It started with news organizations talking about the banning of iPads on college campuses. The only problem was that iPads have never been banned at schools and probably never will be. Heck, many schools are embracing iPads. How did this ban rumor happen you ask? All signs point to the new rumor mill.
First a little background. We’ve been reporting for a few days now about the iPad problems at Princeton. Notice how we use the term ‘problems’ instead of ‘ban’? It appears that some people drew their own conclusions about the original Wall Street Journal article (iPad Struggles at Some Colleges) that shed some light on the iPad problems happening at Princeton, George Washington University, and Cornell.
Thanks to social media and the ease of information sharing, the rumor mill started warning students that iPads were going to be banned by their campus police, taken away, wiped, etc. But, as was noted in the original article, it was merely an issue with the network settings not meshing well with iPad configurations. Not a major problem but it did cause some students to not be able to use their new iPads on campus networks for a few days. According to all the reports, less than 75 students were affected.
According to CNN Money, The Christian Science Monitor reported Princeton’s action as an outright “ban,” as if campus police were seizing any devices that crossed onto university property. The problem, as Steve Wildstrom (formerly of BusinessWeek) points out in a blog entry posted Sunday (and e-mailed around on Monday by grateful Apple PR reps), none of this is true. If you want to know what really happened — and how the disinformation spread — read Wildstrom’s report here.
The real concern about the story is not network difficulties or even iPads. It’s about how rumors spread online thanks to social media. Now that the story about iPads on campuses is pretty much in the past, it’s easy to trace a path of the information from start to finish. It started with the Wall Street Journal article and ended when an insider finally stepped in and explained that it was not a big deal and that they’re working on it.
However, if you take an example that is currently unfolding like breaking news and developing stories, it’s much harder to determine which information is credible and should be viewed as fact. It’s nice to think that social media is a system that allows the cream to rise to the top and all the rest fall to the bottom. Unfortunately, not everything is organized by the Digg model. You can’t just simply ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ blog posts to have them be discredited and disappear.
The new rumor mill is still under construction. Between Facebook, Twitter, and other information sharing services there are hundreds of millions of voices out there. Right now, it’s hard to find the best voices and most factual information above the clutter and noise. You can Google search a topic and the most recent tweets will appear in the search results, but this doesn’t mean it’s the most relevant. Google, Bing, Facebook, and other search-focused companies are already on the case, refining results and working on ways to deliver the most relevant facts to each query.
I am all for the sharing of ideas in an open environment. I embrace open source activities and applaud Apple for turning to HTML5 and CSS3 even if it is a cost-saving move. However, there needs to be more oversight when it comes to news stories or pretty much any news at all.
For example, Wikipedia has a robust and thriving online community that is somehow able to almost maniacally check facts, update pages with credible information, and most importantly squash false rumors and speculation. What if these super-users were given this type of power on Twitter or Facebook? What if you could trust that the legions of online superheroes that manage Wikipedia, free of charge, could tell you what’s important to you on a 24-7 basis? It would be the new evolution of news media as the old model is going the way of the dinosaur. In its struggle to stay relevant, newspapers could instead become online communities devoted to drawing in crowdsourced news and then using their highly trained editors to figure out which content matters, is verified, and will serve a purpose.
The lifespan of an online rumor may be brief; but thanks to social media, it’s powerful. It’s time to stop patting ourselves on the back for having so many users online. It’s time to figure out a better way to steer the conversation.
As Mashable’s Pete Cashmore wrote today for his regular column on CNN, any website can customize its experience for you if you’re logged into Facebook: Suddenly CNN.com stories can be ranked not just by an editor but by your friends too.
So while people rush to embrace the Like button because its new and shiny, it will quickly become obvious that users don’t want everything owned by one company. It happened to Microsoft. It happened to Google. It’s going to happen at Facebook. According to Cashmore, Google and other search engines won’t have full access to all these Likes, so the company best positioned to rank the Web will be Facebook. No wonder the “open Web” advocates are sounding the alarm, concerned that a single company will stockpile all of our personal information and preferences.
Already there are calls to create an “OpenLike” standard that’s accessible to all, reports Facebook watcher Nick O’Neill. He states that there is now a significant reduction in the friction involved in sharing information. The cost of this friction reduction? Privacy.
Ironically, there is a Like button at the bottom of Pete’s column and on Mashable. Only time will tell if people start demanding their privacy back or at least stop accepting easy-to-use sharing chiclets in exchange for privacy.
Essentially, Google is taking notice about the new Like button because it’s replacing how people share information and putting that information out of arm’s reach of Google’s web crawlers. This means Google search results may get less accurate while people migrate to Facebook in favor of more accurate search results.
I end this article on a pretty sour note. All the news that is happening, will happen, and will influence you is going to be delivered to you somehow. It’s up to you how you want to receive it. Only time will tell which new sharing method catches on permanently. For now it seems everyone is still enamoured with whatever is the latest and shiniest method. Feel free to e-mail or Digg this article if you want, there isn’t a ‘Like’ button here…yet.