On the record

One of the more amusing things about this campaign season has been the struggle of politicians and the mainstream media to come to grips with the blogosphere. They try to define it, contain it, co-opt it, manipulate it, yet despite their best efforts, it keeps slipping away. I laughed out loud when I heard a commentary by Mickey Kaus of Slate magazine on NPR’s Day to Day introduced as a “radio blog�. Don’t blogs by definition live on the Internet? Kaus’ piece sounded just like any other radio dispatch, except that it happened to be done by a well-known blogger over the telephone.

Both of the major party presidential candidates have official blogs (links: Kerry, Bush). As you might expect, they’re not written by the candidates themselves, but by campaign staffers. Ho-hum (to be honest, I didn’t bother reading either blog. I just wanted to verify that the front page of each had no content purportedly authored by either candidate). While these blogs may serve a useful purpose, they don’t seem to catch the spirit of blogging.

This state of affairs will not last. Blogging and politics go hand in hand, and it’s only a matter of time before some candidate for a major office emerges who has a presence in the blogosphere. And I predict American politics will change when that happens, because one thing the blogosphere has going for it is that it never forgets.

One of the more infuriating things about following an election campaign is trying to get an accurate bead on where candidates stand on issues, both historically and at present. Bloggers work to dig up information from various sources and publicize it, but lots of material goes unnoticed.

A blogger candidate would have a rich history of recorded statements on various issues, indexed and searchable, for the entire world to see, along with contemporaneous commentary by other bloggers. How great would it be to have a real blog of Bush or Kerry’s from the past four years? How might that change our perceptions of these candidates?

Therein lies the danger of blogging. Once you click that “post� button, your words are there for the whole world to see. Sure, you could delete a post if necessary, but anyone who has read it can pick it out of the browser cache. Google caches pages as well. What you say now can come back decades later to haunt you. Unfortunately, on political blogs, the tenor of discourse is often less than civil, and things may get said that the poster later regrets. Too bad.

There are other problems, of course – commenters on blogs that do not require registration can pretend to be someone they are not, and blogs can be hacked. But the real worry I see for bloggers is not what others may do to us, but what we may do to ourselves.

What does this mean for the bloggernacle? I started thinking about this when I saw Kaimi’s link to Outer Boroughs, written by Chris Williams. Since Bishop Williams is currently a bishop (reportedly, no mention of this at the blog), he presumably is aware that his blog may be read by members of his ward, and may possibly choose what he says and how he says it accordingly.

But what of those of us who may yet become bishops? Or Relief Society presidents? Seminary teachers? For that matter, what will my children think about what I write when they are old enough to want to read what I have said? I don’t generally write with my future readers in mind. Perhaps I should. I certainly don’t want what I say now to become a stumbling block to someone I may have influence over years from now.

Of course, the problem is that no matter how careful I am about what I write now, my thinking on certain issues will change over time, and that in itself may cause problems. Since there is not much I can do about this (except to stubbornly refuse to ever change my position on any issue), perhaps I worry too much.

The bloggernacle is young, a wild and woolly place. I think (despite the inelegance of the name) that it may play an important role in the building of Zion. It also can be a dangerous place as well. I hope that we can avoid the pitfalls as we explore its potential.

26 comments for “On the record

  1. Your links to Kaimi’s link and Outer Boroughs are broken.

    Two responses: (1) One of the most frightening things about publishing, if you are an academic, I can’t speak for anyone else, is the fact that your words become more or less permanent, even though you already know that your thinking doesn’t remain the same. But those are the facts of life, so you have to go ahead and publish knowing that you can’t control how people understand your work in the first place and that even if they understand you well, you may no longer agree with what you said earlier. It is one of the things that ought to make academics humble.

    (2) It isn’t such a bad idea, however, when blogging or otherwise speaking publicly to ask yourself just how public you are willing for what you say to be? Do you want your kids to read it some day, for example?

  2. Yes. I’m afraid that I’ve already disqualified myself for either academia or political office. Them’s the breaks.

    Jim F.’s point #2 may be a good idea in some respects, but its a bad one in others. It’s enormously inhibiting. Trying to write to a vast and unpredictable audience means you write bland and indecisive. One problem with blogs and things like that is, that in a plural society like ours, some ambiguity about people’s views is probably preferable.

  3. Jim F.–

    Thanks for checking the links. They should be fixed now.

    I thought about including a section on academic publishing in this post. Blogs are like academic publishing on speed — the turnaround time is incredibly fast, minutes instead of months — and there isn’t much filtering, no peer review, just the comments after the post is up, at which point it’s too late to take things back. The compressed time scale makes blogging that much more exhilarating and frightening. Thanks for your insight.

