Recovered from the Wayback Machine.
Each of the For Poets sites, of which this weblog is a member, has a different photo representing the topic of the site as part of the design of the main page. The photos are compatible with each other and complementary to the page; more importantly, though, they provide a clue, sometimes a very subtle clue, about my view of the topic. The Linux for Poets show a photo of ravens, and I quote the Raven, “Nevermore”, as a sly dig at never more using Windows. The Semantic Web photo with its foggy outlines and confusing lines was perfect for the topic, as semantics is something we all think we understand; pity that none of our understandings agree. This theme is only enhanced by the related poem, with its references to three mountains and three islands and returning to our origins — as if Lady St. Vincenty Millay was a member of the RDF working group. The photo for this weblog, Weblogging for Poets, is a lighthouse on an island, a natural choice when paired with its poem, the words that …no man is an island. Isn’t that the nature of Weblogging, that uniqueness we all extol? No weblogger is an island? Do we not beat each other and our own chests daily with the accouterments of our connectivity? The first three were easy, but the Internet For Poets weblog refused to identify itself for the longest time. I found a seaside picture I took in Astoria, Oregon that I connected fiercly with — strongly enough for me to use the photo. However, unlike the other photos from the other weblogs, I didn’t understand why I wanted to use it. Not at first. The photo is of a tall rock surrounded by an incoming tide, the persistent movement of the waves highlighted by the white froth of their action; the rock is standing strong against the waves, the sight made even more poignant because we know that ultimately the ocean will win and someday, and this rock will be gone. The impermanence of the rock is its beauty. It wasn’t until I was searching for a poem to go with the photo, and found Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls, that I understood why I picked this particular photo:
The tide rises, the tide falls, The twilight darkens, the curlew calls; Along the sea-sands damp and brown The traveller hastens toward the town, And the tide rises, the tide falls. Darkness settles on roofs and walls, But the sea, the sea in darkness calls; The little waves, with their soft, white hands, Efface the footprints in the sands, And the tide rises, the tide falls. The morning breaks; the steeds in their stalls Stamp and neigh, as the hostler calls; The day returns, but nevermore Returns the traveller to the shore, And the tide rises, the tide falls.
The traveler passes through, leaving their footprints in the sand, a mark of their passage. But the mark doesn’t persist, it doesn’t last past the next tide; and in the morning, life goes on. It is the impermanence of the footprint, the impermanence of our lives, that is the beauty. Somewhere along the way, we began to see the Internet as a persistent entity, a medium for preserving our words and photos and graphics and web sites for an eternity, equivalent to the bugs and other detritus embedded in amber. We’ve codified this as an ethic to live by, and then extended this sense of permanence to the hypertext link that points to our contributions. Rather than providing a unique address for an item, at a specific point in time, we create a permalink, and we surround this innocuous Internet address with rules and requirements. When the contribution is removed or moved, we refer to the link as broken, annotating simple mechanics with evilness, and we put up pages that say, 404 Page Not found — or some clever variation thereof. We treat the missing resource as a gap in the web, a point of damage. Rebecca Blood wrote on this, saying:
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.
But the Internet is not a static thing, consisting of captured moments layered one on the other, each with its own proper place. It is a fluidic creature that, like the waters of the oceans, adapts constantly; when resources are created it flows around them and when resources are removed, it fills the gaps left. It is this change that is the strength of the Internet, its integrity, not the static sense of permanence. Consider the simple day-to-day act of searching for resources about a specific topic, let’s say information on Iraq. The results I get today are different than the results I would get a year ago, and different than the results I’ll get in a year’s time. The Internet is a tide in a constant state of turmoil — web resources as starfish and shells, bits of wood and polished glass, thrown like flotsam onto the beaches and just as quickly reclaimed by the next wave. There’s the beauty of it. Rather than one resource statically being the definitive source for all information on Iraq — a resource potentially controlled by one group — the Internet, the beautiful, mutable Internet, thrashes about and brings up the debris closest to the surface and lays it out at your feet. Contrary to popular myth, the Internet is not forever. Like the footsteps in the sand from the poem earlier, the tides move in and quickly remove all reference to you once you leave the medium. If you want to keep your mark online, you have to work at it. You have to maintain your pages, your domain, the easy accessibility of your writing. More than that, though, you have to keep it alive. Or not.
