Caveat Lector

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Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert did a funny bit the other night in which he logged on, or at least said he was logging on, to Wikipedia, the collaborative encyclopedia, to change something so that it would now be a "fact" that others would cite.

I think it was that there were now three times as many elephants in Africa as there had been 30 years ago, the sort of thing that could be used to take environmentalists down a peg.

The underlying point was that in the Internet world, truth is hard to get at and history is more malleable than it used to be. Or I think that was his point. He may have simply been trying to be funny, which he was.

But I have noticed the effect that the Internet has had on the "today's news" that becomes tomorrow's history. Was it 1984 or Brave New World where the history books were revised as needed? I should know. Anyway, that is how the Internet strikes me when it comes to being a record of anything. Everything is writ in the ether.

My stories, for example, are monitored constantly by an army of proofers called readers ready to point out any flyspecks–or condorspecks, for that matter. If there is something wrong I will usually hear about it before the day is over and before it ever gets onto the printed page.

It makes publishing an incredibly interactive process. I find I take criticism more easily because the error is reparable in the original, unlike a print product which can only be apologized for. Scrooge asked the spirits to sponge away the writing from the stone. For the print error, it is a futile cry. But for a Web story, no stone need go unsponged.

Because the change in electrons is almost immediate and the document essentially a malleable, living thing, I tend just to make it correct rather than point out that it initially wasn't.

That is not always the case, as in, say, creating a general misimpression that must be repaired. But with a typo or title miscue, it just goes from being a mistake to not being one, without the need, or seeming need, at least, for pointing out the original error.

By John Eggerton

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