Discerning Quality Information on the Social Web

The Surreal Sun on the Beagle Channel

The following is draft material for my next book, Welcome to the Fifth Estate (the follow up to Now Is Gone, which is almost out of print). Comments may be used in the final edition. You can download the first drafted chapter of the new edition — Welcome to the Fifth Estate — for free.

On June 3, 2010 at the Personal Democracy Forum, Eli Pariser, former Executive Director of MoveOn.org and the organization’s current Board President, gave a speech declaring Google’s search formula as an enemy of democracy. The premise: Search formulas on Google as well as semantic social searches provide biased information that people simply accept.

As the net neutrality war is fought in newspapers and Washington, DC, Pariser’s claims may move from strong opinion to factual truth. The affinity for like minded information that we see within communities of the Fifth Estate creates a polarization of people. Thus the distribution of information that suits those particular idea markets (politics being the classic example). Further, as MIT research by Alex Penton indicates, social media creates a popularization of ideas whether or not they are sound.

Andrew Keen wrote in his not so flattering depiction of the Fifth Estate, “Cult of the Amateur,” that the destruction of the traditional media market would wreak havoc on quality authoritative information. True or not, Keen did foresee a lesser market for newspapers. Today, it’s very debatable that a newspaper can do a better job reporting on environmental news than an esteemed and knowledgeable blogger like Climate Progress’s Joseph Romm. Yet for every bonafide subject matter expert, you have many people offering opinions, some grounded in fact, others not so.

Plagiarism runs rampid on the social web. People take each other and media sources ideas and share it as if it was their own. While shareability is a core component of becoming engrained within the Fifth Estate, It’s common to find one blogger seemingly refurbishing another’s post. This will only worsen as the next generation of students — a group accustomed to sharing others ideas as their own — enters the marketplace.

In the end, there’s so much more information now that it creates in incredibly cluttered information space. That’s from traditional powerhouses and fifth estate sources who have risen to traditional media’s credibility to fourth estate sources who are rightly questioned and the multitude of voices who simply offer criticism and opinions without considering sources or examining information on a substantive level.

Takeaways

As this trend increases, the great challenge for the 21st century individual, organization and society will be learning to discern quality, factual information. “Truth” as many Fifth Estate members profess has become a subjective ideal. Facts, grounded in research and data, are harder to find.

Back to Pariser’s fears: Democracy or freedom may or may not be impaired by free social tools. In reality, the tools ARE free. We choose to use them, and as more and more of us do so, perhaps responsibly learning to search for, produce and discern quality information is a skill that we need to begin purposefully developing and teaching. If every member is empowered to speak as a member of the proverbial Fifth Estate, this should be a core tenant of “good” citizenship just like voting.

The opportunity for organizations to differentiate themselves in this environment is substantial. The value of providing good, factual information that time in and time out provides meaningful data to its stakeholders cannot be underestimated. In many ways this represents the great challenge for organizations, how do they move from providing marketing centric spin to the ability to offer valid public information within communities?

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