No-one doubts the quantity of information on the internet. What about its quality?
It’s pointless attempting to estimate the amount of on-line information. There are millions of web sites. Each site can have one page or thousands.
Let’s just agree there is a lot of information out there – a few gazillion words and pictures.
Information worth fighting for
It’s the kind of resource our ancestors would have killed for. Indeed, ancient wars were fought over access to knowledge repositories.
Would they fight the same wars to get net access? Probably, our ancestors liked a good scrap.
While the modern Internet might be chock-a-block with information, it’s light on knowledge. It is rarely the place to seek wisdom.
Let’s face it, how many dead bodies would you walk over to unearth song lyrics or celebrity gossip?
Thin on knowledge
Catalogues of high-resolution photographs showing supermodels in bathing costumes might be aesthetically pleasing. But unless you are a rather slow teenage boy wanting to study female anatomy, the knowledge content is slight.
Likewise all those painstakingly collected lists of quotes by favourite TV characters: entertainment value high, enlightenment quotient low.
If you’re brave, you can find some of the most atrocious poetry ever written.
Surf the net at random and you’ll find page after page of pure rubbish, mind-numbing sameness and precious little gold.
Professional rubbish too
Of course, the web isn’t just the domain of gifted (or otherwise) non-professionals. These days commercial sites run by specialists dominate. Of these, most either sell something directly, or are indirectly financed by companies who sell things.
This dilutes their value as independent information sources. How much credence would you give to free on-line personal finance advice given to you by a bank? What about a payday loan company?
In engineer-speak, there is a low signal-to-noise ratio.
That is, you have to sort through a great deal of rubbish to find anything worthwhile. But even that term implies a message is there somewhere.
There might not be. Even if you know exactly what you are looking for and use the best search tools, you can still come badly unstuck. And that brings up another matter. Search engines are getting worse at their job, in part because of professionals who game search for commercial reasons.
A chilling example
A medical doctor recently surveyed 20 web sites offering help with self-treatment of common ailments. Each site looked plausible. Yet of the 20 sites, only three offered advice that loosely squares with accepted medical procedure.
A number of the sites offered seriously flawed advice. Some were no more than quackery. We’re not talking about cultural differences; we are talking snake oil. Sooner or later, real people with real health problems are going to roll up at these sites, take the advice at face value and damage themselves.
This isn’t funny.
The worst aspect of this problem is that the good, well-researched information is drowned out by the sheer volume of trash.
Web-boosters used to say users would learn to recognise good information from bad by a site’s brand. So, for example, you might trust a news report from the ABC, BBC or CNN, but not from the National Enquirer or the Daily Mail.
There’s certainly some value in the idea. But does everyone know which trusted brand to turn to for reliable medical information or financial advice?