Have you ever had a cold or a strange tic in your arm that caused you to check a site like WebMD to see what could possibly be wrong with you? I have, and I’m willing to guess the majority of you have, too. Finding answers to your questions is one of the best uses of the Internet. Being the largest collection of data in the history of humanity, it’s only natural that we look for advice through as many sources we can find online.
Unfortunately, the Internet is far from perfect. Whether you’re checking Wikipedia for cold hard facts about a subject you’re researching or sending your bank account numbers to a wealthy prince in Nigeria, you’re probably falling into the same trap so many of us Web-savvy individuals have. Bottom line: The Internet is not always a great source of information.
Here are some occasions when you should take what you read on the Internet with a grain of salt.
I have to actively block medical sites from my system. I’m not saying that WebMD isn’t a valid site or that it doesn’t have tons of useful and accurate information. I’m saying that the most minor of aches and pains appear to be terminal diseases or cancer once cross-referenced on the site.
Like any hypochondriac out there, I tend to worry about every little symptom that crops up during my day-to-day life. Instead of going to my doctor, I take a look online to see if something is minor or more concerning. Ultimately, it never fails that the advice I get online is either outright wrong or misleading. Diagnosis should be given by a doctor, not a pre-scripted website that lists even the most horrible of diseases for some of the most common of symptoms.
How many times have you received an email from a friend that’s been forwarded from a dozen other people in the past? Once you scan past the sea of email addresses (the owners of which, I’m sure, would rather I didn’t know their email addresses), you come across a story that changes the way you see the world. Either some deadly ailment has been linked to your favorite food, or someone has passed along a horrific story about a famous politician. Either way, nothing you read in an email forward should be trusted.
One of my favorite sites in the world is Snopes. Snopes is a great way to check up on stories you read in your email inbox. Believe it or not, that story you shared about Coca Cola is probably in there, and Snopes has broken it down and investigated the allegations within. Often, Snopes will either disprove the story entirely or get to the bottom of any grain of truth that may have been involved in its fabrication.
Forums are only as helpful as the people who use them. Asking advice or searching for a solution on any forum, even one of those popular question-asking sites can be a mixed bag of usefulness and misleading half-truths. People love to pass along information that they heard somewhere from someone way back when, whether or not this information is actually accurate. Answer sites are great at finding answers to common, everyday questions, but keep in mind that these sites are inherently about opinion rather than cold hard fact.
If you want an example of what I’m talking about, just ask or search for someone asking how to boil an egg on a forum. You’ll receive potentially five different responses, and one of them will be dead on accurate. Usually, that one accurate response has the most up votes, but not always.
Take advice given here at face value, and do your own research. These sites are intended to share opinions and point people in the right direction, and that’s what they’re best at.
Comment Threads and Social Networks
There isn’t enough time in the day for me to say everything I want to say about comment threads. No offense to anyone that comments on this article, but the majority of comment threads I see on YouTube and other sites are full of nonsense and rumors. Just do a video about the iPhone or Android and you’ll see what I mean.
Comments unrelated to the topic, based on false information, or just outright opinion presented as angry fact: these are the things I tend to see the most.
There are some comment threads that never cease to amaze me. Typically tied to “true identity” sites such as Google+ and to some degree Facebook and Twitter, people tend to be a little more civil and less prone to shouting out angry nonsense at the drop of a hat. Disqus, an engine we use here at LockerGnome for comments, also seems to be pretty good about filtering the nonsense and leaving behind legitimate comments.
In the world of the Internet, anonymous comments are typically the ones you want to trust the least. Kids especially love to take advantage of anonymity to leave comments that are either rude or simply untrue.
I’ve written for several blogs, including four on a professional basis. It would be hard for anyone who pays their bills with the information they share on a blog to stand up and say that you shouldn’t trust what you read on blogs, but I’m going to. You shouldn’t trust anything you see on the news, in a book, at a tech conference, or in a blog. The best rule of thumb for anyone doing research online is to double-check every fact before you trust it.
Even here at LockerGnome we discover that things change or something turn out to be a little different than they appeared during research. It happens, and even major news organizations print retractions once in a while. The fact is, there isn’t a single person or organization out there that will give you 100% accurate information unless they, themselves, are the source of that particular story.
If you’re writing an essay on Stephen Hawking’s theories on time travel, you can read a dozen blogs that attempt to relay the information the best way they know how, or you can send an email to the office of Stephen Hawking himself if you can’t find the information you’re looking for on his official website. That’s how journalism should be done.
A good blog will cite original sources or attempt to get a solid quote from a recognized expert on the subject. Rumors and conjecture are among one of the most common and yet most damaging habits to a blog’s credibility.
Did you know that LockerGnome’s own Chris Pirillo escaped from prison? According to Wikipedia at one time or another, that was the case. Wikipedia is an experiment in social information gathering. For the most part, it’s done quite well at providing important information on millions of topics and has served as a largely accurate source of data. Unfortunately, it’s also inherently untrustworthy due to the fact that almost anyone can change the content of a page at any time.
I’m a fan of Wikipedia, but I generally wouldn’t cite it as a source in any article I have a hand in. If anything, I’ll visit it and scroll directly to the page’s source list, and visit those sites directly. If what is printed in Wikipedia matches what was said in the cited source, that’s great, but it isn’t always the case.
Wikipedia has falsely reported celebrity deaths, historical events, and just about anything else you might imagine. There are plenty of great contributors to the site that work very hard to keep things as accurate as possible, but ultimately it boils down to the ability to filter misinformation out of millions of articles being edited by a general public at any given time. That’s a tall order for any scholar to keep up with, especially on a volunteer basis. For the most part, Wikipedia should serve as a starting point for research, not an ending.
Believing everything you read online is like reading nothing but gossip mags from the checkout lane of your local grocery store and considering that to be the news of the world. It’s always better to go to the source rather than trust a third-party site to give you the whole truth.
Here at LockerGnome, we strive to bring accurate information to the reader whenever possible. There are times when we miss the mark, and our audience is quick to call us on it.
Bottom line: No single organization online can possibly know everything about a subject. Even experts in their fields are learning more and more as time goes on. Even the world’s greatest expert on a particular subject learns something new each time they do research. Does that mean they’re largely inaccurate? No. It means that anyone can be wrong, and placing blind trust in any one source usually leads to disappointment down the road.