North Carolina Blogging Conference Recap

By Eric Goldman

Sorry to post yet another conference recap on blog law, but it’s been a busy conference season, and everyone wants to talk about blogs! I previously blogged on my presentation at the University of North Carolina’s conference on employee blogging. At the end of the day, the conference organizers asked me to recap my observations about the day. Here’s how I summarized the conference.

I divided my observations into three categories: what we know, what we don’t know, and some predictions for the future.

What We Know

1. There’s no such thing as a “private blog.” It’s an oxymoron. Think of all the people who have learned this lesson the hard way: Jessica Cutler, who used her supposedly limited-distribution blog to share some very intimate details; Jay Kuo, an attorney who blogged on a live case in a password-protected blog and got rebuked by the judge for it; and the many, many students who are making regrettable postings to their MySpace, Facebook or LiveJournal pages (even though places like Facebook limit access). Blog posts restricted to an Intranet may, in theory, remain limited in their distribution, but even then, bits have a funny way of migrating to the most unwanted places.

Because blog posts are effectively public, blog posts are effectively permanent. They live on forever as part of the author’s permanent record. Thus, the maxim: “blog in haste, regret at leisure.” The ease of blogging seduces people to blog first and ask questions later, but the permanence of blogging makes such tactics unwise.

2. Speech is Good, Speech is Bad. At the conference, Ed Cone said that blogs are “dangerous but useful.” This is exactly right. Blogs are generating good speech and bad speech. It would be a mistake to oversimplify the output in either direction–both good and bad speech are an integral part of the blogging phenomenon.

3. Blogs Put Pressure on Companies That Rely on Secrecy/Data Scarcity. The proliferation and democratization of information makes it very hard to sustain businesses that rely on data scarcity or secrecy. Ed Cone gave the analogy of a basketball game. There’s a certain secrecy inherent in playing the basketball game inside a closed pavilion. With bloggers recording every move during the game in real-time, the value proposition derived from the game’s secrecy degrades. As a result, the game operators aren’t selling access to information, and they make a huge misstep trying to do so by futilely restricting the flow of information. Instead, they need to sell other stuff that can’t be easily replicated in an information-rich environment. Thus, the businesses that thrive in the blogging era will build businesses that make more money from the widespread dissemination of data.

Along this lines, companies with branded products need to realize that they are in the business of building fan bases. Blogs can help build fan bases by disseminating information to the company’s most dedicated customers, thereby rewarding and further encouraging their loyalty. Thus, companies may find value in building their own blogs, and they should tolerate company-related blogs built by the company’s fans.

4. Employers Need to Educate, and then Trust, Their Employees. It is unrealistic to expect employees to know what’s appropriate/inappropriate regarding blogging without any training. Instead, companies should educate and train their employees about blogging. And, where an employer has decided to restrict employees’ blogging activities, the employer should explain the rationale for the restriction so that employees know both the “what” and the “why” and can better apply the rules themselves. At the same time, with adequate training, employers should then trust their employees to make good choices rather than assuming the worst about employees.

What We Don’t Know

1. While we know that blogging will produce a mixture of good speech and bad speech, we don’t know how to develop restrictions that curtail unwanted speech without also affecting desired speech.

2. It’s easy to say that businesses should build businesses that generate value from speech proliferation due to blogging, but it’s not clear how businesses will do that. (If I knew how to do this, maybe I could afford a house in Palo Alto!)

Predictions for the Future

1. 10 years from now, it will seem bizarre that we had a standalone conference on blog law. Blogs are just a subset of Internet-mediated communication–nothing more (and nothing less). As Ed Cone said, “blogs are not exotica.” After the novelty of blogs wears off, we’ll realize that they are just another communication medium, and we’ll stop trying to treat them as unique.

2. Corporation-sponsored blogging will increase as a way to grow and cater to brands’ fan bases.

3. People will make poor choices about blogging–they will use blogs to do stupid things, make stupid posts, and generally engage in bad behavior. This is basic human nature.

4. Despite the glut of poor choices, I think there will be less blog-related litigation than we might expect. Typically, there just won’t be enough money involved to fight about.