a giant electronic information loop.

You probably associate the word feedback with respondents to Points of View or your annual performance review, but the idea originated from the engineering of electrical systems, information fed back into a system in an instant response to information that comes out of it. Like those systems, our compulsive urge to spend hours on Facebook or Twitter firing off our most fleeting thoughts arises from a desire to, having sent a signal, have one returned to us – to close the circle of our previous engagement. Feedback is what improves your eBay rating, and a continuous cycle of messaging and feedback is what keeps you in touch with your friends on social networks online. Feedback is the glue that holds the internet together, which explains the pull that grips people and pulls them back again and again, and why they begin to feel twitchy when they haven’t checked their Facebook page for five minutes.

What all this adds up to is a new kind of self that many of us now inhabit – one who has grown up to crave a constant cycle of electronic instruction, one who needs to be in the information loop via e-mail, text message and online networks at all times. When inhabitants of “Cyburbia” return there compulsively to check for updates, they are only trying to ward off a persistent fear of falling out of the loop.

Cyburbia: The Dangerous Idea that’s Changing How we Live and Who we Are, by James Harkin will be published in February 5 by Little, Brown. Available for £16.19 from Times BookFirst: 0870 1608080; www.timesonline.co.uk/booksfirst

 

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