Internet OverloadI've thought for years about information overload because I feel the affect it has on me. I've commented on it sporadically in my journal, and herein I've assembled the various comments. Each chapter relates to a specific type of overload or experience, with the various journal entries as sections within each chapter. Where there are conclusions, they are on a per-chapter (per-instance) basis.
- 1. Facebook in My Life
- 2. Too Much...
- 3. Lies, Damn Lies, and The Internet
I've been getting pressure from people to join Facebook, and even though I really have no interest in being a part of the latest Internet craze Facebook has become so ubiquitous I finally joined. The influence of on-line communication seems to be a hot topic lately, discussed at both Apple CIDER as one of the reasons for the club's diminishing involvement (Why go out and do something when you could just do it from home?) and at the Flower City Philosophy group as replacing actual social interaction. One idea that came out of the Flower City discussion was that on-line things like Facebook, like popular TV shows or movies (collectively "media"), create a peer pressure to get involved because even if you don't care yourself, you lose out on being a part of conversations when those media are central to it. So here I am, joining Facebook so I won't become irrelevant, even though it just irks me (I really don't like change as I get older).
Maybe part of my resistance is that I don't like some of the new sites. Twitter, for example, irritates me. Great, you're going to the store, I don't care. Even worse, SuicideLuvKitty discontinued writing in her journal and has a script that exports the twitter content to it as a daily post. Hearing what someone did today in minute details and unedited form, along with little one-line pieces of out-of-context conversation, is rather unappealing:
08:17 first bowel movement of the day and boy its a big one 09:37 I just finished polishing the cat 10:33 @djingots you want ravioli for lunch? 12:53 some Mormon missionaries just stopped by and we had this amazing discussion about god and spirituality. In addition to the standard Moroni 10:4 argument, they 12:58 I think I may convert now 12:59 I forgot, TwitTurd cuts off at 144 characters. Nevermind, they're just details. 14:58 I'm sharpening my pencil. 15:38 I'm doing the dishes. 16:20 @affleck I think your ontological argument is well-formed, but I still can't buy an a priori argument. Have you considered that the a posteriori e 16:27 @affleck dammit 16:44 I'm ironing. 17:15 I'm eating the cat 17:45 Rat Pie for desert. 18:33 @dhiney Wanna come have nookie? 18:46 Bedtime. Automatically shipped by Loud TwitTurd.
I've been thinking about Facebook recently. I signed up for it, but have encountered one of those crucial dilemmas: it doesn't do any good to sign up if I don't use it.
I've signed onto two similar sites as well: FetLife (fetish life) and a niche fetish group that I'll leave unnamed.
I should note that I'm on a Mac, and the tools I've been given allow me to effectively manage the onslaught of data from the Internet. Most people's journals/blogs are published in RSS (syndicated) format-- on the Mac, I can group all those together, label them "Journal", and when there are updates my web browser puts a number next to "Journal" to tell me how many. It's a subtle, passive prompt/reminder that there's something I asked the computer to notify me about. When I finally check them, Safari organizes everything into chronological order, interspersing different people's articles. At times I've been busy, I've gone a week or two ignoring the growing number which resets when I catch up. I find this whole system very pleasing.
Then there's the latest crop of "social networking" sites. Facebook, to its credit, does allow me import my syndicated journal into my Facebook so I don't need to repeat what I write here in my journal, over there at Facebook. What Facebook, FetLife, and Undisclosed Fetish Site don't do is provide any support to get data back out. The only way I can keep up with the people I meet there is to use their web sites. That requires I take time to go to their sites, log in, and use yet another different user interface to check up on things. I can't say that it's truly hard... it's not. Nevertheless, it's uncomfortable. It's another thing I'm expected to do in a world that's too busy already.
All these sites will gladly send me e-mail to tell me that something on their site should have my attention, but that's problematic too: I feel overrun by announcements telling me to go check their sites. On the one fetish site, I started receiving tons of friends requests. Several daily. No messages, just requests from people I'd never heard of before. I finally shut off friend request announcements and have ignored the growing queue of requests because I don't know what to do with it.
I feel somewhat annoyed by some of the technology too. They're sending me an e-mail to tell me I've got a message. Why not just mail me the message in the first place? Well, their reasons are simple: They make their money on ads, so they want me to visit their site to check my mail so I can see an ad too. It's the same reason they don't provide me no-ad syndication technology. It does also have the benefit of creating a certain degree of anonymity.
