Separating the Truth from the Facts

There was almost a look of horror on Rudy Giuliani‘s face when he realised what he had done in saying “Truth isn’t truth”. His reputation as New York Mayor at its most challenging time, not to say his career as a lawyer, may have been completely undone by this latest pronouncement on behalf of an administration that has increasing difficulty in separating facts from fiction (or “real fakes” from mere “fabrication”?).

“Doh!” Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images/Saul Loeb

In our post-truth age, one where we have had to accommodate “alternative facts” and “fake news”, language, if not the truth, is usually the first casualty in this war of, and on words themselves.

If one was being charitable, it could be argued that the struggle between “facts” and “truth” is like the difference between structuralism and post-structuralism: so, in the former, words have a finite meaning when used in a particular way or structure; whereas in the latter, the same words can have different meanings depending on the context of the audience.

But rather than critical theory, I think we are actually dealing with a phenomenon I first encountered about 20 years ago, while working in China. A report in the China Daily regarding a constitutional matter that was before the courts said that in order to fully understand the issue, it was “important to separate the truth from the facts…”.

Next week: The party’s over


Publishing is Dead – Long Live Publishing!

The name of this blog was inspired by a former colleague at The Thomson Corporation. As our team embarked on a major push into digital media in the mid-90s, he reminded us that the old publishing mantra “Content is King!” was being recast as “Content in Context”. Simply having loads of content was no longer enough to command a dominant or exclusive market position – publishers had to make sure their content was timely, relevant and easy to navigate. Ultimately, content has to help users find insights to their problems and solutions to their needs quickly and efficiently.

I was reminded of this recently when I heard some data storage experts talking about the challenges of what to do with all the data we are creating – especially at the rate we are going. According to latest analysis, 90% of all data was created in the last 2 years.

We keep being told that publishing is dead, but it is clear that we are producing more content than ever before – in which case, it’s great to be part of a dying industry! Sure, the business models are changing, and so is the technology; but there are still a number of core publishing disciplines that we risk losing sight of as we continue to develop boundless and limitless volumes of digital content.

There are several skills that publishers traditionally bring to any new content, print or on-line. And it’s not just about technology, SEO or the number of “Likes”. Any content owner seeking to engage vendors to develop their digital assets and manage their on-line presence would be well advised to ask potential suppliers about their experience, strengths and processes in each of the following areas:

  • Commissioning – having a nose for new authors, where to find them and how to nurture their talent
  • Editing – turning text and data into meaningful and coherent content, including length, structure, tone, clarity and access (tables of contents, indexing, cross-referencing, citations, footnotes, bibliographies, etc.)
  • Design – using appropriate formats, layout and fonts to suit the material and the readership
  • Customer Engagement – bringing the audience into the publishing process, through market research, pre-sales activity and user groups
  • Marketing – knowing how to distribute particular content or promote a particular writer
  • Content Management – analysing the usage data and capturing audience feedback, to understand the value of the publishing assets

Yes, these skills do exist in the digital realm, but increasingly the publishing process is being made subservient to the technology, often at the expense of meaning and comprehension. Doubtless this stems from the misconception that the speed and frequency of publication renders everything as mere ephemera – so why do we need to bother with such archaic ideas as an index?

An author acquaintance of mine recently lamented the response of his publishers who, when informed that his text-book needed an index before it could be distributed in schools, responded, “what a great idea – why don’t you send us one!” I can only assume that the publishers were so caught up in on-line media that they had forgotten how most readers navigate books or other content, especially when they are accessing them for the first time.

On-line developers do us a great disservice if they forget that digital content needs tools such as indexes and tables of content to aid user navigation and accessibility – text tagging and search functions are all very well, but they do not always return relevant or meaningful results, and they can create unintended or unforeseen linkages that may be completely out of context.

As a consequence of the exponential growth in on-line content, and our simultaneous interest for archive material (and the demand for data analytics), publishers are increasingly taking on a new and important role as curators – managing content assets, understanding how to present them, knowing the value of the material they are dealing with, and finding the right context in which to provide this content.

This shifting role of publishers is just confirmation that publishing is far from extinct.

Social Media – finding its own level?

Social media is accessible to all...

Social Media is accessible to all…

Recently I’ve come to see that as a communication tool Social Media is just like any other resource or commodity – it’s not an end in itself, it’s what you can do with it that makes it valuable.

If I had to make a comparison, I would say that Social Media is most like water – not just because we seem to be swimming (if not drowning) in the stuff; but because like water, it will find its own level. And as Myer CEO Bernie Brookes found out this week, something that sustains us can also be unleashed against us.

