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Eric: Sing a Song of Boing Boing: A Cautionary Tale

In March of 2006, I wrote an essay for this very site called Channel Markers. We were seeing an uptick in webcomics related blogging around then, and I wanted to give what benefit of experience I could to new folks leaping into the fray. I'm actually pretty happy with that essay even today -- I think it has some basic truths that can be the difference between having a moderately stressful blogging experience and having your head explode. I do not have any hints that lead to a stress-free blogging experience, at least if you're actually going to expound on things instead of simply discuss the disposition of your pets.

Not that there's anything wrong with discussing the disposition of your pets, mind. My cat Sarah is currently standing on the stove, eating some of her food, which she took carefully out of her bowl, moved to the stove, set down on the stove and started eating. This can't possibly end well, and I'm relatively certain she's insane. But I digress.

Anyway, "Channel Markers" was well received, and even today I hear from folks who say they liked it or got some value out of it. That's very cool. And they often cite the points they felt were most valuable to them -- points about etiquette, or not arguing on other peoples' fora, or being prepared for no one to comment.

There's one point, however, that almost never gets mentioned when people contact me, and that's sad because I think it's one of the most important ones. I reprint it here for purposes of convenience, bit by bit.

And while we're at it, we're going to talk about Boing Boing.

Don't try to rewrite history. Look, we make mistakes. We all do. Sometimes we post an essay and we get stuff wrong in it. Sometimes that stuff makes the whole essay wrong. Sometimes, we put up an essay innocently and it turns into a firestorm of controversy we never meant. Sometimes, we find ourselves in a crucible on all sides.

The temptation is to go back. Revise. Reword what we said. Take the essay down entirely.

It is never a good idea. Ever.

Boing Boing is one of the largest of blogs on the Internet. It is startlingly good at what it does -- which is point out things that they find "wonderful" (or as often terrible). Some very bright people write about some very cool things, from copyright and intellectual property issues to comic books to sex. It has iconoclasts like Cory Doctorow and Xeni Jardin. One of the best editors in Science Fiction (and best bloggers out there in her own right), Teresa Nielsen Hayden, is their moderator. The likelihood that you're reading this pissant thing and don't know about Boing Boing is trivial.

Well, Boing Boing wrote a few posts about a specific subject. What the subject is doesn't really matter to my post, so let's call it Method® brand Lemon Ginger All-Floor Cleaner. Which is not what it was about, but that's sitting on the sink next to the stove where the cat has moved some of her food so she can eat it, so it'll do for these purposes. These posts on Method® brand Lemon Ginger All-Floor Cleaner were done over time, and reflected interesting or controversial things that Method® brand Lemon Ginger All-Floor Cleaner were involved with, and Boing Boing wanted to write about it at the time.

Well. Over time, the good people at Boing Boing started to see Method® brand Lemon Ginger All-Floor Cleaner differently. They didn't like it as much, and they felt that some of its media tie-ins and statements made in its name weren't things they wanted a tangential connection to. They were afraid, among other things, that their posts about Method® brand Lemon Ginger All-Floor Cleaner in the past would be seen as tacit endorsement of Method® brand Lemon Ginger All-Floor Cleaner now, and that was something they didn't want to happen.

So, about a year ago, they quietly decided to "unpublish" their Method® brand Lemon Ginger All-Floor Cleaner related posts.

In other words, they took them down.

For better or for worse, we live in an ephemeral medium. It's dirt simple to pull down posts, delete comments, go through and re-edit after the fact. One of the truisms of creative writing is "writing is rewriting," and it's so simple to go ahead and edit edit edit.

The problem is, people have responded to what you wrote. If you go and change what they responded to, they're going to remember that fact. Even if you have the best of intentions, any editing or rewriting you do is going to come across as self-serving -- an unwillingness to admit to your mistakes. An attempt to make the record show you made no mistakes, so your critics must be wrong.

Have you ever seen the glee someone takes in posting a Google Cache copy of an original post you've since changed? It's particularly savage glee. And boom -- you have no credibility left. At all. In anything. Congratulations. You have just been demoted to punkass bitch.

Let's make one thing clear right now. Boing Boing did not commit censorship. Not in any way, shape or form. And those folks who claim they did are wrong, and look a little stupid. If the government (federal, state, county, local, shire or other) didn't force Boing Boing to delete all references to Method® brand Lemon Ginger All-Floor Cleaner, it's not censorship. Those posts were made by Boing Boing writers and published on Boing Boing servers using Boing Boing content management systems that distributed them via Boing Boing HTML, RSS and ATOM feeds. Boing Boing owns the hardware and the software that's on their machines. Boing Boing has the right to publish or not publish anything they darn well feel like on their servers. They released their content long ago, using a Creative Commons license (link is to Boing Boing's CC license and should not be construed as the CC license Websnark itself releases its content under -- my own CC license information can be found on the main page in the sidebar) so they can't stop others from republishing it on their own blogs so long as the license terms are followed, but that license doesn't force Boing Boing to leave that content where it can be seen. They have the right to take down any essay they like. Period.

Everyone got that?

Good. Let's move on.

The problem is not that Boing Boing did something wrong. It's not that Boing Boing has tacitly or explicitly rebuked Method® brand Lemon Ginger All-Floor Cleaner. It's not that Boing Boing has done anything actionable.

The problem is one of credibility.

Credibility is coin of the realm in blog terms. There is nothing more important to a blog. Blogs can have or lose popularity and they'll weather it, whether 30 people read it or 3 million people read it. But that blog is only as good as people think it is, and when you take down posts -- regardless of the reasons why -- you end up losing credibility when you get caught at it.

