Brands are arbiters of quality on the Internet

June 29, 2009

Knowledge, news, music, opinion shall be free (as unfettered). That was the promise of the Internet, and bloggers were expected to deliver on that promise.

What followed was utter chaos, irresponsible reporting, plagiarizing without batting an eyelid, and an overload of information. The dark underbelly of society was showing on the Internet.

Wikipedia suddenly became less reliable. People very often edited entries on Wikipedia to suit their personal agendas, and the users’ only hope for accuracy is that some other guy got there before him and corrected the inaccuracy.

Folks, even bloggers, now need help to negotiate the labyrinth of the Internet to find information that is quotable and credible. Hence most bloggers now quote what are considered long-established credible sources, such as The New York Times, CNN, and The Wall Street Journal, and a few new online credible sources of information.

A lot has been written about Twitter. Like email when it started, Twitter is a great way to get the message out. But as spammers and frauds started using email, the message was increasingly questionable.

That is happening to Twitter as well……I don’t know who is my source of information on Twitter, whether he is reliable, whether he was at all in Iran while updating me on the youth unrest in that country after the elections.

Most of the time it is not hard core information I get on Twitter, but some vague reports from equally diffuse people on what they are eating now, how they are feeling at the moment, or what car they are driving.

Many times people themselves are filtering information to put them in a good light, or promote themselves. After all this is the age of personal brand building, and any channel is useful.

In 2007, I had written that although the Internet had made expression free, whether the expression was in the form of writing, art or music, there would still be needed gatekeepers to the Internet who would separate the wheat from the chaff.

See article titled ” Finding gold on the Net is a long shot”.

It was expected then that new brands would emerge to play counsellors and guides to Internet users. The “Long Tail” had created opportunities of all sorts of online purveyors of music, news, and other forms of art, by lowering the cost of inventory, distribution, and marketing.

But the gold rush to the Internet left people gasping for some guidance on how to avoid the trash. Already they were suffering from clutter and information overload.

eMusic, for example, focused on the “Long Tail”, and tried to build a music download brand around that. Leading newspapers set up blogs aiming to be arbiters of quality in both formal news reporting, and the more informal world of blogs.

The upshot is that a mix of new and old brands have emerged as gatekeepers to the Internet. That makes navigating the Internet for quality and reliable stuff more reliable.

But to a large extent it has also robbed the Internet of its fierce democracy. Once again the big brands – a few – will decide what goes through its filters. Once again smaller purveyors of content will have to kow-tow to the big brands or go unnoticed, and end up in some corner on YouTube.

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Digg, community editing, and vested interests

November 20, 2007

Digg and many other community edited sites have on the face of it a superb idea. Who better to evaluate and promote content on the Internet than users of that content ? So if you like an article, and you Digg it, and others on Digg like it, its rating goes up and the article is noticed.

Fair enough. Sites like Digg want to be gatekeepers or filters to the large quantity of content on the Internet. But when a variety of vested interests like corporate flacks and self-promoting individuals decide that they can use their individual rights as community editors to promote some news about the companies they represent, or their own articles and blog posts, then you start wondering if community editing is the best option for a site that aims to be a gatekeeper, a filter for quality content.

If one of my posts is submitted to Digg, I am usually grateful if three to four persons Digg the story. What is however galling is to find that a rehash of an uninteresting press release pulled out of Business Wire or PR Newswire has been Dugg 15 to 20 times by an informal cabal of Diggers set up for the sole purpose of Digging an article.

Often folks, who put up a video or article they have written, unabashedly Digg it, and then send the word out to other Diggers to vote for it, with the promise that they will do it for you if you ask. For example: “Please help to digg and share. Shout back if you need and I will help you with pleasure too”.

As a reader, I am not interested in reading content from corporate wires. I can always to go to the sites of these news wires, and pick up the press releases. What I would like is the independent analysis, the real story behind the press release, and not the corporate spiel.

Digg is not the only place where vested interests like corporate flacks hang out. There have been reports about how companies have edited entries in Wikipedia to reflect their point of view.

To be sure, folks like Digg and Wikipedia can request vested interests to honor the objectives of their community edited sites. But it is most unlikely that these interests will back off. Is there some technology that could filter out these activities ? If there isn’t folks at Digg, YouTube and other content sharing sites had better develop it, to stay relevant.

Related article:

Businesses crawling all over YouTube, Facebook


Defame with impunity on Wikipedia

November 3, 2007

I agree that information should be free and free-flowing. Wikipedia was built around those principles, and around community-generated content. Unfortunately the community, or more correctly the public at large, is not as responsible as Wikipedia had expected.

Now A French judge has dismissed a defamation and privacy case against Wikipedia after ruling that the free online encyclopedia was not responsible for information introduced onto its Web site, according to this report from Reuters.

Moreover, Web site hosts are not legally bound to monitor or investigate the origin of the information they store, the Judge Emmanuel Binoche said after the online encyclopedia was sued by three French nationals over a Wikipedia article that said they were gay activists, according to the report.

Laws vary from country to country, but the overall tendency seems to be to exempt owners of community edited web-sites and social networking sites from liability for pornography or slander or other such nefarious content.

This ultra-liberal attitude when it comes to content crimes on the Internet leaves me wondering – where does that leave the individual ?

Before the arrival of online community edited news and opinion sites, the main source of potential defamation were public speeches and the newspapers, and in both cases liability for defamation is quite clear. Both the person defaming, as well as the forum which published the defamatory remarks are liable in varying degrees.

Issues of liability aside, because of the viral nature of the online medium, there is no stopping a false rumor before it starts.

Once a story is up on the net, it gets picked up by blogs, other sites, and even online newspapers. Some of them may quote the allegation, and hope to reduce liability by linking to the site from where they picked up the allegation. The upshot is that the slander is all over the place, before you can even say “ cease and desist”. By the time you have been able to identify and send a notice to the site that started it, your reputation is raked fore and aft.

In this context, the need for community edited sites and social networking sites to monitor content, and block content found objectionable is a must. Their liability should in fact be increased to make sure they acquit this responsibility. To be sure Internet companies will throw up their hands, and tell us their sites are so popular that the volume of content is more than they can filter properly.

That is a nice argument – but it is cold comfort to me if someone goes on Facebook or Wikipedia and describes me as a rapist. Sure, I can go after Facebook and Wikipedia, ask them to remove the objectionable material, identify the person who described me as a rapist, and sue him in court. But it may be all too late – the allegation is already all over the Internet.

Google has often used the analogy of the telephone to argue that the Internet service provider should be only as liable as a telephone services provider, who is not liable if a murder is plotted over the telephone. The times have changed. Two people talking on the phone, and calling me a pedophile are just two people. That is the extent of the damage. But if these two people put it out on their Orkut scrapbook or on Wikipedia, that number could jump to millions of people.

Related articles:

Internet reflects, nay amplifies social problems
Google says don’t shoot the messenger