Friday, May 16, 2003

Food for thought: The Internet is a bathroom wall

Eugene Volokh notes Eric Zorn's view that the Internet is basically a bathroom wall:

Consider: Anyone can write anything on a bathroom wall. There's little accountability on a bathroom wall. It's hard to tell who wrote what on a bathroom wall. Truth looks just like rumor on a bathroom wall. Great stuff is interspersed with awful, stupid stuff on a bathroom wall.

Most people know instinctively not to offer as verification or a point of information the phrase "Well, you know, I read on the bathroom wall that. . ." Yet far too many seem willing to lace their discourse and communications with "facts" gleaned from bulletin boards, e-mail and Web sites.

The sad fact, which I've noted in many posts over the past year (and even setting aside egregious examples like the Jayson Blair affair), is that most media turn out to be a bathroom wall, too. An exaggeration, but less of an exaggeration that I'd like it to be.
One's credibility does not depend on the medium in which one communicates, it depends on their objectivity. One's association with others who have already established their credibility lends an imprimatur that one might not have otherwise, but the process of objectivity is the primary process, and its understanding its workings is oft neglected, if not outright ignored. To focus on mediums to the exclusion of how objectivity makes a person credible in the first place is not far removed from focusing on trees to the exclusion of the forest. The real question I ask is why aren't there more truthful people out there?

For example, for all the brouhaha over the Jayson Blair scandal at the New York Times, I haven't seen any one effectively take on what led a bright young reporter to think for even an instant that he could be utterly non-objective (i.e. make s&$% up) and not destroy his career. I know what it's like to blind myself to facts, but to engage in outright fakery, I can't comprehend it. The truth is out there. Reporting on it is not that hard. Other then time, how difficult is it to follow your subjects? To come to understand what is relevant and irrelevant for your audience? To focus on the primaries of a story?

In my job, I try to convince people that certain principles are better and truer than others. If I lied once, I'd be dead. On the contrary, I have to be able to make ever more complex identifications and intergrations, or I fail in my mission. And every time I come up short, it hurts me, and often in the worst way. The process of objectivity is a life-saver, whatever one's field.

I don't care where I hear an idea or a fact. If I decide it's relevant to me, all I can ask myself is, "Is it true?" The better I am able to answer that question, the better off I am. It's that simple, and that complex.

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