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.