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Tuesday, February 22, 2005

To drop the veil... or not?

A blogger friend recently asked my opinion as to whether or not she should post a picture of herself on her sidebar.  It is worth mentioning that this person blogs semi-anonymously.  By this I mean that her real identity is not a state secret, but it rarely occurs to the reader that she is writing under a pseudonym.

The decision about how much (if any) personal information to put on one's blog is a difficult one.  I'm actually a perfect example (read: cautionary tale) of how not to think this subject through before getting started!

When I posted my first few entries I couldn't imagine anyone besides my immediate family  ever logging on to read, so I held nothing back; pictures, names, Social Security Numbers (OK, I held something back). 

By the time I woke up to the fact that people... a fair amount of them, in fact... were stopping by, it was a little late to start redacting names and putting those blurry circles over everyone's faces in the photo albums. 

In short, I outed myself before it ever occurred to me that there was a closet in which to hide.

But many sensible people have erred on the side of caution and started blogging in the electronic equivalent of a Burqa.  This blogger who asked for my advice is one of those, and has recently been toying with the decision of whether, and how far, to drop her veil.

A good example of someone who is 'out there' for all the world to see, but probably shouldn't be (IMHO) is James Lileks.  I have been a Daily Bleat junky for almost as long as James has been, well, bleating.  But the funny thing is that I somehow managed to read him for months before I ever spotted his picture.  I wasn't avoiding it... I'd simply been reading the bleat on a small laptop and his picture had been out of the reading frame.

As a result, during those first few months I had created a mental picture of this tall, lanky uber-dad who looked like Tom Selleck with a perpetual sarcastic grin around his evening cigar.

I was right about the cigar.

I know, I know... it's not fair to be disappointed about someone's appearance, especially since I'm  certainly no prize.  Heck, who knows where I'd be today if Zahava had managed to get a good look at me before our arranged marriage!

My point is that before I knew what Lileks looked like I was able to let his words paint a picture of who he was.  After I had seen his picture, I found I still loved his writing, but I couldn't help thinking that he was a talented writer who looked a lot like a kid dressed up in has dad's old suit. 

In trying to provide some advice to my blogger friend I decided not to use the Lileks example.  I figured she might take it the wrong way (she's actually quite pretty).  Instead I told her the following:

"Only you can decide if you want to cross that boundary.  I'll give you a 'for instance' to explain which boundary I'm talking about:

I love reading Chez Miscarriage.  I have a very clear picture in my mind's eye of what she looks like.  When I read her words I can actually see her speaking them.  That's what a good writer can do.

I would be disappointed if she ever put a picture of herself on her blog.  Not because she might be unattractive or weird looking... but because there is a 100% certainty that she will look different than the woman I see when I read her words.

A lot of people, men and women, read your blog and have a clear picture in their mind's eye of what you look like (and no two of those 'pictures' are alike).  If you post your picture on your blog, there is a 100% certainty that each of those people will feel let down just a little bit, not because of who you are... but because you're not who they imagined you to be.

It's a big step crossing the boundary from the fiction shelf to the non-fiction shelf."

Obviously it's easy for me to sit here and be all full of good advice since my cover's already been blown. 

So what do the rest of you think?  Should an anonymous blogger with a large readership drop her veil and give the world a peek?
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Posted by David Bogner on February 22, 2005 | Permalink

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What's her reason for wanting to post a picture?

The only benefit I can think of is increased readership. We men are suckers for a pretty face. If someone is just quickly browsing through pages, a picture might make them stop and read. If she's already got a readership that she's happy with, what's the drive to consider this?

I guess all of us are exhibitionists in one way or another, otherwise we wouldn't be publishing in a public forum. For me, I love venting about subjects that I can't talk about at work and with friends (mostly politics). So I started journaling with exactly the opposite expectations than you; I made a site that I expected only strangers would read. I imagine strangers don't care a bit what I look like, and for those who do, the only clue they're going to get is that I picked my nickname because of a resemblance to Rowan Atkinson.

So, why is she thinking about this???

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Feb 22, 2005 7:07:49 AM

I know you how feel when people post comments about something in your post other than the main topic - but... :-) You had an arranged marriage? Have you written about that before and I just missed it? If not I'd love to read more about it!!

Ok, hmmm... I agree with your Lileks example! Sometimes I, too, find it distracting to know what the blogger looks like. Sometimes it helps get an even better feel for the whole person, not just the words on the screen.

I guess I'd be curious as to why she wants to add a pic at this point in time.

Posted by: Beth | Feb 22, 2005 8:41:14 AM

I'll post from a slightly different perspective. When I began audioblogging I received several comments from readers about my voice, some were a little disappointed because it didn't match their image of me. Another complained that I sounded different in two different entries and that they found that confusing.

I thanked them all for their comments, but ultimately it is her blog and I am of the opinion that one should always blog for themselves.

