If the Internet is the information superhighway, weblogs and message boards and such popular personal sites as YouTube and MySpace are its interchanges. Such cyberphenomena are immensely valuable in promoting the exchange of information, but they come with risks as well as rewards.
While members of the paid media, gathering news for a living, may get important feedback from their consumers and terrific tips from people who post their observations on websites, every posting must be checked against reality.
Facts must be sorted out from well-disguised rumors and expressions of opinion that are posited as fact. That's not an easy task. Once entered, such rumor and guesswork tend to run rampant in cyberspace. The sheer volume of patter on the web makes comprehension and corroboration of its content a full-time occupation for many, many people. We don't have that kind of time or the personnel to utilize it in constant web searching and checking.
Still, the Internet is a vast trove of facts and suggestions of facts. We ignore it at our peril, but we take it at its face at greater peril to accuracy.
Google anything (and Google has become a verb in general usage, appearing in respected dictionaries) and you will come up with something, usually many things, purporting to describe what you are seeking.
Wikipedia is probably the world's most popular encyclopedia, or characterization of an encylopedia, but its contributors are usually anonymous, and its citations should be questioned. Anyone can contribute. It contains, along with lots of useful information, quite a bit of misinformation and some deliberate disinformation.
The problem of sorting all of that out is compounded when it presents itself to the untrained eye. Journalists and academic types are used to the process of going through line after line of type to find out which is likely to be based on fact and which is not.
Lay people are often more easily taken in by those people who post their beliefs, distort the truth or further their agendas glibly without regard to fact or balance. There are people too smart to believe anything they read on the web without challenging the source, just as they are too smart to believe everything they read in the paper or view on TV. But there are others, as well, and they can be identified pretty readily if they post responses that merely chime in.
Corralling and corroborating all that supposed information out there in cyberspace is a challenge that may never be met. But the medium is still a vital way for people the world over to scan what others believe to be true and to communicate those beliefs among their brethren.
And we haven't even touched on email and digital text messaging, tools of interpersonal, interbusiness, intergovernmental and educational communication that were unknown a quarter century ago and are in general use today. We use them because, spam or no spam, they are quick, convenient, inexpensive and far-reaching in ways that no form of communication has ever been before.
Use all of those new communications tools carefully. They are gifts, but demanding ones. Once entered in cyberspace, what anyone says may be there forever and accessible to anyone else who has a rudimentary knowledge of the design and application of the binary system and its digital streams.
Facts are difficult enough to determine without facing the possibility that there may be a thousand thousand versions of the one you seek to prove and to synthesize into a narrative and disseminate.
It is said by many experts that we may be approaching the verge of a paperless society, where all words and images and numbers will be available online, and there will be no need for the printed page. That poses a distinct danger that people may rely less on journalists and more on whoever posts first on the net. Stay with the career journalists; they will produce the most accurate versions of the news most of the time, and they will have their special places online once the revenue from advertising is there to compensate them fully and paper can be discarded.
Mark Contreras, the senior vice president of newspapers for E. W. Scripps, new owners of Metro Pulse , told us last week in an interview for our news media feature story that such a development was a long way off. â“I think for the next several decades, paper is safe,â” he said.
For the record, we didn't believe him then, and we don't believe him now. The information highway is fast becoming too comprehensive, and it is also too flimsy, to support truckloads of paper.
It was suggested at Metro Pulse that, rather than bathe the Knox County commissioners and administrators in scalding ink again this week, we ignore their latest exercises in corruptibility, stupidity, duplicity and hubris and editorialize on something else. The idea was to boycott them, as the national mainstream media once tried to do with Paris Hilton, until her arrest and incarceration. We'll try, just this once, but don't count on our success. These people are incorrigible, it seems. And so are we, in our own way.
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