The Ethics of Blogging

Back in March I wrote a post on whether it is dangerous to relax our writing standards when blogging.  I argued that, even while blogging we still have an obligation to use skills we have learned in school to fact check ourselves and others on the Internet.  Many commenters responded by arguing that blogging is not academic writing–i.e. no one wants to read jargon-laden prose geared towards an expert audience on the blog and we should be allowed to write colloquially or with contractions.  These comments did not surprise me because they align with the understanding of writing that is propagated in American high schools (and perhaps other schools, though I am not qualified to speak on that).

Note the disparity in the argument and the response above.  I argued that we should do research, provide evidence, and fact check ourselves and others.  That is, I was speaking about the overall strength of the argument and the need to be able to discern true claims from false claims.  The responses spoke about grammar and word choice–stylistic features of the writing rather than the content of the writing.  The implication is that one can distinguish academic writing from other writing because it looks or sounds a certain way.  You could theoretically write about the totally made-up group of blue aliens living in Kansas, but if your grammar is correct, you’ve written a “good” essay.

Of course, when I put things that way, it sounds ridiculous and probably most people would argue that they are not in favor of writing about imaginary aliens and calling it nonfiction.  But this exactly what students in American high schools tend to learn writing is.   It’s called “writing for correctness” and it happens when teachers spend most of their time marking small stylistic features such as punctuation, word choice, and MLA citations instead of focusing on the content of the paper–the strength of the argument, the strength of the evidence, the structure and logic of the paper.  It’s much easier and less time-consuming to circle a misspelled word than it is to explain to someone why the structure of the paper is not a logical trajectory and how they can revise it.  So overworked teachers lean on these stylistic features in their rubrics and their grading and students learn that they can write whatever they want as long as the grammar is in keeping with Standard English.  The same attitude prevails on standardized tests, where the ability of a student to write in a five-paragraph essay is prioritized over what they actually say in that essay.

However, an essay can be written in nonstandard English and still be lively and intelligent, just as an essay can be written with excellent grammar but offer no new or complex thoughts.  And schools increasingly are reconsidering the attitude that good grammar equals good writing, especially as a result of the increased numbers of international students being accepted into American universities (and sometimes private high schools as well).  There are ethical questions being raised about attempts to change “accented” writing to fit a standardized mold.

But if I did not mean to say good writing is determined by stylistic features, what did I mean to say?  Quite simply, I was talking about the ethical stakes of blogging.  We may conceive of blogging as a hobby, but we have real audiences and can create real effects in the world. If we do not do our research, we may inadvertently spread misinformation or harm another person.  If we do not check the sources or evaluate the evidence of what we read, we may inadvertently believe false claims.

When we think about how we can use the tools and skills we have learned in school, we should be thinking about how we can use them in an ethical manner.  How can we ensure that we are advancing true claims, that we are doing our research, and that we are assessing the credibility of sources and the potential bias of evidence?  How can we ensure that we are helping others rather than harming them?  Words matter.  How we use words matters.  Our responsibility to the truth does not end when we leave school.

Advertisements

35 thoughts on “The Ethics of Blogging

  1. TizzyMatic says:

    Seven months ago, I wrote in mostly slang for my blog posts. Looking back on how I wrote then compared to now, it seems more professional, or like an essay. I’ve been wondering why my writing style changed; it was either I grew out of it quickly or I found it better to not write how I talk, which is what I do in school. Everything you said gave me my answer. Thank you for that.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I think a lot of readers may appreciate a more informal tone on blogs. One’s writing style certainly changes how people perceive one’s writing and perhaps they may view it as more professional if it’s more formal. But it all depends on what type of audience you want to attract, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

      • TizzyMatic says:

        Yeah, I see what you mean. I’m leaning towards staying neutral right now. Silly at times, never really serious, but formal at others. I actually didn’t think of what type of audience to attract until now.

