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Friday, October 28, 2005

Blogging Ethics

Last week, I posted something rather small-minded about someone's failure to cite me.  I took it down and explained why here, upon questioning by a commenter in another post.  Sometime soon thereafter I came across this "confession" by another blogger:

A confession

I edit. Even after I post.
I started thinking: "Is there some ethical barrier that should prevent me from editing my posts or taking them down at my pleasure?"  It is certainly true that one finds many bloggers who "update" their posts, informing readers of changes made to the original posts.  But I suppose my view is that I am entitled to do whatever I want with my posts.  One could argue, I guess, that I have duties to the blogosphere--whatever ethical community that is.  Still, my tentative view is that if I want to edit or delete my posts with or without disclosure, that is my prerogative.
That said, you may as well know that I only very infrequently remove my posts (though I frequently edit for spelling and grammar).  I can think of only two other times: all three times were lapses of judgment on my part that I had the power to correct.

Posted by Ethan Leib on October 28, 2005 at 01:20 PM in Blogging | Permalink


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Ethan Leid, of PrawfsBlawg, asks us some questions on the ethics of changing our posts. And whether we bloggers are obligated to inform readers when we change them. I started thinking: "Is there some ethical barrier that should prevent me... [Read More]

Tracked on Oct 28, 2005 2:35:57 PM


I've thought of this one a lot. I sometimes edit posts after I make them, but generally VERY quickly and only typos, reworking of an awkward construction, etc. Only once in a blue moon have I been known to e.g. sneak an entirely new paragraph in there -- generally only for purposes of enhanced redability, and/or to serve as a transition between two original paragraphs. Something like that.

I have two protocols that I generally employ in this regard. One is: The Thing Written Stands. (I have no intentions of ever writing anything which someone can force me to retract or modify; if I make a mistake, I'll UPDATE the post and maybe give credit to the error correcter). And I always paraphrase Led Zeppelin: The Gist Remains the Same ... despite a few post-post corrections, the gist of whatever I have written remains the same, for any purposes of libel, psychological blowback, etc.

Posted by: Jonathan | Oct 31, 2005 3:39:24 PM

This is the very essence of the difference between old media and the internet. In days gone by, once something was published, that was it. It was cast in stone, and could only be corrected by retraction.

Now, something that should not have gone up can come down, and something that was less than stellar can be polished up a bit. There is nothing wrong with either.

Posted by: yclipse | Oct 29, 2005 8:26:01 AM

Paul, as I pointed out in my post above, the general consensus (in my experience) started with the consideration that covert editing is bad when done to discredit a commenter or linker, and now basically all covert editing is seen as bad because the motive isn't clear. It's like telling all your friends to link to a cool picture (rather than copy it to their servers), and then later maliciously changing it to the goatse guy (or some other offensive image)--it's just bad form.

There's nothing that says blog posts are permanent, but lots of folks think of blogs as a sort of dynamic ticker-tape of ideas where they can see the full detritus of a conversation between the blogger and the world evolve. As a result, the best practice is to let egregious errors of reasoning or argument stay posted, but to follow-up with a new or improved line of thought. This is something that takes some getting used to for some people. Sometimes you have to delete a really bad or obnoxious post, but it's best to make a new post or leave something in the old one's place explaining what you did.

I think of blogs as the written version of a videotaped and archived public debate where somebody gets up on stage, spouts off for a while, and then takes questions from the audience. The speaker's argument may change along the way, and some really outrageous statements might get retreacted, but the history is all there for someone who wants to go back and view the old tapes.

Finally, of course you have the right to do whatever you want with your posts, but if you've develop a reputation for changing your posts all the damn time, people are going to stop reading and commenting your blog. It's too tedious to have to keep monitoring a particular post and mentally search it for differences when a update would have been more appropriate.

This discussion isn't really about rights or ethics in the sense of professional or legal ethics (even if it was framed that way). Nobody's going to take your blog away if you edit it heavily, but they may stop reading it!

Posted by: bill | Oct 29, 2005 2:39:51 AM

I see nothing wrong with retroactively editing posts. How is it bad?

a) Does it hurt anyone? No. In fact, in many cases of "bad judgment" (i.e. insulting someone) it actually is helpful to them to remove the offending language. In the most harmful-to-others case, it merely deprives those others of an opportunity to jump on the original poster. Big harm.

b) Is it wrong notwithstanding the absence of harm? I don't see how. The claim of dishonesty doesn't fly unless the poster who changes a post actively denies that they made the original statements. Failing that, it doesn't seem different from other forms of time-limited communication, unless one claims that there's an usual social norm that says that blog posts are permanent. Suppose you say something dumb in a paper posted to SSRN. Are you required by some kind of bizarre ethics to keep the draft with that dumb statement up if someone criticizes it?

c) Isn't there a positive right to control the distribution and longevity of one's words, subject to the speech rights of others? If I put a poster up on my office wall, and later decide it's inflammatory, do I not have the right to tear it down again? In France, an artist has "moral rights" to copyrighted work which includes rights relative to the destruction of expression in some cases.

d) Finally, for my mandatory appeal to Kant, I note only that the act would not be self-defeating if universalized: it would be entirely possible to eliminate one's blogospheric errors if everyone did it...

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Oct 28, 2005 5:02:30 PM

I think there's an argument both for and against taking down posts. I think we need to stand behind our words and preserve the record for posterity, but I think sometimes words can't be salvaged and are best removed. As between the two, I generally favor an update or correction over taking something down entirely. I also think a forthright apology goes a long way.

I also edit to fix typos, but usually any substantive edit gets added to the post at the bottom as an update,. In the rare cases I've edited within the body substantively, I make a clear note about that.


Posted by: Eric Goldman | Oct 28, 2005 3:35:57 PM

Yesterday I posted something really stupid, and upon re-read, took it down. It was petty and small-minded. I tried making a larger point, but the larger point was lost in the context of a personal dispute. Down it went.

I distinguish between posts (like yours, and mine from yesterday) that are drafted out of frustration and those that incorrectly state the law or facts. If you get upset about something, and post and remove it, it doesn't bother me. We all have bad days, and do silly things because of eomtions. But if posted legal analysis that was incorrect, it would be an unforgiveable sin to take it up. The proper thing to do there is to note your errors. We've all taken our lumps, and people who refuse to take theirs are untrustworthy.

Anyhow, you didn't lose credibility with me by taking it down. Indeed, it showed good judgment. When I read it, I almost commented (which I would have regretted doing): "This should be called WahwahwahBlawg."

But had you made some prediction and taken that down, then your credibility would have taken a hit. We should take our lumps for our substantive mistakes, but emotion-based errors should be self-corrected by reomoving the post.

Posted by: Mike | Oct 28, 2005 3:21:19 PM

I think that while it certainly is your prerogative to do whatever you want with your posts (including deleting them wholesale), substantive changes without acknowledgement will be seen as fishy by your readers. If you value comments from your readers and linkage from other bloggers, you won't make changes that affect comments and links made before the edits are done.

I see absolutely no problem with fixing gramatical problems and spelling errors in a post as long as it has no bearing on the meaning of your post. The thing that lots of people object to is a change that is used to subvert the point of or personally denigrate a commenter or linker. People don't want to engage in a debate with someone if they think their opponent might be retroactively changing his position, especially when it makes them look like an idiot after the fact when they looked like a hero beforehand.

Posted by: bill | Oct 28, 2005 2:51:13 PM

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