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

Kneaded_eraser.jpgFollowers 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 The practice has been given the name “unpublished” as in “being unpublished.”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’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.


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.

Image Source: WikiCommons

License: GNU Free Documentation license, Version 1.2 or any later version

Author: Hariadhi

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10 Responses

  1. This post is somewhat garbled, understandably so, since it’s written by someone both outside the “community” and working from somewhat inaccurate information.

    0) Some of the statements about only Xeni Jardin’s work are not correct – a few posts were made by other bloggers, and at least one was entirely written by Violet Blue and just posted by Xeni Jardin.

    1) The issue is ethics, not law. This has led to a lot of confusion. The New York Times would have a LEGAL RIGHT to remove, say, every article mentioning say “John Yoo” from its archives and never mention his name again. But it sure would be viewed as an unethical act.

    2) There is substantial …skepticism … that certain statements made should be taken at face value, and opposed to be for media consumption.

    3) The “Google value” aspect is not making it to the chattering-class.

    The best article covering the ethics issue is:


  2. Deven says:


    Thanks for the link. I’ll take a look. Before that some quick thoughts:

    Perhaps you can slow down here. First, as to posts that were written by Ms. Blue, how do you get around the idea that the post was still under the auspices of BB?

    As to the other bloggers, I was focusing on Ms. Jardin’s acts as they were the most discussed. If other’s on BB took down posts, that seems to still fit under their blog, their choice.

    Broad invocation about ethics is nice but quite empty. As the post notes, whether BB has an ethic that is in place with its readers is a fascinating question. Its readers certainly think so and BB had to respond. If one disagrees with their rules, leave. Join a place that lives up to whatever ethics you think work. (Also note that the post sympathizes with the view of Ms. Blue but is trying to sort what the grounds are; the ethics idea or norms view may get to the issue but still that may mean BB gets to do what it wants and folks can leave if they want).

    The law part is that you probabaly think you can change your blog at will without anyone else’s permission and insofar as you view the writing and work as yours the law may agree.

    NOW if you really think once something is posted, the poster has no rights or control over it. That is fascinating I’d love to hear more about how you see that working.

    As for garbled, ad hominem attacks aside, care to reduce the noise and share how one is a member of the community? That is a big question and mere assertions that those who do not see it your way are not in the group are not really good arguments.

    Last, can you unravel what you mean by Google value and chattering class please? I think I know what you are saying and are on to something but would like to be sure before I respond.



  3. Sigh …

    “Garbled” is meant to indicate that the recitation of facts is somewhat confused, and missing important aspects. Again, this is because you are working from second-hand recountings which are rather superficial. This is not meant to deride you _per se_, I don’t mean to give that impression. As I said, it’s understandable. This feeds into what I meant by “outside the “community””, in that there’s background you don’t possess which is important to understanding the reasons why it’s an ethical issue. As in my example, “the New York Times would have a LEGAL RIGHT to remove, say, every article mentioning say “John Yoo” from its archives …”, it would help enormously to understand who “John Yoo” is, why many lawyers are angry at him, what the New York Times is, and so on. If you wrote about that hypothetical “There was some drama in the press about an obscure rag getting into an argument with some government official, and I don’t understand why people don’t grasp the New York Times owns its archives and can do what it wants with them. Suppose John Yoo didn’t want to be mentioned in the NYT, what about that?”, it wouldn’t be a very useful examination.

    “First, as to posts that were written by Ms. Blue, how do you get around the idea that the post was still under the auspices of BB?”

    This was correcting some of the facts. You may end up with the same result, but the moral rationale (who work it was) didn’t hold there.

    “As to the other bloggers, I was focusing on Ms. Jardin’s acts as they were the most discussed. If other’s on BB took down posts, that seems to still fit under their blog, their choice.”


    “Broad invocation about ethics is nice but quite empty.”

    Well, if you want to write the sort of article I’ve been detailing above (legal right, nothing else), that’s your legal right. You even have a legal right not to care about getting facts wrong. What more can I say, if there’s nothing else but legal rights?

  4. Yes, I concur with Seth that reading the dirty laundry underneath this story (only a few NSFW links away!) would give some helpful background here.

    RE: “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…. Still the sense of outrage is more than palpable. ”

    Do you have an example where a “more than palpable” outrage is over a fake norm? Norms are normative, whether you agree that they represent a cohesive sense of ethics.

