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May 16, 2003

Above the Fold? Where's the Fold?

Posted by Mike on May 16, 2003 11:49 AM

Doc popped up in the comments a few items down both defending his choice of approaches to posting updates, and raising an issue I expect we'll probably be dealing with in the PAIJ ethics guidelines: what constitutes appropriate placement for corrections/retractions on a weblog.

In newspapers, it's easy, since their design allows you to say "if the mistake appeared on page three, so does the correction," or "if the error was run above the fold on the first page, so will the correction."

No such luck with blogs: the second a new entry goes up on the front page, the only place an older entry stands to hold an immutable location is in its individual archive (provided the blog's author doesn't use date-based archives), and that does little good for readers who treat blogs the way most blog design demands: as a never-ending roll of paper that scrolls off into some repository somewhere, never to be visited again except as the result of serendipity.

The problem here, as the item I referred to demonstrates, is that if I hadn't revisited Doc's entry to do a quick fact-check, I wouldn't have seen the ideas he later added, and would have assumed the final word on the matter was "Andrew's a shit-stirrer," not "Andrew's a shit-stirrer who might have a point about some of this even if he's a troll."

Thinking on the screen, it seems to me that there are a few ways to handle this: one is to add a category tag called "corrections" or "updates", and run a sidebar with the most recent two or three items with this as a secondary category. Another way is to decide that there's a 24 hour statute of limitations on an item's assumed "freshness," at which point the original item gets an edit, and a small note about the change goes in at the top of the front page directing readers to the change.

During my time at the helm of Linux Today, corrections and updates tended to get "touched" to update their timestamps and keep them at the top of the feed. It was a way to ensure that a typical reader would stand a good chance of noticing the update during the course of a normal 24-hour grazing cycle.

It sounds very clunky, but the fact is that I'm very interested in blogs reaching some sort of point of general credibility because I still believe they can be agents for democratizing the Web. But if they can't be counted on to do something as simple as provide a reliable way for readers to learn when an error has been made and corrected, it's going to be hard. Like or hate professional, institutional journalism as it's constituted itself at the moment, one of the more useful things to come out of the development of a self-aware news press is a sense of responsibility to the truth, and a willingness to give up some ad space or time to make sure that mistakes get corrected when they're identified. If the public can't trust you to do that much, I don't care if you're the NYT or Andrew Sullivan: people will eventually realize they'll get at the truth elsewhere.

To bring it back around to what instigated this entry, I don't think the instance we're talking about here is a case of correction: it's a case of amplification. But I continue to believe that blog noise is a problem, and that Andrew Orlowski hits it on the head when he says it's partially because of willful or unintentional gaming of Google's algorithms. That view isn't very popular among bloggers, and when a prominent one, (ie, Doc) says maybe there's a point to it all the same, it's a shame when that observation slips away into the ether, especially since Doc's most devout readers are probably reading his stuff as he adds it... not catching it by coincidence a few days later.