Truth by consensus and the myths and legends created by the internet
The internet is doing as much to create history, as it is to document history. In this section of the World of Questy we look at the concept of "truth by consensus" and explore the mind boggling proliferation of myths and legends.
I cringe every time I hear someone say "Google it."
There are countless numbers of websites where people can ask questions looking for answers. I frequent online forums where people share information and ideas. Inevitably some know-it-all overachiever will answer a question with a phrase such as "let me Google that for you."
The overachiever is trying to look smart by insinuating that the question being asked is so simple that a search engineer query should have been used to find the answer, rather than bother the overachievers on the forum. What the egotistical overachiever does not realize is they show their own ignorance by believing that a Google search should be considered the ultimate authority for all answers.
Google Search is the most used search engine on the World Wide Web. Because the term "Google" has become a word in the English language to describe a common action, do you assume that the answers it finds are always accurate? Google gives weight to web pages of a certain length. Sometimes the short and to the point answer is seen as less relevant that a long and rambling answer that misses the point. Ah, if only life were that simple.
Google rates and ranks websites based on popularity, not accuracy. According to Google, "Democracy on the web works." Google says, "We assess the importance of every web page using more than 200 signals and a variety of techniques, including our patented PageRank™ algorithm, which analyzes which sites have been 'voted' to be the best sources of information by other pages across the web."
Google filters out websites that they decide are bad, and gives extra value to sites they decide are good. Why let them filter your answers? Do the most popular people always have the correct answers?
Putting Google into perspective
Let address the Google aspect of "truth by consensus" with a personal example. I am in search of an answer to a question. I do a Google search and sift through about 20 sites that appear to answer the question that come up in my Google search. One relatively popular site of dubious credibility makes a statement. There are 20 other popular blogs that now quote the original site that made the statement, and write a story on how this question has been answered. The twenty blogs say, wow, look at the facts. Guess what? The original site has not referenced the origin of the information. So is it a fact? I have serious doubts about the statement on the site everyone is quoting. I am still looking for validation of the answer.
Someone looking for information types a question into Google, gets 20 hits on sites that all make the same statement. Should you assume what what you read is a fact? If 20 different blogs tell a story based on using one original article, do we really know the truth?
Do you think Wikipedia can answer your questions?
Wikipedia can be a great place to start to begin to learn about something, to get a few ideas. Wikipedia should not be your only place to gather information. Wikipedia is a collective of information created by volunteers. Sometimes the folks creating the information have their own agenda. Whether it is idle curiosity, just for fun, or a high school homework assignment, no matter what type of information you are looking for, always have multiple sources. Take a moment to look at the credibility of the source.
Wikipedia tries to be an encyclopedia, and attempts to supply good references, but it frowns on the author interjecting first hand experiences. First hand experiences can lend some context to an event or an individual.
The value of crowd sourced answers
I am very focused on researching and refining a lot of our material for GeekHistory, a website that explores the history of technology and famous geeks. It really has been a mission where the more information I find, the more I want to know. I started hanging out at Quora, the question-and-answer website mixed with an online community. My goal is to learn more about geek history, as well as see what questions were commonly being asking about famous geeks.
Crowdsourcing is a modern internet buzzword to describe online communities such as Quora and Wikipedia where people come together for a common goal. Quora also has the element of social media similar to Facebooks, as members can be followed by other Quora users so their posts can be viewed in your news feed. Posts can be upvoted and downvoted by users.
The page that follows this one about famous geek Nikola Tesla is a good example of the myths and misinformation being circulated on the web. From my experiences based on the questions being asked on Quora, the Tesla legend appears to be about 90% myth and 10% factual substance. I have written quite a bit on Quora trying to cut through all the hype of what I call the Tesla fanboys, and search for the truth regarding Tesla's legacy.
What really frustrates me is when I try to put the legend of Tesla in perspective I get comments by an overzealous Tesla fan telling me why don't I do some research. I am! I spent endless hours looking through newspaper and magazine articles trying to find the original sources from periodicals of the time of Tesla. But one conspiracy theory website publishes an article with no sources listed as to the origin of the information, a dozen other sites use that article as a reference, and now the myth becomes a fact.
Truth by consensus
Google claims "Democracy on the web works." The phrase "truth by consensus" describes the philosophical theory of taking statements to be true simply because people generally agree upon them. So that must mean if the top ten hits on Google says it's true, it must be true. There's no need to check the facts. The internet doesn't lie, does it?
The Tao of Questy is about love and laughter and being human. It's about sharing ideas and being a little bit crazy in order to stay sane.