Accountability and Accusability
I hesitated to take the discussion from the wider Internet down to our specific uses of it for weblogging. It seems as if we are constantly setting ourselves apart from it, setting rules where there are none. Before weblogging I had no hesitation in pulling a resource that had aged beyond use; and I was philosophical when a resource I linked was pulled. It was the nature of the beast. Now, though, it’s personal. Whether we keep our archives online or not, the Internet survives, integrity intact. Writing published online does not equate to writing living forever unless what we write is so profound that it can live beyond us. My goal is to someday write something that is capable of living in the next moment after I’m gone. I hope I’ll know it when I see it someday. I know that it wasn’t represented in a story I wrote about the government surrounding the Bay Bridge with razor wire not long after the World Trade Center destruction. This posting was located on my Manila site, and was also one of my most popular pages for awhile, after Dave Winer linked to it. The page is now gone, and the link at Scripting News leads to Userland’s version of a 404 error and careful checking of Google shows that no trace of the page remains. Was this a loss? After all, the story and the writing had meaning at the time, but not since. At one time the story was being viewed by hundreds of people, and now — it’s as if it never existed. The old story did give a unique perspective of the event, and how one person, myself, felt about seeing their beloved landmark wrapped in razor wire. That one perspective was a bit of history that’s lost, and we could say that history is diminished by it being gone. We could, but history isn’t so diminished. The story disappeared without a trace so easily because it lived in the moment, it added to the moment, but overall, it added little to the story of a country impacted by an event it found traumatic. When weighed against all the other stories since, and the stories still happening, it was judged by the Internet, the ruthless, dispassionate Internet, to have little merit and fell below the churn, settling quietly on the bottom to live in obscurity. And no loss. I am philosophical about the loss of the story. It wasn’t my type of story, the writing wasn’t particularly adept, the photos I still have and can re-post if I wish, and the events are past, the people have moved on — persisting the event, and the appropriate permalinks, adds no value. Not for me, not for Dave Winer, and definitely not the Internet. But look at another page that I keep hanging around because we never throw out archives. I never bothered to import these posts into Movable Type when I moved from Blogger. Now when I look at it, I see some discussions that require no background and some writing that’s okay, some not. However, much of it is references that require context — you literally had to be there to even understand what I’m talking about. I could go through this page and eliminate 50% of it and there would be no loss. These old posts are, occasionally, accessed as a result of some strange search request, but my words add no value to the search, and the searching adds no value to me. If I removed these posts, no one would notice. No one. There would be no destruction of integrity for the Internet and certainly none for the other webloggers, because if these old, old pages have settled gently into obscurity, then other webloggers’ pages that may or may not have linked to the page have also, though I know this may make many wince. Of course, this all presupposes that the page continues to lie in a state of somnolence; that they aren’t yanked back into new debates. I’m not quite sure whether it was irony or serendipity that as I began the task of writing this essay — out with the old, on with the new — the old is pinged back to life.
Although I found out about the accountability (Winer Watch) controversy long after it had concluded, I was triply interested since:
- I’ve been the subject of one of Dave Winer’s (deleted) inflammatory posts;
- I invented the term Doing a Dave (“substantially editing or removing content after having posted it to the web”); and
- I once believed that changes to weblog entries should be clearly identified (using the <edit></edit> and <edit/> syntax suggested by Burningbird).
Personally, I think my original idea, the use of edit tag that seemed so clever then as I was caught up in the mechanics of weblogging and sought to add rigidity to an open medium, is appalling. One might as well write lines of code than words for all the readability using the foolish pseudo-markup added to the writing. Oddly enough, though, I wouldn’t remove this one post because I rather liked what I said about being a technical anarchist and may use this again in other writing. Of course, one only has to look at the post to see humor — writing about technical anarchy while demonstrating the finer uses of “Weblogging for the anal”. Returning to the issue of accountability, if I had pulled this post, would I have committed harm to Jonathon Delacour, in his search for annotation for his new essay? Dorothea Salo wrote the following, pertinent to this issue I think:
Especially public writing conceived as part of a conversation rather than a mere broadcast. That to my mind amounts to editing your fellow human beings’ memories, a highly ethically suspect action under most circumstances, I should think.
