Rewriting blog history: Bad idea

(UPDATE AUG. 2: This post sparked intriguing followup and conversation by Dave Taylor, Tom Simpson, and Kent Newsome. I realize I needed to clarify something about the point I’m making here, which I did in this followup posting.)

I’ve seen this happen many times: Someone posts something in haste to a weblog. He later regrets it, recognizes an error or embarrassment, or is criticized for it — and then deletes the post in equal haste, hoping that erases the event and no one noticed.

While that may seem like a safe strategy (as long as you delete the post quickly, before it gets indexed by search engines), it’s actually a very bad idea. In my experience, it’s wisest to assume that anything you post online will live forever, regardless of whether you delete it from its original location. (Note: I fixed a typo in that sentence. Thanks for spotting it, Dave Taylor.)

Here’s why that’s so…

As soon as you post something to a weblog, an announcement of that item goes out on the blog’s feed. This means your feed subscribers will potentially read it — and also that the text of your posting is stored in their feed readers, whether they read it or not. Once they’ve downloaded the latest content from your feed, you can’t pull it back. It’s beyond your control.

Similarly, once your posting is on the web, anyone can use a web archiving tool like Furl to save a copy of your page as it appeared. They can do that in just a couple of seconds. So if your page is online for one minute and it intrigues a Furl user who passes by 15 seconds after you posted it, your posting is then stored beyond your control and you can’t take it back.

Or, another blogger can simply grab and repost your text, photos, etc. That’s what happened recently to Dave Winer when Ian Bettridge spotted Winer’s snarky retort to Bettridge’s criticism of some remarks Winer made about BlogHer. It looks like that criticism pushed Winer’s buttons and he replied in haste, then quickly deleted that reply — but not before Bettridge’s feed reader downloaded the posting. So Bettridge was able to post a copy of Winer’s retort, and point out that Winer had removed it without explanation.

Which then allowed Bettridge to escalate the conflict by beginning a new posting this way:

“I’m sure glad that Dave Winer invented RSS. After all, if he hadn’t, I might not have spotted the completely missing-the-point response that he posted to my questioning of his comments on BlogHer. Why might I not have spotted it? Because, as he commonly does when he gets things wrong, he removed the post without any explanation.”

Ouch, that’s gotta hurt. But that’s what can happen with weblogs. You can never really shove a published posting entirely down the memory hole.

The bottom line: Think twice — even thrice — before you post, especially if you’re ticked off at someone who’s likely trying to bait you into losing your temper.

And if you do make an unfortunate post (either by the tone of your remark, or by the inclusion of errors or embarrassing misunderstandings) don’t try to erase your misstep — because you probably can’t. A better approach is to acknowledge what you said, and clarify with a note that you’ve regretted your hasty response, learned your facts were wrong, etc. Then move on as gracefully as possible.

You’ll probably still take some heat for that posting, but that’s life. It’s better to take heat when owning up to a misjudgement than to be caught trying to pretend it never happened. Which is why it’s crucial to understand how easy it is to get caught. Weblogs are interconnected, and that connection starts the instant you hit “publish.”

There is no grace period in the blogosphere.

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