Blog Survey


Expectations of Privacy and Accountability

The individual is not accountable to society for his actions in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself.

- John Stuart Mill

A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction,
and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury.

- John Stuart Mill (again)

by Fernanda Viégas

Formerly viewed as a marginal activity restricted to the technically savvy, blogging is slowly becoming more of a mainstream phenomenon on the Internet.  Thanks to much media hype and some high profile blog sites, these online journals have captured the public’s imagination.  As novice authors plunge into the thrilling world of blog publishing, they soon realise that publicly writing about one’s life and interests is not as simple as it might seem at first.  As they become prolific writers, more bloggers find themselves having to deal with issues of privacy and liability.  Accounts of bloggers either hurting friends’ feelings or losing jobs because of materials published on their sites are becoming more frequent.

Here we report the findings from an online survey conducted between 14 January and 21 January 2004.  During that time, 486 respondents answered questions about their blogging practices and their expectations of privacy and accountability for the entries they publish online:

bulletthe great majority of bloggers identify themselves on their sites
bullet55% of respondents provide their real names on their blogs
bullet20% provide some variant of the real name (first name only, first name and initial of surname, a pseudonym friends would know, et cetera)
bullet76% of bloggers do not limit access (that is, readership) to their entries in any way
bullet36% of respondents have gotten in trouble because of things they have written on their blogs
bullet34% of respondents know other bloggers who have gotten in trouble with family and friends
bullet12% of respondents know other bloggers who have gotten in legal or professional problems because of things they wrote on their blogs
bulletwhen blogging about people they know personally
bullet66% of respondents almost never asked permission to do so
bullet9% said they never blogged about people they knew personally
bullet83% of respondents characterised their entries as personal ramblings whereas
bullet20% said they mostly publish lists of useful/interesting links (respondents could check multiple options for this answer).  This indicates that the nature of blogs might be changing from being mostly lists of links to becoming sites that contain more personal stories and commentaries.
bulletthe frequency with which a blogger writes highly personal things is positively and significantly correlated to how often they get in trouble because of their postings (r = 0.3, p < 0.01); generally speaking, people have gotten in trouble both with friends and family as well as employers.
bulletthere is no correlation between how often a blogger writes about highly personal things and how concerned they are about the persistence of their entries
bulletchecking one’s access log files isn’t correlated to how well a blogger feels they know their audience
bulletdespite believing that they are liable for what they publish online (58% of respondents believed they were highly liable), in general, bloggers do not believe people could sue them for what they have written on their blogs

The findings in this survey suggest that blogging is a world in flux where social norms are starting to flourish.  For instance, many bloggers reveal the names of companies and products when they blog about them, except when they write about a company for which they currently work or have worked in the past.  More bloggers are becoming sensitive about revealing the full names of friends on postings as well.  But for all of the careful publishing guidelines that are starting to evolve, bloggers still do not feel like they know their audience.  For the most part, they have no control over who reads their postings.  The study also shows that bloggers usually have some idea of their "core" audience (readers who post comments on the site) without really knowing who the rest of their readers are - in many cases, this latter group makes up the majority of their readers.

When confronted with questions of defamation and legal liability, respondents in this survey paint a conflicting picture.  In general, they believe that they are liable for what they publish online.  However, bloggers in this study were not concerned about the persistent nature of what they publish - which tends to be a major aspect of liability - nor did they believe someone would sue them for things they had written on their blogs.  Moreover, 75% of respondents said they have edited the contents of their entries in the past.  Even though most respondents explained that they usually edit typos and grammatical errors, 35% of respondents said they had edited for content as well: entries they decided were too personal, entries they thought were "mean", some respondents mentioned having gone back to entries to obfuscate names of people.  These results reveal a certain naiveté in how most bloggers think about persistence and how it operates in networked environments such as the net, where information is constantly cached.  As blogs become more pervasive and their audiences grow, the ever-persistent nature of entries and the direct link to defamation and liability are likely to become even more of a burning issue.