We edit each other’s memories all the time. Two old friends get together and they talk about old times and one says, “Hey remember when…” and the other goes, “That’s not what I remember…”. Memory of a shared conversation is a negotiation, a give and take and by the time all parties are finished, the memory isn’t exactly as it happened, but is no less real. That’s how conversations work — we are not heads of state to have every word in every exchange recorded, permanently. Hypothetically, if the old post that Jonathon had linked had been pulled, would what he wrote be diminished? No. I might because the post used my codification of ‘weblog writing edits’, and he wouldn’t be able to find it because it would be pulled. Realistically though, if you read either of us then, you know what we talked about. If you didn’t, do you care now? Unlikely. (Unless the issue is of ‘proof’ that I’ve changed in regards to weblog editing. Proof. You don’t have to seek proof in the archives — ask, and I’ll gladly tell you. “I changed my mind.” If I continue writing and you continue reading me, you’ll see me change my mind on other things, too.) Dorothea also made a point of saying that she disagrees with removing old content that makes us look bad. She sees it as a pretense that the old ugliness didn’t occur.:
If you did something wrong, apologize and do better henceforth. If you didn’t, stick to your guns. Just please don’t try to pretend it never happened; that only adds to the fault (if any). I flatly refuse to help anyone create a public fictive perfection. I despise such fictions, refusing to so much as attempt one for myself. Why should I help anyone else do it?
This one puzzles me. Not the apology — we should apologize when we wrong another. This isn’t weblogging ethics, this is common decency. No, what puzzles me about this statement is keeping these old disputes alive. With the world the way it is, I have difficulty understanding why we would want to persist past ugliness here within our personal writing. If we were politicians or professional journalists, judges, or other keepers of the public morality, I could understand this — those who condemn must themselves be open to condemnation. But most of us are just plain folk, with little power beyond an opinion and a vote. If people believe that we have acted ugly in the past, and that the ugliness is part of our makeup, then it will surface again in the future. It won’t go away if it’s an inherent part of us. And if isn’t? Then what’s the purpose of keeping the archive of it — to beat us about the head with it in the future? (Weblogging writing may disappear, but weblogging mistakes are like spicy food — they never go completely away, but continue to resurface long after the original event.) When I decided to write this essay and bring up the issue of eliminating archives, it wasn’t as a way of excusing past “bad” behavior. Our behaviors are reflected in how others interact with us. I only have to look around in other people’s posts or comments to see my past behavior — ‘bad’ being both subjective and relative — returned again, and again, viewed through other eyes. At times there is a gentle glee in bringing up what a person said in the past; an invitation to reminisce and to play. Other times, the words are brought up as part of a new debate, not to punish but to reflect. Many times, though, there is a vindictive quality to it — schoolyard taunts of “You said! You said! You said!” Rather than encouraging us to grow, it forces us, and our behavior into amber. Rather than accountability, we have accusability. There is nothing inherently honorable or noble in this, and rather than deplore weeding out past disputes of this nature, we should demand it of each other. Posterity has no need to be cluttered with our petty quarrels.