Sometimes their concepts are nice though: FetLife's message system retains the back-and-forth as a conversation and shows it to you when you receive a response. This allows you to refer back without having to quote each-other in each response.
Maybe some of what others like is that each different site is related to a different aspect of life, so you can select niche groups which "allow you to express your identity" or some such marketing-speak. I have one identity. Sure, it's a complex identity with parts that often make others uncomfortable. But I spent years figuring my identity out, and I'll be damned if I'm going to present fragmented pieces of me just to please the world. I'm happy being me, and if people can't deal with it screw 'em. I wonder why others don't think like this?
Maybe the PC people don't mind because they're used to the intrusiveness of applications, or maybe the integration of the web sites is better than that of the user applications. For me, though, my experience of these sites is that they don't really offer much. I sign up, they have varying degrees of annoyance to screw with them, so I do other things instead. If I'm not going to use these sites, should I even keep my accounts with them open?
In the end I'll probably leave them there, and on the whole just neglect them. But I sense there's something wrong here, even if the nature of the problem isn't tangible yet. I wish I knew if this is just me being cranky, or if this is me being the only ones putting things to words that everyone feels, or if I'm just one of the leaders on these feelings because I've been using networks for so long.
What about social media though? LiveJournal was the first blogging site I recall, but Blogger and various others followed quickly. And fairly early on, they all started supporting syndicated RSS feeds-- and with a feed reader, it should be easy to keep up with all my friends as the program does the work of slogging around to all the different web sites and grabbing everybody's recent news.
Except that the Internet is coated with privacy concerns. One argument is that I could just post to my blog and assume that there's just so much on the Internet that only my friends will bother reading any of my content; it's not a bad argument, and one I've used for many years.
But the 'net has the ability to archive everything, creating the possibility that future events will transpire where I don't want people researching me to be given the option of doing so. My recent consideration of getting a "Real Job" puts me in this basket, and so my recent business of scrubbing any actual part of my identity off the Internet lest someone find any individuality to be offensive-- and besides, if I have time to develop individuality, I must be a slacker. If I devoted myself to work, I wouldn't have time for such trivialities. Clearly, such things raise questions about my unswerving devotion to helping Corporate America increase profits, and the free overtime hours I'll offer my employer in hopes of keeping a job.
Which raises the necessity of "friends" systems. Sure, anyone can see neutral, certified non-offensive stuff, but only appropriately selected people will be able to read the meaty posts that talk about real life, personality, individual struggles.
But the authorization systems that handle this mean that a site has to know who is asking for access. And since logins expire routinely for security reasons, feed readers break too. I have several friends in Canada who post frequently on LJ, but I rarely ever see any of it because I only ever log in when I'm posting a comment on a public article. And then my feed reader announces there's 112 new articles between 5 people on LJ, and most of them are severely dated and certainly the amount is overwhelming to deal with all at once. But at least it's better than nothing.1
That's nothing compared to Facebook, the roach motel of social media: data goes in and it doesn't come out. Facebook will read other sites' RSS feeds, but won't provide them; when an app implemented the capability, it was shut down.
This experience feels, to me, like when friends move to a gated community in the suburbs, and I don't see them that often anymore. They wonder why I don't come visit, and don't seem to grok that they live in the middle of nowhere. And I just sort of lose track of them, thinking about the terrible gated buzzer-entry system I have to go through to see them. But it doesn't work half the time, or someone's on the phone when I try to get in, or some other hassle that goes with gated communities.
My excuses seem incredibly lame in both cases– what's a few miles on my car, or a few seconds to login and check another web site? These are friends, right? Yet somehow, it's just different. When I can walk or bike to a friend's house, they're close. If it's farther but I can drive in the same time, aren't they effectively just as accessible? It seems like they would be, but in practice they aren't. Maybe it's something about walking or biking, or the way my brain maps distances and perceptions of closeness, but as my friends moved to the suburbs I didn't see them much anymore. "Out of sight, out of mind."
And so I find the same thing with social media. Friends use it, and I've got these RSS feeds set up so I read the public stuff. But making the trip to Blogger and LiveJournal and FaceBook and whatnot to log in and to make sure I'm able to read the private posts... Even if it seems like this should be readily doable, in reality it's another "out of sight, out of mind", and I'm gradually losing track of those acquaintances in favor of real-life relationships (although there really aren't enough of those either).
