Who gets to define reality?

Where should we draw the line with our outgoing links?

This is a question Carol and I found ourselves discussing in-depth the other day, after a recent event that I can’t discuss publicly. It certainly led to some tricky questions for us, without clear-cut answers.

Such as…

To what extent are we responsible for the content of our outbound links? To what extent is a link an endorsement of content?

What if someone feels they are actually being harmed by what’s being said about them on one of our linked sites? Should we remove our link, if asked? How can we know whose version of reality is accurate, or make that, “more accurate?” Who’s telling it like it is? Who’s covering something up or shading the truth? Is anyone lying?

We all know what we say online is shaped, packaged and preserved to appear a certain way. There are important things we’re leaving out to preserve the privacy of others. Things we’re leaving out because they reflect poorly on us. Things we leave out because we’re genuinely ashamed of them, or confused—or just overall flummoxed—and who’s the wiser anyway if that just all stays in a dark box in the closet?

We offer our listings as a resource for those who are interested in the topic of stepmother/mother relationships. We’re doing our best to acknowledge the full spectrum of emotions out there, from head-on vitriol directed at the “other woman”— to sites where the blogger just seems so happy being unhappy—to the most harmonious of partnerships, where both mom and stepmom are friends, and truly love each other. We do this because women are living the full range of experiences, as evidenced by the amazing and intense variety of perspectives, hopes, and fears online. And yes, we also care about providing as many links as possible, because it increases our traffic.

That being said, I know I’ve had a few uncomfortable moments over the course of the last year, perusing our links to catch up on the latest posts.

For instance, I don’t think it’s right to post private emails without the writer’s permission, especially if you’re just using their message to pick them apart and really prove how, once again, they’re “totally wrong.” Sure, it’s probably easier to just duplicate the message, instead of summing it up. But imagine if the same thing happened to you. How would you feel? What is this behavior contributing to the relationship, however bad it might already be?

I also worry when I see anonymous sites where the two “sides” seem to be engaging in active combat, describing incredibly detailed information about the children. What if the kids find this stuff? Then what happens? The adult/child relationship runs the risk of serious damage, and the child or teen has to grapple with that exact, same sense of exposure, upset and betrayal as the letter writer above. Does the opportunity to vent and emotionally “process” for the blogger justify the potential consequences?

Where are the ethical lines when it comes to protecting the children?

Of course, we do bear a certain responsibility for the links that we list. There are some sites that are just so consistently spiteful, we couldn’t bring ourselves to read more than a few paragraphs, and felt justified in skipping them. But do we just chalk up the ones that are skirting dangerously close—to the Wild, Wild West of the internet frontier?

I know what it’s like to feel so desperate about your situation that you want to connect with others—somehow, anyhow—to get support and encouragement. But where does this ultimately leave the writer if they’re doing some of the things I described above?

Where does that leave the people they are writing about, in terms of privacy, and dignity, and any inclination they might have to mend the relationship?

And where does it leave the readers, wondering who to believe, squirming in their seats as they’re inadvertently roped into complicity?

Where do YOU think the lines should be?

© 2008 Jennifer Newcomb Marine      All Rights Reserved

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  1. hi, it’s yo. i changed my name.
    i think i may have seen a few sites that you’re talking about. i haven’t posted as much on my stepmom blog because i hate being negative and it seems like the only time i post is when i need to vent. which, i guess, is my right as a blog owner.
    while i appreciate the conundrum you’re in, i don’t have any advice to offer. i don’t link to any blogs that i don’t read daily, so i know all the content i’m linking to. there are a few blogs out there that i read, that i don’t link to, because of their negative tone or whatever.
    hmmmm…. yeah, i don’t know. sorry!

  2. This seems like an issue of taking too much responsibility for others’ discretion and constructive thinking. I link to blogs I read on a regular basis. A lot of bloggers link to me. I’m not responsible for what they write, and they are not responsible for what I write. Ultimately it’s just a blog, and people can certainly read not to read the ones they don’t care for.

  3. First, about posting “private” email messages, I can assure you that under no circumstances is email private. If you think it is, you need to stop emailing people. Same thing with voice mail or anything in writing. These documentations are all accepted in court because they are not considered private. If you don’t want your nasty email, voice mail or letter to come back to haunt you, don’t send it. If you do, your claims and behaviors are documented for the world to see. The only way to get passed your other concern about “who’s lying?” is to collect this kind of information to show what really has been said or claimed in order to address it. There is no other way. In fact, we now only communicate in writing to BM, because she has many times twisted what we have said. Now it is in black and white and she can’t turn it around anymore. We would have no problem with her posting our letters and picking it apart, because it all makes sense.
    There are as many types of relationships out there as there are blogging styles. Some blogs focus on one topic, some on one family, some on one interest. What the blog provides for the blogger is just as varied. Some of us blog to keep track of important events, share a hobby, to vent, to get input from others to see if we are on the right track or if anyone has suggestions, to share the ups and downs of our lives, whatever. I feel that as long as you keep the identity of the person you are talking about as secure as possible by not using real names, why should you have to water down the traumatic role this person plays in your family’s life? Someone who harasses, threatens, name calls and twists herself up in her own lies, should get all of us to look the other way, or find shelter with others who refuse to make him/her own up to his/her own responsibilities?
    Many blogs are cases of reality. This is what X wrote, this is how I responded, what do you think, any suggestions? This type of a blog is just as useful to me in my life at this point in time as your blog is to you. Before I started posting my blog and reading other similar blogs, I had no idea how many others were going through what we were. And frankly, if the person who is the cause of the anxiety our family goes through, somehow finds my blog and is offended, I can guarantee the only thing that would make me stop posting would be if I had nothing to post about, and that would be in her hands, not mine.
    I also agree with Smirking Cat, if someone is offended by my blog, well, move on. There are many others you may be interested in instead.