        Like

  2. FranL says:

    I think that it’s important do research, cite sources, and analyze information whenever your put forth an argument. I don’t think of that as being exclusive to writing, because it’s important to do the same thing if you’re making your case orally.

    If something is well written from a technical point of view (perfect grammar, spelling, sentence structure etc) but it lacks organization, thought, or evidence, it won’t work. I do think that when something is written “correctly” (by which I mean that it’s in keeping with standard English) people are more likely to take the content of the writing seriously, because the writer sounds more educated and thoughtful. But ultimately if the content isn’t strong, then “correct” writing won’t get you very far.

    I try to teach my students to support their writing with evidence, organize it logically, and present it in a clear way. If there are errors with punctuation I’ll point it out and correct it, but I’ll evaluate a piece of writing on the strength of the content. I don’t teach high school, I teach younger children, but I think that building their ability to think critically at a young age is crucial. Errors with punctuation, capitalization, and citation are very quick and easy to correct. But reading and thinking critically is a skill that takes time to learn.

    I think that whenever we read something that expresses a point of view, whether it’s an academic essay or a blog post (or an academic essay posted on a blog) we should ask ourselves the same questions: who is writing this? what does s/he think? why does s/he think that? do I agree? why or why not? If we respond we should still be able to back our statements up with sound reasoning.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I think it’s true that people take writing more seriously if it’s in standard English and grammatically correct. For instance, if someone is applying to a job, it’s paramount to try to get rid of typos as some employers will toss out the world’s best resume if there’s one typo on it. (I think that’s a mistake, but, hey, I’m not in charge of these things.) And plenty of people will read an email or a cover letter or a direct message and assume the writer is intelligent or not based on their grasp of standard English. And when it comes to style, even academics can fall prey to the trap of thinking that bigger words mean something is smart. Peter Dreier, for instance, totally fabricated a sociology abstract for a conference by just making stuff up and inserting a quote supposedly by Heidegger and it was accepted because jargon means intelligent thoughts are happening, apparently.

      But, as you say, it’s far easier to learn grammar than it is to build of habits of mind that prioritize critical thinking. Even when I try to coach writers through their work asking them why they think things, why they made an assertion, asking where their evidence for a claim is, I will often get blank looks. I think part of it is that they are not accustomed to being asked for their evidence or even seeing others use evidence. And part of it is, I think, that our concept of evidence is too narrow. Whenever I write about evidence on the blogosphere, I get a lot of responses saying “we don’t need evidence because it’s informal writingl/our opinions/just about books” or what have you.

      But evidence isn’t just statistics from the latest survey or a footnote saying “John Smith has written the same thing about this book in an academic journal.” Evidence can be examples or quotes from the book. Even if someone has an opinion about whether a book is good or not, I want to know WHY they think that based on the text. How do I know if I should read a book without more information? How can I tell a reviewer hated the book because a) the prose was bad, b) the plot was unoriginal, c) they just hate books about characters named Bob? If it’s because of poor Bob, I will probably still read the book because that’s really a personal preference I don’t share. If it’s a or b I’ll need even more evidence–quotes showing the prose really is bad (whatever that means), examples showing the plot really is unoriginal. But these are things that we sometimes don’t seem to think of as “evidence.”

      I like your list of questions because I think it breaks down for bloggers or any writers the types of questions they should be asking as they write.

      Liked by 1 person

      • FranL says:

        I think that there’s nothing wrong with making a “informal” post sharing an opinion, but there should still be reasons for why the writer holds that opinion. If I don’t like a book I should be able to say that “the characters didn’t ring true,” or “it was too predictable”. And if someone asks for an example I should be able to say “the characters didn’t ring true because…”. Obviously people are free to post in whatever way they want on their blogs. But I think that readers will give more credence, even to informal posts, if they can be backed up with reasoning. I suppose it depends on who the blog is being written for. If it’s being written for the writer, then anything goes. S/he can babble away nonsensically if s/he wants. But if it’s being written for readers, then it’s important to be able to discuss whatever it is. Otherwise it’s helpfulness to readers is limited.

