Blogging's Bad Side

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2513, 2007-03-30, as a feature article, in both their print edition (on pages 20-21) and their website.

Self-expression is an essential part of human nature. We love to tell others about our lives — our accomplishments, our plans, our heartaches, and even the most mundane minutia, although it might be exceedingly dull to anyone else (sometimes our listeners).

In essence, we love to talk about ourselves. Typically the individual hearing our personal tale is a partner, a parent, a coworker, or some poor individual wishing they had requested a different seat on the airplane. But the Web has given us a global platform from which to speak, and roughly 300 million of us have chosen to do exactly that.

Personal and organizational blogs have become a major force in the online world, particularly in the realm of journalism, as noted bloggers develop readerships with the size and devotion that can be envied by the majority of mainstream writers.

Too bad it's all downhill from here. According to some experts, the blogging phenomenon will likely peak in 2007.

But what about the statistics that indicate that there are now approximately 100 million active blogs? True, but this represents only one third of all the blogs on the Internet, according to the Gartner Group. There are about 200 million that are no longer being updated — typically started in earnest, but abandoned when the author realizes that no one else is reading their efforts.

There are probably countless reasons as to why two thirds of the bloggers have already given up, but we will briefly explore some of the major factors.

Discontenting Content

There are some blogs that offer worthy topics, sparkling prose, impeccable grammar, and entertainment and information value far in excess of the admission price. Sadly, such blogs are few and far between. The majority of them comprise topics mostly of interest only to the author and their psychoanalyst, "inventive" grammar laced with "trendsetting" spelling, and so little value to condemn the blog to a readership of only one, the author, and eventually none.

That is not to say that all neglected blogs deserve to be so. Among those forgotten 200 million good-faith attempts, there are likely an untold number of undiscovered gems. The problem is that there are even more blogs spewing hate, abject ignorance, and borderline neuroses. Most of them make the average collection of pointless ramblings look good.

On the bright side, the time and energy required for maintaining an active blog, are constantly culling the weaker ones, and giving greater visibility to those being nourished with a constant level of care and effort. We can only hope that the more motivated bloggers are doing so with a minimum of animosity or other ill feelings.

A Little Too Personal

Privacy in the United States may be judged by some to be as unfashionable as our Constitution, but that does not mean that an individual should pepper their blog with a cumulative amount of personal and sensitive information — all of great interest to an identity thief or a stalker.

Sometimes even a blog's first entry — which usually serves as the reader's introduction to the author — contains the latter's full name, city, school name, and personal interests. Subsequent entries often disclose the names of friends, which is information that any wicked reader could use for posing as a friend of a friend, thereby gaining the trust of the unsuspecting blogger. Pictures of the blogger, their friends, and their hangouts, give even more clues to the evil-minded.

Admittedly, with the proliferation of online credit card databases and surveillance cameras, Americans are becoming increasingly lax about keeping their private information private. But despite societal warnings about kidnappers, child molesters, and other bad guys, an alarming number of young people apparently do not grasp the need to filter what they choose to share, in their blog, with the rest of the world.

Want More Spam?

If you believe that your e-mail inbox is just not quite popular enough with spammers, then you only need to add your e-mail address to your blog. Technorati's August 2006 "State of the Blogosphere" report indicates that approximately 70% of blog visits originate from spammers.

Spammers use online computer programs to read thousands of blog entries every minute, scouring for people's names, e-mail addresses, and personal information that can be automatically formatted into spam messages that look more like ones sent by humans than by typical spam-generating programs.

Blogs that allow visitors to leave comments, can quickly become polluted by spam messages, posted by automated scripts if the blog does not have security precautions, such as captchas, or by human spammers paid (very little) to pass captcha challenges and post their unwanted messages.

The Highest Form of Flattery

Running out of original content for your blog? No problem! Just borrow from someone else's blog. At least, that is the increasingly common practice engaged in by online plagiarists. Some of them perform outright content theft, lifting entire passages from other people's blogs to be used in their own. Others ply their craft within the gray area between original composition and wholesale theft, incorporating large blocks of attributed text into their own.

Print and online journalists should know better than to ever stoop to plagiarism, thereby risking detection, embarrassment, and possibly dismissal by their employers and/or legal action by the injured parties. But the relentless schedule of the publishing world requires that those column inches be filled, and, for some writers, the temptation to resort to copy-and-paste, proves stronger than their better judgment.

But hard-core bloggers are striking back, by naming and shaming the guilty writers, and even enshrining their transgressions by nominating them for the Press Plagiarist of the Year award

See You in Court

Speaking of legal action, if you desire more of that in your life, then simply make nasty but false accusations about others in a blog. According to Ars Technica, over 50 bloggers did just that during 2005 and 2006, and were slapped with libel lawsuits. One of those suits was successful, and the accused had to pay over $50,000. And they say talk is cheap!

Yet just as with plagiarism, there is no clear-cut demarcation between indefensible written attacks that can be proven hurtful, versus freedom of expression protected by the Second Amendment and the "shield law" long utilized by conventional journalism. At what point do pointed barbs become legally actionable missiles?

Personal blogs can be terrific venues for people to express themselves. But bloggers should never assume that everyone else will admire their efforts as much as their mothers do; that it is safe to provide online miscreants with ready-made dossiers; that only kindhearted humans will be reading their entries; that no one will ever steal their work; and that an innocent blog attack won't result in a verdict of guilty.

Copyright © 2007 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.