Mindrape: The Internet, Access, Accuracy and Abuse

Intellectual property theft isn’t just an author issue: Today I learned a site is abusing individuals by posting their comments without permission.

I’ve been grappling with my feelings about this all day, and will come full circle. The question of how we use the internet, and how seriously we take what’s posted on it, was raised in my mind recently. The trigger was a discussion on Crimespace, in which an ITW press release was posted on the forum and someone pointed out an inaccuracy in the release.

Later I saw other people posting the press release on their blogs. I found myself wondering how many people notice the inaccuracy and if they do, how many care?

The reason I mention this actually has nothing to do with the ITW or anyone involved. The reason is because I have more than a passing interest in communication theory. In Neil Postman’s brilliant book, Amusing Ourselves To Death he relates a scenario in which a university student included a note in his thesis referencing a lecture. To quote:

This citation drew the attention of no fewer than four of the five oral examiners, all of whom observed that it was hardly suitable as a form of documentation and that it ought to be replaced by a citation from a book or article. “You are not a journalist,” one professor remarked. “You are supposed to be a scholar.” Perhaps because the candidate knew of no published statement of what he was told… he defended himself rigorously on the grounds that there were witnesses to what he was told, and that the form in which an idea is conveyed is irrelevant to its truth. Carried away on the wings of his eloquence, the candidate argued further that there were more than three hundred references to published works in his thesis and that it was extremely unlikely that any of them would be checked for accuracy by the examiners, by which he meant to raise the question, Why do you assume the accuracy of a print-referenced citation but not a speech-referenced one?

The answer he received took the following line: You are mistaken in believing that the form in which an idea is conveyed is irrelevant to its truth. In the academic world, the published word is invested with greater prestige and authenticity than the spoken word. What people say is assumed to be more casually uttered than what they write. The written word is assumed to have been reflected upon and revised by its authors, reviewed by authorities and editors. (page 20-21)

“What people say is assumed to be more casually uttered than what they write.”

With the internet, with the growth of e-mails, blogs and forums as a means for discourse, this has become more and more of an issue. Today we can read about an e-mail at CTV that discussed confidential staff issues and was sent... In essence, everyone in the world with a computer, the internet and a working knowledge of English knows, not just the employees who received the e-mail by mistake.

I have been guilty myself of treating my blog as more casual speech. I rarely edit posts. They are often raw thought, my expression of whatever is on my mind at that time.

And I am also guilty of categorizing acceptable behaviour based on the nature of the medium used for communication.

For example, if this was an industry blog, I would consider it inappropriate to post much of what I post here. I consider the purpose of an industry blog to be to report news, and make commentary about news. In the same way that I do not expect the editor of the Calgary Herald to post a front-page photo of their child on the day they start kindergarten and make that the lead story, I don’t expect industry blogs to post excessively about personal friends or situations.

I have from time to time blogged about issues that were raised on various discussion lists. Is that abuse of intellectual property? I don’t think so, depending on how it’s done. Earlier I referenced a discussion on Crimespace. I don’t take issue with that. Crimespace is an open forum. You do not need to be a member to read it. In the same way that I do not prevent anyone from reading this blog, nobody is prevented from reading anything stated over there. Full public access. If someone takes something I’ve posted on my blog and refers to it on their blog, as long as they cite the source it’s fair game. I consider open access blogs to work the same way.

I also think that sometimes when people discuss issues on their blogs that have been raised on lists, the reason it’s okay for them to say, “Some people have been discussing this on a list, and I want to share my thoughts on it here” is because it doesn’t draw attention to an individual. If I say “Some people seem to think…X” and then address that, it stays to topic and isn’t personal.

I had to think about this long and hard, because of what came up this morning. This morning, I learned that someone is taking the posts on a discussion list I participate on, and posting them all on the web. And I had to think about why what I’ve done myself above isn’t (in my opinion) intellectual theft, and why what this person who’s harvesting these posts has done is (in my opinion) unethical.

