Recently the Half-Eaten Mind suffered what could well be described as the biggest crisis in its two-year existence. For more than two days, over the course of last weekend (28-29 June 2014), the blog was taken offline after allegedly violating the terms and conditions of usage concerning its hosting blog platform, WordPress.
The blog did not finally rejoin the Internet until the following Monday, when this article was begun in draft form. This is the story of how the partially digested brain was almost silenced for good, as told by blog owner and editor Vijay Shah. He produced this article to celebrate the blog returning but also as an educational article and a bit of hopefully helpful reassurance for any other blogger out there who ever experiences the same issue. While researching the problem, the author found several articles by other bloggers who had their sites suspended and he thought to write this post as a way of passing on the good deed they did in giving him a sliver of hope.
Friday 27/6/14: I had done my usual thing of perusing news sources on Twitter looking for that next big scoop. I was nearing the end of a two-week hiatus from work. A badly needed break from the usual stress of customer service checks, tonnes of data in little virtual yellow folders and general office politics, and a chance to work full-time on the Half-Eaten Mind. Originally I was planning not to post anything that day, as I was going to get ready and visit my mother’s place later on, but changed my mind after I was told that the visit may have had to be cancelled. So I switched on my laptop and began typing up the news story for that day, which concerned a west African government signing a contract with a PR company to fix up its reputation in the wake of a huge scandal that rocked that region. I then got the all-clear to go to my Mum’s after all. I stopped typing the article and put the laptop on standby. I then left the house around 5:00 pm and got on the 241 bus at Balaam Street, Plaistow, to travel onwards to Stratford station.
I returned home about 11:15 pm after being dropped off by a family friend and resumed working on the story. Once done, I did my other usual thing of formatting the article’s layout and putting in related articles from the Zemanta plugin. It seemed to be yet another event-free publishing session at the Half-Eaten Mind office. Nothing out of the usual. Not even a picture overflowing the page or a irrelevant link that needed pruning. I hit that little orange ‘Publish‘ button and waited for the article to go online. It published as always, but instead of seeing the article as normal. I was confronted with a grey screen and a message…
“halfeatenmind.wordpress.com is no longer available.
This blog has been archived or suspended for a violation of our Terms of Service.
For more information and to contact us please read the message in your dashboard.”
A facial expression blended fifty-fifty between confusion and fear immediately took up position on the front of my head. I just sat there in my knackered old swivel chair thinking what on earth I could have done. I tried a few things to bring my blog onto the screen but it was not happening. Reading the message made me think. Did I do something that bad that my blog was simply shuttered….shut down?. Violation? Terms of Service?. I felt like I had been labelled a criminal. The really annoying thing was that I had no idea what crime it was I had committed. Still somewhat shocked and panicky, I immediately began frantically searching on Google for an answer to the situation. Unfortunately I was so out of it that I could not think straight. Frustration and annoyance blew like cyclone wind over my huddled frame as the weekend closed in and my eyelids got heavier. In two years of blogging, I never had an issue as profound as this. Had I pissed someone off? Was my humble news site a victim of bored spotty hackers looking for kicks. I didn’t have a Scooby!.
About an hour later, my blogging friend and regular site visitor Alex, sent me a tweet asking me what had happened to my blog.
Before long, Alex’s tweet was in turn picked up by my youngest sister Anjali who also inquired as to what happened to the Half-Eaten One. Clearly people I knew and loved were seeing this was something out of the ordinary. I had a lot of explaining to do.
I was certainly annoyed that my blog was shut down without any prior notice and with no warning given, and that the filler page that now occupied the space where my blog had been was going to be visible to everyone. I had seen that page before on other obsolete blogs and when I saw that online version of a boarded-up shop window, I immediately assumed that they had done something ‘real bad’ to get their blog binned like that. So understandably I was ‘bricking it’ with concern. It was now coming to one o’clock in the morning and I was just too tired and aggrieved to do any more research on the matter. After sending two emails to the WordPress Terms of Service team via the link in the red-box warning notice slapped on my dashboard, whereby I copied and pasted the text now condemning me to blogging oblivion from my now defunct site, I decided to get some sleep. I felt as miserable as the drab shade of grey splashed all over the ‘out of service’ page where my blog used to be. I didn’t get very much sleep that night. That’s what worrying does to me.
