Zpub, Emperor Norton Records & the Emperor's Birth Date: A Case Study in Good Intentions & Undue Influence
Over the weekend, on Valentine's Day, many people erroneously took to Twitter to alert their followers that it was "Emperor Norton Day" and to wish the Emperor a happy birthday.
Almost certainly, one of the people most responsible for this — albeit in an "unintended consequences" sort of way — is Richard Petersen, a good friend of The Emperor's Bridge Campaign, who reached out and introduced himself to us last May in connection with his project to create a modern-day system of Norton Dollars.
It turns out that Richard has been "on the case" for Emperor Norton for some time. Anyone who is even moderately serious about researching the Emperor online will not go long or far before stumbling across the Emperor Norton page on Zpub.com, the Web site that Richard launched in 1995 or 1996. According to a November 1996 cache of Zpub's home page — the earliest cache for the site's home page recorded at the Internet Archive — the site's Emperor Norton page appears to have been there from the beginning. This probably makes the page one of the earliest sources of information about the Emperor on the public Internet.
Indeed, it's a testament to Richard's longstanding reputation as a loyal subject of the Emperor that Joel GAzis-SAx opens his excellent 1997 essay, "The Madness of Joshua Norton," with the dedication "For Richard Petersen."
The fact that Richard's Zpub page on Emperor Norton bowed so early in the history of the Internet — and that, visually, it looked Serious (the basic appearance of the page has barely changed in its nearly-20-year life) — seems to have exponentially amplified the page's influence in the Internet's early years.
In the several years following the page's initial appearance, message-board threads and other Web pages about the Emperor linked to only a tiny handful of sources for their information. Almost invariably, the Zpub page was on this shortlist; frequently, it was the only source cited.
The original version of the "Emperor Norton" entry on Wikipedia — which had launched in January 2001 — was written in November 2001 by Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger, who cited the Zpub page as a source. The Wikipedia entry continued to list the Zpub page as the first "external link," among online sources, until August 2005.
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By and large, the information on Zpub's Emperor Norton page is solid and reliable. So, one has to say that — on the whole — the page's influence has been a very good thing.
The notable exception has been the page's claim about the Emperor's birth date.
Based on the earliest-recorded cache of Zpub's Emperor Norton page at the Internet Archive — from November 1996 — the page began with the general claim that Emperor Norton was born in 1819. No source or explanation was given. This reflected the decades-long conventional wisdom amongst U.S. afficionados of Emperor Norton, a conventional wisdom that hasn't really changed in the years since — although the Campaign is trying to nudge the wisdom in a more fact-based direction!
Two years later, a December 1998 cache of the Zpub page marks the first appearance of the page's more specific claim that Emperor Norton was born on 14 February 1819. This new claim is immediately followed, in the cache, by the first appearance of a link to a brief biography of Emperor Norton that appeared on Web site of the recently founded and short-lived — but influential — indie record label Emperor Norton Records, founded by Peter Getty. *
This Emperor Norton Records bio of the Emperor began with the statement that "Joshua Abraham Norton...was born...on February 14, 1819." Here again, no source or explanation was provided. But there can be little doubt that the record label bio was the source of Zpub's updated information about Emperor Norton's birth date.
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By October 1999, according to the Internet Archive, the link to the Emperor Norton Records bio of Emperor Norton had been removed from Zpub's page on the Emperor.
But the claim itself — that the Emperor was born on 14 February 1819 — has remained on Zpub's Emperor Norton page for more than 16 years now, from at least December 1998 until the present.
This period no doubt has seen hundreds of thousands of clicks to the page, resulting in countless additional links to the Zpub page, where visitors are invited simply to take the word of this pioneering source of online information about Emperor Norton that the Emperor was born on 14 February 1819 — a claim that, alas (and to borrow a phrase the Emperor used in a different context), has "no warrant."
To put into context how many times this "fact" has been broadcast: Today, a Google search on "Emperor Norton" shows the Zpub page on Emperor Norton as search result number 6 — a position that the page almost certainly has held since well before the existence of a Google to quantify it.
Little wonder, then, that well-meaning subjects of the Emperor still are mistakenly celebrating his birthday on 14 February.
The Internet affords an unparalleled opportunity to broadcast information about Emperor Norton.
But let's remember that this opportunity brings with it the responsibility to ensure that the information we broadcast is good information.
* The URL, EmperorNorton [dot] com, that previously was associated with the Emperor Norton Records label, now directs to the Web site of a Paris-based artisanal food outfit with connections to San Francisco. We know about the earlier Emperor Norton Records incarnation of this URL — including the Emperor Norton bio on the record label site — thanks to the efforts of Josh Larios, a Seattle-based systems analyst who, around 2000, discovered how to preserve records of early hard-to-find (and occasionally defunct) Emperor Norton Web pages, by providing functional "mirrors" of these pages through his own site.
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