Wednesday, 4 April 2012

The perils of online editing

Some of my Facebook friends may have noticed some odd posts from me last night.  No, not the Pac-Man walkthrough that I posted and which was subsequently deleted from Uncylcopedia *.  [See UPDATE below!]  Just before that, I had found a cute cartoon depicting two ghosts exchanging the immortal joke: “Why did the ghost cross the road?” Answer: “To get to the other side”.  (Other Side!  Get it?!)

Unfortunately the format of the cartoon was tall and thin, and by the time Facebook’s compressor got through with the image, the text was illegibly tiny.  However, I was only able to detect this problem after posting the image.  Well, not one to be responsible for sub-standard Facebook buffoonery, I deleted the post and tried again.  Yes, I was insane, trying the same thing twice and expecting a different result: so I deleted that too and just thought I’d be done with it.

A few minutes later Mrs G leaned back from her computer and asked whether I’d mistakenly posted the same thing twice.  What?  I thought I deleted that!  Yet, when I checked my “Timeline”, there the two fricken things were!  So, before giving it much further thought, I deleted them from there too.  Then the paranoia set in.

If Mrs G saw the defective posts, who else did?  And will they think I’m hiding something by deleting them?  What if other people get the posts but not the links, and think there’s something wrong?  What if *gasp* people reach the conclusion that I’m constantly editing my Facebook feed, and any other online presence I have (including this blog!) without any notice that the edits are occurring?  Is this a bad thing?  Is it unethical?

This is actually a big deal to some people. There are customs and ethics surrounding it.  When you change something online, the accepted practice is to denote your edits with strike-out and add an update notice.  It’s a transparent way of saying “I was wrong, but I made good”.  For online resources like Wikipedia there are editing logs from which anyone can recover or reconstruct past versions of articles.  (If you followed the Uncyclopedia link above you'll have seen such a log.  [UPDATE: No, see UPDATE below!])  However, when online material gets edited without any indication that something's changed, it can look like someone’s trying to conceal something.  Sometimes it's because they are.

Re-writing material which only exists on the internet can be a particular problem for those attempting to hold others to account.  One day you have the evidence you need to make your case, but having the URL is no good to you if tomorrow the authors realise they’ve left their dirty laundry out in the open and remove it.

There are ways of accessing or preserving historical versions of web-pages, including Webcite, Google cache and the Wayback Machine.  Authors can use Webcite to ensure that references for online publications are preserved.  And there have certainly been instances where people actually trying to cover up messes have been exposed through the use of caching or archiving technology.  So why do people think they can get away with “disappearing” stuff off the internet?

I think it comes down to ignorance.  Sure, there’s a generation or two that’s grown up being able to use computers productively without having to know what’s going on inside the box, but these kind of cover-ups are also perpetrated by people my age and older.  I suspect that the proportion of the population that is truly computer-savvy is pretty consistent regardless of age-group.  So I think some people just conclude that if it’s gone from their screen, or their e-mail out-box, or their website, then it’s gone forever. 

This conclusion is very wrong and very dangerous.  In progressively loosening the internet leash on our minions, we have warned them that “once it’s online, it’s online forever”.  There are back-ups, and back-ups of back-ups, in places on the web that you’ve never dreamt of.  As long as it’s out there somewhere, there’s someone who knows how to find it.  So we remind the minions “before hitting enter, always just take a moment to think about whether you might ever wish you hadn’t”.

It was this propensity for the internet to preserve what you intended to erase that I forgot in my zeal to ensure high-quality hijinks last night.  And considering that it made me feel bad when I realised I’d been exposed trying to make this kind of thing go away, imagine how bad I’d feel if it was something really embarrassing.  It was a good little reminder.

*   *   *

*  FOR THOSE curious about the Pac-Man walkthrough, it was eight levels of this:
up, left, left, up, right, right, down, right, up, left, down, down, left, right, up, right, up, right, down ...


The Pac-Man walkthrough is back - see here!

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