Netizen ghosts, or what makes the internet “real”

It reads like a Cory Doctorow satire, but it’s true. Bruce Sterling, the eminent science fiction author and his wife of four years, Jasmina Tesanovic, received an INS notification of pending deportation for Jasmina. A globetrotting couple who organize most of their lives online, they don’t jointly own a house, didn’t go for traditional paraphernalia like wedding china, and have separate bank accounts. Where would one find evidence of their lives together? flickr photos, YouTube videos, a BoingBoing wedding announcement. Bruce needed to make a special Wired Magazine plea for people who know them personally to write the INS before April 15 and testify that they are in fact married. I’ve met Bruce, but don’t know them well enough for that INS form; if you do known them personally please stop reading this right now, tell the INS that they’re for real and then come back.

After the bureaucratic nightmare for Bruce and Jasmina is fixed, what’s interesting is the difference of opinion about what’s considered “evidence” and “real.” The INS is still stuck with an old-fashioned definition of evidence, even though courtrooms have been using email as evidence for a while. The US Federal Rules of Civil Procedure were updated in 2006 with detailed guidelines on how to use email and other electronic information in court.

The epistemological conflict doesn’t just pertain to the dusty bureaucrats at INS. Even Wikipedia has trouble with online sources, as can be seen in this dispute about whether to keep a Wikipedia page on RecentChangesCamp. The event, a regular gathering for a distributed tribe of wiki-keepers, is well-documented in blog posts, online photos, a Twitter stream and so on. But what eventually persuaded the wikipedia editors was an article in the Portland Oregon newsprint business paper. The most chilling aspect of the Wikipedia policy is that blogs are not considered notable. In other words, evidence in the endangered Boston Globe counts, and evidence in the prospering and clearly journalistic Talking Points Memo apparently doesn’t. Another problematic piece of Wikipedia’s policy is the requirement for secondary sources. An event like TransparencyCamp or EqualityCamp is documented by numerous attendees. But unless the San Francisco Chronicle sends a reporter, EqualityCamp doesn’t exist. Attacked by curmudgeons as “unreliable”, Wikipedia ironically places excessive credence in offline sources. As more traditional papers go extinct, and more reporting is provided by online media and peer media, what on earth will Wikipedia do to prove that things are real?

The answer, of course, is that there will develop stronger norms about what makes internet evidence valid. Of course there are many internet sources that are bogus, just as there are forged documents and lies. But there are also plenty of techniques for evaluating the authenticity and reliability of electronic sources. We use them in a common sense manner every day when reading email, evaluating blog comments, and rejecting the fraudsters and spammers.

Surely, there are other government agencies that have developed guidelines that INS could use to update their policies. If you know of any, here is the contact information for Janet Napolitano’s office at the Department of Homeland Security. Do any Wikipedia community members know of efforts to update the notability policy to take TalkPointsMemo and primary event coverage by numerous blogs and other online sources as evidence of notability?

The Bruce and Jasmina INS jam and the RecentChangesCamp kerfuffle show that policy rules and norms haven’t yet caught up with internet reality.

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