Survey Caveats and Limitations

The results presented here are based on an online survey, which ran for seven days (from 13 January to 21 January 2004).  During that time, 492 people responded to the online questionnaire.  Out of those responses, 486 were selected for data analysis - the remaining 6 responses were incomplete and, therefore, were disregarded.

Respondents to this survey were not selected on a random basis.  Announcements for the online survey were posted to mailing lists within MIT as well as on a few high-traffic blogs published by people known to the author of this survey.  The viral nature of blogs meant that the links to the survey page quickly spread to many other blogs.  Nevertheless, this does not qualify as a random sample of the blogger population and, as such, the results from this survey cannot be generalised to the entire blogging community; instead, these results are representative of the state of affairs in certain portions of the blogging world.

Study Population

The charts and tables in this section provide an introductory snapshot of the population of respondents in this study.  As Table 1 indicates, the majority of participants (63%) is male.

female 36%
male 63%
undisclosed 1%
Table 1: Sex distribution of respondents

Even though a few of the popular blogging sites attract mostly teenagers, our respondents tended to be older, with almost half of them (46.3%) having between 21 and 30 years of age [Table 2].

below 20 10.5%
21 - 30 46.3%
31 - 40 28.2%
41 - 50 11.3%
51 - 60 3.1%
above 61 0.4%
Table 2: Age distribution of participants

The overwhelming majority of participants (78.6%) were Caucasian [Table 5].

African 0.4% Caucasian 78.6%
African-American 1.0% Latino/Hispanic 2.1%
Asian 4.1% Native American 0.6%
Asian-American 3.3% Pacific Islander 0.4%
Australian 1.4% Other 7.8%
Table 5: Ethnicity of respondents

Perhaps not surprisingly, given that the survey questionnaire was available only in English and that announcements for the survey were posted to mailing lists in a couple of American universities, 67% of the respondents reported they lived in the United States [Table 6].

Live in the United States Live outside the United States
Alabama 1 Montana 1 Australia 10 Malaysia 1
Arizona 2 Nevada 1 Austria 1 Netherlands 1
Arkansas 1 New Hampshire 3 Bangladesh 1 New Zealand 2
California 56 New Jersey 4 Belgium 1 Norway 1
Colorado 5 New Mexico 3 Bulgaria 1 Pakistan 1
Connecticut 2 New York 27 Canada 23 Portugal 7
DC 3 North Carolina 8 Denmark 2 Romania 1
Florida 6 Ohio 4 England 38 Scotland 3
Georgia 8 Oregon 14 Estonia 2 Singapore 2
Idaho 2 Pennsylvania 12 Finland 1 South Africa 2
Illinois 13 Rhode Island 1 France 4 South Korea 1
Indiana 4 South Carolina 2 Germany 1 Spain 6
Iowa 1 Tennessee 7 India 4 Sweden 2
Kansas 3 Texas 15 Indonesia 1 Switzerland 3
Kentucky 2 Utah 2 Iran 1 Thailand 1
Maine 1 Virginia 6 Ireland 4 Tunisia 1
Maryland 5 Washington 18 Israel 1 Venezuela 1
Massachusetts 40 West Virginia 1 Italy 4 Wales 2
Michigan 3 Wisconsin 6 Japan 10    
Minnesota 5 US (general) 23        
Missouri 5 US total 326 Undisclosed 12 Non-US total 148
Table 6: Current place of residency of respondents

The education level of respondents was quite high: 59% had been to college/university, and an additional 31.1% had attended graduate school [Table 3].

elementary school 0.2%
high school 9.7%
college/university 59%
masters/professional. degree 26.2%
phd 4.9%
Table 3: Education level of participants

Finally, most participants in this study (67%) have been blogging for over one year, with 36% having blogged for over two years [Table 4].

