In that way, the web is unique. Old television broadcasts look dated, in the same way that you can tell television shows from various countries based on their lighting choices. Radio broadcasts have similarly evolved over time, and it's generally uncommon to extract one snippet from a lengthy segment. Books and newspapers and magazines age, and even when they don't, you know what a current New York Times looks like compared to one from the 1940s, even if only instinctually. News on the web is discrete and timeless.
Last month, a year-old post on Gawker previewing a possible upcoming snow storm suddenly began being passed around as new. The year appears on the post, in tiny, light-colored type, trivial to miss. And it was missed. People thought another major storm was on its way. Some sites — though not Gawker — purposely downplay the datelines on their posts in order to take advantage of the ingrained predilection on social media to always share the newest and most interesting content. As was the case with this snow post, there was no reason to think this was an old thing in a web that consumes new things like coal.
In effect, time collapses on the web. The snowstorm and Sarah Palin's comments happened today as far as anyone knew. And that means that Gawker and Palin, for better or worse, were responsible for the information being passed around.
Five years ago, Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig wrote a piece for The New Republic that looked at the downside of calling for more government transparency, in effect dumping tons of raw data into public view. His concern in brief: unfiltered data will offer false impressions of what the data are describing or, worse, it'd be intentionally cherry-picked to make an argument.
I have increasingly come to worry that there is an error at the core of this unquestioned goodness. We are not thinking critically enough about where and when transparency works, and where and when it may lead to confusion, or to worse. And I fear that the inevitable success of this movement — if pursued alone, without any sensitivity to the full complexity of the idea of perfect openness — will inspire not reform, but disgust.
Writer Quinn Norton wrote a post last month (February 17 you'll see if you dig around a bit) discussing her concerns about how relationships have evolved in the social media era. This line in particular stuck out to me: "The net doesn't understand that people change, and doesn't tolerate it — all growth is seen as hypocrisy." What you posted in 2009 isn't understood as reflecting that moment; instead, it's intertwined with who you are and who you will always be. Time is flat. And having all that information at hand allows those with whom you disagree to cherry-pick examples of when you've been hypocritical or vulgar or wrong.