Despite an onerous set of failsafe measures, Wikipedia has it wrong again. This time, the topic is photography–a technology with a less-than two-hundred year history–and is still developing.
Here’s the picture.
The Hokumburg effect
For a time, there was a blog named The Hokumburg Goombah. Wikipedia links to one of its pages, but the page no longer exists. In fact, the blog, itself no longer exists; the home page says, “No posts.”
The hokum in Hokumburg could refer to an item about a very old photograph. Making the Goombah famous, Robert Krulwich schmoozes
My admiration for Hokumburg jumped another notch when I discovered that on his own blog he’d come up with a city photo older than ours, which he claims may contain the “first photograph of a human being.” Wow! I didn’t check with the experts, but here’s his picture.
Of course, the quote above now links to a Hokumburg page that does not exist–a dead link.
Krulwich also finds Jonah Lehrer’s brilliance “riveting.” And if a subject isn’t riveting enough, Lehrer just makes something up about the person. Lehrer’s publisher gushes, “He graduated from Columbia University and attended Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.”
That Oxford thing is a big deal.
See how another public radio show was duped in another case.
The dead link in Wikipedia was a footnote to a sentence in an article titled, “Boulevard du Temple.”
Previously, the article stated, “A photograph of this street, taken in 1838 by Louis Daguerre, is one of the earliest photographs known, and it is the oldest extant photograph showing a person.”
Today, it states, “A photograph of this street, taken in 1838 by Louis Daguerre, is one of the earliest Daguerreotypes known, and it is believed to be the first photograph showing a person,” and there is no footnote giving the source of that alleged fact.
Krulwich scored a link (for a time) in the article, too. Apparently, NPR is a reliable source. That link was titled (note the capitalization), “National Public Radio article on the First Photograph of a Human Ever,” but the title of the Krulwich piece contains a weasely question mark and has different wording: “First Photo Of A Human Being Ever?”
Mais, est-ce vraiment le premier?
The copy of the photograph on Wikipedia was taken from the book “The Photography Book” which contains a short discussion of the photograph “Boulevard du Temple” (page 105). However, the discussion makes no mention of it being the first or earliest anything. The book was first published in 1997 and makes a great conversation piece (as does this sentence) for a coffee table.
George Mason University’s scrappy History News Network contains this text, allegedly from Hokumburg: “But this anonymous shadowy man is the first human being to ever have his picture taken.”
A person identifying himself as Gig Thurmond, Editor, The Hokumburg Goombah, complains about HNN’s record of another post regarding the photograph. Further, Thumond states, flippantly:
Here’s the secret: We found it on Wikipedia.
Or maybe we googled something like ‘old photographs,’ we can’t remember for sure.
But if it was Wikipedia, then that makes it a circular reference; i.e., Wikipedia cites Thumond while Thurmond cites Wikipedia. The phenomenon can be deadly for facts (search for the word proliferation). And if it was the second explanation, then there is no source. Thurmond used sarcasm, and subsequently–lest there be no misunderstanding–even used sarcasm to identify it as sarcasm. But now that serious descriptions (with superlatives no less) of “Boulevard” by Daguerre is de rigeur, claims of its greatness are fair game for scrutiny.
Talk about your anonymous shadowy figures!
Wikipedia has guidelines, rules, standards, policies, practices, proposals, procedures, principles and pillars, pal. The Five Pillars fall under Principles.
Wikipedia’s Five Pillars:
- Wikipedia is an encyclopedia.
- Wikipedia is written from a neutral point of view.
- Wikipedia is free content that anyone can edit, use, modify, and distribute.
- Editors should interact with each other in a respectful and civil manner.
- Wikipedia does not have firm rules.
So, those are the pillars (when this was written), at least until they are not the pillars. They used to be “unchangeable.” Only in the Wikipedia universe could a sentence like that exist. Or this: “Wikipedia is not for things made up one day.”
You can’t make this up. And, Wikipedia says that you can’t change anything in Wikipedia, anyway. But don’t be surprised if the last sentence contains a dead link someday.
The first rule of Fight Club: You do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club: You do not talk about…
But, forget about all that. “Be bold,” brave Wikipedians [aka, potentially, the human race]! According to Wikipedia, itself, “You do not need to read any rules before contributing to Wikipedia.”
Wikipedia’s rules are more specific than its Pillars regarding reliable sources and verifiability. Well, OK, they are now (see the fifth Pillar (as it stands today)). If you find that something here does not square with Wikipedia’s description of itself, just log on (or, indeed, nevermind logging on, just surf) to Wikipedia and change it.
However, that could be seen as “gaming the system.” But, you can change that part, too, etc., etc.
Sometimes it is easier to describe what something is not, rather than what it is. Of course everything is something. It’s just that, sometimes, those who create things can’t bring themselves to say what the things really are. So, they describe what they aren’t. And, of course (you guessed it), Wikipedia even has a list of what Wikipedia is not.
Being first is important. We want–we really, really want–to identify the first photograph of a person (and the first of anything). But, inventors have a lot on their minds, and preserving evidence of a historical moment may not be a priority. Even as important an artifact it was, the Wright brothers 1900 glider was abandoned. On the other hand, a successor to Daguerre’s machine recorded another significant Wright event.
Regarding the Daguerre, in one of its top-ten lists, Listverse states, “This is the first photograph ever taken that captures the image of a man.”
That is dated January, 2009, over a year before Hokumburg’s thing came along. There is no reference, of course. But then again, there is this thing about Charlie Chaplain.
Unfortunately, Chaplain is not alive to protest. Indeed, what would Louis Daguerre think about this?