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Should You Let the Cats Out of the Bag? Blogging About Family and Friends

Once upon a time, I featured a post on Freshly Pressed  in which the author spoke very frankly about her family…

Once upon a time, I featured a post on Freshly Pressed  in which the author spoke very frankly about her family and their differences. I assumed that since it had been published it was fair game, and she was thrilled to be chosen…

…until her blog attracted more traffic, including family members who didn’t appreciate the notoriety (or who hadn’t realized she was writing about them at all). She asked to have the post removed, deleted much of her blog’s content, and had to patch up the remnants of some severely strained relationships.

It’s a gnarled question: where do you draw the line on what you share about family and friends in a medium that’s fundamentally about letting readers into your life?

First, take a step back. Here’s a helpful diagram that illustrates the relationship between the internet and privacy:

As this extremely scientific analysis shows, putting things on the internet is not conducive to keeping them private. (This diagram may overstate the case a tad, but it’s still useful and I like the colors.) Fundamentally, when you publish a post, you release the content into the wilds of the internet. Others are free to leave their commentary and share it with their networks. Public information takes on a life of its own.

That drawback is also one of the benefits of blogging: as you share, you forge connections with others and come to more deeply understand yourself. Therein lies the challenge: you want to invite readers into your life (to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the focus of your blog). Your family and friends are an important part of your life, so seems natural to write about them — but they’re not the ones who invited the strangers over. 

What are your options?

You’re trying to build an engaging blog but would prefer to stay on your mother’s good side. What are your options? There are a few, each with its own challenges.

  1. A hard and fast rule — no family, no friends. On one hand, you don’t run the risk of offending anyone close to you with what you choose to share (you can always offend them in other ways). On the other, you’re imposing a significant constraint. If your blog has a focus like book reviews or fantasy football, excluding personal issues might not be much of an impediment; if it’s about you, a place to muse and reflect on your experiences, it becomes tougher.
  2. Be considerate when you write about others, lest the skeletons you free go all Ray Harryhausen on your. (Photo byMichael Rogers, (CC BY-NC 2.0))

    Be considerate when you write about others, lest the skeletons you free go all Ray Harryhausen on you — it’s tough to round them up once they’re on the loose, especially if they have swords. Photo by Michael Rogers (CC BY-NC 2.0).

    All bets are off! Let those skeletons free. You might decide that it’s your blog, your rules, and you’re going to say what you want to. Depending on your family and friends, that might be a-okay… but it might not (refer to the cautionary tale that opened this post). We could also throw in an “Option 2A:” speak freely, but blog anonymously so neither you nor your friends are identified.

  3. A constant series of judgment calls. The least cut-and-dried but most workable answer is to use your good judgement. Find the balance between letting your readers in and maintaining the privacy of your relationships.

The hardest answer is always the right one, isn’t it? Luckily, there are questions you can ask yourself to help pinpoint this balance, and it will get simpler as you go.

The million-dollar question(s)

Not all of these questions will work for every blogger; some of us maintain blog personas quite different from who we are in the flesh. These questions also can’t predict how your family and friends will actually respond to seeing their experiences recounted on your blog — there’s no substitute for asking them. Still, they help you think through the ramifications.

There are no right answers, and your responses will differ depending on who your subject is — the privacy you’d extend to you brother’s small child may differ from what you extend to your brother.

  • What if it were me? If you were reading your closest friend’s blog and saw a similar story about you — perhaps something you hadn’t shared with others yet — how would you feel? (What’s that; your closest friend doesn’t have a blog? Why not?)
  • If I were telling this story to a group of people, would I share these details? Picture the real-life equivalent of your blog readers: you’re at a party talking to a group of people, some you know well, some less so, some not at all. You’re telling the story. Are you okay with those to whom you’re less connected hearing it?
  • Am I talking about children? My children? They’re not in the same position to assert themselves and ask not to be mentioned; that goes double for other people’s children.
  • You’re browsing Facebook and see that someone’s shared the post with less-than-positive commentary; how do you feel? Do any protective instincts kick in? Blogging isn’t just about what you share, but how others run with that. Are you comfortable if someone takes the story and sprints in the other direction?
  • If a prospective employer or partner found the story, would reading it hurt your friend’s chances? This is unlikely, especially since you’re probably not using your friend’s full name with loads of identifying details; the underlying question is whether the story puts your loved one in any kind of compromised position. Whether or not they’re identifiable, it’s probably not ideal.

Lots of stories are fine to tell — the hilarious story about the UPS mixup your cousin told you at Thanksgiving probably doesn’t impact anyone, except maybe the UPS man. In other cases, it’s worth thinking through the what-ifs.

Tactics? We don’ need no stinking tactics! (hint: yes, you do)

In cases where you’re still not sure, there are a few things you can do, including one that’s pretty foolproof.

