Long Tail, Decline of Filters, Information Literacy

In Salon today, Farhad Manjoo applies Chris Anderson’s “Long Tail” theory to news: Chasing tail. While Anderson’s book is concerned only with the business implications that come from the ability to sell lots of niche products, Manjoo considers the web’s ability to connect citizens with niche newspapers, magazines and partisan blogs to be part of the same phenomenon.

Unlimited choice and easy access shake the world in unpredictable ways, causing people to splinter along the lines of niches they enjoy, and sometimes to lose touch with the world beyond. Today it’s possible to stop reading newspapers and instead get all your news from the Fox News channel — indeed, this is something many millions have done.… To put it another way, I worry about the filters. Because the long tail has everything in it, the only way to find anything useful there is by using some kind of filter.

The web allows for a democratization of information, which, in turn, creates the need for more information literacy. In other (less annoyingly pretentious) terms, the fact that it’s cheap to publish on the internet puts a great deal of biased, incomplete or simply wrong information on the same level as balanced, thorough and authoritative information. Individual citizens, students and researchers need to be more attentive to sources and details when sifting through such information and spend more time verifying and fact checking claims.
Where in pre-internet environment, a number of filters sat between crackpot theories and a researcher. Those filters (reporters, publishers, librarians) still help to judge accuracy and reliability, but the unfiltered internet makes it easy to find the unfiltered and unreliable and individuals now need to have the skills to determine what is credible and what is not.
On the other hand, sometimes more filters can distort the truth. Salon.com editor Scott Rosenberg discusses the difference between blogs and comments at his personal blog, Wordyard: Lanny Davis, bile, and the distinction between “blog” and “comments”: “The simple distinction between the proprietor of a site — the ‘blogger’ — and the poster of comments is being forgotten or deliberately ignored here to score a political point.… In open online environments, it simply makes no sense to hold the publisher/blogger/site owner responsible for every opinion, attitude and flame that visitors post. If that’s where we’re headed, we might as well just shut down the Net and go home.”
47 USC §230 provides a “safe harbor” for the hosts of online forums (such as blog comment pages), so that the publishers are not considered the publisher or speaker of comments posted by unrelated third parties. Of course, although the law exempts site owners from liability, it does not prevent unwitting or unscrupulous commentators from attributing to a site owner the words of an unrelated comment poster.
Previously: Information Literacy