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16 July 2006 @ 12:42 pm
Behind Closed Doors: Should Professional Lists Give Public Access?  
A professional online discussion forum of which I'm a longtime member is in the midst of a serious conversation about whether or not the membership accepts being indexed by a service that will make our posts googlable. For one, the service that indexed our listserv did not request permission, which is a clear breach of courtesy. For another, some list members have confessed they are rather freer on the list, given that people must join to participate and read, than they might be elsewhere on the web. Those who are concerned about unwanted internet exposure have expressed a variety of reasons for this concern, including

1) cyberstalkers

2) unwanted exposure of their views to employers, colleagues, students, personal acquaintances

3) use of sig file and other info for spamming

4) possible exposure to government surveillance.

Of course, some other list members have said they feel comfortable with the list's being indexed, not fearing the reaper in any of its forms. A few, especially the professional writers among us, welcome the attention by anyone interested in their writing or ideas.

A compelling argument made by one or two was that professional / expert conversation was a public service, and so we ought to give open access to our remarks. Yet others questioned whether we shouldn't get paid for our expertise, as consultants, rather than giving it away (I think that generally goes against scholarly culture, at least the one in which I was formed). Personally, I'm eager to give away what I know, if it will help anyone. Like many academics, I'm only too glad to be asked.

I've made a few points to the membership that I'd like to share here as well. BTW, the list was removed from the index site at our officer's request. That's a move that I don't disagree with, ultimately. If enough people are uncomfortable with public sharing, then their wishes should be honored.


1st post:

I've been aware of the ... list's being on ... for some weeks now. I don't mind it.

I assume contributions to a professional association list are public (that is, professional conversation). Note that ... is expressly defined on its website in this way: ... So while list contributions certainly aren't as formal as publications of any kind, they are professional statements. They are open to citation in articles, etc. under MLA guidelines. I think most readers are aware of the difference in style (i.e., formal registers).

As a secondary consideration: Our list doesn't require any invite or delay in joining -- it's open to all comers, so its content was always public domain in a sense. Writers can't even assume these days that email is private, especially those with institutional accounts...


2nd post:

Maybe the issue isn’t as clear cut between academics and non-academics, but as an academic I’m used to having my contact information be quite public. Whatever university I work for lists me, and my listing can often be googled, along with anything else I’ve posted along the way, including side publications (creative work) and not just scholarly things I meant for students and employers to have on hand.

So, I’m very self-conscious about what I write anywhere, but I also use my name most of the time. I’m glad to stand by and for what I write, and I’m not concerned about web stalkers or whatever. It’s not that I’ve lived behind an invulnerable shield, but I’ve managed to deal well enough with whatever’s come my way. As for spam, spam filters do the trick, mainly, and I delete the rest without much trouble. I just don’t get what the worry’s about.

The only point I’ve heard so far that moves me is ...'s point that this fellow at ... didn’t ask permission and that’s not polite. Of course, since we’re a public domain professional list, he may have thought that this wasn’t a required courtesy. However, it is reasonable to expect that such niceties should be observed.


3rd post:

During a vanity search about a month back, I found a nasty comment from one very former student to another on My Space. I wrote both students and told them I was saddened that they’d chosen to make such statements about me in public, and that I hoped we could talk further about their course experiences. I explained what I’d tried to accomplish in the course, and also how I felt that would help students. The page’s owner took the comments down without another word. But the “hater” who had said the really bad stuff and I had an email conversation that was really quite – healing. He was sorry he’d had such an immature attitude, based on freshman misunderstandings. We were able to move past those feelings toward something altogether better. It’s worth knowing what students are saying, since potential employers, students, colleagues, neighbors, personal acquaintances are sometimes reading these comments, too – and everything else about us online.

I don’t think there’s a need to feel afraid of internet encounters anymore than we would be timid about them in real life. The medium encourages a superficial sense of anonymity in some writers, and protected community in others, especially the naïve. But more and more writers are becoming aware of the exposure the internet provides – and promises. Those who ignore this through a false sense of safety and impulse tend to be young or generally indiscrete. They can use the education in contact and consequence.

I’ve already spoken about spammers, which are an annoyance best dealt with through filters – and which are, like telemarketers on the phone or door to door salesman at one’s home, inevitable to a degree. As for cyberstalkers, I imagine they occur with only slightly more frequency than in real life. So, it’s not likely. However, when it does occur, there are measures that can be taken to block access – filtering out single addresses, reporting service term violations and so on. We ought not to give anyone power over activities in which we want to engage, especially those in which we share with others and build communities where such sharing is pleasurable and valuable. I’ve been stalked in real life, and it was more than an annoyance. But even in that awful circumstance, I didn’t turn tail and run. I dealt with it. So too have I dealt with disgruntled students etc. in real life. The internet makes their disgruntlement no more powerful. Such unpleasantness can be anonymous in the classroom as well (when comments on student evaluations, for example, become personal and are protected by being blind).

BTW, I realize some members on the list use the term blogs in a limited sense, to mean online diaries. I generally believe that people who expose the intimate details of their private lives should do so anonymously (under a fake name and with details in entries masked to protect the author and the innocent) or password protected to a small community of real world intimates. Blog, however, can and often does have the broader meaning of self-published material online. I have the latter sort of blog. I use my own name on it. Some who have that sort of blog choose to remain anonymous. I’ve no problem with that choice. But I want to build real life relationships through my online contributions, and so I use my own name. I’ll own it’s a personal choice, one that merits reflection. So, too, does any form of public display or publication. I’ve met a lot of great people through my blog, and I hope that will continue. I’ve met a couple of people who aren’t so nice, too, but they were cowards and chose to post replies anonymously. Those sort of people don’t merit the seriousness any limit to my intellectual activities (and I hope others) would grant them

As for government review of private and personal and even professional life, bring it on. What I mean by this is that the government at all levels should be watchdogged carefully to ensure it observes civil liberties and due process. However, when citizens fear to express themselves openly and to own their diverse views, then they are no longer free. I, for one, intend to live as if this is a free democracy that supports a diversity of views. On this, I won’t, would never, give ground.