Trusted Information in the Age of Digital

by: Heather on 03/01/2012
Posted in: Education

This morning I learned on Facebook that eating an onion which had been previously sliced and carefully refrigerated overnight could make me deathly ill. The original author offered all kinds of justifications for why he believed this assertion, but not a single credible source. Not surprisingly, the post was disproved with less than a minute of basic research.

Yesterday, a number of socially aware and concerned Facebook friends offered up a list of companies purportedly owned by Monsanto. While I didn't have the time to meticulously research the entire list, I knew, and quickly verified, that a number of the companies on it (for example Green Giant and Cascadia Farms) are actually owned by General Mills. Still agribusinesses, yes, but ones who have come out publicly refusing to use Monsanto biotech sweet corn in their products. And as such, companies that probably are not  deserving of being pilloried as subsidiaries of what many are  coming to believe is one of the most evil companies on earth.

Each of these stories and many other wildly inaccurate bits of "news" spread like wildfire over social media every day, mixed right in with real, valuable and verified information. Thanks to the "democratization" of  the internet, it has become increasingly difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. It seems like a hoax is even more likely to go viral than something true (perhaps because hoaxes are generally crafted to appeal strongly to people's sense of what they want to believe or expect to be true, thus allowing them to slide right past their perceptual filters without a second thought).

At the same time, we are bombarded by speculation about the declining relevance of publishers in the digital age. Why would readers pay for a book (a comparatively small unit of information), if they have access to the whole sea of knowledge for free? Why would authors opt for publishing, when then can bypass the whole cumbersome business and connect directly with their readers using technology most of us now have at our command?

The answer, I think, is trust.

If you read a book that has been published by a reputable publisher, you can trust that information because that publisher, by the act of publication, has declared their willingness to stand behind the words on that page (or screen). If you're an author, there's a very real benefit to distinguishing your voice from the choir by being associated with a publishing house that will stand behind you and your book, to say nothing of the reward of knowing that your book was chosen from amongst all the others as one that a given publisher was willing to put their name on and their money into.

The quality of a publisher's books is their stock in trade, and they are not going to risk their reputation to add fuel to the latest online fire. They will have taken the time to check their facts in a way that your average user of social media will not. Because if you click "Share" on Facebook and the story turns out not to be true, oh well, you just move on. But if a publisher releases a book that contains dangerous misinformation, slander or perjury, they will be very concerned about the consequences.

Publishers have a very real role in the digital age as curators, helping to make sense of conflicting ideas. And as people tire of wading through the swamp of information overload, many will turn (or return) to publishers as their trusted sources for cutting-edge knowledge that has been exhaustively researched and has verified sources. And when they arrive, publishers will be there with our tried and true editorial mandates.

Now off to Facebook to check out the latest on that killer onion - be careful with that share button out there!



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