Is no news good news?

by Francois Joseph de Kermadec

Print media knows an insane amount of pressure from the exterior world: advertisers, governmental censorship, the desire of its readers to read what they believe in. All these constraints are without doubt very difficult to cope with and my repeated incursions in the world of printed publications convinced me that environment, as thrilling as it is, cannot be separated from its politics and economics.

The same, to some extent, holds true for online media. Every single page on every website is full of traps, logs, scripts, making it easy for webmasters to know who went where, when, why and how. On the Soup, I stick with Apache logs, and still know a lot about how people came in, how long they stayed, where they come from… On some sites I run for my clients, I have been asked to implement some more finely grained tracking solutions — which, as long as the privacy of visitors is respected is fine with me —, providing a bewildering amount of data. The O’Reilly Network is full of (excellent) articles on how to best track visits on a site and gather useful information based on logs and page loads.

This power, for some reason, is often seen as a sign of increased flexibility, of a youthful insouciance, meaning every online publisher can quickly and easily change ways, remodel a site and adapt to the needs of his visitors by reshaping its content in a wink.

Great? No, scary! Indeed, it opens up doors to the unknown darkness of information change and manipulation. Once a paper is printed, there is no way to hold it back. Sure, you can change the next issue but you can’t pull what you have said, you can’t cancel it. In the online world, nothing is easier: delete a page, move it out of ~/www and Poof! went the opinions that your readers disliked.

The O’Reilly Network has, in that regard, an admirable policy: talkbacks are never deleted and errors, if any, are publicly corrected. Sure, the webmasters could pull a page, silently tweak it and re-publish it under the same name, touching its publication date but they don’t, staying close in that regard to the ground rules of print media.

Statistics that are too detailed can easily give a webmaster an urge to change, reshape, give the public what he wants. Of course, there is nothing wrong with answering the needs of your public — this is, after all, what the publishing world is all about — but it should never mean sacrificing information or silently pulling pages.