The Internets Never Forget | February 27, 2010

5 Years ago somebody wrote something stupid on the Internet that annoyed a bunch of bloggers enough to write about it, including myself. Yesterday I received a contrite email from this person saying that the incident had ruined their life and asking if I’d remove the post. It turns out that my blog post ranked in the top 20 results for this guys name and he was wondering if I’d remove the article. I considered it, as to be honest I’d completely forgotten about the event (as had most people 2 weeks after it happen) and I didn’t really care that much anyway. However it got me thinking about two different things.

On the one hand, the Internet can freeze youthful folly and a small transgressions can stick with you for life. So that picture of you drunk and passed out in a skip, or that heated argument you had on a mailing list when you were twenty can come back and haunt you. This is something that the Facebook generation is beginning to discover as they enter the job market only to have their potential boss Google their antics. Surely everybody deserves the anonymity of youth; to screw up a few times and not have it haunt you for life for ever. I’m a pretty decent chap and felt sorry for the guy, so was definitely tempted to strike his transgressions from the history books. I know that I’d want somebody to show me some compassion if the position was reversed.

On the other hand, by removing this information aren’t we effectively rewriting history? I’m sure we’ve all written dumb things on the Internet in the past, yet we don’t all go around asking for this information to be doctored. Shouldn’t people be forced to standby their mistakes and carry them with honour and dignity? Isn’t it important to know that the MP now campaigning for family values once smoked pot and screwed around? Similarly isn’t it useful to know that somebody who now makes their living writing standards based code once said…

“Standards cronies have now latched on to the disabled ‘the starving African children of high technology’ for leverage. Spend time reading A List Apart, and you’ll soon get the impression that accessibility is bigger than cancer, and we’re all about to go blind and lose our mouse-bearing limbs. The solution? Web standards!”

So what do you folks think? Should youthful folly be let to rest or is ther a moral obligation to keep this information around?

Posted at February 27, 2010 12:06 AM

Comments

Mark H. Nichols said on February 27, 2010 1:17 AM

Once upon a time I read something that applies here: “You should never say or do anything that will embarrass you, even if what you said or did is misrepresented by others.”

In other words, own what you say and do. And if some people want to restrict their involvement with you based on something you said or did out of hand, perhaps they are doing you a favor.

Daniel Burka said on February 27, 2010 2:03 AM

One of the beauties of the web is that also that it’s adaptable to new circumstances and things you publish can be improved and altered in the future. Unlike an edition of a book, we’re not stuck with the same text if we discover something better over time.

In this case, is it possible to redact the person’s name while still retaining the integrity of the piece? If so, I’d be tempted to add a note that the piece has been altered (heck, even link to this email explaining why) and then make the change. Keeping things consistent doesn’t necessarily mean keeping them the same.

Daniel Burka said on February 27, 2010 2:05 AM

Oh boy. In the interests of improvement, I should proofread better. See, the interwebs are great… you could fix my typing errors and pretend that never happened. Sigh Sorry.

Tim Kadlec said on February 27, 2010 2:33 AM

On the one hand - his concern is understandable. Most of us are guilty of saying or writing something that we regret or no longer agree with.

On the other hand, I don’t understand his concern. You say he’s now writing standards compliant code? Then clearly there’s been some progression, and he’s had a change of opinion.

All it would take to clear this incident up is a quick post by him making it apparent that his viewpoint has changed. A post like that is honest, transparent and it shows that he is wise enough now to admit that there was a time he thought he knew it all, and didn’t.

What matters is not that he was wrong once in the past - what matters is that he learned from it.

Chris Casciano said on February 27, 2010 3:07 AM

I don’t think I’d change anything with the original post as Daniel suggests, but I do think it points to the importance of clearly labeling the time and age of a post. It comes up often on discussion and links of technical topics and tutorials [i still get many hits for 8 year old javascript articles] but it also applies to both your old post on the topic as well as his.

If you’d like to oblige this person with any edits at all it would be a note at the top to highlight the age and context of the post, but if the post you had written was directed towards someone it should remain directed towards that person of X years ago.

There’s only so much you can do for people. Just like you’re not going back and editing dead link in every old post, revisiting every opinion you you yourself has ever posted you shouldn’t go fixing other people’s reputations for them.

