Rewriting history: should you edit old blogs to remove trash opinions?

Image by the brilliant Stuart F Taylor

For a while I’ve been contemplating a series of blog posts in which I argue, essentially, with myself. Taking on some of the bad arguments or terrible opinions I had years ago, which still exist on these pages for everyone to see. Every time my autotweet widget spits out something from the archive, I cringe in anticipation of what my past self said, ready to be embarrassed today by what I said five years ago. I’m not alone in this: we’ve all said things in the past that we don’t agree with today. And we all have to consider how we deal with embarrassing stuff when confronted by it, years later. Should we edit old blogs that we no longer agree with?

The topic of terrible past opinions was one I discussed with a fair few people at this year’s Eroticon. During the session by Meg John and Justin on how to give sex advice (which you can now listen to online here!), the topic came up of what to do about bad advice from the past. Should you go back and edit your older posts or opinions when you learn new things or change your mind? And elsewhere, in sessions where we discussed different strategies for activism, or how we can question ourselves and challenge our assumptions, I thought about just how much I have changed over the years since wrote my first post.

It’s a weird post, that one. Makes a point that I thought was good at the time, and which might be useful for some people now, but it does it in a mean and shitty way. On the up side, it’s certainly a hell of a lot shorter than the posts I write these days, so I’m sure there’ll be some who prefer it.

That first post isn’t the only one that gives me weird feelings when I read it. There are many more that I cringe to see again. Maybe one day I’ll tell you which they are, but for now let’s tackle the big question:

Should you edit your blog when you change your mind?

Should you go back through your blog archives and edit the posts that you think are misguided or wrong? Should you issue public apologies for things you’ve said in the past and – if so – should those apologies or corrections be things you do proactively? If so, how often should you sift through the quagmire of your trash opinions?

I have some thoughts. So let’s start by going through the options:

1. Edit old blogs proactively

This essentially amounts to trawling your archive on a regular basis – maybe laying aside some time each year to sift and read and assess, then add notes to each post on how you’ve changed. This is tempting – really tempting. As an anxious person, there’s nothing I love more than wallowing in my mistakes, and thoroughly beating my past self up for having the temerity to be imperfect.

But on a practical level this would simply never work. I have 941 posts live on the site now – of which 740 are mine. I read pretty swiftly but even on a conservative estimate it would take over 61 hours to read every word. Assuming 8 hours’ reading each day, that’s nearly 8 whole days. And that’s not including the time it would take to actually edit the bloody things. You can bet your arse that as soon as I started, it wouldn’t just be trash opinions I started to expunge: typos, details, a poorly-worded joke. A link or two, a product plug… You get the idea.

Even if I resisted this temptation, and only edited where I’ve changed my mind, we’re still looking at a significant chunk of time. I’d have to take at least a week’s holiday, every year, set it aside for navel-gazing and flagellation… and even then I’d still not keep up. My opinions will change more over time – it’d be awful to think that at just 34 I’ve done all my growing already – so those updates will need to be re-updated, and then re-re-updated, and so on. My forty-year-old self might want to come back and edit this post, and then my 45-year-old self would do it again and I’d end up locked in a constant battle with various incarnations of my previous self, until I eventually stop writing anything new, just in case one day it goes out of date.

Editing your archive is an impossible task, and anyone who tells you to do it has simply not done the maths. So what are the other options?

2. Edit old blogs reactively

This one seems easier: as your trash opinions from the past are still online, naturally there’ll be moments where you’re prompted to look back over them. Whether it’s a brand new comment on a post from 2012 or your autotweet chucking stuff out from the archive, there are often new excuses to look back over old work and consider: is this the kind of thing I’d want to write today?

I’ve done a bit of editing like this – whether through outside prompts like people commenting or picking up on things I said before, or when I’m recording sexy stories for audio porn, I’ll occasionally see something so terrible it makes me wince, and I’ll add a content note or an intro that better reflects the person I am today.