And so when I turn back to myself, I'm in a quandary: I've previously published my journal and thoughts fearlessly, but now events suggest I restrict it only to my close friends. But they're spread out among systems, so I can write on FaceBook (and the LiveJournal folks will lose me), I could write on LiveJournal (and the FaceBook people will only see the public posts).
Technology once promised to make it easy to keep in contact with my friends who left the region, and to get to know people in my life more intimately. In practice, though, I perceive similar barriers to real life that prevent this. And when it comes to my journal, if the point was to share my life with my friends so they understood what's going on in my life, but it can no longer serve that purpose... I fail to see its function anymore.
As many of y'all know, I'm not real keen on Facebook. It's a privacy nightmare from hell. I've long been iffy about FaceBook: it keeps finding me a lot of people I've lost touch with, but does it really put me in touch? FaceBook now demands I land on the News Feed, where I can see all sorts of useless trivia about what people are up to. And I've got to ask myself: is this making my life better?
And recently, Facebook has some stupid new application that people can make comments about me in, but I can only read them if I'm willing to grant whatever disreputable app access to all my data. If I did, would it make my life better?
As I've mentioned before, Facebook is the Roach Motel of social networking: it collects data, then only gives it out when I'm at Facebook. It doesn't export an RSS feed or something that allows me to participate in interactions in my own way. Is there some way I'm not seeing that this makes my life better?
And it's only getting worse: you know those little "Like" buttons that have recently appeared on web sites that allow you to show your approval on FaceBook? Well, they're little iFrames, or at least some of them are, which most of you probably don't care about. Except that it means not only is the web site you're visiting tracking you, but FaceBook is tracking you. Every site with a "Like" or other FaceBook interface, all around the web. So when you visit my client Flex Gym and Aerobics, not only can I track what you do there but now FaceBook can too. And they implement the FaceBook interface in a way that they can expand on it if they come up with better ways of tracking you. Is all this tracking making my life better?
(And people used to think it was bad that Google has access to all those search keywords I enter, and search results I click on. Ha!)
In whatever period I've been a member on Facebook, it's only achieved one cool thing that I can think of: I got together with a couple of the cool people from my high school class.
Other than the one instance, the answer I keep coming back to is that no, Facebook and its useless apps and trivial "friendships" don't make my life better.
I'm therefore tentatively looking at axing my account in September. One other advantage I can see is that doing so would mean no longer giving the pretense that I use Facebook, or having to think about approving new acquaintances as friends. It would release the associated "web site handle", the little chunk of brain resources that stay occupied by my continued presence on FaceBook. (This probably seems trivial to others, but I like simplicity and when you start looking at the number of sites I'm on-- FaceBook, FetLife, a couple of Yahoo groups, a Google Group, f'ing LinkedIn (which also gets on my tits), 4 fetish forums for stuff I'm into, and a handful of fetish forums related to some of my modeling, they add up to a sort of "mental clutter". And for the record, FaceBook isn't the only one being considered for eviction from my life; there's a Big Pruning in the works.)
FaceBook is a big enough fish, though, I'm questioning whether it I'd just find myself "out in the cold" or something. So I'm open to discussion or debate on the matter. Comments can be sent to me via mail, or made in response to this article on Facebook or on LiveJournal.
I closed my Facebook account later in the month after one friend agreed it was appropriate given my disdain of the site, one argued I should work around the problems (by, for example, faking my data), and a few others offered sort of neutral comment.
I've noticed for a while that once online groups hit a certain size, I find them simply useless. I choose that word carefully; I mean it: although they may or may not be bad, annoying, frustrating, random, frivolous, or whatever... the one word that consistently applies is useless. Their utility in my life declines toward nil.
As groups grow, they gain a broader range of perspectives. Thus, discourse covers a lot more material. But not only that, the membership varies in their intellect and experience; some of the viewpoints are shallow and simple, while others are complex nuanced. And once a certain size is attained, a discussion inevitably causes a lot of discourse.
In real life, you can dynamically adapt to those present and have a reasonable conversation. But online, you can't do that—it's just not in the nature of the media; too many people are involved. Unless you're willing to be swamped, you can't respond to X's simplistic view, yet debate the complexities of Y's interest perspective. So you kinda skim what others write, then write what you think on your level. And everyone else does that too, and the longer the discussion goes on the faster the skimming. Until eventually, there's a trail of conversation almost nobody's read, people are repeating what others said, nobody's listening to each other...It's just useless.
