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Yes, hundreds upon hundreds of websites CAN all be wrong

Not this one though. Well, not about this, anyway

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One day a couple of years ago I happened to hear an old song called “The Endless Enigma,” by Emerson, Lake & Palmer, that I remembered from when I was a teenager. Listening to it again reminded me that there was a line in the lyrics that I’d never been able to understand: I’m tired of ________, with tongues in their cheeks… This nearly drove me mad when I was 14, and listening to the song again a few decades later I realised that I still couldn’t figure out what the missing words were. Ah, but now I finally had a way to find the answer instantly! I typed “emerson lake palmer endless enigma lyrics” into Google, and got this:

I’m tired of liver for freaks?

With tongues in their cheeks

I’m tired of liver for freaks? There’s no way those were the correct lyrics, and the website owner had even put a question mark at the end of the line to indicate that this was just a wild guess. Fair enough. So I clicked on the next link in the Google results, and I saw this:

I’m tired of liver for freaks?

Whoa. Did a second person make that same inane guess at the lyrics? And add a “?” to show that he or she wasn’t quite sure? I’d put the probability of this at exactly 0. Then a funny thing happened: I found that the next link had the same one-in-a-million error, with the same question mark. And the next one, and the next one. Literally dozens of lyrics sites, completely unrelated as far as I could tell, with the same line, obviously cut-and-pasted from some proto-mistake. (The suspense is probably killing you at this point: The correct line is, I’m tired of hypocrite freaks.)

Not only was this getting frustrating, but it drove home a point I hadn’t given enough thought to in those less-cynical days: The web makes it effortless for anyone to copy and “republish” any information that’s out there, regardless of quality.

Over time, sites with the correct lyrics to the ELP song started to outnumber the wrong ones, and as of this writing “liver for freaks” occurrences are a distinct minority—though a web search will still find plenty of them. This is a good thing, and the implications seem significant: Over time, good information will push out bad, and the web will eventually correct itself. But will it always? Clearly not in the case of more rarefied information that very few people care about or have the expertise to correct.

I recently published an article about odd time-signatures* (for example, 11/8 or 15/ 16 instead of the usual 4/4 in pop songs) in a magazine. Since there’s no easy way to double-check this information — unlike, say, “Who was the sixth president of the United States?” — the magazine’s fact-checkers took to the web, and came back to me with a dozen sites that disagreed with some of the numbers as I’d counted them. At the risk of sounding overly cocky, every one of them turned out to be wrong. But the fact-checkers were right to do what they did, since any source is better than none at all if it helps to keep a researcher honest. And I felt a professional obligation to explain in an email to them exactly why each of these counter-examples was mistaken — a process that took me an entire night.

Yes, doing that was an inconvenience, but it bothered me more that this bad information was out there to begin with, and subsequent music-related searches uncovered many similar examples. In some cases, like “liver for freaks,” it seems obvious that there’s a been mistake: It’s hard to imagine that anyone would take the data seriously, and anyway, what damage can it cause if someone does? (Apologies to any affected Emerson, Lake & Palmer cover bands.) But it’s easy to envision more subtle situations where real harm might result. No sane person (I hope) would use the web to learn how to perform heart transplants, but at a much less critical level, it’s not inconceivable that a lazy junior medical researcher could come up with dubious data through a Google search. Journalists, of course, have been caught citing bad information traceable to Wikipedia many times.

At this stage in the internet’s history, I suspect it’s not necessary to say, “Don’t trust everything you read on the web.” And, I hasten to add, there were plenty of sources of faulty information in the world pre-internet. (The notoriously error-filled “reference” The Anarchist Cookbook, which was responsible for the accidental maiming of many would- be bombers, comes to mind.)

But, to return to my main point, as a longtime musician I find it particularly upsetting to see all this incorrect music-related information floating around in cyberspace. In contrast to a physical book, “publishing” bad information on the web is tantamount to poisoning the water supply: The odds are very good that someone’s bogus post will be replicated by hordes of robotic copy-and-pasters, and this spread may in turn be reinforced by “researchers” who reason that 300 websites can’t all be wrong. In just the last few months everything from misattributed Martin Luther King quotes to faked Hurricane Sandy photos have gone viral. The editor of the misheard- lyric compendium ’Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy (someone’s misinterpretation of a line from Jimi Hendrix’s "Purple Haze" : ’Scuse me while I kiss the sky) solicited the book’s entries by snail-mail, but today a few hours of web-searching could probably produce a collection twice its size.

So, pity the poor music student. I’ve seen enough to assume that a significant number of the web’s guitar “tabs” (guides to the fingering patterns for a song’s chords) are questionable. Maybe the posters meant well, and maybe they didn’t—either way, there’s no reason that, within the law, there should be any restrictions on them. But if I were learning to play an instrument today, an un-vetted website is probably the last place I’d go. After all, right now there are drummers around the world mis-counting the beats to complex prog-rock songs thanks to a lone, mathematically challenged blogger. I once came up with an idea for a novel where, twenty-five years in the future, a whole generation of young musicians is playing bum notes on incorrectly tuned guitars and singing wrong lyrics thanks to the spread of a few toxic sites. It would make a hilarious farce, but I sometimes wonder if it could really happen. ®

Bootnotes

*Non-musos: In a time signature, the bottom number tells you what type of note (ie: the length of time it takes to play it) gets one beat. The top number tells you how many of these beats there should be in a bar. 4/4, for example, shows that four one-quarter-note beats are played in every bar. 6/8 means that you should play six one-eighth note beats in every bar.

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