Wednesday 06 August 2003

Weblog Ethics

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).

My brush with Dave Winer came just three days after I'd started blogging when, late one night, I noticed that I was zooming towards the top of "Wow," I thought to myself, "my blog's become really popular in just a few days." Actually, I'd copped a serve from Dave over a post about disappearing content, titled Did I hear someone mention integrity? I wrote a conciliatory follow-up and went to sleep. When I woke up, the flame had been replaced by a complimentary post about my (newly-designed) Radio weblog.

The end result? The "disagreement" drove an enormous amount of traffic to my new site, I met some terrific people (Burningbird recalled "I also met Jonathon Delacour in my first year, meeting him over a phrase, no less -- Doing a Dave. What a way to meet another person -- over doing a Dave."), and I discovered a corner of Blogaria worth settling down in. Actions always have consequences; but the consequences aren't always those we anticipate.

I still have strong reservations about removing entries but I've changed my mind about pretty much everything else. And while I can understand the impulse to encourage "accountability", I find I've crossed over to Dave Winer's side of the fence as regards "substantially editing (although not removing) content after having posted it to the web." For me, since writing is rewriting, the idea of tracking changes to a text is inimical to the essence of writing. But then I don't define weblogging in terms of journalism, which is Rebecca Blood's frame of reference for the rules she suggests in her essay Weblog Ethics, rules that she believes "form a basis of ethical behavior for online publishers of all kinds."

Any weblogger who expects to be accorded the privileges and protections of a professional journalist will need to go further than these principles. Rights have associated responsibilities; in the end it is an individual's professionalism and meticulous observance of recognized ethical standards that determines her status in the eyes of society and the law. For the rest of us, I believe the following standards are sufficient:

  1. Publish as fact only that which you believe to be true.
  2. If material exists online, link to it when you reference it.
  3. Publicly correct any misinformation.
  4. Write each entry as if it could not be changed; add to, but do not rewrite or delete, any entry.
  5. Disclose any conflict of interest.
  6. Note questionable and biased sources.

More importantly, I instinctively mistrust attempts like this to impose rules or standards, no matter how well-intentioned they might be. I agree with Dave Rogers when he says:

In my opinion, "accountability" is misused to impart some patina of authority to an agency that has none. I am accountable to the laws of my nation, state and city. I am accountable to the mother of my children as my children's father. I'm accountable to my employer within the context of my employment. I may or may not be accountable to an entity commonly known as God. That's an issue that we need not go into here. But I am not accountable to Mark Pilgrim or Dave Winer or any "community" that wishes to exercise some authority over me. I recognize my choices have consequences, but I do not recognize the authority of vaguely defined groups of others over my choices and actions.

This "community" of webloggers is trying to exercise some authority over other webloggers over how they choose to write and what they choose to post or take down. Screw them, I say.

That said, the simplest way for me to define my own weblog "ethics," and thereby to avoid any misunderstandings, is to explain how my practice departs from Rebecca Blood's rules.

1. Publish as fact only that which you believe to be true. The problem here is the assumption that facts and truth are equivalent. They're not, necessarily, for me. I'm more concerned with emotional truth. As in:

I don’t know if Jonathon ever dated a woman named Ikuko for real, but I know that I believe the stories he tells about her. (One Pot Meal)

2. If material exists online, link to it when you reference it. No problem with this one--I'm meticulous about linking to material I quote.

3. Publicly correct any misinformation. According to my New Oxford Dictionary of English, misinformation is:

false or inaccurate information, especially that which is deliberately intended to deceive

while fiction is:

literature in the form of prose, especially novels, that describes imaginary events and people

invention or fabrication as opposed to fact

a belief or statement which is false, but is often held to be true because it is expedient to do so.

Given that some of my weblog entries contain fictional elements--perhaps the people exist (or existed) but an event didn't happen exactly as I describe it or the event happened exactly as I describe it but to someone who never existed--I can't "publically correct any misinformation" without negating the truth of the story.

I've never set out to "deceive" anyone, though in retrospect it would have been infinitely better to have made it explicit much earlier that my interests (and my writing) were shifting from writing conventional weblog entries to telling stories. I regret that I didn't. Take this, then, as a belated announcement.

4. Write each entry as if it could not be changed; add to, but do not rewrite or delete, any entry. This rule exemplifies how Rebecca Blood's enterprise is based on the rules and practices of traditional media: the book has been printed, the newspaper has been published, the television or radio program has been broadcast (but remains available on tape), the prints of the movie have been struck. The expectation is that the information is immutable, that it has been inscribed on a stone tablet.

