On-record / Off-record

On-record                           -                      Off-record
Formal                                -                      Informal
Official                               -                      Unofficial
Narrow                               -                      Wide
Expert                                -                      Amateur
Limited                               -                      Unlimited
Solid                                   -                      Liquid
Safe                                    -                      Dangerous
Sterile                                 -                      Fertile
Centre                                 -                      Periphery

We need to understand what’s going on, and you can only understand a complex system by understanding the small particular parts of day-to-day interaction.

For humans those are the anecdotal data of the school gate, the street stories, the beer after work; not the grand narratives of workshops but the day-to-day anecdotes of people’s existence.

[Dave Snowden]
Complexity, citizen engagement in a Post-Social Media time | David Snowden | TEDxUniversityofNicosia

I know that I would not like to be held scientifically responsible for many loose spoken sentences that I have uttered in conversation with scientific colleagues.

But I also know that if another person had the task of studying my ways of thought, he would do well to study my loosely spoken words rather than my writing.

[Gregory Bateson]
Steps to an Ecology of Mind ('Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry'), p.230

On-record is the official line; it is certified. Certification gains its significance, in part at least, from reputations. And when the reputation of the speaker, or institution, is at stake, risks are less likely to be taken. Thus, certified knowledge - and on-record talk - has a certain stiffness to it. It is a museum of sorts, a place where formerly loose and lively things go to die - i.e. categorised (fit in to a wider system), viewed, and referenced.

The zone of off-record, on the other hand, is a sort of playground - a creative space where ideas and concepts are treated loosely, roughly - are tinkered with and explored. We can loosen up in off-record, and needn't act as responsibly (needn't 'act' at all). Accordingly, it can also be a dangerous space, and is not for the fainthearted.

On-record is found in books and respectable publications, in the output of venerable institutions. Off-record is found in comments sections, forums, subreddits, and informal conversations ‘around the water-cooler’ (do these still happen?). When you put a suit on you become on-record; when you discard your tie and undo your top-button you go off-record.

Identity is important in the zone of on-record; passports are thoroughly checked by border security, and you best hope you have the right credentials. Having a friend from inside write a letter of recommendation can also help with admission. Off-record is often pseudonymous or anonymous - here it is what is said that is important, not who is saying it.

The more strict are the border protocols of on-record, the more information is likely to be rebuffed. This information falls through the cracks and becomes ‘lost’ or liminal knowledge. It takes the form of bodges, hacks, and folk remedies.

The more restrictive, or ossified the zone of officialdom becomes, the more relevant off-record becomes. When on-record is corrupted (or gamed) then off-record may become a more reliable source of truth. Instead of looking to the centre, we begin to search the periphery. But there are dangers at the edges; we expose ourselves to uncertified material, outlandish theories.

On-record information comes ready-packaged - we don't need to check facts and references because we can safely assume this has been done for us. This is the whole point of on-record, after all. When handling off-record material we need to be more cautious - discernment is crucial in this zone.

Most information aspires to be on-record, but some makes a virtue of being off-record ('underground', 'edgy', 'esoteric').

Related posts:
Centre / Periphery
Taking the Rough with the Smooth