    • Ask! Hit “publish” worry-free by asking the people in the story if they’re okay with what you’re sharing; you can’t beat approval that comes from the horse’s mouth (or your roommate’s). It’s also a good opener for a bigger conversation about your goals for your blog, and how the person wants to be represented — or not. To make this easy, you can use the Request Feedback tool to email them your post before publishing, and you’ll see their comments alongside your draft.
Photo by lewishamdreamer, CC BY-NC 2.0.

Respect your family’s and friends’ boundaries, and increase the chance that they’ll continue to give you hugs. Who doesnt’t like a hug? Photo by lewishamdreamer (CC BY-NC 2.0).

  • Use pseudonyms. Many bloggers use pseudonyms when writing about children, and some use them for themselves, to keep their blogs as separate from their personal lives as possible. Some think pseudonyms create unnecessary distance between a blogger and reader, but it’s a workable option for protecting the privacy of others, especially children and significant others who have recurring roles.
  • Alter unimportant details — keep the crux, lose the cruft. Presumably, you have a point you’re trying to make with the stories you choose to tell. What’s central to that, and what can be omitted?
  • Take advantage of the privacy settings.  Sometimes, simply getting things off your chest is all you really need. Use the visibility settings to set sensitive posts to “private,” or restrict them to those with a password. Now you can write your heart out and share it only the people that really matter (or with no one).

We know this is something many of you deal with every day on your blogs, and would love to hear your stories. What questions do you ask yourself? Have you created any personal guidelines? What was the stickiest spot you’ve found yourself in, and how did you work it out?

Ed.: I received a note from the blogger whose experience being Freshly Pressed inspired this post, and through I’d share some of what she had to say:

When I started my blog, it was a form of therapy. Not only was I bored and unsatisfied in my job, but it was a tool for me to release the pain of an abusive childhood and marriage. I had no internet presence, was totally incognito, and never used real names.

At the time, no one was reading. I was lucky to get 20 hits a day. It felt good to get it out of my system after all of those years. It was only when I was alerted that I’d been Freshly Pressed that things got ugly.

Of my three family members, one was upset, but we talked it out. We are now closer than ever. More than a year later, I still have not spoken to the other two.

Through this blogging experience, I have learned not that I should keep my mouth shut, but that there are some people who are not worth your time.

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  1. Great suggestions! I feel like there’s a balance between letting everything out at the expensive of others and being honest. Still trying to figure out where it is…

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  2. I find this post thoroughly interesting and relevant. Funnily enough, my last post was very personal, yet I tried to keep it as confidential as possible. Perhaps I’ll get slack from it later on, but I feel like by expressing how it affected me as a person it will either a. offer some sort of insight into what we perceive when it comes to relationships, or b. try and help get over it. Writing my blog was one of the outcomes of that terrible time so, in a way, I am thankful that it happened.

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  3. I’m usually very careful about posting delicate information in my blog. (It reads as a confessional, and basically, if Anne Sexton had a blog…) I never mention names of siblings, and rarely include them in my posts.

    There was this one time when my man was looking at porn and I smashed his guitar. I blogged about that one. With pictures. Of his smashed guitar. (He doesn’t look at porn anymore.) But apart from that, it’s pretty much smooth sailing. Heheh…

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  4. It’s so true. I blog under ‘being mrscarmichael’ because I wanted some distance and anonymity. A year ago I had some venting to do. Now more friends/family know I blog and read my blogs I tree that line you mention in the hope of inducing wry smile rather than law suits.

    I also took down my original vents before I went more public but I have to say they were cathartic at the time.

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  5. Thank you for posting this. I regularly speak about things that happen in my life and I use the hard and fast rule of no names and keep it vague. However, I try to relate the story from my perspective and that seems to help. I’ve said negative things, but try to balance it out with positive feelings and trying to understand the situation from the other person’s perspective. Also, if your blog is public, maybe it’s best not to share all the bad stuff. Maybe get a journal for that…or get maragritas with a good friend.

    Tequila always helps.

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  6. I use fake names for my kids and for most people I talk about, but the pictures are us and there’s enough information that somebody who really wanted to could probably figure out who I am and find generally where I live and work. I’m ok with that and I enjoy other blogs where people talk about themselves similarly and post pictures of their family as well. It’s just a personal preference I guess.

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  7. This is an excellent topic and one I find myself pondering about every time I write a new blog post. One tactic I like to use includes simply including my loved ones in the process if they are in any way a part of my writing. Also, I find it extremely important to ask their permission…

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  8. Witty! I was an avid speaker, keeping nothing confidential. Sometimes its just not about releasing content over the internet knowingly; people use blogs as an excuse to vent out whatsoever their emotional turmoils, and end up publicizing most of their personal life.

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  9. My first run in with doubting a post, was one I had written about my son. I wrote about him hitting puberty and all night the post rang in my ears. By morning I had decided that if he, when he gets older, were to read that post it would cause him a great deal of embarrassment. I sure wouldn’t have wanted my mother to speak of me in such detail. So, it was deleted and will stay that way.