Saturday 28/6/14: I got up at around 9.45 am and still half-asleep, switched on my mobile phone which I had tucked into bed with me close to the pillow the night before, as per usual. I waited for that stupid Samsung welcome graphic to get lost and opened up the Firefox browser. I looked at my website and disappointingly, it hadn’t changed one bit from last night, just it was now on a smaller screen. Teeth-gritting time. I got showered, got ready and headed to the local Iceland supermarket to perform the ritual of the weekly food shopping. In this distressing time, I needed to keep a semblance of normality. When I got back from the trip, I powered the laptop on as well and began doing some extensive research into the reason HEM got put on ice.
I was already well aware that my blog was apparently taken down and archived as I was in violation of some rules, so I began reading said rules to try and find an answer. The WordPress terms of service (linked to at the bottom of this article) are essentially the do’s and don’t’s of using the blogging platform that everyone compulsorily signs up on when they begin blogging with WordPress. They are designed to not only protect WordPress from any likely harm brought on by tricksters and other odious types, but to also make the blogging experience better for everyone. I won’t go into too much detail here but briefly summarising, the TOS covers aspects such as the usage of the software provided for the blog, and the responsibility of contributors; including avoiding extremely controversial material, viruses and naming blogs in impersonation of another company. The Terms then go on to list regulations on payments and renewals, VIP blogging services and issues surrounding things like advertising, domain names, intellectual property and copyrights. Thankfully it is not written in a hodge-podge of gobby legalese and is fairly accessible to your average English-speaking person with a brain. Even one with a half-eaten one, it seems.
I also had a look at the page on types of blogs normally hosted by WP to give me a flavour of what’s not good for their system and to see where I went wrong. From what I gathered, WP hate the following kinds of blogs:
- Scraper blogs that simply swipe content from other blogs and mainstream sites and reproduce them wholesale. That really annoys them… “If a blog contains stolen content, it’s gone!“.
- SEO blogs which are designed to cheat search engines and propel themselves to the top of search results without carrying a smidgen of meaningful human-written content. You can also apply keyword stuffing and blogs that simply are a jumbled directory of links – usually to crappy things like illicit pills, enhancers and associated bull.
- Warez blogs which carry illegally copied or downloaded content – music, films, football matches etc. or offer links to sites carrying such content. That can get WP into serious legal problems from those trying to fight piracy and protect copyrights.
- Automated blogs that are cooked up by bots/computers and are packed with mass-produced or generic content and not much else.
So I had a good idea of what stuff was definitely fit for the virtual bin as far as my blog provider was concerned. The problem was, none of these things applied to my blog. It’s a news magazine, with a bit of personal blog on the side. No dodgy stuff. I was not out to defraud anyone. I did not feel like I did anything wrong. It was rather like I had been put in trouble for something I may or may not have done, yet I had no idea what it was. You could be anecdotal and say this was the equivalent of a police officer arresting someone, handcuffing them and then placing them in a cell for breaking the law. But in this case, the arrested has no idea what crime they committed and when they ask the cop what exactly they had been brought in for, the officer simply proffers a handbook of criminal law and tells them to read it and figure it out for themselves. I even felt the suspension notice had in a way, presumed me guilty before innocent. It did feel that way a lot.