As content pours into our Social Media aquifers, it will naturally flow, collect and disperse. The rivers of content being uploaded daily* suggest that unlike other resources, Social Media will not run out any time soon:

  • Twitter: 400 million Tweets posted per day
  • Instagram: 40 million photos uploaded per day
  • YouTube: 72 hours of videos posted every minute
  • Facebook: 2.5 billion content items shared per day
  • LinkedIn: 175,000 new profiles created every day
  • SoundCloud: 10 hours of audio uploaded every minute

These reservoirs of digital content that we are creating could be put to good use (like dams that provide hydro-electricity). Viewed from this perspective, Social Media can be seen as a potential source of energy. Rather like waterwheels that harness the power of rivers, Social Media can be used to drive a range of applications; but left to its own devices, and with nowhere else to go, all this content will simply collect in stagnant pools – sometimes you need to use part of that energy to keep the water flowing downstream.

In just the past week I’ve been exposed to three more Social Media platforms, each of which is at advanced beta stage: @IFTTT – a tool to re-publish selected updates to multiple platforms via a series of automated decision trees; @Poptip – a tool for conducting polls via Twitter; and a personalized viral marketing tool which I probably cannot mention by name because I had to sign an NDA in order to participate in the pre-launch.

Each of these new platforms is trying to harness the potential of Social Media and keep the communication flowing (the waterwheel analogy). Similar to other Social Media platforms, these tools also act like aqueducts carrying water to where it’s needed. It’s as if we are using the content to feed a Social Media irrigation system – the results of which allow us to harvest followers, “likes” and customers.

The question is, who will we look to for inspiration when we come to write Social Media’s epitaph – will it be Smith, Bell, Coleridge or Goethe?** Will we end up drowning in the stuff (but no-one will notice until it’s too late)? Will we wish we had used it more sparingly? Will we be faced with an abundance that we cannot actually make use of? Or will it be a case of “be careful what you wish for”? (Clearly, King Canute is of no assistance, as it’s far too late to turn back the tide….)

* Note: Statistics gathered from a casual internet search of company websites, press releases and industry commentaries. No claims as to accuracy, currency or verification.

** Literary references: Stevie Smith – “Not Waving but Drowning”; William Bell – “You Don’t Miss Your Water (Till Your Well Runs Dry)”; Samuel Taylor Coleridge – “Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink”; Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”

“If it’s not on Facebook, it didn’t happen…”

I truly fear the day, probably some time in the very near future, when the phrase, “If it’s on Facebook, it must be true…” is used in open court as factual evidence. Not because I especially distrust this particular social networking platform, but because it would imply that social media has become a document of record. This would mean that content from Facebook and other social networks could be cited in court as evidence of information being true, of an event having occurred, or of a person (or object) actually existing.

Many commentators have explored this question of social media and “did it really happen” either in the context of existentialism (“I Instragram therefore I am”), or in respect to social media etiquette (“just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”). I am more concerned with what happens when we start to place inappropriate reliance upon content and information published via social media?

It took a number of years for faxes and e-signatures to be accepted in court as evidence of a document having been executed or a legally binding agreement having been created. E-mail is now admissible as evidence that a formal notice has been served between parties to a contract.

In some situations, e-mails and text messages are cited in court proceedings as evidence of a person’s promises, denials, deeds, opinions, state of mind or intent. “Smoking gun e-mails” are not uncommon in major court cases, and many organizations are required to archive e-mails and instant messaging for the very purpose of maintaining a “paper trail” in the event of future legal proceedings.

But I think we are far from ready to recognize social media as an official document of record, even though many users treat these platforms as a primary source of news and information.

Recently I was speaking to a Gen Y acquaintance who admitted that she got much of her daily news via a group of Facebook friends, who each post stories or news items as they hear or read about them on Facebook and the media. Given the immediacy of such “news bulletins”, the fact that this might be second-hand news does not seem to matter – “peer recommended” or “peer referred” information is often deemed to be just as reliable as the official or primary source, even if the content is selected on the basis of the number of “Likes” or how prominent it appears in search engine results.

Of course, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Yahoo and their users are vulnerable to legal action if they propagate libelous or other offensive content; and as we know, this material can be used as evidence in criminal and other legal proceedings relating to cyber-bullying and hate speech, etc. That, I have no issue with.

Equally, I have no problem if social networks are used to announce births, deaths and marriages, or if companies want to communicate with their customers and suppliers via social media. If a customer seeks to rely upon the terms of an offer placed in a retailer’s Facebook page, that is no different to relying on a newspaper or broadcast advertisement. But let’s not equate publication on social media with our obligations to register or file certain events and official notices with the relevant authorities.

Social media allows each of us to be anonymous or hide behind assumed identities, and to publish what we want within the limits of free speech and other legally defined parameters.

But there is nothing to say that any of the stuff that we publish about ourselves has to be true or accurate, and I would be aghast if that was ever made a pre-condition for using social media. Social media is a wonderful platform for expressing opinions and exploring different aspects of our lives and our personalities, and it is precisely for this reason that social media is incapable of being regarded as a document of record.