    It’s possible you consider this an “alleged norm” because few people realize how much blog deleting happens. (Any CoOp readers ever follow Fairly Useful by law professors Matthew Sag and Mark Schultz? It’s gone– though abajournal.com still has its footprints.)

    RE: “But is BB a ‘publication of record?'” If not BoingBoing, than what is?

    See also Rebecca Blood’s Weblog Ethics — from 2002.

  5. Deven says:

    Look folks there are few things getting lost here. First Seth, did you read the links you sent me? I did and again thanks. Some of the metafilter links (to which Ms. Blue links) show that many discussing this one are not so sure that Ms. Blue is accurate in her representations. Honestly in this sort of thing one may never know the full scoop. AND for the purposes of this post I think it misses the issue (see below).

    As for not getting it is an ethical issue; please stop and think a little here. Ethics, as much as you may want them to be binding, are not. They work because they are norms that have force if people shun folks or take other action to say that behavior X is unacceptable (well truly ethics based society may not have to use force but that is a different discussion). So the John Yoo idea – I am not sure what you are saying here but if you are saying the NY Times could not, of its own volition, change or delete its archives, I am not sure that is correct. NOW if you are saying folks should be upset and would not respect the Times for such an act, of course and possibly the Times would not recover from such a move. The other link you sent demands that blogs act like newspapers. Maybe that is part of what you are trying to say when you talk of ethics and the Times. Still, that presumes blogs should act like newspapers (big assumption; possible flaws regarding standards and resources). Again I am not saying people have no reason to be upset. And I think that the response forced BB to state more clearly what it is about so that everyone can choose what to do.

    As for the post removals, yes, thanks for the clarification but still insofar as BB was removing BB posts, seems to be in the world of their prerogative. As to whether Jardin took down posts of her co-bloggers, the links and discussions are unclear but that seems to be an issue for BB to sort (again the public may not like BB or specific folks but that does not mean the public can stop the acts directly).

    As for the fake norm issue, Jon, I asked Seth directly and ask you as someone who engages with the tech world: do you think that once something is posted it must remain posted? Or do you think your blog is yours and you can do as you please? Seriously I would love a direct answer on this one.

    It leads to perhaps the most interesting issue of this event: Is BB a paper of record? Even if it is, does it have to behave a certain way? OR in that free-wheeling net way will folks shun BB and it will whither because people do not trust them.

    The dirty laundry stuff is a distraction I think. In simplest terms even a newspaper can delete, edit, revise history on its own. If the government pushes them the math changes. But acting on their own? Yes ethics would indicate that such an act is outside the norms of publishing. BUT just wait and watch, someone will start to argue that they own the work and can destroy it too. Hopefully a paper like that will have few patrons. Then again many may want a paper that gives them the views they like to hear. That will be sad but the alternative is to start a new option for those who want a full range of views and the ability to see what was said before.

    NOW for the head spin, one comment in Metafilter (I think) noted that BB uses Creative Commons. One might then take the old posts (if available and some seem to be from the links sent by Seth) and repost them.

  6. Double sigh 🙁

    I’ve read the links, the MetaFilter thread, the Boing Boing thread, made several personal inquiries, and more.

    What I meant by the John Yoo / New York Times hypothetical was that I hoped to try to convey in terms you’d find familiar why this is an ethical matter, and how trivial it is to recite legal rights (note, I’m not saying anyone is a direct analog of John Yoo – it was just a name I suspected you’d know as profoundly controversial while people “outside the community” might sneer “Who? Meaningless! Why should I care?”).

    Regarding – “do you think that once something is posted it must remain posted? Or do you think your blog is yours and you can do as you please?” Oh, c’mon, what a blatant excluded-middle philosophical fallacy. It’s like saying “Lying? Do you think someone can dictate what you can say on your blog, or do people have a right to say what they want.”


    “Yes, ethics would indicate that telling lies is an act is outside norms. BUT just wait and watch, someone will start to argue that they can define their version of truth. Hopefully a brazen liar like that will have few patrons. Then again many may want a liar that tells them the views they like to hear.”

    Do you see how phoned-in that is?

    The posts have already been reposted elsewhere, http://violetbluevioletblue.net. That’s not the point.

    If you’re just interested in doing a more verbose, better-written, version of the classic net rant of “MY SERVER MY RULES!!!”, (which is quite concise at four words), there’s really nothing more I should say.

  7. Deven– as I noted, Rebecca Blood’s “Weblog Ethics” pretty much set the standard here. And yes, I have followed her suggestion at times to make small edits to respect people’s desire to avoid unwanted exposure.