        Like

        • Krysta says:

          Quite true! Some bloggers use their blog more as reading journals. However, when I read a review I do like to have some level of detail so I know why the reader responded to the book in a certain way!

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Esther @ Queen of Fantasy says:

    I think you make some excellent points! My blog posts are mostly purely my opinion or just totally nonsensical, and I think my readers know my blog is meant to be a silly place! As such, I don’t particularly think this applies to me but a lot of people could definitely take some pointers from this!

    Like

  4. Michael J. Miller says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I couldn’t agree more. Writing, even writing for fun, has power and we need to be aware and responsible when we do it. I found myself pumping my fist in excited agreement as I read this :).

    I know I try to do this with my students. I give a lot of writing assignments, both formal research papers and smaller reflection papers. I correct all the little stylistic/technical mistakes of course, but I also try to help point out where they arguments work and flow as opposed to where they are illogical or they contradict themselves It’s interesting because students (speaking, of course, in unfair generalities) tend to focus more on fixing the former problems and not spending as much time on the latter. It makes for some interesting exchanges when we talk about how ti improve what they are doing.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post! That’s quite the compliment!

      Ah, yes. The struggle to balance local and global concerns. It is important to mark up the grammar and the stylistic choices so students can learn. But it also seems that when they see a few comments about commas and a few about strengthening the argument, they see the comments as holding equal weight and think, “Well, I’ll just fix those comma splices because then I’ve done a good chunk of what the teacher wanted without spending all that time rewriting my thesis and my then paper will get a better grade!”

      I don’t know if I’ve found the magic formula to convince anyone that it’s worth rewriting. I’ve tried explaining why more evidence might be more convincing to readers, pointed out that if the writer had done research they wouldn’t have made a bunch of untrue assertions and that true assertions are more convincing than untrue ones, and finally in a last effort told one writer he was too convinced by his own argument to be able to convince anyone else of it and that he had to look at it from the opposing side. A lot of times I still got blank looks.

      Sometimes, the best route for me was just to acknowledge that rewriting is terrible and time-consuming and really annoying, but we all have to do it and that I do it regularly myself. I think some beginner writers see rewriting as something only “bad” writers do and they feel discouraged being told they have to make major changes. But when you reframe rewriting as a positive step and one that’s just a natural part of the process, people start to see it as less offensive.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Michael J. Miller says:

        That’s an interesting idea – that people see rewriting as the mark of poor writing. I think that makes a lot of sense. But, as you point out, it’s so backwards. If we aren’t revising we’re missing both a key part of the process and the avenue to our own writing’s true potential.

        Even when I’m blogging, the pieces I end up being the most proud of are the ones that take weeks to complete. I’ll write, read, re-write, re-read and so on and so on. Then I’ll have others give it a look to proof and see if my points are working the way I want them to as well. I think there’s great excitement to be found in seeing all of that hard work paying off and this beautiful piece of writing you’ve labored over being born.

        As to sources, I read an article in an education journal not long ago saying that many students, when researching. will now just Google for sources and get their information from the little blurb that shows up without clicking the link. That broke my heart and hurt my soul! I enjoy the thrill of research. Again, even when I’m blogging I’ll write certain pieces that require extensive research and I’ll be sure to include actual citations. Like you said, it strengthens the argument. Plus, it’s just good academic writing. Even if I’m writing about nerdy comic book stuff I want it to be worth my reader’s time :).

        It is a struggle to share this reality with students. In an age where so much of our written communication comes in the form of texts, tweets, posts, pins, etc., we can lose our sense of the power of written communication. We can live our lives rarely seeing polished, professional writing. Don’t get me wrong, technology can be great. We wouldn’t be having this conversation right now without it! But I think it makes the struggle to show the importance of thorough writing more difficult.

