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 missing posts were noticed for the first time. The move outraged Boing Boing readers—and launched a major, 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 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.
If anything, the Violet Blue/Boing Boing affair involves a sort of reverse censorship. Usually, censorship involves authority figures who pass judgment on what members of the public can choose to say. But here, Boing Boing’s readers (the public) wanted to censor what the site (the authority figures) could choose not to say.
“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?”
They aren’t, argues Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody and a former chairman of technical work for the Library of Congress’s digital preservation network. Shirky points to online archiving efforts like the “Wayback Machine” at archive.org, a library of Web pages trapped in amber that includes (among other things) a complete collection of Boing Boing’s Violet Blue-related posts.
Jardin and Pescovitz tried the same argument with the outraged members of Boing Boing’s audience, but they rejected such third-party collections of Boing Boing’s work. Shirky sees their 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?’”
Shirky sees the archiving issue as two debates—one of content and one of context. The degree to which large Web sites should maintain onsite archives is a fundamentally new problem, occurring at a time when the old problem, that of archiving content, hasn’t fully been solved. Efforts like archive.org can only index 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.
But making it hard to find Boing Boing’s archived posts is, for many, tantamount to deleting them. 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.