Credibility

Any examination on the subject of credibility on the Internet will invariably take you back in a circular fashion to the subject of anonymity. Most of the quick lists that you may get will say "If you want something credible, check the credentials of the author". In short, distrust all anonymous authors. The simple kitchen-table advice is often taken for granted. Let us examine it minutely.

Many of the same sites will take a position on an allied topic; privacy thus: "Don't reveal your identity to anyone, if you want some sanity in the use of the Internet" or "Your privacy is your birthright. NO one should be able to reach to you, unless you want him/her to", etc.

Now how do we reconcile both these issues? Suppose someone wants to be credible and at the same time wants to retain his/her privacy, what course of action does s/he have?. There is a curious asymmetry in the expectations that people have about communicating on the Internet. If you follow all those advice, each one of us should be saying "I want the other person to reveal himself while I will keep my own identity secret". That, to me, is supremely absurd, to say the least. And if we look at all of us collectively, achieving this (where each one of us has simultaneously revealed as well as protected our identities!) would be an impossibility.

The way to settle this contradiction is to break out of the expectation loop. If we examine the kitchen-table advice more closely, we'll find that it is something that came out of our real life experiences. Suppose we meet someone on the road who wants to deliver a piece of information to us — one sure way to make sure that we are not falling into a trap is to check the identity of the person. We often do not have time to mull over the advice — say with the help of a reference library to check if that piece of information has followed the correct rules of argumentation. That is why uniforms are respected. A police officer's uniform or a doctor's stethoscope are symbolic identity providers which help establish credibility quickly in the non-virtual world. (That is why they are also used by villains in B-grade Hollywood movies. )

Now lets switch over to the Internet. When I receive any piece of advice, say something written on a website or via email, I have quite some time to check it out. And I do have a humongous reference library (Google, other search engines, on-line encyclopedias, etc.) that can be used to see if the information has been properly argued. So it is possible to find out if the information is credible.

What people sometimes gloss over is that all of us (mostly) are interested in credible information. The issue should not really be about credible persons. History is full of people who were incredible(!) (Evariste Galois) or loathsome (Jean Bernoulli ) or with terrible vices (Winston Churchill) or even reportedly insane (John Nash) who had produced extremely credible information. Unfortunately, when it comes to the Internet, people often tend to take the same pattern seeking approach that was spoken about earlier: Extrapolate something from the non-virtual world and bring it into the Internet experience. (Oops, there I go again!) Thus they seek "known identities" to guide them towards credible information. However, we have seen earlier that it is almost next to impossible to clearly establish indentities….and even if we did manage that, does it really mean that the information was credible?

One of Henry Kaiser's famous quote is: "If your work speaks for itself, don't interrupt". That summarizes and concludes this argument. Once we clearly distinguish between an author and his/her work as two distinctly different entities, we can proceed with using this website using The Delphi Method productively.

So to summarize: In this debate of Privacy and Credibility, according to me, it is imperative to give importance to Privacy because the latter can be proved/disproved by consensus from a learned audience participating cooperatively.

Now there is still one more issue left. Which is: proper acknowledgment. Unfortunately, ideas from anonymous authors could be usurped by others. (When it is not anonymous also it could be usurped, but for the same reasons explained earlier people often think that they are more vulnerable to these issues when they write anonymously) The next chapter explains this more in detail…

References:

  1. A power point presentation from an anguished professor here http://jerz.setonhill.edu/writing/academic/FoundIt/index.ppt I found it on the Internet!
  2. http://www.cofc.edu/~powellp/criticalsurfing.pdf Critical Surfing: Holocaust denial and credibility on the Web
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