< 3 months 6%
3 - 6 months 9%
6 months - 1 year 18%
1 - 2 years 31%
> 2 years 36%
Table 4: Length of time blogging


Do you identify yourself on your blog (that is, is your real name clear on the site?)

  1. Yes 54.62%
  2. No 19.10%
  3. on some blogs, but not all 6.37%
  4. it is a bit more complicated 19.92%

How would you characterise the kinds of entries you publish on your blog(s)?  Please check all that apply

  1. personal ramblings 403
  2. academic brainstorm 190
  3. professional brainstorm 227
  4. political opinions 245
  5. hobby 292
  6. gossip 93
  7. other 141
    bulletlists of links
    bulletcreative writing
    bulletwritings about social issues
    bulletwritings about local places (examples: a blog about New York, Greece, et cetera)
    bullethumorous writings
    bulletposting of pictures; picture blogs
    bulletwritings about religion
    bulletcritiques of movies, books, music
    bulletsurveys and quizzes

How private are the things you write about on your blog? ("private" means either personal or confidential)

  1. extremely 3.70%
  2. .. 14.58%
  3. .. 30.18%
  4. .. 32.44%
  5. not at all 19.10%

How often have you considered whether something was too personal to write about in your blog?

  1. always 19.55%
  2. .. 41.56%
  3. .. 20.99%
  4. .. 12.55%
  5. never 5.35%

In general, when you write things about people you know personally in your blog:

bulletdo you ask them permission to do so?
  1. always 2.67%
  2. .. 6.57%
  3. .. 15.61%
  4. .. 25.87%
  5. never 40.45%
  6. never write about people I know personally 8.83%
bulletdo you reveal their names?
  1. always 4.93%
  2. .. 16.22%
  3. .. 27.72%
  4. .. 21.97%
  5. never 20.12%
  6. never write about people I know personally 9.03%

Strategies for not fully revealing the names of friends and family members on blogs included disclosing

bulleta person’s first name only
bulletinitials, or first name and an initial for the person’s surname
bulletpseudonyms, or nicknames
bulletthe nature of relationship; for example, "my daughter", "my father", et cetera

Other naming conventions included

bulletgiving out the person’s name if they have an online persona; for instance, if someone is a blogger, respondents will link back to the person’s blog and use the same name or handle the blogger has chosen to use for themselves.  This is also true of people who are not bloggers but who have some other kind of Web presence (home pages, for instance)
bulletseveral participants explained that, if they have good things to say about their friends and family friends they will, for the most part, reveal their names; if, however, they post negative comments about a person, they will often conceal this person’s name

In general, when you write things about companies/products in your blog

bulletdo you ask them permission to do so?
  1. always 0.62%
  2. .. 0.62%
  3. .. 1.85%
  4. .. 5.76%
  5. never 83.74%
  6. I never write about companies/products 7.41%
bulletdo you reveal their names?
  1. always 44.44%
  2. .. 27.37%
  3. .. 13.99%
  4. .. 3.50%
  5. never 3.09%
  6. I never write about companies/products 7.61%

Reasons for revealing the names of companies on blog postings

bulletproviding a service to other people; that is, informing potential consumers about products
bulletif the products are good, the company deserves the credit

Reasons for not revealing the name of a company

bulletif the company is the blogger’s current employer
bulletif the company is a former employer
bulletif the blogger is interviewing with the company

How well do you feel you know your blog's audience?

  1. extremely 10.49%
  2. .. 35.60%
  3. .. 32.10%
  4. .. 15.23%
  5. not at all 6.58%

Bloggers in this survey relied on the dismal indicators of past actions (access logs, comments, and trackbacks) in order to form a mental picture of who is reading their postings.  This lack of identity and presence cues causes distorted views of readership to emerge; for one thing, bloggers start perceiving the people whose presence is more tangibly obvious (commentators, for instance) as their entire audience.