I find this difficult to accept. Rather I'd prefer to rewrite entries as many times as I choose, in the interests of improving the writing and getting closer to the emotional and intellectual truth of the story. I'm not writing a book, or a magazine article; and I'm not writing journalism.

But I'll need to tread carefully here. Rebecca Blood may have a point when she argues that:

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...

The network of shared knowledge we are building will never be more than a novelty unless we protect its integrity by creating permanent records of our publications. The network benefits when even entries that are rendered irrelevant by changing circumstance are left as a historical record...

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.

So, although I won't promise not to rewrite any of my entries, I'll ensure that any subsequent editing does not negate the essence of the original post. Ultimately, however, my loyalty is to the writing and to the story.

As regards deleting entries, I did delete 19 entries about the technicalities of Radio UserLand when I switched to Movable Type (were I doing it again, I may well leave them there). And recently, because I wanted to reshape my weblog to reflect my current interests, I changed the status of a large number of entries from Publish to Draft--removing those entries from the navigation but--through the magic of Movable Type--leaving the archive pages intact, thus preserving the permalinks.

I may revisit the subject of deleting entries when Burningbird publishes Part 4 of her series on Weblog Links, to be called "Start fresh by sweeping out the old webs."

Sometimes you may want to break the permalinks, and sometimes you may want to deliberately throw out archive pages. This last section challenges the premise behind persistent archives, and the myth of the permalink.

5. Disclose any conflict of interest. No problem with this--on the few occasions when it was appropriate, I've been "quite transparent about [my] jobs and professional interests." When I received a book to review, I disclosed the circumstances. In the unlikely event that "any monetary (or other potentially conflicting) interests" arise, I'll disclose those too.

6. Note questionable and biased sources. With this rule, Rebecca Blood seeks to distinguish between questionable articles produced by "highly biased organizations or by seemingly fanatical individuals" and reliable stories produced by trustworthy professional organizations (The New York Times and Rupert Murdoch's Fox News spring immediately to mind).

It is reasonable to expect that expert foragers have the knowledge and motivation to assess the nature of these sources; it is not reasonable to assume that all readers do. Readers depend on weblogs, to some extent, for guidance in navigating the Web.

Well yes, as long as we acknowledge the fine line between providing guidance and insulting the reader's intelligence. When I write again about David Irving's book on the bombing of Dresden, I doubt I'll need to point out that Irving is a Holocaust-denier whose credentials as a historian have been comprehensively discredited. It should be enough to quote Richard J. Evans's assertion in Lying About Hitler that Irving's account of the Dresden raid was based on "fantasy, invention, speculation, the suppression of reliable evidence, the use of unreliable sources or, most shockingly, the repeated deployment of a document that he knew to be a forgery."

I've laid my cards on the table, making clear as best I can how I try to negotiate what Steve Himmer called, in his post titled Learning to read, "those issues of voice and trust are at the center of so much of the weblogging enterprise."

Obliqueness, to me, is inextricably bound up with that 'play of time' I mentioned: there's no need to tell everything all at once, because the text isn't asked to be complete all at once. Readers, over time, can assemble their own picture of who the author is, and what oblique references may or may not refer to, and that's the richness of reading weblogs, frankly. Even if you use, as in the famous Oblivio example a 'false' center for your obliqueness, the reader still has the opportunity to suss out over time the parameters and position of the author—the blogger may be a fictional character (as I said the other day, between the real me and the me I write here, one of us drinks more, but it could easily be that one of us is more confident, or actually says the things the other only imagines saying), but they're a fictional character existing in more dimensions than Oliver Twist or Leopold Bloom.

To sum up, I do occasionally use a "false"' center for my obliqueness and I may write about "fictional" characters (including myself), but only as a strategy for disclosing the "real me."

Addendum. In a comment on this entry, Dave Winer asked that I point to his disclaimer about integrity, which says (in part):

A while ago I wrote down two rules about integrity in public writing. It doesn't matter whether you're a pro or amateur. I think these two rules are necessary and sufficient.

1. Disclose all pertinent information about your interests.

2. Never state as fact something you know not to be true.

In a separate During-the-Day Edits Disclaimer, Dave explains that:

I edit my weblog as the day goes by. At 10PM Pacific, the contents of Scripting News is sent via email to people who subscribe. At that point, unless something exceptional happens, I don't edit any further. This policy has been in place since the by-mail-subscription feature was installed.

