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Blogging: It’s a Matter of Trust

by Carolyn Elefant on December 14, 2009 · 34 comments

in Blogging, Marketing Ethics, Websites and Blogs

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Call me old fashioned, but I believe that my word is my bond, something that you can trust.  My blog is comprised of many, many words, all of which form a trusted bond with my audience and other bloggers.   I worked hard to establish this trust and I take it seriously, as do most legitimate bloggers.  We know that if we are dishonest with readers, we betray their trust and degrade the institution of blogging.  Moreover, as lawyers, we have an added ethics obligations to portray ourselves honestly.

Now that I’ve explained my perspective, perhaps you’ll understand why I’m so upset about the recent revelation by prominent copywriter blogger James Chartrand, the so-called front man at Men With Pens, that “he” is really a “she.”  As Chartrand explains over at Copyblogger, she created a male persona because as a woman, she faced so much gender bias that she couldn’t earn enough to support her family.  But as a male, Chartrand found the financial success that eluded her as a female.

So what’s wrong with this picture?  Well, nothing, except if you consider that Chartrand used her blog to preach the importance of transparency at posts like this or this.  Yet, Chartrand apparently didn’t believe that the rules of transparency applied to her.

Even worse,  Chartrand didn’t simply omit information about her identity – for example, by hiding her gender behind an ambiguous name, ala JK Rowling or SE Hinton or a cloak of anonymity.  Anonymity signals to readers that the blogger is trying to avoid disclosure but in many sensitive situations (for example, like that of Gideon, the public defender blogger or when David Lat blogged at Underneath Their Robes), it may be the only option, and readers can respect that choice.

But Chartrand did more than simply leave out information about her personal life or use a fake name.  Instead, she intentionally created a completely false persona.  Chartrand called herself a front man for her all male company, and described herself several times as a dad.  She dissed mommy bloggers for being intolerant when she (then posing as he) “risked [her] balls” to comment in their online fora.  She concocted a bogus excuse for not putting a photo of herself on the site.  Even taking at face value Chartrand’s contention that her kids would have starved if she didn’t pose as a male (and it’s hard for me to take anything that this blogger says at face value anymore), there were many other less offensive ways that Chartrand could have kept her gender hidden without creating an entirely fake facade.

To Chartrand’s credit, she’s built up enough of a fan base that her flock has either applauded or forgiven her.  As for me, I’d have reservations about hiring a service provider who’s not been honest on her blog.  I’m a lawyer and even an inadvertent ethics related misjudgment could put my license on the line.  There are already too many seemingly legitimate lawyer marketing scams and schemes to get lawyers into trouble.  So why take a chance on working with someone who’s demonstrated a willingness to cut corners on the truth just to make a buck?   [edit –  I might change my views on Chartrand down the line because I don’t believe that one error of judgment should doom one’s career permanently.  But rebuilding my trust will take time, especially when Chartrand does not even express any remorse about misleading readers].

Let’s just be clear about one thing, though.  The reason that I wouldn’t hire James Chartrand has nothing to do with gender, and everything to do with lack of transparency.  As Kevin O’Keefe says here, lawyers need to know whether a prospective blog or social media consultant whether they walk the walk.  In this situation, if the only way that a copywriter can figure out how to sell services is by being dishonest, well, then, that’s probably not the kind of person I want to work with.   As a female lawyer, I don’t have the luxury of pretending to be a guy to generate business – unless I want to lose my license.

Some might argue that one’s gender or identity isn’t material to the substance of the blog or the product that one can produce.  I disagree, for several reasons.  First, when it comes to truth-in-blogging, a bright line test is critical because otherwise the line will keep moving.  If we say that it’s alright to create a false persona around something like looks or gender, does that mean that it’s alright to lie about our credentials?  Can we claim that we handled cases that we didn’t?  Create war stories about glory days in court that never happened?  At what point do lies completely destroy a blog’s credibility? .

If this were just a story about a single blogger or a service provider, I could let it pass.  But it speaks to a bigger lesson:  the obligation that we bloggers owe our readers.   Blogging gives us a powerful tool – the ability to create an authentic image online and to build trusted relationships with readers that they don’t have with other forms of media.  When we betray that trust, we ruin our relationship with readers and open ourselves up to increased regulation (as the FTC is already doing with recently announced policy on blogger endorsements).  At the end of the day, blogging is a matter of trust.  Those bloggers who aren’t willing to honor the trust with our readers, shouldn’t be calling themselves bloggers.  Marketers, advertisers or hucksters, perhaps.  But not bloggers.

