Creating and Sustaining a Safer Blogging Environment

I was part of a team effort with Julie Anne Smith to write a recent post on Spiritual Sounding Board, A Warning to Commenters: Be Aware of Potential Blog Owner/Moderator Intrusiveness. This post created a significant amount of heat about spiritual abuse survivor blogs. But the controversy also potentially brought forth an important amount of light about the dynamics of survivor blog owners and commenters on them.

I spent time over the past few days trying to process it all into something clear and constructive. That’s because I found it disturbing that a huge number of assumptions were being floated in all directions. For instance, some blog owners assume it is automatically okay to use a commenter’s email to follow up with them, while others found that a horrifying intrusion through misuse of unpublished information. And some commenters assume the comment system requires them to use their real name, while others chided them for such childish ignorance.

To me, this culture clash and condescension was unnecessary. All it takes to start creating better understanding is being clear and transparent about our blog policies and practices. Then people can know exactly what we do, can grapple to comprehend why (if they want to), and post questions or challenges if they desire. But we have a deep problem if we think we are above writing out our otherwise-invisible assumptions by posting our actual concrete practices.

So, I did the best I could to summarize information that I think will contribute to a more civil and safer blogging environment – especially for those of us who come from backgrounds of spiritual abuse and are often more sensitized to anything that smacks of secrecy and/or bullying. Here are practical suggestions for commenters and for blog owners/moderators, followed by the example of revised commenting policies that I posted on my own futuristguy blog earlier today.

And frankly, I am not so concerned if you’re a blog owner who chooses to use a very different set of guidelines and/or rules from what I do. I realize that different practices make sense for the overall context of specific blogs. But I am concerned about transparency, because that relates directly to the level of trust people can have in who we are as bloggers, and thus the impact that we can have for the Kingdom. The more that remains as hidden assumptions, the more conflict that is likely to emerge, and the more we’ll all fry in the heat instead of be healed in the light.

[NOTE: This article is cross-posted at Spiritual Sounding Board. Comments for this post are closed on futuristguy. Go to the post on Spiritual Sounding Board instead - there are many very helpful comments in that thread on techniques for internet security, blogging etiquette ideas for both blog owners/moderators and commenters, etc.]

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HELPS FOR COMMENTERS

Suggestions for how to post more safely to protect our own identity, and the identities of those we care about.

1. The Absolute Number 1 Rule: Be very cautious about what content we post in our comments. We should assume that once we have posted it, that information can NEVER be “scrubbed” away. Even if it gets deleted (such as by the blog moderator, or if we contact the blog owner and request it be deleted), that does not guarantee it cannot be seen. For instance, the Internet Archive WayBack Machine may have already archived the information, or other readers may have taken screenshots of the material.

So, if we want to shield our identity, we need to be cautious about sharing personal identity details, such as names of family members, town we live in, names and/or descriptions of church or ministry we participate in. Every additional detail we provide increases the possibilities for internet searches that could connect those dots and reveal far more about us than we may have realized was possible.

2. Consider a personal policy of where we will and will NOT post comments, and stick with it consistently unless there are overwhelming reasons otherwise. For instance, we may not want to comment on blogs where either there IS NO transparency about privacy policy, terms of use, etc. (so we don’t know what they might do with our personal information). Or, do not post on blogs where there IS transparency about what they do with our comment content and/or unpublished information, but we disagree with the uses they specify.

3. Determine beforehand when to post/not post. If we are concerned about shielding personal identity and/or being a constructive commenter on a blog, then we may want to have a personal policy of not posting comments when we are angry, or are otherwise emotionally upset, as we may end up revealing personal details that we would never share if we were calm or otherwise thinking more clearly. Or, we may want to consider a practice of not posting comments after a certain time of day if our thinking tends to be cloudier then. Or we may want to wait at least an hour from the time we draft a comment off-line before we read it one last time, make any edits, and then post it on the blog thread.

4. Protect personal information. Many blog platforms require several specific pieces of information from potential commenters in order to post their comments. These usually include a name and email address, with a website address as optional. If we do comment, the computer platform typically also picks up our IP address number and records it in the comment data that only the blog owners and moderators can see. This unique number for our computer’s internet connection can be used in online searches to identify whose computer account we posted from and where that account is located in the real world.

