Why Bloggers Must Be Historical Revisionists

Here’s the situation that I find myself in as a blogger: I took a break from my usual business topics here on this weblog and recently wrote a piece about the JonBenet Ramsey murder and what it’s like to be living in the city where the crime occurred, Boulder, Colorado. Here’s the article: Can JonBenet Ramsey Finally Rest In Peace?
A nice thing happened next: the local newspaper, the Boulder Daily Camera picked up the piece and ran it as part of their business op-ed section today. Nice visibility in the local media and some good feedback from colleagues.
The problem? The blog entry is wrong. It’s been what they used to call “OBE” back in my defense contractor days, Overtaken By Events. The suspected killer, John Mark Karr, this afternoon was let go. It appears that his DNA do not in fact match those of the killer of this poor six year old girl.
A mainstream newspaper has a clear and obvious mission to report the news as it happens, and then report corrections and updates as appropriate. Once something’s hit paper, once it’s been broadcast, it’s cast in stone. You can’t reverse time, so there’s no way for a paper to change yesterday’s news.
But that’s not true for us in the blogosphere. Indeed, the Long Tail basically predicts that older pages can well end up more popular than newer pages. That’s like a newspaper that knows its three-week old, or two year old, articles will be more widely read in a given week than what they published this morning.

Which leads to an obvious and difficult question: when you have a blog entry — or any online information — that is shown post-publication to be wrong, should you leave it, update it without notice, or update it and indicate what you’ve changed?
In this case, I opted to simply add an update to the bottom of the article:

Update, 28 August, 4.00pm MST: “John Mark Karr is no longer a suspect in the death of JonBenet Ramsey and has been released from custody. Boulder County District Chief Judge Roxanne Bailin this afternoon granted a motion by District Attorney Mary Lacy dismissing the case.”

I also include a link to the updated story in the Daily Camera for readers who seek more information on the latest revelation in this unpleasant case.
Here’s something I realized, however: regardless of what I do, someone who is exploring the search engines will inevitably bump into my article in the future and read through just enough of it to wonder what the heck I’m talking about, without noticing the update and disclaimer on the bottom of the page.
I suggest we call this the Dark Side of the Long Tail and it’s exactly why I believe that bloggers must go back to the earlier articles that are incorrect and update them somehow, either implicitly or explicitly, to have them be at least somewhat current and correct.
And this, of course, leads to the realization that suddenly blogging can prove to be a real burden. Imagine you’re a political blogger and you keep writing article after article about the latest slander against a candidate, just to find out that it’s not true and never was true. Do you then have an obligation to include a correction of some sort in all of those articles?
Or imagine that you produce a blog all about how to solve common Windows problems. A new version of Windows is then released, perhaps just a service pack, with just enough changes that dozens of your articles are now wrong and out of date. Do you go back and update the old pages to reflect how to accomplish things in the new version?
I think I’m going to stick with adding updates to pages that become glaringly wrong over time, have newer events that completely change the basic premise of the piece or have dangerous or problematic suggestions due to changes in the world around us. Otherwise, well, “caveat lector” (let the reader beware).
If you’re a blogger, how do you handle this situation, if at all? If you’re just a reader, how would you like to see this sort of situation handled in my blog or in weblogs in general?

12 comments on “Why Bloggers Must Be Historical Revisionists

  1. I have a window of about one hour in which I make changes without any notification. Kind of like when you drop food on the floor and if you pick it up within a few seconds it is still okay to eat! I figure most of my readers do not start reading my latest entry for an hour or so after posting so I do some final checking of the posted entry and sometimes tinker with it to fix a glaring problem.
    For a few days after posting I am willing to fix mistakes brought to my attention by readers. I update the entry and add a comment. A lot of readers come back to my entries to follow recent comment threads so I make sure there is a comment highlighting new content.
    I would never go back and rewrite or fix a blog entry more than a week old. I would prefer to write a new entry that is more up to date and trackback to the old entry.

  2. Since I began blogging, I have issued an “EDIT UPDATE: [text]” and I usually put it at the top of post, in red type to stand out.
    You hear ppl say “a blog is unfiltered, unedited” but I think that is pure bunk. Who says you can’t edit a post? I do all the time, with almost every post I publish. I often add a sentence, or correct a typo, or change a word, or embed a link in a phrase, add a photo, add a video, whatever I think it needs for Future Readers, like you said.
    I do think in terms of “what will a reader years from now think when they read this?”
    Vincent above says he never re-writes or fixes a blog entry more than a week old. Why? I would not change the entire meaning of a post, but I made major revisions to “CEO blogs: polish them up please”, and then many months after the major revisions, Jim Estill of SYNNEX Canada Ltd. quoted the entire post in his time management CEO blog.
    So I’m glad I made big changes to that post, though it was mostly just clarifying thoughts, and improving the overall writing of it.
    My rule is to not change the whole thrust or meaning of a post.
    I have deleted a few, maybe 3 or 4 posts, due to later having huge change in attitude. I did a post called “Against RSS” that I later removed. I doubt that anyone linked to it.
    I sometimes use strike outs to negate a sentence without deleting it (ala Derrida deconstruction, erased but still a trace of visibility).
    I have also done a revised post later and linked to the original post.
    But thinking a post is somehow sacrosanct, untouchable, uneditable is silly. I strongly recommend some method of editing and showing that a post has been edited.

