Unpublish and Perish

Just to join in the frenzy, I’ll stake out my position on BoingBoing’s “unpublishing” of some of their posts.

Like many others commenting on the action, I think it’s a bad idea in general, and specifically the kind of bad idea that BoingBoing might criticize if it were some other kind of website doing it. It’s fine to take the Judge Dredd approach to enforcing norms on your own blog, but it’s a bit inconsistent when that same blog frequently praises the wisdom of (digitally native) crowds and celebrates online community and smart mobs.

The malleable character of online writing offers new tools and possibilities, some of which can become burdens. For example, how should a blogger handle grammatical or factual errors pointed out by readers? For small grammatical or spelling errors, I’ve often gone back and fixed the post but left the correction by a reader. For slightly bigger corrections, I may change the post content but post a note indicating a correction was made.

If I’m wrong in a more substantive way, however, in the nature of my interpretation or my thinking, that has to stay put. It’s up to me to fess up and talk about why I changed my mind if I think it’s an important change or mistake. The intertextual art of the link should extend across time as well as across contemporaneous writings.

It’s true that this poses some problems given that search engines often disembed their results from their context. Someone with the right search phrase could find one post I wrote in 2003 and misunderstand my general position on many topics, or not know that I had later corrected or apologized for some mistaken argument or claim. Given the bloggorheac wordpiles that even the tersest online writer can accumulate over five or six years, you can hardly expect a reader who discovers a blog through such a search to tackle the entirety of that blogger’s output.

So yes, this means if you promoted someone through lots of complimentary linkages in the past, you will in some ways forever be promoting them even if later on you profoundly regret having done so. This is no different than offline publication, however, where many writers and public figures over the centuries have had to live with a permanent record of soured friendships, disastrous romances, political follies and artistic failures.

If the mistake you made in the past is important enough that you must act on it, then you have to talk about it, speak to it. You also have to live with the consequences, whatever those might be. If it is trivial, then ignore it and get on with your current work and trust that time will clean up any lingering traces of your error. That goes for online and offline writing alike.

Postscript Catching up on the comments in that thread this morning. I have one additional response: Xeni Jardin and David Pescovitz repeatedly assert that BoingBoing is a personal blog, subject to their personal whims, pleasures and impulses. I think that’s a fine principle, and it is not countermanded by the popularity or influence of that blog or any other. It is, however, in very great tension with a repeated theme on BoingBoing, particularly in posts by Cory Doctorow, which is the importance of collectively-built “best practices” and norms governing online writing and digital culture. You could argue that this is just an extension of the personal, whim-driven concept behind BoingBoing: Xeni Jardin makes sexually edgy posts (and unposts), and Cory Doctorow argues on behalf of best practices and the ethics of Web 2.0 publishing and conversation. But the problem is that Cory often puts a very strong we behind his posting and rhetorically frames BoingBoing as a publication that stands with him. This is a good thing: he points the big cannon at well-deserving targets. But this is also precisely what is creating the problem. If BoingBoing were just Jardin linking to the latest futuristic dildo profiled on FleshBot and Peskovitz reporting that Sasquatch might have been seen in a shopping mall in Moosejaw yesterday, I think whimsical acts of unpublishing would be less of an issue.

Further postscript(July 8). I’m really surprised at some of the arguments being made by people I have high regard for in defense of BoingBoing. Look, this is not a supreme outrage. BoingBoing didn’t take any money from me or anyone else. I like the site, I think Cory’s advocacy is incredibly important (and his fiction excellent), I think Teresa Nielsen Hayden is normally the Moderator General whose excellence in discussion management is synonymous with best practices, I think Patrick Nielsen Hayden is one of the smartest, most tough-minded and fair-minded people writing and talking on the Internets. But precisely because it’s not that big a deal, it shouldn’t be a big deal for the folks involved to say, “Ok, that was not such a good idea. We can’t really talk about what motivated this decision in the first place, but we hear you and we’ll avoid doing this in the future.” It shouldn’t be too tough for people who are basically sympathetic to BoingBoing to say, [jason bateman voice] Not okay[/jason]. Instead, TNH approached moderating the BoingBoing thread in question roughly like Huxley approached defending Darwin against his critics, and PNH over at Making Light made a really weird formal distinction between criticizing public institutions and editing a private blog, as if Cory always observes that same distinction and never ever makes arguments about best practices and ethical behavior in online writing and digital culture that are meant to apply to privately run blogs or organizations. Much of this runs counter to the good advice that all the parties involved have given to many other institutions and private authors caught up in online controversy. If it’s possible for others to follow that advice (if it weren’t possible, why give it?) then it should be possible for the people who usually have given the advice to follow it.

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3 Responses to Unpublish and Perish

  1. Alan Jacobs says:

    Tim, I think the key point you make here is that this is just the kind of action that BoingBoing hammers when someone else does it. It’s true, of course, that it’s their blog and they can do what they want but if that’s the principle that they’re acting on, then they can scarcely raise a ruckus when other people do just the same. (Didn’t Kant have something to say about this?)

    I think this may be what you’re saying in your last pre-update paragraph, but: what bothers me about their action is not the unpublishing itself, but the covert nature of it they were clearly hoping that no one would notice. If Violet Blue hadn’t raised a “shitstorm” then, it seems, they never would have acknowledged the unpublishing. Yes, announcing and explaining the unpublishing would have drawn attention to Violet Blue, which is precisely what they didn’t want to do but that’s what they’ve accomplished anyway, haven’t they? Being upfront about it would have quieted (if not eliminated) the shitstorm, and would have shown that BoingBoing is willing to follow the standards it expects of others.

    Or they could have just ignored the whole situation. Isn’t silence towards trolls or other obnoxious people the best general policy on the internet anyway, where so many people just want attention, no matter how they get it?

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    My thought is that whatever it is that VB did that changed Xeni Jardin’s views of her, ignoring it would have been best, which means leaving the old posts alone. If Xeni misjudged VB in some respect, well, live and learn and be a bit more careful next time about promoting someone enthusiastically through the blog. If you take the step to unpublish, you’re acting. If you’re acting, you might as well say so when you do.

  3. gbruno says:

    That’s the WWW. The better implementation of memory holes.

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