So – if we feel uncomfortable about giving out these kinds of personal details – but we still want to comment on a blog – we still have possibilities for helping to shield our identity. We just need to realize that if we do any of these, there may be blogs that reject our comments. (For instance, there are blogs that disallow comments from people who do not give first and last name.)

NAME. Consider creating a pseudonym (to shield our actual name and identity). Some options: We can use a permanent pseudonym if we’re okay with using the same commenter profile across a number of blogs. Or, we could perhaps use a blog-specific pseudonym, or change pseudonyms periodically even on the same blog. But if we use a fake name, we need to realize that sometimes, other readers can tell it’s the same person using different names because of our distinctive vocabulary and writing style. Also, in creating pseudonyms, we should be careful that we don’t use someone else’s real name or their long-term pseudonym. We might find get into trouble with accusations of impersonating others, even if that was not our intention.

EMAIL ADDRESS. Consider setting up a separate email account that we ONLY use for blog commenting, or use a temporary or false email address for commenting (to shield our personal email address for unexpected usage).

I.P. ADDRESS. Consider using a proxy server (to cover our unique internet address and geographical location).

I found two comments from Bene D especially helpful in (1) understanding the need for using non-identifying name, email, and I.P. address and (2) suggesting a “anonymous proxy” server.

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HELPS FOR BLOG OWNERS/MODERATORS

Suggestions for full disclosure of relevant policies, for the sake of creating a safe and trustworthy place for blog readers and commenters.

It is unwise and unfair to assume that any potential commenter (1) is internet savvy and understands the rights and risks associated with information they disclose, (2) can discern what your usual privacy practices are just by reading your blog posts, or (3) knows your assumptions (or internet-wide assumptions) about what is or is not appropriate in terms of content for their comments. Also, it is unwise to make ANY assumptions about what commenters do know, should know, or already expect on how you will or will not use the required information (name, email, IP address) they supply. It is inconsistent of us to invite dialogue, but simultaneously have an entire set of invisible-to-commenters expectations about how that dialogue must be carried out.

So – if we want to create a safe space and avoid potential accusations of invasion of privacy, unprofessionalism, stalking, misappropriation of content, etc., here are some suggested ways to increase our transparency and, with it, our blog’s level of trustworthiness.

1. Be specific on our policies/practices about what ways we do and/or do not use personal information that is gleaned from commenters and the content of what they post.

2. Make this information accessible, such as a clearly labeled page or section, such as “Privacy Policy,” “Terms of Use,” “About,” “Blog Information,” etc.

3. Be comprehensive about our policies and practices
– don’t make readers guess or ask. (They may not even know what to ask.) Here is a list of suggested points to cover in transparent disclosing of how we handle private and unpublished information supplied to us by potential commenters:

  • Their name/identity.
  • Their email address. Do you use this for identity verification? Do you ever use this address to contact commenters, and if so, for what purposes? Can they opt out of these uses of their information? What do you do if you contact them via email and they don’t want you to anymore?
  • Their I.P. address.
  • Cookies generated by their clicks (for instance, if your blog has advertising that uses cookies).
  • The content of their comment(s). Do you reserve the right to “own” the material and quote it in blog posts, or even turn it into a separate post?
  • Practices for carrying on civil, respectful dialog, and what happens to commenters who violate these rules. Whether unsafe, uncivil commenters will be banned and criteria used.
  • Comment moderation policies.
  • Comment editing and deletion policies. If a commenter decides later they want their comment edited or deleted, what do you do and how should the commenter contact you?
  • Contact policies, contact form.
  • Any other disclosures and disclaimers about identity, content, rights, responsibilities, etc.

4. If we are the blog owner, we need to realize that anyone to whom we grant certain levels of administrative rights and responsibilities (such as blog moderators, regular contributors, etc.) may be able to see behind-the-curtain information that commenters have supplied, as well as comments in moderation, items in the trash, etc. Our own reputation, and that of our blog, depends in part on how these individuals use or misuse any of that information.

