Friday, June 10, 2005

can I quote you on that?

There's been a lot of discussion in my life lately about words. Granted, I edit for a living so that shouldn't come as a particularly great surprise. I've been intrigued by an ongoing discussion of language and the internet in particular. What is boils down to basically is this: what you say online lives forever and there's really no telling just how far it will go.

I remember a few years ago when I first started working online I was doing copyright research. I found a complete copy of the text of a book posted online. I think it was one of A. W Tozer's though I couldn't quite be sure. I saw a name and a little information at the bottom of all that text and with a little more online sleuthing had a current email address for the original author of the page. I sent him an email asking him if he knew how I could contact the publisher. I was trying to get reprint permission for an excerpt from the same book and he seemed to have secured just such permission. I was astonished to get an email back from this man almost instantly.

He wrote that he had put the book online almost 20 years ago, back in the days of Usenet when only the nerdiest of Com. Sci. profs and NASA guys had ever heard of the internet. He begged me to give him the URL where I found the text saying that he had spent the last 20 years scouring the internet and trying to remove it. He was convinced that one day there would be a knock on his door from a copyright lawyer ready to take him for everything he had.

It reminded me of the old proverb about gossip where a person who has committed slander goes to the one he talked about and asks forgiveness. He is told to take a feather pillow out into the village square, rip it open and send the feathers out into the wind. When he returns, task accomplished he is told to go back and gather up the feathers and realizes that it is not possible.

All of this ties into a current discussion a friend of mine told me is happening online. The debate concerns author Orson Scott Card and whether or not a certain work of his is an apology for Hitler. As you might imagine, discussion is getting pretty heated. I've followed some of it on the Kuro5hin site. I am not nearly connected enough to be a K5 regular, but my friend is and he let me tag along. So far the original article has generated over 600 comments, some from people who claim to know Card personally. What I found most interesting though was one of the early comments from one of the editors of K5 who uses the name cribcage. Speaking of the original commentary that appeared on K5 he writes:

Shortly after posting, this article appeared among the top results on a Google search for "Orson Scott Card." It will likely remain there for some time. I'm reminded of Internet 101: If you write it, be prepared to answer for it.

That has really stuck with me over the past day or two "if you write it, be prepared to answer for it" -- seems I've heard something like that somewhere before. What I've really been thinking about though is this -- many us, whether through our own mistakes or the example of others are learning to be pretty careful about what we put online. It's very easy for someone to quote us, and as we know, almost impossible to make it go away. (Wired ran a story today talking about the original BBS of the late 70s and how you can still find them in Google today.) But do I think about that in what I say? If someone followed me around with a tape recorder all day, even in traffic, would I like what it sounded like? I think it probably depends on the day. But it's a good reminder to be careful.

One of my roommates is a teacher and she has often said that she constantly reminds herself to be gentle with her words when she speaks to her students. Those words, once out there, can be written in flesh for years. I was reading an article the other day and in it someone was describing a home they had frequented as a child. They summed it up by saying "there was so much love in that house you could almost reach out and grab a handful." I love that. Someday I want someone to say that about my home. I'm starting to build that someday today.


issachar said...

I'm a K5 regular? I'm not sure you get that distinction until people refer to you in discussions you're not a part of. :)

That's an interesting folktale. It's not possible to erase the past, but you can always try to replace it with a better future. So far I haven't said anything online that I want to take back, (that I can think of), but if I do I think the best thing to do is to admit I was wrong and correct the error whenever it pops up.

As you said, I think the apparent permanence of the internet really just makes it obvious that our words can have long term effects. But are we responsible for how others take what we say? If the complaint against your words is unreasonable, but the hurt is real were you wrong to speak? I just can't see how that could be.

westcoastloon said...

"Are we responsible for how others take what we say?" That's a question I've been chewing on for a long time and I still don't have a truly satisfying answer. On the one hand I agree with you in that I cannot be held responsible for how another person hears what I've said or the effect it has on them in terms of the day they're having, personal history etc etc. But if I say something that unintentionally hurts someone do I have a responsibility there? I would not have intentionally hurt them, but it still happened. I'm not sure. I don't have a specific example, I'm working in generalities but is there a need to address the hurt even without retracting the statement? Maybe it is dependent on the exisiting relationship - ie I'd be more concerned about unintentionally harming someone I was close to than I would if the injured party were a stranger. That doesn't feel quite right, I probably should be as concerned about the stranger, but practically speaking? Who knows.