To the author, whoever they might be: my suggestion is to post your current position on web standards on your blog or somewhere & link it from a comment on the blog post you don’t feel represents you now. You should be explaining the change in thought, not those who may have been your critics.

Alan Hogan said on February 27, 2010 3:26 AM

I would not be much opposed to a redaction of the name involved, but I tend to fall on the of “Don’t change history” side of things.

The disagreement in question has been overwhelmingly decided in the meantime, but history repeats itself — and maintaining the idiocies of yesterday provides a warning for the idiocies of tomorrow.

Keep it.

Alan Hogan said on February 27, 2010 3:49 AM

Belated thought: It is entirely acceptable to add a clearly-demarcated “update” to the original post, stating that the man in question has changed his mind, etc.

Ms. Jen said on February 27, 2010 4:00 AM

I think this is very relevant, as for many folks they think that the internet is fluid and can be erased as easily as it was built.

One of the sites I have built & participated in turned 11 years old last month. One of the main writers came over the other night and wanted me to reduce his published entries from 160+ from 2001 - 2009 to 49, as he felt they were old and needed to be taken off. He had himself turned them to draft, but since we use MT for the site, there was still a static html version of the post that he wanted me to delete.

What insued was a 45 minute discussion on why the posts were still relevant, why what is written is a record of the time and it needed to stay. I showed him the Internet Archive Wayback Machine and when he saw that I could delete but the static html version but the post would still be up on the Wayback Machine, he was baffled by why anyone would want there stuff to be archived.

This is an intelligent 40-something artist and teacher. But as a non-professional web person, he saw the archives as something to be cleaned out not as something to be saved.

It was an interesting discussion. In the end, the static html pages remain in their directories, but we agreed that he would have control (mostly in his own mind) of the draft vs. publish status in the CMS.

On a side note, if you haven’t already read Danah Boyd’s post on Superpublics, do go read it. http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2006/03/22/super_publics.html

Ms. Jen said on February 27, 2010 4:03 AM

Dreadfully sorry for my bad grammar in a few places above.

Michael Kozakewich said on February 27, 2010 7:29 AM

When you get right down to it, people say the same sorts of things now to the same sorts of people. The only difference is that, years later, someone else can come by and read what both parties said.

As far as deleting this history goes: If it doesn’t alter historical context, it stands on its own. If you delete it, it would become a whisper on the wind, and future visitors would be none the wiser.
You wouldn’t be changing history — you both would have said exactly what you said, and all that happened until this moment would still have happened.

So the question becomes, “Why would I keep it up?” Is there a reason? You might want to preserve your own history, or hold him as an example.

I wonder if anyone has written a paper on The Ethics of Deleting Personal History.
Information is a funny thing, and we’re just coming into that age. There are still so many questions we’ll need to answer.

Drew McLellan said on February 27, 2010 9:17 AM

I guess the issue is that prospective business contacts are searching for this guy and finding the article, which he now thinks isn’t representative of his current thinking.

Google is ultimately very fair. The results show the most relevant results for the term. If results are showing up that he thinks are no longer representative of him then he needs to jolly well start publishing stuff that IS representative - and then Google will start returning that instead.

Your search results are your own responsibility.

Rachel Andrew said on February 27, 2010 9:27 AM

The original article was his professional opinion. His opinion at the time. So now his opinion has changed - he won’t be the first or the last person to be vehemently against something and change his mind later. I’ve done it, I’m sure most people have. One of the dangers of publishing your thoughts is that you make yourself look a bit daft, either at the time or in the future. It is how you respond to criticism that shows whether you are open to having your mind changed.

My advice would be that this person writes a post about why he has changed his mind - close off the chapter with a positive story. Then ask anyone who still has quotes from the original article if they will post an update link along with the post. If the issue is ever mentioned again all he need do is point to the new post.

Trying to rewrite history online is never going to work, this article will come back and bite him again. Best to deal with it properly now and then get on with publishing new stuff.

Andy Budd said on February 27, 2010 9:31 AM

Thanks for all the feedback so far. Some very considered thoughts there. Please feel free to keep them coming.

