Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Editing in A Social Media Context

Another Uncharted-themed post tonight, but it bears on something that Michelle and I have spoken about often: Fixing mistakes on the Uncharted web site.

Obviously, we want to put our best foot forward. As a team of writers both professional and amateur hoping to attract other writers of the same various veins, we have to be careful in our presentation. Staff stuff – and certainly promoted and promotional material – ought to be meticulously copy-edited. We want our staff photos to be tone-perfect, or as near as can be, and we want all of our words to be spelled correctly.

And we’ll go to great lengths to do so. Just a month ago, I spent nearly three hours one night scouring my own stuff for errors, and found plenty to fix.

But what about stuff from our contributors – do we go in and stealthily fix typos and such, or send e-mails to the greatest offenders, asking them to fix things up? No we do not. That detracts from the experience rather than helping our Explorers feel comfortable in submitting material that’s less than perfect.

We’re already seeing that as a problem – some of the feedback we get from our readers is that we’re “too good” for the likes of them, so they feel intimidated about submitting material. If we suddenly went all Grammar Nazi on them, we’d only make the situation worse.

Enter Michael Agger’s piece on Slate.com today, “Awsum Shoes!” in which he delves into the ethicality of Internet-based businesses correcting the grammar and composition – but not altering the meaning thereof – of product reviews in order to present a sharper image and thus earn more money. Here’s what he says:
When we read a review on Amazon, we have to administer our own version of the Turing test—was this really written by an innocent, human consumer like me? With the amount of money at stake, and the amount of PR energy brought to bear, it will become increasingly difficult to sort the genuine from the fake. One can imagine a future (perhaps it's already arrived) when companies deliberately insert bad grammar or regional slang to give reviews the appearance of authenticity—sort of like the distressed khakis of reviews.

For now, the trend seems to be going in the opposite direction. By cleaning up its reviews, Zappos is hurting shoppers as it helps its bottom line. The lowercase reviews, the all-caps reviews, the Internet speak, the subject-verb-agreement manglings, the sentence fragments, the pathetic attempts to spell chic—all of these are factors to weigh when considering someone's opinion of low-top Chuck Taylors. Or, to be more earnest about it, our mistakes are what make us human. On the Internet, it's important that other people can tell if you're an idiot.
In other words, or errors make us human. And believable. Even on this blog. I may be anal about fixing what errors I see, but I don’t lie awake at nights, scouring my blog posts for things to fix. That’s also why I gave up the “Grammar Nazi” segments of this blog – they merely attracted other grammar Nazis who found mistakes aplenty on my blog, and rubbed my nose in them.

We may arrive at the day when we want “crowdsourced” or automatic grammar fixes in our content at Uncharted – and why not, we already have something very similar to that in the word processors we use, with spell check and grammar check ready with red and green squiggles to tell us where we’ve gone astray. And we’ve also toyed with the idea of automatic language translation software to help our site become more accessible to our worldwide, non-English speaking audience.

But they never feel authentic, these derivations of computer-produced writing, even if aided and abetted by humans. So we’ll be content with errors at Uncharted.

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