I just took down a G+ post about a funny Craigslist advertisement in Virginia for a topless, female dungeon master who might be willing to run an AD&D 3.5 campaign for a bachelor party. Nerdy, strange and somewhat misogynistic all at the same time, I thought it was worth sharing. But when it passed through G+ to Twitter and Facebook, somehow the link to the actual advertisement forwarded to the Craigslist category it was posted in and not to the advertisement itself. And since I try to keep my posts fairly uniform cross-platform, I deleted all three. Then I wondered if people might think I was removing them because I believed they were inappropriate, which led me to wonder if I'd be faced with the 'she took it down' value judgement I've seen other people make when folks do this sort of thing, which led me to think about the way I view online interaction, which led me to this post.
I'm troubled by the notion that everything everyone posts on the Internet should occupy the same journalistic space that a newspaper does. I can't count the number of times I've watched a private individual change her mind about a controversial blog post or comment and either shut the thread down or delete it, only to find that a number of people have screen-capped her words and are posting images of them elsewhere in an accusatory fashion. "See?" the images seem to say, "she's taking them back, but she can't take them back because we have them now, and we're going to punish her with them."
Sometimes screen-capping is the right thing to do. For instance, in cases where a post or comment is abusive or threatening, it's good to have a record to turn over to authorities or to make public for the good of the online community. In cases where an official representative of some organization has made a controversial statement, it can also be good to have a record in case that statement is changed without notification in an effort to backtrack. I recently screen-capped my Intranet communication with a publishing company that offered me a contract I subsequently declined, since I knew that I would no longer have access to the Intranet once I did so.
At the same time, blogs aren't newspapers, and people aren't organizations. More importantly, the emerging study of cyberspace psychology is revealing that people view their computers as extensions of themselves and not as mediums for fixed communication. People change their minds. They decide to do a thing and then decide against it. They come on strong and then back off a bit. They say stupid things and then want to take them back. For my part, I never stop editing anything I write, even after it's technically finished. And speaking of the technical, I'm always looking for ways to streamline my social networking presence, which sometimes means re-posting or deleting content. Of course, if someone has commented on a post I've made, I leave it alone unless a change is necessary, at which point I clearly indicate the date and substance of my edits or deletions. But on the whole, I figure it's my online space, and I'll do with it as I please.
Granted, we're all talking in a much bigger room when we talk online, and a lot more people are going to witness our frailties when we fuck up. Still, I'd rather forgive a moment of frailty than surrender the Internet to eggshell-careful conversations policed by mean girls. So if it's an online newspaper, an official web site or some other space from which we should expect fixed communication, transparency and accountability for changes in position, then I think we should treat it as such. But if it's a blog, a social networking thread or a comment in one of these spaces made by a private individual, perhaps we'd do better to offer the kindness we might hope to be offered when it's our turn to be human.