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I was browsing around the internet a few weeks ago, and found a link to Star in a Story. Your name in a classic story! for only $5.95! What a bargain, eh? How can you put a price on being part of classic literature?
Well, the ‘classic’ bit really is a bit of a hint. A quick glance at the list of title shows that they are all public domain! (well, actually, they’re not – more on that later).
I saw the site, thought ‘pah!’, and went away. But I couldn’t quite shake a nagging feeling, and ended up back on the site last night. The cause of my morbid curiosity?
One of the books was Anne of Green Gables. Now, I’m fairly familiar with the book, and remembered that Anne being called, well, ‘Anne’ was fairly important to the story at a few points. Hmm, thinks I. Surely they must allow for that? Surely they actually have some knowledge of the text, and have put a bit of effort in to making the name change believable. Surely, for $5.95 per text, they’ve not simply done a string match find and replace? Am I really going to fork over 4 quid of my hard-earned cash to find out?
Let’s see, shall we?
“Oh, I’m not ashamed of it,” explained Anne, “only I like Cordelia better. I’ve always imagined that my name was Cordelia—at least, I always have of late years. When I was young I used to imagine it was Geraldine, but I like Cordelia better now. But if you call me Anne please call me Anne spelled with an E.”
“What difference does it make how it’s spelled?” asked Marilla with another rusty smile as she picked up the teapot.
“Oh, it makes SUCH a difference. It LOOKS so much nicer. When you hear a name pronounced can’t you always see it in your mind, just as if it was printed out? I can; and A-n-n looks dreadful, but A-n-n-e looks so much more distinguished. If you’ll only call me Anne spelled with an E I shall try to reconcile myself to not being called Cordelia.”
“Very well, then, Anne spelled with an E, can you tell us how this mistake came to be made? We sent word to Mrs. Spencer to bring us a boy. Were there no boys at the asylum?”
(From Anne of Green Gables by L M Montgomery, available at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/45. Public domain in the US.)
and the ‘Star in a Story’ version
“Oh, I’m not ashamed of it,” explained Bethan, “only I like Cordelia better. I’ve always imagined that my name was Cordeliaat least, I always have of late years. When I was young I used to imagine it was Geraldine, but I like Cordelia better now. But if you call me Bethanplease call me Bethan spelled with an E.”
“What difference does it make how it’s spelled?” asked Marilla with another rusty smile as she picked up the teapot.
“Oh, it makes SUCH a difference. It LOOKS so much nicer. When you hear a name pronounced can’t you always see it in your mind, just as if it was printed out? I can; and A-n-n looks dreadful, but A-n-n-e looks so much more distinguished. If you’ll only call me Bethan spelled with an E I shall try to reconcile myself to not being called Cordelia.”
“Very well, then, Bethan spelled with an E, can you tell us how this mistake came to be made? We sent word to Mrs. Spencer to bring us a boy. Were there no boys at the asylum?” (From Bethan of Green Gables, copyright (apparently!) Chris Burgess)
And later on:
‘”Ann Ruddock has a very bad temper. Ann Ruddock must learn to control her temper,” and then read it out loud so that even the primer class, who couldn’t read writing, should understand it.’
Yup, string matching on ‘Anne’ and ‘Shirley’ it is. And if you look closely, you’ll see the formatting on the Bethan version isn’t great either – the em dashes are missing (as in ‘was Cordeliaat least’). For $5.95 I was expecting a nicely formatted pdf at the very least – what I got was an automatically generated webpage. If you’d like to see how it looked as a whole, (minus any name at all for the lead character!), check out http://www.star-in-a-story.com/Anne-of-Green-Gables.php. This (with my name in it) is what I got for my money. When I bookmarked the page and went back, lo and behold it’s the template copy! At least I’d copied and saved my little piece of immortality first, eh?
So what’s the lesson from this, for us as info pros? (other than that I’m a fool who can’t be trusted with money). It’s all about education, information literacy. I knew immediately I saw the list of titles that they were public domain. I chose to pay for it for investigative purposes. If I just wanted a copy of Anne of Green Gables with my name in it I know darn well I have quick, simple, and free alternatives.
But what about people who don’t know? Isn’t this the sort of thinking that we should be instilling through information literacy – don’t pay for anything on the internet without first checking out that you have to!
This doesn’t just apply to individuals offering services such as ‘Star in a Story’. The big boys are guilty of it too. Recently, I was looking for a version of Conan Doyle’s The Sign of the Four to read on my phone, and thought I’d check out the new Kindle for Android app. The cheapest copy I found in the Kindle store? 72p. Now, I know that’s only 72p, and not exactly a major investment – BUT I knew full well I could get a copy from Project Gutenberg (in a number of formats, including Kindle-compatible) for free. And hang, on, what about my local library? Yes, it’s available for download as a free ebook there too – but someone has it checked out. Back to Gutenberg for me!
Obviously, people may well prefer the convenience of the Kindle store, and that’s fine – as long as they’re making an informed choice, and not thinking that paying 72p in the Kindle store is their only way of getting hold of that text as an ebook.
