The Internet, and by extension social media, has had the potential to virtually eliminate hearsay for some time. Any stray thought we have about a subject could be verified by someone within our extended sphere of acquaintances who has studied this subject. Any questions we have about an event could be answered by someone known to a friend or family member who was actually there.
The archiving and search functions of the Internet are astounding. The connection potential of Twitter and Facebook have been well-documented. So, why then do we have things like this?
- Someone asking their social media to answer a question they could have answered with a little research?
- Someone using the phrase, “I read somewhere that…” in an online argument, rather than supplying the actual text that they read?
- People giving their theories about *what actually occurred* at an event when people who were actually there are already talking about it?
I have some thoughts:
People ask questions that they could have answered with research for two reasons. One, people don’t know how to trust the information they search for online because the current model involves getting information from strangers. Strangers are putting conflicting information on the Internet, and people are unsure which information to trust. Therefore, they are asking their friends to help them sort through the opposing theories for a trustworthy answer. Secondly, sometimes people ask questions not because they couldn’t figure something out, but because they want to talk to you. Asking for information on the Internet is often the equivalent of small talk. You could go through life assuming everyone is an idiot who doesn’t know about Google, or you could consider the idea that they’re asking you something for another reason.
I Read Somewhere That
Again, this can be broken down into two root causes. One, people are lazy. I’m not saying that people don’t want to put effort into something. I’m saying people don’t want to put effort into things they don’t think deserving effort. They can write paragraph after paragraph about an event, but will they read a single paragraph about that event? Some will, but many won’t. Two, actual text sometimes has the problem of not actually supporting your statement. Whether consciously or unconsciously, people have a tendency to select only those portions of a greater work that support their ideas. If they supplied the entire text, others may determine that it doesn’t actually support them.
Excluding the Participant from the Conversation
As above, the tricky thing about witnesses to an event is that they don’t always support your interpretation of it. Inviting someone with more knowledge or experience of an event or subject also means relinquishing some control of the conversation. That’s not the way many of us want to argue. Secondly, witnesses and experts may not have the time or inclination to get involved in every conversation touching on their experiences.
Is There a Way Forward?
I have the following suggestions:
- Reduce the conversation. Instead of writing to the entire Internet for an answer to your question, think about someone you actually know involved in that area of research. If you want to find out what happened at an event, think about someone you know who lives in the area. Ask them if they know anyone who was there. Ask these specific experts your question.
- Rebroadcast experts. Once you get your answer in the manner listed above, ask this expert if they’ve ever written anything on the subject. If they have, link to that instead of rewriting what the expert told you. If they haven’t, ask them to do so. If you had the question, chances are someone else would have the same question. If they are uninterested, and you believe you can present their thoughts accurately, ask them if they would mind if you wrote something based on their information. If they agree, ask if they would have time to review it before you publish it. If they don’t agree, leave it alone.
- Strengthen bonds and reduce focus. There is always a new outrage somewhere you’ve never been. Someone you’ve never heard of is always suffering. Compassion for strangers is not a bad trait, but writing about the causes of a stranger’s suffering when you have no personal connection to them turns them into a tool for your own purposes. If you feel you must write about events that occur outside your own experience, strengthen your bonds with those near to this experience so that they can be your channel to these strangers. Writing about another’s tragedy without personal knowledge turns them into your own fiction. Writing about a scientific discovery without personal knowledge of the researchers or research turns it into your own thought experiment. Large portions of the Internet are currently fan-fiction about real life. Do your best to change that.
A Final Observation
Having read this entire piece, an important fact may have come to light. It shall be nestled inside a large amount of words to dissuade those who are uncomfortable with writing to ignore it. Each of the rules outlined above was broken in the creation of this work. The term charlatan may be apt here. Let it be a private observation between friends. Furthermore, if one has reached this point through skipping to the end they will be disappointed.
Let us do our best to return research and accountability to our utterances, lest we find ourselves imprisoned in a world of historical fiction.