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A commenter's Bill of Rights? Let's think first

A blogosphere spat triggered by a few ticked-off folks leads to a more searching conversation about the rightful extent of a commenter's prerogative.

There's a fascinating discussion going on about the rights and prerogatives of bloggers and the people who leave comments on their Web sites.

Hank Williams has a good recap on his always entertaining blogof the incident which triggered a contretemps featuring--who else?--none other than Robert Scoble.


This issue came to the fore recently when Robert Scoble commented on a post from Rob La Gesse's blog. The problem is that Scoble commented using Friendfeed instead of the standard blog comments. La Gesse and Scoble had a discussion where Scoble wanted him to move the discussion to Friendfeed. La Gesse did not want to do that, and at some point deleted his feeds from Friendfeed. This prevented the discussions about his blog from happening on Friendfeed. Unfortunately, as Mathew Ingram explains, this had the effect of deleting from public view Scoble's comments on LaGesse's blog. Scoble was upset that his comments had been deleted because he feels like he owns his comments.

That raised the logical question: Who owns your comments--the blog owner or you? Again, Williams:
What about when one comment will be viewed and under the control of more than one party, as in the case of Disqus. For example with Disqus you have the ability to edit your comments. And in some sense when you add a comment you are building a site for yourself (your collection of comments) and you are contributing to someone else's site.
Let me confess my bias right at the start. I'm with Matthew Ingramin that "something doesn't feel right" about all this. Once you press publish, that comment becomes part of the public record.

As you can imagine, there was little agreement about any of this. Venture capitalist Fred Wilson spotted an opportunity to promote one of the companies in the Union Square Ventures portfolio, pointing to the discussion of a "Bill of Rights" for commenters over at Disqus. But no matter. It is an interesting conversation--and Disqusoffers up some interesting ideas, which deserve quotation in full. To wit:

a) The ability to edit and remove their comments

b) Access to all of their comments, even if it has been deleted on a blog

c) The right to use their own comments as blog posts. After all, a commenter is just a publisher not writing on his own website.

d) A life for the comment beyond a single blog. I want to take my comments with me, even if the blog shuts down. This may seem threatening to the publisher, but it really isn't. A commenter should have rights to what they post, but bloggers should still have control over content that appear on their blogs. Bloggers should still control: a) Whether or not someone is allowed to comment on his blog

b) The deletion of a comment

c) The modification of a comment, as long as the original copy is still accessible and the edit is transparent

The suggestions about ownership of a user's comments are worth further discussion. But I'd be less than candid not to acknowledge that the concept of revising or deleting comments after they go live really troubles me.

This isn't a face-off between "old media" and "new media" (though some surely will reach for that tired analogy.) This debate inadvertently hits a couple of important nerves--namely, the concept of objective truth and the risk of airbrushing history. I'm not clear what qualifies as a "transparent" edit. Cleaning up bad language? A deletion of a nasty word typed out in anger or frustration? A wholesale replacement of verbs and nouns? Or to take the most extreme example: "Comrade Trotsky doesn't exist."

The idea that you can modify or subtract a comment without impacting the conversation just doesn't hold up to scrutiny. A comment is part of a larger conversation; you tug any one thread and you affect everything which came before and after.

Just because we're writing and arguing online doesn't mean that the words are any less valuable. But there is a historical record to respect. Otherwise, we risk losing ourselves in a relativistic hodge-podge with no real start and no real ending. Just whatever strikes your fancy at that particular moment in time.