Web Informant #383, 23 August 2004: More on self-publishing




My comments on blogging last week have prompted Deb Radcliff to write the following. I thought it was worth sharing. Deb (www.deb.radcliff.com) is president of the Freelance Business and Technology Writer's Association (www.fbtw.org). Since 1994, she's specialized in computer crime and security. Lately, she's been spending much of her time trying to educate the non-technical masses about online safety. Take it away, Deb.


While addressing a room full of computer science faculty last spring at the West Point Military Academy, I was surprised at the veracity of their questions targeted at the media. They asked tough, stimulating questions such as, "Why would any reporter want to go to a battleground to cover a war when it's so dangerous?"


"That's simple," I replied. "We want the front page stories."


They tried like crazy to get my dander up, and finally, one of them did. "Why does anyone want to read traditional press anymore when self-publishing is so easy on the Web?" That got me thinking. And my answer to him is the same response I felt when reading Strom's Web Informant #382.


Traditional media offers protections to the readers you can't get with self-publishing. It also offers more protections to the writers.


For starters, traditional journalism has built in safety mechanisms to ensure quality of information to the reader is worthy of their trust. We have trained writers (which Strom discussed in his essay), fact checkers and trained editors who vet out the information. Publishers have had eons to work this stuff out. True, some of stories fall through the cracks, even at big publications like the New York Times. But for the most part, readers of traditional media can be assured that what they're reading has been researched and written with professional techniques applied.


The second issue that concerns me about self-publishing is liability. I took a semester-long course on media law and ethics when I was in college. I know the difference between defamation and libel, about reasonable expectations of privacy and how they don't apply the same way to public figures. I also know about protecting my sources, and cross-checking my information before it goes to press. And if all that fails, I've got the protection of my publisher should I ever face a legal challenge.


But what of the self-publisher? What happens when someone claims libel or defamation or invasion of privacy against an unrepresented, unprotected blogger type? And believe me, this will happen. When I wrote a story for Better Homes and Gardens about Internet manners for kids, I covered blogs extensively. Many teens and pre-teens use these things to ruin one another's reputations, to comment on the size of a girl's breasts and other things that, under today's laws, could rightfully be litigated against. I envision a huge can of worms opening up here.


The other issue is privacy. Young people, in particular, give away far too much information about themselves on blogs. When I was a columnist at Computerworld, I wrote a story about college age girls posting their pictures a vanity site called "AmIHotOrNot.com". In the HTML code of their pictures, they included addresses and phone numbers - against the site's privacy policy. All it took was a right click to track them down. When I confronted two of them, the response was the same. "The younger generation is different than you, we don't care about privacy so much." (Ouch! When did I get so old?) The other response: "I've been stalked before. And I don't care. I still want my information public so people can find me if they want to." Mark my words: Web-based self-publishing can be DANGEROUS.


But what rankles me most is that of believability. When I first got on the 'Net back in 1994, one of the first SPAMs I received was the Neiman-Marcus cookie recipe story. The story was about a customer of Neiman-Marcus who liked a cookie she ate in the dining area. When she asked for the recipe, the waiter wanted something like $1000 for the recipe. So, being a journalist, I called the merchant's PR director. She sighed and said she wished the story would go away. It was an old folk tale that the company thought had died in the 70's only to resurface again on the 'Net. More recently, my ex-mother-in-law, a devout Christian woman, read an email that circulated around Christian groups claiming that a famous British writer worshipped the devil and sacrificed children. She -- and hundreds of thousands in the Christian community -- believed the story. I appealed to her that if someone were in a famous position, they probably wouldn't do something so stupid and ruin their image, but still she believed the email.


Nave readers are everywhere. They believe because it's in writing, it must be true. And this is truly scary. To further prove my point, I'll end this with something America Online did just after 9-11. Like all journalists, I was searching for some way to help people deal with this crisis by coming up with an important story angle. So I went into some of the AOL chat rooms which claimed to have "live psychologists" moderating to help people deal with their anger and grief. People were spilling their guts. They were angry and wanted revenge. And the moderator was spurring them on with canned questions such as, "That must make you angry."


"Damn right, I'm angry," wrote one of the users.


"So tell me about your feelings."


"I think President Bush should go after those sons of bitches and cut their throats out. I think we should nuke the entire middle East."


People in the chat room got angrier and more violent until I chimed in. "You know you're talking to a computer program, right? This is not a real psychologist. Notice that the questions keep repeating???"


All of a sudden the room got real quiet. Then everyone exploded again. Against AOL. And I went from room to room letting everyone know they were talking to a recording, hopefully preventing people from getting guns and shooting people with coffee-colored skin and eastern accents.


Entire contents copyright 2004 by David Strom, Inc.

David Strom, dstrom@cmp.com, +1 (516) 562-7151

Port Washington NY 11050

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