But there’s one thing here that I think is important: where I edit old blogs or add notes that are specifically down to a change in opinion or tone, I want people to know that’s what I’ve done. Fixing a typo doesn’t require transparency, but where there’s a substantial change I think it’s important to point out that the edits were made years later. Doing anything other than that feels like rewriting history.

I don’t want new readers to browse my archives and think that I dropped onto the sex blogging scene with all the opinions and attitudes I hold in 2018. It took me a long time to learn the things I’ve learned, and I made a hell of a lot of mistakes along the way. Expunging terrible opinions feels like covering my tracks – pretending I have always been this person, and erasing the work and input and advice of all the influential people who have helped me get to where I am today.

And as with the point above: I am still only partway through a journey that will (hopefully) last for decades. It’s kind of fun (and a useful thought experiment) to consider which of the things I’ve written in the last few weeks will be the posts that make me cringe years later. As Dr Jamie Lawson said in his Eroticon talk: becoming is a continual process. I don’t think that what I am now is perfect: I want to be a better person next year than I am today, and in order for that to happen I need to make mistakes. And most importantly, if I have even a hope of encouraging other people to examine their opinions and change their minds, I need to show that I’m capable of doing the same.

3. Add a warning to every post

This was a suggestion I toyed with for a while: adding an automatic note to every post that is older than a certain date, explaining that as it’s more than 3 years old, opinions may have changed since original writing. A bit like those pop up ‘we’re going to put cookies on your computer’ bars, but it would only appear on posts that were written before a certain date. The problem with this is obvious from a mile away, I hope: no matter how terrible some of my opinions in the past, the vast majority of them are still things I’d stand by. The overall message of this blog – that sex isn’t shameful, that women enjoy sex too, that kinks and quirks are things to be celebrated rather than condemned, etc – is still the same as it was when I launched. How weird would it be if ‘opinions may have changed since I wrote this!’ got displayed on an old but still valid post – like this one about how short guys/tall girls can be hot, despite what judgy dickheads might try to say. I wouldn’t write that post in the same way today, but I’d certainly stand by the message.

4. Stop using things like autotweet that re-promote old work

The ‘reactive’ solution above is my favourite, and it’s the method I tend to go with, but it has its flaws: it means that there are almost certainly posts in my archive that I haven’t yet amended, because it hasn’t yet occurred to me that that’s what I need to do. And it also means that tools like Revive Old Post (a WordPress plugin that hooks up to Twitter and occasionally tweets out things from the archive) lay me open to the constant worry that somewhere on Twitter a terrible/mean/thoughtless post from the past might be sitting there for people to click on and make frowny faces at me. Fun fact: this is why I rarely turn my phone off, ever. I am absolutely terrified of it.

So why don’t I just turn autotweet off?

Well, this blog makes me money, you see. Not tonnes of money, but if I have a full complement of advertisers, a reasonable number of people buying things from the sex toys page, and a steady-ish income from Patreon supporters, this website pays my half of the mortgage and bills each month. That’s nothing to be sniffed at. And in order to get enough money to cover this, I need to do lots in the way of promotion. I could (and do) use manual scheduling for tweets as much as possible – i.e. I’ll spend a few hours each month scheduling tweets to promote posts from ‘this time last year’ on Twitter and Facebook. But autotweet tops that up, and although I’ve been really sniffy about these tools in the past, I’ve finally embraced the fact that although they’re imperfect, they do make a decent difference in terms of overall traffic for a minimal input of time. For comparison, Revive Old Post sends more than ten times the traffic of my monthly newsletter, and the newsletter costs me a hell of a lot more in terms of time and money.

On top of this, although I tremble with fear when my autotweet kicks out something that’s badly-worded or outright cringey, there’s arguably a benefit: it prompts me to rethink and then do something. That ‘something’ might just be pointing out on Twitter that I’d have written the same post differently today, or it might mean writing a new post, adding a note to the old one, or some combination of the two. So yeah, I could switch off the autotweet, but not only do I rely on my blog traffic to pay my mortgage, I also kind of like that it spits out terrible posts. It gives me the prompt to add notes reactively, because I know the proactive stuff isn’t possible.