And I suspect that's where progressive differentiation kicks in. When discourse gets to this state, some portion of the people involved get fed up, and decide they'd rather go discuss some aspect or perspective that interests them.
I know online stuff enables a lot of new options. But we've got to realize that it doesn't scale. Technically, sure it does; but socially, no it doesn't. When it hits the point where you need to drink from the fire hose to keep up, you don't—you stand to the side and sip at the stream. But that is not participating. It is not a healthy discussion when we're all skimming bits of the conversation and responding, knowing everyone else is doing the same.
Our abilities in the virtual world have their limits, and we're hitting them.Filter Bubble.
- Beware online "filter bubbles", Eli Pariser, TED Talks, May 2011?
- The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web Is Changing What We Read and How We Think, Eli Pariser, 2009
- Did Facebook’s Big New Study Kill My Filter Bubble Thesis?, Eli Pariser, Backchannel May 2015
- Coders Think They Can Burst Your Filter Bubble with Tech by Emily Dreyfuss Wired, 2016-11-19
I can't quite get the wording so concise, but I now offer a time parallel: "I would rather spend my time on new experiences with current relationships, than maintaining long-distance relationships from my distant past." It's fun to get together for a reunion, but utilizing time is a right-minus-wrong test2 , and spending time being wrapped up in the past prevents investing in the future."
We should also consider the quality of the relationships in our lifes. The history of groups I've joined is that they start small with limited usefulness in their obscurity, gradually grow in both size and usefulness until a certain point at which utility declines with additional size. It seems Internet groups have two possibilities:
- They grow until they become useless and frustrating.
- If the group does not grow, it runs its course and then stagnates.
I've noticed an obsession in several people. I think it's a new phenomenon, probably within the last 20 years or so. A couple of us have joked about, "A watched file transfer never completes", and it's sort of related: the tendency to want to (or feel compelled to) stay connected to a data feed waiting for updates. It can be a file transfer status window, the computer in general, or TV news or series.
The dysfunction is that whatever data source a person becomes obsessed with, it gets in the way of their doing other stuff that's necessary, practical, or enjoyable and they end up just sort of trying to keep up with the influx of information. Some examples:
- News junkies who feel compelled to watch CNN perpetually because something might just happen, any moment now.
- The compulsion to make sure all incoming data is processed. This can be comprised of multiple sources, such as e-mail, Usenet feeds, and BitTorrent transfers.
- The compulsion to just surf the Internet indefinitely.
- Tangential is collecting stuff off the Internet. Collecting is a more traditional OCD behavior, but I'm seeing at least 2 people who spend so much time collecting videos downloaded from the Internet that they don't have time to watch them. But it dovetails in because the Internet enables this behavior.
Now, though, we can have an unbounded arrival of information. CNN is 24/7, on-line news is perpetual and cross-linking of topics compounds the problem, and e-mail can arrive at every moment (as can posts on Usenet).
I haven't precisely narrowed down what is so bad about this. Information is good, right? But when people surf to the exclusion of moving their lives forward, or to the exclusion of basics like remembering to eat and sleep... Still, where is the line? There's something more basic, too, that bothers me in my gut about this that isn't quite tangible, and so I can't put it in writing.
Personally, my obsessions are checking e-mail, checking the Usenet feeds, and watching the file transfer consoles. I observe them and manage to resist them somewhat, but not completely.
Arcadia has lent me a copy of Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut by David Shenk, ISBN #0-06-018701-8. So far, I've read the first section, and it is the most lucid description of how I function, and what went wrong in 2003, that I've come across. The author's premise is that too much data causes several problems, including failure to keep up (resulting in stress/anxiety/depression), inability to make good decisions because we're so busy acquiring information we don't have time to mull it over, information obsession I described previously on 2006-12-09, and several other, more subtle effects. Shenk also quotes Stanley Milgram's work in the 70's for people's responses to excessive stimuli. Milgrim lists 6 responses:
- Allocate less time to each input. This was one of the early problems I detected, and in trying not to do this I've learned instead to select the things I want to do and devote effort into those things -- separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.
- Disregard of low-priority inputs. Yep, e-mail I'm not sure what to do about gets ignored. Sometimes I blow off phone calls from people I don't want to deal with right then.
- Redraw boundaries in certain social transactions to shift burden to the other party. Not sure.
- Block reception. Like, say, leaving my phone off or, for periods in the late 90's, dropping off the Internet completely.
- Apply filtering devices. Spam filters and voice mail seem applicable here.