[note – last 3 paragraphs modified, 12/15/09, 8:15 am]

  • http://www.brucegodfrey.com Bruce

    With you on this.
    Among the horde of left-wing political bloggers whom I read, the best counter-example to Men With Pens’ explicit subterfuge is Digby, who sxcrupulously kept her gender hidden (and famously stirred speculation) while her fame grew until “outing” herself at a convention of bloggers. Digby was before her outing and after recognized as such a strong voice that many bloggers on the left simply cite her/link to her with the phrase “What Digby said.”
    Feminist advocates should note that Chartrand was not merely coping with patriarchy but was advocating for it/reinforcing in her comments and posts under false flag. I am prepared to believe that women bloggers face considerable discrimination but she was in her conduct participating in it, not merely surviving it. I can also think of a great many bloggers who are women, out as women and are leaders in their market segments (e.g. Michelle Malkin from the Right, Gina Trapani of LifeHacker, the women who own and run FireDogLake, etc.)

  • http://www.brucegodfrey.com Bruce

    With you on this.
    Among the horde of left-wing political bloggers whom I read, the best counter-example to Men With Pens’ explicit subterfuge is Digby, who sxcrupulously kept her gender hidden (and famously stirred speculation) while her fame grew until “outing” herself at a convention of bloggers. Digby was before her outing and after recognized as such a strong voice that many bloggers on the left simply cite her/link to her with the phrase “What Digby said.”
    Feminist advocates should note that Chartrand was not merely coping with patriarchy but was advocating for it/reinforcing in her comments and posts under false flag. I am prepared to believe that women bloggers face considerable discrimination but she was in her conduct participating in it, not merely surviving it. I can also think of a great many bloggers who are women, out as women and are leaders in their market segments (e.g. Michelle Malkin from the Right, Gina Trapani of LifeHacker, the women who own and run FireDogLake, etc.)

  • http://www.jerseyestateplanning.com Victor Medina

    Absolutely dead-on Carolyn – as usual. The moment we decide to lie for a buck, we might as well leave our reputation on the doorstep. You’re not entitled to it back. I’d rather be broke and respected, than rich and reviled.
    Thanks for taking the time to find all of those links. The mark of a true lawyer with all of that research and diligence.
    Victor

  • http://www.jerseyestateplanning.com Victor Medina

    Absolutely dead-on Carolyn – as usual. The moment we decide to lie for a buck, we might as well leave our reputation on the doorstep. You’re not entitled to it back. I’d rather be broke and respected, than rich and reviled.
    Thanks for taking the time to find all of those links. The mark of a true lawyer with all of that research and diligence.
    Victor

  • http://67.225.230.212/~sh1ngl3 Carolyn Elefant

    Bruce – Thanks for so many examples of women who aren’t afraid to air strong opinions.
    Victor – Your reputation speaks for itself. If it didn’t, I would not have promoted the MILO conference here. Thanks for stopping by to comment.

  • http://67.225.230.212/~sh1ngl3 Carolyn Elefant

    Bruce – Thanks for so many examples of women who aren’t afraid to air strong opinions.
    Victor – Your reputation speaks for itself. If it didn’t, I would not have promoted the MILO conference here. Thanks for stopping by to comment.

  • http://napkindad.blogspot.com The Napkin Dad

    I wouldn’t go so far as to not trust her in giving me a product I hired her to deliver. But I would think twice about trust if I was in a more personal relationship with her.
    I am not really sure omission of information is any different than a lie. If, for example, if my wife spends a lot of money on something she knows isn’t wise, but doesn’t tell me about it, is that any different than if she asks me if I used disinfectant when cleaning the counter and I tell her yes I did when in fact I did not. One is an omission of information, the other is telling something that isn’t true. Is one more consequential simply because it is verbal? Or is an omission sometimes even more destructive and thus the ‘bigger’ lie?

  • http://napkindad.blogspot.com The Napkin Dad

    I wouldn’t go so far as to not trust her in giving me a product I hired her to deliver. But I would think twice about trust if I was in a more personal relationship with her.
    I am not really sure omission of information is any different than a lie. If, for example, if my wife spends a lot of money on something she knows isn’t wise, but doesn’t tell me about it, is that any different than if she asks me if I used disinfectant when cleaning the counter and I tell her yes I did when in fact I did not. One is an omission of information, the other is telling something that isn’t true. Is one more consequential simply because it is verbal? Or is an omission sometimes even more destructive and thus the ‘bigger’ lie?

