Stuff that occurs to me

All of my 'how to' posts are tagged here. The most popular posts are about blocking and private accounts on Twitter, also the science communication jobs list. None of the science or medical information I might post to this blog should be taken as medical advice (I'm not medically trained).

Think of this blog as a sort of nursery for my half-baked ideas hence 'stuff that occurs to me'.

Contact: @JoBrodie Email: jo DOT brodie AT gmail DOT com

Science in London: The 2018/19 scientific society talks in London blog post

Saturday, 3 December 2011

The Layered Web - partially hidden conversations

Sometimes I'm surprised that things don't take off in quite the way I'd imagine they would.

An example is Sidewiki which Google recently announced it was going to kill off. I don't know if it was because so few people were using it or because it was quite controversial and presumably caused or could have caused problems for Google.

Briefly, Sidewiki was a web annotation tool that allowed you to comment on any website - not directly on the website but on an additional panel that could only be seen when logged into Google. Anyone else who was both logged in to Google and who'd installed the Google Toolbar (which is where Sidewiki lived) could see your comments.

This meant that I could write a nasty, or nice, comment about your website and you might never see it - but anyone else who had things set up correctly could. I'm surprised not to have heard about libel cases arising from it to be honest.

I commented on a few websites that made misleading claims - I know that one page was deleted entirely (and my comments with it because they 'hung' on that page) but other than that I don't know if they were noticed by website owners, or for that matter other visitors. Once I came across a comment from another skeptic blogger who'd written it a few months previously.

It did allow a bit of devious sneakery, which I've touched on in a previous post.

Web of Trust
Another one of these layers exists and may well take off where Sidewiki failed - WOT, Web of Trust. If you're signed in to the free service it will make itself known whenever you visit a page that has been scored poorly by other visitors. This tends to happen on alternative medicine sites and, most recently, a well-known cancer clinic in the US has received a number of negative votes because it sells interventions for which there's no good evidence. I've added reviews to a small handful of sites with misleading claims - it lets you give the site a score on four measurements as well as letting you add comments.

These types of services are presumably popular among people like me who enjoy meting out retributive justice and a bit of snark on dangerous and silly websites. I do hope we won't get ourselves into trouble ;-)

It just stays there, basically
The well-known clinic obliquely referred to above is apparently at the stage of instructing lawyers to inform bloggers (I am one of them*) who've written about the clinic that they have defamed their client and to remove blogposts on pain of general annoyance and possible amusement depending on how things go.

Being instructed to delete blog posts generally results in mayhem and the clinic's first attempts at getting a handful of bloggers to remove their posts backfired spectacularly.

There are two separate issues - one is that it's actually harder than you might think to delete anything from the web, particularly if someone else knows about it. The second is that by taking that aggressive stance you can pretty much guarantee a splurge of blogposts in support of the original bloggers - it's the Streisand / I am Spartacus effect (see the 'backfired spectacularly link for the expanding list of me-too blogs posts).

It also reminds everyone of the need to reform the UK's libel laws.

Firstly people often keep copies of their posts (I have an identical mirror of this blog) and many use services like Freezepage to trap any page on the web if it looks like it might be deleted - this is often used quite assertively when someone is being a bit slippery and starts trying to delete stuff from the web. Gillian McKeith fell foul of this one.

Secondly, there are now over 100 blog posts which analyse the clinic's ethics, way of working, claims of evidence, previous interactions with medical regulation and court information, analysis of business expenses and the costs charged to patients etc.

But in addition to the blog posts what on earth might the clinic do about the way they are mentioned on other social streams?

Chirpstory and other social streams
There have been over a thousand tweets with the clinic's name used as a hashtag, and I've collected some of them here. Some of them actually have been what I would call unambiguously defamatory, though most are straight-up factual - although given the nature of the clinic I think a bit of de-faming is all to the good - and I don't know how the clinic might deal with those.

Firstly it could contact individual Twitterers and instruct them to delete the relevant tweet, or it could get stroppy with Twitter itself - other lawyers have tried to take that route although I'm not sure how successful that's been.

Even if the original tweets are deleted I have copies of them in the collection I made on Chirpstory and because I've embedded them in my blog they are saved again, and in my mirror copy.

Bluntly, if a tweet is deleted on Twitter it will not be deleted from the 'chirpified' version at Chirpstory (or Storify) once it's been trapped there (a bit like photographing a bit of paper and keeping the photo but recycling the paper)... If the collection at Chirpstory is deleted then this will not affect what's on my blog post because it's permanently embedded... If I delete my blog post it will still appear in my mirror.

Of course I can delete all my copies of this. But others can embed my original Chirpstory into their blogs and there is nothing that I can do to delete their copies, other than ask them.

So it becomes increasingly harder for stuff to be excised from the web and it's a lot easier for people to ensure that stuff lurks, perhaps occultly, for a little bit longer.

*solely because my email address was inexpertly copied from my blog; the email never reached me. It's really not clear why on earth I was included in the first place, although I have written about the clinic (very mildly though).


  1. Well, yes, doubled WOT circles is a known issue in case of using it with SiteAdvisor:

  2. Thanks Sergey! I did wonder.


Comment policy: I enthusiastically welcome corrections and I entertain polite disagreement ;) Because of the nature of this blog it attracts a LOT - 5 a day at the moment - of spam comments (I write about spam practices,misleading marketing and unevidenced quackery) and so I'm more likely to post a pasted version of your comment, removing any hyperlinks.

Comments written in ALL CAPS LOCK will be deleted and I won't publish any pro-homeopathy comments, that ship has sailed I'm afraid (it's nonsense).