Something has happened which I think may be a bit more important than any of the parties involved are making it out to be.
Last week, a blogger named Violet Blue who writes about sex issues discovered that every single mention of her on the ultrapopular group blog Boing Boing had been removed. No explanation, no placeholder, nothing. Just gone. This was odd, because the Boingers had linked to Violet many times over the past few years.
Today, Boing Boing moderator Teresa Nielsen Hayden posted this by way of explanation.
Speaking for all the Boingers– Boing Boing has been caught in the middle of a real internet shitstorm and pile-on over the last few days. A blogger named Violet Blue noticed that we unpublished some posts related to her. Some people wanted to know why. Bottom line is that those posts (not “more than 100 posts,” as erroneously claimed elsewhere) were removed from public view a year ago. Violet behaved in a way that made us reconsider whether we wanted to lend her any credibility or associate with her. It’s our blog and so we made an editorial decision, like we do every single day. We didn’t attempt to silence Violet. We unpublished our own work. There’s a big difference between that and censorship. We hope you’ll respect our choice to keep the reasons behind this private. We do understand the confusion this caused for some, especially since we fight hard for openness and transparency. We were trying to do the right thing quietly and respectfully, without embarrassing the parties involved. Clearly, that didn’t work out. In attempting to defuse drama, we inadvertently ignited more. Mind you, we weren’t the ones splashing gasoline around; but we did make the fire possible. We’re sorry about that. In the meantime, Boing Boing’s past content is indexed on the Wayback Machine, a basic Internet resource; so the material should still be available for those who would like to read it. Thank you all for caring what happens on Boing Boing. And if you think there’s more to say, by all means, let’s talk. We’re listening.
I believe this was a terrible mistake on the part of Boing Boing, and I’d like to explain why. I want to do so not just as a goofy dude with a blog, but as someone who’s been blogging personally and professionally for almost a decade and as a professional print journalist who’s been working on the boundary between old and new media since the mid-1990s.
I feel the need to point out a few things, first, so you know where I’m coming from: I do not know Violet Blue. I have never read any of Ms. Blue’s writing — not out of distaste, but more out of disinterest in her chosen topics, which has nothing to do with the merits or lack thereof of her work. Therefore I cannot champion or dismiss her. This is not about the particulars of Ms. Blue’s writing, or her personal behavior, of which I know almost nothing.
I do know some of the Boing Boing people — I met Mark Fraunfelder and interviewed his lovely and charming wife Carla Sinclair at their home many years ago, I’ve known Cory Doctorow slightly for several years, and David Pescovitz and I both worked on an online publication called Revolting! back in the late 90s, though I doubt David would remember meeting me. Mark has also published my writing in Make. I don’t know Xeni Jardin or Teresa Nielsen Hayden, but like Violet Blue, we have mutual acquaintances and friends, and from all accounts they are extremely bright and nice and talented people.
By and large, I like and respect these people, even though I often disagree vehemently with Cory’s positions on intellectual property rights. I wanted to make sure that this was understood, so that this wasn’t seen as a personal attack. I wish the Boingers all the best.
By making the decision to remove Ms. Blue from their archives, Boing Boing has, intentionally or otherwise, made the following statements:
- As bloggers, we do not have the responsibilities of a professional media outlet.
- We do not feel the need to discuss our policies with our readers.
- We reserve the right to hide behind our terms of service.
I’ll address these points one by one.
1. As bloggers, we do not have the responsibilities of a professional media outlet. In the unfashionable world of “old media”, it would be considered a massive breach of ethics to remove all references to a person from one’s archives based on personal, professional or even ideological disagreements. It’s the sort of thing that would literally destroy a publication’s credibility. This holds just as true for the silliest bubblegum trend magazine as it does for the New York Times.
Boing Boing is not, as Ms. Hayden says, the New York Times. It’s a for-profit group blog. But by admitting that they are unwilling to behave in a fashion that adheres to the very basic ethics of journalism that have evolved over centuries, they are also declaring themselves free of the credibility and trust that comes with that adherence. How can you trust a site whose staff feels it’s acceptable to remove people wholesale from their archives?
Of course, they’re quite welcome to do this. It’s their site. But due to the site’s incredible popularity and visibility — it ranks consistently as one of the top five most-linked-to blogs on the Net — it has become a sort of role model for the blogosphere at large. Boing Boing is a flagship. As a flagship, their ethics and behavior ought to be better than that of anyone else.
Sadly, as they have shown here, this is not the case. And because of their position, their bad decision reflects upon blogging as a whole. It undermines blogging’s ability to be taken seriously and to stand with “old” media.
This removal also underlines one of the biggest problems with online media: the mutability of the past. If Boing Boing had simply decided not to ever link to or mention Ms. Blue again, so be it. I wouldn’t even personally consider that to be unethical. They’re not a wholesale news outlet and they choose what they wish to cover.
But removing her entirely from their archives — which are part of the collective memory of the Internet — is far more pernicious. It’s a retcon. It changes the history of Boing Boing’s discourse. As far as anyone will ever know, browsing through their archives, Boing Boing never wrote about or linked to Violet Blue. And while this may seem like a relatively insignificant thing, it’s hard not to think of Orwell. We are at war with Eastasia. We have always been at war with Eastasia. Boing Boing may not be able to make Violet Blue into an unperson, and it’s ultimately a tempest in a teapot…but there’s something disquieting about it, all the same.
I have only ever intentionally unpublished a couple of entries on Zenarchery, and those were very specific cases where I’d posted something without thinking that compromised another person. My archives (now mostly vanished, thanks to a server error) were chock full of posts in which I compromised myself — by discussing drug use or by simply ranting like an idiot. I contradicted myself constantly. I said things that I probably should have never said in a public forum, or even a private one, or standing by myself in an empty room.