When a significant portion of your blog is devoted to questions of intellectual property, actual censorship on the web, ways to circumvent filters or other blocks on the material and in general being a passionate warrior in the fight for online rights and free access to information, the loss of credibility you suffer for deleting posts (especially without warning) is significant, because you can be seen as blocking access to information -- of trying to change history and the record. It doesn't matter if that's not what you meant. It doesn't matter if (as Nielson Hayden indicated in her post on this fracas) the information is buried somewhere in the Internet Wayback Machine on archive.org. You now come across as one of the people blocking the free flow of information.

In other words, you come across as a hypocrite.

And that's not ever a good thing.

And then, there's the deleted post. Or comment. Or whatever. You know the one. You made a mistake. You took a ton of heat for it. A controversy has brewed. It's not what you meant, at all. So you pull the post down. Maybe you post an apology as well, but you get the mistake out of the record.

Well. The people who hated your post don't forget it because you deleted it. They remember it. Only now, they remember their version of it. And their version of it is vastly worse than what you actually wrote. And they're more than happy to tell the world about this horrible version of what you wrote, and here you are completely unable to refute them, because you took down the evidence. Even if you put it back up, it's trivial for your critics to say "hey, they rewrote that while it was down!" You have absolutely no way to win if you do this. And all too often, you seem like a coward when you do it.

It's not right. It's not fair. But that's how it is.

There is a deeper level issue, of course. The ephemeral nature of the internet is liberating and free and wonderful in so many, many ways. However, that freedom comes with a price. The record can be changed, now. The dialogue can be edited by any participant, on the fly. It's easy to change the record.

And that is a very, very bad thing for scholarship.

I believe in the scholastic method. I believe in the dialogue. I believe that when we put our opinions and our theses and, yes, our mistakes out for the world to see, those words matter. I believe that even if I wish I could unsay something, I have said it, and people have heard it. People have read it. It has mattered to them. And people will remember it.

And I feel I have a moral responsibility to leave that record intact, because even if my opinions change -- even if I'm wrong in the first place -- the record forms part of the foundation for the discussion, and when you knock pieces out of the record, you weaken the foundation. You make it harder to do legitimate research. You obfuscate and confuse things.

And I believe, firmly, that I don't have the right to do that.

When people hit the web and research Method® brand Lemon Ginger All-Floor Cleaner, the things Boing Boing have said about Method® brand Lemon Ginger All-Floor Cleaner are going to be relevant to that discussion. And, what is more, people are going to remember that Boing Boing wrote about Method® brand Lemon Ginger All-Floor Cleaner. When they're reminded of citrusy ginger cleanser in other contexts, they're going to remember they saw something about it on Boing Boing, and they're going to go back to Boing Boing to see what they had to say about it. And they're going to do a search, and when they can't find Method® brand Lemon Ginger All-Floor Cleaner they're going to be confused. They're sure it was on Boing Boing. Where else could it have been? What else were they reading? They're going to hit search engines and try to find that tidbit.

They're not going to think "I'd better hit the Wayback Machine," because it wouldn't occur to them that Boing Boing would delete stuff. Not Boing Boing. They trust Boing Boing. They're just going to ultimately decide they're wrong, that they didn't see it on Boing Boing. And maybe they never saw it in the first place.

Yeah, when they learn they were right but Boing Boing changed their archive when they weren't looking? They're going to be pissed, because they felt stupid for a while there. Stupid because they were sure they were right but the evidence said they were wrong... and stupid because they trusted Boing Boing.

Like I said. Credibility.

The best thing -- the only thing -- you can do is post a correction. "I said this in my last essay. I was wrong. I didn't mean for it to go where it went. I'm sorry." If you want to absolutely make certain you acknowledge the areas you were wrong, add html strikethroughs to highlight the areas you were mistaken in. If you need to add a correction to the essay itself, put it at the bottom next to a clearly marked edit marker.

There's nothing wrong with Boing Boing's opinions changing. Hey, sometimes Method® brand Lemon Ginger All-Floor Cleaner becomes the devil. The lemony, lemony devil. And it's natural that Boing Boing would want to eschew the devil when discussing floor cleansers. The problem for Boing Boing comes when they change the record without acknowledgement. There are ways they could have made their changes without damaging their credibility. Changing the posts on Method® brand Lemon Ginger All-Floor Cleaner to a boilerplate post saying "this was a post on the subject of Method® brand Lemon Ginger All-Floor Cleaner. Our opinions on this cleaning product have changed over time, and we are no longer comfortable having this post on our site. If you want to see it, check the Wayback Machine." In a better world, they'd link to the Wayback Machine article in question.

In the best of worlds, they'd just append their changed opinion to the bottom of the original post, mind. But hey -- my idealism isn't everyone's idealism, and this post isn't about taking Boing Boing to task. It's about avoiding the nastiness. And there's a lot of blogs out there right now that are going nuclear over this, and a lot of folks on Boing Boing itself are. There are accusations (I don't know the truth of them, I admit freely) that comments about the Method® brand Lemon Ginger All-Floor Cleaner issue are being deleted off Boing Boing. There's anger and resentment.

And, most of all, there's that overriding sense of lost credibility. There are two excellent comments on Making Light (Patrick and Theresa Nielson Hayden's own personal blog) that summarize the consternation people are feeling. The first comment comes from user tim and I quote here:

I don't have a horse in this race (aside from being a visitor of ML, Boing Boing, and Metafilter)but from an outsider's perspective, all I see is that this discussion is getting bogged down in semantics when the following facts appear to be true:

1. Boing Boing has often commented negatively on obfuscation and "spin" against government, and corporations large and small.

2. Boing Boing is not a "personal website," by any definition I can think of, to wit: each of the 4 main editors have their own personal websites which are largely if not totally unencumbered by advertisements, where Boing Boing has a large number, and from a brief perusal, none of their personal websites claim to be copyright "Happy Mutants, LLC" -- which by definition is a corporation.

