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The Boing Boing Controversies

by Michael Szul on

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This is an expanded, written monologue of the Apotheosis podcast episode of the same name. 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 the edge of civility into an incoherent rage in my experience, it is making fun of them. Even the perception that you might be making fun of them is extremely dangerous, and disemvoweling is right on top of that line if not clearly over it.

2.) We do not reward failure. If you’re being a jerk to someone, the last thing we want to do is highlight that content, make it stand out, or otherwise bring attention to it. Yes, it’s technically obscured, but the dunce cap works both ways. An elementary school teacher once posted on one of the Stack Exchange sites that in an effort to get her class to behave she started writing the names of misbehaving children on the board. This wasn’t working as well as she hoped. Then she switched to writing all the names of the children on the board (small class, I guess) and erasing the names of those who misbehaved. Guess what suddenly started working like gangbusters?

3.) It’s too complicated. The rules of how it works require explanation, and anything that requires explanation is a pain in the ass long term. Every new user will see the disemvoweled content and wonder what the hell is up with that weird post (or worse, become motivated to solve the puzzle and be “rewarded” with toxic, unpleasant content). Compare with not seeing hateful content at all. So much simpler.1

A much larger Boing Boing controversy came about from the treat of sex blogger Violet Blue. After being a contributor to Boing Boing, one day, all of her posts were deleted without explanation. Blue posted about the controversy on her own blog, and the Los Angeles Times even commented on the noted silence from the so-call directory of wonderful things.

Sometime last year, Xeni Jardin, the co-editor of the popular blog Boing Boing, erased sex columnist Violet Blue from the site’s archives. Removed from public view on the two-million-unique-visitors-a-month megablog were all Jardin’s posts regarding her former friend, as well as all of Blue’s comments on the site. Readers were not notified of the changes. Last week, the missing posts were noticed for the first time. The move outraged Boing Boing readers—and launched a major, public controversy on the ethics of archiving in the new media era.2

Violet Blue from Wikimedia

Eventually Boing Boing released a statement:

Bottom line is that those posts (not "more than 100 posts," as erroneously claimed elsewhere) were removed from public view a year ago. Violet behaved in a way that made us reconsider whether we wanted to lend her any credibility or associate with her. It's our blog and so we made an editorial decision, like we do every single day. We didn't attempt to silence Violet. We unpublished our own work. There's a big difference between that and censorship. […] Clearly, that didn't work out. In attempting to defuse drama, we inadvertently ignited more. Mind you, we weren't the ones splashing gasoline around; but we did make the fire possible. We're sorry about that. In the meantime, Boing Boing's past content is indexed on the Wayback Machine, a basic Internet resource; so the material should still be available for those who would like to read it.3

This was probably too little, too late, and David Pescovitz, meanwhile, completely misinterpresent (or misrepresented) the point of Boing Boing readers entirely:

“What would happen if Boing Boing decided we’re going to shut down?” wonders Boing Boing co-editor David Pescovitz. “I don’t mean today. Maybe in twenty years we’re all broke and bankrupt, we can’t afford to host, no one likes us, no one reads our stuff, and we take down the entire thing. Are we then the ultimate censors?”4

Jardin, herself, dug the hole even deeper by suggesting that—despite many on staff being journalists concerned with ethics, privacy, and censorship—Boing Boing didn't need to adhere to journalistic standards:

"There's a big difference between working for National Public Radio, producing something that is a news piece for that outlet, and writing for Boing Boing," argues Jardin, who currently works as a commentator for NPR. "They are two entirely different kinds of entities, even though they have really big footprints culturally. Boing Boing is not trying to be CNN or NPR or the Library of Congress."5

Cory Doctorow—in an unrelated instance—believed that Boing Boing was a personal blog (with multiple people) and should be treated as such.

There has consistently been rumors circulating about the "why" of this situation, and when you leave actions open to interpretation, you do end up getting down to baser speculation and rumor. Gawker writer Owen Thomas quotes yet another Gawker property, Valleywag, about how "all signs point to the foundering of a once-romantic friendship between Boing Boing editor Xeni Jardin and Violet Blue."

Owen continues to speculate:

[…] [W]e've come to believe, the friendship always had a mercenary angle - Jardin could get her linked as well as laid. The association with Boing Boing boosted Blue's career. How painful it must have been for Jardin to realize she was being used by a groupie who wanted to join her band. And people in pain exercise supremely bad judgment, which is what Jardin did when she "unpublished" posts about Blue from Boing Boing.6

Without putting too much stock in the story of a lovers' tryst, Violet Blue is not a person without her own controversial baggage. Although I shudder to use a Gawker publication as a source, there are documented rumors of blogger/journalist Melissa Gira Grant turning down Blue's advances. Some accused Blue of using sex blogger connections and interpersonal relationships to get ahead in journalism. Should Grant be believed? Oddly enough, Melissa Gira Grant was a former Key 23 contributor, so I certainly find such comments credible coming from her; however, Grant herself was in a bit of a controversial confrontation with another former Key 23 contributor—Rachel Haywire—just a few short years ago. What does all this mean other than don't believe everything that you read on the Internet? I guess it simply means that people disagree. People get into argument. Sometimes people are terrible to each other. And when these people live a semi-public life online, it spills over into the collective mind-share of readers on blogs. It's impossible to know the whole story based on the loose information available, and the fact that it's being kept mostly private means that it likely is a private matter. None of us should care about who is sleeping with whom. It's none of our business.

But what about the censorship?

Boing Boing's problem isn't that two people associated with the blog are on the outs with each other. Boing Boing's problem is that they elected to unpublish someone and scrub the site of that person's name without even a footnote on why. When they later decided to address it, it came down to "our blog; our decisions" and that certainly never works out for people who run Internet forums, and I know that first hand.

Unpublishing is a problem because it's silencing a voice after-the-fact.

More recently, with the departure of Cory Doctorow, readers noticed how references to the writer have been removed from the blog in a similar silent matter causing many to wonder about the reason for Doctorow's departure, and the treatment of his name and work on the blog that he helped build. Although neither party has spoken about the issue in detail, rumor is that the schism is related to Boing Boing's use of affiliate links and marketing in new and creative ways, while Doctorow is more interested in fighting the good fight of activism.

Honestly, I've never been a big reader or fan of Boing Boing even in its prime. And that certainly could be coloring my thoughts on these so-called controversies and how I feel about Boing Boing's decline.

But that doesn't mean that Boing Boing isn't a quality part of Internet history.