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Autodeleting the Public Record

Rage if you will and burn screen time if you like — I simply accept if I want my thoughts to be personal and private then I ought not post them online.

As an historian my work usually begins, and invariably ends, in the archives. Without this redoubtable cache of diaries, letters, and other eyewitness accounts, no historian could reliably or ethically write their analysis. This is because instead of writing history, we would be writing opinion and conjecture. This raises interesting questions in the digital age, where permanence is often not intended nor desired.

I have mused on adjacent themes before when I wrote about my own efforts to establish a public Memex in Intellectual Warehouse, or when I bemoaned the subscription culture of the press in My Copy of The Times. But a recent post on the Fediverse surfaced a key issue, the challenge of using primary sources when the author expects their output to be transient or insists on a blanket refusal of consent to using comments they have made in a public space.

The context for this musing is that the rampant Musk on Twitter is causing some people to look for an alternative social media service. Many have lighted on the Fediverse, most particularly instances powered by Mastodon. Into this landscape, the Internet Archive has landed and provoked not inconsiderable fear that their work in archiving the internet will extend to the Fediverse and hoover up posts that the authors would rather not persist for posterity. Something that perhaps William Shatner may have wished for his performance of Rocket Man.

This challenge is particularly acute when people post publicly to make their voice heard so it can shape the debate regarding what is and is NOT appropriate behaviour within a community. Yet many of these authors simultaneously demand a voice and insist that their thinking not be referenced. Some go so far as to invite debate and then ban certain types of people — usually based on birth characteristic such as race or sex — from posting in the threads they have started. To say the least, this stifles debate — in that it seeks to have debate, but only so long as approved opinions are included in the conversation.

This is by no means a call for absolutist free speech. I believe in healthy debate, but there are some voices from which I have little to no interest in hearing. Rather, it is to acknowledge one cannot have one’s cake and eat it too. Either you have a debate, in which all the data is on the table, or you have a show trial and then you can pick and choose what data is convenient for your argument.. If the latter route is taken, it is illegitimate to talk about consensus.

I would also argue that it is problematic to read comments such as ‘we on the Fediverse’, as though there is a widely understood consensus. Particularly if large swathes of people on the Fediverse are banned from taking part in achieving the ‘consensus’. As I argued in A Warning From Content, the consensus that apparently exists on the Fediverse is not as consensual as some would have you believe.

True, there are instances that take an awfully hard line and proscribe certain types of expression, but for each of those instances, you can find an almost equal number who take a far more libertarian approach. Given the dramatic uptick in new accounts as the Twitter exodus continues, numbering in the millions since the end of October, it is becoming ever harder to talk about a consensus on the Fediverse.

It also seems to be incompatible with the founding principles of the Fediverse — which were to provide a space free of a controlling central authority. But taking a step back from whether there is anything approaching a consensus and there is a bigger issue — the notion of a purely transient society.

The nature of tradition focuses on societies preserving and passing down mores and morals from one generation to the next. It is only by knowing what IBM, Microsoft, the Free Software Foundation, and the myriad individuals who contributed to the founding of the modern internet, said, did, and thought, that we can understand the roots of our digital past, and make a rational judgement about where we are headed. Without this, we live, as Cicero wrote, in the most illusionary tense of all, the present; like small children not knowing from whence we came nor wither we go.

It was impossible to predict at the time the importance of Tim Berners-Lee taking the hypertext idea and connecting it to the TCP and DNS idea. To lose the information, transactions and interactions of his early work would be to lessen our understanding of its legacy.

True the ‘caturday’ posts which abound may be questionable additions to the sum of human knowledge, but only by reflecting on them from the position of the future can we understand their value. Love them or hate them, those cat posts are an important part of sociological study of the early twenty-first century and worthy of preservation.

Collapsing Context

There has been a longstanding community prohibition against taking Mastodon posts out of context.

First, the notion of taking posts, or any material for that matter, out of context has little to do with an individual’s preferences nor even those of a fictional ‘Fediverse community’. It is a case of ethical or unethical research because ANY researcher — irrespective of their subject or subject matter — is irresponsible and lacks an ethical approach if they take research out of context. This point was writ large in Sir Richard J. Evans’s book Telling Lies About Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial.

