The f-bomb via. Legaljuice
The f-bomb via. Legaljuice

At the closing SSP conference plenary, Food Fight in the Scholarly Kitchen, I dropped the “f-bomb.”  I call it the f-bomb because FTC rules prohibit me from using the real expletive, but the readers will know what I mean, and listeners in that session will remember what I said.

In the context of the question (about watchdog journalism) and my response (about taking risks as a blogger even though it might result in a frivolous lawsuit), the use of the “f-bomb” was, at the time, rather benign.  And yet, I have regrets.

My regrets are not founded in the memories of my fellow panelists or even in those of the audience participants.  Most of them will ultimately forget the remark, or more likely, not take the remark as being offensive.  In the context of the presentation, it was a rather normal event.

My regrets lay in the fact that the session was recorded for future posterity.  In a few weeks, the recording will show up on the SSP website.  It will be downloaded by robot software crawling the web, indexed and tagged with the participant names, and cached on multiple servers worldwide, thus ensuring that deletion of the original file does not hinder the preservation of the f-word remark.

What went on in San Francisco will not remain in San Francisco.

Thanks to the persistent memory of Google and other networked search and storage devices, I will carry that f-bomb into the future.  It will become part of my professional identity, and more importantly, a potential liability.  [In comparison, events that took place at the Fastiggi reception on Friday night remain in San Francisco, with the exception of a few carefully staged photographs].

Humans are wired to forget: the Web is wired to remember.  We have changed the default from forgetting to persistent memory.

This is the premise of the book, “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age” by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger (Princeton University Press, 2009).  Mayer-Schönberger argues that forgetting fulfills important societal functions.  As the details and consequences of our past mistakes fade and become obscured in the memories of those around us,  forgetting allows for individuals to reinvent themselves and move on.

But this is not an argument that we often hear.

We are told to save everything that is digital — all of our email, documents and memos (however mundane) — in the rare case that we would need to go back and retrieve some piece of old information.  Because storage is cheap, it costs us more in time and energy to purge old documents than it’s worth.  The default is to save everything.

Technology has made us all into compulsive hoarders.  We have become the hermit living in a one-bedroom apartment stuffed with every letter ever received and old issues of the New York Times piled up high into columns allowing only a thin canyon of passage to the kitchen sink and another to the bed.

And yet, there is a big difference.  When that pack rat moves out of the cramped and condemned apartment, relatives come in and clean house, transferring most items into the dumpster and saving a few mementos for posterity.  If the pack rat has no living relatives, the building superintendent is stuck with the chore of cleaning house.  Items will be relegated to the dustbin of history because physical space is not cheap like digital space.

The Internet does not clean house.  Even when websites close shop and lose their domain name, there is likely a digital copy sitting on the virtual shelves of Brewster Kahle’s Internet Archive.  Even when we want to purge our past, it may not be possible.

I like going to conferences like SSP precisely for the reason that the majority of the communication among peers takes place informally, in a non-seated position, without the harsh glare of a screen, disconnected from the Internet, and (after 5pm) with a drink in one’s hand.  These meetings enable us to say things that we dare not say in email or on a public blog.  If, by accident, the line of public decorum has been crossed we can be thankful that listeners understand the context (“He was drunk, and come to think of it, I was too!”) and that these events will gradually fade in the minds of colleagues.

“If we had to worry that any information about us would be remembered for longer than we live, would we still express our views on matters of trivial gossip, share personal experiences, make various political comments, or would we self-censor?  The chilling effect of perfect memory alters our behavior” (Mayer-Schönberger, p.5)

We like to think that conferences are doing non-participants a favor when they record and post their events.  We forget that by doing so, we may be harming the very reason why we spend enormous amounts of time and money traveling to conferences, which is, to allow for the kind of open and earnest dialogue that is becoming more difficult to do online.

What went on in San Francisco should stay in San Francisco, the occasional f-bomb included.

Phil Davis

Phil Davis

Phil Davis is a publishing consultant specializing in the statistical analysis of citation, readership, publication and survey data. He has a Ph.D. in science communication from Cornell University (2010), extensive experience as a science librarian (1995-2006) and was trained as a life scientist.