        Like

        • Krysta says:

          Yes, I think there’s tremendous value in having another set of eyes look at what we’ve written! I try to stress to people that writing is communication and just because something seems clear to them doesn’t mean it’s clear to their readers! So it’s good to get another opinion from someone who hasn’t been working so closely with the material for a long period of time.

          I’m not surprised that students skim sources. I’ve seen reports that say most quotes in student papers come from the beginning or the end of articles. (Though maybe this isn’t surprising as these are the places that would have the main idea of the work; the middle is usually just examples supporting the argument.)

          I think it’s also interesting that we don’t often tend to think of Tweets, posts, texts, etc. as writing. If you asked your students to make a list of what they write every day and didn’t specifically tell them these things counted, I wonder if they would list them, or just make a list of their school assignments. We tend to isolate writing into these other areas of our lives, even though we’re all engaged in writing all the time from shopping lists to thank-you notes. And I think it’s worth thinking about how we write in these areas, too, and why. Writing matters even when it’s short, informal, or not being graded.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Darque Dreamer Reads says:

    This is a great post! I have been struggling with trying to remember all that I was taught in school since I began blogging. I don’t want to sound too formal, but I want to put to use my writing skills and sound like I know what I am talking about. It’s been so long, that some things aren’t always remembered, but I think we should all try to utilize the skills we learned and most definitely cite sources of works and ideas that are not ours. Yes, this is a hobby, but it still needs to be understood by our readers.

    Like

  6. Laura says:

    You definitely make some good points here. If I’m writing a blog post where I use facts (so, for example, if I mention facts about an author, or maybe a historical event that a book I’ve read is based on) then I always make sure to double check them. Even little things like the correct spelling of author and character names! For one thing, I don’t want to look stupid by stating incorrect facts, and then of course there’s the ethical aspect to it. You don’t want to be saying anything about anyone or anything that’s false!
    However, most of my blog posts are opinion posts, but even then I agree that it’s best to back up your statements with some kind of evidence. So if I say, ‘I didn’t like this about a book’, then I always try to explain exactly why, because I think that’s way more helpful to readers.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I always try to check myself because sometimes I figure out I’m wrong! I was thinking of the wrong year or historical figure. Or totally made up a scene or quote in a book…. But when I go look for said imaginary scene I thankfully realize I am crazy and don’t write about it in my review. 😀

      Like

  7. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    What a fantastic post! I didn’t see the original discussion, but personally I am inclined to agree with the people who commented that stylistically blogging should not be the same as writing an essay *however* I think your original point was so vitally important- it’s a shame people missed that!! Of course, I think there can be a discussion over grammar and the different standards we are held to on and off line (I certainly don’t write like I do on my blog/comment sections in the real world 😉 )- but I think that’s more relevant for another time and place.

    I definitely think people should hold themselves to the same standard they would be held to elsewhere (in the academic sphere or elsewhere) when it comes to comes to research and fact checking while blogging. There are certain arguments I have seen coming up over and over again which frankly in reprehensible in the way they are not cited, don’t use references and don’t examine counter arguments. Again, stylistically, I don’t think these have to be cited in the exact same way- a link to a few articles will mostly do for most cases- but most of the time I can’t find a single link to an actual source (again, there’s a current issue where people tend to say “psychologists say…”- this is not an acceptable argument *anywhere*). The problem is, I don’t think enough people challenge other people with facts when they make nonsensical arguments which aren’t well researched or grounded in facts. I really think the issue here is lack of accountability. The only person keeping someone accountable for these issues is the individual who writes the piece- and sometimes that’s not good enough. Some individuals are therefore excellent at holding themselves to a high standard and being accountable… others are not.

    I’ve actually had a response to one of these arguments drafted for months because I’m trying to research it properly. Obviously this doesn’t apply to every opinion piece or review, but sometimes it is important to at least get the facts straight. Sorry if this comes across as hypercritical, I don’t mean everyone and it’s definitely not a problem all the time- but when it does happen in certain places it really bothers me.