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SAMPLE “COMMENT AND CONTACT POLICY”

~ FROM FUTURISTGUY, JANUARY 2014 ~

10 Basic Practices to Sustain a Safer Blogging Environment

Thanks for your interest in my futuristguy blog! As I see it, we need to work together to make this a safe place for discussion, especially since many topics on my blog deal with recovery from various forms of abuse, and many of our regular readers and commenters are survivors thereof. I believe it helps avoid unnecessary conflict when we make our expectations explicit. That way no one is left presuming what supposedly will happen with comments they post, or fearing what could happen with them.

So – here are 10 basic practices I use as the blog owner and moderator on futuristguy, to sustain a safer blogging environment for all who come here. The set I use may differ from those used by other blogs in general, and other spiritual abuse survivor blogs in specific, so please read this rather than assume.

What I expect from you as commenters.

  1. NAME. You are welcome to post your comments using a pseudonym. For the sake of continuity in conversations, it would be helpful to all if you used that same name consistently.
  2. DISALLOWED CONTENT. Your thoughts relevant to the post subject are welcome. However, there is some content that is strictly not allowed. If you include any of the following, either your comment will not be posted, or it will have that information edited out, at my discretion. When writing about people who are in the public eye, it is acceptable to identify them by name. However, do not reveal the identity of someone who is a private citizen, or is a survivor of abuse or crime, unless you have their permission.
  3. CONTENT CAUTIONS. Because so many topics I write about are emotionally intense, and deal with recovery from abuse, I would appreciate it if you would not use sexual innuendo in your comments, or make light of abuse or violence. Also, please be considerate about what topics or words might easily trigger a destructive emotional response in other readers.
  4. TONE/ATTITUDE. I expect respectful treatment of other people who post and/or comment here, even when we disagree. I do not allow comments that include intimidation, harassment, name-calling, similar kinds of personal attacks, or foul/vulgar language.

For more on the subjects of content and “tone,” please read my post on Writing Respectfully and Defusing “Triggers.”

What you can expect from me as blog owner and moderator.

The following three practices are guidelines, not rules.

  1. COMMENT MODERATION. This blog is set to put all comments into moderation automatically, even those of commenters who have been approved before.
  2. COMMENT DELETION. I only delete comments in the queue by refusing to post them. I do this only in extreme situations, such as where it includes mostly disallowed content and/or the tone is offensively uncivil, accusatory, or otherwise inflammatory.
  3. COMMENT EDITING. Editing of a comment can be instigated by me as blog owner or you as commenter. I reserve the right to edit comments, such as to remove inappropriate language, sections of unacceptable content, and/or identifying details about persons other than yourself. If I do this, I will leave a “Moderator Notice” with the comment. Also, you can request that I edit or delete a comment that is in moderation or has been posted. I will generally accommodate your request and leave a “Moderator Notice” for the record.

The way you handle things might be different from me, but ultimately this blog is my responsibility. I do my best to use discernment and discretion in applying these guidelines. I consider the overall situation, including any private, behind-the-scenes knowledge that may require me to take certain actions without explaining them, lest I break confidentiality.

Still, if my decisions come across as unreasonable, inconsistent, or unfair, please do not try to discuss or challenge it in a comment thread. Instead, you can contact me directly through the contact form below. You can also use this address for any other questions you have. I will respond as soon as I can.

The following three practices are rules, not guidelines, and I seek to apply them carefully and consistently.

  1. PRIVACY. This blog uses the WordPress platform. When you post a comment, this system requires that you give a name and email address, and your website link is option. It also automatically collects your I.P. address (a unique number which identifies your internet connection and location). The WordPress comment system publishes your name and website. It stores but does not publish your email or your I.P. address – and I do not use or disclose these pieces of personal identity information. My only exceptions would be to break confidentiality if/when I am ever required to by law or for the protection of someone’s life.
  2. CONTACT. I do not use your comment email address to contact you, unless you have given prior permission. If you use the contact form below, I take that as automatic permission to reply to you through the email address you give there.
  3. COPYRIGHT. You own the content of what you post – and the responsibility for it. I may quote from your comment under “fair use” guidelines, but I will not turn your comments into posts without your prior permission, which I would request through the comment thread unless we already have an established email connection.

[This is followed by a stock contact form, which requires the person's name and email address.]

2 thoughts on “Creating and Sustaining a Safer Blogging Environment

  1. Pingback: Creating and Sustaining a Safer Blogging Environment – A Guest Post by Brad/Futuristguy | Spiritual Sounding Board

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