The temptation to rewrite history

Before digital media, people rarely got the chance to rewrite history. Normal people like me, that is: governments rewrote history all the time, but that’s because they had the power to recall dodgy material/ban certain books/burn or cover up records etc. Your average writer wouldn’t be able to do that – the best they could do would be to add addenda or introductions to new versions of books if and only if that book was getting another print run. Now, though, most of our writing happens on the internet and there’s a big ‘EDIT’ button on each and every post. And you know how tempting it is to press a big ol’ button, especially when you know that with a few keystrokes you can ease your anxiety about your past indiscretions and make it look like you’ve ALWAYS been the way you are now.

On top of this, we also live in a world where your old trash opinions can be dredged up at any point in your life – we’re the first generation for whom this is happening, and we still don’t really know how to deal with it. I am personally unconvinced by people who’ve spouted actual hate speech in the past who now tell us that they were young and foolish, but maybe they really were. Maybe they’ve changed a lot since their first misogynist blog rant back on LiveJournal, and today they’re disgusted with their younger self. My bad opinions are nothing like as bad as, say, Jared O’Mara’s, so perhaps it’s easy for me to sit here smugly knowing I’m not as horrible as him. Or maybe I should realise that the disgust I feel at his comments is exactly the disgust other people feel about, say, that time when I wrote an angry rant in response to an email from a guy, which included whorephobic language and an unnecessarily vicious tone.

But tempting though it is to edit old blogs, in almost every case I try to resist it. I’ll add notes to some posts – usually based on my gut instincts about whether something might cause harm. For instance, adding a content warning about consensual non-consent fantasies, as I did in this post. Although hilariously even that one I got wrong because I haven’t dated the content note in bold, even though I know I added it a while after the post was first published. But even then you and I might have two different ideas of what counts as ‘harm’, and then some future version of me will have a different idea again.

Someone once got really angry with me because my autotweet spat out a post they didn’t like. I explained that it probably wasn’t the kind of thing I’d have written today, and their response to me was “Why don’t you EDIT IT then? People will SEE this!” But the problem is it wasn’t a terrible post that said anything substantively wrong or harmful – it just didn’t put across the argument in exactly the way I’d have done it today, and some of the language was clumsy or poorly-expressed. I still broadly agreed with the post, I just didn’t like the way it was written, and as soon as you start getting into this level of detail, you’re back to square one: feeling compelled to read your archive for a week or so each year and flagellate yourself for every mean word, bad argument or trash opinion.

So what’s the actual solution? I don’t think there is one: much as I’d like to declare that I’ve done loads of soul-searching and Found The Right Answer, I’m also very aware that ‘claiming to have found the right answer’ is exactly what 2011 Girl on the Net would do. She’d proudly explain that she’d solved it, and offer the solution as if it were so simple you should have known it already, and implied that you’re a terrible twat for not having bothered to work it out.

I’ll edit old blogs sometimes, mostly by adding notes or caveats, and cringe myself into anxious panics on a weekly – and sometimes daily – basis. But I’ll never be able to go back in time and tell my younger self what I know now. And pretending that I can is less useful, I think, than explaining to you right now that sometimes I’m wrong. Sometimes I’m thoughtless. Sometimes I’m forgetful or dismissive of things that are really important. Sometimes I’ll add notes, other times I won’t, and these decisions won’t always be the right ones. But all the time – every day – I’m learning. And hopefully I’ll keep on doing that, even if I fuck up on the way.

10 Comments

  • Jem says:

    I have been blogging for over 15 years. For me it would be more worrying if my views hadn’t changed at all in that time – literally since I was a child – than if they had. I have on a few occasions updated the wording of a post to clarify intent or to express myself differently, generally with a note at the end of the post rather than an outright re-write. I think it’s important that I stand by my words rather than hide them, and admit and make amends if it becomes necessary. It’s a personal choice though, each to their own of course.