    Anyway, truly excellent discussion to have!! Hope you don’t mind my long comment!

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I was mainly confused anyone would think I thought blogging should be exactly like an academic paper. From my perspective, it’s obvious that different genres require different writing styles and certainly I have never written a blog post like an academic paper. But, it seems, as soon as you suggest that school is supposed to have real world relevance, people jump to grammar and MLA because that’s what they think school writing is. But surely we’re not supposed to assume that we write academic papers just to learn to write academic papers or to hone our grammar skills. That would be silly seeing as very few people write academic papers for a living and grammar is something that most ought to have learned before reaching college. College is supposed to be for deepening knowledge, not memorizing grammar rules. But learning to make a coherent argument supported by evidence from credible sources? Much more relevant to what plenty of people do every day.

      And I think it’s increasingly important to think about the arguments we make and why as the Internet has opened up a forum where anyone–not only experts–can speak. Of course, it’s very important that more people now have a platform that might have been denied to them in the past. But it’s also important to remember that the Tweet of a thirteen-year-old indeed might not hold the same credibility as the word of an expert who has been studying an issue for twenty years. I know that this is a very unpopular opinion and that we, especially in the U.S., are accustomed to hearing that we all have a voice that should be heard. But, really, if I don’t know the first thing about economics, why should I go online and tell people that my plan to save the economy is the best thing ever and that I know better than a host of economists who have, you know, actually read stuff about economics and worked in the field for some years? And yet this is something that I seem to have difficulty getting people to understand. They don’t want to know who said something online because they don’t think it matters. Which is odd because surely we don’t do that in real life? We might in real life think, “Haha. My ten-year-old cousin Sophie lies about everything/hasn’t even studied that yet/has never been outside her city and so can’t know about X. I’d rather listen to my aunt who always tells the truth/got a degree in that discipline/has travelled around the world.” But if Sophie Tweets the same thing online it’s suddenly valid as long as we don’t know it’s Sophie and don’t bother to ask?

      I didn’t read your comment as hypercritical. I think we do, in a general sense, have a culture that increasingly is not interested in assessing credibility or listening to the experts. I don’t know if it’s assumed that listening to experts isn’t egalitarian enough or something. But spreading false information is misleading at best and dangerous at worst. And I think we need to confront our own responsibility as writers and to think about whether we are helping or harming others when we write.

      Liked by 1 person

      • theorangutanlibrarian says:

        Yes! I completely agree with you there. I really don’t see why this would even surprise people. I’m the same- and I’d also like to think it wouldn’t shock people to find I don’t use slang, for instance, when I write in other mediums (or emoticons 😉 ) Yes exactly- I feel like a lot of people get a bit defensive on these issues- but really the question isn’t about grammar. Like you said, the grammar should have been mastered a long time before the university stage. Yes!! Love that point about learning to make coherent arguments from credible sources!!

        I *one hundred percent* agree with you. Sometimes people give far too much weight to things said on the internet, while simultaneously ignoring or being dismissive of people who have worked in their field for decades. Haha I absolutely agree with you there- and that’s a great point. I do think that you can look at both sides of the argument and make an informed opinion, but I really do think that it has to be taken with a pinch of salt (though I say this as someone from the UK, where there has been a tendency to say a lot of “the experts say…” on issues like Brexit whilst refusing to acknowledge that 1/3 of the experts said one thing, 1/3 said another and the final 1/3 said they don’t know) Basically, I think there can also be too much of an appeal to authority, where people (and journalists) then get lazy about their arguments. But, and I’ve kind of worked myself round into a circle here, I *do not* think that this means that people should start getting super ridiculous where they start formulating grand economic plans on their facebook pages (which unfortunately I have seen people do)- so I agree with you for sure. Hahahaha so true!! I don’t think people consider who is delivering the information enough – even when we can see who the person is, which a lot of the time we can’t, and take it from whence it came. Instead, everyone’s tweets/facebook statuses are elevated to the importance of an expert’s as long as they can get a certain number of likes and retweets.