Incidentally the first thing I did was offer the opportunity for him to post an update. However I think he’s more interested in removing any negative posts than trying to redress the balance.

Paul Downey said on February 27, 2010 10:07 AM

We all make mistakes and say stupid things, crumbs I’ve done it enough myself, but it’s in our hands to deal with lapses of judgement, and how we deal with mistakes often says more about us than a technical stance we happened to take a few years ago.

So whilst you could put your blog through a Memory Hole, it sounds like that’s a little disproportionate in this case and I think it’s a very generous offer for you to make to update the page with a link to his blog where he explains how and why he’s changed his position. That would improve his standing not only with Google, but with those who remember the interaction when it happened.

Having said that, we’re dealing with a real person here and if after reading this thread, they still aggrieved and think it’s a reasonable thing to expect the post to be taken down, then maybe removing their full name or even the link with a short explanation of the update isn’t that costly in the grand scheme of things.

Frances said on February 27, 2010 11:11 AM

I think people say stupid things all the time.

I think the best way to deal with it, if you later decide you were wrong or a bit hasty, is to write your own public retraction or discussion on why you’ve changed your mind. If other people have written about your previous opinion, it’s still up to them if they want to take note of your change of heart.

I don’t think articles or opinion pieces should ever be deleted, but it’s responsible blogging to add footnotes to posts when the opinion or information has changed since publication (this is even more true when the piece isn’t opinion and is perhaps informational - it’s important to keep the internet as accurate as possible, I think).

Ian Fenn said on February 27, 2010 11:26 AM

I’d allow him to provide a ‘right of reply’ and append this to the item with an update prompt at the top. Something: ‘Update 27/02/10: [Name] has advised that they no longer hold the view suggested by this 2005 article. For more details, see the update.’

Ian Fenn said on February 27, 2010 11:28 AM

Oh, and I apologise for omitting the word ‘like’ after ‘something’ in the above comment. :-)

karl said on February 27, 2010 12:16 PM

Here you are assuming that the crowd is right and the other one is wrong. It might be even true at a moment in time and not such much at another time. Losing memory, lying is a necessary part of human social relationship.

Think, for example, about someone lying about a sexual orientation to get a job.

Then there is living with your own mistakes and having to carry them all along (internet criminal record). The crowd sometimes makes things a lot bigger than it was in real, and specifically for the perception of others (the ones out of the story) a few years after. That’s not good. It makes individual carrying the burden of a poster saying all the bad things they did in the past, just because someone or a group of people decided to make it public.

It touches what most people call private life, and that I prefer to call opacity

Private life is not happening only behind walls but also in public spaces. In a physical world, it is tolerable because the opacity is bigger and that is good.

ppk said on February 27, 2010 1:28 PM

My vote definitely goes to forgiveness. Your point about rewriting history is an interesting one, but pulling a veil over youthful indiscretions is strictly speaking a rewriting of history; still we don’t mind doing it every now and then.

History is constantly being rewritten. I don’t think civilisation as a whole could survive if we’d constantly keep every little detail of history in mind and guide our actions.

It seems from your post that this guy is repentant; so let’s forgive and forget and remove the post. You’ve made your point after all; the guy figured out he was wrong. And that was the point of your post - not shaming him for the rest of his life.

cath said on February 27, 2010 3:23 PM

A very interesting question. My instinct in this situation is that compassion should win out. Who hasn’t said or done something stupid in the past and regretted it? Luckily, if it isn’t recorded, everybody can get over the moment so much quicker and move on. I would hate to still be staring some of my more idiotic moments in the face - written in the 21st century equivalent of indelible ink. Certainly sounds like the author has learnt enough from the incident to last them a lifetime!

I do agree however that it’s crucially important for us, and indeed we have a collective responsibility, to preserve the passage of time for historical purposes. This is how the future generation will learn - from our mistakes and our discoveries.

I agree with Daniel’s solution when he suggests preserving the posts, but anonymising the author. This feels like a fair compromise.

A Messenger said on February 27, 2010 3:30 PM

“I’m a pretty decent chap and felt sorry for the guy, so was definitely tempted to strike his transgressions from the history books. I know that I’d want somebody to show me some compassion if the position was reversed.”