Luckily, unlike the officer who wouldn’t even bother fetching you a cup of tea but just sit there jabbing his finger into your chest all day (proverbially), WP did offer one concessionary olive branch. The option of downloading your blog as a ‘XML Export file’ and saving it onto your computer. With this file, you can open up another blog, either on another free blogging service or a self-hosted blog via the WordPress.org blog software package. You would however have to buy your own domain name (URL) and that would involve paying for it directly, plus monthly hosting fees. By now I was quite desperate, and therefore readily stomached the pain of having to now part with cold hard dutty cash for my blog’s upkeep. A small sacrifice I thought and many bloggers do it without compulsion as it gives them more leeway and freedom with their blogs, including widgets and advertising. I saved the export file in three different places to be on the safe side, one on my USB drive alongside my blog images, one on my computer and one which I emailled to myself. Better safe than sorry.
In the course of my research online, I learnt a few things, which gave me significant hope and positive thoughts, but also opened my eyes to people’s despair, anger and frustration. Firstly I came to realise from reading other accounts of blog suspension that every day, WP uses a filtering bot that looks out for a certain something that rhymes with ‘ham’. It seemed that this filter was quite overzealous as I soon learnt. One man, a homeless person from Vancouver in Canada, had blogged about a Russian group that was launching attacks using the electronic messaging whose name rhymes with ‘ham’. He mentioned the group by their name and his blog got suspended, taken him by utter surprise. Another writer had mentioned a new dieting pill. They fell victim to the bot too. Of course not everyone was so innocent. Several bloggers got into small amounts of trouble over hosting ads or banners on their sites, which contravenes WP rules. The WP equivalent of a small tap on the wrist and a “don’t do that again!!”. Nevertheless some people were not getting away so lightly. One blogger was told in no certain terms that he did not deserve his blog being reinstated because he had hosted links to illegal streams of cricket matches. I also discovered that bloggers could also be suspended for copyright violations and plagiarism. I was concerned that that might have been a cause, though I rewrite dramatically all news articles cited here and studiously only make use of copyright waived images to spice up the articles. The more I read, the more I realised I might have been tripped up by the anti-‘ham’ filter. The same generic message from the TOS team kept appearing, as bloggers celebrated the liberation of their babies from binary code-ringed purgatory and henceforth pardoned from death by deletion from WP servers.
I was still quite scared. WP state without ambiguity that any blogs that broke the rules would be terminated. They had the right to seize your content and not return it to you. Your URL would be confiscated and would also be dealt with as well. But on the reprieving side, if there was a mistake, your blog would be restored with full honours and everything intact. For a small minority, they would simply be asked to remove the offending content and as long as they played ball and followed instructions properly, everything would be okay. Only in extreme cases were blogs destroyed with no hope of return.
I spent a lot of time reading the WP support forums, although I could not post on them for help myself. My forum posting privileges were also revoked. I never really posted anything on those forums and very occasionally read them, but at one point I really wanted to get some help from the support people. I saw a lot of other bloggers with the same problem. Alas, the support staff, who are unpaid volunteers, were strictly forbidden to discuss TOS violations and simply told everyone to send the emails to TOS crew via the big red suspension notice. Fat lot of good that was going to be for me, I thought. However while it was not nice to read other bloggers gripes at their blogs getting mothballed – indeed it was the WP equivalent of listening to sick people cough and groan in a hospital accident and emergency ward, but with better tasting cappucinos – I found some diamonds of hope amid the dirt of despair. I saw the comments of one forum contributor, a mysterious fellow named ‘raincoaster’ whose sole calling card was a blue symbol of an Egyptian hieroglyph, an eye. He was a journalist who blogged on issues concerning ‘ham’ and ‘packing’ (as in words that rhyme with certain virtual abuses) in technology. Apparently due to their subject matter ‘raincoaster’ had been suspended ‘numerous’ times. He or she did not say how many exactly or what exactly for, but it gave credence to my theory that I had been caught up by a bot. I kept thinking that perhaps the several Facebook links I had cited as image credits for a recent article I wrote on Luis Suarez biting memes might have been the culprit…or the article I posted just before bloggy went bye-bye. It did mention a west African country synonymous with the notorious ‘419’ ham, there were verbal depictions of governments and ministers and sums of money were also included. To an unthinking filtration bot, devoid of any awareness of context in an article, this piece would have sounded just like those stupid ham emails everyone gets from some relative of a rich prince who needs their bank details to send them a juicy payment by Western Union or something. Anti-ham bot got shifty, flagged the Mind and it was closing time. The End. Or was it really?. As I read on, I became more confident that I w0uld be back.