- Spawn tasks to institutions to handle some inputs. I don't think I use this one.
And that brings up a question of balance. Many things I enjoy are in the fantasy realm (science fiction, D&D): how do I achieve a balance between fantasy and reality? I notice I want to say, fantasy/fun and reality/work, but this brings up another question/possibility: is there a way to readjust things so that reality can have a higher percentage of fun?
Becker's work was based on the simple observation that consuming takes time. As people get richer, and own more and more consumer goods, there is less and less time to spend with each of them. Unavoidably, use of the Walkman, the VCR, the camcorder, and concert tickets gets crammed into the space once occupied by the lone record player.
The Overworked American, Juliet B. Schor, p. 23; Schorr is talking about the views of economists Gary Becker and Staffan Linder.
This represents a piece of what's going on with information, too -- especially the alternative realities of TV series. The more we time we spend following the lives of all the characters of Buffy, Veronica Mars, House, Doctor Who (to name a few), the less time we have for ourselves. We become obsessed with knowing the whole story, which is encouraged by increasingly complex writing with season-long story arcs (or, in the case of Babylon 5, 5-year long story arcs).
In simple series like Star Trek or The Simpsons, the start-point and end-point of every episode is the same. Whatever things happen along the way, things are Back To Normal in the end. This is no longer: while episodes often have a self-contained plot, characters change and develop. This ropes us in, providing us artificial friendships, and requires we watch regularly to fully understand the growth of Our Heroes.
I think this is related to our distorted sense of what's important. We worship celebrities like Gods, but: Who is more important, Nicole Kidman or the EMT who just saved someone's life? Who has more impact on my life, Morgan Freeman or the architect who designed the new signature Troup Howell Bridge that I travel over regularly, that defines the city I live in? But whose name do I know?
I've been thinking about sensory/information overload. Thinking back, the first sign of it in my life was probably alt.sex: when RIT joined the USENET backbone in the late 80s, I started grabbing stories. I'd check periodically, and stash all the new stories, tar & compress them, then download them. Before long, I had a collection of stories that was far larger than I could ever sort through, and the collection is pretty much in that state to this day. But, there was no cost to collecting them -- so I did. And they're just ASCII files, so there's virtually no cost to keeping them -- so I do. Yet... the lion's share are still haphazardly stored, unorganized, so I don't even know what's there.
There have been several interesting effects, though:
- Occasionally if I'm in the mood for some romantic pulp, I take a gander through some of the unsorted stories. But often, because it's so disorganized, it's easier to find something new & applicable to my interest by doing a quick Internet search.
- My standard for erotic stories has been raised. Typos, haphazard paragraphing (typical of old USENET stuff), weird character encoding (I think a result of AOL and Prodigy) bug me, and I like them fixed– and I used to do so. These days, though, problematic stories get a quick scan and unless they're exceptional, they just get thrown in the trash.
- Stories also have to be more particularly tuned to my interests. I don't want characters to just be going at it, I want to know about the non-sexual interests that round them out. I want to identify with the character's emotions, thoughts. (But maybe it's just that I appreciate good writing more as I age.)
Before 'net ubiquity, adverts went into the Rochester D&C, the daily newspaper. One source for all job listings. There were a few employment rags and free papers competing, and back in the day there was also the Times Union, the evening newspaper. But, essentially, one source.
The 'net provides the easy ability to search for jobs through the country, even the world. But, the cost is that the local jobs aren't centralized anymore. There's http://hotjobs.com, http://monster.com, http://wnyjobs.com, http://rochesterdandc.com, http://salon.com, http://thomsoncareers.com, http://craigslist.com, and http://dice.com, in addition to business's own career web sites. This creates a problem for both employers and employees, who no longer have a single, established forum for this type of transaction.
In addition, before there was no established structure. An applicant formatted their resume and sent it over, and someone read it. Since job listings and perspective employee lists are no longer local, the size has grown; the data became unmanageable and so the sites introduced detailed education/skills recording and matching. No longer could you just paste your resume in, you have to dick around with their UI to paste things in the right fields (their automated parsers sort of work, but not real well). Thus, the 10-minute task of posting a resume on a site before, has turned into an hour-long task of posting a resume now.
It's really an a protocol thing, which is one of the big issues for the OSS community: If we all use open protocols, sharing data is easy. But none of these companies want us to share data, or there would already be an XML spec for resume data and you could just paste that in and it'd work. But then, what differentiates one of them from another? They're all trying to climb to the top, be the primary job search site so they can make their dollars.