I believe the position will be reversed for you one day. My vote goes for forgiveness too :)

Matt 6:15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Mike Busch said on February 27, 2010 4:58 PM

I’m inclined to think that you can BOTH preserve the record AND kill the post from Google/search engine results.

either amend the robots.txt to disallow the path to the article, or drop a meta noindex tag in the head on the page in question. should keep the search engines from indexing, but keep the record of the event intact.

I also second some other posters that you may just want to “anonymize” the offender in the original post.

Tom Hume said on February 27, 2010 5:00 PM

There’s an interesting discussion to be had here about the long-term privacy implications of digital content - and as facial recognition moves from being magical to just-another-feature, it’s only going to get worse. Trying to understand the future impact of your present actions, in the context of technologies you can’t imagine yet, is tricky.

The author sounds embarrassed and adversely affected by what he wrote 5 years ago. Quoting it here after he’s asked you to take the original down is only going to draw attention to it again and make things worse for him.

+1 to cath’s suggestion - so that even folks googling for the quote can’t find him.

David E. said on February 28, 2010 11:21 AM

I’m the author in question, and I have to say that it is extremely surreal to me that Andy Budd would ignore several of my own actual emails but then feel free to discuss my situation in public.

To correct Andy’s blatant misrepresentation of my request, the article he is talking about was never my opinion. In context, it was a very obvious satire protesting against extremist bullies and their disingenuous claims to sympathy and moral supremacy.

Regretfully, an editor I trusted posted a highly ambiguous edit of this as “Opinion” without any further labelling or disclaimer. So yes, I’m sorry that people such as Andy (doubly so, in his case) were made to look like fools for believing something so ludicrous and grotesque could be genuine.

I do not regret for one second the actual intent of my original unedited article. The only youthful folly here is my expectation that I could write to a blogger and expect any privacy.

Andy Budd said on February 28, 2010 1:21 PM

Thanks for the comment and the clarification David. Do you think it would be helpful to post up the original article in it’s unedited entirety? I’d be happy to link to that from the original post as well as include a short explanation

David E. said on February 28, 2010 3:19 PM

Andy: I honestly don’t even have it anymore. It only existed in my email archive and that was lost a long time ago. I do remember specifically that it had several paragraphs of introduction which were simply omitted.

Btw, I understand that you want to discuss the integrity of Internet-based history. I do. But some of the comments here are naive. Google isn’t chronological (by default anyway), and it cares nothing of people’s identities.

To Google, our names are just keywords defined solely by hyperlink repetition and semantic analysis. It’s an inherently robotic and corruptible system that favours the mob.

Seamus Fitzpatrick said on March 1, 2010 12:20 AM

Yes we all say and type things that we shouldn’t, and even go as far as texting especially, but these things are mistakes that yes everyone should own up to and bear themsevles but only really to a certain point, after time; typed, texted and said things should be forgotten unless brought up by the sayer, texter, typer but holding grudges and bring up the past is not the way forward.

Forgive and forget, as the person that you are when usually typing, texting, or saying things is not necessarily going to be the person you are growing or grown up to be now, it should not be held over our heads as a threat but more to help us learn from our mistakes.

Aeron said on March 1, 2010 7:46 PM

I think there is a bigger lesson here than forgiveness. In the words of Elliot Spitzer (in the words of Martin Lomasney):

“Never write if you can speak; never speak if you can nod; never nod if you can wink… and never put it in e-mail.”

David E. said on March 1, 2010 8:51 PM

For anyone here who’s interested in long-term data preservation, I highly recommend checking out The Long Now Foundation’s website: http://www.longnow.org/

They have some really amazing stuff there.

David Szymakowski said on March 2, 2010 2:44 PM

If you can not look back at something you said years ago and say I have learned a lot since then you deserve to have it haunt you. We all have said or done things in our past that where not well thought out. You learn and move on.
You must keep the post. If it only helps one person learn or prevent them from making a similar mistake it is worth it.

Mike said on March 4, 2010 5:09 PM

I don’t think it should be taken down. But, as a nice gesture to the individual, you may feel inclined to add a paragraph stating his current views along with his apology at the beginning of the original post, with a note on the date of the original post.

That way the original message is still there, but the updated views are also there. Likewise, as others have said, the person in question should post an article stating their current views, and ask that a link to that article be included in an “update” paragraph.

