“Television is the big loser in media trustworthiness with the rise of the Internet. When asked where they turn first for trustworthy information, 29% of respondents in the U.S. still cite TV first, down from 39% three years ago. The Internet is now cited by 19%, up from 10% in 2003. The same trend is evident in the U.K., where television has declined from 42% to 33% as respondents’ first choice, while the Internet has risen from 5% to 15%.”
Why is (finally) television loosing ground, whereas Internet trustworthiness has doubled? I’d say because the web is a potentially much more powerful medium for building trustworthy institutions. Old-fashioned television just can’t compete. Seth Godin captures its dilemma as follows:
“News on television isn’t ‘true’. It can’t be. There’s too much to say, too many points of view, too many stories to cover. Television can never deliver all of the facts and every point of view. The best a television journalist can hope to do is combine the crowd-pleasing, ad-selling stories on fires and crime with the insightful but less popular stories on world events. And, we hope, to do it without an obvious bias.” [from All Marketers are Liars]
“The Internet” is a very heterogeneous medium in terms of what types of interactions or narratives it enables. Some of the most interesting projects in the Web 2.0 space aren’t very innovative from a technological standpoint. Indeed, they are first and foremost social innovations. They are movements that form new institutions with new organizing principles, many of which are concerned with solving social dilemmas. There’s an ongoing change as the web matures, with more and more sites becoming functional, trusted institutions. And that change, I believe, is what drives these numbers.
So, where are the newspapers? The same survey has this to say:
“Newspapers, which are often thought to be the most serious casualty of the Internet wave, show rankings essentially unchanged in most markets at approximately 20%. Newspapers remain the first trusted medium of choice for respondents in France, Germany, Japan, Brazil, Korea, and Italy.”
Why? Maybe because newspapers–as it stands today–are institutional forms with a future. As I see it, newspapers–although facing lots of challenges–have a much clearer migration path to renewing themselves and becoming part of the new media ecosystem. Newspapers, as institutions, seem to work well in symbiosis with The Long Tail of Blogs, and, for now, I see no signs of big change in that structure.
I hear many people today ask whether they can “trust Wikipedia”. Often they contrast Wikipedia with encyclopedias written by professionals, often they complain about the quality of certain articles, and often I have the feeling they simply don’t get it.
Thinking about this, I’ve come to realize that there’s no simple answer to the question posed in the title of this post, and I’d like to explain why. First, however, I’ll need to talk briefly about trust.
Trust is something perceived. There is no individual or institution that intrinsically “has trust”. Someone can be trustworthy, a source can be credible, a system can be predictable–but it’s up to you to decide whether to trust the person, source, or system in question. Another important property of trust is that it takes time to build–and it can be lost in a split second.
A look at society reveals a vast amount of overlaying and intersecting institutions–many of which are created to deal with issues of trust. Broadly spoken, these institutions serve to abstract the mechanisms for building trust away from the basic “face-to-face” level to a level that works on a larger scale. By doing so, these institutions bring stability in a specific context–whether it’s a market, a currency, or a physical space.
In game theory, the prisoner’s dilemma illustrates what happens in a situation where there’s no way for different parties to establish a trust relationship prior to a transaction. Since there’s too great a risk in trusting, each party chooses not to trust, which leads to a total payoff that is lower than it would have been if both parties had trusted each other. This problem is generally referred to as a social dilemma.
Now, as Howard Rheingold argues in a recent talk on the future of collaboration (don’t mind the techno, it’s an interesting talk!), a major challenge for institutions of the kind mentioned above is to turn the prisoner’s dilemma game into a something called an assurance game (also known as a stag hunt). The key is to develop mechanisms for establishing trust relations between actors in a system, so that they can start doing transactions based on trust, which in turn increases the total size of the pie. Institutions, seen from this perspective, present solutions to social dilemmas.
So, how is this relevant to the question of whether one can trust Wikipedia?
Because Wikipedia–just as its older counterparts–is an institution. But Wikipedia presents a new solution to a specific social dilemma on an unprecedentedly large scale.
One could argue that Wikipedia is still an encyclopedia. But its organizational principles are so different from those of its traditional counterparts that we have to adopt a whole new mindset in order to even begin developing trust in it. Consider Chris Anderson’s answer to whether one can trust Wikipedia:
“The answer is not a simple yes or no, because it is the nature of user-created content to be as messy and uncertain at the microscale, which is the level at which we usually expercience it, as it is amazingly successful at the big-picture macroscale. It just has to be understood for what it is.” [From the The Long Tail]
It gets more complicated still. The trust I’ve got in the institution Encyclopedia Britannica is not identical to the trust I’ve developed in the institution Wikipedia with its NPOV, its Benevolent Dictator, and its Long Tail of diff-checking contributors. Wikipedia is different, it’s a new game, it constitutes a novel paradigm. It will take time for the institution Wikipedia to build trust with its users–and comparing that trust with the trust people have in other encyclopedias might in the end make little sense!
And so it looks as if at this point, the only reasonable answer I can give to the question of whether you can trust Wikipedia or not, is a very definite “Probably”.