The Wiry West

I think I have finally come to accept the World Wide Web for all the potential it has, good and bad. By “bad,” I don’t mean pictures of questionable behavior and unprofessional language on social networking sites. I don’t mean checking my email 17 times today (which I did- I know, it’s sad. Even sadder is that I counted).

I don’t mean the unparalleled dangers of communicating with and/or meeting unknown people online. I don’t mean the abundance of amoral content available everywhere online and I don’t mean the countless viruses, worms, trojans, spyware, adware, popups and spam email all throughout cyberspace.

Those are all “bad” parts of the internet, but I knew about them before. What I’ve finally come to realize is that the web gives unqualified and inexperienced people the ability to publish erroneous and heavily opinionated material without the checks and balances of a systematic news organization. Anybody can blurt out their thoughts, whatever they may be, into that text box and click “post.” Then, in most of the public’s eye, they’re just as professional and unbiased as a reporter or journalist.

When someone inexperienced with a certain topic writes an online “review,” if you could call it that, especially one that isn’t in favor of what the person is reviewing, the public’s viewpoint of the product or service changes. Also, the professional writer’s clout dampens.

Most of the time, too, that inexperienced writer hides behind an anonymous or unidentifiable tag. How do you trust someone who identifies themselves with only an online moniker such as “hotshot1623” or “pinkroses86” to give you an informed opinion about anything?

Even if you trust the anonymous, you still run into whether the no-name citizen journalist has to follow the guidelines, formal and informal, that the professional media do. What’s okay and what isn’t? Is there a rulebook for the internet?

I’ve heard many new media experts compare the internet to the “wild west” because there are no established or written rules and, when the going gets tough, everyone has to fend for themselves.

An “unwritten” rule that I follow is “Trust only content on official web sites produced by that site’s author.” Those 150-word comments from users don’t count. They may add to the story, but they certainly aren’t reputable. Wikipedia isn’t reputable either because the content can be changed by any user at any time and may not be corrected or verified before you access it.

You can use Wikipedia as a starting point that will lead to more reliable outlets, though. Many of the references about a topic are reputable sources and using the references from a Wikipedia page may help you gather information.

How do you figure out what’s an “official” web site and what isn’t?

That’s a pretty difficult question to answer. The best advice I can give anyone is to use your best judgment. If it sounds or looks suspicious, don’t trust it. Also, never take what you do trust for granted. If you can only find a specific fact or other piece of information in one place, there’s a good chance that it’s unreliable information.

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