25 Jul 2011

Does digital writing leave fingerprints?

THIS New York Times article discusses whether emails can linguistically analysed in the same manner manuscripts are to test for fakes. Do we have linguistic ticks that reveal our authorship or is this obscured by spell check and the device on which we are writing? As more and more archives contain 'Born Digital' material these questions become increasingly important. Especially if you're Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. A multi-billion dollar lawsuit is being fought along these linguistic lines to determine the provenance of a set of emails saved as a word document, thus stripping them of the usual identifying data. So the question being asked is, does digital writing leave fingerprints?

Decoding Your E-mail Personality by Ben Zimmer

"IMAGINE, if you will, a young Mark Zuckerberg circa 2003, tapping out e-mail messages from his Harvard dorm room. It’s a safe bet he never would have guessed that eight years later a multibillion-dollar lawsuit might hinge on whether he capitalized the word “Internet,” or whether he spelled “cannot” as one word or two.
But that is exactly the kind of stylistic minutiae being analyzed in a lawsuit filed by Paul Ceglia, owner of a wood-pellet fuel company in upstate New York. Mr. Ceglia says that a work-for-hire contract he arranged with Mr. Zuckerberg, then an 18-year-old Harvard freshman, entitles him to half of the Facebook fortune. He has backed up his claim with e-mails purported to be from Mr. Zuckerberg, but Facebook’s lawyers argue that the e-mail exchanges are fabrications.
When legal teams need to prove or disprove the authorship of key texts, they call in the forensic linguists. Scholars in the field have tackled the disputed origins of some prestigious works, from Shakespearean sonnets to the Federalist Papers. But how reliably can linguistic experts establish that Person A wrote Document X when Document X is an e-mail — or worse, a terse note sent by instant message or Twitter? After all, e-mails and their ilk give us a much more limited purchase on an author’s idiosyncrasies than an extended work of literature. ..."

Read the rest of the article - http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/24/opinion/sunday/24gray.html?_r=2

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