Truth and consequences

As part of preparing a presentation about blogs and blogging, I want to talk in more detail than that presentation allows about the complexities of figuring out what’s true, accurate, or meaningful online. (Obviously, it’s a big topic, but a start at it is good.)

Joyce Valenza has a good article that discusses basics at evaluation skills in the Web 2.0 landscape . 

In my years online, I’ve had a whole lot of conversations. And in a small number of cases, people have misrepresented themselves in major (and community-destroying) ways. A number have misrepresented other things that aren’t as damaging, but still worrisome (information that spreads in ways that make learning harder). And some people are well-meaning, but not actually very good at what they’re sharing.

So, one question I was asked recently is “How do you tell what’s accurate online, especially if someone hoping for something from you?” That something might be money (in the case of someone requesting donations after a crisis), it might be belief (someone trying to persuade you of something), it might be a relationship or connection (friendship or romance), or it might be something else entirely.

My own approach is pretty simple:

  • Be aware of why I’m looking at a source, and what it can reasonably offer me.
  • Explore without believing everything I read. (And doing so often gives me new insights or ideas into a topic, even when the foundation isn’t solid or accurate.)
  • Check facts (and other places where accuracy matters) in multiple unconnected sources.
  • Varied, wide-ranging interactions give me a better idea of someone (and their reliability as a source) than very limited ones, and I give them preference.
  • Networks of trust are important if the request is unusual (request for donations to an individual after a crisis, or any claim that seems unlikely.)
  • Be extra sceptical of unusual claims or backgrounds.

Let’s look at each of these in more detail (with some examples.)

Principle 1: Be aware of why I’m looking:
I read a wide range of blogs – and I read them for different reasons. What I expect from a blog talking about professional issues in my field is different than what I expect from a recipe blog. With the recipes, I want useful information (how to make it), and a honest evaluation of what the recipe is like (taste, difficulty). I also care about where it came from (because I might want to go find other recipes from that source.) But there are a lot of other things I don’t care about:  what the blogger does with their spare time, what their professional credentials are, what their family is like.

However, if I’m reading a blog about my profession, I care about different information. In particular, I want to know how their experience relates to what they talk about. Someone talking about books who admits they don’t read much is a lot different from listening to Nancy Pearl‘s recommendations. (On the other hand, I might be very interested in what makes someone who doesn’t read much passionate about a specific title or author.)

Likewise, if I’m looking for health, financial, or other information where facts and research are important, I want to know why I can rely on that information. Depending on the blogger (and the topic), that might be references to other sources, explanations of existing widely available material (like an analysis of a news story using their experience), or something else. Whatever the question, I know I probably need to do some additional checking before making a decision.

Principle 2: Explore without believing.

I suspect I was a little warped by Lewis Carroll as a child: the act of believing six impossible things before breakfast has long come naturally to me. It’s a really great skill when reading blogs, though – because I can read something without assuming it’s true.

I ask myself what the world must look like for someone who thinks that thing is true. What shaped them to connect these pieces of information in that way? Who benefits when they do? Why is this important enough to them to write about, given all the other topics out there?

The answers to these questions are some of the most informative evaluation questions I can ask. Sometimes it becomes clear that someone has a financial or political stake in a particular solution or mindset (I may agree or disagree with that, but either way, it can lead to better perspective of what matters to them.) Sometimes it’s obvious that they have a pet project or peeve, and that they’re not entirely reasonable on the subject.

And sometimes, I find myself making connections and links that I would never have done if I’d only looked at an issue from my preferred perspective, in a way that helps me become better at what I do and love.  In fact, that happens often enough that reading outside my personal comfort zone is now a regular part of my process. I just don’t believe everything I read.

Principle 3: Check facts

Obviously, facts (and other verifiable data) can and should be cross-checked when it’s useful. My usual rule of thumb is that I double check anything that might affect: 

  • my health (obvious things like medical advice, but also things like food safety, exercise and food choice recommendations, etc.) 
  • my finances (financial advice, online banking security related things, etc.)
  • my reputation (if I’m going to take a stand on something, professionally speaking or within other communities I care about,  I want to make sure all my facts are in order.)
  • long-term consequences. (Being wrong about something in a fiction book is embarassing, but it doesn’t often have lasting major consequences. Being wrong about a legal issue might well long-term implications.)

And I double check any information I intend to pass onto other people who might consider me a reliable source (such as reporting it in my own blog). If I’m not sure of the facts, I indicate that somehow in how I write my own comments. (So, there’s a difference between “I found parts of this blog post interesting, but I’m not sure about the details.” and “I recommend what this blog post says.”)

