Finding trustworthy information in the blogosphere?

My recent mistake in a blog entry, which was fairly minor but clearly my own fault, got me thinking about the scholarship of blogs.

Blogs, and to a lesser extent personal broadcasting (using streaming video and/or podcasting), are clearly becoming an important source of information and news for many internet users and the mainstream (ie. Traditional print and broadcast media) is picking up on that.

I’ve read a number of places that last year, 2004, was the "year of the blog" – that is, the year when blogging became something that many people, perhaps even the majority of people in Western countries at least, had heard of. Eszter Hargittai, an Assistant Professor at Northwestern University, has created a nice graph analysing the number of references to ""weblog" and "blog" in mainstream print media since 1997.

Jason Gallo, also at Northwestern, writes on Blogosphere, a site containing various academic studies of blogging, that "they are helping to usher in a new form of hybrid journalism that merges traditional newsroom practices with the decentralized intelligence of individuals and groups spread across the Internet."

But how do blog readers know what blogs they can trust? For me personally it’s a matter of reading a little bit about the author as well as looking to see what, if any, sites are linking that the blog I happen to be reading. Is the author a respected person in the field they are writing about? Have they published articles or research somewhere there is a peer review system or editor checking their contributions? Are important sites linking to them?

When writing the above paragraph, there was a part of me that kept saying "but that goes completely against the whole idea of self publishing on the internet". Back in the mid-90’s, when I first became interested in social uses of internet technology, a lot of people, myself included, we’re extremely interested in the idea that self publishing online would reverse the trend of a few large media owners to control the news and viewpoints we read, hear, and see. Online publishing was a way to bi-pass the normal gatekeepers of ideas and, if an idea was good enough, to gain an audience for one’s views. But has internet self publishing really done that anyway? Most internet users use search sites like Google or Yahoo to find content. If you’ve ever tried to get one of these sites to list your site you’ll know that, following submission, it can often take weeks or months for your site be crawled and added to their database. Sometimes it doesn’t happen at all. So you publish something online and no one notices. Is that really any different from having not published your work at all? Well, it IS different, but it’s still not exactly suberting the usual media <–> media consumer relationship.

So what’s the answer? How can blog readers filter out the good information from the bad, the signal from the noise, whilst at the same time avoiding giving the traditional gatekeepers of information (including web search sites, academic institutions, the traditional media, etc) veto power over what information we see and how we use it?

One way forward might be services like, Furl and StumbleUpon which allow multiple users to create and share sets of bookmarks. Adam Bosworth has posted some interesting thoughts on group tagging. Group tagging makes a lot of sense to me – if you trust the people you use such a service with it can act as a group filter for content that might be of interest to you. I’ve yet to really explore these services myself but would love to hear what current users think. Is this part of the answer to finding useful information, from trustworthy sources, online?

[Want to know more? Reuters is hosting an event about Blogging and the Media in New York City, Tuesday 05 April 2005. For details, see the Blog Herald.]

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