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Media

Are we too informed? – Ideas on how to be stay afloat in a sea of ignorance

Introduction

Information is everywhere. It’s on our phones, our clothes, invading our homes, following us throughout our day, attacking us at every turn. The air is constantly pulsating with data being shared and streamed all over the world from person to person.

Twitter, Facebook, television, conversation, blogs, text messages, books – in some form, we all contribute to the vastness that is the collective global information system everyday, some times several times a day. We post links to articles about politics. We tweet our opinion of a new movie that we saw. We call someone to tell them something we read somewhere, or saw downtown.

With all those people sharing all that info all the time, when will we reach the point of info-oversaturation?

I think we’re already getting there. In the same way that a sponge can only soak up so much of a spill before it’s just spreading the same dirty water everywhere, the human collective is coming to a point where it just isn’t soaking up any information – it’s just spreading all this crap, like #dirtywater (shout out to the best hash tag ever) everywhere.

But how does this happen? How do we become “too informed”?

I blame it, of course, on the Republicans.

George W. Bush – dim-witted, incompetent, liar. I honestly can’t remember much that happened during W. Bush’s presidency in terms of new laws that he passed or causes that he helped. I just remember Comedy Central and the rest of the media making fun of him.

That seemed to become the trend after that. Anyone with a bit of popularity who did something that someone didn’t agree with was blasted all over the TV and magazines (remember those?) and web sites. Blogs popped up for Team Aniston vs. Team Jolie, Team Edward vs. Team Whatever-the-other-guy’s-name-is, Team Obama vs. Team McCain. People starting writing and talking about what was happening in the world from their perspective, and calling it fact. Perez Hilton’s popped up all over the Internet, reporting their brand of “breaking news” aka regurgitating whatever they read from someone else’s site, normally without fact-checking it first.

We began to shape our reality through the things that people posted and shared. Information was no longer something that you had to go to the library to get, or buy from a bookstore, or spend hours searching for online. No, and the Internet gods looked down at millions of users learning and becoming informed, and it was good.

Until we realized that a lot of what we were knowing and sharing was garbage.

I’ve see celebrities die on Twitter and then resurrect hours later. I’ve watching people get fired up over causes that don’t really exist. I’ve been tricked into thinking that I could get free donuts from Dunkin’ Donuts, only to find out that it was a hoax.

Unverified information is like chicken pox. It’s really easy to get, and most people aren’t immune to it. It all starts at the source. One kid at school gets chicken pox, like one guy reads a story online about Chinese people who eat babies in soup. Just like that kid who innocently touches another kid at school and unknowingly gives them chicken pox, our Internet reader may tweet a link to the baby soup article or put it on his Facebook page with a comment that says “Told you Chinese people are f—ed up!”, giving that poison article to about 550 of his friends. Now the virus is out there. People who read that Chinese people eat babies are in an outrage. Some stop going to Chinese food restaurants. Others begin to call their Chinese neighbors “baby eaters”. A woman fires her Chinese baby-sitter and then writes a blog article encouraging all the other mommy-bloggers that she knows to do the same. A group Chinese people rally together and file charges against a pregnant woman in Nevada for discrimination after she refuses to see her pre-natal doctor, who is Chinese. And so on and so forth.

I know that this story sounds far-fetched, but it’s based on a real-life situation and isn’t really impossible or improbable, given the right conditions.

The Internet, technology and social media put the power of controlling the ebb and tide of revolutionary fervor in our simple, often ignorant hands. The same people who contribute to the #youknowyoughettowhen hash tag and post videos of people “Icing” their friends are the same people who, given just one piece of unverified information, can start a wildfire of ignorance.

Like I said, we’re all just sponges soaking up news, commentary, history, status messages, song lyrics, quotes, keynote speeches and advertising and the only warning that we get is “Somebody is lying to you.” At this point, most of us are just over-flowing garbage pails of useless information. Sadly, there are very few genuine truth tellers in the world today, and as we reach the point of over-saturation, I worry that there is no place in the world for non-sensationalized, untrendy true information.

Throw me a life raft…

Sadly, there is no 100% fool-proof way to survive the onslaught of data that you are faced with every day. However, here are some key tips that you may want to consider when getting your information:

1. Wikipedia was written by people too. I admit, in college I fell into this trap myself. Wikipedia is so awesome. Just simply type en.wikipedia.org/wiki/[search_topic] to access a perfectly understandable, supposedly comprehensive article about whatever or whoever I want to know about. But, we must remember that Wikipedia provides only user-generated data. There are people – normal, prone to miscommunication people – writing those articles. They too have killed people before their time, or tried to add TMZ-brand banter to articles just because they thought that people should know. If an article has no footnotes, or really sketch ones, then it may not be the best idea.

2. Just because someone says that they’re an expert, that doesn’t mean that they are. I am a social media guru. Not really, but I have over a hundred followers on Twitter and over 5,000 tweets. I also have a LinkedIn and I use Foursquare. They really doesn’t make me a guru at all, but for some folks, all they need is a custom Twitter background and all of a sudden, they’re experts. This isn’t a new concept. Forever, people have been trying to hype themselves up with buzzwords like “guru”, “expert”, “enthusiast” and “evangelist”. But all the cool nicknames in the world does not a true expert make. Be wary of the pros in whatever field you’re researching. Fact-check the heck out of anyone without professional certification or enough years of service to vouch for enough know-how to make what they have to say valid.

3. Most celebrities are not experts at anything besides breathing, making money and maybe acting or singing. True, there are some celebrities who are legitimately smart and are qualified to give advice and information to other people. This does not in any way include reality TV stars. In the same way that South Park figured out that Magic Johnson’s cure for AIDS was to inject concentrated cash into his bloodstream, every celebrities’ guide to happiness, really, is to be famous. On the random chance that someone famous writes a book about something besides themselves, make sure to check the credentials before hopping on the bandwagon.

4. Be the best read dog on your block. Remember when Clifford the Big Red Dog and Scholastic were telling kids that true power came from reading books? Books are great, in that they allow you to physically hold on to a piece of information. I love that. Also, unlike the Internet, it’s the job of the library to separate the fiction from the non-fiction. Very helpful. It’s also interesting to note that, back in the long ago days when people had to read encyclopedias and go to the library to do research, there were tons of valuable sources on the same information all in the same place. If I wanted to do research on cats at the library, Cat in the Hat would not be on the same shelf as the National Geographic’s Guide to the Feline Species. Not true for the Internet. If I type in “Barack Hussein Obama” in Google’s search box, I get links to his Wikipedia page and his campaign website, as well as links to articles questioning whether he’s the anti-Christ or a Muslim or a race-baiter, videos of him refusing to salute the American flag and photos of him with a bong and some Doritos. Where’s the real true information these days?

5. Just because it’s being reported in real-time doesn’t make it real. Imagine you’re walking down the street on a warm, sunny day. You’re listening to your iPod as you casually stroll down the street, towards your apartment. All of a sudden, you smell smoke and look up to see a tower of flames billowing up from your neighbor’s yard. You freak out and call 911 and your sister and tweet about it. The fire truck arrives, only to discover that your neighbor was having a backyard bonfire party for his daughter’s 10th birthday. That, my friends, sadly, is how real-time reporting often happens.

Where do we go from here?

Thankfully, I don’t think that I’m talking about anything new here. These are all common sense ways to deal with a nonsensical world. In the same way that you’d rather give your kids home-cooked meals instead of McDonalds, you should want to give your mind organic, non-manufactured information with no additives or preservatives.

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