On identity and edits

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

The discussion about tracking edits, and editing our weblog writing continues, and perhaps rightly so. Though this originally started out as a disagreement between two people, the impact is going beyond these players and may change how we view what we do here. Ultimately it may drive some of us out of this space altogether.

I don’t want to cover too much old ground about Mark Pilgrim’s now defunct Winer Watch. In a nutshell, Mark, in an effort to hold Dave Winer accountable for his writing, started tracking edits Winer made in his weblog posts. Uproar ensued, sides were taken, shots fired, and the virtual dead litter the waves as jagged debris, eddying the smooth flow of our thoughtful discourse.

What Mark did with Dave and what Dave did with Mark is unimportant. Popularity aside, they are, after all, only two of us. A far more critical issue is that of weblog writers pulling material or substantially editing it after publication, and the writers so-called ‘contract of accountability’ with their readership.

You can’t swing a dead cat around this discussion without hitting Rebecca Blood’s Weblog Ethics, which covers this very issue. In this, Rebecca wrote:

Changing or deleting entries destroys the integrity of the network. The Web is designed to be connected; indeed, the weblog permalink is an invitation for others to link. Anyone who comments on or cites a document on the Web relies on that document (or entry) to remain unchanged. A prominent addendum is the preferred way to correct any information anywhere on the Web. If an addendum is impractical, as in the case of an essay that contains numerous inaccuracies, changes must be noted with the date and a brief description of the nature of the change.

History can be rewritten, but it cannot be undone. Changing or deleting words is possible on the Web, but possibility does not always make good policy. Think before you publish and stand behind what you write. If you later decide you were wrong about something, make a note of it and move on.

Rebecca’s points are excellent, both in writing and in intent. I cannot fault either. By being careful with what you write, and making online corrections of your material, you are being held accountable for your writing. Well and fine, but what makes any of you think this is a good thing?

Let’s take a look at an existing example. In my comments, Werner made mention of the fact that Dave Winer had edited out a comment in a his Thanks for the Emails posting. He also, at my urging, wrote a posting on this, quoting the edited material:

* In an earlier version of the “Thanks for the E-Mails” posting, he wrote that the campaign against him was organized by “an alcoholic, a representative of BigCo and a 16 year old kid”. Everyone who knows the players understands these are references to Mark Pilgrim, Sam Ruby and Aaron Swartz.
* In a comment about Keith Ballinger’s slide about RPC at XML DevCon, Dave stated that Keith either was ignorant or a liar, and basically accused him lying in public to further the goals of a BigCO.

On this issue, Werner wrote:

I will defend Dave’s right to make edits, or anyone rights to make edits to what she or he writes. Whether it is for the flow of writing, or for correcting grammatical mistakes, your content is yours, to do with as you please.

This does however not take away that you do have to take responsibility for all your words, even if they appear only briefly on your weblog. If you have an issue with anger and frustration and frequently need to edit your posts to remove this anger, you should realize that editing does not remove them from the minds of the people that have already read them. And that maybe you need a different approach to manage your angry writing.

As another person who can be, shall we say, passionate with my writing, I understand what Werner says – we should be more careful about what we publish in the first place. Especially if we’re attacking another person.

Dave Winer should be more careful about what he says online about people. He is not. By tracking edits, we could hold Dave Winer accountable for these remarks. Arguing against this clearly puts me on the side of the devil, but can you all not see the ultimate danger with this accountability? To explain, I want to also enter the online discussion about identity.

Joi Ito wrote an essay recently on identity titled “I’m not Joi Ito, that’s just my name”. In it he wrote:

With ubiquitous computing, decentralize databases, information stored and disseminated everywhere, it is exceedingly important to know that 1) once information is created, it exists forever and can not be “erased”, 2) data mining will become cheaper and easier, 3) transborder data flows will become seamless, 4) profiling will become a common way for businesses and governments to efficiently focus their attention on people and groups that meet certain criteria.

What does this mean? The risk now is that you can be profiled and categorized in a variety of ways that can hurt your ability to travel, get a job, get insurance, get married, etc. for things that match a profile that increases risk to the establishment even if only in a statistical way. Interaction with radicals or reading of radical material could get you in this profile so the chilling effect on dissent will be real. It means that trying to “control information” once it is created is nearly impossible. The trick is to create as little information as possible and to make it as difficult to data mine as possible

In these days of heightened security, paranoia really, whatever you say can and will be used against you. I think that we’re all aware of this as webloggers, and for the most part, accept this. But what others say can and will be used against you, also, and therein lies the most dangerous aspect of weblogging – therein lies the accountability. We howl when a person defames us, but what happens if they make a comment such as Winer’s, and then edit it? We howl even louder and scramble to our aggregators in order to capture and persist…

What? Exactly what are we really persisting beyond the moment? The fact that Winer made a derogatory statement and then edited it out, or an association between a certain weblogger and alcoholism, and that another weblogger is a liar?

You see that’s the other shoe dropping in Joi’s essay – it doesn’t matter the origination of the source of the data because ultimately it is the data that persists not the event that created the data. That’s why I say, the sooner this data is pulled, the less chance to desseminate, the better because ultimately it will harm the person being discussed, not the person making the discussion.