The OSS community could try to solve it with another open-source job site with an XML format, but that would just make the problem worse until the others accept it. And they have no reason to, until it starts to become a standard; it's a catch-22.
I'm pretty sure this idea of necessary independence is a bad thing. We're brought up to believe we have to be able to provide for ourselves, able to live on our own, able to live without any assistance from anyone else. It's a goal we're taught on kids: we're supposed to grow up and get our own place.
But then, you have a whole place to yourself. Nobody to share it with. Nobody to share the expenses and maintenance with. Not that finding a good roommate is easy, but still... Having our own car, our own domicile, our own bed, our own furniture, it's a huge waste of resources. For what? We're so intent on having these things for ourselves, that we end up not spending time with others, building friendships, which is what we really should be doing.
I'm also starting to see a dark side of the Internet. It's done some wonderful things: lots of information available, allowed people of obscure interests to forge friendships, been instrumental in bringing out marginalized groups like transgender people, BDSM folk, etc. and providing opportunity to organize and share information.
Increasingly, though, I see a downside to this: it's so easy to reply, so fast, that the vocal ones, the squeaky wheels, the ones with the time on their hands, those with an agenda or something to sell (figuratively or literally) are the ones that are heard. The ones who sit back and consider aren't heard from as often, along with those who have input but are in communication overload so they keep quiet and aren't heard from at all. The old group meeting where people got together for a limited time, and everyone was allotted a somewhat equal share of time, seems like a solution less prone to these problems. People are choosing to have Internet friends rather than real friends, and so they stay in and chat on-line because it's easier than going out and meeting people in real life. On-line acquaintances as an opportunity to find friends it's difficult to find in real life seems like a good thing, but not if the real life opportunity is going to go away.
Then there's the games: Second Life, World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings On-line. Enter a world being someone that isn't you, filled with hundreds of other people that aren't themselves, and then play together in a pseudo-reality that isn't real, though it would seem some would like it to be. I mean, D&D as something to do with friends, to hang out and role-play at someone's house and have fun with them seems like a good thing. The game is just the glue, the excuse to bring us together, something to help pass the time we have and a framework around socializing. Maybe I'm just getting old (Darn these kids and their World of Warcraft), but it seems like we got wrapped up in the activity and lost track of the point, which was making friends and experiencing those friendships.
Once in a while, something to pass the time seems okay. But when the activity starts reducing time with friends, reduces times people will go out and hang with groups of like-minded people, keeps people from going out and making new friends, then it seems like the activity is misguided.
The last decade has seen a major change for alternative communities as we’ve gone from marginalized individuals to collectives that are steadily moving toward mainstreaming. Behind this change has been the Web, providing the mechanism for us to find one another. The ability for anyone to publish information, and the inability of anyone else to censor it, has allowed us to exchange information and form communities in a way never seen before. Even in podunk towns, people can find others sharing countercultural interests, discuss on-line, and use that as a basis to to meet up in real life.
The BDSM community is no exception. In the mid- to late-90s, as the Web grew, BDSM awareness began to spread. Already known for its porn, the Internet gave people a chance to find others who shared their proclivities– and the link exchanges between similar groups meant that if you found your way to a distal BDSM group, you could probably find your way to one a little closer. It’s no surprise that BDSM groups flourished in that era, and as groups grew members created their own BDSM information pages with duplicate links to related groups.
The Internet, however a great repository of information it is, has a serious flaw: it archives inaccurate and outdated information just as effectively as current and accurate information. Sometimes, it even promotes the inaccurate information more effectively than the truth. This is a growing problem. Unfortunately, once a web site is published it often takes little effort to keep it up and running. With print, the need to reproduce more copies acted as an impetus to update documents, or at least to cross off outdated information or stop production until updates could be made. In the age of the Web, however, bad information lives on, distributed silently by servers tucked away in dark environmentally controlled rooms, polluting the information sphere.
Where once you couldn’t find a local BDSM group because the information didn’t exist, now it’s a matter of weeding through the garbage. If you’re searching for BDSM in upstate New York, for example, you’re likely to be directed to Buffalo LINKS, a group that’s been defunct for several years. Niagara Paddle Co. is similarly defunct, and any list that includes Paddles won’t tell you about Phoenix Niagara, the current group serving that region. You’ll probably hear about Rochester Kink Society but you might think they’re gone because the web site changed several years ago and you’ll be redirected to generic site; Buffalo PEP similarly changed sites but you’ll instead encounter a 404 Page Not Found. You’ll have no luck with the Syracuse Dungeon Society since that’s dead, as are the Binghamton Society of Kink and the Society of Kindred Spirits. And by that time, you might conclude that none of these groups stay around very long or they’re all totally flakey, so you give up.