3. Retroactive deleting of (nearly) all entries and comments which even make reference to [Method® brand Lemon Ginger All-Floor Cleaner], and going on 48 hours without so much as a "our lawyers tell us to shut up" smacks strongly of the very types of evasion and obfuscation that Boing Boing has clearly, and regularly, taken a stand against.

4. This behavior by Happy Mutants, LLC is plainly counter to Boing Boing's long-standing opposition, and people have taken notice of this.

Now, whatever argument you may want to make of it, I think these 4 points of fact are accurate.

Obviously, the substitution of cleanser for the topic was mine, not tim's. The second comment comes from Andrew Wheeler and has some crunchy supporting links:

In the interest of determining what may be considered a fair view of Boing Boing's opinion on similar matters, here's one possible parallel:

Cory Doctorow, at Boing Boing, posts, approvingly but without commenting himself, a message from "JFarber" complaining about The New York Times, a privately owned media company, changing their web archives without notice or explanation.

Boing Boing is a privately owned media company which has just changed its web archives without notice or explanation.

To quote "JFarber" from that post: "Is it common journalistic practice to change old articles like that?"

The way I'd frame this is to say: if Boing Boing wants to operate as a media watchdog, they need to be careful about not doing the same things that they complain about when other media outlets do it. They are a company that puts out a regular media product: yes, it is free (but so is The Village Voice), and yes, it is on the web (but so is Slate). A lot of people, Boing Boing's principals among them, have been arguing for a decade that "blogs" can be just as serious and just as professional as any other media outlet, so hiding under the skirts of "it's just a blog" at this point is, at best, disingenuous.

Credibility. Perceived hypocrisy. And, just maybe, a sense of disappointment. And these weren't very vitriolic comments. You can find some unbelievably nasty ones out there if you go looking.

If it can happen to Boing Boing, it can happen to you. And it's why this particular channel marker is so important to a blogger -- the rocks it warns you off of are jagged indeed, and bigger boats then yours have taken damage from them.

When I wrote "Channel Markers," I finished this point up like this:

We all make mistakes. Sometimes, you have to own your mistakes, in order to keep your credibility.

Two years later, I have nothing I can add to that.

Posted by Eric Burns-White at July 1, 2008 5:41 PM

Comments

Comment from: Aulayan [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 1, 2008 7:13 PM

Point the first: I never heard of Boing Boing and I read this. Apparently I break the odds. So playing the lottery tonight.

Point the second: Yeah, the ephemeralness of the web gets to me. I don't like seeing things vanishing, because as you put it, you start questioning did you even see it? I've been down that road many times.

And to see a group that has apparently criticized others in the past of doing this...doing it themselves is quite sad.

Comment from: Dave Menendez [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 1, 2008 8:07 PM

I've read a few of the blog posts about this issue, including the ones at Boing Boing and Making Light, and I have the impression that a lot of people are talking past each other. Yeah, the writers of Boing Boing are free to delete (or "unpublish") their own posts, but it's an odd thing for them to do. It goes against the grain of the web.

I think some people are reacting to that oddness, but can't quite put what's wrong into words; hence the claims of censorship and the allusions to 1984.

Comment from: Dakhran [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 1, 2008 8:15 PM

Coming out of delurk mode, personally I find the entire Boing Boing "scandal" to be ridiculously overblown. But what can I expect of the internets, besides pointless flame wars?

First, people are overreacting to the word "unpublish", like it's some sort of euphemism for deletion or execution, like "unperson". It actually is a specific term in content management systems, whereby an article is hidden from public retrieval, but still exists. Equivalent to hiding files on a shared directory.

Second, the specter of censorship doesn't even apply, except perhaps in the form of self censorship. Most of the people reacting in the article's comments equate hiding articles about Lemony Fresh Whatever, or Insert Crayon Color Now Trademarked By Some Blogger, is the exact same as removing posts written by Lemony Crayon.

Third, I'm now regretting the pointless waste of an hour spent on reading comments that attempt to outdo and reinvent Godwin's Law and compare the hiding of a few posts by their own authors, to "Orwellian conspiracies" or "Stalinist purges", not to mention wholesale slaughter of kittens, carcinogenic effects on bunnies, and permanent impotence in self-righteous blog commenters.

Personally, I think they have a really good reason for hiding those posts -- avoiding a lawsuit, much like the one Lemony Crayon enacted against another party for "trademark violation and dilution" (as noted on Wikipedia). Much as I gather you've attempted in obfuscating the name as well. Other powerful blogs and even webcomics have caved in to the Forces of Litigation before, for example Slashdot vs. Church of Scientology, or Penny Arcade vs. American Greetings. Does it make them hypocrites? Should they now revoke their Libertarian Anti-DRM Free Speech Blogger card?

Comment from: Phy [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 1, 2008 8:36 PM

I've read a more about this fracas today than is healthy. This is the best treatment of the subject matter that I've come across.

Comment from: Eric Burns-White [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 1, 2008 8:46 PM

Dave -- I think you're right. At the same time, real censorship's a thing that has to be rigorously fought. By using the terminology when we're discussing a legitimate (if ill-advised) editorial decision, we dilute the term and through it the fight. Peoples' disappointment in Boing Boing shouldn't rise to the level of outrage, the way we reacted to Unpersons in Stalin's Soviet Union or the way we react to Huckleberry Finn being taken out of schools and burned by public decree.

Comment from: Eric Burns-White [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 1, 2008 8:50 PM

Dakhran -- I obfuscated the name because A) I know absolutely nothing about the situation (as almost no one does), B) I have no idea who is in the right or why, and C) the thrust of the essay isn't about the situation. By placing a remove I hoped to focus my essay on the perceptions this has raised about Boing Boing, as well as ways they could have been better managed.

Honestly, I'm not offended on behalf of said cleanser, and I'm not outraged at Boing Boing. But this whole case is a massively good object lesson on why deleting posts from your blog (especially without warning) is a bad idea.

Comment from: Robert Hutchinson [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 1, 2008 8:56 PM

Good stuff, Eric.

