Friday, June 15, 2018

As seen on Wikipedia

From time to time I do some checking into the sources of some of my web traffic and discover that it is being referred by wikipedia. Maybe you've heard of them. For the last decade they've been the new almighty online encyclopedia with all of the answers for people who want quick answers to things. Someday an entire generation will grow up without knowing that there were once actual books you could buy that were written by specialists in their fields and took years to assemble. Maybe they are already here.

Anybody can write, or edit, an entry in wikipedia. Anybody can decide they want to have a little fun and make something up out of their nether-regions and see if anybody else will notice and put it back the way it was. There is a risk to assuming the information you get is truly accurate. Surely you know this.

And if they are using me as one of their sources, well...the thing is, I am old enough that I still feel a certain obligation to accuracy before I post something that ostensibly the entire computer-owning world can see. Getting a footnote on a wikipedia article makes me feel like I probably ought to make a reasonable effort to get it right, so that they will also get it right. I don't know how many people get too worried about that anymore, but it still bothers me.

My site is now over 16 years old. I can't remember all of the sources I used, and I know that my research methods have improved over the years. I don't footnote anything because I'm trying to write for a lay audience, anyhow. I'm writing to be informative, yes, but largely to be entertaining. I've always assumed people who wanted in-depth information from specialists would be reading books on the subject instead of perusing a short internet article. My target audience is everybody, and I hope I can get the non-initiates interested in what I do, so I'm not going to go on for too long and get into too many weeds--usually. I didn't think, when I wrote most of these articles, that I'd be quoted in something that calls itself an encyclopedia. Suddenly I feel like I have to stand at attention.

When it comes to accuracy, though, there is no end of trouble. It turns out that a very large fraction of what I think I knew about music and musicians has at some point been called into question by somebody else. The more I learn the more I have to unlearn, or at least be skeptical about.

I'm doing some reading about Mozart this summer. There are any number of ideas about this man, legends that have grown up, stories that have been told, and many of them originated in the biographies of people who were not entertainers but musicologists. Some of them were even in positions to view their subject close up, or knew people who had. And yet, they often seem to created, or passed on, inaccurate information. Some of it may have been more gossip than evidence, and in some cases the sources for the material had pretty strong agendas of one sort and another.

It is easy to dismiss the supermarket tabloids as fiction, and to distinguish the out-and-out gossip and entertainment and hearsay as dubious, but when even the scholars are passing bad information it can get pretty difficult to know when you are on firm ground. Some people have even written books about the literature itself, tracing the growth of the legends, the likelihood that something would be true, the agendas of the writers, and the nature of the evidence. This can be fun reading, if you don't mind using your brain while you read.

For the rest of the world, though, it won't fly. We want short answers. We don't want probably and maybe and this guy had an agenda so who knows and I really wouldn't trust that fellow unless its Tuesday and the moon is full and why do you ask?

Anyhow, for the people doing their homework out there, your teacher is probably less interested in whether your facts are facts than if you adhered to all of the proper punctuation, number of words, stylistic and formal guidelines, and so forth. Mine always were. For the rest of you, this website is an ongoing adventure. Like its author it is a work in progress. Don't assume more than you have to. Contents are subject to change. The facts and the opinions. I know that is small comfort to some of you. But to the rest of us, it's part of the adventure.

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