Regarding Accountability and Social Media

In my previous post about Podcamp Montreal, I mentioned a so called “preposterous idea” which I proposed at a presentation about social media. I shall expound on this statement. The idea I proposed was that as information is posted from various sources, all things being equal, the point of view with the most volume is statistically more likely to be the correct one. What I was trying to get at is that when you have 1000 sources reporting on one event, if you average the information in all of those sources you are more likely to have accurate information – that is to say, as you add sources the information will “asymptotically” approach the truth of the event. Individual flaw and errors will be overcome by the number of sources who are correctly reporting what happened. Another way to state this would be that it is up to the reader to read the accounts of various sources and decide what elements of what source to believe – constructing their own individual opinion of what actually took place. This has always happened, but the only difference now is that there are more sources to pick from.

Obviously this argument suffers from three fatal flaws. First, all things are not equal, never have been, and never will be. Second, what if the majority of sources witnessed the event from the same viewpoint or quoted each other, and they are all wrong? The the smaller source is the correct one, and the average of the information is incorrect. Finally, this argument makes me look like a sheep (though I was not suggesting that we blindly accept information the seems more voluminous on the internet, but merely that it is a factor in what we choose to believe). Upon proposing this idea I was crucified by the two other major participants in the discussion, and quite frankly I deserved it for not explaining myself properly. However, after thinking about the idea for a few days, I’ve realized that I actually had a point. Granted, both of these persons seemed much better read and more versed on the subject of social media than I, but they both missed the point of my argument. However, since I’ve adequately stated my idea above I won’t focus on that. What I will focus on, however, are their assumptions. One of the two, in the previous discussion, pointed to several papers on the subject of social networking that he had read, and he proposed it as a model for how networking “behaves.” So why did he choose to believe that particular paper? Did he read all of the thousands of papers on the subject and choose to believe to that particular theory? Not likely. What he most likely did is read it in a journal, or some other publication, process it, and decide whether or not he personally believed it. Journals get reputations through publicity and popularity. Unless he read this particular article in a minuscule, start-up journal with only a few followers, it must have been fairly popular in order to have enough money to sustain itself. So in some very indirect way, the fact that he even read that particular publication in that particular journal was based on popularity. He may not have based his decision on how many other people read and agreed with that article, but popularity very likely played a role.

What does that mean? In a way the system of how we acquire information hasn’t changed. If he read 5 different articles on the subject, it’s unlikely that he agreed 100% with every article he read. He had to pick though the information and decide what he wanted to believe and what he though was total hogwash. We have to do the same thing with blogs today, but we have a lot more information at our disposal to choose from.

I’m by no means saying that we should instantly believe something just because it’s popular, and I’m not saying that one article in a million can’t be right and the rest of the 999,999 articles wrong. What I am saying is that when you’re scrolling down your search results in Google and you see four articles, stating in obviously different passages, that Columbus sailed the Atlantic in 1492, and one that says he sailed in 1490, which are you more likely to believe? Given that all the pages look more or less credible, and none of the pages cited or copied information from the others, I think you’re more likely to believe the 4 that say he sailed in 1492. Do I trust the masses to make good decisions about what stories are newsworthy or what stories are factually correct? Absolutely not, but I think it will be a factor in how we decide what information to review and what information to discard as the internet becomes more and more packed with conflicting information (or, as the tubes become more and more clogged).

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