Tuesday, July 01, 2008

More About Boing Boing

As of last night -- I haven't been connected long enough to see anything this morning -- there was still no statement from Boing Boing about why nearly all references to Violet Blue were deleted from that blog recently. There's no requirement for them to make any statement, of course, just like there's no requirement for a political candidate to issue a statement when someone close to him says something unpleasant -- but it's a good idea in both cases.

The closest thing to any official word from Boing Boing came yesterday afternoon when Patrick Nielsen Hayden -- who has no direct connection to Boing Boing, but is married to Boing Boing's moderator and is the book editor of Boing Boing member Cory Doctorow -- posted an elliptical reference to the kerfuffle at his blog Making Light. A long comment thread quickly sprung up, which is common for Making Light, but it became heated, which is less common there. (The thread is now closed, which is vanishingly rare for Making Light.) I jumped in late in the evening, trying not to make trouble, but probably failing:

In the interest of determining what may be considered a fair view of Boing Boing's opinion on similar matters, here's one possible parallel:

Cory Doctorow, at Boing Boing, posts, approvingly but without commenting himself, a message from "JFarber" complaining about The New York Times, a privately owned media company, changing their web archives without notice or explanation.

Boing Boing is a privately owned media company which has just changed its web archives without notice or explanation.

To quote "JFarber" from that post: "Is it common journalistic practice to change old articles like that?"

The way I'd frame this is to say: if Boing Boing wants to operate as a media watchdog, they need to be careful about not doing the same things that they complain about when other media outlets do it. They are a company that puts out a regular media product: yes, it is free (but so is The Village Voice), and yes, it is on the web (but so is Slate). A lot of people, Boing Boing's principals among them, have been arguing for a decade that "blogs" can be just as serious and just as professional as any other media outlet, so hiding under the skirts of "it's just a blog" at this point is, at best, disingenuous.

To quote Teresa Nielsen Hayden (as mentioned first by #22):

"...a section about dealing with internet scandals and other PR disasters. A rudimentary notion of it:

(1.) Get out there and say something, fast.

(2.) Acknowledge that there have been screwups. Avoid passive constructions.

(3.) Explain what you’re doing to help fix the problem. Be telling the truth when you do it.

(4.) Give up all hope of sneaking anything past your listeners. You’ve screwed up, the internet is watching, and behind each and every pair of eyes out there is a person who knows how to Google.

(5.) Corporate-speak will do you more harm than good. Instead, speak frankly about what’s going on. React like a human being. Talk like one, too."

That's good advice. Will Boing Boing follow it?

And then I was thinking about this issue even more this morning. Obviously, Boing Boing is under no obligation to anyone in this matter -- they can change their archives daily, eliminate everything but the most recent post, or quietly edit every word of their blog whenever they want. They own that work; it's theirs and they have the right to do whatever they want with it.

However, if they want to continue as a popular and important media outlet -- if they want to keep the audience they've built up over the years -- they need to be concerned about how that audience will react when they do something major or unexpected.

To be blunt: this is purely a public relations matter, and Boing Boing has badly dropped the ball on the PR front by refusing to even admit that they did anything.

A side note is that "blogs" are not all the same thing just as "TV" is not all the same thing -- there's ABC on the one hand, and Akron Public Access on the other. The standards of professionalism in media fields can be murky and prone to major shifts, but there are still some standards. Boing Boing has been a major setter of standards for the blog world, both in their own actions and by what they choose to cover, and a large fraction of blog-readers do think that this action by Boing Boing is against their (stated and unstated) principles.

Again, this is a minor scandal at best -- the kind of thing the Internet loves to get all worked up about, particularly because this one is on the Internet. I'm not interested in placing a flag and claiming I have all the answers, but I do think that Boing Boing should have expected a reaction like this.

I also think that a number of the people currently supporting Boing Boing are doing so mostly because they like the Boing Boing crew personally and don't want to see those people being attacked nastily on the Internet. They seem like swell people to me, too, but that doesn't mean that they've never done anything wrong -- I, personally, consider myself about as swell as a human being can be, and yet my wife could give you a list of at least a dozen things I've done wrong this week alone. We all make mistakes; the best of us admit to those mistakes and learn from them.

Update: Boing Boing has finally published their official version -- only on the Internet can waiting for three days seem like forever, but it does -- as written by Teresa Nielsen Hayden. (Who, if the timeline she presents is correct, had either just barely started working for Boing Boing or didn't work for them at all at the time this purge happened -- her first announcement of her connection to them came at the end of last August.)

The situation is pretty much what the less-insane commenters thought: the Boing Boing brain trust decided that "Violet behaved in a way that made us reconsider whether we wanted to lend her any credibility or associate with her," and so they pulled every mention of her from their site.

It's still a weird reason, since references to scores of organizations and people that Boing Boing clearly disliked -- rapacious Canadian PMs, DRM-creating record companies, ukulele-haters, and others -- have not been similarly purged. No one in the known universe thinks that any blog only mentions the name of persons that the individual blogger wants to "lend credibility or associate with."

But there's no enemy like an ex-friend, and so Violet Blue has been made a non-person at Boing Boing. If Ms. Blue's version of the story is correct -- and the Boing Boing gang don't say it isn't -- they didn't even bother to give her the "you know what you've done!" treatment.

I still think this was a dumb thing to do, for a dumb reason, and shows that Boing Boing does not comport itself like a media organization made up of professionals. (Has even Sam Zell woken up one morning and decided he wanted to purge someone's very existence from the L.A. Times?) But, as I said before, they can do what they want, and the rest of us are free to think and say what we want about them, and to pay attention to them (or not) as we want to.

But, hoo boy, this week has been an object lesson in what the Internet expects. And it definitely does not expect old webpages to suddenly disappear or be altered silently. Take note of that, all of you who have responsibility for old webpages.


Cheryl said...

Andrew - I know very little abut this, and don't really have time to read through all of the comments on Making Light, but it seems to me from the above that you are approaching this from the assumption that Boing! Boing! has taken it upon itself to deliberately censor all references to Violet Blue. It occurs to me that they may have done so at Violet Blue's request, and are not saying any more because they have been asked not to. This would be more consistent with the point that Patrick appears to be making about individuals being different from companies.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Cheryl: It doesn't appear that is a serious possibility, unfortunately -- the whole thing came to light when someone asked Ms. Blue what had happened, and it was the first she'd heard of it.

The L.A. Times spoke to her yesterday, and either she's playing some very deep, weird game, or she honestly doesn't know why this happened. (According to that article, there were once over a hundred references to Ms. Blue in Boing Boing posts, and now the few left are mentions in comments by others.)

The whole situation is very weird, as if a group of middle-school kids were shunning someone they decided not to like. That's one reason I wish Boing Boing would make some kind of statement -- the truth is probably much more boring and prosaic than the collective imagination of the Internet.

Cheryl said...

Thanks for clearing that up. Having read the LA Times article, I am now thoroughly bemused.

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