Though this process of editing "as the day goes by" precipitated the "accountability" war, it must be said that Dave has a policy that he's followed consistently. However, I suspect it's also true that the controversy is focused more on deleting than rewriting entries. And, apart from those few posts I deleted when switching to MT, I haven't really changed my mind about that.

Still, it can be seen as bitterly ironic (from Dave Winer's point of view), that having been critical of his editing until 10PM Pacific, I now claim the right to edit "as the weeks, months, and years go by."

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Jonathan, before anything, treat people decently, and you can sleep at night. You and Shelley have both led a parade of people who trashed my integrity. Many have followed.

I take my work seriously. It's good that you changed your mind. Next time you lead a parade that villifies one person, think again that you might change your mind, and take the personal stuff out of it. You aren't a god, so don't be judgemental like one. That might be the first rule, not of integrity, but of ethics.

Now that I work with people from another profession, I get to see the shock and outrage when they glimpse into the way people relate in this space. It reminds me that I have gotten used to something that no one should get used to.

One more thing, Since you have decided to make a mega-issue of my integrity, don't you think it makes sense to at least refer my disclaimer about integrity? It was there all the time you were trash-talking me. I kept waiting for someone in your gang to bother to see what I had said about it.

You want to accomplish something real? Push back when ever you see a mob forming to trash one person. Then people will have more courage to speak up and do things.

Posted by Dave Winer on 7 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Actually, Dave, I haven't "decided to make a mega-issue of your integrity." To the contrary, my post makes it very clear that I've reversed my position on rewriting -- although not deleting -- weblog entries.

Nor have I "led a parade of people who trashed your integrity." Apart from the "Doing a Dave" trope (which was intended to be playful, though I acnowledge and regret that you experienced it as hurtful), I've deliberately kept clear of any Dave-Winer-related parades.

I thought long and hard about mentioning you in this post but eventually came to the conclusion that I could hardly claim the right to edit my weblog entries without mentioning that I'd previously been critical of your doing the same thing.

Finally, as you've requested, I've added links to (as well as quoted from) your disclaimers about Integrity and During-the-Day Edits.

Posted by Jonathon on 7 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Welcome back, Jonathon. Always refreshing to be the recipient of a sound thrashing the first minute after you walk in the door, isn't it? Keeps one on one's toes, I say.

One of the difficulties I find in this discussion of weblog "ethics" is how seriously to treat the subject, and how to assess the likely intelligence of the reader.

I frequently read the New York Times. I often scan the headlines of the Weekly World News when I pay for my groceries at the checkout counter. Am I outraged that the New York Times isn't covering the story of Sen. Clinton's sexual dalliance with space aliens? Not particularly.

Should I be outraged that some organization is publishing these literally fantastic stories and selling them as "news." Perhaps I should, but I'm not. I could spend my entire life being outraged if I wanted to, there's certainly enough outrageous stuff going on in the world.

(As a matter of curiosity, what do we call weblogging? Is it a medium? Or is internet publishing the medium? Is weblogging a genre within this medium? I'm not sure what the appropriate words of art are.)

Then there's that whole question of what a weblog is. Either way, I think it's asking far too much for all of us to take _everything_ individuals publish on the web as seriously as Rebecca Blood seems to think we should. What is my obligation to the "integrity of the web?" Why should that obligation prevail over whatever motivation I may have to do whatever I please with what I have written? Recognizing, of course, that once having written something to the web, "whatever I please" is by no means everything that can happen to what I've written to the web. Chances are, anything once written to the network will have copies that remain somewhere outside of my control.

There are some weblogs I take seriously, there are others that I take as seriously as I take the Weekly World News. I don't have to run down a mental checklist of "ethical" weblog conduct to make that assessment. I suppose such a list might help someone who wished to write a weblog that would be taken seriously, but I don't think it's essential.

In the end, I think sincere, serious people, writing authentically, will be taken that way by readers who are interested in what they have to say, even if they don't observe someone else's list of "ethical" particulars. And when sincere, serious people, violate some would-be authority's list of "ethical" particulars, I think that action will be judged by readers in the context of the writer's intent, previous writing, and whatever the larger context is that may frame the action.

Posted by Dave Rogers on 7 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Ah, welcome back, indeed, Jonathon,

At least your return does not go unnoticed.