I also discovered:
- That based on other bloggers’ accounts, a reply back from WP TOS staff could take anywhere between a few hours to one week, in one unlucky writer’s case. From that I deduced that the average waiting time was one to two days, depending on the workload of the TOS team. They do have meetings like many people in the tech geek industry and do not operate on weekends, so if you get pulled over on a Friday night, as I did, you’re in for a bit of a wait. Please take a numbered ticket and choose a seat. Thank you. Also as WordPress HQ is in California, USA they may respond to your help request at unsociable hours. I was until then hoping that they had an office in the UK, India or somewhere closer to my timezone, but nope, unfortunately not.
- That you have to be patient when expecting a response to your suspension email. They will get back to you. Once you fill out the form on the link in the suspension notice, they will receive it. Do not keep sending emails though, as it will drop you down the queue, which is not great if they are busy. Older tickets get dealt with first.
- Most bloggers seemed to have fallen foul of the bot.
- Volunteers on the support forums cannot help you beyond the basics and are heavily reliant on copy-and-paste answers. Some do occasionally offer pearls of wisdom and advice and sometimes staff such as CSS experts and ‘happiness engineers’ will make appearances. However, this is rare as an intoxicated dragon high off crystal meth while breakdancing in the Ministry of Sound nightclub. The volunteers generally seem equally useless and helpless, their hands of course being bound by the state. I especially felt sorry for one college student who posted on the forums and who had made a project using a blog, only to see it suspended and inaccessible a day before she was meant to hand it in to the lecturer. No word on her fate…or grades.
- People who have imported their blogs from other platforms or just opened new blogs have found themselves locked out of them, before even applying their first new article.
- Some bloggers were so annoyed at their suspensions that they decided to ditch the free WordPress altogether and go paid mode or shift allegiance to Blogger or website hosts.
- That in addition to enabling the suspended to download their blogs in XML format, WP do also kindly offer a handful of recommended hosting services at low, low prices – such as GoDaddy and Hostgator, so if you don’t get your blog back you at least have somewhere else to start afresh.
- That WP do not send out warning emails before suspension, partly as many bloggers have not updated the emails they use for site registration when they change address, but also that there’s no guarantee that the warning will be read. It might end up in a junk folder or be willfully ignored. Arguably though, they are a bit steep to then assume that that they should not have to send out these emails because bloggers don’t warn them that they are about to infringe the TOS. But what if the blogger didn’t even realise the infringement?
- If you are suspended, you can still peruse the forums but CANNOT post on them, unless you create a backup account or have spare one lying around for logging in to.
- WP prefer to be contacted by email through the appropriate channels. The owner of the platform, Automattic Inc, make it explicit on their site not to be telephoned about complaints and subscriptions. The same applies for postal enquiries.
As WP was shut for the weekend, I could do nothing but sit and wait. Granted at least without any posting to do, I had time for other things. I even had a spare hour to read a novel, but it felt unnatural not having a blog to update. It was like losing a body part. You can still carry on with life, but you know something is missing and you sense it. Okay, so I am a tad exaggerating here, but if you’re a serious blogger like I am, doing it for the love and not the money, you might be able to understand where I’m coming from. Still I was worried my blog would not see the light of the laptop screen for good. I was thinking of all the accounts and sites belonging to me that mentioned the blog, such as the HEM Twitter feed, Flickr Page etc. The blog was on my LinkedIn profile and even mentioned on the CV I use to apply for journalism vacancies. If the blog closed down, then the associated accounts would be like broken anchors stuck out at sea, with no ship to reel them in. I would have to close them all down, and I solemnly and sadly vowed that if I could not get HEM back, I would never blog again. There was no way I could start all over after two years of effort, hard work and memories. I thought of the collaborators I worked with and all the followers. They would see their contributions and favourite articles vanish, probably forever. I needed this blog for my future. Without it, reaching that dream and having that focus in life would be a bit harder.
