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Evolving Norms of Blogging

Here's a question for the legal blogosphere. Where did these two common 'norms' of blogging come from?
1.: If you post something, you should leave it up unchanged, making additional points only with "UPDATE" comments at the end. Removing a conversation entirely is at least presumptively verboten.
2.: Editing a reader's comments in your blog should be limited to removing spam, offensive comments, and (perhaps) bad language.

I ask this because while they seem to have evolved and become general "rules" (at least within certain sections of the blogosphere), I have no idea from whence they came. Somewhere between blogging's proto-technologies (BBS systems, for instance) and the development of the current communities, the rules changed.

Mostly, I'm writing in response to this entry at Lawdork, where Chris says:

What is a blog but a place to open up your thoughts to the evalution of others?

What are comments but a place to respond to another blogger's thoughts?

In other words: If you post it, live with it. (That's what [UPDATE] is for.) If you have comments, only remove unacceptably offensive comments and spam. (If comments disagreeing with you are that unacceptable, get rid of comments.)

I can certainly see the prudential reasons for either mode of behavior. An author/editor who frequently takes down conversations is not going to have many future participants. (Fewer people will commit the time to write if they know their words are going to be 'lost.') Similarly, someone who frequently edits a reader's comments is going to get a bad rep pretty quickly, especially if the editing is egregious. Cries of "That's not what I said" will ring pretty loudly in the ears of other users.

But BBS systems--at least those I used back in the late 80s--generally handled this in a more trust-based manner than considering them rules of behavior. That you could trust someone to treat your words well was a mark of why you posted on their site, but it was his site. This wasn't a bad thing, either: moderators of some boards I was on did exactly what their name described. They cooled down the conversation on the boards and eliminated whole threads that threatened to get rid of an air of comity between regular users.

Similarly, some board owners would kill threads just because they felt the topics were to old, too boring, or would spiral out of control. The general concept was that the place maintained by the BBS owner was his: you were guests who were there at his invitation, and his grace. Chris, from his comments, seems to think differently:

If you think of blogs as unedited books or rough drafts (private things), then I suppose it doesn't matter if you delete things. I, however, think of blogs as public places, where you are voluntarily opening yourself up to the support or criticism of others.

I think this is particularly so in the case of blogs that have comments, which is an explicit request for commentary on your writing. To delete comments with which you disagree or to change your post in light of those (or e-mailed or real-life) comments -- as opposed to updating it -- seems to me to be something very unfair to the idea of putting your ideas out for others to read and comment upon.

This isn't to pick on Chris: I don't think his views on this are at all unique to him, and they simply differ from my own. I wonder if somewhere along the evolution of pre-Web bulletin-board systems (generally hosted in someone's home, and quite an expense to own and operate) into the much more open and easy Blogspot-style space, the popular consciousness shifted. Personal webspace became somehow 'public,' and comments weren't the words of guests attending a rather large dinner party, but rather something belonging to the reader by right.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. Early last term, a fellow blogger posted something that I felt was somewhat unwise: a less-than flattering description of some of our real-life friends. When the subjects of his piece found the blog, they left some less-than-flattering comments. In a bit of advice, I said it would be perfectly proper just to pull the entry: it certainly wasn't doing any good, it was causing anger and resentment among people who had to work together in real life, and it was distracting from what was otherwise a very good blog. I didn't see any reason not to bury it.

Now, it would seem my advice goes entirely against what Chris considers to be "good blogging." And I'm sure there's others who agree with him. So to my fellow blog-readers and writers out there, I'd like to ask two questions:
a) Would you consider these to be rules of behavior, or just something more like a prudent guideline?
b) Where have you gotten the "rules" by which you guide your online postings?

As I said, I'm eager to find out.


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for me, blogging has to do with preserving my thoughts at one specific moment in time. and then the next entry will be another moment. so changing it kind of defeats the purpose for me. but if you're writing your blog as literature or something (or politics or journalism) instead of history, then i think it makes a lot of sense to change/delete entries.
Evolving tradition and common practice. They're useful conventions because they don't bugger up the record of what's been said, and one of the biggest benefits of blogs is the ability to 'time shift' conversations by reading several days worth of discussion in a single burst. If people regularly edited what they'd said this would be harder and the utility of blogs would decrease. So the answer probably lies in utilitarianism and network effects, which should make your inner economist happy.
I don't think moderated BBS's are the appropriate antecedent to blog culture. Rather, you want to look at what most Internet users were using prior to the Web for discussion forums; that's Usenet, not BBS's. On Usenet, once you post, your words are irrevocably disseminated (sure, there's a "cancel" command in most newsreaders, but most servers ignore cancels, so cancels pretty much haven't worked since the late 80's). And, of course, once Dejanews came along, expiration of messages was eliminated as well. The vast majority of Usenet is also unmoderated, so once you post, anybody can comment and there's nothing you can do about it. Obviously, Usenet didn't have to be built the way it was, but the early Internet ethos was one of absolute free speech (so long as it was non-commercial). The Usenet culture extended to early comment-enabled sites like slashdot (where the current moderation system caused great controversy when it was introduced, even though it still doesn't allow for the complete removal of any non-spam posts). And it's out of the Usenet/slashdot culture that blogging began, not the restrictive world of private BBS's. To the extent that there's been a cultural change on the web, I'd argue it's the reverse of what you're postulating. The right to unmoderated, uncensored comment on a public posting is the Internet tradition. The idea that one might censor or restrict comments is a relatively recent innovation (and one which it greatly saddens me to see). In addition to the historic Internet cultural norms, on the web it's also simply rather pointless to edit or retract public blog entries; google and the Internet Archive are quick enough at grabbing copies that your words are likely to still be available. It's simply prudent to write as if every entry is permanent.
Andy: A few responses. The reason I'd analogize to BBS, as opposed to USENET, culture is because the former has one salient characteristic that blogs have, while the latter lacks it: ownership. NTTP newsgroups were not, for the most part, considered to be owned, even if they were moderated. (I'm speaking here of alt.*, soc.*, and the like.) They were a decentralized method of communication in a way that a blog with comments is not. Even if a single poster predominated, they did not own the forum in the way that I own 3YoH. Hence, when you commented on USENET, you really were accessing a commons, a group of share servers that were tossing posts back and forth. On the other hand, web pages always existed on person domains in which access was granted, not given by right. I'm not sure I'd so simply say that blogging began solely out of a Slashdot culture--'proto-blogs' had a lot of origins, including systems like Nyx and Monochrome which were often moderated, restricted to authorized users, and more in line with the norms above. In any event, while I take your prudential point (though you can get rid of Google and Internet Archive easily enough with a robots.txt entry if you felt like it), it still doesn't explain why one would raise a prudential concern to the level of a norm: that it's not just unwise to do something, but actually wrong.
I think my views relate more to political/public discussions than personal/private entries. If you write something in a journal-type blog, edit or delate it if you don't like it. If you are writing a political/legal/public thought blog, then I think you have a certain responsibility to keep posts/comments up -- outside complete inappropriateness.
The problem with introducing ownership as a defining characteristic of blog culture is that it assumes that such ownership (and the control offered by such ownership) is in fact sufficiently meaningful to most bloggers to influence norms. I would argue that for the most part, it's not. For purposes of this discussion, I'm excluding blogs used primarily as private diaries, where content-locking, comment-filtering, and post deletion are entirely appropriate and well-accepted; the norms we're discussing are only applicable to blogs which presume to some level of readership outside one's own immediate circle of friends. For the most part, blogs can not exist in isolation. Blogs exist to link to other things on the Web, to comment on them, to participate in a global conversation on whatever the topics of the day are, to be a part of the blogosphere. A blogger is part of a community, and his or her blog has value primarily because it exists as part of that community. As evidence that the blogosphere values community and conversation over the individual blog, look at the sorts of functions that are becoming standard as technology permits: blogrolls, trackbacks, syndication, and comment systems. Links between blogs and reading across blogs are as important as the content of individual blogs. If a blogger is to fully participate in this community, it becomes essential that posts have permalinks and not disappear, so that they can be linked to from other blogs. Thus, the first norm. And if a blog accepts public comments, the presumption is that it does so to facilitate conversation and community for those who don't have an appropriate blog of their own to respond in. Thus, the second norm. So, because the blogosphere values community and communication above individual property rights, it has norms that work to enhance that community at the expense of an individual's control over their own blog. This valuing of the community over individual ownership is further supported by the pre-existing Internet culture (Vince Cerf's goals for the Web were to promote collaboration and communication), and by the fact that millions (literally) of bloggers use sites like Livejournal and Blogger which explictly emphasize the community aspect of blogging. (Both LJ and Blogger launched in 1999, which is also the start of the blog explosion - so they didn't cause a shift in norms; they helped define them from they beginning). (BTW, on an unrelated point, you may want to assess your site's copyright policy on comments in the context of http://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ1.html#toc )
A couple of other quick comments this morning. On the BBS/Usenet analogy, a blog isn't really like a BBS (who'd bother to visit a BBS that had one or two threads a day, and where only the owner could start new ones?). The entire blogosphere/Web is the modern version of the BBS or Usenet, and an individual blog is more like a terminal program or newsreader; it's the tool you use to access and participate in the larger forum. So ownership of a blog is like ownership of a newsreader (and its scorefiles, killfiles, and newsrc); it's essentially irrelevant to the community and its norms. The concept of ownership is further undermined by RSS aggregators. I (and any other aggregator user) don't read blogs in the context of their owner's spaces. I have a single page (at bloglines) where the content from 123 separate blogs is concatenated in a uniform format. Where a topic looks particularly interesting, I can click through to the full entry and comments, just as I would choose to read a particular thread in trn. Thus, as a reader, I interact with blogs in essentially the same way I interact with Usenet, so I expect the same norms to apply. And once you add caching of RSS feeds by aggregation servers, it starts to look even more like an NNTP or Fidonet network. And on the prudential point concerning deletion, once you publish an RSS or Atom feed, new entries are likely to be picked up by aggregators within an hour; and once bloglines or another aggregator has cached the entry, deletion at the blog itself does nothing but break the link should one click through to view comments on the entry.
Andy: Some good points, and I think we come at the blogosphere from two differing perspectives. I don't have time to fully address the above, so I hope to get to it next week, but in the meantime: I think you greatly overstate the 'no ownership' case. This is simply a matter of perspective: no one would ever state that alt.soc.* was 'my newsgroup' or 'my NTTP thread.' On the other hand, almost anyone who blogs will refer to 'my blog,' as opposed to some vast communal entity. Similarly, the RSS aggregator point would seem somewhat overstated. In the same sense, the various sites that I've created over the years have been aggregated by Google and stored in its cache, but I wouldn't consider them to be any less 'mine.' The fact that someone has created a tool to interact with a separate space doesn't make the space any less separate to its creator. The vast majority of readers of my site don't interact with it through RSS aggregators, but through the standard interface. (And I can say that without fear of contradition of Chris' site, since he's on RSS-less blogspot.) Further, I think you're looking at a narrow range of the blogosphere. Certainly sites like Chris, or many of my entries, are political or topical in nature, and so policies on removing entries would seem to be fairness matters. But a lot of blogs--I would mention Stay of Execution or Serious Law Student, to think of only two blogs I link to that have in the past removed entries--have a readership far beyond their 'immediate circle of friends' and yet are not blogs on political or controversial topics. Anyway, we're all agreed on the prudential point: that if you delete blog comment, or make a habit of taking postings down, it's probably going to be considered unfair play by fellow debaters. But to me, that's not a justification beyond the prudential--it hurts your credibility, but doesn't seem wrong.

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