When I first heard about Google’s Knols project a while back, I was concerned that a user-generated “encyclopedia”, unmoderated and fueled by ad revenue for its creators, and served to an unsuspecting population in Google's own organic search results based on (a) link popularity and (b) personal search histories, had the potential to create an info-cocoon of self-reinforcing biases on topics like abortion, gun control, and affirmative action.
"These Knols have now started to take the Internet by storm - after all they are served by Google and contain a vast amount of knowledge so it only makes sense that they would start dominating the search engines." - the Google Knol Guide
In a society that fields a vice-presidential candidate who believes in the Rapture, I felt Knols was the kind of project with the potential to change the Internet “marketplace of ideas” into a warren of extremist rabbit holes.
And in that context, I just finished reading Farhad Manjoo’s True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.
His book describes the tech- and culture-fueled “ascendancy of belief over fact”, and he makes the case that not only can we now choose to believe what we want in spite of facts to the contrary, there is an industry growing up to exploit our propensity for factual relativism. Referring to the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” effort that may well have cost Kerry the 2004 election, Manjoo points to a “critical danger in our infosphere”:
And this hasn’t just led to polarized viewpoints – Manjoo posits that we dynamically construct our reality by knitting together the bits and pieces that reinforce our personal worldview (“selective exposure” leading to "biased assimilation"), and discard those that don’t.
Net, we have arrived at a time and a place in our society where we are arguing not about ideas, but about reality itself.
Or as Manjoo puts it: “Welcome to the Rashomon world, where the very idea of objective reality is under attack.”
Manjoo, citing Stephen Colbert, warns of the corrosive rise of “truthiness”:
“Truthiness means you choose. But you aren’t just deciding a reality, you are deciding to trust that reality – which means deciding to distrust others. Whenever you choose, you’re making a decision to form a particularized trust. This is the essence of the new medium”.
This isn’t just an interesting intellectual exercise - the UK recently passed the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive (UCPD), meant to bring UK advertising practices in line with EU directives current and future, that render illegal many "covert marketing techniques". Paid content must be identified as such. Brands and their agencies can't masquerade as normal folks to extol their product virtues in chat rooms. No social network profiles for characters in commercials, “leaked” guerrilla YouTube videos or bloggers paid to surreptitiously push your commercial agenda. What will DCI group do if that law gets passed here? SImple - they won't LET it get passed here.
From the standpoint of brand experiences and brand communications, all this highlights one of the dangers inherent in the interactive gospel we preach: social media and interactive communications can be used for good or evil. One can use these tools to tell brand stories, or lie. Or both.
If Manjoo's right, you'll hate True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society or it'll reconfirm your existing suspicions. or both.