    With that said, I believe that it would be wise to always ask ourselves, “What if this was written about me? How would it make me feel?” That’s not to say it still can’t be written, but there are many ways to write discreetly, without real names and recognizable descriptions.

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  10. I write under a pseudonym, but typically I would ask. I think it’s usually a judgement call situation for me. I’ve also asked the family member to read the post before submitting it. These are all good suggestions. Thank you .

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  11. Thanks for the brilliant post that clearly summed up the situation and the options. I use pseudonyms for myself and my family, and don’t give any information that could damage anyone’s reputation – do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and all that jazz.
    I tackled the question of proximity with other bloggers in my latest post – the question of respecting other people’s privacy also rears its head when we are tempted to contact fellow bloggers who disappear for no reason. On the one hand, we don’t know each other from Adam, but on the other, we know a lot about them and almost consider them as friends. Blogging etiquette is a whole can of worms!

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  12. When I started my first blog eons ago I used real names. Even though friends and family didn’t know I had it, they google their names. ugh. Guess whose blog came up? Anyway, not pretty. I learned that lesson. I got rid of that blog. It was too tainted.
    Now, if I do talk about any real life atrocities, I change the names and sometimes locations. Or, I just keep it on private.

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  13. Good reminders. Sadly, many people protect their credit card details better than they protect their children.

    And if it’s just a rant that you don’t want to share with the world, get a journal and write in there.

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  14. This is a very important question and excellent post. Obviously, I have chosen to write under a pseudonym. But am conscious too, that in a world full of bored cyber sleuths, my cover may one day be blown. So there`s no major griping in my blogs about kids, pals, siblings and others.

    In fact, it`s a miracle that I manage to write anything at all :-(

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  15. Fantastic post.

    I’ve always treated the internet as a public forum. I just fell into that habit naturally, even on Facebook and other spaces that are supposed to be private. I don’t post anything about myself that I don’t want shared.

    I do occasionally post about family or friends, but I almost never use names, just “my sister” or “my friend”, unless they are already posting blogs on the net and I know they would be amused rather than embarrassed that the information is out.

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  16. It all depends. What is your relationship with that family member? Do you care about what they may think or feel or did they burn you so badly over the years that they are dead to you? Conversely, do you love them so much that even though they did something incredibly stupid and hurtful and the whole universe could learn a serious lesson from their actions, do you not publish?
    Children are a whole different area., Nothing ever in any hurtful way. Never even pictures without permission from the parents or guardians.

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  17. Thanks for the topic, you have made some valid points about friends and family. I have made good use of the “Request Feedback Tool” to get input before publishing a post.

    I think that a blend of anonymity, fiction and reality can be an approach that works well. Pseudonyms are a source of amusement for me as evidenced in this post: http://wp.me/p24idL-1yB.

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  18. One should never air dirty laundry on the internet, whether its known or not in that circle that it is being posted. If the person consents to it being posted, the comments, and “notoriety” may not at all what they signed up for.

    I’m very careful about what I say about family, including my mom, my daughter unit and my husband unit.

    A) My daughter is a teenager. If her friends find my blog, the last thing I want to happen is her being teased over something I thought was silly, but her friends turn into something embarrassing for her.

    B) The Husband Unit. There is very little that I say about my husband on my blog, other than how much he supports me or tells me that I really do need sleep, or anything else that can ONLY be twisted as positive. I would hate for something I say to affect his job or socially.

    C) My Mom and other family. For the same reasons as A & B above. Plus the added fact that I have to deal with these people for the rest of their lives. Trust me when I say, it is just easier not to post anything about them ( unless its a brag ) than to deal with the back lash.

    Which comes back to…. never air dirty laundry on the internets. NEVER EVER EVER! You never know when that dirty piece of choonies is going to be thrown back in your face, funkier than ever!

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  19. Oops. Too late for this new blogger! I’ve been writing about my divorce and custody battle. I use pseudonyms and omit a lot of detail, but it’s still scary putting your story out there. Thanks for these reminders – I wish I had read this article a few weeks ago. I wouldn’t have shared the blog with friends, and then I would feel more comfortable adding more details.

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  20. I had it another way. I write stories, some in third person and some in first. Most of the first person stories people think are about me! So much so that family have contacted me with questions about how I am and what I’m doing. They are stories… I write fiction but it has taken a while for people to realise that my blog isn’t just biographical. :-)

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  21. This is a very important issue, Michelle; thanks for addressing it here. I am currently writing a travel memoir but decided to change everyone’s names, even the people I liked, and especially those that I didn’t care for. I think I will also add a note that the characters in the memoir are composites and some are even made up to better highlight certain points. You never know what might offend someone so much that they feel they have to take retaliatory action, legal or otherwise…
    On another note, I have read some commentaries on certain controversial blog posts and have been shocked about how disrespectful, rude, even offensive, people can be when they think nobody knows their identity. Bringing the point home….protect yourself with whatever you put out there on the Internet!

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