Second, the notion of a ‘community prohibition’ in the Fediverse is a highly problematic concept. I see this category error made repeatedly by journalists who have just discovered the Fediverse and still conceptualise of it like Twitter or Facebook where one can speak about a ‘Twitter prohibition’ because it is centralised and like it or loath it, a standard can be set.

The Fediverse by contrast is a loose federation of instances and any notion of ‘community’ only applies so far as it does to the statement ‘community of nations’ when talking about the UN. But the likelihood of Russia and America agreeing about the Ukraine is as improbable as all instances in the Fediverse agreeing about the use and abuse of content.

In this context, moral norms tend to be applied at the individual, or at best instance level. Given the tiny size of the average instance, even when several likeminded instances band together, their input is like taking any minority group, here I use minority in the sense of a small number, and insisting they speak for most of the population. This does not mean their views do not matter, much less that they should be marginalised — only that they do not speak for everyone.

Third, while it is unquestionable that working groups from committees like the AoIR (Association of Internet Researchers) have guidelines on ethical research, they also acknowledge that consent is ‘manifestly impracticable in the case of Big Data projects’. Being such a short point, this concept is easily missed and bears repeating: seeking consent is ‘manifestly impracticable in the case of Big Data projects’. This does not mean that personally identifiable information can be used however the researcher wishes, only that it is impracticable to seek consent from every individual who is part of the data set.

Fourth, and this is one of the highly problematic elements of Fediverse discourse, is that individuals and comparatively small groups are seeking to assert their version of moral norms on everyone who interacts with them. Whether it is long term Fediverse users who do not like any changes to their preferred norms, or new people joining existing communities and seeking to force adoption of their moral norms. This is all done as though their preferences and their experience trumps whoever they meet.

While at an individual level this may seem desirable, it deprives the person of an opportunity for self-growth. Because let us face it, on some topics we are just plain wrong and deserve to be called out. I know I am often wrong, and it is only by having to make my case, argue the facts, and prove my theory beyond reasonable doubt, can I know if I have arrived at something which happens to work for me or something which comes close to a universal truth.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is the critical role that public memory serves in the process of establishing collective truth. Carolina Botero wrote compellingly about this in the context of Columbia and the struggle with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in her article Public Memory and the Digital Black Hole. In it, she cites the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which defines memory as:

… the ways in which people and peoples build meaning and relate the past to the present in the act of remembering serious violations of human rights and/or the actions of victims and civil society in defense and promotion of human rights and democratic values in such contexts;


This is particularly important in cases of conflict or atrocities. A Botero goes on to argue:

without public memory, the pieces that allow collective mourning and the construction of a shared memory remain incomplete and become insurmountable barriers to the collective healing process.

Carolina Botero

Given the above, we have one of the inevitable paradoxes that arises when diverse groups of individuals interact:

  1. We need to enable an individual to set their own rules
  2. We need to preserve the historical record for the continuance of public memory — whether the individual wishes it to be preserved or not

It may be preferable to write my own history, but we enter a genuinely dystopian world indeed when we engage in Airbrushing Memory. Thus, when trying to square the circle of hyper-individualism with notions of societal norms, someone will always be unhappy with the result. The gathering of social media data will remain a contentious topic and our posts will be harvested and stored in databases — even when we opt out.

Rage against this if you will and burn endless screen time in activist forums trying to change reality if you like — for myself, I simply accept if I want my thoughts to be personal and private then I ought not post them online. Once I do, I no longer ‘control’ the information as it has become part of the public record. To be used, abused, held against me out of context, and generally distorted to help an individual or group prove the relevance of their opinion. The solace I take is that by adopting a POSSE approach, I am at least able to refresh my memory regarding when and why I made the comment, and when held against me in the court of public opinion, have the facts at my disposal to prepare my mitigation.

Good night, and good luck.

Photo by Harald Arlander on Unsplash.

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