Andy Budd said on March 5, 2010 12:29 AM

OK, so after much deliberation I decided to partially anonymize the post by changing the subjects name to David E. This will hopefully filter into Google and remove some of the negative results returned when searching for David’s full name. However it still keeps a historical reference for anybody who has linked directly to the article.

I still feel that altering history in this way is wrong and would have much preferred my original suggestion of updating the article. As David was responsible for the situation he found himself in he should have taken responsibility by issuing a retraction, explanation or update. However I guess sometimes we’ve got to let go of out philosophical beliefs for humane reasons.

Fozzy said on March 5, 2010 9:58 PM

Simple.
No.

To error is human. To admit error is superhuman.

If ‘so and so’ did something he has changed his mind on (being youthful and stupid, no doubt I’ve done the same), it should not be removed from history, but it would be most beneficial for ‘so and so’ to come up and say “hey, I did say that and I was an idiot. I can see that now, and here’s why…”

However, if ‘so and so’ wants to have what he said removed, but still believes the way he does, then he’s just trying to get away with murder, so to speak.

Humanity knows how to forgive, but it’s wrong to try and rewrite history.

Though, special consideration could be considered, particularly for extremely private or personal nature events that are not considered news worthy.

Fozzy said on March 5, 2010 10:27 PM

Hmm…

Proof to point, you can’t really find the original artical on APCMAG’s website (the one that HTMLDOG links to).

“David E.” ranted about CSS vs Table layouts calling “stupid”… in 2004 when CSS was still rather young.

There’s absolutely no reason to remove this from the history books. It’s actually a rather interesting historical insight into some people’s mentality of the time and Davis E. captured that so well.

Table vs CSS layouts was a huge debate back then. Because he sided with the loosing side then, and perhaps sees the light now doesn’t mean his old point should be removed.

It should mean he issues a mia culpa and laughs about it. How it “ruined his life” is rather dramatic.

That blog post didn’t ruin his life. His views might have, but could have just as easily saved his life as much as it ruined it.

Sadly, I want to go read exactly what was written but it’s already been made more difficult to find.

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Jacqueline said on March 7, 2010 8:36 PM

Words have power. When we exercise that power we have a responsibility to use it wisely. In a world where far too many people wish to abrogate their responsibilities, perhaps we need the Internet to keep us honest.

People grow up. They change their perspectives, opinions, and behaviours. But in a small community, everyone knows their history. The Internet has just expanded that small community.

If someone has made a mistake (haven’t we all?), then they need to acknowledge it, and explain why and how they have changed their opinion. That is both a responsible and mature course of action and it will boost their credibility tremendously.

Or so I think, today.

Trevor said on March 8, 2010 1:53 PM

We’ve all been teenagers. If it won’t affect you, remove the post, and leave it to the history books like archive.org.

It’s unfair that Google will always rank your site highly, meaning that he’ll never be able to respond in kind, and that you as a blogger have control over any ‘update’ he may wish to post to your site.

I think you have a responsibility as a high-ranking blogger to let it go, and remove it.

I like the way Andy made this a discussion on an anonymous basis, and respect that. It’s sad that David E took issue with that too.

Bustor said on March 19, 2010 2:14 PM

I agree with you on the reasons you might have written the post five years ago and do understand your consideration for removing the post now.
Really it is a question to consider,whether we delete a part of someone’s activity altogether by removing our comments etc from net?
Is doing this so simple? What about the false writeups and allegations that some people resort to on the net? Would it disfigure history from its own perspective? Could it make a hero out of a bad boy just by making ‘so many’ posts online? etc.
The impact of internet is still unknown to most of us,believe me and this ‘is’ going to decide the future of internet and the way people use it.
Maybe one day a man on the street is wearing a ‘federally essential’ gadget which records all activities the person does and it gets recorded in some government database and people would consider ‘this’ database as the most authentic ‘internet history’ source ! What would happen if this is abused by some high and powerful?
Questions are many and answers even more :)

agoodic said on March 22, 2010 6:57 AM

Belated thought: It is entirely acceptable to add a clearly-demarcated “update” to the original post, stating that the man in question has changed his mind, etc.