  4. Stephanie Chance says:

    I agree with dragonmctt that if you send an email it is not private. However, it is very easy to change things to make them worse than they actually are, and if anyone does that to justify her anger, she is not doing herself any favors. But everyone knows that just because it’s written on the internet does not make it true. Unless someone is attacking someone else specifically and making it easy for readers to find out who is being discussed, or harassing someone on her own page, I see no harm in it. But I can see how you would chose not to link to someone’s page just because you don’t like her style, whether she is too negative or you don’t like her background color. It’s your choice. And you don’t even have to give a reason if you refuse to link to them. You chose what image you want to portray and you link to pages you think fit with that. If someone requests to be linked but you don’t like their page, you can send a standard rejection form letter – “Thank you for your request, blah, blah, blah, unfortunately your page does not fit in with our publication and we chose to not link to you at this time.”

  5. I think the line should be drawn whenever a blog’s contents become inconsistent with the mission of your website. I assume your mission is strengthening families because that is your blog’s tagline. So, the line would be drawn at anything that weakens families.
    So what weakens families?
    It would be easy to say that vitriolic blogging weakens families; an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind. However, I thought you made a good point that one of the ways to work through anger is to get it out and know that someone is listening. If getting out the anger at the mom/stepmom makes room for willingess to partner with the mom/stepmom, then bring it on! In this context, angry posts do not clearly “weaken” families. It is possible that Pollyannaish blogs weaken family just as much by painting an false picture of what mom/stepmom relationships can be like. There does not appear to be a hard and fast rule about what weakens families (when it comes to blogs).
    One option is to link only to blogs that you and Carol read regularly, regardless of the content. This way, if someone raises an objection, you can justify your inclusion of the site.
    Another option is to make it clear that your links are intended to be a sample of what is out there, and thus will include love and pain. This way you don’t have to vet all of the content.
    One other comment. dragonmctt noted that “I can assure you that under no circumstances is email private.” The essence of this post (and I might have misunderstood it) seemed to be, “if you send someone a message, don’t be mad if it ends up being used in a way you did not intend it.” Diaries are also admissible evidence (ask Bob Packwood), but I think that most people would say that they keep diaries expecting that they will be kept private (except perhaps Samuel Pepys). I think the finer point is that just because something is legal doesn’t mean it is ethical. I don’t think it is ethical to publicize a private conversation, regardless of whether it was synchronous or asynchronous, even if it is legal to do so. Just because emails are considered admissible evidence in court doesn’t mean that it is ethical to post them on a blog. If both parties are ok with it and there seems to be no harm, then it would seem to be ethical. If, however, posting an email without permission results in self-incrimination it might very well be both unethical and illegal (a la the 5th Amendment).
    It also seems to be unethical to post excerpts without providing the context that an uninformed reader would need to understand the excerpt. If you are going to write for other people (and that is what bloggers do; if they wanted to write only for themselves they would keep a journal and hope it won’t be subpoenaed :-), you need to provide a context for your words, just like Jennifer did in the beginning of this blog. Most anything can be misunderstood. An informed decision requires context.

  6. Jonathan, I totally disagree with your idea of ethics. How is it ethical to feel free to write unbelievable lies and then hide from taking responsibility for those lies by saying they are “private”? If one is going to take the time to write an email or leave a voice mail stating an opinion, or a version of the “truth”, should the person not at least be expected to take responsibility for it? Or do you condone diarrhea of the mouth with no evaluation or inspection?
    I also find your analogy with the diary to be a bit off point, since emails and voice mails are intended for another’s use, and no longer “belong” to the sender. They are received by the recipient, and no longer sole property of the sender. A diary is an entirely different matter, since it is written for one’s own personal use only.
    I also think it is fair to say that even an excerpted quote on a blog would be in context by reading the previous posts on the blog.
    The 5th Amendment? Really? That protects a citizen’s right to not have something they are forced to do used against them (such as testify, register information, employment, etc). No one is forcing someone to send an email or voice mail. No citizen is required by law to send someone an email or leave a voice mail, nor are there any regulations about what must be specifically contained in the email or voice mail. Believe me, there are many times we wish she would take advantage of her “right to remain silent”, however, since she CHOOSES to be in our face with inflammatory emails and voice mails, I really don’t see any ethical issue at all with evaluating her words which she voluntarily put in a medium that can be documented.

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