Explaining Substantive Edits: Good Idea (Rewriting Blog History, Part 2)

Yesterday’s post, Rewriting blog history: Bad idea, sparked some interesting discussion in its comments thread and in other weblogs (by Dave Taylor, Tom Simpson, and Kent Newsome).

I realized through this conversation that I hadn’t expressed my thoughts clearly enough, so here’s a second go at it.

From my perspective, it’s perfectly fine to change your mind and revise, retract, or clarify your statements, whether on a blog or elsewhere. In fact, I’m writing this post for exactly that purpose.

I also think it’s a good idea to revisit postings to fix typos, tighten up sentences, etc. — and if those nit-fixes don’t substantially alter your meaning, no need to point them out.

That said, in my experience it is indeed almost always a bad move to delete statements or postings without acknowledgment or explanation. I’m not talking about minor edits — I’m talking about trying to make content “disappear” and then acting like it never existed.

That strategy is almost certain to backfire — causing a bigger fuss than a simple explanation would have done, and possibly damaging your reputation or credibility in the process.

In short, ethical conduct online means owning up to what you publish — even if you have to remove it. And there may well be good reasons to remove it (legal, factual, ethical, social, and so on).

Here’s a fairly recent example from my own experience…

On March 12, 2006, I published a posting originally titled “Alexa’s ‘reach’ stats: More like ‘stretch’.” Within hours of my posting, several people pointed out to me that my interpretation of a statistical graph was completely mistaken. They were right, I was wrong — and I was mortified. (I know, this happens to every blogger sometime.)

At that point I assumed there were already some inbound links to my article, gleefully noting my blatant error. And I knew the original version went out into feed readers and elsewhere. I never considered deleting the posting, but if I had it probably would have made me look much worse.

So I owned up to it, immediately. I replaced the posting title with: Egg on my face about Alexa stats. I wrote a disclaimer at the beginning acknowledging and apologizing for my error, and then left the original text in place so people could see to what I was referring. The historical record was left in place, but the correction was made in an un-missable way at the original location.

That strategy worked well for me in that instance, and the minor flap blew over almost immediately.

But what about times when you really do need to delete content or postings? Stuff happens.

Say you launched into a public personal attack you now regret, or you disclosed information forbidden by SEC or other rules or laws, or you libeled someone. Those statements need to come down, immediately. What do you do?

Here’s my advice:

  • At the URL where the original posting or statement appeared, change the headline to indicate there’s been a correction. This will help with headline-only aggregation views.
  • Then, delete the necessary text, and replace it with a simple acknowledgment. You could say something as simple as, “I originally posted some statements here I shouldn’t have, so I’ve deleted them. I apologize for my error and any confusion or damage that may have resulted.”

Yes, of course, some people will still squawk. If you make a mistake or go seriously overboard, you’ve got to expect some heat for it. But believe me, you’ll look much better in to long run if you own up to errors than if you try to cover them up. Removing published content without explanation always looks like a coverup — or that you’re a hothead or thin-skinned.

Some people don’t really care how it looks or what people say if they remove content. If you’re one of them, more power to you. Just be aware that it can be a significant tradeoff.

I hope that clarifies my thinking on this topic. I realize that not everyone agrees with me on this, so as always take this as one person’s perspective. I’d love to hear more reactions to this.

How do you handle missteps on your blog or site? And why do you handle them that way? Please comment below, and offer specific examples if possible.

2 thoughts on Explaining Substantive Edits: Good Idea (Rewriting Blog History, Part 2)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *