Dawson shooting

The Internet Part 1: People Lie? No Way!

Part 2 of this article is now available: http://ireneogrizek.ca/2012/11/11/the-internet-part-2-disappearing-bad-review/

Part 3 of this article is now available: http://ireneogrizek.ca/2012/11/13/4638/

I‘m posting an amusing video from Natalie Tran, the young YouTube sensation from Australia. The first 90 seconds of this video tell the story:

Now apart from the humorous content, there is a real message here: a lot of people on the internet lie.

I’m interested in the idea of online deception because of another video I’ve seen, one of a TED speaker who spoke at the global conference held in Edinburgh this year. The price of admission was £6000, an amount that surprised me so much I started looking into how those conferences are structured and organized. I wanted to know why a four day event, with speakers who only speak 18 minutes each, cost so much. When I looked I found a tide of anti-TED sentiment, some of which augured with my feelings about this particular speaker, Rachel Botsman.

Botsman is an expert on “collaborative consumption,” a fancy way of saying she’s an expert on how people buy, sell and swap goods and services online. The first two or three minutes is enough to get a general idea of her thoughts about trust.

Botsman takes a close look at Airbnb and TaskRabbit. Airbnb is an online service that matches travelers with accommodations in (mostly) private homes; TaskRabbit is an online service that matches customers looking to outsource tasks — like assembling an Ikea desk — with “task-rabbits,” people who specialize in doing them. Her primary thesis is that the currency in this new marketplace is trust. I have some issues with this. First, Botsman’s assessment of how trust works over the internet is far too optimistic, and second, swapping and bartering are hardly new.

That’s the problem with some of the claims that are being made by web enthusiasts: Rather than seeing the internet as an extension of ideas that already exist, they see it as an innovator and creator of new marketplaces. My use of personification in that last sentence is deliberate. Apparently there is life in this creature called the internet and some people are using very persuasive and telling language to make us believe it.

And this is where the Web 2.0 officially intersects with The New Age.

If you follow my blog, you’ll know that in 2008, my mother had a stroke. There were some problems at her acute-care hospital, problems that had more to do with the attitude of some medical staff and less to do with the fact that that region of Canada was in the midst of a budget crisis. I mention the budget because the staff I dealt with consistently pointed to it as a way of explaining the poor level of care my mother was receiving. I didn’t believe that crisis accounted for all our difficulty and so I looked to the internet, to sites like RateMyMD.com, to see if my observations, particularly of some physicians, were consistent with the observations of other users of the system. What I found intrigued me.

With one physician I saw a curious pattern, a pattern I’ll call 4, 5 or 6 to 1. What that means is that for every negative review of this man, which focused on his poor attitude or tendency to show favouritism, I found that 4, 5 or 6 very positive reviews followed. Some of these positive reviewers mentioned a specific observation made in a poor review, and then turned it around to make it sound as though the negative reviewer either

a) had unreasonable expectations or
b) had misunderstood the rigours of the physician’s job.

Ostensibly, RateMyMD.com is there to serve the public. However, it became clear upon close reading that these reviews had been written by healthcare workers. How did I know? They occasionally described medical procedures laypeople wouldn’t witness or used jargon laypeople wouldn’t use. They also, frequently, made this particular physician sound like a hero. This last fact really troubled me. Surely, I thought, users of our healthcare system deserve to know the truth about some of its most worrisome practitioners?

Those lies are what got me started on this quest to understand the uses and misuses of the internet. Those lies are what took me to my first IT conference in Manchester, England, last May. Once my mother was safely ensconced in a nursing home, and once I had given my own mind and body a chance to recover from the demands of looking after her, I knew I needed to look into this.

I don’t wish to state the obvious: We all know it’s easy to lie on the internet. However, what’s imperative to its successful navigation is a level of vigilance, vigilance that slips away from us at times. That area of slippage — that gap between what we accept as the truth or reject as a lie — is where those pesky half and total untruths sneak in.

And we all know how this works.

There are times when we are too tired, too distracted or just too uninformed to be discerning. An idea from the internet appears on our mental horizon and it looks good, sounds likely and we make the decision — at some level — to believe it. It could be we make the decision out of laziness; it could be we make it to stave off feelings of inadequacy or overload; it could be we make it because it’s an idea that’s appealing. Think of how strongly we want to believe in the goodness of our heroes and in the badness of our villains. An example? Lance Armstrong raked in tons of money even when evidence of his doping was obvious and obviously there all along.

In Part 2, I will be looking at a transcript of Botsman’s TED talk and examining her use of euphemistic language. She’s particularly skilled at it, but then so are a lot of people who are trying to sell us something.

Answer to question asked in The Perils of Perfectionism, Part 2:

What word ties these three words berry, horse and drink together?

The answer is straw.

Tags: Natalie Tran, Rachel Botsman, internet, lies

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