The main issue in this case has to do with consent. When a person joins Crimespace and posts there, or when a person comes here and comments on my blog, they know that their comments are online, for all the world to see. When a person joins a discussion list like DorothyL or Rara-Avis or 4MA or Inspector Rebus or Short Mystery Fiction Society, they assume their comments are limited to the membership of those lists.

And, to be honest, if I post on a topic on one of those lists and explain my philosophy on violence in fiction (for example) and someone wants to quote that as part of a discussion about violence in fiction, I don’t have a problem with it.

But learning that every post made to a discussion list I do participate on is being copied and posted online where non-members can read it felt to me like mindrape. It bothered me on multiple levels, because some lists I participate on have a family atmosphere in which I feel more comfortable expressing myself than I do elsewhere. This means sometimes what I divulge may be more personal. Since I can look through the membership list and in that sense know who I’m talking to, I consider it fair for me to post according to my comfort level. Believe me, there are individuals who could join that discussion list who would affect my posting. A lot of what we say in different venues is not just about the facts of our statements but our personal relationship dynamics with the people we’re talking to.

I mean, there are some people I swear at routinely, and others I am nothing but polite with. Every relationship we have is governed by dynamics that are established based on the individuals involved. There are people who could e-mail me and start off with, “Yo bitch” and I’d laugh and throw something equally irreverent back at them. And there are other people I’d take offense to if they addressed me like that in an e-mail.

Today, I’m regarding all of this seriously. In the same way that I don’t repost e-mails I receive on my blog without permission, I think it’s highly questionable that someone would repost all the posts made on a discussion list, without adding any commentary to them to even expand the discussion. Some of these posts are (admittedly) off topic and not relevant to discussion the focal topic of the discussion list.

And there are also advertisements on this site. I find myself wondering if the purpose of copying posts from various discussion lists and posting them is partially for profit, and that by copying straight messages it maximized their potential draw off google searches.

Now, why the detour to post at length about the credibility and seriousness given to print quotes over verbal statements? Because many people chat casually on lists, aware that most interpret it casually, and do not take all comments as literal hard facts. But when someone takes those comments and posts them elsewhere on the internet, for all the world to see, they have been taken out of their original context, and the context of a statement does have bearing on the interpretation of the statement.

It’s easier for people to retract or amend what they say, as opposed to what they write. I have viewed posting on my blog as the beginning of a discussion, and if I feel something is incorrect, I can amend it with notation, expand in the comments, even remove it. But when someone else takes statements you made in a semi-private capacity and posts them without your consent, you can’t easily take them back or amend them.

The nature of this internet source that’s abusing list posts in this capacity makes it actually tricky to follow discussions. Posts from several discussion lists – about a dozen that I’ve counted in my quick scan – are being harvested. This makes it very easy for someone to come along and read a post and, without the benefit of the context, to misconstrue the meaning.

It’s a bit like being a teenager and knowing the boy next door is watching you change at night. If only he knows, is it okay? Now, how does that change if you know he’s watching you, and you’re okay with that? How does it change again if someone else is hiding in the bushes behind your house with binoculars, watching you?

Issues of rights and privacy are tricky. Issues such as this aren’t going away. They will only increase over time. Perhaps someone will write the new book on public discourse that picks up where Neil Postman’s fantastic work leaves off (having been written in the 80s) but I doubt anyone can match the intelligence he brought to the topic or his level of insight.

Meanwhile, we can debate how we use the internet, or how it should be used, but one thing is certain: You can’t assume anything is private anymore. And for the record, I think that means those who do post industry-related items (which I do from time to time as well) will have to take care in the future to make sure that their posts are accurate, or clearly marked as opinion. The internet is at risk of becoming the biggest game of ‘telephone’ ever, with forum after forum, blog after blog, distorting the facts or misrepresenting the truth.

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Comment by Clea Simon on October 2, 2007 at 8:56am
Ah, the joys and sorrows of the new immediate "publishing" of online content. Yes, it is scary. Have you checked out what happened to Linda L. Richards, and how she got her revenge? If not, I advise reading her blog. Thanks for the thoughtful post - great topic.

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