On the Internet Everyone Knows You Could Be a Dog, or Why I Think Aaron Sorkin Is Wrong About the Value of Established Media Outlets

“On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog.”

It’s one of those Internet jokes that seems like it’s been around forever, and is meant to highlight the idea that you never really know who you’re talking or listening to on the Internet. Anyone can start a blog or a social media account and start delivering their opinions to the world, whether thoughtful or thoughtless, informed or ignorant.

A while back, there was this interview with Aaron Sorkin where he talked about why he follows established news media outlets instead of Internet media to get the news. As he put it:

When I read the Times or The Wall Street Journal, I know those reporters had to have cleared a very high bar to get the jobs they have. When I read a blog piece from “BobsThoughts.com,” Bob could be the most qualified guy in the world but I have no way of knowing that because all he had to do to get his job was set up a website–something my 10-year-old daughter has been doing for 3 years. When The Times or The Journal get it wrong they have a lot of people to answer to. When Bob gets it wrong there are no immediate consequences for Bob except his wrong information is in the water supply now so there are consequences for us.

The interview reminded me of when Wikipedia first started becoming popular and people were constantly talking about how you couldn’t trust the information on it, because anyone could be editing it.

I, for the most part, think of that as a feature and not a bug. I think it’s a feature because it means that we know we can’t necessarily trust what’s in it. The mistake people make when they talk about not being able to trust Wikipedia is in the implicit assumption that we could trust encyclopedias as infallible sources before Wikipedia.

We couldn’t. Or we shouldn’t have. Encyclopedias have always been written by people. People have always been fallible. The companies that produce encyclopedias are no more immune from hiring or keeping on people who are bad at their work than our popular news media were immune from hiring the people who reported that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

I like Wikipedia because I know it could be wrong. Regular encyclopedias can be wrong, too, but my guard was never up in the same way with them as it is with Wikipedia. I like Internet media specifically for the reason that Aaron Sorkin doesn’t like it: because it makes it that much more difficult for me to have any illusions about the fact that the burden of critical thought is on me.

On the Internet, everyone knows you could be a dog.

I don’t automatically trust bloggers because a group of people I’ve never met decided to give them a badge that says “reporter” on it. I don’t turn off my critical thinking because they’ve gotten to be some sort of “professional”. I have to judge them on the merits of their writing and history of thoughtfulness or thoughtlessness alone. Because they could be a dog, and I wouldn’t know.

Most of my best news these days I get from people who have absolutely no reporting credentials. Some of them may lack those credentials specifically because of the systematic biases inherent in the groups of people who are able to confer those credentials, which means I often get news about things that the established media is systematically and irresponsibly silent on. I don’t get to trust my news sources implicitly because of a logo or the perceived “accountability” that some apparently think is enough to keep official media outlets honest.

That is a feature, not a bug, because we should never trust any news media outlet implicitly. When your news source is a blogger you like, you get reminders of that. When your news source is the established media, you had better make sure you don’t forget it, because it turns out there weren’t WMDs in Iraq, and some of the people who reported that there were still have jobs there.

6 comments on “On the Internet Everyone Knows You Could Be a Dog, or Why I Think Aaron Sorkin Is Wrong About the Value of Established Media Outlets

  1. Pingback: Is Media Better When Blatantly Unreliable? | 上り口説 Nubui Kuduchi

  2. This points makes some very good points; I would also add that on Wikipedia and on some blogs, you can look to the discussion page or the comments, and very often find a plethora of commentators (whether expert or otherwise) raising legitimate issues with the content. This is something which you cannot find in, say, the Encyclopedia Britannica,

  3. Pingback: Do you trust Wikipedia? - Page 2 - Empty Closets - A safe online community for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender people coming out

  4. I started tuning out traditional media in 2012. There was a protest in Los Angeles, and I was watching the coverage on a local station, KTLA, a station that had an excellent reputation for journalistic integrity, for decades. The reporter mentioned the fact that the protestors were carrying a large sign that read, ‘F*** the Police.’ He made several statements over the course of about ten minutes, wondering why the police weren’t doing anything about that pernicious sign.

    Eventually he talked to someone, I think a PR officer from the LAPD, who explained to him about the 1st amendment and why the F-word sign was in no way illegal, and this dummy proceeded to explain it to the listening audience like it was some interesting tidbit of breaking news. He explained it like he was talking to five year olds… And I remember thinking, okay, so much for the 4th estate… I sent a tweet to KTLA asking kindly, “@KTLA your reporter who just said on the air that he didn’t know what the first amendment is, does he still have his job? If so, why?” No response.

    Bloggers are the 4th estate now, so far as I’m concerned.

  5. I agree entirely, too many media outlets were just assumed to be trustworthy and then bam! NOTW phone hacking! Sorkin’s argument in Season 2 of Newsroom that he wants to know who commenters are and what their level of education is before they can comment just smacks of the worst kind of elitism. I like the idea that I can research my news, read several different takes on it, written by people who, on the whole are not being paid, who are doing it for love or because they’re really bloody annoyed about whatever the news happens to be.

    Just because someone has a paycheck and a business card shouldn’t make them more trustworthy. In fact, given the number of public school educated upper class Oxbridge identikits that seem to populate most British mainstream newsrooms, it actually makes me far less certain that the news I’m getting is unvarnished.

    • Totally agree. Biasing based on education level is just reproducing the biases of the educational system. One of the most insightful bloggers I know never finished high school. Moderating comments, done right (in my opinion at least), should be about what people contribute to the discussion, not whether or not they completed X years of school.

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