Fictive Imperfect but Real
In comments in a post related to this issue wise words from wise people about the value of those past bits of our lives persisted in our archives:
“f you are thinking of discarding your archive, I don’t think you should, although I don’t really have a good argument why I think that.” Will “Part of the value of a journal, which is still my favorite form of blog, is that it allows you to see change, where you’ve been and where you are.” Loren “I’ve just been reading Siddhartha (thanks to whiskeyriver for the introduction to a wonderful book) and become very aware that what I was and did a year ago, five years ago, twenty five years ago – and what I will do in twenty five years time – are as much (or as little) a part of me as the person that sits here now bashing keys.” Andy “Come to think of it, everything you write, can and will be used against you. ” Fishrush, being funny. We hope. “Do I make judgements based on what I read in people’s blogs? Of course I do. I also qualify those judgements by recognizing that I’m working from a very limited set of information, and I’m willing to adjust my opinions as new information becomes available.” Rev Matt “Seriously, Shelley … dumping the archives of a weblog, in my view, would gut the authority of the voice of the blogger. It is over time, in history (through the layers of those archives) that we acquire color and resonance, or the distinct features of our distinct voices in these conversations.” Maria “Each of these experiences has its own value–either as a testament to my growth, or as a reaffirmation of my essence. I need an ongoing dose of both. I would never dump my recorded gropings, no matter how stupid some of them may seem in the light of present-day.” Tom “agree with Loren, that the archives are just another part of the whole that is you, and should be preserved (zits and all). Imagine what a full resource of written history people will have in the future. Your writing helps to enrich that resource. Keep it online.” wKen “To lose that two years of writing at the ‘bottle, even the crappy bits, would devastate me. My archives are my *life* over the past couple of years, in the same way as some of the bits of journalistic scribbling in those dusty old boxes are the only record I have of my life on the road, bar scars and liver damage, and in 10 or 20 years I hope I can go back and reread them with yet more beers, and remember, and feel like I had lived a life worth writing about.” Chris aka Stavros the Wonder Chicken “I thought later that another reason to keep Old Stuff around (even when it may be emotionally painful to read or just plain painful because we hate our old writing) is that there’s always someone who can identify with it. Just because we’re not in that place anymore doesn’t mean someone else may not garner some insight.” Michelle
I look at my archives now and I think about eliminating much of it, not because I’m trying to ‘hide’ what I am as a person — I am happy with who I am. Nor is it because I’m trying to rewrite history. No, the reason is that much of my old writing in these pages was me writing for the weblogging medium, rather than me writing as myself. I look at that old archive page and I shake my head and I think to myself, what was I doing? This wasn’t the the person I was then. The words were from a persona that formed with the sobriquet, “Burningbird”. This type of writing is a what you see when you shine a spotlight on a deer by the side of the door — frozen, devoid of shadows, the grim and the glory, words as glazed as the deer’s eyes, and just as paralyzed. I would like to prune my archives until they’re of a state that a person could enter my pages at any one point and see me. Past me, current me, future me, good, bad, or indifferent me, doesn’t matter as long as its me. Not me the weblogger. Not the looking glass self created by the people I know but have never met. Me, in whatever guise I might use. Dorothea’s perfect fictive, but one that is imperfect and real.
Impermanent Links and Disposable Archives
I’ve been talking about archives in the past, and I doubt there is anyone that sees much harm to others in removing old archives from public access (while agreeing with people, that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to preserve these offline somewhere). Consider that removing old material may be just as much a part of our growth, just as much of a story about ourselves, as leaving it online. However, removing old material differs from editing or removing fresh writing; writing that is still a part of the churn. How do we handle edits and deletions when we’re newly linked or commented? What’s the right thing to do? It depends. It depends on the circumstances. It depends on the people. It depends on the events. It depends on the time of day and the moon’s state. It depends on how you feel going forward. It depends on how you feel about the past. It depends on how you feel at this very moment. It depends on the price you’ve paid. It depends on the price you’re willing to pay. It depends on who you see in the mirror. It depends on what you see in the mirror. It depends on what you know is right. It depends on what you hope is right. It depends on a set of factors, all of which combined make each instance unique. How do you handle deleting and editing recent writing? It depends.
The first three essays in this series dealt with the technology of permalinks and the mechanics of redirection and ways of preserving, or not preserving, archives. However, within the hypertext links and the 404 pages, the versions and the editing markup, exists real people. Imperfect and wonderfully flawed. I no longer assume that because this is weblogging that a link that’s here today will be there tomorrow. If I want to quote a person, I do so within my writing, and if the person changes and decides to remove what they wrote, it has little impact on my writing because I’ve preserved what I’ve wanted to make my point. If someone says, “But there’s no proof now that what the person said was actually said”, I’ll agree with this and say, yes, you’re right. There is no proof. However, I’m also more cautious about what I quote and what I respond to. I look at the writing I’m thinking of quoting and I think about the person and I ask myself whether my addition adds value. I question my motives for quoting them, and I also question whether they might, at some point, regret what they have written. I am not here to hold others accountable, at least, not those who have no control over my life. I am not my brother’s keeper. We have put so much of the responsibility of connectivity on the person connected to that we’ve forgotten that there is someone at the other end of the link, and they, too, have responsibilities.