        Hehe well that’s a relief, sometimes I worry about how I’m coming across in comments cos it’s hard to monitor tone 😉 Yes that’s very true. I also think that there are often multiple points of view that aren’t considered and sometimes people can just say “economists say” or “psychologists say” or “experts say” when they’ve a) not clarified who these experts are and b) not acknowledged that there are other experts with other valid opinions. I think when people do this it reminds me of how often I was told in high school not to say things like “historians think” in an essay. The best example I can think of to illustrate this was when I started uni and ended up in a guest classics lecture, where two classicist professors spent a good hour arguing about a miniscule detail in the Iliad (which naturally went way over my head). The point is, they were both experts, but they didn’t hold even close to the same opinions (hehe ok that was an unnecessarily rambly way of putting it but you get the idea!)

        I do however agree that a lot of the time, on both sides of the aisle, there is an increased spread of misinformation (with every side happy to yell “fake news!” at intervals). I really think it takes true humility and wisdom to *listen* to other people who have expertise in their field and I do worry that not enough people do that. Amen to your last point- it’s spot on!

        Like

        • Krysta says:

          Yes, exactly! Even appeals to authority have to be made after research. That’s why we have the climate change “debate” and the Shakespeare authorship “controversy.” Maybe a few people somewhere believe that climate change is not happening or that Marlowe really wrote Shakespeare’s plays. But, by and large, these authorities are not using the evidence in what most of their colleagues would think is a reliable or convincing manner. So we can’t just say “John Smith says Shakespeare didn’t exist” and call it a day like that settles the matter.

          Like

          • theorangutanlibrarian says:

            Haha yes, I was thinking of less cut and dry cases (like the aforementioned economic issues- which tend to be a bit harder to pin down), but you are right lol! Gosh that really made me laugh, I mean I know I shouldn’t laugh at people’s silly ideas but… Actually scrap that: I laugh in the face of silly ideas 😉 now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to go sit on an iceberg that’s *definitely not melting* while reading Marlowe’s famous play “the tempest” 😉😜

            Liked by 1 person

  8. Ravenclaw Book Club says:

    I love what you have to say about teachers correcting style and grammar as opposed to content. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. I used to be quite the grammar snob, still am to an extent, but I’ve realised that there is a lot of privilege and a degree of xenophobia in that. Saying that good grammar equals good content silences all the people who have so much to say but can’t express themselves very well because of a language barrier. Their thoughts and opinions should not be seen as less important just because they don’t speak or write perfect English. I’m still trying to find a good balance, because I can’t help appreciating good grammar, but I want to try having more of an open mind and not immediately clicking away without giving the content a chance when something is badly written.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I love grammar, too, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with appreciating an apt use of the semicolon or the artistic placement of a comma. I think there is only a problem when we use grammar to shame others or to suggest that they are somehow “not intelligent” because they don’t write or speak a certain way. I also feel sad when I see other students focusing only on an English Language Learner’s grammar, as if their ideas are not to be considered important until it’s easier for the native speakers to access them. Yes, you may have to read the sentences more than once in some cases. But it’s worth putting forth a little effort to be able to have a conversation with someone and to engage with them. It took a long time for them to write in another language. Surely we can take them time to read a little more slowly. At least, I feel this way in classes where you are supposed to give feedback in exchange for the feedback you are receiving. If I’m on the Internet, I don’t feel particularly obliged to read anyone’s blog even without considering the grammatical aspect.

      Like

      • Ravenclaw Book Club says:

        Yes, I agree. If we put effort into translating Beowulf and understanding Shakespeare, we surely can dedicate some time to understanding someone who doesn’t speak perfect English. I’m glad that, as a teacher, you feel the same way! x

        Like

Leave a Reply! We'd love to read your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s