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7/9/2008
01:18 AM
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner
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Boing Boing Fends Off Censorship Charges

The three things that Americans love the most are sex, the Internet, and flamewars. That's why Boing Boing's decision to remove posts about sexblogger Violet Blue was such a juicy opportunity for the people who hang around and post pissy comments on Internet discussion boards.

The three things that Americans love the most are sex, the Internet, and flamewars. That's why Boing Boing's decision to remove posts about sexblogger Violet Blue was such a juicy opportunity for the people who hang around and post pissy comments on Internet discussion boards.The two main players in the story certainly spice things up. They are: Xeni Jardin, the exotic blonde co-author of Boing Boing; and sexblogger Violet Blue, advocate of a philosophy she describes as "open source" sex on a couple of blogs, a podcast, and the San Francisco Chronicle.

About a year ago, Jardin and Violet Blue apparently had some kind of falling out. As part of that falling out, Jardin removed posts about Violet Blue from Boing Boing without telling the Internet she did it.

It took about a year for the removals to get noticed -- that's how much of a big deal they weren't.

But, last month, Violet Blue noticed the missing posts, and mentioned them casually on her blog.

The item got picked up by Silicon Valley gossip blog Valleywag (owned by Gawker, for whom Violet Blue is a paid contributor), and then by MetaFilter. The MetaFilter post compared the incident to the purge of Trotsky, because removing a few posts from a blog is quite similar to founding an empire responsible for the genocide of millions of people.

That's when the flamewar erupted. The MetaFilter post generated 1,730 comments as of Tuesday night, many of them denouncing Boing Boing. HuronBob said, "Boing Boing has become an incestuous pit of repetitive masturbatory circle jerks." (Which actually sounds like a subject for one of Violet Blue's podcasts.)

Boing Boing finally spoke out on the subject the next day, July 1, in a post by the blog's community moderator, Teresa Nielsen Hayden entitled, "That Violet Blue thing."

Disclaimer: Teresa and her husband Patrick Nielsen Hayden are my friends, and Boing Boing co-author Cory Doctorow is also a friend, as well as a contributor to InformationWeek. I have enormous respect for them.

Teresa drew a distinction between Boing Boing's action and censorship. "Violet behaved in a way that made us reconsider whether we wanted to lend her any credibility or associate with her. It's our blog and so we made an editorial decision, like we do every single day. We didn't attempt to silence Violet. We unpublished our own work. There's a big difference between that and censorship," Nielsen said.

She said Boing Boing kept the decision private to keep from "embarrassing the parties involved," and added, "Clearly, that didn't work out. In attempting to defuse drama, we inadvertently ignited more." Teresa apologized, and noted that Boing Boing's past content is available on the Wayback Machine -- even providing a link to Boing Boing's content on the Wayback Machine.

Jardin added: "This is not Wikipedia or the New York Times. Boing Boing began as a personal blog, and still is in some ways, even though Boing Boing is a bigger thing now." She said sometimes a creator will remove some aspects of their work from public view. Later the entire Boing Boing crew gave an interview to the LA Times, in which Jardin took responsibility for removing the posts. She says she made the decision while she was the subject of frightening incidents of cyberstalking, and was reluctant to publicize information she viewed as personal.

She adds, "The crux of what happened here is that BoingBoing began as a personal hobby," and it continued that way for most of its existence, becoming a business only recently.

That is, indeed, the crux of the matter. Bloggers look to their blogs as personal playgrounds where they can do whatever they want. But they also want to be taken seriously as influential voices on the national scene. And it's tough to reconcile those two principles. When you have only a few readers, you can do whatever you want, but when you have a lot of readers, you're no longer responsible only to yourself. You have a responsibility to the readers too, and if you don't hold up your responsibility, you'll lose those readers.

Boing Boing quite simply screwed up by deleting all of the posts about Violet Blue without an explanation. If there was nothing wrong with the posts, they should have been left in place, even if the Boing Boing creators wished to sever their association with Violet Blue going forward. On the other hand, if Boing Boing believed the posts should not have been published in the first place, then they should have explained what they were doing when removing the posts.

The sort of behavior Jardin describes is acceptable in a little blog or fanzine, which is how Boing Boing started out. But now it's more than that. The U.K. newspaper The Guardian listed it in March as the second-most powerful blog on the Internet. Technorati ranks Boing Boing as the fifth-most-authoritative blog on the Internet, outranking political blogs published by The New York Times, CNN, and ABC News. Boing Boing's video podcast is shown on Virgin America.

Because of the issues Boing Boing is identified with, the blog needs to be above reproach, avoiding even the appearance of improper behavior. Boing Boing is an outspoken critic of censorship elsewhere, fighting for net neutrality and posting a guide on its site to defeating Internet filtering software. Boing Boing's deleting the posts about Violet Blue without informing their readers isn't censorship -- it's their blog. But it bears a close enough resemblance to censorship that Boing Boing should not have done it.

Boing Boing looks even worse because of its use of the word "unpublish" to describe what happened to the Violet Blue posts. That's just mushmouthed and a little creepy. The posts were deleted from BoingBoing.net, and the fact that they're available on Archive.org doesn't make that not so. If I delete a file from my PC, I say it's deleted. I don't say it's "un-saved," even though the file is still available on my backup storage.

This incident doesn't destroy Boing Boing's credibility. When your job involves performing in front of millions of people, you will inevitably blunder spectacularly every now and then. The test of trustworthiness is how you learn form the experience. In the LA Times blog interview, Boing Boing's management team says they're carefully examining their policies to determine what, if anything, needs changing as a result of this incident. They need to arrive at a decision soon, and let their readers know what it is.

Boing Boing has consistently been an example of the best that blogging offers. Since "that Violet Blue thing" blew up, they've continued doing what they do best, mixing idiosyncratic posts on geeky weirdness with posts that put an international spotlight on torture and human rights abuses in China and Tibet, draconian Internet regulations in Brazil, accusations of police corruption in New York, and Iran considering the death penalty for bloggers. I'm optimistic Boing Boing will keep its integrity as it continues the transition from a private playground into a media powerhouse.

Update 2 am EDT Wednesday: Cory Doctorow notes that the posts were about Violet Blue, but they were not her posts (which is what I said in a couple of places here). Also, I initially said MetaFilter was comparing Boing Boing to Trotsky -- he corrected me to point out that Boing Boing was compared with Stalin, and Violet Blue is Trotsky. Either way, it's a strained metaphor.

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