What really amazes me is that the people involved were some of the last people on the Internet I would have expected to adopt the (admittedly temporary) attitude of "clam up, don't say anything, don't breathe, don't suggest the implication that you've ever heard of breathing" and expect it not to explode in their faces.

Even if the issue is as raw and contentious as has been implied in some quarters, I still don't see how "yes they're deleted, no we can't talk about it" isn't your absolute minimum response, before the gasoline explodes.

Oh, and I'm pretty sure that all sides agree that comments on the subject were deleted. The disagreement would be as to what percentage of them were delete-worthy flames and such.

Comment from: Dakhran [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 1, 2008 9:04 PM

Eric, I'm sure the lesson is learned, if only the lesson of "the internets will overreact and go nuts with the flames". Xeni has already stated, "I think we probably won't do this again, even if the reasons were as strong and unusual as they were in this case. This was too much of a pain in the ass. We are living and learning."

Still, I don't see the issue, personally. Their policies state: "We reserve the right to unpublish or refuse to unpublish anything for any or no reason." They are free to do so, and it's not "censorship" and "hypocrisy". Apparently some people can't get that.

Maybe if they adopted your stance, they could avoid those people -- on similar issues, maybe. But even if they had a nice happy fluffy never-censor-a-post-no-matter-what policy, I'm sure they'll tick someone off sooner or later. Better a bunch of commenters than a firm full of lawyers, IMO...

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 1, 2008 9:12 PM

Still, I don't see the issue, personally. Their policies state: "We reserve the right to unpublish or refuse to unpublish anything for any or no reason." They are free to do so, and it's not "censorship" and "hypocrisy". Apparently some people can't get that.

Having a policy doesn't protect you from your readers being pissed when you do it. Nor does it mean readers are obliged not to be pissed.

As has been pointed out in other comments all over the place, Boing Boing tends to tweak other websites when those websites do what they just did. So readers of Boing Boing who tend to agree with Boing Boing's stance of tweaking websites who do this have a perfectly legitimate reason to be pissed off when Boing Boing goes and does it themselves.

Comment from: Eric Burns-White [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 1, 2008 9:15 PM

Eric, I'm sure the lesson is learned, if only the lesson of "the internets will overreact and go nuts with the flames".

Which, in a way, is another way of saying "credibility."

Sure, the game is rigged. But when it's the only game in town....

Comment from: Dave Menendez [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 1, 2008 11:03 PM

Eric-- I think we agree about censorship and the need to not dilute the term. The people who brought it up did their own side a disservice. It's pretty clear that removing posts from your own blog isn't censorship, and this leads to the counter-claim that people are just overreacting.

Some people are overreacting, and other people are seeing the overreaction and dismissing the entire incident.

As I see it, Boing Boing violated the emerging cultural norms of the web (or at least the blogosphere), but because the norms are relatively new, people have trouble expressing why what Boing Boing did was wrong, and this leads to all the counter-productive arguments about hypocrisy and whether Boing Boing is a corporation. People expect that blog posts won't silently disappear from a still-active blog, because that sort of stability is part of the foundations of blogging. If a site as well-known and important as Boing Boing can casually invalidate their permalinks, then what would stop anyone else? It's a threat to the implicit social contract of blogging.

Of course, my theory doesn't explain all the negative reactions. Some people are fans of Method® brand Lemon Ginger All-Floor Cleaner, and are reacting to a perceived snub. Other people are anti-fans of Boing Boing, and are looking for something to complain about.

Comment from: prosfilaes [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 1, 2008 11:23 PM

Dakhran, the word "unpublish" has obvious meanings, beyond the purely technical. It means that Boing Boing has managed to take texts that were easily accessible to their readers and make them suddenly only available from large libraries. (Admittedly, the Internet Archive is a large library accessible to the world.) If you wanted to reread a journal article in the pre-Internet days, you'd keep a copy. Nowadays, you keep a link. All the policy in the world isn't going to make readers happy that what's ostentatiously a complete archive has articles missing out of it.

I think your comparison with Penny Arcade and Strawberry Shortcake is weak; articles deleted because of copyright infringement in a well-run system are rare and expensive to deal with any other way. Readers understand if they disappear; shit happens. This was a willful deletion, with no claim, and no real evidence, of a legal motive.

I fail to understand why Happy Mutants, LLC deleting posts on the webserver Happy Mutants, LLC pays for is so different from the City of Alva removing Huckleberry Finn from the library the City of Alva pays for. (If it helps, add "the people of" to the City of Alva.) He who pays the piper calls the tune, and shelf space ain't free.

Comment from: Dakhran [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 2, 2008 1:06 AM

Dakhran, the word "unpublish" has obvious meanings, beyond the purely technical.
That's just it -- it doesn't, at least not in a content management system. I've written content management systems, it's what I do for a living. In the database, usually in a "t_contents" table, there's a field, "published", which is set to either 0 or 1. When it's set to 1, the article is included in any query used to search and display public articles. When it's set to 0, it is excluded from these queries. It's like an on/off switch, where 1 is on. When it's on, the article is in a state called "published". And when it's off, it is the opposite of "published" -- which by most conventions, is a state called "unpublished". These are usually controlled on the administrative website with a checkbox -- checked for "published", unchecked for "unpublished".

But because of heated temperaments, and allusions to 1984, "un"-anything is being defined far out of constraints of the system at hand. But it's the same as if I had a light switch for a lamp shining on an open book, and turning off the light meant you couldn't read the book. People are equating the action of turning off the light with burning the book. Moreover, some vocal few are equating the switching of the light to "off" to the burning of all books, and even mass murder of millions (search the comments for "Stalinist purges", you'll get plenty of hits).