7 Thoughts on "Forgetting the F-bomb: How Cheap Memory Makes Normal Conference Chat Costly"

It’s a good point, Phil. I enjoyed SSP (my first!) and found the sessions I was able to attend thought-provoking and useful. I wished I’d been able to clone myself and attend them all, and was looking forward to catching up via the session recordings. But now that I’m back in the real world, drowning in email and peering into the fathomless depths of today’s to-do list, I realise I am going to struggle to make time to check out hour-and-a-half podcasts. What I would much prefer is a brief written report of each session, which I can skim read in 5-10 minutes to get a sense of the how the topic was covered. Perhaps summaries like these will accompany the recordings when they are posted but for me, the recording would be superfluous if a written summary were available. And I would guess a written summary might gloss over your f-bomb …


I’m glad you wrote this post. Two of the sessions at the SSP meeting (the “Food Fight” and “PowerPoint Karaoke”) were meant to be spontaneous and a little less formal and planned than your typical session. Having the sessions recorded has a chilling effect on these things. For instance, in the PPT Karaoke, the two Open Access slides (the first slide and the one with the OA logo [yes, I did recognize it, but refused to bite]) didn’t get discussed fully because I, at least, was aware that what I said was being recorded. I can’t speak for Geoff. If we hadn’t been recorded, I might have at least said something.

I think the SSP needs to think about the value of recording meetings, the cost of it, and the price the meeting pays in spontaneity. If these recordings aren’t heavily utilized after a meeting, and if the value of a meeting is compromised for attendees, it might be costing them more than they realize both in quantity of attendees and quality of the meeting.

Hi Kent,
I’m curious as to what you might have said that could have caused trouble.

I firmly believe that open and honest debate is never a bad thing, so I’m wondering what the downside is here.

Speaking practically – the meeting can invoke the Chatham House rule for any session if the participants wish. I’m not sure we’ve done anything so controversial that it would seriously require such a step, but the choice does always lie with the speakers.

In terms of the upside/downside to SSP, I think that evidence of quality debate never harms the decision making process when people are working out where to put their travel budgets. I would actually argue that SSP should do more to put the videos out there so that they may be either a useful resource for attendees, and/or an additional promotional tool for the meeting. A lot of hard work goes into the presentations, I for one, think that a greater audience (if the presenter is OK with that) is no bad thing at all.

Having said all that, is this really about something that came up during the food fight session, namely the Libel tourism that can occur (sadly) via the UK courts? If so, that’s an important point and perhaps the SSP Board might want to investigate insurance for the duration of the meeting. On a personal note, I find it appalling that my countrys legal system can be used in such a way – we need to get that fixed pronto.

At a recent conference, I was quite shocked at just how frequently expletives were being used…by the speakers.

I don’t think they’re ever appropriate in such a situation, especially not F and C, which were being bandied about as if they had no particular baggage.

Keep the swearies for the pub, the footy pitch and the powder room, purleez.

Because I just volunteered to figure out how to make better use of SSP’s session recordings, I’m very interested in opinions on this topic. I can tell you, Phil, that this post on the topic is much more likely to draw attention to your colorful language than the actual recording will, according to our stats from last year’s recordings, which indicated that virtually no one downloaded the recordings and those who did, didn’t actually listen to them.

As Charlie notes, none of us seems to have the time to revisit recordings that we may have missed in real life.

Of course, we aim to change that. The SSP Board is considering how to make these recordings and presentations more widely available in order to publicize the value of membership.

I would argue that having a filter on oneself is a good thing. We don’t know who is in the audience and what they might blog or tweet or even write (in print!) about our sessions even in the absence of recordings.

You of course always have the option of not signing the conference consent form giving permission to the organizers to record your session. I wouldn’t like to see that happen, but you could avail yourself of it if it’s that important to you.

I’d be interested to hear whether other speakers also feel that this practice dampens discourse.

There are pros and cons to publishing presentations after the event whether video or just PowerPoint slides. Often the slides for the best presentations use relevant tables which those who were not present would like further explanation of, and bullet points which are meaningless without the context of the spoken word. Strength of an argument may be better conveyed by the tone it is spoken in, so it is always preferable to be there, and failing that the video. Knowing you am presuming in your case that the presentation was interesting in its own right and that the inadvertent use of the “f-bomb” was not used simply to sensationalize your presentation.

I had to miss your Food Fight plenary because I had to catch a flight. I’ll certainly be looking out for the video, and I’ll have to ask you about the reception another time.


I believe that it was quite right to express your views in the way that you did. Again, as discussed with you after the food fight. This seems to be very much a country issue rather than a content issue. “Across the pond” cursing occurs all the time. Remember the session was titled a “food fight”, cursing frequently occurs in a fight so I think you are justified.

As Carol has said, from a legal POV, could you not simply revoke your agreement to allow the recording to go public, or have “copy approval” on the recording so that the word could be removed.

Personally, I believe that ones passion for a subject should not be affected by externalities and it makes for a much better speaker/employee.

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