SAN DIEGO — Suffering from "pure boredom" while working as a features writer for a North Carolina newspaper, Rachel Mosteller began keeping an online journal. Anonymously, with names changed to protect the guilty, she chronicled the people who inhabit just about any newsroom - the foul-mouthed female reporter, the chubby sportswriter, the co-worker who hoards the free books sent in by publishers seeking reviews.
But her blog, called the "Sarcastic Journalist," didn't stay secret for long. Her bosses found out last year, and Ms. Mosteller, eight months pregnant at the time, promptly found herself sacked.
She learned a valuable lesson: If you have a job, blog at your own risk - "unless you're writing recipes and about how much you love puppies and kittens," Ms. Mosteller says.
Other blogging employees have followed her into the unemployment line. San Francisco freelance journalist Curt Hopkins has documented more than 20 cases of bloggers who claim they were fired because of their online activities.
In one high-profile case, a flight attendant claims that Delta sacked her last year after she posted sexy photos of herself in her uniform on her blog. In another case, the social networking website Friendster reportedly fired an employee after she discussed the company's technical problems online. In December, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch features writer left his position after bosses discovered that his blogging alter-ego, complete with fake name, had been commenting on the newspaper's stories in less than flattering terms.
Last month, the Society for Human Resource Management surveyed 279 human resources professionals and found that 3 percent had disciplined employee bloggers. While the firings are "certainly not an epidemic," employers need to deal with blogging, says Mr. Hopkins, who runs a blog himself. "It's too easy to do, it's too fun to do, it's too rewarding to do. People will keep doing it."
While awareness of blogs has grown, their existence is still news to many employers. A lack of written policies - along with the nation's murky laws about employee rights and privacy - could make blog-related job termination a bit dicey.
So what is a blog anyway? The word may intimidate the technologically challenged, but it's a pretty simple thing: a "web log." Armed with access to the Internet, just about any computer user can create an online journal, adding entries at will; the most prolific bloggers update their blogs every few hours or minutes.
An estimated 8 million American adults have blogs, and more than a quarter of Internet users read them, according to two November surveys by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Nevertheless, 62 percent of users surveyed still don't know what a blog is.
There are often no rules in the "blogosphere." Blogs can be fictional or anonymous, or both. They can spout opinions about politics or television, religion or pets; many act as miniclipping services, providing links to a wide variety of news articles or even other blogs. Often, the sites allow visitors to post messages in responses to posts.
"It's like having a diary that talks back to you," Mosteller says. Indeed, some blogs take on the confessional flavor of a diary: A young congressional aide named Jessica Cutler was fired last year after anonymously blogging about her supposed sexual conquests among Washington's halls of power. Ms. Cutler, who calls herself "The Washingtonienne," now has a book deal.
Ideally, bloggers would get permission from their employers before hitting the keyboard, says Sandra Gainey, personnel director at The Herald-Sun newspaper in Durham, N.C., which employed Mosteller until 2004.
"There can easily be a conflict of interest. For the protection of both the company and its employees, as well as the blogger, there should be full disclosure," says Ms. Gainey, who declined to discuss Mosteller's case specifically. "I see that blogs serve a purpose, but oftentimes they harm others if not carefully monitored."
Of course, part of the fun of blogs is that they can be anonymous. "I had a lot of funny things happen and just wanted to talk to people and get to be something besides a reporter," says Mosteller, who still doesn't know how her identity was uncovered.
Some states go out of their way to protect employees from getting fired for things they do outside the workplace. Depending on where they live, workers may smoke tobacco, drink alcohol, gamble, run for public office, or use marijuana for medicinal purposes - all without fear of a pink slip.
As for free speech, government employees and union members may have special protections, and some states - including California and Washington - strictly protect the privacy of workers.
"The rules vary widely," says Lea VanderVelde, a professor at the University of Iowa College of Law. But "it's clear that if [employees] write about issues related to their employment that might reflect upon their employer, they get very little protection in the courts."
What to do if you've still got the itch to blog? "My own personal advice is to live your dream," Ms. VanderVelde says. "But don't be surprised if you're fired."