It is, indeed, interesting how varied the Dave's of the world greet us.

Hopefully you can be satisfied, unlike Dave #1, with consorting with the mere mortals of this virtual space.

Posted by Loren on 8 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

That "Publish as fact only that which you believe to be true." REALLY BOTHERS ME.
I mean, it's like part of the paranoid schizophrenic's ethics for publishing a weblog. haha.
I mean, that's the whole reason I don't trust information on weblogs, because they're just topped up with all manner of things various people believe to be true, whether there's any evidence or reason to believe so or not.
This is the whole reason I discount that weblogs are taking over journalism. I mean, obviously big media makes mistakes too, but at least they ARE organized to some degree and they DO have rules they are professionally supposed to follow... but your average weblogger is just some guy who might believe anything he hears on the city bus or opinion talk radio... and he could be just as likely to publish it as fact. There's a problem there.

Posted by Chloe on 8 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Welcome back.

Posted by Ken Camp on 8 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

just to be clear: in my book I try very hard not to "frame weblogs in terms of journalism". in fact, I argue that the standards of journalism just don't apply to most weblogs, since the two practices are fundamentally different. my points are designed to promote transparency, to my mind a far better standard for weblogs.

my point about journalism is this: if you consider your weblog to be journalism, you will have to go much farther than these principles and adopt full-on journalistic practices and standards in order to be accorded the rights and privileges of that profession.

fwiw, I like the idea of versioning for those who like to rewrite their posts as time goes on. that way trackbacks and comments aren't rendered nonsensical if a point is clarified or changed altogether.

Posted by rebecca blood on 8 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I think that we all find our own way to make peace with ourselves and our writing.

Of course, one man's peace is another man's prelude to war is another woman's prelude to hysterical ranting about how if we track revisions to our own writing then the terrorists have already won.

Welcome back JD. There's an empty space when you're gone.

Posted by Mark on 8 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Most particularly towards Rebecca Blood ;) :
I just want to make it clear (because I didn't "couch" my previous comment), that I wasn't saying that "the Rebecca Blood guidelines" were meant as a journalism type of guideline... That is to say that I wasn't asserting that was the purpose of the rules or whatever.
My point was this... If you have any rules at all, the weblog ceases to be strictly a work of personal art (if you will), and if don't have the most stringent of rules possible, the weblog ceases to be a valid form of "news".
Say what you like (and you can of course ;), but a whole TON of bloggers definitely think they deserve the same recognition as writers at a newspaper. That much is obvious. And I don't mean the same amount of recognition, I mean the same KIND of recognition.
You can't go halfway on this. You can't go halfway with ethical publishing, and maintain integrity at the same time.
And I disagree with that definition of 'misinformation'... or rather, not with the definition, but rather with the application of the term 'misinformation'... I, personally (this is my opinion of course, totally debatable, I'm sure), believe strongly that if you "Publish as fact only that which you believe to be true.", you may be actively spreading misinformation. And maybe someone does truly believe something to be true... and maybe they believe it to be the right thing to publish it as fact... but that's why they say the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.
Ethics require a great deal of awareness.
Personally, I think the best way to handle the ethics of a weblog is to couch your whole weblog in some manner that honestly, with awareness, states what you believe to be true, and what you have actual proof or evidence of being true. Not to just publish as fact whatever you believe is true.
My analogy: I recently started a new job where I can't really see well out a window to the outside. One day a couple of weeks ago, it was bright and sunny the last time I'd been near the window... and a half hour later, the guy in the office next to mine, who can't see to a window to the outside AT ALL said, "It's raining." I couldn't tell because the window I can see is just too far away, and it looked kind of sunny. I didn't just take his word for it, but he expected me to. I said, "How could you know, you can't even see out a window from there?" And he said, "Listen, do you hear that sound? It's the rain on the roof." It was faint, but I heard it when it got quiet and I listened. I still went to check out the window. It WAS indeed raining. Now I know when it's in fact raining, when I hear that sound, without even trying to look out a window. That's evidence. I don't think my co-worker would intentionally lie about the rain. HOWEVER, there's no way to know for sure if he just believed it had started raining because he'd read a weather report that said it was going to start raining at a particular time of the day... and as we all know all too well, weather predictions cannot be reported as fact. ;)

Posted by Chloe on 8 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Rebecca, my apologies if I've misinterpreted what you've written in your book. When I read the passage I quoted:

"Any weblogger who expects to be accorded the privileges and protections of a professional journalist will need to go further than these principles. Rights have associated responsibilities; in the end it is an individual's professionalism and meticulous observance of recognized ethical standards that determines her status in the eyes of society and the law. For the rest of us, I believe the following standards are sufficient..."

it seemed very clear to me that you were articulating a difference between "amateur" journalist webloggers and "professional" journalist webloggers -- but both practising a kind of journalism, with the "amateurs" subject to less strict rules.

