Monday, October 6, 2003

Blogs: Publication or Conversation?

Referring to posts from Ernie and me over the past few days, Jerry Lawson says, “I’m not sure why the people who want to impose their dislike of editing should be the ones who get to make the rules.”

I’m not suggesting I have any more right than anyone else to make the rules. But I don’t think this is as cut-and-dried as Jerry makes it seem.

It seems to me there are several things about weblogs that lend themselves to a sense of permanence. If one materially edits the substance of a weblog post, it destroys that sense of permanence, and in the end I think diminishes the power of the “blogosphere” (such as it is).

Permalinks are citations, pure and simple. The very purpose of a permalink (a “permanent link”) is to direct a reader to the words said by someone else. If a permalink doesn’t direct you to the words as the blogger read them, it only leads to confusion.

Weblogs are not websites. Permalinks and the chronological nature of posts distinguish weblog entries from web pages. Both of these characteristics explicitly encourage dialogue — I write something, Ernie links to it and adds his own comments. Jerry links to both of us, and adds his own thoughts disagreeing with us. I add to the conversation, and so it goes.

Without either the chronological ordering of posts or the ability to pinpoint link to what Ernie and Jerry said and when, our ability to have a conversation goes away.

What I don’t understand is how a conversation can happen if what was said is in question and open to interpretation.

And this gets to the heart of the matter, I think. If the purpose of a blog is to provide a public service (as Jerry says is his purpose), then I think this issue is largely moot. But if the purpose of the blog is to participate in an ongoing discussion, I just don’t see how post-publication editing fosters that at all.

With the development of technology like trackback, I tihnk this only becomes more important. Trackbacks are themselves timestamped — which indicate when I linked to someone. The construction of posts, coupled with links and tied together with trackback pings all indicate a flow of conversation. If any of those underlying posts materially change, then it becomes nearly impossible for a reader to reconstruct the conversation or follow its points.

Now I’m not arguing that posts can’t be edited, or shouldn’t be edited. But I do believe that I owe my readers an explicit acknowledgement of any changes I make. People who read this site through a news aggregator are quite likely to get my post within the first thirty to sixty minutes of the post being online; people who read the site in a browser might not see it for 24 or more hours. If I make changes during that gap, it’s quite likely that the conversation that stems from my original post will branch — with two people reacting to what they think is the same post but could have significant differences.

I think the most I could hope for is an acknolwedgement of what a person’s policy is. To that end, I think Dave’s statement is exactly right. While there’s been considerable consternation among some about Dave’s edits of his own posts, they don’t bother me at all: I know he does it, and that allows me to put it into context. I’m on notice that he reserves the right to change whatever he wants. (As a result of the thinking I’ve given this, I’ll be creating a similar policy and will post it tomorrow. )

Let’s see where this conversation goes. Thanks for listening.


  1. one neat technological solution to this issue would be version tracking. I don't know of any weblog-software vendors who currently offer this feature, but implemented properly, version tracking would allow even substantive edits to happen without damaging either the conversation or the authority of citations to that post.

  2. >The very purpose of a permalink (a “permanent link”) is to direct a reader to the words said by someone else. If a permalink doesn’t direct you to the words as the blogger read them, it only leads to confusion.<

    You are describing one method of operation, a way you think blogs should function. Many, perhaps even most would agree that this is a desirable way blogs should function.

    However, it's clearly not the only way that blogs could be viewed, or the only way they could function. I don't think people with other views of blogs and the way they should operate should be implied to be unethical in some way. There are better approaches, including:

    * If you think that person's blog postings are so unreliable that they don't deserve to be linked to, or can't be trusted, and this bothers you, then doesn't it make more sense to stop reading their blog and stop posting about it?

    * Alternatively, why not trust your readers to figure out that the post you are citing was edited?

    * Finally, if you think their ideas of a known "edit-prone" person are so important that posting about what they have said is essential, then isn't important enough that you could quote all the key elements you are referencing in your own post? I think "fair use" under the copyright laws would extend to any legitimate quoting.

    There are probably other reasonable approaches to the perceived problems that you are complaining about. However, I don't believe that impugning the integrity of someone who takes a different view of blogs and their uses is a good approach.


  3. Views Of What A Blog Should Be

    Rick Klau responded to my previous post by opining, in part:The very purpose of a permalink (a “permanent link”) is to direct a reader to the words said by someone else. If a permalink doesn’t direct you to the words...

  4. Jerry - How exactly would I know that a site I linked to 6 months ago edited the post? How would I know a site that regularly edits their posts? I read over 130 sites through my aggregator each day; the notion that I'd have anything but a passing idea of whether one post changes from one day to another seems highly optimistic.

    Separately, you seem troubled that I've impugned others' reputations by suggesting that edits = unethical. If I ever suggested that, it was absolutely *not* my intent. I'd like to know what others' policies are, plain and simple. I'm not looking for warranties or anything quite so formal. Just an idea of what to expect.


  5. Blog Audit Trails & Cost-Shifting

    Here are a few additonal thoughts on the previous discussion with Rick Klau and Ernst Svenson. Some people think it is wrong for blog authors to change an existing post without leaving an audit trail that facilitates the development of...