The 401st Blow :: Thoughts On Media

Trusted Links, Spam, and Populism

Posted in Policy, Rant, Theory by Noah Harlan on April 18, 2010

I was just reading this post by Fred Wilson, when he references a talk he gave at the 140 Conference last year and, in particular, this cartoon that Jonny Goldstein did summarizing some of his points:

I’m not sure why, perhaps because I was reading memorandum before hitting techmeme this morning, but I got to thinking about the ramifications of that last assertion for our current socio-political environment.  Let’s look at it:

Passed links convert better than search generated links.

I think all of us would agree with that. When it comes to information on the internet, we trust the recommendations of people we know more than we trust sources that we don’t have a personal connection to. Think about it: if you put a question up on Facebook or Twitter asking for a recommendation of a good restaurant in Paris or a good service that can help you buy contact lenses over the internet, you are going to feel pretty confident in the recommendations you get back. These are your friends and people you know. They are curating an answer for you, and they are speaking from personal experience.

The next level down in trust would probably be certain established brands. For product reviews, maybe it’s Consumer Reports or CNet and for restaurants maybe it’s Zagat’s (to be fair, Zagats is really a pre-internet form of crowd-sourced reviews) or Time Out. These sources are curated by a small group of people who have earned our trust through years of quality (more or less) work. We may disagree with their opinion but at least we feel confident it’s their honest opinion.

Continuing down the trust ladder we come to consumer reviews. Whether it’s Amazon, Yelp or iTunes. If you’re like me you have to read a lot more of these sources before you feel like you have a comfortable image of a product. There is something often self-selecting about these reviewers. They are people either completely in love with something or out to get it. Or they’re unhinged (on iTunes it’s probably that they’re unhinged). We put a low degree of faith in these sources but, if enough of them are saying something’s good or bad, we might begin to trust it. I would also put Wikipedia in this group since it is uncurated, but in this case it’s ostensibly information rather than reviews. However, it should be noted, when it comes to contested subjects, Wikipedia becomes a battle ground of opinions and idea – just look for something to do with Israelis and Palestinians and you’re bound to find a disagreement over “facts“.

The next rung down the ladder are search results. You enter “good restaurants in Paris” into google and see what comes back. The results here are far more suspect.  You have sponsored links from groups that are paying for your eyeballs. Then you have a somewhat random list of sources which, if you’re like me, you scan for domain names you recognize. The rest very well may be link-bait or other SEO scams to get at the top of rankings for popular searches. They are fighting to get in front of your eyes so they can make money by claiming your visit. My degree of trust in Google’s (or Yahoo, or Bing, or Cuil, etc…) recommendations is very low in this case. My trust in the most dominant catalogue of knowledge in existence is very low. I have to finesse the search and come up with specific phrases to include or exclude until I am getting results that I begin to trust.

The last rung on the ladder, of course, is spam. This is information that is sent to me, over the transom, uninvited, that tries to convince me that some product or service is great for me. These “male enhancements,” “diet pills,” and “offers to assist deposed kings of Nigeria” are treated by most of us with no respect.

I wind up with a paradigm like this:

  1. Small group of my friends = large amounts of trust.
  2. Curated information from places I know & trust = reasonable amounts of trust.
  3. Uncurated information by large amounts of people = some amount of trust.
  4. Uncurated search results based on terms = low amount of trust.
  5. Direct communication from people unknown to me = no amount of trust.

When I was growing up (which wasn’t that long ago), text books and what we were taught by scientists would stand at the top of that ladder. If I could read it. If I could see charts of data. If someone had been published by a major University Press then I knew it had validity.

So what does this have to do with populism? Well let’s look at the types of statements coming from today’s populist leaders:

What’s interesting is the way in which authorities that we once put great amounts of trust in – scientists & research institutions – are now the ‘other’ and thus a group that should be not trusted. They have moved them down from the top of the ladder to somewhere between 3 & 4, and, sometimes, they treat them as though they are in group 5 – unwanted information from a dubious source that is being sent to us unrequested. Populism says: “go out, ask your neighbors – don’t trust the official story”. This new populism has taken the paradigm of information on the internet, internalized it and reapplied it to all sources. Sadly, a new generation of students are going to find the internet’s trust system reapplied to their school books.

I’m looking at you Texas. (plus here and here).

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