Monday 30/6/14: It was my first day back at work. While I was happy to see my friends and colleagues again, the pronounced and heartfelt absence of my dearly beloved was still sitting like a pile of bricks at the back of my head. I was hoping that once the WP team started work at 9 am Pacific time (US); which is around 4 pm (UK) time over here, then they would sort out the suspension. I wasn’t expecting a quick reply though and thought how funny it would be to get a reply in the middle of the night or something.
In between spare bits of time, I checked my blog email account to see if by any chance it had come through. Nope, nothing. I decided to stop harassing the Hotmail…sorry, Outlook, and wait till 4:00 to check again. I did then check at exactly four. The sacred email had failed to bless my inbox with its presence. Disappointed was an understatement. Okay so I assume this email will be arriving on a late-night delivery service then?….but then, just as I was about to finish work for the day, I made one last checkup on the HEM inbox until I packed up the desk to travel homewards, and there it was. An email from WordPress. For ticket number 1878220, received at 5.24 pm. Happy days!!. Indeed I was so exuberantly animated I felt like spontaneously cheering, but that would have only subjected me to strange looks from the office. I quietly punched the air in delight as I read the email, which was an automatic generic email sent by ‘Community Guardian’ Cat, who I am very grateful to for bailing out my blog. Thanks a million, Cat. You’re our Half-Eaten Mind Heroine. I checked on my blog, and aside from having to clear the browser cookies and cache, and some initial slowness with the blog’s components loading up (although this could be because of my woefully crap home wi-fi connection), everything was looking great.
Thank you for getting in touch. Your site was flagged by our automated anti-s**m controls. We have reviewed your site and have removed the suspension notice.
Please be sure to clear your browser’s cache and, if necessary, restart the browser.
We greatly apologize for this error and any inconvenience it may have caused.
Cat | Community Guardian | WordPress.com
So indeed I was rather right after all. Just a rowdy bot with an over-eager attitude. The TOS Reports staff had a look at the Mind, decided the coast was clear, and set me free.
To be honest, there were times when I wanted to curse WP in a fiery apocalyptic storm of choice expletives for their brutal application of the suspension, but at the same time I now feel that you cannot really take out your frustrations on a mindless bot that just cannot figure out a bit of context. Without that bot, WordPress would be a minefield of dodgy sites and spurious troublemakers, which fellow blog platform Blogger is said to be constantly afflicted by. It is good that WP are looking out for bloggers and ensuring everyone’s online safety, for them, their blogs and possibly their wallets/purses too. I just think it would be a better idea if WP could at least inform the blogger in advance that their site is under suspicion or scrutiny and maybe instead of suspending the whole thing, it would more advisable and appear less dictatorial to simply just continue giving the suspect access to their site, but for example, stopping them from placing up new posts.
If you have just had your blog suspended and are looking online for a solution or some answers, I hope that this article will have helped you. If not, or if you were like me and desperate to find more information, I am also enclosing these links to various WP pages and accounts of the stresses and strains of dealing with blog suspension. These are all from other unconnected bloggers, who eventually made it back from the brink, and lived to tell the blogging story of how they weathered their shutdowns.
Suspended Blogs – http://en.support.wordpress.com/suspended-blogs/
Types of Blogs – http://wordpress.com/types-of-blogs/
Home — Support — WordPress.com – http://en.support.wordpress.com/
WordPress.com Forums – http://en.forums.wordpress.com/
Automattic – http://automattic.com/
Suspended bloggers’ accounts – reassuring reading:
“Terms of Service” – WordPress.com, WordPress/Automattic http://en.wordpress.com/tos/
“Types of Blogs” – WordPress.com, WordPress/Automattic http://wordpress.com/types-of-blogs/
Alex Smithson, Twitter https://twitter.com/AlexSmithson98