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Avast, ye windmill!

I want to both acknowledge and thank Scott Jaschik of IHE for being willing to brave the storm and ire of those of us who feel strongly about the whole Facebook situation. That's no small thing. In light of his visit, I thought I might lay out, without swearing, as clear a statement of my position as possible. I don't know that he will find it persuasive, but perhaps it will offer some context for the anger that many of us feel over this.

Let me start with a snippet from Katherine Hayles's new book My Mother Was a Computer (a book I hope to review once I've (a) turned back into Dr. Banner, and (b) gotten much more of my workload under control). Hayles attempts to make the case that we need to consider "code" at the same conceptual level as "speech" and "writing," sort of a parallel to Ulmer's (among others) orality, literacy, and electracy. Hayles writes

Code that runs on a machine is performative in a much stronger sense than that attributed to language. When language is said to be performative, the kinds of actions it "performs" happen in the minds of humans...[examples]...code running in a digital computer causes changes in machine behavior and, though networked ports and other interfaces, may initiate other changes, all implemented through transmission and execution of code (50).

Now, I'm taking liberties here a bit with Hayles's work, but my broader argument the past few days is that the difference among dorm room conversations, passing notes in class, and posting comments on Facebook are the differences among speech, writing, and code. The three aren't separate, of course, and Hayles says as much. But the issue I have with Scott and IHE's coverage of this event is that they have failed to appreciate the degree to which they are not simply "writing" about Facebook. They are also coding the event by creating resources that are more visible, accessible, and available, and for a longer period of time, than any of these other analogs.

Clay Spinuzzi puts it this way, rather nicely:

Collin's point is that defamation becomes a de facto part of a person's online record - the "portfolio" (my term) that Google and Yahoo are constantly assembling for everyone with an online presence:

When you write about this situation, and then code it, you are effectively contributing material to the online portfolio of each of the people involved. This is particularly relevant to those sites that have exploited the naivete of the students in that course--an irony I pointed out yesterday in reference to the fact that the Internet is far more a "permanent record" than a student's file at a university. The latter is protected by FERPA among other things, while IHE and other sites endure no such limitation.

Today's newspaper may be tomorrow's bird cage liner, but today's Internet story can be future employers' search results, even as far as several years down the line. You can still, with relative ease, locate things that I said and did in graduate school back in the mid-90s. That's one of the ways I would interpret Hayles's notion of "strong performativity"--by publishing names, by reprinting the page itself, by reproducing the comments, you are, literally, performing and participating in the event in a way that the "shield" of journalistic objectivity and coverage does not fully account for.

In this case, and let me put this as bluntly as possible, if you are willing to cede the possibility that this page constituted harassment (a possibility fully in line with determinations made both by SU and by Facebook), then it is not enough to simply put quotes around the page, or remove it from the "front" with a link. It is not enough to absolve you of the responsibility of considering that you, in consciously reproducing this document, have actively participated in the harassment that you are "reporting."

To assert that you are not responsible is to deny the very real, material effect that certain kinds of language have on the people around us. And it is to deny the very real, material differences among media. To post something hurtful, and to do so with the alibi that the material did not originate with you, is still to post something hurtful. And it is to implicitly reinforce that pain.

All the way throughout this discussion, I have not said anything about restricting Facebook, and I won't, because I don't hold them responsible for what was said. Once they learned about the abuse of their site, however, they had a choice to make. They could either leave the page in place, or remove it. There was no choice that they could make that was neutral. I believe that they made the proper decision.

Similarly, IHE and other sites posting screen grabs are making choices that themselves influence the perception of the story. By allowing these words and images to persist (without, as Spencer suggested, blurring anything), they are weighing in on the side of those who would permit this kind of behavior, because they themselves are reproducing the behavior for a wider audience. In the interests of "coverage," they are, inadvertently or not, affecting the lives of the people whose names they've "covered."

They are, of course, free to do so.
They are, however, also accountable for doing so.

And that's all I have for right now. I persist in the hope that more of us will do the right thing here.


WELL SAID, my friend. Well said.