And if she is doing this for herself to me it is a question of whether or not she wants to "flesh out" the image that her readers have of her.

To me the biggest question I would have is the safety issue, beyond that, it is really her call.

Posted by: Jack | Feb 22, 2005 8:51:52 AM

Doctor Bean... I don't know what her reason might be... perhaps she doesn't either. Let's assume for the sake of argument that she wants to increase her readership (even though I think it is already quite large)... do you think posting a picture will have the desired effect?

Beth... I had meant to put a little smiley face after that sarcastic comment. oopsy. :-)

Jack... Don't get me wrong... I'm not trying to impose anyone's views on her. I just think I might be too limited a survey group for her to be able to weigh the issue properly. That's where you all come in.

Posted by: David | Feb 22, 2005 8:56:48 AM

I will always look at the photo at some point, after I have been reading the person for awhile, out of curiosity. However, I almost always wish I hadn't. It is very similar to going to the movie, after reading the book.
Carol

Posted by: Carol Feldman | Feb 22, 2005 9:40:25 AM

I'm not sure I have anything much to add: I wouldn't post a picture of me, and can't really imagine wanting to... and I am also a semi-anonymous blogger (no surname actually on my site and Kay is a nickname which work colleagues, for instance, wouldn't immediately twig to - but my full name has come out from time to time)(then again I'm not sure even Kay appears on my site - just kayoz).

But about the disappointment thing - I have to admit to having experienced that when meeting people in the flesh sometimes, but it usually fades pretty quickly as I get used to their real faces. That could be slower to happen with a single photo though I suppose.

Posted by: Kay | Feb 22, 2005 12:22:32 PM

I posted my photo a while ago, and one regular reader commented on how my appearance didn't come close to matching her perception of me. Another remarked on how handsome I was, and no one else said a thing. I haven't noticed a change in volume either (site hits, referrals).

Putting my picture out there was a way of acknowledging my growing closeness to my regular readers. I did it for me.

Maybe it's a matter of how much one cares about how others perceive them?

Posted by: Steve Bogner | Feb 22, 2005 2:00:57 PM

I write who I am and put pictures of myself and everybody else in my very new blog. I'm at that stage where I am really only writing for family, sort of a user freindly way to send family pictures and share some very drippy life in Israel pieces.

I wouldn't really trust the annonymity of an an anonymous blog. So even then, I would avoid getting too personal and revealing

Posted by: Andy | Feb 22, 2005 2:35:47 PM

I don't see how it can hurt as long as the blogger is aware of just how very public the Internet is. And since it appears that this blogger, whoever she may be, is experienced and aware, it sounds OK to me.

I'd make it just a head shot, though, unless the blogger wants to show more about herself in the picture than simply what she looks like (for example, where she lives or her favorite part of town).

Posted by: Rahel | Feb 22, 2005 4:01:57 PM

I'm a semi-anonymous blogger. People know my first name, my city, and if they're clever enough to figure it out, my neighborhood. Anyone who really wants to find me probably can.

However, I don't put any pictures of myself on my blog. I don't have many pictures to begin with, but I deliberately give no visual of myself. I'm not comfortable with the idea of winning fans because they think I'm pretty. Too many weirdos out there...

Posted by: Cara | Feb 22, 2005 7:55:51 PM

I worked for a couple of years in public radio, and found it very disconcerting to meet people who I knew only by their voice. My mental picture of them was almost always way off-base. For a long time Ira Glass of "This American Life" [http://www.thislife.org/] didn't like to have his face seen in publicity pics [http://tinyurl.com/2m543] for that very reason.

I agree that bloggers are probably better off not posting pictures unless they do it from the very beginning. For instance, I knew what Lileks looks like from day one since he writes a column in the Mpls/St. Paul newspaper; his picture appears there.

Posted by: Andy Levy-Stevenson | Feb 22, 2005 8:41:14 PM

hmmmm... I'd have to say that so far this very unscientific poll is tracking slightly in favor of remaining hidden, but no clear consensus is emerging.

I think I'll wait 'til tomorrow to e-mail my blogger friend and remind her to take a look at your thoughtful insights.

Posted by: David | Feb 22, 2005 9:43:28 PM

I must say that while I'm 90 percent sure that Chez Mis is for real, that there still is a 10 percent of doubt because of the anonymity. I would love to hear someone who knows her in real life vouch for her.

Posted by: Allison | Feb 22, 2005 11:01:01 PM

The main disadvantage to dropping the veil is that you feel compelled to be nice to everyone. When you're anonymous you can dis people left and right (See DB) from the safety of your burqua. Once people start coming up to you and saying, "why did you say that about the Rabbi" it becomes more unpleasant.

Of course, if you want to have a very bland, but upbeat blog, go right ahead.

Dave, I too came out of the gate with my mask off. I figured, if I'm just going to write about my life, it wouldn't be too interesting if I couldn't be specific.