  4. Adam, you’re right, but the alternative to inhibition is courage: If a person thinks something is important enough to be said, be courageous enough to say it. If a person wants to say something silly, be courageous enough to look silly later. I think the latter kind of courage is more important than the former, since the former can easily become a kind of self-importance–“me and Galileo.”

    That said, I too think that ambiguity is often a good thing. If I’m not sure of my views, what I say about them ought to reflect that unsurety. If I am sure of them, I might want to back off a little bit anyway, just in case I later change my mind–or have children who can read what I’ve written and remind me of my earlier idiocy.

  5. Bryce: of course, the upside of blogging (exhiliration) is also its downside. Nibley’s phrase, “zeal without knowledge,” often could describe the exhiliration we feel when we post or comment.

    But, for me, the fright of blogging isn’t nearly like the fright of facing your peers and presenting a paper or the fright of waiting to see whether your article has been accepted when you are working on tenure.

  6. Remember when it was fashionable to say there were actually “two” Elijah Abels? Well, if needs be, years from now I can always claim there were actually “two” Aaron Browns. (And that’s not even counting the CNN guy). “I have no idea who that pompous blowhard in the Bloggernacle with those trumped up stories was, Bishop! Honest I don’t!” :)

    In the alternative, we all probably take for granted that commenters are who they say they are. But is that really a safe assumption? Don’t tell me you don’t occasionally get the urge to type something philosophically incoherent, and sign Jim F.’s name to it…. or go on a leftist rant, close with “What say ye?”, and attribute it to “L’ile.” You know you do. (Or is it really just me?) :)

    In short, there are always ways to avoid taking responsibility for your writings down the road if you really want to.

    Then again, maybe the real solution to this quandary is to excise from oneself all ecclesiastical ambition. Problem solved. But of course Jim is right that you still have your kids and grandkids to face when your crazy writings from your youth resurface decades later. Hopefully, Junior will understand Daddy well enough to not hold any of it against him.

    Aaron B

  7. (Hi Inouye Chôrô!)

    I hope y’all don’t mind a very personal anecdote that touches upon the relationship between blogging, public record and self-filtering/openess.

    I began a blog several years ago as an experiment in personal integrity–I felt that there was too much distance between my public and private persona. At church, I played the unwavering, conservative, rod-of-iron in the back of my suit act when the real me was constantly doubting, questioning, wandering lost in the wilderness and trying to figure out this ball, director, compass thingy worked. I felt very isolated.

    I found that you can write a blog post the way you might write a diary entry. The only difference between the privacy and publicity of your thoughts is the simple click of the ‘post’ button. I took advantage of this ease of conversion to come out of the closet of faith and lock the door behind me. I would be forced to accept the natural consequences of my words.

    The results were mixed. Personal experience underscores Jim’s comment on the need for follow-up courage. Some members who encountered my entries (esp. my in-laws) reacted negatively, but others were very supportive. To sum things up, I next found the courage to share my doubts verbally with church friends and leaders and to put “No Blood for Oil” and “Kerry-Edwards” bumper stickers on my car. To my surprise, I found a community of closet Liahona (and Democrat) Saints.

    We now have an institute class that caters to graduate students and their spouses, in which a wide variety of opinions and concerns can be expressed in an environment of mutual respect (Armand Mauss is a regular attendee.) I’d like to think that we’re helping to influence the ward environment to be a little more tolerant and welcoming.

    Anyhow, I’m not sure if my words will some day come back to haunt me, but the process has been priceless. Maybe I’m naïve, but I’d like to think that I’ll be blessed for choosing authenticity over façade, and that I’ll find that honesty truly will be the best policy.

  8. Choro tte? Dono dendobu? (I’m a Japan Tokyo South alumnus, ’93-’95.)

    I really enjoy learning about the more “human” aspects of important figures because it makes them seem, well, more human. Maybe my bishop loves his Pepsi, or he’s seen “Schindler’s List” once too many times (which is R-rated but a must-see in my book). If I think the people I look up to are superhuman and have no weaknesses, I set a standard for myself that is unattainably high and get discouraged when I notice my own glaring faults. Surely this is self-destructive, and I don’t think I’m the only one who cheats him or herself this way. But when I learn that my bishop disagrees with some obscure doctrine yet plods on regardless, I know that I can be that kind of person.

    So you blog some ideas that you disagree with ten years down the line. You run the risk that people won’t understand, because these people are the “little minds” that Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote about. I suppose this is a reasonably practical reason not to blog until you’ve made up your mind once and for all, but when that day comes, you may have started raising hobgoblins of your own.

