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The Shredder was shocked to read recent comments from Tim Berners-Lee, the Godfather of the internet, who questioned the authenticity of blogging and of people’s behaviour online. “Bad things” might happen, says TB-L.

TB-L, an eminent blogger himself, has been in PR mode over the past couple of weeks, promoting a new web-as-a-social-science course. The initiative, a collaboration between Southampton University and the Massachusetts Institute, is aimed at helping people better understand the technical and social factors behind the web.

All of which sounds good to The Shredder, but he has been making some bad quasi-utopian noises in the process. His comments on bloggers seem all out of whack. If he was talking about ‘people’ and not limiting his comments to the web, then fair enough. But no, he’s focusing only on blogs.

In an interview with The Guardian TB-L says: "The blogging world works by people reading blogs and linking to them. You're taking suggestions of what you read from people you trust. That, if you like, is a very simple system, but in fact the technology must help us express much more complicated feelings about who we'll trust with what."

In an interview with myself, I say: "The offline world works by people reading newspapers, watching TV, listening to the radio, talking to your friends and surfing the internet. You're taking suggestions of what you read and hear from people you trust. That, if you like, is a very simple system, but in fact our brains must help us express much more complicated feelings about who we'll trust with what."

Can we trust bloggers? Is everything we read online accurate, or fair, or factual?

To answer those two questions, here are two more:

  1. Do you trust journalists?
  2. Is everything you read offline accurate, or fair, or factual?

Methinks TB-L doth protest too much. Can web technology help? Can it improve on human behaviour in the murky science of untruthology?

Somebody once suggested that Moulin Rouge would be well worth a visit to the cinema. I almost rioted when I found out it was a musical. The Shredder does not enjoy musicals. I assumed the recommender had better taste, and knew a little more about my own tastes, but he didn’t. And that was somebody I knew and (previously) trusted on movie matters, so what hope is there for your average blogger, who doesn’t know me whatsoever?

Trust is a huge issue, albeit not one that we need to limit to the internet. Can technology help you figure out whom to trust? Well that’s a bit like asking whether we can create an algorithm to figure out who the liars are. Unlikely. If we did, then who would police such a thing, and how could it be policed? Terms like 'freedom of speech' and 'one man’s poison' spring to mind?

TB-L was also interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme:

"If we do not have the ability to understand the web as it is now emerging, we will end up with things that are very bad."

"Certain undemocratic things could emerge, and misinformation will start spreading over the web. Studying these forces, and the way they are affected by the underlying technology, is really important."

Wow. Just think of all the undemocratic forces in the world that are part and parcel of our daily lives, yet have nothing to do with the internet.

And what of misinformation! Let’s forget about the internet for one minute and remember the terrible hypocrisies perpetuated by politicians and other leaders of men, often accentuated and embellished by Big Media companies and their various news outlets.

Big Media is totally undemocratic and based as much on advertiser influence as it is on the editorial leanings of a publisher, or a publication’s editors, or even the lowly reporter, who is supposed to present the facts in an unbiased way but might not let a good headline get in the way of a bad story.

Freakonomics points out that human behaviour is largely driven by incentives. Now, the incentives for your average blogger aren’t quite so obvious as for a Big Media company, where there is a constant battle between commercial and editorial departments (and I don’t need to tell you which department normally triumphs in any dispute).

What are the incentives for Big Media? Fat wedges of advertising revenue and the assorted perks that come with that. Being able to influence opinion in a big way. Beating the competition in the ratings / circulation war. The thrill of the ‘scoop’. That sort of thing…

What are the incentives for a blogger? Voice and opinion, or having something to say and actually being able to broadcast it. Maybe influencing opinion, in a small way. And that’s about it.

Shameful lies and unethical behaviour is not the preserve of the internet, it is the preserve of human beings. The web might be where it happens, but it also happens in other places, channels like TV and in newspapers, where influence is seen to be much greater. Or down the boozer, where you are literally ‘under the influence’. The study of influence is something that this web science course should look at very closely.

Who remembers the the acronym 'DYOR' ('Do Your Own Research'), which was used on every stock trading message board in existence, back in dotcom boom 1.0? It was actually short for "here's a stock tip, the train is leaving the station, but don't blame me or accuse me of ramping in the event that it doesn't". It was a way of saying I'm not a liar (and was therefore used by a lot of liars). It is an acronym that has become more important, as the years have gone by.

Offline, it is very difficult to immediately identify whether the facts are actually facts, to quantify statements made by Big Media, and influencers of men. You accept statements and stories a little easier.

At least with the web, we can use our brains and the technology to quickly identify whether something is accurate, or misleading, by fact-checking and referencing other sources. DYOR, people.

And while I love TB-L's vision - for we wouldn't be here were it not for his efforts - I just don't think we can transform web technology into magic bullet, to be blasted towards the world’s liars and miscreants.


Published 6 November, 2006 by The Shredder

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