Obviously I don't like the idea of versioning since it seems to me to treat prose like software in a way that is antithetical to the essence of writing and storytelling. But I have attempted to accommodate your concern that "trackbacks and comments aren't rendered nonsensical" by agreeing to preserve the meaning of the original post.

Mark, thank you for the kind words. I think you're absolutely correct when you say that "we all find our own way to make peace with ourselves and our writing." Hopefully we can also attempt to find peace with others and their writing but, as you suggest, there are huge ideological differences which won't be easily overcome.

Chloe, I think you've hit upon something important in your distinction between "knowing" whether something is true and "believing" it's true -- "believing" makes for a slippery interpretation of the truth.

I am, as I think I've made quite clear, less concerned with the "facts" of the event than with the "truth" of the story.

Your "rain" analogy is a good one: it reminds me of an anecdote about two Australian politicians, powerful factional leaders in the right wing of the Australian Labor Party, named Robert Ray and Grahame Richardson. A third Labor politician once said that if Robert Ray walked into the room and said, "It's raining," you'd think to yourself, "Oh shit, I forgot to bring my umbrella." But if Grahame Richardson walked in and said, "It's raining," you'd get up and take a look out the window.

Posted by Jonathon on 8 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I'd just like to say that it strikes me as hilarious that the link in "had been replaced by a complimentary post about my (newly-designed) Radio weblog" now goes to "The requested URL was not found on this server." No implications should be drawn and no allegations are made. I just think it's hilarious.

Posted by language hat on 9 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I'm glad you have a defined ethics and that you abide by it. That's refreshing since many (most?) never put that much thought into the matter, doing a disservice to any regular readers by acting arbitrarily.

That said, I disagree with your suggestions that you needn't correct misinformation and that revising past posts is acceptable.

There have been times where I got something wrong, either an implication or a fact. Once I found out the mistake, I went in and added an update correcting my mistake.

Similarly, I've made some posts that I sort of regretted. Rather than change them to reflect a more sanitized perspective, I've left them in. It's hard to not retract your misstatements or flaring of temper, but I think it's the true you. I am not perfect and I wouldn't want my blog (or the rest of my site) to give that impression. I'm fallible and leaving traces of fallibility in reinforces that.

I write as if I am writing for posterity. Perhaps it's the historian in me, but when I write I expect my words to be read in the future. My kids (presently unborn) will read through what Dad said when he was young and they'll get a feel for what I was like in a way that I've never been able to do with another human being.

I think one of the most fascinating things about people is their backstory: how they got to be who they are at present. If that past is sanitized and cleaned up, how would anyone know that backstory? I think the need (or desire) to scrub your past indicates something psychologically, but I'm not sure what exactly.

To reiterate, that's my philosophy. I think it is correct, but you can obviously do whatever you want (as can others). People read your past entries: I get a lot of traffic to my archives directed by Google. If you change the past, you're betraying those backstory seekers and harming your credibility.

Posted by Bill Brown on 9 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Welcome back. Just remember, you're not god.

Posted by joseph on 9 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

What do you mean, he's not god? I prayed he'd come back, and he did. That's better results than I've gotten from the competition.

Posted by language hat on 9 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Language Hat, sorry to disillusion you, but Joe's right. I see myself more as a kind of Lazarus, brought back to blogging life through the intervention of your prayers.

Bill, you write:

"I think one of the most fascinating things about people is their backstory: how they got to be who they are at present. If that past is sanitized and cleaned up, how would anyone know that backstory? I think the need (or desire) to scrub your past indicates something psychologically, but I'm not sure what exactly."

It's interesting that you -- and others -- see rewriting as a way of reworking "reality" with the primary goal of casting oneself in a more favorable light.

In fact, I have no interest in sanitizing or cleaning up anything. Rather, I can easily imagine a situation in which the rewritten entry is simultaneously more truthful and less flattering to me personally.

