Integrity in Web-writing
Monday, June 18, 2001 by Dave Winer.
The shakeout from heaven
The changes in the Web just in the last week have revealed issues that lay hidden during the dot-com boom. A new literary and journalism medium was right under the surface. Now issues of integrity are revealed -- who do you trust, and how accountable are our sources of information. In this Web and print writers are allies, there's no difference in what we do.
An example. This morning the Register ran a story saying that MSNBC had doctored a Wall Street Journal article to make it more favorable to Microsoft. Within a few hours we had rebuttals from an editor at the WSJ and from the author of the article, saying it was untrue. Since when have reporters had this kind of accountability? This is simply a revolution, I can't imagine that the reporters won't be much more careful in the future. Just the appearance of impropriety is an issue that's likely to be raised in the new medium.
This also will mean more integrity from vendors, as Dan Gillmor and I learned this week, as we quickly figured out, with the help of a geek friend in the Netherlands, Sjoerd Visscher, that Microsoft was at least bending the truth about Smart Tags. This question was raised on the San Jose Mercury website within a few minutes of it being reported on Scripting News. Just think -- six years ago people were marveling that the Dallas newspaper was willing to scoop itself on the Web. Now the news is happening on the Web, we have much higher bandwidth, and if you care about the truth, your work will get air. That's totally new. Amateurs working with pros, with pride.
Geeks scratch their heads
Without exception journalists say no to Microsoft's Smart Tags. The geeks scratch their heads wondering why the journalists see issues of integrity, but the proposed Microsoft technology cuts right to the core of what we do. It will confuse readers. Why does the word "shark" point to a San Jose hockey team and not to a sea animal or a high-tech exec? Who added that link? Has this author lost his mind? Why is he promoting Microsoft products? Why should we believe him? It looks like he sold out! (There's that pesky appearance of impropriety thing again.)
Questions about proper use of annotation come up, and the questions seem to have answers.
When is annotation OK?
It's OK if you can clearly see who's saying what.
It should be possible to take a Web document, specified through its URL, add comments, creating a new Web document identified by its own URL, and then publish that URL, probably on a weblog, clearly marked as Juan's annotations of Alice's document. Juan should not be allowed to mark up the document pointed to by the original URL because that would cloud the authorship of the document, and this would destroy its integrity.
If it's unclear who said what, then there is no integrity.
Further, it should be up to Alice to decide if annotations are allowed on her documents. Software developed by reputable vendors should respect her wishes. There are many other ways to express ones' opinion without marking up a document. This column is one example. A weblog is another.
What is integrity?
According to dictionary.com, integrity is "The quality or condition of being whole or undivided; completeness."
When you read my words on the Web or in print I want you to be sure you know that these are my words, my ideas, and you can judge me by them. (Knowing that I might change my mind later. Sorry.)
If someone were to change the words that would not be good for the integrity of the writing.
BTW, writing now includes links. It's part of the art.
Writing in Motley Fool, Todd Lebor says: "Occasionally I'll throw a few links into an article that provide related news or more in-depth details about a topic I'm covering. I have control over that. If Microsoft were able to control -- and presumably charge for inserting these Smart Tags -- my shares of Microsoft might go up, but my goodwill feeling toward the company would go right out the window."
Same here. (Except I don't own any Microsoft shares.)
If it were not possible to read my words without annotation, we'd have to invent a medium that allowed that. But in 2001 we already have such a medium, it's called the Web.
We have tools and servers and all kinds of runtimes on all kinds of operating systems.
We don't need or want another medium. So let's not screw it up.
I think that's what the writers are saying to the geeks.
PS: 75 percent of the participants in the last survey said they'd be willing to use a non-Microsoft browser on Fridays.