And it’s not just potential buyers who might be in need of a little advice from an info prof! When I scanned the list of titles available in ‘Star in a Story’, my first instinct was that they were all public domain. ‘But hang on’, thinks I, ‘Pygmalion? I’m sure George Bernard Shaw is still in copyright in the UK!’ And yes, he died in 1950, and won’t be public domain in the UK for another decade yet. What about Anne of Green Gables? A quick check on the dates of L M Montgomery reveals she didn’t die until 1942 (I think the assumption that she’s public domain probably comes from Anne being published in 1908), and therefore her works are still in copyright in the UK too. Not only did Chris Burgess of Star in a Story sell me an overpriced, shoddy piece of work, but – unless he paid royalties to the estate of LM Montgomery – he also broke the law in doing so. Perhaps a little advice from his local librarian could have prevented this?
Now, I’m not against ‘your name in…’ in general. Ok, I found Bethan of Green Gables creepy and disturbing, but I see that there is a market for this sort of thing, especially for encouraging reluctant readers. But the key is doing it right, and ‘Star in a Story’ is, I’m afraid, doing it wrong.
This post on ReadWriteWeb (or, more accurately, the comments on this post) will probably pass into internet infamy (it’s already being hailed as a new meme). For those who don’t have the time to go read the whole thing, here’s a summary:
ReadWriteWeb (a blog about the web/web apps/new developments) posted an article about the Facebook/AOL partnership, entitled ‘Facebook wants to be your one true login’. It then started popping up when people did a search for ‘facebook login’. People blindly clicked the link, couldn’t find the login button for Facebook (rather *ahem* unsuprisingly), and started complaining about it in the comments.
And boy, did they complain! There were wailings, moaning, and gnashings of teeth. There were people begging and pleading to be let into their Facebook accounts; cursing and swearing and claiming that they would never, ever use Facebook again. Even after the article had been amended to include a large disclaimer saying ‘THIS IS NOT FACEBOOK’; even after the comments thread started filling up with regular RWW readers who pointed out (in a variety of helpful, witty, and sarcastic ways) that this was NOT FACEBOOK, they kept coming.
[For those sceptics who suspect a 4chan attack, or similar, RWW have stated that, according to thier site traffic, these users were being directed to them by a Google search for ‘facebook login’. The post is still (at the time of writing) the number 2 Google result for ‘Facebook login’]
I can’t quite decide whether this whole thing is hilarious or depressing. Probably both. But as some of the commenters pointed out, it was an interesting collision of two worlds – the very web/tech savvy RWW community, and the, well, less-so…
This post highlights the enormous gaps we are facing in information and digital literacy, and I think it could be used as an effective tool for teaching information literacy. It’s something we all have to do, and, while most of the people we’re teaching will be starting from a higher-level than these poor, lost Facebook users, there are still lessons for everyone from it.
Firstly – and I really can’t stress this enough – LOOK at the webpage you’re on. RWW has a very different design to Facebook – should that be a hint? This is applicable to all situations. Your bank website look a bit different? Don’t just assume it’s a redesign – check.
Secondly, READ the webpage. If the commenters wanting Facebook had actually read the article, it would (should?) have been pretty clear to them that this was not Facebook. Ok, companies do sometimes post relatively lengthy news items on their front pages, so I’ll forgive the very first commenters for this. But after the disclaimer had been posted? 30 seconds of reading would have saved them a whole lot of trauma. This principle can be applied to all websites – if you don’t bother to read what’s there, you’ll have no idea a) if it’s really what you’re looking for b) if it’s not what you’re looking for, why not and c) what context the information you take from this page should be put in.
Thirdly, use the address bar. Not just for naviagting to sites, but for checking what site you’ve come to through search engines or links. Is it really Facebook? Does it say ‘facebook.com’? Is it really an academic website? Does it say .edu, or .ac.uk etc? The address bar is one of your best friends for a quick and dirty verification of a page’s credentials.
Fourthly, read what other people have written. Does the page have comments? Great! Read them! One of the great resources of the internet is the collective intelligence it can harness. Reading the comments that others have left can be a great way to determine whether this thing is right for you, whether it’s a new mobile phone or a degree course. Of course, you may have to wade through some spam and a load of trolls, but learning to recognise spam and trolls is also great practise in assessing the value of information. It’s a win-win – and it can save you being forever tarnished by the fact that you’ve left a 5 line comment about how much you hate the new facebook and just want to log in now please please please (linked, btw, to your facebook account, so everyone knows exactly who you are), when the previous 10 comments have all been variations on ‘lol, how stupid does anyone have to be to think this is really facebook’.
Finally, and possibly most importantly, don’t let Google do your thinking for you! This is an absolutely prime example of how people’s trust in Google has led them astray. They didn’t think. They didn’t analyse. Google says it, so it must be right. Well, Google was wrong. According to the RWW analysis of events, the RWW page was the top Google result, ahead of Facebook itself. RWW claims that ‘Google failed its users’. Well, maybe so. But the users also failed themselves, and we, as teachers and promotors and champions of information literacy need to take that to heart. Ok, so it’s not specifically our job to teach people to use Facebook (I would *love* to see that on a job description), but it is our job to get people across the digital divide without letting them fall to the sharks.
A hat-tip to @calire, for pointing me to the original post