This morning, I came across this Charlie Parker quote that I really loved:
“Master your instrument, master the music, then forget all that bullshit and just play.”
My first instinct was to tweet it. My second, more practiced instinct, was to check the source first. It’s really not that hard to at least do a quick check, and I’ve discovered lots of misattributed quotes this way.
A quick search surfaced a bunch of unattributed variants on that quote, as well as this entry from Wikiquote:
“You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.” –As quoted in Acting Is a Job: Real-life Lessons About the Acting Business (2006) by Jason Pugatch, p. 73; this statement has occurred with many different phrasings, including: “Learn the changes, then forget them.”
A book on acting is not the most credible source, probably no better than the blog post above. But at least it’s the start of a trail, one that anyone can follow to the end, if they so desire.
The ethos of sourcing facts is theoretically easier in this connected age, but the reality is that our connectivity seems to discourage it. We read funny or provocative things that speak to us, we click once, and boom, we’ve instantaneously shared it with hundreds of our followers without giving any thought to whether or not it’s true. That’s a problem.
Furthermore, social media tools seem to be actively evolving to discourage sourcing. I was guilted into this practice of sourcing-before-sharing after reading a rant by Evan Prodromou, who pointed out that a quote that was being widely and rapidly shared was actually misattributed.
Here’s the problem: Even though he posted it publicly somewhere, I can’t find it. It’s not on his blog, and it’s not on Status.net (the company he founded, which very much values persistent data), although he alludes to the rant there. Which means that he posted it on Facebook or Google Plus, which means that I can just about forget about ever finding it, since neither of those services seem to care about making posts persistent and findable. (Read a similar criticism that Kellan Eliott-McCrea had about Twitter.) Which means that this knowledge trail, minor though it may be, has been unnecessarily broken.
This is yet another reason why I appreciate Wikimedia so much. There is a deeply embedded ethos in that community around sourcing truth. Sometimes, this ethos surfaces some quirky challenges around epistemology, such as the recent Philip Roth affair, but even situations like these only serve to make us smarter and more self-aware.
The wiki tool enables this ethos to some extent, but the reality is that its source is cultural, not technical, and the community is trying to apply this ethos to all forms of knowledge, not just encyclopedic. No one else is doing this. That’s unfortunate, because we need a lot more of it.