Months ago Dave Winer made a statement about me online, one of many, most unflattering (but some positive). I can’t recall the exact words of this statement but I think it had something to do with me being mentally unstable.

You who read my weblog know for a fact that, yes, I am mentally unstable – the instability of a person who fights back against the status quo, against the tyranny of the commons regardless of the ‘rightness’ of the cause. I see that as the greatest danger in this new medium – the sameness that threatens all spontaneity in what we do here. And yes, I am mad as a hatter for keeping up this fight.

Winer pulled the statement before I had a chance to make a copy, or I’d replicate it here for your edification – it really was classic Winer. In fact, I believe it was up less than 10 minutes. Good. Because if he hadn’t and a person were to search on my name in Google, eventually they would see an association between me and ‘mental instability’. Without an awareness that Winer attacks without a moment’s provocation, the person reading the statement wouldn’t know to filter this comment based on prior understanding of the person making the statement and the person the statement was about. In fact, if they were to look up references to Winer online, his ’status’ as recorded in many online publications would seem to give him credibility. Doesn’t matter what “we know” – it’s all in the data.

Now, it is true that if the statement Winer makes lasts long enough it can be grabbed by a Gooblebot, but unless my understanding of Google is completely off, this doesn’t mean that the association between me and the comment are permanent – especially if the reference is pulled. Google’s cache is not historically regressive. Neither are historical recording efforts such as the Wayback Machine that granular in what they record.

I have to pause when I read the statements that people make that what’s on the Internet is forever. This is simply not true. Not a bit of it. You have to maintain the data online, or references to it, or a mirror of it for it to persist. I lost a multi-part science fiction story I started online because I accidentally deleted my copy of it, and the online version didn’t persist once it was pulled. Darnit.

No, the only way this comment will last beyond the original act of deleting it is in aggregators, and since they don’t maintain history, and don’t persist, the comment should eventually go the way comments of this nature should go – into the wasteland of “Bad Data Lost on the Net – Thank God”.

Well, aggregators didn’t use to maintain history, didn’t use to persist. Now our clever technical folks have shown how easy it is to persist these comments, and not only persist them – highlight them to the point where data propagation is almost guaranteeed. With this, the statement Winer made about me would not only live to be read by others, perhaps possible employers – it will be highlighted. In gaudy color.

Worse, dozens of outraged webloggers will rise in my defense and quote what Winer said again and again – thereby increasing the dessimination of this information more completely and more thoroughly, as well as diffusing the origination of the quote until all that’s left is the bald statement propagated again and again – Shelley Powers is mentally unstable.

(Yeah, you heard it here first.)

By holding a person ‘accountable’, by persisting in saying that we should never make edits, never pull data, never change what we write, we add to the noise of the Internet, without adding to either the truth or the quality of the data on the Internet.

Want to hold a person accountable for what they say? Then make a pictorial snapshot of their weblog entry and post the image online. Reference the person’s act but not the subject and what you’ll propagate is the correct data – that this person makes derogatory statements about people to cause trouble, and then pulls the information to maintain his or her own seeming innocence. Say, “Here’s an example”, but don’t write what the example is. Don’t add to the problem.

That’s for a person’s writing and accountability. On a more personal level as regards editing:

Ten Reasons Why wrote an essay on this issue for his own weblogging editorial policy, and I commend him for this. It sounds very much like Rebecca’s own policy. An excerpt:


What might be changed without notice: spelling, punctuation, typos, grammar, incorrectly entered URLs, and other non-substantive material like formatting, layout, and page design. Non-substantive material is that which can be changed without semantically affecting the entry.

What will not be changed without notice: Anything substantive that semantically affects the tone or meaning of the entry or would result in a factual difference.

Process for changes. If I notice incorrect information, if I need to “tone down” my language, or if I say something I regret, I will correct that error either by a new post with the change that links back to the original post and/or an addition (see below) to the post that contains the information being changed.


Additions to entries. Additions to an entry after the time of original publication will be indicated as such, either inline or as an appended paragraph marked as “Update.”


Deleting entire entries. Entire entries will not be knowingly or intentionally deleted from this weblog.

Deleting portions of entries If it becomes necessary to delete a portion of an entry (e.g. for legal reasons or because I have later decided it is too offensive or incorrect to be allowed to remain in public view), the deleted portion will be replaced with a notice indicating the general nature of what has been deleted and the reason for deletion.

As with Rebecca, well written, concise, unambigious. I respect his effort and his policy.

But you see, I’m not Greg. And I’m not Rebecca. I’m not a journalist, and this isn’t a professional journal. I fuck up. I get angry. I make statements I regret, usually about my own person life. I hope I hold myself accountable for uncalled for attacks, with issued apologies and retractions. I try. However, I will continue to edit out material I feel has violated personal confidences, including my own. Without making an annotation of of my actions, justifying it, or making excuses for it. I wil try harder in the future not to do this – but no guarantees.

Because, you see, that spontaneous part of me that leads me at times to write things I regret is the best part of me, not the worst. It is that part of me that is most human. It is that part of me that leads me to learn more about myself.

And as for editorial policies – though Greg’s Ten Reason’s Editorial Policy reads somewhat like the Ten Commandments, he, nor anyone else is God, I’m not Moses, and these weblogs are not burning tablets.


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