Saturday, August 07, 2010

At #BlogHer, odd lessons in authenticity vs. TMI

I usually advise my clients--all people who use social media for business--to "be the same person online that you are offline" when they ask how to balance personal and professional content online.  And when it comes to speaking in public in rooms where there are journalists or bloggers, I like to remind clients that talking into a microphone means your words may be published, no matter how intimate you feel about the presentation or the audience. This year, at the BlogHer 2010 conference, however, I'm hearing many different takes on what constitutes too-much-information, versus authenticity. 

That was the topic of a panel yesterday that I decided not to live-tweet, in part because the speakers--all identified online--spoke in some detail about personal issues that they had chosen to hide online. They had removed earlier blog posts entirely, chosen private Twitter feeds for certain personal posts, and asked their friends to avoid discussing their personal issues online.  (All those tactics met with mixed success at best, and none are foolproof methods.)  It put me in an awkward and ironic place:  Here they were, talking into a microphone in a packed room of people who publish immediately via Twitter and blogs, and the topics were the things they don't want anyone to know about them online.

That conversation has been repeated again and again at meals and in the hallways at this conference. Bloggers here have experienced the full gamut of options, with brands, bosses or bully friends who make a point of targeting or publicizing what they write when they share personal details. Sometimes that's a good thing, sometimes not. At the same time, there are plenty of bloggers here whose topic and brand is their personal lives, and among them, there are those who delight in sharing what others might consider TMI.  They see themselves as transparent and authentic, frank and fearless.  Any problem with that is your problem, they seem to say.

This morning's keynote with winners of BlogHer's International Activist Blogger Scholarship recipients puts an entirely different face, so to speak, on the issue, since showing images of these women could easily endanger their lives or those of their families in their home countries.  On entering the gigantic ballroom, attendees saw signs saying no photography and no video were allowed and that devices would be confiscated if this policy was ignored.  The moderator softened that, saying photos and video could be taken if participants would obscure the faces of the speakers--and in fact, BlogHer was videotaping the session rather visibly.

Even as they publish, many of these women take pains to protect their identities online.  For example, the Afghan Women's Writing Project publishes controversial issues like being sold into marriage or slavery, with the goal of sharing authentic, unfiltered stories of real Afghan women. To understand why, read "I Am For Sale, Part II."  It describes in great detail an enormous amount of painful personal information, at once authentic and anonymous. Here's how that site describes setting boundaries about personal information:
The Afghan Women’s Writing Project is aimed at allowing Afghan women to have a direct voice in the world, not filtered through male relatives or members of the media. Many of these Afghan women have to make extreme efforts to gain computer access in order to submit their writings, in English, to the project.

Most of our Afghan writers participate in the project partially or entirely in secret from friends and family. We cannot provide details on how some women have been able to submit their stories in order to protect them from those who would not approve of their participation. Due to security concerns, we use the Afghan women writers’ first names only, generally editing out names of family and friends and removing locators. On rare occasions, security has required that the pieces be anonymous. In all cases, we or our liaisons in Afghanistan know these women well and can vouch for the authenticity of their stories.
And yet the names of all these women, with links to their blogs, are published on the BlogHer site. A similar approach has been taken by other organizations in the U.S. when they honor such women; see this post about Sahar Issa, one of several Iraqi women working for U.S. news organizations in Iraq, who was honored by the International Women's Media Association, sans photographs.  There's some tension and a more than a few practical issues raised by letting these women be identified on an accessible website, with their location known--and in having them talk into mics and before cameras. At this conference, letting the activist scholarship recipients speak is a new session this year, and the emphasis is very much on honoring them in a way that they cannot be honored at home. What's more, the underlying assumption at yesterday's panel and today's keynote is one of trusting the audience not to publish. That's a risk, something these activist women know firsthand. They say things like "be prepared to lead even if you have to put your life on the line" and "don't be scared to kick ass."

What does this mean for you? I still recommend sharing personal information, as it makes your blog or Twitter feed or Facebook posts more engaging--and I hope seeing these extreme boundaries will put your own choices in perspective. At least one participant tweeted:
Speakers like these remind me of how very fortunate we are to be able to write about anything we want, without fear.
You'll still need to think through your limits, boundaries and issues posed by particular media in advance, and take the time to periodically review and revise your balancing act between authenticity and TMI--both steps are part of a smart social media strategy.  I hope you'll share your questions and approaches to handling this in the comments.

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