Facts vs Web 2.0
I was recently wallowing in my usual firehose of RSS feeds when I came across a link from Heather Leigh's blog about Mozilla's attempt to poke at Internet Explorer by quoting statistics that say IE users are more likely to get, have, or be living with cancer. The firestorm of disgust and outrage that they have since been dealt is certainly justified. But what really bothers me isn't that the ads were in incredibly poor taste, and they were, but that all of the so called "stats" were in fact complete works of fiction.
In the past several decades the world has seen a huge rise in the amount of information available with the click of a few keystrokes. But information IS NOT fact. Information requires interpretation and the application of judgement. Facts are information for which there is actual evidence. Now of course you can say that facts change, after all in my lifetime scientists have discovered that the electron is not the smallest particle of matter. But those cases are rare enough to be largely irrelevant, paritcularly when you're just trying to find out who the heck invented cheese in a can. So then, as information overload hits us all sifting through the rubbish for actual nuggets of fact is becoming ever more difficult. And Web 2.0 is making it worse.
I read through literally hundreds of blogs a day, a habit that first started while I was the editor for TheServerSide.NET. During my reign there (sounds better than job), I saw first hand how information is misinterpreted as facts. In a blog post Clemens Vasters joked about a meeting with Don Box where a new technology was going to be created called BOA or BML. It was a joke, but Mary Jo Foley from Microsoft Watch picked up on it and reported it as a new technology on the horizon from Micorsoft. Okay, so you can say shame on her for not getting her facts right (or ever reading the post correctly) but the real shame is on us, because if they hadn't pointed out her mistake we'd all be wondering when BOA and BML would be released. Blogs are great, you're reading one now. But whether you believe what I write is based on what exactly? A perception of my expertise? The fact that I have an MVP logo on my page? Just because somebody can throw up a blog and pump out deeply thought out pontifications on the evils of corporate programming doesn't make them experts nor does it make their products actually sell (Yes, I'm talking about Joel Spolsky).
Another case in point where Web 2.0 is blurring the line between fact and fiction is the case of Socal Networking. Now I believe that social networking can be a valuable tool. I like looking at the recommendations in Amazon or Rhapsody from other readers/listeners. I've found some really cool music that way. But social networking is predominantly an aggregation of opinion, not facts. You wouldn't go to Facebook to find out how magnetism and motion are converted into electricity, although I'm sure somebody has an opinion about it up there somewhere. However, people often look to sites like Wikipedia for actual facts even though it has had numerous scandals of individuals posting incorrect information or information slanted toward a company's product line. In that sort of world, the loudest voice is the expert (see earlier reference to Joel) and facts are largely irrelevant. But even in sites like FaceBook, data is often fiction. How many articles do we have to read about teens thinking they are talking to another teen only to find out that they are actually a 43 year old dock worker looking to take advantage. A teen reads the age quoted and accept it as fact automatically.
It all comes down to who do you trust. Where can you get factual information online? If I put up a flashy website with a nice corporate logo saying that I'm an expert in brain surgery and get enough links in Google, I can post any sort of rubbish I want to and it will only be a matter of time before I'm speaking at AMA conferences. The ease of large scale broadcasts that Web 2.0 has enabled means we need to be even more careful about not trusting what we read. And Mozilla, well they're just idiots.