    On the whole, Rebecca’s reasoning was that blogging/the web is defined by links, so if you remove the target of a link, you undermine the integrity of the web. And Errol Morris made a similar comment this Sunday Stalin’s fiendish airbrushing of history as comrades became nonpersons, which is well known of course. Etc. As with Seth, I’m trying to understand where your argument is going.

    [I could, if you like, pull up the names of prominent media bloggers who have zapped their own posts without offering corrections/explanations, as well produce other norm-violators, but you didn’t ask for that.]

    Looking again at Rebecca’s ethics, this passage caught my eye:

    “One clear method of denoting correction is the one employed by Cory Doctorow, one of the contributors to the Boing Boing weblog. He strikes through any erroneous information and adds the corrected information immediately following. The reader can see at a glance what -B-i-l-l- Cory originally wrote and that he has updated the entry with information he feels to be more accurate.”

    Moral of the story: try to avoid being directly cited in ethical guidelines!

    [Natch, I wanted to do the strikeout effect above, but the CoOp comment formatting wouldn’t allow me…]

  8. Deven says:


    Oh your sighs. They wound. They show your greatness and the way no one understands. Ah the community and its wonderful constructive tone. OR they show that you want everyone to see your point only and not address the questions posed. Note that I do not disagree that practice upsets people.

    The keep it free mantra and your version of it does not address the WHY and how do you get folks to stay with a norm. If you have a chance (or you may have read it) check out Zittrain’s The Furture of the Internet. It addresses the problem of a Net where many norms are in play and visions of freedom clash with visions of proper behavior whatever that may mean to various folks.

    And regardless, honestly thanks for pointing out some new information.


    Thanks. That was most helpful. I get your point about Blood and what seems to be a best practice. But isn’t this one different? This one is not the correction zone where one indicates a change. This one would be whether you, as proprietor of your blog, can delete old or any posts at will? Maybe the response is you should let folks know you did so. Fair enough. But a site as big as BB may not want to do that (does not mean it should not update but as a practical issue).

    ALSO what about someone who decides they want to erase all posts on their blog (and let’s say the blog is widely read) from say 2000 to 2004. No reason for it just want to. Do they have to let people know? Are they required to provide the old material?

    I think you might say yes based on the idea that the Web works better with links and that some sort of reciprocity requires keeping all material up. There could be some real juice to that argument (the practical side we’ll leave for now, well sort of). Many take a fiercely indepenent view of the Net and would say that sure it works within those courtesies but an individual gets to say and do as she please; no one can force her do X, Y, Z BUT everyone is free to say why they dislike an act and urge others not to visit or link to a site.

    As for the norm violators — ooh tantalizing — if you have names and time to share, that is wonderful and appreciated. But it may not be necessary: did those who transgressed the norm suffer consequences or change behavior based on feedback? That answer gets to the issue I think. Either way I look forward to your thoughts.



    PS as for the strikeout I believe html will work in our comments but I am not sure.

  9. Deven–

    Here’s an example. Five years ago, Robert Cox made a big splash with his blog The National Debate. He caught Maureen Dowd chopping up a quote in a misleading fashion. He created a parody page of the NYT, successfully contested a C&D notice, and got them to change their corrections policy (requiring columnists to print their own corrections).

    As a result of this Bob, was inspired to form the Media Bloggers Association, which has gone on to help many bloggers who find themselves in legal trouble. But he worried that his blog, which trafficked in the conventional hyperbolic partisanship one finds on blogs, would harm his ability to act as the leader of a nonpartisan group. So in 2006, he deleted his blog, and mentioned that act briefly in his new one on the MBA website.

    For a time, this didn’t really bother many folks (as it happens, two of the occasional commenters on Bob’s blog were myself and Seth, and we didn’t realize it was down for months). It’s just that last month, when Bob publicly got involved in assisting Rogers Cadenhead and working with the AP, a number of A-List bloggers started wondering who the heck he was. Teresa Nielsen Hayden, an editor for BoingBoing, wrote a long post bringing up all of his past online deeds. The fact that his old blog was no longer online, and accessible only via the Internet archives, was just another piece of the puzzle. No one called him on it directly (as far as I could tell), but it just lent the suspicion that he was trying to bury something from his past.

    In my book, it’s notsomuch about right v. wrong but about action and consequences.

    I probably have more to say on this… another time.