Unpublishing the Web

There was an interesting editorial by Siobhan Butterworth in Monday’s Guardian about ‘unpublishing’ – removal of content once placed on the Internet.

Siobhan explains:

Judging from the numbers of emails I get from people asking for material to be removed from the Guardian’s electronic archive, it seems that some people still don’t fully understand the implications of speaking to or even writing for a news organisation in the web age.

She goes on to argue that:

The web makes a lie of the old cliché that today’s newspaper pages are tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapping. Nowadays, as I’ve said before, the things you say about yourself in a newspaper are more like tattoos – they can be extremely difficult to get rid of.

It seems a good rule to set yourself when publishing content (or allowing content to be published about you) on the Web (and the same rule could apply to all emails sent) is: Are you happy for the whole world to see this?

The concepts that what you publish can be seen by all and that nothing truly disappears from the Web have slowly begun to embed themselves in our consciousness. This has been fuelled by a number of horror stories about employers accessing the Facebook (and Flickr and other socialnetworking sites…) accounts of perspective employees. A New York Magazine article from February this year quoted a teenager as saying “If I don’t delete it, I’m still gonna be there. My generation is going to have all this history; we can document anything so easily.” Many people do realise that the off-hand comments and inappropriate photos we blog or publish can come back to haunt us.

While in some ways this might seem to be the flip side of what JISC PoWR is about deletion is very much part of a preservation strategy.

So it pays to remember that:

  • stuff can disappear, and quite often it is the really good stuff we wish we’d held on to.


  • stuff that we wish would come out in the wash can stain for good.

So maybe we need to give some thought to how (and should things) be ‘unpublished’? What do people think?

1 thought on “Unpublishing the Web

  1. Jordan

    It’s less about preservation, but I think a quite plausible reaction to the “permanency” of the web to bury anything unfavourable in a mound of information. If you constantly add content, it makes it harder for people to locate specific information about you because they have to sift through more content. For example, people rarely go past the second page in Google results, so if you can dominate the first two pages with content you want, then this goes a long way to solving the problem.

    The other thought is in terms of Creative Commons licences. People often don’t realise that even if they remove their CC-licensed content from the web, those that received the content while it was on the web still have a licence. As such, they are free to put it back up on the web.

    Removing access doesn’t remove the licence!

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