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June 27, 2011 / David Woodford

How should we consider content “published” on the internet

Many of the so called “problems” with the internet are derived from the fact that people have different views on how to consider the content on it. In particular the law seems to consider all content on the internet as being  edited content of the same class as a newspaper and hence seeks to regulate it as such. In contrast the people who actually use the internet recognise that there are different types of content and use them as such. Instant messagining and twitter are used without thinking for realtime conversations just like normal speech whereas blogs generally require more effort and are closer to newspaper publications.

The old view is that when something is put in writing it somehow becomes more official and meaningful. You can say what you like verbally but if you write it down it must be correct. It seems to me that this is became accepted because of the high costs of writing and publishing something. Handwriting something takes time and sending a letter could take days. IF you were to go as far as to publish something like a newspaper so that it could be read by anyone you would need to invest in a printing press. This meant that people would take time to ensure that what they wrote was correct. It also meant that most of the time things that were published were published by organisations rather than individuals. The result of this is we came to expect things written down to carry more weight and hence were quicker to take action against those wrote things down which were incorrect.

The “problem” with the internet is that it broke this assumption. Firstly most people can type faster than they can speak (and think) so they are more likely to make mistakes or phrase things in a way which distorts there meaning than in a verabal conversation. For example I pay less attention to what someone says to me in an Instant messaging conversation than what they say to me face to face.

Secondly it is now incredibly cheap to make information available to the world online. Once you have an internet connection you don’t need to pay anything to write a message on twitter or facebook or on a blog. This means people don’t need to worry about making a mistake since they haven’t wasted any money in making it (just like the quality of most of the photos people take has dropped since the invention of digital cameras).

So the old ways of determining which forms of communication carry the most weight have broken down. This doesn’t mean however that the internet has something wrong with it. Just that it’s different which is kind of the point of improvements.

How we tend to now consider how much weight to attach to a message is to what extent it has been edited since this is when errors have been removed or thought has be put into creating a convincing lie. Integral to the process of “editing” is the ability to save a draft.

It is because of this that instant messaging conversations or tweets carry very little weight whereas a blog post carries a lot. When instant messaging I have often hit enter before I have really considered what I have typed (sometimes before I have finished typing it). This is almost as real time as a conversation. However when I write a blog post I usually save the draft and go away for a while so that I can come back a read it fresh before I publish it. This means that what I type here I have put a lot more thought into and hence I should be held more to account for what I write.

Services like twitter are somewhere in between. You can’t draft tweets but I generally spend a bit longer  thinking about them than I do an IM conversation. Additionally you have to click tweet (pressing enter just creates a new line whereas on most IM clients pressing enter with a twitch of your little finger will send the message).

In reality there is a continuous scale of how much we weight we should attach to different types of content and hence how much we should hold the person who created it to account. However, we can broadly create three categories based on the way in which the content is produced.

The least weight should be attached to short content types using a keyboard and published by pressing enter. Slightly longer content published by clicking a button should still carry little weight but slightly more. The content that the author should be held to account for is content created in an editor with the facility to save drafts since this content can be considered to have been edited.

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