“What should I be doing better with my blog?”
That’s one helluva question, isn’t it? As someone who blogs to support a thriving business, I think about that question every day.
There are a lot of answers, many of which involve sexy topics like traffic, subscribers, and getting one zillion followers on Twitter.
But when’s the last time you sat down and answered the question above with:
“I should be paying more attention to blogging ethics.”
Not so sexy.
But as bloggers, we have to face facts about the world we live in. It feels like an anonymous platform where we can do and say whatever we want. But 2010 has a lot in common with 1984, and Big Brother comes in some forms that George Orwell never dreamed of.
You need to be aware of one very important fact that many seem to forget:
You can’t unGoogle anything
When you launch your words into the blogosphere and social media universe, you’re laying a digital footprint in concrete. That concrete is the Internet Elephant, and it never forgets.
Old versions of your site are cached. Facebook privacy blunders have ugly real-world consequences. And the Library of Congress is even planning on archiving our tweets. It feels like you can’t be held accountable for your rash words, but you can.
Here are some tips on blogging ethics that will help keep your reputation clean. Especially if you’re going to make blogging a part of your business, you need to protect your interests.
Your comments policy
The bottom line is, it’s your blog and you have ultimate control over what gets posted in your comments section and what doesn’t make the cut.
Please realize that whatever policy you decide on, not everyone is going to agree with you. I personally have a “post all comments” policy, except in instances of spam or blatant self-promoting garbage that adds nothing to the conversation. I also hold all comments that include links from first-time commenters for moderation (legitimate commenters are then white-listed).
Some blogs allow trash talk, some don’t. Some allow profanity, some don’t. Every blogger needs to figure out what to do with the trolls. It’s your blog and your call.
It’s always smart to make your comments policy clear. My developer is working right now on coding my site so my comments policy shows up in a cool style below each post.
If you become known for deleting comments just because the reader isn’t a fawning yes-man, your credibility and authority will suffer. On the other hand, letting the trolls run free or allowing spam to trash up your comments won’t do your reputation any favors either.
If you use photos in your blog posts, use legitimate sources for images. (Assuming, of course, you’re not using your own images or photos.)
Photos purchased from stock photo houses usually don’t require photo credit, although a few do. On the other hand, images you get under a Creative Commons license do have various requirements, usually at minimum a credit to the image owner.
This should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: Don’t steal other people’s images or words and put them on your blog. That content doesn’t belong to you. It’s unethical and scummy.
When you love a blog post so much that you want to send it to your readers, it is not okay to copy the post and paste it into your own blog or newsletter (even with accreditation) unless you get permission from the blogger.
A better way to show your adoration is to select a handful of quotes (I prefer to stick with no more than 50-100 words) from the post and then provide a link back to the original post, with credit to the author.
Ohhhhh — legalese! (The recovering attorney in Brian Clark will love this one.)
Some bloggers make a hobby of calling people out for what they consider to be inappropriate practices, stupid decisions, or the like. Other bloggers are just plain malicious.
If you’re going to go down this road, get your ducks in a row first. Read up on what constitutes libel. You owe it to yourself. What you might consider “free speech” could get you into trouble, as the line between opinion and malicious intent can be a very fine one.
Make sure you have a liability insurance policy in place (this is a must). If you’re a member of The Author’s Guild, they offer Media Liability Insurance. You can also contact your insurance agent for a general business policy, but make sure it also covers libel and slander.
You are not invisible
Some people imagine that the internet lets them don a Cloak of Invisibility that bestows permission to do whatever the hell they want.
It’s simply not true. You are responsible for your words on the web (and in life) no matter where you leave them or how anonymous you think you’re being.
I don’t accept anonymous comments on my blog (including commenters who give fake email addresses) and here’s why: it shows me you’re not willing to be held accountable for your words.
If you’re running a blog, there are some pretty cool tools you can use to verify identity or lend at least some level of “real world” status to a commenter you might hold in question.
- Email address verification tools: Did you know you can check any email address to see if it’s valid? Yep. And it’s free and easy. I use this one on a regular basis, but a simple web search for “verify email address” can point you towards others.
- IP address verification: Most comment systems (Disqus, InstenseDebate, and WordPress’s built-in system) display the IP address of every commenter to the moderator. I use WhoIs to verify IP addresses (I had to do this just last week for an unfortunate situation). If you continuously receive spam comments or inappropriate comments from a particular commenter, you can block an entire IP address from your blog. If you need help with this, just ping your comments system or hit up the WordPress Codex for tips on combating spam and unwanted comments. Disqus and IntenseDebate have built-in blacklist features.
The best thing I can do here is to put just a bit of healthy fear into you.
You’re not invincible, you’re not invisible, and you have a responsibility to both yourself and your audience.
While you might have been looking for a more entertaining post on ethics (given my propensity for, ahem, colorful language), putting your thoughts out there on the web is serious stuff.
As I said, nothing can be unGoogled. It’s not like a late-night TP-ing of your least favorite junior high school science teacher’s house. Drive-bys don’t work online.
Strong ethical guidelines can keep your brand and keep your blog shop clean. If there are other best practices I’ve missed, lob them into the comments section below. While we don’t want to go all George Orwell, you have to remember that 1984 still applies in 2010 … and beyond (and it’s not such a bad thing).