  • Interesting one. To an extent I’m lucky in that most of my younger-days sex writing was in print media so it’s not *that* likely anyone could dig it up and try to start a fight about it. I agree that sometimes we change our mind, or circumstances change around us (some things were previously considered harmless/harmful and now there is conclusive proof that the opposite is true, for instance – that we couldn’t have known five or ten years ago, because *no-one* knew.) Use of language may change. Partly because I am getting on a bit, I have been aware that some terms or phrases are now considered offensive or inappropriate when they were not, previously (To be clear, I’m not talking about anything used intentionally as a slur, but people using what they sincerely believe is a polite/correct term only there is now a preferred one.)

    However, I would be wary of (perhaps just read: Would Not Do) editing my former work because more people disagree with it now. I still think it’s important for any writer to remember that ‘Hahaha fuck off’ is often an equally valid response to being ‘called out’.

    • Girl on the net says:

      I definitely see what you mean re: changing language, though I think most of my past mistakes were ones where I used language that I probably *could* have known wasn’t great, if I’d thought about it for a long time. I just didn’t examine it, or didn’t have people around me who would prompt me to examine it. I think a lot of the ways in which I’ve changed my opinions (or maybe not opinions as such, but tone and approach) come down to Twitter – when I first started Twitter was a place to share hilarious jokes, bits of news, and sexy thoughts. Now it’s much more of a campaigning platform where my timeline is filled with new ideas/approaches/activism etc. It can sometimes be a little nervewracking, but I think for me personally most of the times when I’ve been called out (or just nudged/asked to think about something), it’s been useful. Not *all* the time though, of course: I’ve had some moments of complete terror/panic/horror, and sometimes it’s hard to work out whether this is coming from a justified place when criticism is extremely harsh/frightening or whether it’s a kneejerk defensiveness because I don’t like getting told off.

      Tricky one! And I think you make a really good point about not knowing certain things five or ten years’ ago. I realised quite recently that the same can probably be said of people who are new to certain things – new to twitter for instance, or new to sex blogging. There are some things I take for granted everyone is aware of, but in fact *I’m* only aware of them because someone told me a few years’ ago, and I probably shouldn’t expect us all to be on the same page!

  • Bee says:

    I don’t have either the time to go back and change or add notes to mine but I think if I need to I’ll write a new post referring back to the original. That way I can keep track of what’s changed and why.

    • Girl on the net says:

      That’s a good idea – I do sometimes write newer posts as things change, although I don’t always remember to refer back to the first one (or sometimes I don’t even remember that the first one exists in the first place!). But yeah new posts are a good way to explore it further and give more detail on what’s changed!

  • GREAT RABBIT says:

    In the interest of turning phones off maybe you could mix 3 and 4 by putting a warning on the autotweet thing?
    I am not a twitterer and this post should not be construed as twitter advice.

  • Great thoughts and a lot of things I’ve contemplated

  • st says:

    I request that readers ask for new advice rather than using search (and have off and on totally removed search) because my opinions and advice I give now is much different than when I started blogging over a decade ago. When I moved my blog to WordPress I deleted a big chunk of my work that didn’t fee valuable but I kept a lot of posts even if I didn’t agree with myself anymore. I’m okay with that. It’s the nature of growth.

  • This post had me thinking for a while: will I want to go back and edit what I have said five, six, seven years ago? Thinking it through – and trying to forget that I don’t have the time to do it – I decided no. My blog is a place where I write honestly about who I am, what I do and how I feel. To go back and change the posts will make those posts about who I am today. I will much rather want readers to see how I have grown. I myself want to see how I have grown. What I do like though, is Bee’s idea, to write a new post and then link back to the older one. That sounds like a great idea!

    Rebel xox

  • Chris says:

    You don’t mention the most valuable part of any of these sex blogs. They foster communication and deeper thought about sex and it’s role in our lives and society! Good writing, bad writing, good opinion, bad opinion, they all make the reader think. And, having so much more of it out there in the ether is so brutally important!

    Your doing great and important work GOTN!!! Solider on, the world is better place because your in it.

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