Joy Reid is one of those “lucky” political commentators that gets a kicking from both ends of the political spectrum, either for being too liberal (by conservatives), or a liberal centrist sell-out shill (by progressives). I’m sure the fact that she’s a prominent African American woman has no-oo-oo-othing to do with either the impossible standards or the vitriol that gets directed her way over any and every perceived misstep.
Anyway. Recently, enterprising individuals have been using the Wayback Machine to dig up anti-gay posts Reid allegedly posted at her blog a decade ago. I say “allegedly”, because Reid claims she didn’t write the posts and that they were added to her site and/or the Wayback Machine itself later by hackers. archive.org disagrees.
Notably, Reid (and her lawyers) have request the material be removed from the Wayback Machine, which is supposedly a thing you can do.1 The official response?
[D]ue to Reid’s being a journalist (a very high-profile one, at that) and the journalistic nature of the blog archives, we declined to take down the archives.
And, okay look. I know that in some corners of the internet, the existence of the Wayback Machine is considered almost sacrosanct. That the archive itself can Do No Wrong and that its mission is Good™ are unquestioned and absolute.
Except, here’s the thing about the Wayback Machine:
The internet is pretty old, now, as is this whole blogging thing, and there are those of us who’ve been at it for a long time.2 And the people we were ten or fifteen or twenty years ago are not the people we are now. I know I’ve personally published things in old blog posts that would, nowadays, make me cringe, either because they reflect views I no longer hold or actions I would no longer take or just straight-up things I would no longer say out loud.3 And that’s… fine. It’s normal. It’s called growing up and learning and changing and shifting one’s views with the availability of new information. People make mistakes, and part of life is learning and moving on from them.
But there’s a culture of gotcha-games that exist in a particularly virulent form online, and that seem to disproportionally impact women and people of color, and especially disproportionally women and people of color to the progressive left of the political spectrum. Said something ~problematic~ on LiveJournal once back in 2003? Better hope you don’t get too big for your britches, sweetheart, because if you do? If you do, someone has a screenshot of that shit and it is going to come back to haunt you.
There are, obviously, things in the pasts of public figures that are of legitimate public interest. Crimes come to mind, or other ongoing harmful behavior. But writing ill-advised blog posts is not a crime. Nor is the fact that you once held a ~problematic~ view you’ve since moved on from an “ongoing harmful behavior”. It’s like the opposite of a that, in fact! It’s a good thing, a desired outcome. We all live in kyriarchial culture and no one was born woke on every intersection. We want people not just to change, but to feel that they’re able to change. Constantly accosting them with old mistakes? Not necessarily helpful on that front.4
And this is where I get to my problem with things like the Wayback Machine. Because more often than I’ve seen it used as a tool for “good”, I’ve seen it used as a tool of harassment. I’ve seen it used as a weapon, and primarily a weapon against successful marginalized people by bystanders who want to tar them with past sins. It’s used to extract grovelling public mea culpas because how dare a woman, or a person of color—or worse, both—be proud and successful on their own terms. Don’t they know only white men get to live the unapologetically edited versions of their own histories?
And here’s the thing. The idea that some unaccountable third-party gets to keep, in perpetuity, a record of everything you’ve ever said and done, and to make that record available to anyone who wants to trawl it, is Surveillance Culture 101. And while it might dress itself up in academic colors, make no mistake: the Wayback Machine is just as much a part of that as is Facebook or the NSA or Experian. And it’s beyond time to face up to that.
(While is, like, not to even to mention that whole big, “Er, actually, is this copyright infringement?” issue. Or the fact that the Wayback Machine is deceptive about its “opt-out”/exclusions policies. Sure, you can robots.txt it out… but only so long as the robots.txt file remains active. The Wayback Machine will still take a copy of your site, and will make it available as soon as that little files goes away. Which is… kinda dodgy. To say the least.)
- Although, when I just went to try and dig up the FAQ link on how to get stuff removed, I couldn’t find it. On the other hand, I could find a lot of people by people wanting to get their stuff removed from the Archive, and the Archive not complying. Hm… ^
- Nineteen years and counting for yours truly, in fact. ^
- Usually political beliefs, life choices, and social interactions, respectively. ^
- In fandom, incidentally, this behavior is part of what’s called “anti-culture”. The prevailing theory is this constant policing of purity and demanding of public grovelling for any perceived sin has been imported from that very American strain of fundamentalist Evangelical Christianity. In other words, the political beliefs of individuals breaking away from their far-right theocratic upbringings may have changed, but their social modes of dealing with things have not. ^