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.)

Thoughts about copyright

I’m currently working, in another tab on my browser, on a resource page of videos about copyright. As part of that, I realised there’s a bit of personal background I wanted to talk about, but that doesn’t fit the goal of that page. So, here it is.

My contradictory background:

I spend a lot of my personal life in several communities where resources and wonderful stuff are widely shared (generally with an ethic of respecting the creator’s preferences) while recognising that current copyright law has some pretty serious flaws. And of course, my professional life is in a world where use of copyrighted work in an educational context is terribly confusing and often contradictory, even though some kinds of use clearly improve learning, understanding, and connection with amazing resources and creators. The current methods for using a work while respecting the effort of the creator are confusing, complicated, and often too expensive (both in time/energy and in things like licensing fees) for individual teachers or smaller schools to negotiate well, even with the best of intentions.

I’m also the child of a father whose published and unique creative work created a meaningful financial benefit for his family (though it was never his primary income). As an adult, I have created a variety of material, some of which I share freely, some of which has more restrictions for various reasons. I have friends and acquaintances who spend time creating creative work for many and various reasons, but who need to sometimes use the law to protect their livelihood, or use of their material in ways that can be anywhere from confusing to utterly misleading or even risky (for example, I have friends who’ve had instructional materials copied without the relevant safety or background information.)

I recognise that copyright does help with the creation of works of larger scope and time, as well as giving creators some legal options if their work (and time, and effort) are abused. (And I have some book-length projects I’d like to tackle where committing that kind of time and energy is only sensible for me if I have some control over the finished product’s distribution.)

And I’ve handled DMCA removal requests in multiple settings over the years. I think the DMCA is an even more flawed law than copyright in general, because the practicalities of the law make certain kinds of legal responses anywhere from effectively impossible to very expensive – something most individuals can’t address. I’ve also seen it used as a club to shut down responses to discussion, to make life difficult for someone on the wrong side of an online argument, and much more in that vein. And yet, it’s currently the only real tool for handling online situations where one person copies another person’s work without permission.

What I’d like:

I’d like a world with reasonably consistent copyright terms, limited to a length of time that allows the immediate personal heirs to benefit (20 or 25 years, perhaps, rather than the current complex system of 50 or 75 years from various dates.) Enough time that the infant child of an individual creator could reasonably have their needs as they grow supported by sales of the work. Not so much time that they are relying on it rather than making their own way in the world.

(I have friends who disagree with me on this one, and think copyright should end at death. I’ve known enough people – including my father – who were working on various projects while dying of terminal illnesses that I think something that protects rights for a period of time after death is only sensible. Otherwise, these people will be more likely to go do something else like spend all their remaining time with their family, and everyone else loses out on their take on that project.)

I’d like a world where corporate copyrights were handled more sensibly. I want companies who do great research, and create wonderful works of art, and do other nifty things, to be rewarded. That’s only sensible. But I think that copyright law should also recognise that they have a certain benefit of scale that individual creators do not have the same access to.

I’d like a world where tracking down the copyright holder was a pretty simple thing to do – a central registry that could be accessed in a relatively trivial manner. (The technology’s there for it now: we just don’t have the collected data stored in a way that makes those connections easy.) Such a registry would also make it easier for people who, for example, were fine with non-profit uses to give quick permission.

And I definitely want a system where handling misuse of someone’s material online were much improved – in terms of the creator identifying their own work, in terms of having misused material removed quickly and easily, and in terms of handling malicious and incorrect complaints well. Again, the technology is there: I would cheerfully pay a yearly fee to dump my blog posts and other submitted materials into a third-party registry that date and time stamps them, so that any future complaint could be compared against that registered material, if it meant I knew I could handle any material used without permission quickly and easily.

I’m a realist: I don’t think I’m going to get any of these things, any time soon. But one can hope – and more importantly, one can take steps towards all of these things over time.

File management: naming

Time for the next installment on “How I manage files”, this one on naming. As with the other parts of this series of posts, there’s stuff that works for me that may not work for you, and vice versa (feel free to share in comments!)

Continue reading File management: naming

Links of interest: November 12, 2010

Back for another round of links. (I do have some other things in the works, but they’re not quite gelling the way I’d like yet. I hope for next week; topics include a post on tech I use and why, and on the broad question of being a good librarian.)

I came across the In the Library With A Lead Pipe blog/journal due to their posts on librarian workspaces, but I’m thinking even more about about their post “X”, which is about pseudonymity and anonymity in professional (specifically library) communities.

Living online:

Anne Collier and Larry Magid have released a new version of their (free) Parents’ Guide to Facebook. Doug Johnson has a nice summary, with links to the PDF book. It’s got some great advice on specific privacy settings and considerations, and is well worth reading whether or not you have kids, if you use Facebook.

