On the Internet, Is Everyone an Expert?

More on User-Generated Content

With major Web sites such as Wikipedia being driven by user-generated content, some technology experts believe that the days of the professional journalist, critic, writer, moviemaker and musician may be numbered.

Roger McNamee is a venture capitalist putting his money behind the idea that the information filters of the 20th century are a thing of the past.

"There's something about being a first person observer that makes you a professional in the moment, if not permanently," McNamee says. "That's really what the Web's about now, is that everyone is an expert at something..."

Today, Web users looking to buy books can read amateur reviews on Amazon. If they want to see images of the fires in Southern California they can go to the photo-sharing site, Flickr.

Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur, thinks the opinion of the everyman is currently overrated on the Web.

"Fewer and fewer people trust the authority of the experts," Keen says, "and that's the big cultural challenge ... The crisis is that we are increasingly lumping professional journalists with politicians and bureaucrats and those people in authority who we distrust."

The Problem With Peer Reviews

Product reviews used to be the domain of professional journalists. Today, on sites such as ExpoTelevision, consumers are posting their own video reviews.

Yet amateur product reviews don't always get at the whole story. The "Bumbo Baby Sitter" — a popular baby chair — is one example of a product that received rave consumer reviews, but was later discovered to be flawed.

Michael Finney is a consumer affairs reporter for an ABC affiliate in San Francisco. He got a tip about the popular baby chair being potentially unsafe.

"When someone complains to us, that's just the starting point," Finney says, "that isn't the end point. That isn't what gets on air all by itself."

Finney says his investigations can take weeks or months of fact-checking and research.

"As a journalist, I live in a world in which the biggest sin is to get something wrong," Finney says, "and the next biggest sin is to lie about something. These casual reviewers don't live in my world. Getting it right and not lying often is not a big deal."

Giving Consumers a Voice

Ripoff Report is a site that invites users to post complaints about businesses. Founder Ed Magedson believes that on the Internet, consumers have finally found a place where they can be on equal footing with businesses.

"Consumers need to have a voice..." Magedson says. "We really needed the Internet and we really need things like Ripoff Report."

Currently, dozens of companies are suing Magedson's site for slander. But Ripoff Report isn't accountable in the same way that a newspaper or television station would be — so as long as Magedson isn't publishing his own reporting, he is not liable for the content.

Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, explains the law that was written to protect sites like AOL and Yahoo from being sued for what users said in chat rooms:

"In 1996 [Congress] said that Web sites that are publishing third-party content, such as the content of their users, are not liable the way that a newspaper would be liable for publishing submissions from its readers," Goldman says.

Ed Magedson of Ripoff Report is a full supporter of these legal protections.

"We're all gonna be blogged sooner or later ... good or bad, right or wrong," Magedson says. "This is what the Internet is all about: information, educating each other, and people deciding what's true and not true."

Who Can You Trust?

Venture capitalist Roger McNamee believes that eventually, people will decide who is trustworthy, and they will be willing to pay to get information from those sources.

McNamee says, "We may step back and look at it and say, 'You know what? I'm really glad that A. O. Scott reviews movies in The New York Times ... I'm really, really, really glad that David Pogue writes about technology there, because I need those people. Those people for me have built up enormous authority and with it, trust.'"

Still, it may be a while before the public learns whose opinions it can trust, McNamee says. In the meantime, it might be good to remember this adage: Don't believe everything you read.

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