Imagine you are a well-known person aggrieved by how you are portrayed on the Internet: the slapdash Wikipedia entry; the unflattering gossip item; the endlessly repeated story about how you cheated on your spouse when in point of fact you were blamelessly resuscitating a platonic friend who was choking on an olive.
Suing is too stressful and quixotic. Besides, it's the Internet: How can anyone erase the inerasable? But courtesy of a new website called ICorrect, people who feel unhappy about "obvious misinterpretations, misinformation and what some might call total lies," in the words of the site's founder, Sir David Tang, can now attempt to set the record straight.
"The superhighway is jampacked with stops where at every place you'll have mud thrown at you," said Tang, 56, a businessman, socialite and celebrity friend extraordinaire who is best known for founding the department store chain Shanghai Tang. "Can you afford to have it all stick and not try to clean it up?"
People concerned about their reputations can use the site to post as many corrections as they want, for $1,000 a year. Luckily, browsing through the posts is free.
Here is the actor Stephen Fry, refuting a report that he dislikes Catholics. Here is the businessman Richard Caring, noting that he did not rudely fail to turn up at an important luncheon (it was a misunderstanding). Meanwhile, Cherie Blair, wife of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, did not appear at a party wearing the same dress as the actress Hayden Panettiere; did not go shooting with Moammar Gadhafi's son; and never declared that a burqa "is no more a threat than a nun's habit."
Sienna Miller would like to make it clear that she is not on Twitter. Tommy Hilfiger never said that he did not want black people to wear his clothes. And, despite what you may have heard, Viscount and Viscountess Linley were not sulking in a martially discordant way after a recent wedding (they were, the viscount writes, "just waiting for our car").
ICorrect went live this month and has about 35 founding members, or correctors, as they are called, plucked mostly from the pages of Tang's very thick book of contacts. Anyone can join, with payment and proof that he is who he claims to be; the site does not post items from non-members. Tang said that the site, apparently helped by a positive Twitter message from Fry, had 225,000 hits its first weekend. "It's minimally designed to make sure that even the most stupid person can work it and understand it," he said.
Although Tang admits that it has been "quite a path to persuade people to join," he has high hopes that someday ICorrect will be the world clearinghouse for corrections. "It's my fervent desire to have NGOs and big corporations like BP," he said.
The new venture has been greeted with some skepticism in the British media world, in part because some people thought at first that it was a joke, and in part because many journalistic commentators are not naturally sympathetic to offended celebrities.
"As images of human desolation were beamed into our homes this week," wrote Brian Reade in the Daily Mirror tabloid, referring to the Japanese tsunami, "rich and famous people were hunched over laptops alerting us to the grotesque injuries caused to their reputations."
Stephen Pritchard, the ombudsman at The Observer of London, which has an actual corrections column, said in an interview that people who joined ICorrect risked drawing unnecessary attention to the very items they wished would go away. Also, he added, who is to say whether their corrections are in fact themselves correct, rather than fake alternatives they wish were true?
That is not the point. "We're not here to police it or prove the veracity of what you post," Tang explained, "although we do make sure you don't commit crimes by defaming people or inciting others to violence."
The beauty of the site, he said, is that it allows the offending items to be viewed next to the offended person's response, so that even lazy Internet users will be exposed to both sides of any given story.
"A lot of people simply look up Google and press a finger and lift whatever is in front of them," Tang said.
For example, he added, "If you say that Henry Kissinger bombed Cambodia illegally, you will have to do a bit of research before you find where he defends himself. But if he joins the site, he can say, 'This was my reason, and it's more fully explained on pages 85 and 86 of my autobiography."' Meanwhile, Cherie Blair, who became a popular target for tabloid tales when her husband was prime minister, said that in a country where some newspapers made little effort to "get the basic facts of a story right," the site was a welcome antidote.
"Anything which allows people publicly to correct factual inaccuracies in stories about them is a good idea," she said in an e-mail message.
Of course. But on the other hand, one of ICorrect's members is Bianca Jagger, and all you can do in reading her entries is sit back in dismay as the myths fall.
No, Jagger says, she did not go out with Pierre Trudeau, the former prime minister of Canada. No, Billy Joel's song "Big Shot," about a woman riding in a limousine with "the Dom Perignon in your hand and the spoon up your nose," is not based on a bad date he had with her.
She also addresses the business about herself, the horse and Studio 54, revealing that, unfortunately, it was not as exciting as everyone thought.
As one visitor to the site, Laura LaRue, said on Twitter: "ICorrect is making me a little sad. Bianca Jagger did not ride a white horse half-naked in Studio 54. Sometimes a lie is more fun?"