  • http://www.blog.legaltypist.com Andrea Cannavina

    I completely agree – James did not just neglect to tell us he was a she – SHE intentionally used words and described situations to reinforce the lie.
    I completely agree – James did not just neglect to tell us he was a she – SHE intentionally used words and described situations to reinforce the lie.
    This was no “I need to feed my kids” – this was a well thought out and executed plan to deceive and make profit from that deception.
    It’s a shame because obviously she has talent.
    Now what of the others who were ‘in the know’? Can we trust them?

  • http://www.blog.legaltypist.com Andrea Cannavina

    I completely agree – James did not just neglect to tell us he was a she – SHE intentionally used words and described situations to reinforce the lie.
    I completely agree – James did not just neglect to tell us he was a she – SHE intentionally used words and described situations to reinforce the lie.
    This was no “I need to feed my kids” – this was a well thought out and executed plan to deceive and make profit from that deception.
    It’s a shame because obviously she has talent.
    Now what of the others who were ‘in the know’? Can we trust them?

  • Karen Swim

    Carolyn, I was reading through the Copyblogger comments and surprised that no one raised the exact questions you did. The issues raised were troubling on a number of fronts for me too, many of which you addressed. Thank you for your honesty.

  • Karen Swim

    Carolyn, I was reading through the Copyblogger comments and surprised that no one raised the exact questions you did. The issues raised were troubling on a number of fronts for me too, many of which you addressed. Thank you for your honesty.

  • Guest

    Hi Carolyn,
    You present a strong case against ‘James”.
    On the other hand, as you may have read (comment No. 418), in James’ defence, I wrote:
    “The image I project – a landscape designer with a strong sense of aesthetics and a passion for biodiversity and conservation – is consistent with my true identity. It’s not a deceit or gimmick. It’s who I am and what I believe in.
    “The image James projects – a skilled, reliable, informative writer with a strong work ethic – is consistent with James’ true identity. It’s not a deceit or gimmick. As far as I’m aware, it’s who James is and what James believes in.
    “Does anyone have a problem with that?”
    One could argue that gender is irrelevant to the content of James’ writings.
    An interesting topic for a TV debate: The Carolyn Elefant team v. the James Chartrand team.
    How about it?

  • http://www.ilda.com.au Gordon Rowland

    Hi Carolyn,
    You present a strong case against ‘James”.
    On the other hand, as you may have read (comment No. 418), in James’ defence, I wrote:
    “The image I project – a landscape designer with a strong sense of aesthetics and a passion for biodiversity and conservation – is consistent with my true identity. It’s not a deceit or gimmick. It’s who I am and what I believe in.
    “The image James projects – a skilled, reliable, informative writer with a strong work ethic – is consistent with James’ true identity. It’s not a deceit or gimmick. As far as I’m aware, it’s who James is and what James believes in.
    “Does anyone have a problem with that?”
    One could argue that gender is irrelevant to the content of James’ writings.
    An interesting topic for a TV debate: The Carolyn Elefant team v. the James Chartrand team.
    How about it?

  • Johanna Hoffmann

    Establishing relationships with people is the basis of social media and trust is inherent in any good relationship. Deceit shatters trust and, while many defend or excuse James Chartrand, as a serious/important blogger her brand is now tainted.
    She didn’t just adopt a male handle; she went far beyond what was necessary to establish a different persona. In doing so she crossed the line from acting in a misguided but perhaps understandable manner, into the realm of arrogant deceit. Her blog title says it all: she could have gone for a witty, innocuous heading, but chose instead a name that flaunted her deceitful edge; now all she has is a constant reminder of her dishonesty.
    Will she rebrand? How about ‘Penitents with Pens’?

  • Johanna Hoffmann

    Establishing relationships with people is the basis of social media and trust is inherent in any good relationship. Deceit shatters trust and, while many defend or excuse James Chartrand, as a serious/important blogger her brand is now tainted.
    She didn’t just adopt a male handle; she went far beyond what was necessary to establish a different persona. In doing so she crossed the line from acting in a misguided but perhaps understandable manner, into the realm of arrogant deceit. Her blog title says it all: she could have gone for a witty, innocuous heading, but chose instead a name that flaunted her deceitful edge; now all she has is a constant reminder of her dishonesty.
    Will she rebrand? How about ‘Penitents with Pens’?

  • http://geekmommy.net Lucretia Pruitt

    A very thought-provoking post Carolyn – thanks for writing it.
    I can’t really be counted among the “flock” that has forgiven, as I knew of but never read MWP nor had any relationship with “James”.
    But I have come up against the gender bias in *every* field I’ve ever worked in (quite a few, I’m a self-professed dilettante.) My sympathy with “James” lies in the disgust that our society is no further along in eliminating sexism than it was when I got my first job 27 years ago.
    I’m going to think hard about this – but I appreciate your expounding on your comments on copyblogger with this post. Until I read it, I was unclear on why you were feeling so betrayed. Now, it makes much more sense.
    Again, thanks.

