There has been much coverage lately of a new book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal called The Lifespan of a Fact. It relates the years-long debate between D’Agata, an essayist, and Fingal, a fact checker, about whether artistry and accuracy can cohabit in the same nonfiction essay. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the book itself, as Craig Silverman says, “isn’t, you know, factual.”
What interests me here about the book, though, is the obverse question implied by the evocative title: What is the lifespan of an error? Rightly or wrongly, we tend to believe that the truth is eternal, that facts live forever, and that, by contrast, mistakes sooner or later die off unaided. Hence our attitudes about errors tend to be lax. But on the Internet, at least, errors are surprisingly resilient.
Some online errors seem to be beyond fixing. In a compelling article yesterday, Ars Technica writer Nate Anderson told the story of how the owner of a Spanish campground has struggled to get Google to de-emphasize search results for the camp. Those results highlight grizzly photos from a disaster that struck the camp more than 30 years ago when a passing fuel tanker exploded, killing 200 campers.
The issue is particularly tricky because the event did happen and is historically important. But is it highly relevant to a search for a camping spot? No one seems to think so. For a variety of understandable reasons, however, the search results live on.
This example is not an error of fact, of course, but of emphasis and context. That’s why it’s hard to fix. Errors of fact should be, by comparison, easily righted. And yet too often they aren’t, mostly because no one cares enough.
There are, unfortunately, abundant examples of this problem, but I’ll restrict myself to just two.
As Rebecca Hoffman happened to remind me yesterday by linking to it from her blog, I wrote last June about the problem of malignant typos. In my post, I noted that prominent blogger and journalist Frédéric Filloux had left uncorrected for two weeks an egregious misspelling of New York Times reporter Brian Stelter’s last name as “Settler.” Yesterday, in a new post, Filloux wrote of the importance of “proper editing and proofing,” giving me hope that his own error might by now have been fixed. But no. A quick check showed that the misspelled “Settler” appears permanently settled.
Filloux’s careless typo is, I suspect, a lost cause. I have higher if slowly diminishing hopes for a more recent error that I noticed last Thursday and shared with its publisher. In a post comparing the print-on-demand services from CreateSpace with those from Lightning Source, the CreateSpace cost per page was stated to be 12 cents per page. If that were true, a 100-page book would cost at least $12.00 to print, and legacy publishers everywhere would be smiling. In fact, though, the cost is 1.2 cents per page, or $1.20 for a 100 page book (not counting the cover). After five days, the mistake has not been corrected. But it’s early yet.
Is it rude or petty of me to point out so publicly these seemingly minor errors? I’ll let you decide. But my belief is that the future of the Internet may depend on how we react to such small mistakes. The situation calls to mind the broken windows theory of the recently deceased James Q. Wilson, which posited that tolerance of small crimes leads inevitably to bigger ones.
Though controversial in criminology, Wilson’s theory may prove true on the Internet. The more complacent we are about small errors, the more likely it is that we will eventually be plagued by large ones.
Photo by Fen Oswin.