Posted by Jonathon on 9 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I'm with you on the matter of rewriting entries, both in the honest passion to be perfectly clear and well-stated; and in the caution recommended by Rebecca Blood.

My personal rule is that it is perfectly fine to rewrite and expand what one has said as long as you do not alter the spirit of the piece. Communication is about clarity.

What Rebecca forgets when she attempts to hold blogging to the same standard as print journalism is that the media she describes employ proofreaders and editors whose job it is to check the style and the facts of the piece. We bloggers operate with a staff of one, ourselves. I have gone to sleep many of night, a piece in the blog hopper, to wake up many hours later and find that I could have said something better. I go ahead and make the fix.

I generally stop making fixes after 24 to 48 hours.

There's a whole ethical question you did not raise and that is the matter of making apologies for things that you said on your blog. There's a whole question to be raised about tone that needs to be considered by many bloggers, including some of your respondents. A few things should be off limits, such as the mental health of other specific bloggers. (I'm sensitive to this in particular because I suffer from major depression.) We're human however, and I think the best course of action is to leave the statement with a strikeout and make a public retraction for anything you've said in public.

The words "I'm sorry" are rare among bloggers. I emphasize that saying them is not a capitulation or a concession of every point that you made: it's specific to the way you misbehaved. It can go a long ways towards healing wounds and underlining the right of every blogger to civilly dissent with another's views.

Posted by Joel on 9 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Welcome back Jonathon.

Posted by Joe on 9 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

That's the whole problem, Jonathon, your making your past entries "more truthful and less flattering" is indistinguishable from sanitizing. A policy of never rewriting past entries, only adding to them, insures that the latter never happens. By saying that you will re-edit entries, the question as to which type of rewriting you're doing could only be established if changes could be tracked à la Mark's device.

If you don't think that there are bloggers who write for posterity (as I indicated I do) and are overly concerned with their image, there are and I won't name names. These are the people who rewrite reality (well, attempt to).

Posted by Bill Brown on 10 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

It's your palette and your canvas. Keep working until the picture you can see in your mind's eye emerges. This whole concern about revisions in text is nonsense. Is Stephen Hero really Stephen Daedalus? I think Hero exists only because of the persistence of paper. I doubt there was an autorial intention to make him live forever. Digital authorship gives us a great deal of control (give or take the vagaries of back-ups and caching engines). Do what you want with your posts. It's your blog.

Posted by fp on 10 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Interesting post and ensuing discussion. I have been writing many years and all writers that I know, including myself, work from drafts.

The stuff that generates from these blogs is mostly first draft material. Perhaps that's part of the beauty of blogs that they are raw. But if one is going to take them, shape them and make them into say articles, tutorials, etc, they can make a good start.

I remember one creating writing class I was in where one of my fellow students asked, "How do I get rid of writer's block?" and the teacher wisely responded, "you pick up your pen and list reasons you have writer's block." These years later he could have said: "start a blog"

In my opinion, if one is critical of someone else then he/she should write a follow-up or clarification, but only correct say minor spelling errors or perhaps a missing but intended word. I've never been all that keen on the edit function with messageboards because it can destroy the context of the comments that follow. However, at the same time I've written things, hit submit and then said, oops, I missed an important word in there. It happens.

I'm not editing this post, btw, so if it contains mistakes well, then, I'll have to clarify in a follow-up or in one of my blogs ;)

Posted by TDavid on 10 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Jonathan, a quote to remember: "The history of literature is strewn with the wreckage of writers who minded beyond all reason the opinions of others" - Virginia Woolf.

Do have a set of ethics. Do rewrite as long as it is not changing the spirit of what you meant as you wrote it. Do have the courage to say that you are wrong when you are wrong and not cover your tracks. Do strive for the best possible expression of your thoughts and your ideas. Do be honest. Do change if you must.

Bill Brown: your "ethic" is ridiculous and arrogant of you to attempt to force on others. You are free to make it as a rule for your own blog, fine.

Rewriting is a long tradition in literature, a stream of culture in which blogging is part of the flow. Even published books get revised and newspapers change their stories. Your "tracking" amounts to thought policing of Jonathan's consciousness as expressed on this blog. Who appointed you?

fp: I'm with you. The proviso I make is "don't stop thinking."

Posted by Joel on 10 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Joel, what in my comments made you think that I was attempting to force it on others? In fact, I said explicitly, "To reiterate, that's my philosophy. I think it is correct, but you can obviously do whatever you want (as can others)." If Jonathon did not want discussion about his ethics, then he shouldn't have enabled commenting.