It's not war, it's not genocide, it's not even bookburning. At the worst, it's stuffing a few letters they themselves wrote but are now ashamed of into a dark closet and turning off the light. Sure, we don't know their reasons. Yes, they've gone on record as speaking against others who have hidden posts from public view, which makes their actions somewhat tainted with irony. And yes, their moderators have mismanaged the resultant comments considerably, responding in anger and with derogatory remarks. And yes, my opinion has lessened slightly.

But they did not delete that person's posts -- there were none by that person, all were written by Boing Boing bloggers. They did not delete comments, at least not before the moderation fiasco of the current article. There was no attempt at disinformation, no rewriting of history. It wasn't removing Huckleberry Finn, either, unless Mark's real last name is Twain. They hid their own posts on the subject. We don't know what their reasons were, although I still highly suspect those reasons have a legal component to them, hence the comparison to Penny Arcade -- if you read my previous post, you'll see that the person in question has in fact registered their name as a trademark, and in fact did so one year ago, around the same time the posts in question were hidden.

Their actions may well be justified, and even the secrecy surrounding their actions may have a purpose. Or they could be petty reactions, which I highly doubt that not one but five reputed bloggers, acting in concert and after deliberation, would all resort to pettiness. And even if they did so, they are human. They are not obligated to be held to a higher standard -- blogs are opinions and editorials, not impartial news journalism. And yes, they can be hypocrites. But there are enough hypocrites blogging out there, and none of them are being equated to mass murders, at least that I know...

I'm a great advocate for free speech. I'm a card carrying member of EFF, and see myself as libertarian. But I don't see any freedoms being violated -- in fact, I see the authors and owners of a work exercising their freedom to control public access to that work, in a way that still leaves that public work available via freely accessible archives, and still covered by the Creative Commons license.

Comment from: Trevel [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 2, 2008 10:18 AM

If anything, free speech is on their side.

I think my position in this debate is tempered somewhat by when I joined it -- by the time I found out about the "scandal", Boing Boing had already done what they needed to do -- posted a note saying "We did this, and here's why." This isn't like deleting an angry rant; I liken it more to Eric removing links from his "Comics I read" list because he doesn't read them any more.

(Naturally there would still be a scandal. This is the internet; if you're sufficiently popular, you can't say "I had a lovely day today" without someone dramatically quitting your blog or accusing you of corruption. "Your happiness agenda is racist against depressed people!")

If (for example), Kurtz decided to replace his webcomic with a dedicated call for the annihilation of Canada and Canadian-lovers, I would Eric to drop the links. I would also expect him to explain why, in 1000 words at LEAST. I would not expect him to remove his articles about what PvP WAS, but I'd not be surprised to find his links gone from the sidebar.

Boing boing, however, doesn't necessarily have articles; mostly what they have is "I thought this was a neat link, check it out", except a bit more wordy. If these links started pointing to Canadian-hate sites, then I can understand removing them. Their point is "Check this out", not to add content, and I *do* think this is a different scenario. Assuming they have reason -- which they haven't shared -- then why shouldn't they remove their links?

That said, it doesn't matter. Credibility doesn't come from being in the right, credibility comes from being open.

Comment from: Eric Burns-White [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 2, 2008 11:05 AM

That's just it -- it doesn't, at least not in a content management system.

I've seen this defense of the term several times now, and it's innately flawed. I've been using content management systems on the web for as long as there have been content management systems on the web. I knew what the term meant in a CMS context the first time I saw it. And I'm sure CMS professionals (or dedicated users of all stripes) recognized it.

But this entire discussion has been about the management of perception -- the ways that Boing Boing led with their chin, and the ways that people reacted (or overreacted) to it. And the word "Unpublish" is going to have an immediate and visceral reaction to people who don't work with Content Management Systems -- which is to say most of the public.

There are perfectly good words they could have used there. The most common, when discussing the world of blogs, fora, BBSes or any number of posting software going back to at least the 80's, is "take down." You post something to the "board," and then you take that post down, just like you would do to a physical piece of paper on a physical bulletin board.

Same statement, but way less emotional baggage attached to it. It plays better, and when you're making an official response to a controversy, using language that plays well is your best friend.

Comment from: roninkakuhito [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 2, 2008 11:09 AM

Personally, I think they should have kept the posts up with a disclaimer at the top of each one and broken every single hyperlink to her site so as to not drive traffic or improve google rankings.

Comment from: Eric Burns-White [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 2, 2008 11:15 AM

If anything, free speech is on their side.

As is Freedom of the Press. Freedom of the Press is not an obligation to publish, any more than Freedom of Speech is an obligation to provide a venue. Someone can publish on their own website, or by photocopying a zine at FedExWasKinkosButThatWasn'tBusinesslike, or any number of other ways, and they're absolutely protected in doing so. But no one can bring their Zine to the Wall Street Journal's offices and demand they publish it as a supplement in the next day's paper.

Comment from: Wistful Dreamer [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 2, 2008 12:32 PM

Statement one -- they had the right to do what they did.

Statement two -- there exist people who have massively overreacted to what they have done, and foolishly tried to equate the situation to censorship, first amendment violations, and more nutty accusations.

Statement three -- none of that changes that BB's bread and butter is that its readers expect a certain level of professionalism. Otherwise, they are just people at keyboards, mouthing off into the void. BB has violated that trust, and should expect to receive the results (in terms of hurt reputation) of such violation.

Yes, Dakhran, there are a lot of hypocrites out there, but a few people comparing these hypocrites to mass murderers does not somehow magically excuse their blunders or require people to magically start giving their work credibility again. So they have sown, they are reaping-- yes sometimes inpreportionate to their infraction, but welcome to the internet, home of histrionics.

Comment from: prosfilaes [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 2, 2008 3:13 PM

They didn't use the word unpublish in a content management system; they used it in a general English context. They can't reasonably expect people to interpret it as jargon when it has an obvious English meaning.

"At the worst, it's stuffing a few letters they themselves wrote but are now ashamed of into a dark closet and turning off the light."