It’s not much better on the flipside of things. As the web designer for RKS, I’m the one most responsible for getting the links to our site corrected. About a third of the messages I send out bounce outright– their creators have stopped caring, changed their email addresses, yet the pages continue to sit rotting on a server and promulgating wrong information. Another third of my requests seem to go through, but I never hear back and nothing ever happens. I figure it’s a mix of people who just don’t care anymore and delete my requests without a second thought, and those who keep the message intending to get back to it… and never quite get there (I understand this one well). I even once got a viciously angry letter about me putting demands on someone’s web site maintenance– how dare I! The remaining third update with varying degrees of speed.
If you work it out then, about ⅔ of the links out there for RKS aren’t correct, and at this point it looks like I have no chance of getting them corrected. And of those web sites, most have several other erroneous links that I’ve noted when checking them. Since Google and other search engines use links and link text to help rank their listings, the effects are not limited to the unlucky people who choose a bad site poorly: the rotting sites also prompt the search engines to rank other listings better than they should.
The situation is clear: Inaccurate information is worse than no information at all. And if you're a content provider, it's your responsibility to do your part to fix this situation. You are responsible for providing good data, and scrubbing out the bad.
What specific things can you do?
- If you can't commit to review on a regular basis, don't create
link pages in the first place.
- As an alternative to creating your own related pages directory, link to an existing directory site that is well-maintained.
- If you must have a link page, a compromise may be to link to groups most closely related (thus restricting the level of maintenance) and directing the rest to a directory site. For example, on the RKS site, I supply a list of related groups in the region, and links to several directory sites for those outside of New York State.
- Review your sites' links regularly to remove dead links.
- Review the sites you link to occasionally to verify that they are maintaining their content. If they're not, prod them. And if they fail to respond (or worse yet, yell at you about it) don't be complicit with their iniquity, but instead be righteous and cut them out.
- When your link pages get out of date, be realistic about when you'll get around to addressing the issue. If it's not soon, take the page down until it can be reviewed and updated.
And when I say 'jury', I mean advertisers and, to a lesser degree, activists.
Search engines rank sites based on their perceived utility. The goal is to provide the most utility, which means a selection of links that will fulfill most users' requests on the first shot. Because if they don't, users will move to a competing search engine that can provide the immediate, desired results.
The problem is that anyone with anything to sell wants their site to be listed early in the rankings, ideally on the first page, and best off as the very first. So much so, in fact, that advertisers will pay web designers to "SEO" their sites by tinkering with the content and markup and metadata to acquire the site a good rank.
It doesn't matter whether that product is actually good, real, or functional; an advertiser just wants people to buy their stuff.
When a product or service is a sham, this creates a problem: those marketing it will gladly pay to increase their ranks, but there isn't a reciprocal process for sites exposing the scam. Without a profit motive, skeptical sites are few and poorly ranked on search engines compared to their for-profit competition.
For example, here are some searches I performed on November 8, 2010, the day I wrote this:
- Google: A search for Acupuncture returned 14 results on the
first page as follows:
- ~ The Wikipedia listing
- + Acupuncture.com, a site promoting it
- + 7 local businesses offering the service
- + The NIH NCCAM acupuncture page, which suggests acupuncture can complement various proper treatments
- ~ The Mayo Clinic page on acupuncture, which on the first page explains theories on how it works. Only if you follow through to a second page does it state, "Several studies have found that acupuncture has little or no effect beyond that of the sham treatment used in some study participants—the control group—for comparison."
- + Another local business
- + Acufinder, a site for finding acupuncturists.
- - The Skeptic's Dictionary entry for acupuncture
Note also that there were an additional 8 ads for acupuncture in the advertising gutter, and a map showing over 30 businesses in and around Rochester that offer the service.