Posted by: psychotoddler | Feb 22, 2005 11:12:43 PM

The main disadvantage to dropping the veil is that you feel compelled to be nice to everyone. When you're anonymous you can dis people left and right

People still try and take me to task for comments they do not like or disapprove of.

I preferred anonymity because I didn't want to answer questions posed by family and friends, not to mention that there are more stories that I can tell this way than as someone exposed to the world.

Posted by: Jack | Feb 23, 2005 12:33:32 AM

As with others, I would have to consider the reasoning behind wanting to post a picture. From the point of view of someone who has her picture right at the top of her blog - which was only placed there about six months ago - I can't say that it would help with upping her readership, if that is her goal. I don't think it helped with mine. Granted, my readership has increased. But that was due more to being linked to by bloggers such as Chuck, Jim and you, David, than any picture on my blog. I suppose a picture of a pretty woman might, as Doctor Bean says, initially grab the male eye, but unless that male eye is attached to a brain that enjoys intelligent blogging (and instinct tells me that if she's your friend, she's probably got the smarts going on and the ability to express them), she may not necessarily garner the sort of increased readership she's looking for.

As for my own reason for placing my picture on my blog, that's only because I'm both vain and an attention whore. Former actors tend to be like that.

Posted by: Carol | Feb 23, 2005 8:47:14 AM

Allison... I guess that brings up the issue of how important reality is to the reader. sometimes it's nice to be able to construct a persona from hints and details that the writer provides rather than be forced to confront an inconvenient reality. Even though I am very open about who I am, I hold back certain information/details about my life that might color the way some readers view me. I think most bloggers/journalers do this. Who knows... maybe the emerging popularity of 'reality TV' indicates that people really do want to know every last detail about those they read.

Psychotoddler... I'm glad you admit that your identity was a pretty poorly kept secret from the start. My wife figure out who you were in about 20 seconds... and she knew you mostly from hearing me talk about the NY music scene. :-) As to you 'dissing people'... yeah right. You're not exactly the 'shock jock' of the blogger world. :-) From what I've read, you're a lot nicer to certain people than I would have been (haMevin Yavin).

Jack... I agree that anonymity offers a degree of freedom of expression. The trade-of is the loss of real intimacy one has with his/her readers.

Posted by: David | Feb 23, 2005 8:51:25 AM

whoops! Carol, our comments crossed each other.

I remember you wrote about the various pictures/headshots that you've had over the years, and your most recent one is obviously a little more daring than the previous incarnations. However, I agree with you... a pretty face and, ahem, interesting neckline would not hold anyone's attention for long, much less encourage someone to become a long-term reader. I assume that most people who read you regularly do so because of your writing and ideas... not because of your other, um, attributes... and certainly not because I blogrolled you. :-)

Since we're on the subject, though... I will say that you look nothing like what I'd imagined.

Posted by: David | Feb 23, 2005 9:02:05 AM

Well, I am a blogger who recently decided to publish a picture of myself. Since my blog has taken a new direction with the diagnosis of my son as autistic, I chose a picture taken recently of us both. It is NOT flattering to me (IMHO) but it conveys a thought about the relationship I have with my son.

I am also semi-anonymous. If you REALLY wanted to know who I was, it wouldn't be hard to tell based on the stories I tell..IF you knew the community in which I live. That said, by THAT time, if you had THAT information you'd know exactly who I am...the picture isn't what would clue you in.

I don't know if I'll leave it up. For now it says what I want it to.

Posted by: Z | Feb 23, 2005 3:02:50 PM

Jack... I agree that anonymity offers a degree of freedom of expression. The trade-of is the loss of real intimacy one has with his/her readers.

I don't know if I agree with that. I can still write about the most personal topics, and in fact I have posted about things that are incredibly personal and intimate. There are secrets on the blog that no one has heard me vocalize before.

My regular readers know an awful lot about me, although they may not realize it.

Posted by: Jack | Feb 24, 2005 9:43:32 AM

One of the great things about blogging (or any form of virtual communication) is that our message can be separate from the sender. People cannot usually weigh words apart from the speaker when they know various things about the speaker. I eventually outed myself on my blog, but for a long time I didn't want people to know if I was gay or straight, old or young, black or white. I wanted the words to speak for themselves, and let the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. If they didn't know I was straight or white, any pre-conceived notions they might have about straight white guys can't come into play.

So from my perspective, the value of my secrecy was not in the security (i.e. protection from weirdos), but it made the message have more weight.

I don't speak for Wierdos, but it seems they will be much more likely to be drawn to a person in reality (where you can't hide) than a virtual image.

Posted by: Jim | Feb 24, 2005 11:49:39 PM

Jim: So you're saying that you finally came out of the closet as a heterosexual white guy? Wow. Your courage is inspirational. I'd like to follow in your footsteps and let everyone know that I'm a heterosexual white guy too. [wiping a tear] Thanks for that.

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Feb 25, 2005 8:17:56 AM

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