  9. Bryce … excellent excellent post. I really do hope you’ll come out with your own blog. The sooner the better (ooh… can’t you just feel the pressure?)

    You know I’ve worried about what Bryce has said, that what you write is recorded at least semi-permanently if not completely permanently. Yesterday for example I wrote a long-winded piece about perspectives on gay marriage and afterwards found myself re-contemplating … worrying that I sounded like a complete freakazoid paranoid homophobe and realizing that I’m still developing what I think on that issue — feeling that maybe I said too much when I’m still in transition. But them’s the breaks I suppose. Writing what I think (even in a public sphere) is a part of my personal process. Responding to certain points and then seeing how people respond (or hearing the grand awful silence) helps me to change (hopefully for the better).

    I know someday someone can hold something against me that I wrote days, months or years ago — and who knows how alert, on-the-ball, etc. I was when I wrote that particular comment? Or maybe I lacked some vital experience at that time that would teach me the invaluable insight I needed. But I guess I accept the risks because otherwise I’d be surrendering an invaluable part of the learning process.

  10. It seems to me that the real advantage of blogging (and other forms of internet communication) is that it allows you to self-select into a much broader range of groups. When I was in law school I was intensely interested in thinking about the relationship between law and Mormonism. (I am still interested.) I knew about three people at law school who were interested in the same thing and frankly most of them were too busy to spend much time talking with me. So I got the school to set up a listserv and I started emailing as many potentially law related Mormons as I could find (I visited the website of virtually every major law school in the country looking for the email address of a local LDS student group) and invited people to join the list. Frankly, it never really became what I hoped it would become but it was fun to get to know and discuss things I was interested in with a much larger range of interested and informed people than was possible in the real world.

    When I left law school and started work I was, in many ways, very lonely. I had a group of friends in Cambridge who had scholarlly pretentions and were interested in the same issues that I was. I moved to Little Rock and there was none of that. I felt very, very isolated. It turned out that the Internet — through email lists or this blog, which began shortly after I moved to LR — became my main way of interacting with people outside of my family or office.

    The odd thing is that because I move so frequently (my wife and I have been married less than five years and have moved seven times), my online friends are much more stable and permanent than my friends in the real world. Indeed, of the few real-world friends from former places that I have lived with whom I still keep in contact, almost all of them are active online participants.

    I wonder, however, what dangers might be involved in having so much of my social life moved into the online world. It provides continuity and connection to a much larger group of like minded folks than I would have access to in the real world, but there is a certain thinness to the interaction as well. I have “known” Kaimi for several years but we met in the flesh for the first time last week. Are we friends? How well do I know him? Would we be friends if we had “met” in the real world and Kaimi had known from the beginning that I have an annoyingly nasal voice and slouch too much?

  11. Jim F.–

    You’re right of course. In academic publishing the stakes are much higher than in blogging. I imagine that one consequence of this is that you are much more careful about your academic writing than your blog posts (although I must say that your blog posts are remarkably well-crafted themselves).

    I think when I said that blogging is frightening I meant not that I worry how my words will be received in the near term. What’s frightening about blogging to me is that I might not recognize what the stakes I’m playing for actually are, underestimate them, and shortchange myself and my future readers by not taking the appropriate time to ponder and reflect on what I write.

  12. Besides the danger of hacking and impersonation, there are also potential technical problems. One additional danger (on this blog at least, for the short term) is that the archives didn’t completely import properly, and a number of posts — probably a hundred total, though that’s a guess — came through with the wrong author. (Someone just noticed this on the Real Issue post, in a comment, and Bryce corrected that).

    I still have access to the old blog, and can do a definitive check to see who really wrote what. And once life calms down a little, I’ll go over the list, find the misclassified posts, and reclassify them (unless any of my cobloggers beat me to it). But until then, I run the risk (potentially) of not just being held accountable for crazy stuff _I_ write, but also for crazy stuff that Nate, Matt, Adam, Kris, etc, write, which might (incorrectly) be attributed to me because of technical problems.

  13. I think Nate Oman is especially thinking about this when he posts his thoughts with big words and forgets to spell check. It’ll be a while before his kids notice the spelling errors let alone understand anything he’s written.

  14. Clark Goble–

    You bring up an interesting issue — is it appropriate to edit or delete one’s posts, and if so, under what circumstances.