No, it's not. Letters are not published works, and these documents, by their use of the word as well as the general use of the term were published works, offered to a general audience. The closest physical equivalence might be to an amateur zine or a small magazine.

"But no one can bring their Zine to the Wall Street Journal's offices and demand they publish it as a supplement in the next day's paper."

I don't regard that as a useful analogy. The Wall Street Journal did publish these Zines. In the print world, the Wall Street Journal rarely publishes things for longer than a day; if you want a copy after the news is no longer hot, you have to go a neutral archive, like a library. In some sense, the pre-Internet WSJ always unpublished what it printed, or not only never did so, but failed to have the ability to do so.

In the pre-Internet days, anything that had the type of readership Websnark has or Boing Boing has was basically not unpublishable. If your blog expires articles regularly (or even threatens to do so), or saves only selective articles, people will understand that you aren't an archive, and save what they want to save. If your blog has an archive, people see you as taking over that role that the library or private stack of issues had. If you start selectively deleting or editing material clandestinely, then it looks like you're a trustworthy archive, but you're not. Rights and censorship all aside, readers don't want an ostentatiously complete archive that deletes things as the authors of the blog want to update their image.

The only good reason for the silence about a legal threat would be a gag order. Do you think that's likely? I don't think there's a serious legal threat here, either, given that to violate trademark law they would basically have had to represent themselves as "Method® brand Lemon Ginger All-Floor Cleaner".

Comment from: Andrew [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 2, 2008 4:30 PM

This might be one of the reasons why paper and books will still be around: to ensure a permanent record of the things and events and what has been said about them.

By the way, have you actually tried combining lemon with ginger? It's orgy-like, I tell you. Orgy-like!

Comment from: Sean Duggan [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 2, 2008 6:40 PM

I won't pretend to understand why they've taken this step, although given their general trend towards not using the copyright/patent/trademark system to bludgeon others out of being able to create and the fact (or at least I keep seeing it being said) that these articles were removed a year ago, right around the time when the Method® brand Lemon Ginger All-Floor Cleaner decided that the Method brand Lime Ginger All-Floor Cleaner that's been selling their product for just as long is infringing because at some point, the term Method got trademarked, I suspect that this was a form of protest, much like Eric hypothetically removing PVPOnline from his "comics I read" due to Kurtz's links to Canadian hate-sites (boy does that last phrase sound like it's begging to quoted out of context...). The fact that they did this so quietly is a bit vexing, but it's their right, much the same as it's your right to close the curtains to your bedroom even if you have been giving a free show to the people across the street every night for the past year.

Comment from: Sean Duggan [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 2, 2008 6:40 PM

I won't pretend to understand why they've taken this step, although given their general trend towards not using the copyright/patent/trademark system to bludgeon others out of being able to create and the fact (or at least I keep seeing it being said) that these articles were removed a year ago, right around the time when the Method® brand Lemon Ginger All-Floor Cleaner decided that the Method brand Lime Ginger All-Floor Cleaner that's been selling their product for just as long is infringing because at some point, the term Method got trademarked, I suspect that this was a form of protest, much like Eric hypothetically removing PVPOnline from his "comics I read" due to Kurtz's links to Canadian hate-sites (boy does that last phrase sound like it's begging to quoted out of context...). The fact that they did this so quietly is a bit vexing, but it's their right, much the same as it's your right to close the curtains to your bedroom even if you have been giving a free show to the people across the street every night for the past year. You tease, you. :-p

Comment from: Eric Burns-White [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 2, 2008 6:45 PM

I think we can officially stipulate that Boing Boing had every right to do what they did, and did it for reasons that were good enough for them, whatever those reasons may be. This really isn't the right discussion to debate the morality or ethics of what they did -- there's plenty of places for that right now.

This is, in effect, the process story. How did they do it, and was it effective, in other words.

Comment from: Dakhran [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 2, 2008 7:17 PM

They didn't use the word unpublish in a content management system; they used it in a general English context. They can't reasonably expect people to interpret it as jargon when it has an obvious English meaning.

Actually, it doesn't have an obvious English meaning. I've searched dictionaries both online and hardcopy, and there is no mention of the verb "unpublish" anywhere. There are very few mentions of the adjective "unpublished", usually applied to works that have never been published. The term has no generic use, which is probably why it has been parsed by so many as Orwellian doublespeak.

But it has been said many times in the thread that the use of "unpublish" was in specific reference to Movable Type's administrative features. Boing Boing uses Movable Type as their content management system, and you can specifically see the use of the phrase "unpublish" as an action in their documentation.

I think the thing that irritates me the most about this discussion isn't who is wrong or who is right, whether there is censorship or hypocrisy afoot, or whether or not Boing Boing has any obligation to cater to the lowest common denominator and please everyone to avoid any possible conflict or controversy in the future. It's the fact that a single semantic term, a specific artifice of text with a defined use in the context of blogging, can be so blown out of proportion against all reasonable interpretation of the definition. I can see interpreting "unpublish" as deletion. I can't however extend the use of "unpublish", via association to "un" combinations in doublespeak, to be interpreted as a deliberate attempt to provoke the community by claiming to "disappear" people from the Internet.

Our language is ambiguous enough without adding to the dilution, and redefining "unpublish" to mean "Stalin's Book Barbeque". I can't wait to hear rants about "link submission" referring to controlling their readers with whips and chains...

Comment from: Tephlon [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 2, 2008 7:20 PM

can't comment on the Boing Boing issue as I, like Aulayan, don't read Boing Boing. I know of it. That's all.

I agree with the point you made. They could/should have handled it better.

I think I can make a point about Sarah though: Cat's are, from a human point of view, extremely insane. From a cat's point of view their servants are just stupid.