Your comment is one of a long line of assertions that trying to persuade someone is the same as trying to force your ideas on others. I've seen it time and again and I think it's the result of the postmodernist notion that words have power. Maybe not.

The idea that I could "force" Jonathon to do anything that I hadn't persuaded him to do is what's ridiculous.

Posted by Bill Brown on 11 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Bill: so words have no power? Connect the dots and you'll find yourself caught in a contradiction. If words have no power, what are you doing trying to "persuade" Jonathan? By your own definition, you're wasting your time.

The thought policeman metaphor came from my observing you do three things: first, likening rewriting to "sanitizing". Second, employing vague threats as in your comment about "naming names". Oh, yes, I know you said you wouldn't do it, but you held it out nonetheless as a threat you could still have resorted to. If you do not intend to name names, just don't. Don't even raise the subject. Third, your put down of bloggers who you describe as "writing for posterity".

In other words, you were fairly belligerant in the way you chose to persuade. "Force" sounds pretty descriptive to me. If you don't like it, think twice before you write the next time. Maybe write it out once and then ~rewrite~ it?

But then let's examine your central contention: that we shouldn't "write for posterity", that we shouldn't rewrite because "it isn't honest". I think rewriting is a very honest practice if the goal of writing is to be clear on what you think and improve on your thinking. Jonathan's ethics meet the criteria of honesty without the "sanitization" that you claim to deplore.

The only reasons I can see for outsiders to deny any author the right to rewrite her or his material is so they can focus on her or his grammatical mistakes, word omissions, typos, lack of clarity, etc. as a reason for dismissing his thoughts. Or else they want to promote broad-band literary mediocrity so that they don't have to try as hard.

If you want to end "writing for posterity" -- which can easily be stretched into denying our readerships the best take on the lessons we have learned -- then don't write, don't read at all. Some of this will trickle down, like it or not, to people who are not yet born. You won't be able to stop that unless you commit yourself to some great act of hacker terrorism which destroys all databases in all places.

The fact is, Bill, we all write for posterity. I'm for encouraging people towards better writing, better thinking, and honesty. Stamping things once into stone doesn't allow for the former two and may undermine the latter.

Posted by Joel on 11 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Joel, there is no contradiction between "words have no power" and my trying to persuade Jonathon of my position. My words cannot compel action though they suggest it. I think this is a point you cannot comprehend. Fair enough, since it would be a waste of my time to work on it further.

I think you've basically misunderstood my entire comment. I said that I, myself, write for posterity. The disdain I hold is for those who are concerned about how posterity will view them. That "them" that I will not name do their rewriting publicly while I do my rewriting privately and release it publicly for posterity.

Further, I think I have been quite clear that rewriting is peachy keen and that I think everyone should do it over and over until they're satisfied with the results. Except that the Post/Publish button should be the terminus of their writing journey. If they make a grammatical mistake or a spelling error, they should correct it. I think it's better to not make them in the first place, but changing that doesn't ruin your credibility. It especially doesn't when you state publicly that you will revise for typos. Please don't misrepresent my position (which is clearly stated in a previous comment) and then attack that straw man thus erected. It's bad form (so is lecturing in a condescending tone about the proper way to blog, thank you).

To quote my previous comments, "I write as if I am writing for posterity." Also, "If you don't think that there are bloggers who write for posterity (as I indicated I do) and are overly concerned with their image, there are and I won't name names."

Jonathon can do whatever he wants on his blog. I have no influence over him except through words. Those words have no power except that which he grants by his consideration of them and agreement. If he decides I'm full of crap, then my words have zero power.

The interesting thing is that your statements are far more censurious than anything I ever said. That, I think, is quite telling.

Posted by Bill Brown on 11 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Bill, Joel, I've followed this discussion with interest -- and without feeling that anyone is trying to "force" me to think or do anything. I guess the best one can do is to think through the issues, try to address the possible consequences of one's actions (not always easy), and come up with some guidelines that feel right. Which is what I've done. But I'm not inflexible, nor do I have a closed mind. If someone comes up with a better solution than the one I've articulated *for myself*, then I'll consider it too. But the important issue is this: in this post I simply announced the rules I'd be following -- nowhere have I suggested that they apply to anyone but me.

Posted by Jonathon on 11 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

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Posted by euro on 29 September 2003 (Comment Permalink)

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Posted by shne on 9 October 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour