BoingBoing ‘Unpublication’ Brouhaha

11:06 Fri 04 Jul 2008. Updated: 18:16 28 Jan 2009
[, , , ]

BoingBoing recently revealed that they ‘unpublished’ posts concerning Violet Blue. This caused quite a lot of commentary and some outrage among those who pay attention to such things, and I think it raises a few interesting points.

I should disclose that I read BoingBoing almost every day and support a number of their editorial stances on copyright, security theater, and privacy, among others. I also know one of the BoingBoingers, but have no insight into whatever’s behind the Violet Blue thing.

Many commenters seem to think that the crux of the issue is whether or not the BBers have the “right” to remove the posts. They have that right, obviously. I think the issue is more precisely what it means for them to do something like that.

First off, it’s complicated by the fact that it’s a group blog, while the posts and the removal were both by Xeni Jardin, so the rest of the BoingBoingers are in a tricky spot—how can you tell someone else that they can’t take down articles that they’ve written?

It’s also more complicated for Xeni because it’s a group blog—much of the criticism has been aimed at BoingBoing as a whole, and not at Xeni specifically, and people have contrasted the removal of the posts with attitudes expressed by Cory and Mark. I get the impression that she was thinking only about her position vis-a-vis Violet Blue, and not about BoingBoing’s collective credibility, when she did it.

This was a private spat that has become very public, and as such touches on celebrity and privacy. Xeni isn’t a celebrity in the common sense of the term, but she’s certainly a public figure in the online world, and (as the interest in this issue demonstrates) conflicts in that world are definitely intriguing to lots of people.

The crux of the matter is probably close to what Xeni references in the LA Times piece:

[Xeni's father] paint[ed] very beautiful photorealistic portraits of nude women. Sometimes he went off into experimental territory that he was embarrassed about… sometimes he would just grab batches of the stuff that was crappy as years went on, and go to the backyard and burn it. And it wasn’t that he was censoring himself, and God knows nobody else was censoring him. It was that this was his creative work. This was art. And he felt like some of it wasn’t representative of who he was anymore and he didn’t want it to be available to the world to see.

—Los Angeles Times, BoingBoing’s Xeni Jardin on unpublishing the Violet Blue posts

The question isn’t whether blog posts are art, but what the creator’s prerogatives are once something has been released into the public sphere. Personally speaking, I don’t think I’d do what Xeni’s father did, because I would perceive it as revisionism and denial—but that is definitely a personal feeling, and certainly people are entitled to keep their own works completely private. However, once they’re made public, it’s a different story. Publication means an addition to the larger culture, and just as once the reader gets ahold of a work their interpretation can carry as much weight as the creator’s, so the cultural sphere has a claim on any works released into it. Deleting works out there is cultural revisionism.

There is another point, however. It’s a blog, a website, and what if you don’t look at the posts as articles per se, as the online equivalent of magazine stories? Regarding the posts as articles more or less leads you to conclude that removing them is a kind of violation… but if you instead regard the provision of the posts as a service, the conclusion is entirely different. A service is ongoing, and must be maintained. Some energy or effort is required to continue it. What morality requires any creator to keep their services on tap? Why should Xeni, or anyone else, be bound to expending effort in order to continue serving articles they no longer deem worthy?

The BoingBoingers themselves seem to be taking another tack, considering posts to be both articles and services building that most commonplace of Internet buzzwords, community. That’s much more nebulous, of course, and the demands of a community may or may not respect creative control, or the effort required to maintain services.

Leave a Reply