  • http://geekmommy.net Lucretia Pruitt

    A very thought-provoking post Carolyn – thanks for writing it.
    I can’t really be counted among the “flock” that has forgiven, as I knew of but never read MWP nor had any relationship with “James”.
    But I have come up against the gender bias in *every* field I’ve ever worked in (quite a few, I’m a self-professed dilettante.) My sympathy with “James” lies in the disgust that our society is no further along in eliminating sexism than it was when I got my first job 27 years ago.
    I’m going to think hard about this – but I appreciate your expounding on your comments on copyblogger with this post. Until I read it, I was unclear on why you were feeling so betrayed. Now, it makes much more sense.
    Again, thanks.

  • http://www.twitter.com/VBalasubramani Venkat

    I echo everyone’s comments – I enjoyed reading this post!

  • http://www.twitter.com/VBalasubramani Venkat

    I echo everyone’s comments – I enjoyed reading this post!

  • George Brock-Nannestad

    Thank you for promoting openness and responsibility in providing professional comment.
    The best example of hiding your identity we have at present in professional patent circles in Europe is the case of the purported Mr. Armand Grinstajn who runs what appears to be a very much respected blog ‘K’s Law’ (address:
    http://k-slaw.blogspot.com/).
    When the person started it in September 2009, the profile read:
    “I am a European patent attorney and have also passed the French qualification examination. I am practising in the IP department of a major French company”
    On 28 October the profile was suddenly changed to:
    “I am not interesting but I hope my blog is. Have a good time.”
    This may have been provoked by the following comment on the IPKat blog:
    “Anonymous said…
    Armand Grinstajn said…
    You might have added a fifth option : “None of them.” (which, by the way, is the most likely outcome of Friday’s vote)
    — well, at least Ms. Sivborg is an EPI member, whereas Mr. Grinstajn is not, despite his claiming to be one on his own website.
    Or, perhaps EPI is wrong on both counts?
    Tuesday, October 27, 2009 12:16:00 PM”
    I have checked the online EPI register (where e.g. I may be found), and it is quite true: Armand Grinstajn is not on the official (and complete) list of professional representatives; compulsory members of the European Patent Institute.
    Other blogs on patent matters bring the name of the person responsible, and it does bring a sense of trust. Why use such a transparent lie?
    There may be a number of reasons why the person does not wish to be identified, one of which could be that his/her employer does not wish this publicity.
    One way out would be to solicit appreciations from the community that regards the blog as interesting and inspiring so that the person could approach his/her management in order to obtain permission to come out of the closet – and actually advertise the quality of the company. Alternatively I see no other way than to change jobs.
    Kind regards!

  • George Brock-Nannestad

    Thank you for promoting openness and responsibility in providing professional comment.
    The best example of hiding your identity we have at present in professional patent circles in Europe is the case of the purported Mr. Armand Grinstajn who runs what appears to be a very much respected blog ‘K’s Law’ (address:
    http://k-slaw.blogspot.com/).
    When the person started it in September 2009, the profile read:
    “I am a European patent attorney and have also passed the French qualification examination. I am practising in the IP department of a major French company”
    On 28 October the profile was suddenly changed to:
    “I am not interesting but I hope my blog is. Have a good time.”
    This may have been provoked by the following comment on the IPKat blog:
    “Anonymous said…
    Armand Grinstajn said…
    You might have added a fifth option : “None of them.” (which, by the way, is the most likely outcome of Friday’s vote)
    — well, at least Ms. Sivborg is an EPI member, whereas Mr. Grinstajn is not, despite his claiming to be one on his own website.
    Or, perhaps EPI is wrong on both counts?
    Tuesday, October 27, 2009 12:16:00 PM”
    I have checked the online EPI register (where e.g. I may be found), and it is quite true: Armand Grinstajn is not on the official (and complete) list of professional representatives; compulsory members of the European Patent Institute.
    Other blogs on patent matters bring the name of the person responsible, and it does bring a sense of trust. Why use such a transparent lie?
    There may be a number of reasons why the person does not wish to be identified, one of which could be that his/her employer does not wish this publicity.
    One way out would be to solicit appreciations from the community that regards the blog as interesting and inspiring so that the person could approach his/her management in order to obtain permission to come out of the closet – and actually advertise the quality of the company. Alternatively I see no other way than to change jobs.
    Kind regards!