    Here are my thoughts on editing blogs that invite comment and that comment on other blogs, or are otherwise engaged in conversation and debate on the web. Grammatical and other edits that do not change the content of the post can be made without comment. Posts can be deleted shortly after they are posted, but once there is a possibility that someone has read what you have posted, include a follow-up message indicating that the previous message should be disregarded. In extraordinary circumstances an existing post might be deleted, but only with an explanation of what was deleted and why. Editing the content of posts shoudl be done so that the original text is recoverable, either by strikethrough, or by reposting an edited version of the material.

    Why not just edit posts? If a blog post draws comment, it’s not fair to not allow other readers of those comments, whether on the blog itself or via a trackback or link, to see what is being responded to. Furthermore, you can undermine a response to a post by changing the content of the post after the fact. Since you have no control over how others link to your blog, you can’t know who has commented on your post. If the possibility exists that someone has responded to it, it’s best to continue the conversation, rather than retroactively change what was said.

    Also, if someone has read a post at a blog and then revisits it only to find that the content is changed, that person might justifiably not trust subsequent posts at that blog to be accurate representations of what the writer intends to say. Even if a post is changed, a person who has read a post can probably recover the original text through the cache. Nobody likes a flip-flopper; even worse is a secret flip-flopper.

    None of this is intended as a personal criticism, Clark. I am unacquainted with your blog (although I’ll go check it out now), so I’m certainly not responding to anything mroe than your short comment, which I may have read too much into.

  15. Danithew points out rightly (although perhaps inadvertently) that I really have no grounds on which to make this post, seeing as I have no standing as a blogger other than over the past few days, thanks to the good folks at Times and Seasons. I have been thinking about putting up my own blog, and this post and my subseqent comments here are a result of that thinking, as I ponder what my purpose in blogging might be, and what the possible consequences are.

  16. Remy choro—

    Hisashiburi! Do you still blog? Links please.

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I think that one of the primary reasons I am considering blogging is to have a place to work out my own thoughts on difficult subjects by engaging others in conversation. I think that having that process laid out publically might do a few things. First, it would force me to engage perspectives other than my own. Second, I might be held accountable by others for positions that I might take. Third, I might help others who are thinking about similar ideas organize their own thoughts.

    I’m glad to see you found an outlet for exploring your ideas in a positive way.

  17. Derek–

    Remy-choro was my trainer in the Japan Tokyo South mission in 1991. There are a few other JTSM alums from around my jidai here — Ben Huff, The Only True and Living Nathan, and Chad Too. You may know my wife, who was Hintze-shimai back in the day — she returned in 1994

    Could the mission center of the bloggernacle be shifting?

  18. Regarding the consideration of future callings and positions in what one blogs today:

    I think that the contents of my blog (and, indeed, my entire internet media empire) are the best possible guarantee that I WON’T get called as a bishop. And that’s fine with me.

    (Unless the Lord decides to teach me a lesson…)

  19. I miss two things about the Movable Type version of T&S: the “preview” function, so it was easier to check for bad grammar and excessive bile pefore posting a comment, and the automatic link to the commenter’s supplied e-mail address. Being able to view the commenter’s address made it easier to judge quickly whether the comment was effectively anonymous or if it was attached to a real person. (Those with their own personal websites are at an advantage here, but my official web page is strictly professional in a way that my e-mail address is not, so I am reluctant to use it as my calling card here.)

    Anonymity has its place, including here at T&S, but I decided from my first comment to follow the examples of the management. The courage to say silly things is something I have been given in double measure, but I’ve also tried harder to think about my comments before posting, so that now I regret the occasional infelicitous wording, but I don’t wish that I could erase anything entirely.

  20. Jonathan:

    More than one type of preview function is available to WordPress users. One I’ve seen is “live” in the sense that you see it as you type. The other is triggered by hitting a “preview” button. My blog is an example of one that is triggered by a button.

    WordPress conceals email addys as a protective measure for those who are commenting. I’m sure there’s a way to change that but I’ve never tried. I did notice that at least one “highest commenters list provided the same function — that if you clicked on the name you’d get the email address.

  21. Remy, the darn software didn’t have the link to your site active — I found myself wanting to read it and no luck.

    My bloc is at http://ethesis.blogspot.com/ btw.

    As for politics and the blog world (getting back to the topic), I keep looking for different voices to give me a perspective I hadn’t seen before. http://haloscan.com/tb/elliotfladen/109847532968116437 is the latest thing I ran across. Not much different, but a little. A tiny move beyond Volokh, Leiter and their orbits.

  22. All you liberals are apostate and going to hell in a handbasket! Repent, obey your church leaders without questioning, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll squeak through the last judgment into the telestial kingdom.

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