Accuracy and the Blogosphere

As an academic librarian, I see one of the biggest practical challenges of our burgeoning information age as teaching our patrons (students, certainly, but also faculty and staff) how to identify the good (valid, authoritative, reasonable) stuff from the bad on the Internet. As I have discussed before (“Is the RSS World Flat?“), it can be difficult for novice (and even experienced) researchers to figure out the provenance of what they find through Google or their aggregator.
I recently stumbled on a parallel instance of this problem, this in the political sphere. A recent article by David Bauder entitled “Blogs Make Spreading Untruths Easier” (the version I found was published at, but the article was undoubtedly syndicated widely via that old-school syndicator, the Associated Press), notes how quickly the blogosphere can disseminate information — truths and untruths alike. The example Mr. Bauder starts with is that of an error, published in a magazine, about the nature of a school U.S. presidential hopeful Barack Obama attended. This error flew through the traditional print and broadcast media as well as the blogosphere. (There is no particular blame on bloggers here — none should be inferred.)
Rumors always fly, and errors — honest and otherwise — have always survived and spread. However, in a digital world that uses popularity as a proxy for importance (if not for validity), an honest mistake or a well-crafted fiction can appear as valid as the truth. The fact that an entry is broadly cited is a proxy for authority, but it is also a proxy for its catchiness. Look at the now-defunct “Miserable Failure” Google Bomb — which Google has defused by changing its ranking algorithm — to see how popularity-driven search results can be gamed.
As librarians, we have a special responsibility to provide access to information — without regard as to its source. At the same time, we have a responsibility to teach our users how to judge and value the significance of the information they receive from us.
The nature of RSS makes an already difficult task that much harder. Teaching people to think critically about the resources they go out and find by consciously looking for information is one thing. I’d like to think we’re collectively making progress in that arena. I wonder how we’re doing with teaching people how to sip from the fire hose of “push” content.
Here’s an example of what I mean. To help me stay on top of ways libraries are using RSS, I set up a Technorati keyword search for blog posts that contain the words “library” and “RSS”. Yes, that’s pretty broad, and the Boolean searcher in me knows that it’s not particularly well constructed. I get lots of good posts from the biblioblogosphere about libraries and RSS — but also lots of irrelevant stuff that happens to talk about a code library that generates RSS, or includes navigation to the university library and an RSS feed, and just plain spam. When I scan through the scores of posts I get each day.
Now, I like to think of myself as fairly savvy and discriminating. I know that some of what I’m seeing is what I deserve to see given a bad search technique. But I’m equally certain that this sort of search happens all the time and that users may not be as discriminating (even as I think I am).
Libraries cannot be in the business of approving each and every blog post for accuracy or validity; we collectively do not have the resources to do this for every blog publisher. At the same time, I think this highlights a librarian role that is not being filled. I see this as a “syndicated content” problem, not as a “weblog” problem. Perhaps there is a syndicated solution out there among the RSS4Lib readership?

One thought on “Accuracy and the Blogosphere”

  1. Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Ken!
    If the information seeker has learned good information literacy skills and techniques for evaluating information sources, how is information received via an RSS feed different from information delivered by other means? Put another way: What makes this a “syndication problem”?
    It seems to me that the problem here is in expecting a broad search of the blogosphere to produce results that are anything other than wildly uneven.
    I think you’re right that libraries cannot be in the business of approving each and every blog post for accuracy or validity- but this isn’t really new. Libraries can’t be in the business of approving each information source in other media either. They can’t and don’t- instead they teach others how to be more discerning.
    Every medium produces a healthy share of noise from which the discerning consumer of information must learn to filter for the desired signal. What makes information delivered via RSS syndication substantially different from any previous media in this regard?

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