  3. I have to disagree with Vincent on the idea of mentioning the post edit in a comment under the post.
    Why? Because many readers are too hurried to read comments, they just read the post and move on.
    So I strongly recommend using something like “EDIT UPDATE: [text]” and putting it way up at the top of the post, so no one misses it. I also use red type to make it stand out.

  4. I was unpacking a box in the basement a few days ago – in it were some newspapers dated 1983. The articles were interesting and I could easily spot obsolete and incorrect “facts”. In spite of this, it was history as it existed at that point in time.
    Imagine going to the library today to research a newspaper article dated 1933 and discovering the article had been updated to reflect what a creep Hitler turned out to be.
    If you believe that your weblog should be a “snapshot in time”, then you should probably treat it like newsprint. But that’s a matter of personal style and philosophy about your weblog. If a blog happens to be about customer support and you manufacture Vioxx, you might want to adopt a different policy. 😉

  5. Very thoughtful piece, Dave. As often happens, you’ve sparked me to write a response posting on my own blog, Contentious:
    Also, since you raised some points I think are important for news professionals to consider, I’ve cross-posted a shorter version of that Contentious article to the Poynter Institute’s weblog E-Media Tidbits:
    In a nutshell, I think you may be mistaken about how “cast in stone” MSM news stories are, at least in terms of their online presentation. I often see updates being insterted into stories, especially ones that rely heavily on wire copy.
    Also, as we discussed before, I do think it’s crucial that if you are going to substantially update, revised, or delete a posting, it’s important to note when you did that and why, to preserve historical continuity. So I’m glad to see that you included the update note in your Aug. 17 posting.
    However, personally I think it’s more effective to position update notices at the top of a posting, rather than at the bottom — both to immediately orient the reader, and because of how feeds work. You can read more about that at Contentious.
    – Amy Gahran

  6. Changing the historical content of a blog is the first step of an Orwellian society circa “1984.” You will recall that the “Ministry of Truth” was in charge of re-writing all history including news articles, books, magazines, textbooks, etc… so that it all reflected what the people “needed” to know rather than what actually occurred.
    To suggest that it is a complex question of whether to re-write or not leaves me wondering if we have come to a point where the truth doesn’t matter and history can truly be re-written to reflect what others believe we are supposed to know.
    I hope not.

  7. Blog software can be used as a content management system but they are, in essence, a chronological record of opinions and events. The date is usually published. The order that articles can be viewed is by date, rather than relevance, alphabetical etc.
    Ofcourse, the random surfer arriving on a page can’t see all that. To change the opinions of the day seems wrong (as Jennifer has pointed out) and it’s important that there’s a convention to update.
    Personally I use the comments section but I wonder if this is not enough. I’ve seen some blogs where the author’s comments are highlighted and this may become a vital feature.

  8. Oh you people and your fussy ways.
    What is so wrong about changing a post, or using a strike out, or an Edit Update? This is ridiculous.
    A blog is not a history book. It’s a communication system. Where did we get the false notion that a blog post is untouchable?
    I change my “opinions of the day” sometimes. What is wrong with that?
    Besides, the date and time of a post can easily be changed, at least in Blogger blogs. So there is no sacrosanct quality about posts that needs to be preserved.
    If you said something in a blog post that now seems dumb, irrelevant, outdated, misinformed, why not at least use a strike through?
    Comments is NOT where an update revision belongs. Many people do not read comments, and RSS readers generally don’t show the comments, unless you subscribe to a separate comment feed.

  9. Here’s my perspective – my blog posts are time-stamped just like the archives for NYTimes.com or other news sites. I don’t think they would dare edit a story a couple years later to correct it with the latest information.
    I think it’s up to the reader to take realize that information can be
    dated depending on the age of an article.

  10. Blogs are tools, not sacred cows. My blog is my lifetime digital memory and I do update my old posts, I just add the appropriate tag to point out the new things. I just hate the fact that some self-appointed “pundits” teach us how we should tell our stories.

  11. Updates are required if our blogs are to be as accurate as possible.
    The only think I differ with you on is that I think the update has to go at the top of the blog post, so that it’s seen first.

  12. Dave
    Very good point.
    I do go back and edit previous posts. Sometimes to correct errors, often to add new content.
    Because I’ve found from my stats that people actually read stuff they’ve searched for or linked from something I’ve commented on.
    As an example on the 18th May 2006 you did a piece on business card best practise (here: http://www.intuitive.com/blog/best_practices_in_business_card_design.html). I commented on it to say that I’d used over 400 cards to investigate their design and use in marketing.
    I’m still getting people from your blog to the URL I mentioned so long ago.
    So adding new content simply helps to make the post better for new readers.

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