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Privacy in Blogdom

March 24th, 2011

Privacy is a big topic on campus these days. I think the biggest issue is that we don’t know what we don’t know… and maybe we didn’t know to ask.

Currently having a brainsplotion around the “reality” of privacy on this very blog system. I realize that I don’t know everything I need to know, to fully understand how our information is protected (or isn’t).

I thought we were covering our bases with the privacy settings plugin applied to the blog site.  The users could choose from a number of options, of which these three are most widely used: making the blog visible to everyone (including search engines); block search engines, but allow normal visitors; and registered subscribers. There are pros and cons to all of the settings, but it felt like we had offered the public everything they may need to protect themselves.

Is this, in fact, true?

Exhibit A – a user who had set their blog to not allow search engines wonders why their blog comes up when Googling.

Some thought was given to the way the blog was set up. In addition to the student blogs, the instructor has an ‘aggregator’ blog that pulls in the posts from all of the students’ blogs. That means the students’ posts not only post to their own blogs, but they post to the ‘aggregator’ blog as well. It was realized that the instructor’s aggregator didn’t have the same search engine blocking setting.

Once the instructor made this change, the problem was solved, right? Not exactly.

For some reason, we could still find this student’s ‘Author archive’ page on the aggregator blog just by Googling. What’s going on here?

Exhibit B – a randomly chosen group of other student blogs from the same course, that we used to try and replicate the Google results.

At a glance, we didn’t see any search results that led to the student blogs, or to their posts/author page on the aggregator blog.

A few thoughts, after comparing A and B:

  • I don’t totally understand how search engines work, so I’m not sure how you can block one from finding a public site in the first place
  • I don’t know how long search results are cached – are we seeing an ‘old’ search result, from before the privacy settings were changed on the blog? (I’ve experienced things that make me think that this IS the case – I often find search results that are outdated)

Add a few more things to the list of things I need to learn in order to better understand this world I administer.

Exhibit C – one last student blog from the same course, whose Google results did not include a link directly to the blog or the aggregate blog but DID include a link to a page that would lead directly back to the student blog.

Part of the blogging assignment was to write about a professional blog, and link to it. Many blogs – including the one that this student linked to – use trackbacks or pingbacks to alert the blog owner (and often its readers) that a post was referred to from another blog. Often the trackbacks and pingbacks are included on the post that was linked to, with a link back to the blog that made the referal,  This can be useful in growing communities and discussions, and is a really important part of the blogging experience. What you may not consider, however, is that a link to a non-searchable blog has now been posted on a searchable one. Whether your blog is set to not allow search engines is now irrelevant, because your blog can be found by Googling anyway.

What can we do? We all want to be able to protect the students’ privacy, but you can’t learn to blog effectively from inside a bubble.

If you’re just looking to give the students a basic weekly writing assignment, maybe the blog tool in Blackboard would be a better (read: “more private”) option. If your goal is to offer the students a “real-world” blogging experience, the students will need to understand the public nature of blogging. To me, it seems like a good learning opportunity for them… but I do realize that there are other layers to the privacy issue that I may not be taking into account.

Nevermind the students, it looks like this is a learning opportunity for me. Stay tuned.