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Expunged? What Happens When A Blogger Decides To Remove Posts?

Followers of Boing Boing and Web flaps may know about a decision by one of BB’s writers, Xeni Jardin. Apparently, Ms. Jardin had previously posted material about Violet Blue’s (another blogger/Web writer/journalist) work. Then, at some point, Ms. Jardin decided that she did not wish to have that material on BB anymore. So she removed the posts (by the way the removal occurred more than a year ago but has only recently gained attention). And there is the issue. According to the New York Times, BB readers were most upset. Some saw the act as hypocritical. Ms. Blue found the practice “horrifying.” The practice has been given the name “unpublished” as in “being unpublished.” (This term is a misnomer as is discussed later.)

Possibly the most important factor is that BB patrons saw the act as breaking an unspoken understanding and failing to communicate with them. Some including Ms. Blue argue that the practice violates some norms of the Web. Maybe it does. But that alleged norm is probably not so real. And it seems difficult to really claim that one wants BB or others to detail every move or thought they make. Still the sense of outrage is more than palpable. For the law folks, the event raises questions about norms and perhaps who owns the posts.

As the article notes and Dan Solove’s book details, in many cases one may want sites to take down posts that one does not like. Here the person liked the posts. So she feels “horrified.” To BB’s credit they are reflecting on how best to address its readers’ concerns. In the past BB has found creative solutions to deal with comments by having a moderator remove vowels from nasty posts (this idea reminds of Yossarian deleting harmless words from letters as a censor in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22; BB’s practice is not censorship of the same type but it is a way of indicating displeasure at the manners of post while letting it through in some form).

NOW many will see all of this speech limiting and so on. Again maybe so. But is BB a “publication of record?” Even if it is, does it have to make its archives available as they were? It seems that BB’s ardent fans have a view of what BB is. And once one launches anything be it a book, a Web site, a film, and so on, it has its own life. Controlling it becomes more difficult as more people choose to engage with it. This phenomenon is what seems to have caught BB off guard. Yet, with a blog control is possible. One can set forth rules and tell folks “Here is my world. Here are the basics of how to be in my world. You are welcome but I may ask you to leave and you are not required to stay here.” After reflecting on their readers’ points BB has stated:

So the [current] de facto, undiscussed, presumptive policy, which we recently just declared as part of this whole dust-up, was: Every individual has the right to do whatever they want to do. They can post anything they want, about anything they want, whenever they want without asking permission, and if they want to change those posts or take them down, they can do that too.

BB could at some point choose to keep everything up forever. I am not sure that is a wise or necessary policy. Again the courtesy of removal seems to go away with that policy. And it misses a key point about the blog posts. Ms. Jardin wrote them, not Ms. Blue.

As Ms. Jardin and her colleagues note, BB writers operate independently. They cover what they like, post what they wish, and manage their posts separately for the most part. Put differently if the posts belong to anyone, they belong to her. My paper Property, Persona, and Preservation goes into some detail about individual claims for online writings and the possible benefits of such an approach. But in short, Ms. Jardin is the author. Ms. Blue may like the posts and want to have them up when they are flattering but what if Ms. Jardin decided to write unflattering posts? Perhaps the object of the posts would want them removed. (It seems Ms. Jardin did make choice not to go into detail in part because “[A]t the time I just wanted to take this material down for a host of reasons that I don’t want to talk about in public because I don’t think it would do this person any good.”)

To be fair, Ms. Blue and others in her position, have a sense that these posts are not only about them but in a way part of them. People want to point to articles that praise them. In the past they would clip and copy the articles to send out later. Today, we are used to having the easy, instant access to the articles or posts and when they vanish, we are upset. It may even feel like the legendary Harvard act of expunging a student’s existence at the school; you were never here, it never happened.

Nonetheless, as far as Ms. Jardin’s posts are concerned, no one is unpublishing the person discussed in the post. Ms. Jardin is unpublishing Ms. Jardin’s posts. That seems to be a simple, clear power she should have at her discretion. And I do mean discretion. For now BB seems to have decided that the community they have built will work better or must understand that the authors can update and/or remove posts as they wish. So be it. If, however, they think a different policy works for their site, well amen too.

-Deven

PS I don’t know whether Harvard really does this but two links mention it here and here
so it seems to be a handy urban legend that may have some level truth behind it.

PPS Now there are possible circumstances when a site might not be able to say this is our sandbox but I leave that idea to another time and/or Frank who will likely get into the issue.