  1. Core versus Periphery
    As it became clear from respondents’ essay answers, a significant portion of the people who replied that they felt they knew their audience "fairly well" actually meant they knew their core audience well, that is, they knew those few people who are frequent readers and who, a lot of times, leave comments on their blogs.
  2. Performing for an audience
    Even though blogs have been hailed as the ultimate venue for personal expression; a world that is all about the self, it turns out that blogs are not necessarily that egocentric.  In this survey, various respondents expressed the pressure that comes with having an audience.  Even in its current elusive form, a blog’s audience can become such a powerful element of the writing action that it can affect what the blogger chooses to write about.
  3. c) Content-Based, Self-Selective Audiences
    Sometimes authors perceive their audience as being formed solely of people with similar interests.  They assume that, because they write a lot about a certain topic (or a certain group of topics), their readers are exclusively people who are interested in those topics.

How often do you look at the log of who has accessed your blog?

  1. extremely often 19.96%
  2. .. 26.75%
  3. .. 19.55%
  4. .. 11.32%
  5. never 9.05%
  6. logs not available 13.37%

If you were aware of all the people who read your blog, how likely is it that you would become more careful about what you write?

  1. very likely 7.41%
  2. .. 17.28%
  3. .. 17.08%
  4. .. 22.63%
  5. not likely at all 32.92%
  6. N/A 2.67%

How often have you written highly personal things on your blog?

  1. all the time 6.79%
  2. .. 18.31%
  3. .. 22.63%
  4. .. 33.13%
  5. never 19.14%

How often have your gotten in trouble for anything you wrote on your blog?

  1. all the time 0.82%
  2. .. 4.73%
  3. .. 8.23%
  4. .. 22.22%
  5. never 63.99%

How much do the comments that people write on your blog affect the entries you write?

  1. extremely 4.12%
  2. .. 16.26%
  3. .. 26.34%
  4. .. 23.87%
  5. not at all 21.40%
  6. leaving comments is not an option on my blogs 8.02%

Are you surprised when someone you meet in person says they have read your blog?

  1. extremely 20.78%
  2. .. 24.49%
  3. .. 13.37%
  4. .. 7.61%
  5. not at all 6.79%
  6. it has never happened to me 26.95%

Does it bother you that the things you publish on your blog will be available online for a long time?

  1. extremely 0.62%
  2. .. 5.14%
  3. .. 9.67%
  4. .. 20.37%
  5. not at all 64.20%

How liable do you think you are for the things you write on your blog?

  1. extremely 31.48%
  2. .. 27.37%
  3. .. 21.81%
  4. .. 9.47%
  5. not at all 9.88%

Do you think people could sue you for things you have written on your blog?

  1. Yes 25.10%
  2. No 74.90%

Have you ever erased (or edited) something you had published on you blog?

  1. Yes 74.69%
  2. No 25.31%

Do you know any bloggers who have gotten in trouble with friends or family for things they posted on their blogs?

  1. Yes 34.16%
  2. No 65.84%

Do you know any bloggers who have gotten in trouble with the law (have been sued, or had their entries subpoenaed by lawyers) because of their blogs?

  1. Yes 11.73%
  2. No 88.27%

Have your blogging habits changed over time?

  1. Yes 65.84%
  2. No 34.16%

Do you do anything to limit who can read what you post?

  1. Yes 23.66%
  2. No 76.34%

If you would like more information about the results from this survey or about how the survey was conducted, contact Fernanda Viégas at


Who's behind this survey?

Fernanda Viégas is a PhD candidate working in the Sociable Media Group at the MIT Media Lab. The survey is part of the final project for a class on Ethics and Law on the Electronic Frontier: Electronic Surveillance and Copyright Control.  Viégas said weblogs, also known as blogs have gone from being a once marginal activity of Internet enthusiasts to becoming squarely mainstream.  With the gradual upgrade to a more "serious" publishing venue, blog authors are finding themselves increasingly liable for their chattiness.  He explores the tension between the "freedom" experienced by authors in their blog sites and the legal predicaments they are bound to experience as online publishers in the near future.