But I didn’t delete those posts. I would have considered it cowardly and weaselly. I take responsibility for my own words and the things I choose to talk about and link to. And though I’ve occasionally deleted comments for being off-topic or for personally attacking me rather than attacking my statements or ideas, I would never remove someone wholesale from my blog just because I disagreed with them or because I had a personal problem with them.
Perhaps that’s just my anachronistic adherence to what I see as journalistic standards — though Zenarchery is even less of a journalistic outlet than Boing Boing is — but I think it’s important to leave the past as past, and to take responsibility for things you have said that may come back to haunt you.
Boing Boing is not lending Violet Blue credibility by maintaining their archive of links to her work. They’re simply maintaining links to those things which they thought were notable in the past. If they really wanted to disgrace her or denounce her, they could have done so publicly. Or they could have written a post explaining why they no longer chose to associate themselves with her. But they didn’t. They didn’t have enough invested to proactively do something about their sudden change of heart. They just erased her from their world.
Where does this end? I mean, Boing Boing has posted links to my work before. I’ve disagreed with them here in the past (and in the present, obviously). Are they going to remove their links to my stuff? Where do you draw that line?
The correct answer, of course, is that you draw the line on this side of removing people from your site. You draw it hard and deep and you fill it with concrete and you build a wall above it and you put barbed wire and guard dogs on the wall and you never, ever cross it. Because what’s on the other side of that wall, if you’ll pardon my extended metaphor, is an extremely slippery slope, which leads to the road to Hell, which is paved with good intentions. (Heh.)
2. We do not feel the need to discuss our policies with our readers. Though Ms. Hayden invites readers to talk about the situation now, the fact is that, as she also points out, this removal was in fact done a year ago. It was done without any discussion or announcement at the time, or apparently even any notification to Ms. Blue herself. (She might be lying, but since I don’t know either way and nobody at Boing Boing has suggested otherwise, I’m going to assume she’s telling the truth.)
This goes against Boing Boing’s stated goal of openness and transparency. It suggests that they were simply hoping nobody would notice the removal, which is just silly — Boing Boing is, again, one of the most linked-to blogs on the Web, and surely they knew somebody would follow one of those links to a Violet Blue-related post and discover it was missing.
That’s a best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is that they simply didn’t care whether or not their readers came up against broken links and missing content and didn’t know why. I doubt that’s the case, but it’s hard not to look at this situation and wonder.
I can’t think of a good way to go about excising someone from one’s archives, because I think it’s entirely wrong to do so in the first place. But doing so and not talking about it for a year does suggest a certain disdain for one’s audience that I think is probably not the best approach for a site like Boing Boing.
3. We reserve the right to hide behind our terms of service. This is the part that’s the most infuriating for me, particularly as Boing Boing is chock full of posts slamming software companies and connectivity providers and media companies for essentially doing the exact same thing — limiting access to information or behaving badly and then shrugging when people complain and inviting them to read the fine print.
Terms of service is a legalese thing — it’s designed to cover your ass when lawyers come calling or, at a distant second, when unhinged comment trolls begin complaining about “censorship”. I don’t think it’s a breach of blogging ethics to delete comment spam or offensive lunatic rambling from one’s sites (unless, as I said before, it’s one’s own lunatic rambling), and I don’t think anyone else would think so either.
But a site’s boilerplate terms of service document is not designed to protect them from doing absurd things like removing people wholesale from the site. Do they have the legal right to do it? Sure. Do they have the First Amendment right to do it? Sure, Boing Boing is an American site. Does it still stink? Of course it does. As a famous thespian once said, it stinks like yesterday’s diapers, which is why Ms. Hayden had to bring up the TOS in the first place. A general rule of discourse is that whenever anybody actually has to state their terms of service to justify their actions, they’re doing something shifty. They know you can’t argue with them; all you can do is shake your head and walk away.
I cannot imagine what Violet Blue did to justify this sort of behavior on Boing Boing’s part. I’ve been trying to think of a situation in which I would do what they have done. Did Ms. Blue espouse genocide? Did she try to put a shiv in Doctorow’s throat at a party? Did she involve herself in sexual shenanigans with some Boing Boing staffer? Did they catch her serially killing people, or selling crack to five year olds?
I doubt it was anything so lurid. And it’s absolutely none of my business, of course, or anyone else’s. The only reason it comes to bear at all is so that one can weigh the justification of Boing Boing’s action. What awful thing could someone do that would make it okay to remove them from one’s site entirely?
I can’t think of anything. Not one thing. I’ve blogged about people who’ve hurt or betrayed me or done things I utterly disagreed with. I’ve blogged about people towards whom I have behaved in unacceptable ways that I am deeply embarrassed about. It would never even occur to me to simply remove any mention of them from Zenarchery. That just seems like a particularly pathetic form of revisionism. My past is my past, and I cannot deny the things I’ve done nor the things that have been done to me.
What I do, of course, matters very little; I am not a big cog in the great clockwork that is Internet media. But Boing Boing is, and people look to them to see how to behave, whether they like it or not. Their decision to remove Violet Blue has undermined the entire medium they work in. It was a bad decision and I know they’re better than that.
I would hope that they would reconsider their actions and — if technically feasible — reverse them. It’s okay to make bad decisions. (At least, I hope it’s okay, otherwise I’m in terrible trouble.) But the whole point is to learn from them.
And maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the collective of Boing Boing readers and other bloggers don’t think this is wrong. Information is ephemeral, after all. But if that’s the case, it makes me very sad, because it suggests that we as a group of people building a new medium have a lot to learn from the media we’re trying to replace.