Boing Boing, Violet Blue, and archival ethics in the new media world
Sometime last year, Xeni Jardin, the co-editor of the popular blog Boing Boing, erased sex columnist Violet Blue from the site’s archives. Removed from public view on the two-million unique-visitors-a-month megablog were all Jardin’s posts regarding her former friend, as well as all of Blue’s comments on the site. Readers were not notified of the changes. Last week, the disappearance of the posts was noticed for the first time. The move outraged Boing Boing readers—and launched a massive, public controversy on the ethics of archiving in the new media era.
Though Jardin removed the posts from public view, she left them on the server—a process known as “unpublishing.” It is an unfortunate, Orwellian word and when Jardin used the term to explain herself to Boing Boing readers, its connotations only fueled the fire.
Except for the fact that they were deleted, the posts in question were unremarkable. Jardin has only described the reasons for the unpublishing as “personal business,” which has led to rampant, conspiratorial speculation. The theories have gotten extreme—one popular blog proposed a love triangle between Jardin, Blue and war-reporter Kevin Sites. (It loses a bit of traction when Blue says “I’ve never met Kevin Sites.”)
Jardin insists there is nothing insidious about leaving the public, or even Blue, in the dark. “I think we each share a code of ethics [about] what is private and what might cause harm or a violation of privacy for other human beings,” Jardin says. “We don’t want to do that. We try not to be cruel. We try not to cause public drama or draw attention to people’s issues.”
Her explanation didn’t change Blue’s mind—“It seems their principles have gone out the first convenient window,” she said—and it didn’t change the minds of the commenters on the site and around the internet. Analogies were drawn between Jardin’s actions and those of historical dictators (Hitler and Stalin), contemporary meanies (Bush and Cheney) and random irrelevancies (Robert Mugabe?). The Boing Boing editors, who had previously chastised major news organizations for retroactively changing their archives, were called hypocrites. They were accused of censorship.
But the Violet Blue fiasco wasn’t censorship, at least not in any traditional sense. No authority figure was stifling what the public could chose to say – the site willingly pulled down content it owned for reasons of its own design. It was not an authority figure stifling the public’s speech, rather the public enraged for an authority figure with the audacity to stop talking. What Boing Boing was guilty of (if Boing Boing was guilty of anything) was some kind of reverse censorship, something there isn’t yet a word for, something new. It’s a riddle so new, even the jokers are struggling to come up with a punchline. It’s still unclear what the depths of the problem are, let alone any solution.
“What would happen if Boing Boing decided we’re going to shut down?” wonders Boing Boing co-editor David Pescovitz. “I don’t mean today. Maybe in twenty years we’re all broke and bankrupt, we can’t afford to host, no one likes us, no one reads our stuff, and we take down the entire thing. Are we then the ultimate censors?”
Jardin and Pescovitz argued to their hoards of angry commenters that the posts were still visible online, just not on their site. “The Wayback Machine” at archive.org, a file cabinet of important Web pages at points of time dating back to the ‘90s, includes a complete collection of Boing Boing’s Violet Blue-related posts still available for all to see. But Boing Boings users rejected third party archives as a suitable replacement.
The problems with trusting archive.org to be the internet’s archivist are more than psychological. Technical limitations prevent the site from indexing more a small percentage of online content. What’s more, many important sites prevent indexing. If The New York Times went bankrupt, its blog posts would disappear.
Clay Shirky, NYU associate professor and former chairman of technical work for the Library of Congress’s digital preservation network, sees the Boing Boing readers’ point: “If my mental model is ‘Oh, it’s on Boing Boing, I’m going to search Boing Boing’; my first thought if I don’t find it on Boing Boing is not going to be ‘I should search archive.org,’” he says. “It’s going to be ‘Did I misremember?’”
For now, readers still remember what used to be. Blue says Boing Boing readers have been e-mailing her to bemoan the loss of the posts and their attached comment threads. Users seem to particularly miss a conversation from a year and a half ago, when Google briefly stopped returning the proper results for prominent sex blogs. The thread – a veritable how-to guide for would-be complainers to the search engine – led a Google representative to contact Blue and make a public statement on the matter. Sex blogs had, apparently, been victimized by a faulty new search algorithm.
That users saw these conversations as a part of the historical record was news to the editors at Boing Boing. “It has shown me what our readers, our community and even what people who don’t read us—people who can’t stand us—project on to us, and what they expect Boing Boing to be,” says Pescovitz.
“There’s a big difference between working for National Public Radio, producing something that is a news piece for that outlet, and writing for Boing Boing,” argues Jardin, who currently works as a commentator for NPR. “They are two entirely different kinds of entities, even though they have really big footprints culturally. Boing Boing is not trying to be CNN or NPR or the Library of Congress.”
But if there is a lower standard for sites like Boing Boing, what is the higher standard for newspapers online? The practice of deleting controversial stories without notice, known as “scrubbing,” is a new ethical challenge that newspapers have just begun to face. “It’s certainly a practice that surprisingly large media organizations are using,” says Craig Silverman, the editor of media corrections aggregator Regret the Error.
Newspapers still underestimate the speed and reach of their Web sites. It’s nearly impossible to remove an inaccurate story before it does any harm. Corrections, inevitably, are as important for a story that has been posted for half an hour as they are for a story in a print edition.
Just ask the New York Daily News, which, during April’s NHL playoffs, reported online that New York Ranger Sean Avery had been taken to the hospital, unconscious, not breathing, and in a state of cardiac arrest. Though wording of the story was changed to reflect the truth – Avery only had a lacerated spleen – the Daily News never ran a correction. And by the time the story was changed, a number of popular blogs had picked up the incorrect story.
“They reported that a guy was in danger of dying, and after they realized that they were completely wrong about it, they tried to pretend like it was never there,” Silverman says.
Any time content is removed from a credible site, Silverman expects some public attention devoted to what was removed and why.
So should Boing Boing be treated as a credible site? It’s up for debate.
“Years ago, at a meeting, I referred to Boing Boing as an institution,” says Shirky. “[Co-editor] Cory Doctorow blew up at me and said ‘It’s not an institution. It’s just our blog.’ A lot of the charm of Boing Boing has been its relentlessly saying, this is stuff we’re obsessed with.”
Jardin echoes Doctorow’s feelings. “This is historically a personal blog. It may be a really high traffic personal blog, and it may be a blog that is important to a lot of people – it’s certainly important to each of us – but at its heart it’s still a personal blog shared by a number of people.”
Still, Silverman and Shirky both consider the question of a site’s credibility to be an audience decision, not an editorial one. Blue takes a more rigid approach, choosing to hold all blogs written for the public to the highest journalistic standards. “I really believe in the concept of a permanent history and keeping a journal that is an accurate telling of history,” she says. “My site is a personal site, but it’s something in the public sphere, something of permanent record.”
Blue is quick to say that many of her posts reflect personal opinions that have changed over time. She claims never to have deleted a post—even the ones she posted while drunk.
Moving forward, Boing Boing’s editors promise to involve readers in the archiving practices of the site. Shirky, who is one of those readers, offers this: “I think it would have been optimal if whatever problem the editors had with Violet Blue had led to an editor’s note, a strike-through, or just a sense that ‘we stopped posting her stuff a year ago,’ that she’s persona non grata, and simply letting the other stuff go.”
Silverman hopes that Boing Boing begins to conform to the standard blogging practice of noting how and when a post is updated. And the Boing Boing commenters continue to wage a major debate on new media archival ethics.
“I’m not quite ready to say that I’m glad this took place, but it raised these questions that are fundamentally new questions,” said co-editor Pescovitz. “I’m glad that the discussion is happening on our site.”