I caught an interesting piece on Talk of the Nation yesterday on NPR as I was driving, on how much employers can limit worker’s behavior – in particular, in online settings. You can read the transcript or listen to the piece (about half an hour) at the NPR site.

danah boyd wrote a fascinating piece on teenagers choosing risk reduction behaviors for online interaction that seem really odd at first glance (in one case, deleting everything posted after a short period of time, in another case, disabling the account entirely whenever she’s offline.) And yet, as danah points out, they make perfect sense in context.

Followup on last week’s stories about Cooks Source:

And other links of potential interest:

Links of interest : November 5th, 2010

Today is Guy Fawkes Day which always reminds me of how people interact with information, and how what we know about an event can shift with bias. (And which, if you know some of the history, is a really fascinating example of how to evaluate information about an event.)

Anybody for…? Emily Lloyd at Shelf Check (one of my favorite library comics) has a fascinating post about creating a social physical library – allowing people in the building to connect with other people who are there doing similar things, or would be interested (a spontaneous story-time, a chance to practice a language, play a game of chess, etc.) Folks in the comments there mentioned a related conversation at thewikiman, with more ideas in the comments.

Let’s try that again. Related to some of the posts last week, Iris has a post about a discussion at her college’s Learning and Teaching Center about Harvesting Our Mistakes. Both some of the specific there – and a reminder to keep up with the process of reflection and adjustment – spoke to me.

First attempts: Scott McLeod (who focuses on technology in K-12 education, and who does a lot of work with administrators trying to figure out how to implement technology in their schools) has an interesting post on how to look at the first steps of technology practice.

More things we’re not teaching: His post made me realise that I missed something in my Things we’re not teaching post: how many schools are teaching students how to find a task management technology that works for them that goes beyond “Write it in your planner”. These days, kids with access to their own tech devices (whether that’s a phone, mobile device, laptop, or home computer) have a lot more choices in figuring out how to manage deadlines and assignments – and it might be good to talk about them, show off some options, and so on.

What’s getting asked: Brian Herzog has been writing about his experience at the NELA 2010 conference, and has a great post about changes in reference questions in public library settings, based on Pingsheng Chen from the Worcester (MA) Public Library presentation.  Summary: libraries are getting fewer of the easy questions, but more of the time consuming or challenging ones. (Since people are tending to do their own searches for the simpler stuff, and only coming to the librarians when they get stumped.)

Community concerns: The Disruptive Student series at ProfHacker (a Chronicle of Higher Education blog) has an interesting post today on dealing with bullying in academic settings. While focused on teaching settings, there’s some interesting stuff in there for people in libraries to think about too.

Understanding other experiences: While browsing around ProfHacker, I found a couple of posts on dealing with students with disabilities or other access needs, with some useful information for anyone who teaches.

For another take on this situation, FWD/Foward has a post this week on how teachers and professors can help students with disabilities. (FWD focuses on an intersectional approach to disabilities.)

The problems with copying: Seanan McGuire, author of a number of books (the October Daye series, and as Mira Grant, the NewsFlesh series) made a post this week about Internet piracy and who it hurts. She has a follow-up post with a few clarifications and additional points, too.

In a related area, my reading lists have been full of people talking about a really blatant example of why copying is stupid. Author writes an article (a comparison of apple pie recipes.) A small local newspaper publishes it – without permission or recompense. Author writes politely, requesting a donation to a program of her preference, in lieu of payment.  Editor responded that, well, it was online, so it was in the public domain – and oh, by the way, she should be grateful for publication and badly needed editing.

You can guess at the outcome, but John Scalzi’s blog, Whatever, has the best overview of it: The Stupidest Thing an Editor With Three Decades of Experience Has Said About the Web Today. (With links to the author’s original post about it, including a copy of the relevant email.) He has a follow-up post, too.

Dear people: stuff on the ‘Net is not automatically in the public domain. Please share with anyone who has not yet learned this.

What we’re not teaching

I’ve been thinking for the past few weeks, reading various of the ‘back to school’ blog posts, about how much we’re still not really teaching.

What would change if we built “How do we find the online experiences we want to have, and make them work better for us?” into what we teach, and what we learn? Not the fear-based online safety lectures, not the online privacy lectures – as important as that last one is. But the bigger question: how do we do the stuff with this information source that improves our lives?

What would it look like if our information literacy classes didn’t just focus on writing an academic paper, and instead included how to find and evaluate resources for regular life tasks. Which recipe sites are good – and how do you pick a good recipe from them? Whose DIY instructions are great, and whose leave out important safety tips? Where do we go for good financial advice for a particular goal? And oh, yes – where do we find good consumer health information? Evaluating news sources, too.

It’s not that learning to write an academic paper is a bad skill: it’s worth teaching, and worth experiencing, and there are lots of other good skills and experiences it ties in with really well.

But let’s be realistic here: out of a class of 20 kids, how many of them are going to go on and write academic papers for the rest of their lives (i.e. go into academia)? Maybe one, and chances are, that one would have figured it out pretty fast with a little guidance. And how many of them are going to going to cook dinner, buy a car, need to figure out their budget, make a medical decision, or need to find out what happened in the news? Pretty much all of them.

