The robots are coming

8 May

I wish I had the nerve to talk like this to the newsdesk:

Screen Shot 2014-05-07 at 10.11.15

If you’ve ever tried submitting anything to the Internet Movie Database, you may recognise this tone. IMDb is a wiki – that is, an aggregation of user contributions – but it has achieved the status of  a semi-official reference tool at the Tribune, much more so than Wikipedia ever will. And I think that may be because of its fearsome army of robot editors, which intercept and scan everything you submit, and more often than not sling it back like Jason Robards growling “You haven’t got it” to Redford and Hoffman.

No diffident pencilled queries in the margin for IMDb: for example, if you have a couple of pieces of casting information you want to add to a TV show, you’d better have chapter and verse to hand.

Screen Shot 2014-05-06 at 20.56.06

So you say this person was in the show? Here are a list of actors with similar names: it’s easy to get confused. If you’re uncertain, click here and we’ll sort it out for you. Or perhaps you’d just like to give up the whole idea? Choose an option, please. (And by the way, you formatted the request wrongly. It has already been corrected: this is merely a notification.)

That’s the spirit. And if you submit anything as ambitious as a three-line episode summary, you get pulled apart like a rookie screenwriter at a pitch meeting:

Screen Shot 2014-05-07 at 10.09.24

There are misspellings. You have written too much: if you insist on overfiling, we will simply move your piece to a different slot inside the site (delicious). And, my favourite bit of all:

“The following fixes have been applied automatically: ‘…’ has been replaced with ‘.’ in accordance with IMDb rules.”

No judicious exceptions, no stretching a point. Ellipses are just banned, rather like the way all semicolons were excised for some years on the Tribune’s sport section. It’s a rule. And I suspect that “surveilling”, even if spelt correctly, will turn out  to be “not in the dictionary”. I’ll just change it now. They won’t like it.

For the first time in my life, I feel like a writer.

 

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5 Responses to “The robots are coming”

  1. Jeff May 8, 2014 at 8:43 pm #

    In the spirit of the piece I have to take issue with your definition of a wiki. It is indeed an aggregation of user contributions but the point is that the content can be *modified directly* by users, whether or not they contributed it in the first place. (So by way of contrast, YouTube is an aggregation of user contributions but is not a wiki.)

    • edlatham May 8, 2014 at 9:04 pm #

      Ooh good point. On that subject, if it can be modified, but ‘indirectly’, as it were – eg through an automated editing process – is that still a wiki? Or to be a wiki, does the content have to be genuinely directly editable without interference?

      • Jeff May 12, 2014 at 9:02 pm #

        I’m not sure where the definition (if there is one) stands at the moment, but there will always be some degree of machine intervention to check that you haven’t entered any weird characters and so on that might break things. (As the Web has grown more diverse this has had to extend to checking for people linking to malware and pictures of cocks.) Some sites might go further and check for profanity, for example; in this case IMDb is parsing names, spelling and length.

        I think the important thing is that the machine is not (we assume) taking a view on what you’ve written, and that is the central idea of the wiki – it’s the hive mind in action, so that you can put something out there and it will be corrected or expanded by someone else after the fact. What you’re not doing is emailing the webmaster out of band, asking him to make a change to his content and then being subject to his own whims (or time constraints or whatever else).

        The original wiki was at c2.com and you can read a bit there about how it got started: http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?WikiHistory

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The uses of formality | Ten minutes past deadline - March 6, 2015

    […] Imagine swooping through the neon-lit urban landscape with a spray can and that firm a grasp of Spanish diacritical marks. Imagine graffitising the graffiti of protest itself. Imagine just belonging to an organisation called “Acción Ortográfica”. These are lawyers with punctuation-derived street names in their thirties, on a mission to educate and entertain – and judging by the photograph at the top of the page, with an attitude to ellipses that’s almost as hostile as IMDb’s. […]

  2. Film editors | Ten minutes past deadline - April 14, 2015

    […] first encountered the robot editors of the Internet Movie Database last year, attempting to get an episode summary past its stern battery of automatic parsers. Recently, though, another artificial writing assistant, Grammarly, has come to prominence […]

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