Comment from: Montykins [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 2, 2008 9:06 PM

I don't care about the controversy or Boing Boing at all. However, I do strongly believe that "unpublishing" is the same as "deleting". At work, I use a Content Management System. If I take something off our corporate website, that means it's been erased from the public's view, regardless of whether I save a copy or not. It's functionally the same as deletion and I have no problem with people using the terms interchangeably. Attempting to claim that something "wasn't deleted" just because there's a copy stored on a website is pretty sketchy in my opinion. No matter how you look at it, Boing Boing deleted the posts from their public-facing website.

Comment from: Honi Soit [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 2, 2008 11:12 PM

But what is a chain, Dakhran, if not a series of links?

Comment from: Honi Soit [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 2, 2008 11:13 PM

But what is a chain, Dakhran, if not a series of links?

Comment from: Honi Soit [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 2, 2008 11:55 PM

But seriously: probably the single worst thing that they did was to unpublish the material in *secret*. (Feel free to read "worst" as "most evil in terms of freedom of information" or "most stupid in terms of PR" according to your personal taste.)

I really think that most of the cries of "censorship!" would have been defused, despite the fact that the information would be no easier to access. Their credibility might still take a little hit, but it's a classic cost-benefit analysis problem, isn't it? You can choose a %100 chance of a small shitstorm now, or a %X chance of a 1192-angry-posts-and-counting shitstorm at some future date.

Depending on the value of X, it might conceivably still be a good idea to do everything in secret (assuming for the moment that ethics don't enter into it). But given enough time, that X starts to get pretty close to 100.

Comment from: Aerin [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 3, 2008 2:16 AM

The use of the remove piqued my interest, so I cruised over to Boing Boing (my first time ever doing so) to see what was really going on.

It might as well have really been about cleanser. Tempest in a teapot, indeed.

Let's say that I have a huge, dramatic fight with my boyfriend and break up with him. I then go back and friends-lock all the past LiveJournal entries about him, because they're painful and I don't wish to be reminded. I don't modify the entries and I don't delete them completely, I just make it so the general public can't access them. Honestly, how is that different from what Boing Boing did? The only difference is that my journal only has a couple dozen readers, while Boing Boing has thousands. (I'd like to take credit for that scenario, but someone in the comment thread on Boing Boing made the connection first.)

Ultimately, Boing Boing is probably going to lose readership for this, and they'll lose credibility. It's a learning experience for everyone, and hopefully others will learn from Boing Boing's mistakes.

Also, for the record, I think it's hard to have serious discussion about something named Boing Boing. I want to giggle every time I type it.

Comment from: Sean Duggan [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 3, 2008 12:24 PM

Honestly, other than a few people determined to take it personally, I suspect that they probably won't really lose any readers. Like was said, the removal of the entries referencing this non-scarlet woman really doesn't impact the site as a whole except possibly links referring to those entries. I'm sure that Boing Boing ran a quick search over their own site to fix those links good, if any existed (not next/previous article links, more like the "As said in this entry on the mating habits of suburban fieldmice, everyone's getting some but me"). And people who had linked to the entries before, well, it's the web. You get used to your entries dying because sites go away, or the site structure reorganizes. If the link was important, you do a Google search or an Internet Archive search. If not, you delete the link or change it to just an underlined and colored style.

What bothers me more, really, is information that is well and truly lost when sites go down or remove their content. I recently managed to track down a bit of online fiction called "Kumiko the Demon Girl". The original site was down and the Internet Archive copies were missing some of the files. So I eventually found the guy, who was amazed that I was still averaging a hit a week on a review I'd made of the story years back, and he sent me copies. But I've known a number of pieces of fiction that just disappeared without even a broken link left to them. There are a few sites that gather together stories like Luba Kmetyk's Bootleg Fanfiction or Stephan Sokolaw's Vanished Fanfiction archive, but we are losing our Internet culture at a fearsome rate.

Comment from: prosfilaes [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 3, 2008 12:39 PM

Aerin, when Rupert Murdoch bought the Wall Street Journal, he didn't start deleting old articles he didn't like from the online archives. It would have seriously hurt the WSJ. Perhaps Boing Boing isn't the Wall Street Journal, but it does have a corporation publishing it, multiple writers, and holds forth of topics of general purpose to an audience of thousands. That moves it quite a distance away from your blog in the direction of the WSJ.

Comment from: gwalla [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 3, 2008 4:58 PM

Dakhran: Yes, we know you're familiar with CMSes. Nobody's arguing against that, because it doesn't matter.

"Publish" has a generally understood meaning in English.

The prefix "un-" has a generally understood meaning in English, and is productive (that is, it can be freely used in new coinages and the results will be understood).

While the combination "unpublish" is not common in English, neither of its component morphemes stand out as jargon, and the combination, using their generally understood meanings, makes sense. Therefore, a reasonable English-speaking person who is unaware of its specialized usage in CMS jargon could easily conclude that the intended meaning derives directly from its components.

This meaning, if you're unfamiliar with both "un-" and "publish" outside of the context of CMS, is "to reverse the process of publication, to undo publication".

Comment from: Trevel [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 3, 2008 6:23 PM

The trouble is, I can respect NOT calling out what they're doing. They don't want to link to the person any more, but neither do they want to make a big deal about it. Publicly denouncing her (I.e., saying "We're removing the links and here's why") is more than they want, but neither do they want to continue to have the links. They wanted to do it quietly, and the fact that this seems to have happened a year ago means they DID succeed. Almost.

The trick for me is still that I see Boing Boing as a series of annotated links, and not a source of content. As such, removing the links doesn't bother me: the content is still out there, I'll just have to find it by google instead.

Comment from: Dakhran [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 3, 2008 7:14 PM

This meaning, if you're unfamiliar with both "un-" and "publish" outside of the context of CMS, is "to reverse the process of publication, to undo publication".