I wonder if something’s skewed in our perspectives and proportions, and what would happen if we focused more on general evaluation of information, and brought in the academia-specific bits when they apply, rather than the other way round.

And, on that note, how often do we teach how to avoid scams and phishing online? Probably not as often as we should.

My favorite quick quiz is SonicWALL’s (found at http://www.sonicwall.com/phishing/index.html) because it includes actual sample emails. But rummaging around for that link, I came across a US government site, http://www.onguardonline.gov . They’re a little uneven in terms of their audience (some things are clearly aimed at teens, others are clearly aimed at adults), but there’s some fun Flash games, some good short videos, and some other good information.

Links of interest: October 15, 2010

General links of interest:

The ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom sponsored a machinima contest in Second Life (for those not aware, a machinima is a video or film shot using digital footage from inside a game or virtual setting.) They’ve posted the winner and two runners up.

A great resource on making a website more accessible can be found at Dive Into Accessibility.

When you delete an image, is it really gone? Apparently not on Facebook. In July 2009, the Ars Technica blog did a piece on this. 16 months later, the photo is still there.

A discussion on cyberbullying included a link to what one of the poster’s wives did when she discovered bullying in her classroom. (I can think of situations where it might not have worked so well, but in this case, it was a great solution.)

And of seasonal interest, Kerri Miller, the host of the Minnesota Public Radio show Midmorning, just did a great hour called “Vampires and Zombies and Werewolves, Oh My!” talking about the recent (and not so recent) rash of books featuring them. The link takes you to the page for this show, where you can listen or download, but you might also want to to check out the list of titles that came up during the discussion (currently the second bold heading down.)

Harassment, Internet spaces, and reality

Someone I care about is having problems with a stalker who’s both harassed her in physical space and online. That reminded me that I haven’t talked recently about my approach to dealing with that kind of situation.

It’s a subject I’ve been thinking about every since I got online, 16 years ago now. I’ve had my share of mildly worrying experiences (people who just wouldn’t give up), but I’ve also had more friends than I can count who’ve had everything from persistent harassment and fixation to outright threats of major violence.

I also spent about 18 months as a volunteer on LiveJournal’s Terms of Service (Abuse) team, which handles everything from DMCA copyright reports to concerns about harassment to requests from the police, to parents trying to figure out how to handle their child’s online interaction. (And I did this in 2003-2004, when there was a lot less info out there on most of these topics.) Add to that ten years working in a high school library and helping educate parents, kids, and teachers about different issues, and you get a lot of interest in the subject. It also means I have a lot of opinions – but I’m always interested in learning more.

It’s all real:
You’ll notice that below, I don’t say ‘real world’ and ‘online’. This is, in my experience, a particularly damaging way to look at it. Many people have very meaningful connections with others online. Whether those are old friends who live far away now or people they’ve met online through shared interests, the emotions, conversations, and interactions are still very real. When they go wrong, they still hurt just as much.

Beside that, online harassment, insults, and threats do affect us in our physical lives. They add stress, they take time to deal with, they may require changes in our behavior and where and how we spend our time. How is that not ‘real’? So, here, I use ‘online’ and ‘physical world’. A little clunky, but much more clear.

Harassment is the fault of the person doing the harassing.
If you are being harassed, it is not your fault, and you are not to blame. That said, knowing some things can make your life easier if you do have a problem. You have a better idea what steps to take, you know what information you need to have ready to make a report, things like that. Sometimes information and specific tools can help you descalate a situation or make you less appealing to a stalker, too.

Continue reading Harassment, Internet spaces, and reality

What is a reference question, anyway?

I’ve had a couple of interesting responses to my Ask This Librarian project (all in other spaces, not directly here): in both cases, the people asking (neither of whom are library staff of any type) were interested in what I’d call the liminal space between the reference question and the information literacy/instruction experience.

What is a reference question?

Think of it like a classic fantasy novel quest story. The reference question is the journey to the Quest Object (Grail, ring, spear, mystical statue. Whatever.) An arc of story and narrative. It’s not:

  • the worldbuilding behind the setting.
  • (nor created languages, as nifty as they can be.)
  • the deep dark secrets of every secondary character who wanders into a scene.
  • even necessarily about what happen *after* you find the Quest Object. That might be the next book.

It’s not that the worldbuilding, or the secondary characters, or the ‘what happens after’ aren’t important to the overall situation. They’re just not the focus right now.

People on a Quest can get cranky if you try and halt their quest so you can dump a long speech in their lap. Tolkien could get away with inserting long speeches and council sessions and all manner of other things into his quests while holding many people’s attention. But even with the ability to edit and revise, he still lost people.

Most of us are not Tolkien. (And dropping substantial information into a conversation on the fly, with no editing or chance for revision is even harder than doing it in writing.)

So, what do we do?

Continue reading What is a reference question, anyway?

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 Information Technology Librarian at the University of Maine at Farmington, the small liberal arts college model campus in the University of Maine system.

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