More Than a Shallow and Unreliable Electronic Repository

While search engines continue to evolve to help us slog through the internet tapioca, there are tools that we can use to enhance the quality of our information retrieval.

It has been said that:

“The Internet is a shallow and unreliable electronic repository of dirty pictures, inaccurate rumors, bad spelling and worse grammar, inhabited largely by people with no demonstrable social skills.”

– Chronicle of Higher Education, 4/11/97 (via Joseph Reagle’s Internet Quotation Appendix)

And that was 1997…


And in the short time that the web has been “read write” for the masses, there is little argument that the amount of unreliable garbage on the wild west web has increased exponentially.

Which makes sense, considering all of the unreliable garbage that people say and write in other places besides the web.

However, the web also provides us access to the marketplace of ideas and information like never before.

But accountability, at least in part, for judging the reliability of information must ultimately rest with consumers of information on the web. Here are some basic tips for navigating the internet sludge.

Advanced Search Operators

Some of the most helpful search enhancement tools at our disposal are advanced search operators. These are “special” searches that direct search engines to provide a specific set of results. Google Inside Search: Operators and more search help highlights some of the more advanced features of Google Web Search.

One of my personal favorites is the “site:” advanced search operator.

For example, let’s say I want to limit my search for scholarships to list only educational institution websites on internet top-level domains (TLDs) containing .edu. I would type into Google:

scholarship site:.edu

Or maybe I want to see if any government sites have information on scholarship availability. I might search:

scholarship site:.gov

You can also weed out certain TLDs. For some searches, I found using “-site:.com” very helpful in removing all websites ending in “.com” from my results.

Finally, you can also use the site: operator to deliver results from a specific website. Google provides one example:

Google allows you to specify that your search results must come from a given website. For example, the query [ iraq site:nytimes.com ] will return pages about Iraq but only from nytimes.com. The simpler queries [ iraq nytimes.com ] or [ iraq New York Times ] will usually be just as good, though they might return results from other sites that mention the New York Times. You can also specify a whole class of sites, for example [ iraq site:.gov ] will return results only from a .gov domain and [ iraq site:.iq ] will return results only from Iraqi sites.

Here is another great resource for using Search Operators.

But search engines aren’t the only place that advanced search operators can assist us. Twitter also has advanced search functionality:

Twitter Search Operators More Than a Shallow and Unreliable Electronic Repository

And so, you can quickly search for specific conversations between specific people. You can also use Twitter’s advanced search form.

Curating Your Web

In addition to making more sophisticated searches, there are a host of other tools that can help you curate your web:

Responsible Information Consumption

Even with advanced search operators and recent Google updates, you’re still going to come across a lot of web trash. In the end, in order for the web to provide you with more reliable information, you have to take responsibility for the sources of information from which you consume.

UC Berkeley’s Evaluating Web Pages: Techniques to Apply & Questions to Ask provides some practical guidance:

  • What can the URL tell you?
  • Who wrote the page?
  • Is the page dated? Is it current enough?
  • What are the author’s credentials on this subject?
  • Are sources documented with footnotes or links?
  • If reproduced information (from another source), is it complete, not altered, not fake or forged?
  • Are there links to other resources on the topic?
  • What do others say?
  • Who links to the page?
  • Is the page listed in one or more reputable directories or pages?
  • What do others say about the author or responsible authoring body?
  • Why was the page put on the web?
  • Might it be ironic? Satire or parody?
  • Is this as credible and useful as the resources (books, journal articles, etc.) available in print or online through the library?

It’s easier than ever to fall victim to bad internet information like false twitter death reports. Which makes it more important than ever for everyone, and particularly lawyers, to exercise good judgment and diligence in sourcing, citing, quoting, consuming, and otherwise relying on information from the web.

Obviously, lawyers must be especially careful about who and where they get their information online.

To me, being a responsible consumer of information online is about more than being conscientious about the reliability of your sources.

It’s also about seeking out a fuller picture of the multitude of perspectives to which we have access. For example, if you do curate your search results beware of online filter bubbles.

Does that mean that lawyers should never rely upon what they read online? I don’t think so. In fact, one might argue that it’s perhaps even more, or at least equally, irresponsible to withdraw from the online idea marketplace.

The only way to combat the bad information on the internet, is to practice responsible web consumption.

Vote with your clicks, subscribes, shares, likes, and page views.

And so, if you find that the internet is largely a shallow electronic repository of dirty pictures, inaccurate rumors, bad spelling and worse grammar, inhabited largely by people with no demonstrable social skills, then perhaps you have no one but yourself to blame.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/wwworks/4120359367/)

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