Friday, July 01, 2005

To learn from the web, one must unlearn

Blogs, or rather the Viral Marketing effect from blogging, are getting marketers' attention. Popular blogs/ bloggers develop a following of readers. And anyone who have a following tend to be an opinion leader among their readers (who may then adopt that opinion as their own).

To quote from the spider-man movie, "With great power comes great responsibility". And as the saying goes, "Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely".

Hence, Alex Halavais asks how far bloggers move from opinion leaders to shillers. Kevin picks up the conversation by expanding on how the "Blogosphere Shill" works. Near the end of his post, he tips:
Finally, never ever trust just one review or reference. Make it a habit to check a few sources so you can make the better judgement of what’s out there.

I commented that this was what many librarians, during Information Literacy classes, have been saying -- that web-based information should be verified and checked against other sources (because anyone can just post anything on the web and appear as if they are an authority on the subject).

However, my observation is that people still inherently take what they read from websites and blogs at face value.

I attribute this to our ingrained habit of reading.

Generally speaking, whether we recognise it or not, we inherently trust what we read in books because we've been indoctrinated that what you read can only be good and true. After all, we read the books teachers make us read, and then we pass our exams (generally speaking of course).

We can trust books because published books have gone through editorial rigour (i.e. before something is deemed worthy to be printed and sold, there are many layers that edits and checks for facts etc).

Many generations later, along comes the Internet. It changes the nature in which information is published. Anyone with the equipment (which is inexpensive compared to printing presses and distribution networks) and know-how could publish. And people would read it.

But what has not changed is our unconscious mindset towards the act of reading. Just like how Pavlov's dogs have been conditioned to respond to a bell, we respond to reading by thinking "if it's published, it must be true". Unconsciously.

Wasn't it Yoda who said something like "You must unlearn what you have learned"? But how do we unlearn something we don't consciously know that we've learnt?

Maybe this: Rational Distrust by Default (as opposed to paranoia, or "extreme irrational distrust"). Meaning, we first entertain the notion that everything we read is false. Then we verify and countercheck.

Our levels of Rational Distrust would be proportionate to the importance of the information which we seek (e.g. I will check more times if I stand to lose $1,000 as opposed to $1).



  1. Anonymous9:11 am

    I like how you are trying to structure the people value risks... in this case, how worthwhile information is before someone tediously checks on it. From academic papers to magazine articles to web reviews, I think we're getting to complacent and take things at face value because most information we see nowadays in condensed into "titbit" sizes. This can mislead us to think of it as a factoid than a myth since we don't see the immensity of the whole investigation or research. Psychology of design definitely plays a part in this...

    small blurb = digestible truth
    bigger article = more thinking required

    What do you think?

  2. Interesting perspective... but no, I don't see "small blurb = digestible truth" and "bigger article = more thinking required" as a good yardstick.

    I would think:
    *Small blurb = Digestible info (like headlines)
    *Longer article = More reading required (but not necessarily thinking).

    But definitely agree with you that "psychology of design" plays a part. That's why Phishing sites work :)

  3. "my observation is that people still inherently take what they read from websites and blogs at face value."

    I tend to have a different feeling about this: it seems that most people will adopt a very 'efficient' approach to assessing online information (blogs/websites etc). They'll give it a quick scan, and if it fits well with what they already believe in or think, then they will accept the information (reinforcing effect). If the info doesn't fit with their existing thoughts, they will just click and move on - dismissing the info completely, rather than engaging with it. So this is quite the opposite of 'taking things at face value', I feel.

  4. I'm a scientist by training, so taking published scientific materials by the neck and wringing to see if it's correct is inherent in us. We are almost anal in our distrust with things we read, especially online articles. in fact, we also distrust our own work enuff to repeat over and over again. :) I guess we are taught to question our logic and other's logic every step of the way, which is the reason I do what i do. At some point in Life, i feel that everyone should have this type of attitude towards the world.

  5. Ah! The point being, that training and learning is the key! Exactly my point.


Join the conversation. Leave a comment :)

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.