I'll concede this point, I've said I can see how it can be interpreted as deleting. Still, it's a bit of a stretch to go from there to censorship. Self-censorship, perhaps. But I'm quite lost how someone can leap from there to "damaging the internet", "causing harm", or "Stalinist purges". It's kind of like saying burning my own books, or even your books, is the same as dropping a nuke on a city. And it's that exact redefinition of a word to mean the most extreme possible interpretation that irks me the most. We get enough extreme reactions in the media over "terrorist fist jabs" and "missing lapel pins"...

Personally, I'm a bit weary of the whole fiasco -- I'm chalking it up to another case of flamewar. It's even reached a Godwin value of 1, so by the rules of the Internet, it's pretty much over. Otherwise, I'll be sitting here all night long shouting, "Someone is WRONG on the Internet", and wasting precious time out of my ten-day vacation...

Anyway, Eric's policy is very wise, now that we have the clarity of hindsight. And I'm sure that certain comment moderators, as well as the Boingers, have learned a valuable lesson. And as for myself, I think that when I finally get around to designing my own custom CMS for my neglected websites, I may just take a page from these events, and the wisdom to be gained therein. I like the idea of retaining revisions of content on a permanent basis, similar to MediaWiki, the CMS behind Wikipedia. There's an example of transparency at its best (and sometimes at its worst).

Maybe one day. But for now, vacation calls...

Comment from: David Wintheiser [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 5, 2008 12:58 AM

Let's say that I have a huge, dramatic fight with my boyfriend and break up with him. I then go back and friends-lock all the past LiveJournal entries about him, because they're painful and I don't wish to be reminded. I don't modify the entries and I don't delete them completely, I just make it so the general public can't access them. Honestly, how is that different from what Boing Boing did? The only difference is that my journal only has a couple dozen readers, while Boing Boing has thousands.

Well, there's another difference. You see, in your LiveJournal, you have a fair number of posts counseling your friends on their fading and broken relationships, and you've consistently put forth the opinion that people in the midst of relationship trouble should focus on the good, remember the positive, and embrace the past while moving on with the future. Bottling up the past or revising it so that you see it as flawed or painful doesn't make for a better life, after all.

Now you've had your breakup, and you've gone back and friend-locked all of your previous posts about your own boyfriend -- you've basically told the world, with that action, that you can't do the thing you've been recommending to your friends. Sure, you have your reasons and they seem like good ones to you and you really don't feel at all like sharing them with the rest of the world and from your own individual perspective everything makes perfect sense -- but the point that an outside observer sees is that it's all well and good to be open and embracing of the positives in the past when it's someone else's relationship, but not when it's your own. Your actions don't match your words.

I think I'd be justified in calling you a hypocrite and in wondering if your advice to your friends was just words on virtual paper -- especially if I'm your ex-boyfriend.

On the other side of the coin (and this isn't something I've seen discussed much with respect to this controversy), maybe what it really means is that your advice, while well-meant, was a bit more black-and-white than is entirely useful in a shades-of-gray world. Maybe your position on break-ups, or on a particular brand of all-floor cleaner, or on copyright should actually be more nuanced, more flexible than you're making it sound. Maybe my calling you a hypocrite would just be making that same mistake, only in the other direction.

Maybe nobody in this discussion is completely right, even if nobody is completely wrong, either.

And for what it's worth, 'Channel Markers' is one of my favorite snarks.

Comment from: Eric the .5b [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 5, 2008 5:14 PM

Fair warning: I'm very much an ex-fan of Boing Boing.

I have to wonder whether it's really a matter of "credibility" instead of plain old "honesty".

One of the reasons I stopped reading Boing Boing a long while back was that any post hinging on factual details of any kind stood a good chance of being half-cocked, unchecked, and largely wrong. Those posts would either get fixed with either an update or two explicitly correcting things or the somewhat graceless, "A reader emailed us, 'No no no, the earth goes around the sun!'" addition at the bottom.

(And yes, yes, yes, I know. They're terribly self-conscious bloggers, and this means they don't have to be accurate or thoughtful because they can update later. Whatever.)

Now, they may have been honest up to this point, but what credibility, in the sense that anything they said was remotely reliable any further than you could follow a link, did they really have? When I still followed Boing Boing, I wouldn't take anything they said without a handful of salt.

Maybe we're just talking orthogonal forms of credibility?

Comment from: Jason [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 7, 2008 1:52 PM

My cat Sarah .... I'm relatively certain she's insane.

I think the first part of that paragraph makes the last part redundant :)

Comment from: Skye [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 12, 2008 3:00 AM

Ironically, this post has led to me visiting Boing Boing regularly again.

You owe me at least a good 4 hours of the last 3 days back, Mr. Burns-White :P.

Comment from: EsotericWombat [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 20, 2008 3:51 AM

Apropos of nothing, the latest xkcd is positively begging for a snark.

Just sayin'

Comment from: Sean Duggan [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 4, 2008 12:35 PM

*sigh* I miss Eric.

Comment from: William_G [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 8, 2008 10:44 AM

Sure, the game is rigged. But when it's the only game in town....
The thing you, and others, seem to have forgotten is that the playing field is large enough for people to quite happily pick up their ball and go play a different game elsewhere.

Comment from: theliel [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 15, 2008 11:01 AM

we all miss eric. Hopefully he and wed are doing wonderfull and are just so happy that the web has no grip on them anymore.

which sucks, but hey.

as someone once said: artists do what they do because they have issues to work out.
if the artist is lucky they gget it all out and work through it

if we're lucky the artist only picksu p new demons so they continue to make great stuff.

Comment from: Alice Bentley [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 15, 2008 1:38 PM

"the playing field is large enough"...

Perhaps we could thread-jack this comment section and get some pointers on other good webcomic critique sites?

I already know about Fleen , I used to read Tangents, but can't find it's new home, and I cruise through ComixTalk, CBR, Sequential Tart and Girl-Wonder at least once a week.

Any recommendations?

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