  • Nina Bedford

    Hi Carolyn, I’ve been following this story with interest and you raise some interesting points -particularly the one on transparency.
    Maybe if Chartrand wants to gain back the trust of her community, she will begin using her real name on her blog.
    Another article I read suggested that she is hiding her real name to protect another business interest.
    It strikes me as odd that she would need to do that, unless her other business is unethical, or she has been breaching the new FTC regulations in some way.
    I would feel a whole lot more comfortable with the whole issue, if Chartrand had really come clean.

  • Nina Bedford

    Hi Carolyn, I’ve been following this story with interest and you raise some interesting points -particularly the one on transparency.
    Maybe if Chartrand wants to gain back the trust of her community, she will begin using her real name on her blog.
    Another article I read suggested that she is hiding her real name to protect another business interest.
    It strikes me as odd that she would need to do that, unless her other business is unethical, or she has been breaching the new FTC regulations in some way.
    I would feel a whole lot more comfortable with the whole issue, if Chartrand had really come clean.

  • Mark Brennan

    Your feelings on this subject are quite valid, and thoughtfully expressed. For my part, I find this rather innocent deceit much less disturbing than I do the common failure of most bloggers to conform to sound journalistic standards by getting both sides of a story, confirming sources, and otherwise meeting basic standards of fairness that limit the dissemination of misleading or false information about their subjects. I have also found from personal experience that many bloggers, like many journalists, maintain the appearance of objectivity even while they are little better than mouthpieces for an undisclosed political or legal entity or agenda. That is why, although the internet provides a means of expression and publication not long ago unavailable to the ordinary man or woman, the passing from the public arena of great newspapers published in accordance with rigorous journalistic standards is a serious loss to public discourse.

  • Mark Brennan

    Your feelings on this subject are quite valid, and thoughtfully expressed. For my part, I find this rather innocent deceit much less disturbing than I do the common failure of most bloggers to conform to sound journalistic standards by getting both sides of a story, confirming sources, and otherwise meeting basic standards of fairness that limit the dissemination of misleading or false information about their subjects. I have also found from personal experience that many bloggers, like many journalists, maintain the appearance of objectivity even while they are little better than mouthpieces for an undisclosed political or legal entity or agenda. That is why, although the internet provides a means of expression and publication not long ago unavailable to the ordinary man or woman, the passing from the public arena of great newspapers published in accordance with rigorous journalistic standards is a serious loss to public discourse.

  • http://www.sanantonioemploymentlawblog.com Tom Crane

    Sorry, but having read her mea culpa, I find her story sympathetic. Not sure I can accept that a name could make such a difference, but if it did make such a difference and I had kids to support, I might have made the same decision….

  • http://www.sanantonioemploymentlawblog.com Tom Crane

    Sorry, but having read her mea culpa, I find her story sympathetic. Not sure I can accept that a name could make such a difference, but if it did make such a difference and I had kids to support, I might have made the same decision….

  • http://lifeatthebar.com Julie A. Fleming

    On one hand, I can understand her decision and even the lengths she went to to continue the charade. She created a brand for herself, and she kept that brand pure. It’s possible that nothing else she posted was a lie–all of her opinions could still be true to her beliefs, and it makes sense that if she’s pretending to be male that she would call herself a dad rather than a mom.
    Still, it does call into question her integrity. If she’s so willing to lie, and create such in depth lies, about one area of her life, what reason do we have to believe that she hasn’t lied or wouldn’t be willing to lie about others? She could have lied about how much experience or education she has, because that too would make it easier for her to find work. And if she’s blogged about the importance of transparency while outright lying about herself, then I have to question all of her claims. Are they really her beliefs or is she just trying to gain support by posting popular concepts?

  • http://lifeatthebar.com Julie A. Fleming

    On one hand, I can understand her decision and even the lengths she went to to continue the charade. She created a brand for herself, and she kept that brand pure. It’s possible that nothing else she posted was a lie–all of her opinions could still be true to her beliefs, and it makes sense that if she’s pretending to be male that she would call herself a dad rather than a mom.
    Still, it does call into question her integrity. If she’s so willing to lie, and create such in depth lies, about one area of her life, what reason do we have to believe that she hasn’t lied or wouldn’t be willing to lie about others? She could have lied about how much experience or education she has, because that too would make it easier for her to find work. And if she’s blogged about the importance of transparency while outright lying about herself, then I have to question all of her claims. Are they really her beliefs or is she just trying to gain support by posting popular concepts?

  • http://www.attorneydisabilityinsurance.com Disability Insurance

    I agree with Nina. Coming clean would have changed everything.

  • http://www.attorneydisabilityinsurance.com Disability Insurance

    I agree with Nina. Coming clean would have changed everything.

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