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The Boing Boing Controversies

by Michael Szul on tags: apotheosis, cyberspace, podcast, podcasting, boing boing, violet blue, xeni jardin, key23, key 23

This is an expanded, written monologue of the Apotheosis podcast episode of the same name. You can listen to the audio version above. Podcast music by Nullsleep.

Although the history of Boing Boing paints a picture of geek chic with a thriving community and an almost playful cyber-indulgence, the blog (and those running the blog) is not without the occasional head-turning controversy, and some of this controversy directly correlates with the declining perception of the blog in its current quasi-lackluster state.

Every discussion revolving around expression on the Internet will undoubtedly dovetail into a discussion about censorship and when/if censorship is a good thing. And you'll certainly run into the comic version of Karl Popper's intolerance paradox if that discussion revolves around political discourse and tolerance. Most message boards have moderators and these moderators wield enormous power over the prospects of communication. When I used to run a group blog and Internet forum called Key 23, I was one of several founders tied to the initial launch, but the primary (re: only) technical resource on it. My servers. My software. My blood, sweat, and definitely tears.

Side note: Key 23 is permanently offline and essentially a black hole in terms of Internet history, but the founders included a former Adobe employee and a current Wired writer, while other participants included a former Mozilla employee, a published author on mythology and story-building, a rap artist, and even someone who eventually became a right-wing extremist—through no fault of ours.

I certainly can't say that running Key 23 went smoothly. When running an Internet forum for free, there are a lot of expectations thrown at you by the users, and you put out a lot of effort based on those expectations, but one wrong turn and you're suddenly the villain. At one point, there was an open thread of comments that people were threading together as a full story. Somebody added a part out of turn, which skewed the narrative. As a person who likes consistency, I edited the narrative to align it better with the full story. That single edit became a fire drill of controversy, and despite the fact that I was single-handedly managing the operation on my own dime, such effort provide zero leeway in editorial initiative.

I mention this because at the same time, Boing Boing also received criticism over censorship in the form of comment edits. Despite often being considered critical of online censorship, Boing Boing has been attacked for censoring via disemvoweling—the practice of removing the vowels from comments deemed inappropriate. This practice might seem like a game, but as a site that prides itself on being a supporter of Internet freedom, is the practice really okay? Since I was someone who formerly ran an online forum, I can sympathize with both sides here, but I can certainly see the controversy.

Disemvoweling has made its way through multiple versions of the Boing Boing community (i.e., different message board software versions), and even led to Jeff Atwood chiming in on why is nothing something preferred for his Discourse software:

As a Respected Industry Thought Leader™ in the area of building communities, I have some thoughts about disemvoweling. Spoiler alert: I don’t like it.


A couple reasons.

1.) You’re kinda… mocking that person. It’d be like me forcing you to speak through a filter that turned all your words into baby talk, or pirate talk, or whatever. If there’s anything that rapidly sends someone on