By conducting an online survey with bloggers, Viégas determined the expectations of privacy and accountability that authors have when they blog.  He felt the only way to find out whether authors' expectations are in line with the current protection allotted to them by the law was to get feedback from bloggers on how they think about issues of privacy and liability as they publish online.

A Running Commentary on Life?

The life of every man is a diary in which he means to write one story, and writes another.

- Sir James M Barrie

There have been many interesting byproducts of the evolution of the internet and one of them would have to be online journals.  Online journals are journals, except they're online.  People write down their thoughts, opinions and feelings about the events of their lives, then publish them on a webpage for the whole world to see.

It's not surprising, really.  Often, when people get a homepage, the first thing they want to do is fill it with all manner of information about themselves.  I like this, I like that, this is a picture of my doggy, et cetera.  For people inclined towards writing, this isn't really enough.  They want to express themselves and they want an audience.  A running commentary on their life for all to read is a natural next step.

Over the last 4 years or so, like so many things on the internet, the phenomenon has snowballed.  More and more people have access to the net and access to free homepage sites like Geocities or Angelfire.  Anyone in the world can stumble across an online journal, get hooked on reading it, and decide that they want to do the same thing.

That's another interesting point about online journals.  The community side of it.  There are groups of journalists who all read each other's journals, talking about each other's opinions in their own journals, emailing each other, becoming friends.  That remains one of the main strengths of the internet, in my mind, the fact that people from all over the world can find other people who have similar views and tastes to themselves, and become friends.

There are obvious drawbacks to starting an online journal: if you go posting your deepest, most intimate thoughts to a public medium, sooner or later, people you know are going to read it.  And I'm sure that can be embarrassing at the least.  Any nasty comment directed at someone they know, written recklessly in an angry journal rant, it's there in writing.  One of the advantages of verbal communication is the ability to claim you were in the throes of an insane drunken rampage when you said "those things."  Or simply that you never said them at all.  But there's no going back in a written medium.

Additionally. there's the fact that an online journal can slowly become less of a record of thoughts and feelings and more of a stage for your own personal performance.  You become aware that people are coming to your page to read your thoughts and there's almost an expectation, a responsibility, to have interesting thoughts and feelings there for them to read.  The act of observation participates in the event, it's no longer an unclouded record.

In fact, that's the reason many people end their online journals.  Because the original purpose was an expression of thoughts and feelings and it doesn't serve that purpose any longer, they find it a chore to continue.  One journalist wrote this to her journal/readers:

But when did I stop talking to you and start talking at you?  When did it shift from reflection to a sometimes insufferably shallow performance?  More and more I put upon myself the burden of trying to entertain you.  Sometimes I resented that burden (though it only existed in my mind) and more and more I felt I was coming to you only to make a deposit, rather than making an investment.

So what possesses people to write these things?  Well, naturally there's an element of that "wanting to be on a stage."  By writing your life on the internet and having people read it, you become the hero of your own movie and for that you need an audience.  The kind of person who keeps an online journal is the kind of person who writes, and the kind of people who write are the kind of people who feel a need to express themselves in some way.  Online journals provide a forum for doing just that.  Expressing yourself.

That alone is often enough reason to overcome the drawbacks of these journals.  You can say to a journal-writer, "what are you doing?  Everything you write can be read by anyone!  Aren't you afraid of what they'll think?"  And maybe they are.  But the other option is for them not to be writing it, not to be expressing themselves, and perhaps that's a worse thing, in their minds.

If nothing else, online journals can be an interesting read.  They sometimes give you a glimpse into the life and character of a person who lives on the other side of the world from you, perhaps someone with whom you can identify.  If you're interested in reading, or even writing, online journals, a good place to start is right here:

Another Related Site:

bulletOpen Hands (webring) - - Established in July 1996, it now links the lives of over 1000 people around the globe...

