MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
These days, the buzz in Silicon Valley is all about user-generated content. YouTube, Facebook, Wikipedia, MySpace - sites that are interesting because of what the users put on them. Some of the leading thinkers in the world of technology believe the days of the professional journalist, critic, writer, moviemaker, musician maybe numbered.
NPR's Laura Sydell reports.
LAURA SYDELL: Roger McNamee is putting his venture capital behind the idea that the information filters that dominated the 20th century are gone.
Mr. ROGER McNAMEE (Venture Capitalist): There's something about being a first person observer that makes you a professional in the moment if not permanently. And I think that's really what the Web's about now, is that everyone is an expert at something, even if the only thing they're an expert at is understanding what their friends like or don't like.
SYDELL: Today, when someone wants to buy a book, they check amateur reviews on Amazon. If they want to see a picture of the California fires, they go to Flicker.
But Andrew Keen, author of "The Cult of the Amateur," thinks right now, there is an unhealthy worship of the everyman.
Mr. ANDREW KEEN (Author, "The Cult of the Amateur"): Fewer and fewer people trust the authority of the expert. And that's the big cultural challenge. That, in my view, is the crisis, is that we are increasingly lumping professional journalists with politicians and bureaucrats and those people in authority who we distrust.
SYDELL: Product reviews used to be the domain of professional journalist. Now if you're looking for a seat for your infant, you can go to ExpoTV.com where consumers put up their own video reviews.
(Soundbite of ExpoTV.com review video)
Unidentified Woman #1: I would like to tell you about a great baby product which is the Bumbo Baby Sitter. And I have Lucy sitting in…
Unidentified Woman #2: It has a nice humpback(ph) here. You set your little child in here, that's what you do.
Unidentified Woman #3: This is the Bumbo Seat and everybody needs one. I'll tell you why…
SYDELL: But the Bumbo chair may also be a good example of the problem with trusting reviews by your peers.
(Soundbite of show "7 On Your Side")
Unidentified Woman #4: The "7 On Your Side" investigation has raised some serious questions about the potential dangers of the seat. And Michael Finney is here now with much for us.
Mr. MICHAEL FINNEY (Consumer Affairs Reporter, ABC): Yes. The Bumbo Baby Seat is hugely popular…
SYDELL: Michael Finney is a consumer affairs reporter for the local ABC affiliate in San Francisco. Although posts on consumer Web sites were filled with raves about the Bumbo chair, Finney got a tip that the chair was unsafe.
Mr. FINNEY: When someone complained to us, that's the just the starting point. That isn't the end point. That isn't what gets on air all by itself.
SYDELL: Finney says his investigations can take weeks or months of fact-checking and research. Based on what Finney uncovered, a federal agency is investigating the safety of the Bumbo.
Mr. FINNEY: As a journalist, I live in a world where the biggest sin is to get something wrong. And the next biggest sin is to lie about something. These casual reviewers don't live in my world. In their world, getting it right and not lying often is not a big deal.
SYDELL: Still, Finney admits that there are stories he can't get to. That's a void that a site like RipOffReport.com is trying to fill. The site lets users post complaints about businesses. Founder Ed Magedson believes that on the Internet, consumers finally have a place where they can be on equal footing with business.
Mr. ED MAGEDSON (Founder, RipOffReport.com): Consumers need to have a voice. Business controls the media here. We really needed the Internet and we really need things like RipOffReport.
SYDELL: Currently, dozens of companies are suing the site for slander. But RipOffReport isn't accountable the way a newspaper or a television station would be, so long as Magedson isn't publishing his own reporting.
Eric Goldman is a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law.
Professor ERIC GOLDMAN (Law, Santa Clara University): Congress, in 1996, said that Web sites that are publishing third-party contents - such as the content of their users - are not liable the way that a newspaper would be liable for publishing submissions from its readers.
SYDELL: The law was written to protect sites like AOL and Yahoo from being sued for, say, what someone says in a chat room. Legal protection for all that speech is good, says Ed Magedson of RipOffReport. The more information, the better.
Mr. MAGEDSON: We're all going to be blogged sooner or later, good or bad, right or wrong. This is what the Internet is all about - information, educating each other and people deciding what's true and not true.
SYDELL: Eventually, venture capitalist Roger McNamee believes that people will decide who is trustworthy and they will be willing to pay to get information from those sources.
Mr. McNAMEE: 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. And I'm 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.
SYDELL: McNamee says it may be a while before the public learns whose opinions are reliable. In the meantime, it might be good to remember the old adage: Don't believe everything you read.
Laura Sydell, NPR News.