Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Blogging, employment and anonymity

Not having been in gainful employment* since November 2002, I haven’t really had to face this curly question – what if my (non- academic) employer and/or my co-workers are reading this? My topical impetus here is the recent travails of big city law firm employee and blogger, “Gianna”.

But first, the theoretical stuff – here’s the leading article. Academic bloggers seem to be in a class of their own, because their freedom to comment publicly on any matter (except curiously enough, the policies of their own employer) is – so far – unassailable.

Otherwise, most employed bloggers face two unrelated (or so you would think) issues: (i) blogging during work time, and (ii) blogging about work (and so, needless to say, not always sticking to the PR departmental ideal of corporate hagiography).

Doing anything other than “work” during work time – which description clearly applies to on-the-job blogging by almost everyone (again, except academics) – is likely to be a plain “no no”, as far as the contract of employment is concerned. Nonetheless, internet use at work generally is a contractual breach that is famously now honoured more in the breach, in white collar workplaces. The only exception to this – where there is concerted employer attention to web and email use – is pornography. That the internet is almost certainly NOT a employment productivity-improvement tool – except, ironically, for bloggers – doesn’t seem to unduly concern most employers. (And this fact is my business, if only because the label “bludger” seems far more apposite to millions of Australia’s white-collar workers who do fuck-all for $30k-$50k a year, rather than to Australia’s 700,000 paying-for-their own-internet unemployed).

As to how I can so confidently condemn large swathes of Australia’s white-collar workforce, I plead self-incrimination, M’lud. It was a long time ago, but Paul Watson once worked in a big city law firm – quite possibly, the same one that Gianna currently works for. Either way, I was in the same predicament that Gianna now seems to be in – serving out my last few months, with too little work to do. In those were pre-internet days, I didn’t have quite as ready-made a 9-5 time-filler as the employees of today, but I somehow made do via a combination of: researching my Masters (long before I’d enrolled in it); longhandedly writing poetry and other musings (a cliché, I know, but equally a phase which few bookish twenty-something men seem able to avoid); and, last but not least, clicking-through endless hours of the Reuters news feed, an ultra-expensive (apparently), plain-text online thingy which was a heaven-sent addiction for the bored and deskbound – a never-ending stream of soberly-worded reports, ranging from novelty items to the start of Gulf War 1.

Were I similarly stuck in a job in the internet age, I would have faced the “To blog or not to blog” question. Although in view of what I have just written, this may sound hypocritical, my answer to the “on-the-job blogging” issue is a firm “no” – unless I was using my own, privately-wired laptop. Even if the content of my blog was purely the proverbial, pure "catblog", I simply would not want my employer scrutinizing its content (or the web surfing done in assembling it). I don’t regard this as a matter of stealing the employer’s time (which, I’ll stress again, is a hopelessly rubbery thing when it comes to the enforcement), but as a simple matter of privacy – my blog is separate from my work, but if I use work hardware or networks to do it, I necessarily forfeit my rights to such privacy.

Otherwise, there is the blogging about (while not at) work issue. My main observation here is that blogging anonymity just doesn’t work – and here, I’ll use myself and Gianna as the compare and contrast case study.

I blog under my real name, largely because I’ve always been cynical about the benefits and protections of anonymity. Using one’s real name has its drawbacks (mainly of the “what if X reads this . . .” stressful-thought variety), but it also can be liberating. By putting my name to everything I write, I choose to stay, if only ever so slightly, inside the boundaries of polite discourse – an awful phrase I know, but I can’t think of a better term to describe writing for an audience that is simultaneously “boutique” (my regular or occasional readership) and yet also context-ignorantly invasive, prurient and potentially hostile (click-throughs from a search engine). The first one can fairly be assumed to be the primary audience, but a blogger would be foolish to not always bear their secondary readership in mind.

Which brings me back to the no-surname and no work-firm name “Gianna”. Despite her well-intentioned attempts at anonymity, and her blog being far from a snitch-about-the-day-job kind of one, it seems that it has somehow caught the attentions of her employers. Which in some circumstances could be quite flattering, but certainly not in the “Thank God I’m out of this job soon” situation.

For reasons to do with the hopelessness of anonymity, I choose not to blog about my love-life (not that there’s been much to say here as of late, I should stress, but if people think that a flippant, after-hours online remark against the boss can be a minefield . . .).

Most importantly, I try not to blog anything I would not want anyone, within reason, to read. If attempting or assuming anonymity is unwise, a better policy is some circumspection in content, coupled with a realistic “degrees of separation” thing. As a Melbourne resident, I try to “de-Google” (not to searchably name) Melbournians who I write of in unflattering contexts, while having no such qualms, for example, about sledging Bangalore fuck-knuckle Vivek Kulkarni. There’s no legal reason, such as defamation (which I try and avoid, period) for doing so – only the simple reality that I, just like all bloggers, have a flesh-and-blood real life somewhere, a life that, at least for me, has quite enough complications already. This blog (comments box included) is ultimately an outlet, not an inlet.

* I briefly held a part-time job in June-July this year, which I'll blog about sometime. Teaser for now - I got sacked from it, and the official reason included this phrase: "two ABBA songs".

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