This article was written by Ryan Sproull, an ihug employee and can be contacted by e-mail at

Source: Column in the Ihug monthly newsletter, New Injection, probably around July - August 2000

See the World, One Personal URL at a Time

by Annalee Newitz

"Hello.  My name is Xian.  I live on earth were it is usually very boring or dangerous but sometimes it is fun.  Because it is so boring here, I decided to put a bunch of stuff about me up on the internet for everyone to check out.  I hope you enjoy looking at it."  Above the hastily written and haphazardly spelled words, there's a picture of a dragon.  Following some links, you discover a picture of the author, who lists his occupation as "socialist revolutionary" and explains that he hates fascists and Coca-Cola.

In any directory of personal home pages, you'd be able to follow a few more links and venture from Xian's industrial-punk teenage world to Southern belle Debbe's personal ode to her "man," Brad, a US Marine.  With a long personal statement written in several different colors of type on top of a busy background, Debbe has included several fetching photos of herself in a business suit, posing for Brad.  But reading further on Debbe's page, you'd begin to notice something strange about how she describes herself.  Unlike most white, middle-class women who adhere to traditional values, she has a habit of actually noting that she's white, as if that were somehow noteworthy.  (This is, as most newspaper readers will note, the opposite of what usually happens, where people of colour are described as "black" or "Asian" and people whose races are not described are assumed to be white.)  More interesting still, Debbe's page has links to various African American organisations and civil rights groups.  Turns out that Brad, the love of her life, is black.  And Debbe, WASP extraordinaire, is proud.  How would you ever know this about a seemingly cookie-cutter white girl without reading her web site?

Personal web sites were among the only bits of information available to users when their web browsers first roamed the Internet in search of documents written in html.  These crude homages to the self revealed everything from a person's resume to his or her taste in books, food, and sex partners.  By the mid 1990s, however, homespun hypertext markup language was being drowned out by corporate sites and advertisements that often cost millions of dollars to create.

But the personal sites kept coming, mushrooming on places like Geocities and benefiting from the low cost of personal URLs.  It's remarkable how little the personal web site has changed as a form.  Certainly the graphics are better, the pictures plentiful, and the links more numerous.  But each page is still a strangely moving - or simply strange - testimonial to what a Vulcan would call "infinite diversity in infinite combination."

These web pages are often the only marks their authors will ever make on the mass-media landscape.  You can find poignantly random photos of people you will never meet, whose eyes seem haunted, whose clothing and settings suggest stories that went untold by the personal site's author.  On a page inexplicably decorated with pirates and skulls, I found shots from Tina and Chad's wedding, attended by only four people, all of them in street clothes.  Why?  I'll never know.  Nevertheless, I do know that Chad likes role-playing games and Tina likes living in Delaware.

Personal web sites have even evolved their own genre of writing: the rant.  A combination of essay, polemic, sermon, and libel, the rant is the web site author's personal opinion on any topic in the universe - from pet-cat care to human evolution - presented in the most passionate terms possible, often with a kind of pseudoscientific deployment of "facts."  People who make their own Web sites love facts.

They also love to list their friends, especially if they can link to their sites, too.  Mohamed, a med student from Yemen, boasts an incredible list of his friends on his site, complete with their phone numbers, addresses, and countries of origin.  He also includes a detailed, rant-style presentation of photographs from his hometown, Ta'aizz, which he left to study medicine in Cairo.  Despite the fact that Mohamed lives across the world in a region my government tells me is full of "bad" Arabs, his home page was just as bizarre and idiosyncratic as the ones I found from my own (allegedly "good") country.  He has photos of his hometown and links to his friends all over the world.

Nothing is more interesting than someone else's personal life.

Annalee Newitz ( is a surly media nerd who has a personal web site.  Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.

Source: 5 November 2001

Say - this is my personal web site: the only mark I'll ever make on the mass-media landscape.  I'd better make it a BOLD mark!

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