Beware of blog: A rush to judgment

Blogs and other online media get the word out at the speed of light, but sometimes things aren't what they seem at first. As information comes at us faster and faster, it would be wise to take it with a larger and larger grain of salt.

It's been exciting to be a part of the "blogosphere" these past few years. Blogs are a new, targeted, instant, personal, and unfiltered source of information. Because they're new, all the rules and social norms are being worked out "on the fly". Because they're targeted, each blog is like one particular wavelength of light. Just one, or even a handful, doesn't give you the full spectrum of opinion or perspectives on the truth.

Because blogs are instant and personal, readers can find out about things as they happen, and see them through the eyes of the writer in a way that no other medium can duplicate. Read the Madness on Campus blog written by a student at VA Tech and tell me you weren't moved by it. Because blogs are unfiltered, we get to see all sides of humanity, from the innocent and pure to the corrupt and disgusting. Posts like Kathy Sierra's A Very Sad Day and the hundreds of comments it elicited demonstrate both.

Readers and writers of this new media, though, have to work extra hard to avoid a rush to judgment (Techmeme discussion). For example, the blogosphere hunted down and vilified several of the people named in the Sierra post. But it turns out that some of them may have had nothing to do with the cyber-assaults.

Last week the makers of the STALKER game were accused of stealing graphics from Half-Life 2 and Doom 3. The company's reputation was tarnished. This week? It turns out they were innocent. Ooops.

Or how about the 'news' that Microsoft had quietly changed their web site in response to a lawsuit. Many of the big outlets picked up on the story. Except it wasn't true. In this case, the original blog article was retold and changed slightly as each new person blogged about it until it seemed like some kind of Microsoft conspiracy.

A ZDNet investigation using cached web copies going back several weeks showed no evidence of tampering or rewriting of history on Microsoft's part. Brier Dudley, author of the original blog, says his words were misinterpreted. "I was comparing the language in the press release issued last year with the current language on the Web site," he writes in email, and not two versions of the web site. 

Traditional media, of course, is not immune from the problem. Take the Duke Lacrosse case, for example. Those students were tried and convicted in the court of public opinion thanks to journalists that didn't have (and couldn't have) all the facts. Twelve months later, the case was dropped and the students declared innocent.

Blogs and other online media get the word out at the speed of light, but sometimes things aren't what they seem at first. Does this mean we should try to stifle or delay it? Not at all. But as information comes at us faster and faster, it would be wise to take it with a larger and larger grain of salt.

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