Bloggers Anonymous – the question of ethics

Studies have shown that while 82% of Americans say they intend to write a book, as many as half of all Americans have not read a book for pleasure in the past year.* If those stats are accurate and you’re an American reading this, I guess there’s a 32% chance that you fit both categories (disregarding any analysis of what demographic this blog attracts). Of course, saying is one thing and doing another. People can also intend to lose weight, pay off debts and quit vices, yet not take action. But isn’t writing for an audience without having done your homework a bit like driving in a country where you don’t know the road rules? Isn’t it not just naïve (if less scary) but somehow unethical? Isn’t it disrespectful of the locals?

After all, writing a book is much harder work than, say, blogging. You have to hammer out a plot or a thesis and stay strictly on topic. And unless you can afford to self-publish and/or foot your own legal expenses, you’re much more constrained re what you can get away with. An open-ended form/forum like blogging offers unprecedented freedom (unless you’re, say, a paranoid schizophrenic: one activist I knew complained of government surveillance, although stylistic tics such as copious CAPS, exclamations [!] and sarky ‘quotation marks’ studding polemical rhetoric full of hyperbole, oaths and expletives = a virtual version of a homeless person ranting and shaking their fist in the street). With no agent, editor or sales & marketing dept to set the parameters, bloggers can indulge obsessions, pet peeves and fantasies; it’s rare that a post goes viral. But with no-one to be accountable to, can a blogger go too far?

Our language has no word for the concept of karma. And though we’ve adopted it, the Sanskrit term often gets used ironically – as if we Westerners don’t believe our actions are real unless someone’s watching. That ‘someone’ who used to be God has become others more or less like us (mediated not by belief but by technology). It used to be the case in our dominantly Christian culture that God knew what each of us, in the privacy of our skull, was thinking. Now everyone’s in a rush to expose every fleeting thought on Facebook or Twitter. Who now cares whether (let alone has faith that) a deity’s listening?

Synonyms that my Macquarie Thesaurus offers for karma include destiny, fate, retributive justice and the inevitable, all of which seem somewhat loose. ‘Fate’ is usually taken to mean the opposite of ‘free will’ – something one is born with and can’t alter, like a genetic script – while ‘retributive justice’ smacks of the Old Testament, Hollywood westerns or a post-9/11 presidential script. Though the latter synonym might imply ‘karma’ is that which comes back to bite you in the bum, none in my thesaurus hint at its being adjustable. Yet, it’s possible the concept of karma has caught on in our capitalist culture because, grasped superficially, it chimes with that of credit. No matter how far in the red you are, you can always pay off your debt; buy your way out of ‘the inevitable’. The cultural historian, William Irwin Thompson, writing on myth, sex and human culture’s origins in The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light,† refers to karma as ‘relatedness and relatives in time’ (p. 19). Karma is something we generate through attachments – to sex, passion etc. And passions include what we despise or resent as much as what we desire.

How does karma operate for a writer? Even the impulse to write springs from some form of attachment. But for those of us unready for buddhahood, caught in the dream of ‘reality’, how best to minimise the damage? Countless writers have written on the ethics of clothing ‘truths’ as fiction; using real, often living, people as fodder for characters. And now everyone with net access is a self-appointed social/cultural critic.

The blogosphere first intruded on my awareness in 2006 after I left a weekly writers’ group. One member, who’d tried to persuade me to stay, shared the news that another member (incidentally a raw novice) had blogged re my escape. (Bridging the gulf between pop genre and literary bents, my input had been pivotal in holding the group together.) This young Christian’s frustration with what was reported as my confusion only vindicated my choice to quit. It also implied to me that some bloggers want others to read their ‘diary’, perhaps feeling so fundamentally alone that they don’t value privacy. More and more, this seems to apply to our increasingly online society.

The issue of cyber ethics is one that each person works out for him/herself. Once I acknowledge that I’m engaged in an ongoing critique implicating a shifting array of individuals, it’s my moral obligation to preserve some anonymity. My current MO is to omit enough specifics when citing some instance that no-one who wasn’t there would know the subject’s identity. Anyone who was there can refer to their own version. Despite my unconcealed antipathy towards some of the subjects I dissect here, principles concern me before personalities – fiction is my forum for exploring the latter. Some sort of karma accrues from airing opinions, and I’m no innocent. Yet even I’ve seen dissing that makes me cringe.

As an outsider to Facebook, I’m aware of just one friend whom I’ve never met. D contacted me via a website four years ago re a mutually relevant project, having crossed my cyber trail and hoping to pick my brains. Suspecting a hidden agenda, I googled D’s user name in vain. Of course – it didn’t resemble D’s email address. I guessed which part of the address might be a surname and tried again – turning up a curious item. Some embittered blogger purporting to know D from high school had fertilised the web with a potted bio that characterised D as delusional, lying, manipulative, parasitic and stalker-like. Was the blogger just a jealous whack job bent on revenge, or should I keep my brains to myself?

I reviewed what I already knew. D’s ideas were coherent and complex, expressed in clear, grammatical language – which might also be true of many educated psychopaths – but the blogger’s tirade was chaotic and hasty, and none of the aspersions, some of which smacked of hearsay or guesswork, explained why someone sane would feel justified sharing D’s alleged past with the world. So I chose to see for myself just how ‘incredibly weird’ D might be. And our correspondence continues to entertain us four years later. Weirdness, as it turns out, is relative. Still, if someone were to pull my leg in the ways that blogger complained of, I’d want to ask myself some hard questions before mounting a smear campaign.

* Reported by Laura Miller of

† A book that went over my head when I first read it 25 years ago, as a rabid anti-intellectual forced to do theory as part of a fine arts diploma. Now that I’ve lived enough to befriend my intellect (such as it is), I’m rapt to find Thompson’s un-PC work still in print, and revelling in his subversive, original thinking.

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2 Responses to Bloggers Anonymous – the question of ethics

  1. Michael Alan says:

    Several years ago a friend showed me the posting you mention . At first I had no idea who I might have angered to have produced such venom. Reading down the list of comments to the posting it turns out someone identified the author and indeed he was a high school friend. I had re-linked up with him at a high school reunion. After a tour in the Air Force he had slipped into paranoid schizophrenia and, when not hospitalized, much of the time lived on the street. Occasionally I provided food, money, and tools hoping he could establish himself as a handyman. Apparently he thought I was trying to steal away a gentle girl we both knew in high school. His bizarre rant wounded me since I viewed him as one of my few lifelong friends. Those who’ve met me or read my work know I’m a gentle soul repulsed by any form of authoritarianism. Those who haven’t will forever have Google pointing them to this hateful accusation with no way for me to answer. Strange new world.

    • Thanks for offering that. Interesting that your former friend dissed you anonymously, not having stated his grievances to your face. And such behaviour needn’t imply mental illness. As Douglas Rushkoff says in Program or be Programmed: ‘Because digital technology is biased toward depersonalization, we must make an effort not to operate anonymously, unless absolutely necessary. We must be ourselves (p. 83).’ And: ‘If we choose to maintain our anonymity … we are more likely to lash out from the seeming safety of obscurity (p. 84).’ Rushkoff is speaking from personal experience. He also says (re the longevity of posts): ‘this permanence, once fully realized and experienced, only pushes the more cynical user to increasing layers of anonymity. After all, if every comment we make to blogs or articles might be used by a future employer to evaluate our suitability for a job, we might as well say nothing—at least not with our name attached (p. 88).’ Rushkoff is safe being himself – with all his cred! Thanks again for sending me his book.

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