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In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Thursday August 18 2005

Yesterday I did a little Samizdata plug for the Private Sector Development blog, and in the course of it I pointed out a minor error in a posting that Pablo Halkyard did there, way back on June 29th.  (He had said that Bill Nighy had played the Chancellor of the Exchequer in The Girl in the Café, when in fact Nighy played a civil servant.  This was not a big error by any stretch, and made no difference to the rest of the posting.)

Pablo Halkyard immediately commented at Samizdata, saying thanks for the plug and for the correction, and saying “change made”.  He changed his June 29th posting, eliminating the error I had identified.  Fine.  No problem.  But, so far as I can tell, he made no mention at all of the fact that he had changed the posting in the posting itself, other than there being an automatic link to my Samizdata posting.  No “update”, no “error”, and no comment, if only because they do not have comments at the PSD blog.  He just changed it.

That is not how I would have handled this.  When I make a mistake, as I am afraid I do from time to time, and people point it out, here or elsewhere, I either leave my original error unchanged, so that critical comments attached to it still make perfect sense even if the original posting does not.  Or, if I do change the posting in any way except to clean up spelling or grammar, you get told that I have done it, at the very least (with something like the spelling of an important name) with a comment in reply to the comment(s) pointing out the error, or maybe even with a note in the text of or at the bottom of the text of the posting itself..

The only exception to this rule is that in the minutes after a posting has been first published I allow myself more substantial edits, because … well because I do.  I sort of allow myself to say that the posting is not finished until I have walked away from it.  But changes of content done many hours, days or weeks later are, in my opinion, a somewhat different matter.

Just changing a piece of internet writing, long after you have originally finished it, without explanation or editorial comment, seems wrong to me.  Like airbrushing history.  Is this not the top of a slippery slope?  The original mistake at the PSD blog made me wonder: What other mistakes have been made by these guys?  But what this correction makes me wonder is: What other changes have they made to other postings long finished?

Or am I fussing about nothing?  Do Halkyard and I agree about the need for a line here, somewhere between correcting insignificant spelling mistakes without flagging that up and altering something like major facts that bear directly on a major argument without flagging that up?  Do we merely disagree about exactly where that line ought to be?  As I say, I too break – with my “it’s okay to change a posting during the few minutes immediately after it’s first published” sub-rule – what is the immutable rule of others, which goes: absolutely no changes whatsoever, just as soon as that “publish” button has first been pressed.

Clearly, Halkyard had no intention of doing anything sneaky here, or he would not have commented at Samizdata that he had made the change, thus drawing at least some attention to the otherwise invisible way in which he had done it.

I agree with your approach Brian including the bit about “the posting is not finished until I have walked away from it.”

Altering things later (without explanation) seems, now what’s the word? Ah yes: Blairite.

Posted by David Farrer on 18 August 2005

"Chancellor of the Excheque in Girl in the Café”

Spot the missing “r” in Exchequer?

Let’s see how you apply your rule. ;-)

Posted by Antoine Clarke on 19 August 2005

Thank you Antoine.

My procedure here is easy enough.  I say thank you in this comment, as I just did, and I then correct the original, without comment because it is a spelling mistake which does not affect my argument.  As I shortly will.

But your input is permanently acknowledged here.  Note that comments have times and dates attached, so the timing of the correction process is, approximately, also recorded.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 19 August 2005

I have also just italicised The Girl in the Café, which I prefer, but forgot to do, and also added a “The” at the beginning.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 19 August 2005

Hi Brian: Actually - I very much agree with you. What I should have done is addressed the change at the end of the post in some noticeable way, as you suggested. And this is the policy we actually generally employ, see: http://psdblog.worldbank.org/psdblog/2005/08/call_for_develo.html.

My real reason for having made the change in the way I did was that we had just started blogging, and have since caught up on the popular conventions. In fact, we only went “live” w/ PSD Blog on August 5th (we had been accumulating posts as we worked on tech kinks etc....) Accordingly, as I went back and made the change to that previous post I just figured virtually no one had read it yet so what was the point (I don’t even think our RSS feed had been set up yet). But point well taken – we should have done it differently.

Additionally, one of the most important reasons for making corrections as you suggest is the nature of many RSS feeds. I have noticed that some people have their feeds set up so that if they make a change to a previous post it gets re-broadcasted via their feed. If you receive a post from a month ago in your feed it throws you off and you probably do not read it. However, if it clearly has the correction or update marked in the post, you may stop to re-read the posts again and see why the change was merited etc…

Finally, I agree – no need to announce changes to spelling, of changes made within 1 minute of making a post. Many times I make post, realize that it doesn’t look right on the live blog and make some text changes in order to fix line spacing, blog length or picture formatting.

Posted by Pablo on 04 September 2005
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