Checking in unrelated sources can happen in a variety of ways: often I will already be familiar with a topic (having read and learned about it in the past), so the parts I check are limited to new and particularly contradictory information to what I already know.

Principle 4: Varied interactions get preference.

I interact with a lot of people online on a regular basis – through blogs, through forums, through other conversations. As that happens, I get a very good sense of some people, and not such a good sense of other people. Sometimes this is about what they share (it’s obviously easier to get a good grasp of someone who shares about a wide range of topics), but more often, it’s about how they share it, and how those pieces build a larger picture.

When I’m not sure about a piece of information, I look at that past history, and give some preference and priority to people who I’ve had varied and wide-ranging interactions with. Sometimes that means we’ve met in person. Sometimes it means that we’ve interacted in several settings, over a couple of years. Sometimes it’s that we’ve shared some specific interests, but gotten to be closer as we’ve shared more personal information. It’s been a good way for me to handle less easily verifiable information.

Of course, it does mean I need to be attentive for places where what is shared doesn’t match up. Sometimes this is perfectly normal: people share their lives in different ways in different spaces (or at different points in a decision or experience). But sometimes it’s a sign that someone is pretending something that isn’t true for them. Being aware of it, while being open to good explanations, works well for me.

Principle 5: Unusual requests need extra support.

One thing I love about the spaces I spend some of my online time in (the social journalling sites Dreamwidth and LiveJournal) is that people will chip in to help friends in trouble. On one hand, that’s awesome, and it’s helped a number of people I know with a specific crisis or difficulty when they just didn’t have the resources to get themselves out.

On the other hand, like most people who’ve been around this kind of thing for a while, I know of more than a handful of cases where someone’s abused the kindness of friends and strangers to get some kind of benefit. Sometimes that’s about money – but sometimes it’s about connections, influence, or prestige.

My basic guideline these days is that any unusual request needs extra support: clarity from the requester about what’s involved, who benefits and how, and anything that might support the request. For a small scale request, this isn’t a big deal – but for a larger request, relevant documentation can help. (What this is obviously varies by type: a link to a news story for a house fire or tragedy. Specific details rather than “My cat is dreadfully ill.”)

And this is also a place where interpersonal connections can be very important. I’m a lot more likely to offer my time, energy, and financial support if someone I know and trust says “I know and trust this person.” (Often, in my social circles, it’s people who have met at a conference or convention for a shared interest, but there’s all sorts of other options.) That helps me feel secure that the request and needs are real, and going to the right place. (And of course, I don’t contribute anything I couldn’t manage to lose.)

Using these methods, I’ve only been burned once, relatively early in my online experience. In that case, the thing I should have paid attention were the lack of details in people who were saying they supported a particular individual, and the fact that other details couldn’t be independently confirmed.

Principle 6: Be sceptical of unusual claims

Related to the above point, be sceptical of unusual claims and information. And particularly if you start seeing material that’s either contradictory or would put the person in question at high risk for some reason. It’s not that these things might not be true – but it does mean that additional questions and research are a good idea before you consider the source reliable.

What do I mean by unusual?

Extremely rare or high profile claims – this can be everything from an extremely high profile job to a rare medical condition. Obviously, people may have either, and be quite accurate, but if someone is using either type of thing to avoid questions, duck responsibility, or use as a method to get other people to agree with them, it’s good to be sceptical.

Persistent excuses to avoid things that might lead to verification. Obviously, people have a reasonable desire for privacy, and not everyone is up for meeting random people from online. But if you have someone who persistently avoids every opportunity (or every opportunity but for one or two people), being a bit sceptical until you get additional data is not a bad move.

Unique information or perspective: It’s a big world out there, so anyone who claims to have a totally unique piece of information or idea may not be accurate. (And reasonable people recognise this.) If you see a lot of pressure to recognise something as unique and unusual, be cautious until you have more information to fully evaluate it.

Any time someone claims they can fix all my problems. Chances are they can’t – they simply don’t know enough about me and my situation, after all! (Nor what I consider wonderful in my life versus something I’d like to change.) Anyone who thinks they know more about me than me gets my scepticism on full blast.

These are certainly not the only options:

I do encourage you to explore your own. In general, the balance between being open to new ideas, but curious about where they come from (and what supports them) is the place I prefer to live in my online interactions. It means they bring me a lot of joy, and that I check out more details when it’s relevant (or I plan to act on the information.)

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Hi, I’m Jen

Librarian, infovore, and general geek, likely to write comments about books, link collections, and other thoughts related to how we find, use, and take joy in information.

I'm the Research Librarian at the Perkins School for the Blind

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