Identity and authority
When Richard talks, I listen. That’s a lesson I learned even before Clearleft existed. Right now Richard is talking about civility online mentioning the specific example of Digg—something I’ve touched on in the past.
If there’s any truth to the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory then anonymity online can exacerbate the lack of civility. A key issue here is identity: you’re more likely to be rude or aggressive when posting an anonymous comment on a blog post than when you’re posting to your own blog—a place that’s associated with you and your online identity.
Just to be clear, when I talk about identity here I’m not talking about the issue of consolidating scattered online identities (a job for OpenID and, to a certain extent, microformats). I’m talking about identity as a basis for trust.
In order for an opinion to carry any weight online, the person posting needs to establish trust. A lot of the time this simply involves providing background material: “this is me, here are my photos, here are my bookmarks, etc.”
If you can’t provide a backstory, it’s becomes very hard to establish trust. Take for example the recent discourse on Flickr when some asshats ripped off Dan’s logo. To begin with, everyone was quite rightly joining the fray in support of Dan—with the exception of the Chief Executive Asshat from the rip-off company. But then some people showed up and started taking the side of the asshat. The other commentators did some quick’n’dirty background checks by simply clicking on the usernames and found empty photo pages. This lack of history pointed pretty strongly to these people simply being sock puppets.
But if your history establishes your identity and consequently your trustworthiness, then how can you instil trust if you’re just showing up to the party? As Kaliya was at pains to point out in her talk at the Web 2.0 Expo:
Trust is not an algorithm.
It’s important to realise that there’s a big difference between trust and authority. Trust is a personal judgement, different for everyone. Authority is a top-down value. There may well be an algorithm for authority—based on past achievements—but on the Web, authority isn’t nearly as important as trust.
Richard’s musings were prompted by an article in The Times that falls victim to the usual trap of mistaking a lack of authority with a lack of merit, citing the usual examples of Wikipedia and political blogs. The argument is based on the idea that someone who is paid to write (encyclopedias, newspapers, whatever) is likely to be more authoritative—and therefore trustworthy—than someone who writes merely because they have a passion for the subject. In my experience, the opposite is true.
Take some recent articles in The Independent:
- Wi-Fi: Children at risk from ‘electronic smog’
- Danger on the airwaves: Is the Wi-Fi revolution a health time bomb?
These articles were written by journalists and so they have authority. Yet they are entirely without merit because the stories are sloppily-researched, hastily written and downright untrue. Authority, in this case, does not equate to merit. I am far more likely to trust a blog post by Ian Betteridge debunking the articles precisely because he wasn’t paid to write it.
The word “amateur” has come to mean “unprofessional and sloppy” in common parlance. But it wasn’t always that way. The word can also be used to refer to someone who does something out of passion and enthusiasm.
The problem with those articles in The Independent is not that they are amateurish: the problem is that they are professional.