- Yahoo: A search for Tarot returned 10 responses bracketed by
two ads above and two below. All 4 ads and an additional 5 in the
advertising gutter were for Tarot readings; there were also a
horoscope ad ("A Free Guide far better than any Tarot Reading. It's
Amazing.") and a psychic promotion ("How to avoid scams and find a
real psychic you can trust. Free Report.") in the gutter. The
search listings were as follows:
- + An on-line site offering Tarot readings
- ~ The Wikipedia entry on the Tarot
- + 2 more on-line site offering Tarot readings
- ~ Answer.com's definition of Tarot
- + Yet another on-line site offering Tarot readings
- + 2 shops offering Tarot cards for sale
- ~ Crystalinks history of the Tarot
- + Last on-line site offering Tarot readings
Not a sign of skepticism to be seen on the search response page!
- Ask.com: Prompted by the ad for psychics from Yahoo, I went
with "psychic readings", which resulted in:
- + One site offering psychic readings
- + Five ads for psychic readings (neatly tucked in after the first search response in an attempt to overcome ad blindness).
- + Nine more sites offering psychic readings.
- + The five aforementioned ads repeated.
As for the gutter, it contains related topics instead of ads. Every entry under "Related Searches" contained some variation on "Free" things, mostly psychic but also Tarot and Ouija. The most skeptical thing on the page was under "Related Questions": "Who Here Believe [sic] in Psychic Readings?" and "Does Anyone Believe in Psychic Readings?"
- Bing: I wanted something different, so I went for "God".
- ~ Wikipedia entry
- + god.com, a religious promotion site
- ~ answers.com definition of god
- ~ News with 'god' in the title
- + A site arguing God's existence
- + A site masquerading as skeptical site. On further examination, it was clearly a Christianity promotion/conversion site.
- + 2 more Christian sites
- ~ A parody in Uncyclopedia
- ~ A site with quotes about god
- ~ A dictionary definition about god
Although high on references, there was not a single dissenting listing on the first page.
The gutter had 5 ads. One was for the play God of Carnage. Three were for religion and religious paraphenalia.
The fifth add, the most funny, was for a people-finder service indicating they found God and offering his address, phone, age, and more. For shits and giggles (and so they'd have to pay a few cents) I checked out their offer. God's last name is "Is", and they've got his address, income, and home value. They won't say where he is now, at least not until I cough up some cash, but they say he once lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma. They get tornados there—maybe that's how he ended up in the sky?
When we're searching on the Internet, and we don't even see skepticism about a topic, how are we supposed to know we should be skeptical? It's no wonder people seem more gullible these days; without being given a cue that they should be skeptical, most people won't realize they should be. Even worse, people tend to use dodgy collaborative behavior in deciding truth– that is, if a lot of people believe something, we often take that as an argument in lieu of other information. When the Internet offers numerous sites promoting something, this same erroneous logic will lead people to believe it must be legitimate because so many places are offering it.
The Internet is a great research tool, offering us the opportunity to find and gather data quickly and easily. But like all computers, it's garbage in, garbage out. When we give our search criteria, we will get the response we request, which makes the Internet a great tool for hearing what we want to hear, to fill in gaps in knowledge we already have.
The behavior of search engines means the Internet currently fails when it comes to offering a well-rounded perspective. Hearing only one side of an argument isn't good– it potentially leaves us not only with an incorrect idea, but an unawareness that we may even have a mistaken idea. If we want to grow, we need to separate the good and the bad ideas, and that means reading dissenting opinions, hearing the counter arguments, and reviewing all sides with a skeptical eye.
This requires entering a different set of search criteria, a set that will select a contrarian set of articles. Until we get into the habit of doing this—or search engines are modified to do something similar on our behalf—the onslaught of agenda-defined truths will continue.
The producers of information on the Internet are often willing to create content while they see a purpose for it, but too few are motivated to maintain it. This creates a problem because unmaintained, outdated data competes with and obscures good, current data on the Internet. This creates problems for those who are researching, sometimes making a hassle for those the now-outdated information was originally intended to help. Dating pages at least gives the user a sense of how likely the data is to be rotted, but dating is not a fix.
We need to instill a new idea into all of the heads of the content producers on the Internet: we are data stewards. We are responsible not just for creating data, but reevaluating, rearranging it, updating it– and if we can not do that, for the good of everyone else, we are better off deleting it.
Search engine preference for frequently-updated documents helps, but it's not an outright fix: many sites continue to add content but do nothing about their aging data. This can be worse when the site links with other rotting sites, and they end up maintaining an internal consistency of bad data between them. Unless someone actually goes through the data, checking the facts, they can end up being worse than no data at all for those who are visiting.