Robin Hood’s Reputation Gets Mugged By Insinuating Monk

Reposted from March, 2009

I still read newspapers, though I have alternatives. My local source, unfortunately, has recently fallen prey to “pastiche syndrome” – it’s now composed primarily of clippings culled from international services rather than being a reliable purveyor of local items of interest. I used to like the fact that editorial bias was once apparent in every place I’ve lived – and that we could begin the day enthralled by how far “lefter” or “righter” the apparent slant was compared to other places. I also liked discovering degrees of difference in language – regional colloquialisms that express the character of a place. I’d usually find them in Obits, Police Blotter, or Sports sections. The smaller the town, the richer its vocabulary, and the weirder by comparison to big news outfits like CNN.

I’ve lived in places where the editor in chief’s peculiarities and peccadillos were not only local legend – but also clearly chronicled on a daily basis by insertion or expungement. But now the long downward spiral of local print news media has ended with a thud – actually, more of a piffle (if by piffle I also mean “a smallish noise” related to the arrival of a tissue-thin insignificant object on my porch). The fancy mastheads remain but even the memories of meatiness are fading. Modern morning paper disillusionment in small towns in 2009 is akin to opening a leather-bound novel apparently by Faulkner or even L’Amour and discovering a Reader’s Digest Condensed Version inside – heavily edited for extreme consumability but lacking the full flavor of the original and overwhelmed by the locality-indifferent national advertisements from bland chain stores of all stripes.

So why, I wonder, did the editors of my Citizen-Times select one particular Associated Press article for its Nation & World page – one surrounded by headlines like “Finance officials pledge action”, and “What next for stock market?”. This item – entitled “Robin Hood: Good guy or petty thug?” (in the extended more titillating print version at least) – was clearly intended to draw my attention, given my interest in Reputation Management and coverage of same on Two things came to mind as I read further: 1) the research of academic Julian Luxford elevates ‘Marginalia’ to a gasp-worthy height; and, 2) the local newspaper might actually continue to thrive if it can target specific news and advertising to specific readers.

Maybe a just-in-time Toby Gazette-Herald-Bee that I can download and print based on a solid profile I complete upon subscription that’s updated continuously by other inference algorithms that can detect what I’d like to read about but don’t presently list on my profile. More like this, less like that. Cats and Dogs NOT rain. NOT “Lindsay Lohan”, “Rush Limbaugh”, or “AIG executives” UNLESS a cruise ship on which they ALL are coincidentally booked – WITH entertainment headliner “Rod Stewart” aboard as well – mysteriously vanishes for a long while WITHOUT further coverage of ANY kind. I know I could write a series of such “UNLESS” search strings. I’m sure you could, too. I hope the bulk of neither of our queries for such exceptions become the essence of our rule sets. That would be sad. Certainly, it would the basis of a good blog entry. Another day….

I’m back to Reputation Management and the issue of “re-appearing ghosts from the Marginalia of past lives.” Maybe a shorter title for the issue would be better. The gist of the article is that a monk wrote 23 words in a book margin some 549 years ago that has surfaced only recently to cause a legendary hero some reputational harm. Here are the 23 words as quoted from the AP: “Around this time, according to popular opinion, a certain outlaw named Robin Hood, with his accomplices, infested Sherwood and other law-abiding areas of England with continuous robberies.” This, for reasons we’ll examine, has become inside-the-front-page-news in 2009.

By all accounts, Robin Hood meant well. Was a hero of the common folks. Had some skill as an orator and archer. Wore a rakish hat – and footwear that elves, jesters, and jongleurs would envy even centuries later. Served as a colorful reminder of the dynamic tension between royalty and commoner – “fairness is rarely doctrine” and “might makes right”. And, perhaps most importantly, later gave Errol Flynn a legitimate outlet for his urges. My bias has been built up during the course of years and has been sustained by input across several sources. And Yet. Here comes an academic and his 23 words to skewer my mindset. Will I let him? Do the tart words of Snidely Whiplash in a monk’s getup (obviously more sympathetic to the monarchy than to Tuck) writ centuries ago bear reliable witness to the larger opinion of the age?

I dare say not, sir. Two points best support my argument: 1) History is Not Written in Margins – it is the published sum of interpretation of an age by experts. Moreover, it is a matter of fact that when personal expressions of petty ill will are written in the margins of history books, any further credence is suspended. This fact to remain in force at least until such time that I recover the boxes of textbooks remaining in storage units in Illinois. I will revisit this in the future. 2) We live in an age where three things are happening simultaneously: the thirst for information is unslakable; the amount of information and its persistence is almost unimaginable – more is making its way daily toward digital from analog; and, the numbers of amateur opinions expressed without any appropriate scoring of qualifications and experience (and the potential effect of this din) continue to overwhelm reason, trust, even sanity. Well – perhaps I am using hyperbole to make a point. Maybe this is thematic.

But in an earlier post I contended that “there’s a reputation corollary to Moore’s Law which states that ‘the sheer numbers of opinions will soon exceed any reasonable attempt to analyze them’; and that Reputation algorithms will have to constantly adjust to ultimately score the perception of corporate, individual, or product character versus attributes that contribute to actual character. Simply put, hype beats out reality. Moreover, the speed at which a reputation can be concretely made or ruined by means of Internet promotion will become calculable (and therefore monetized) by 2010.” And I believe this to be true. It will become even more true unless we develop scoring algorithms that match opinions to their authors and both to the events or individuals they describe and qualify the whole thing for credibility, accuracy, merit, and vitality. I’m sure there are others, but as an amateur blogger I’m in a hurry and don’t have time to delve too deeply.

I won’t cover the first two (accuracy, merit) in this posting – I intend to write about them later when I explore Reputation Scoring on the Internet – Why 5 Stars Don’t Cast Any Light. A starting point will be how doctors are asking patients to sign waivers indicating they won’t post reviews on sites like Angie’s List, and why they’re likely to drive scoring algorithms forward even as they resist them. But I digress. The Vitality test as applied to the AP headline – and ignoring the ‘luridness’ factor I didn’t even mention until now – would score the content low, as a single margin note from even an educated monk does not equal numerous worthier citations. It loses by a landslide. So much so that the headline became the only news – the AP was willing to spin an academic finding of “footnote value” into a headline. Despite claims of responsible journalism, it would be impossible to take the 23 words that quote “popular opinion” of a day and extrapolate a much larger indictment of a historic figure. Or at least I would hope it would be impossible. And Yet.

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