RSS Chinese whispers

Is the context of a post to a web site important? When you read something from the web how important is the source, other material on the same site, the look-and-feel of the site even? When reading items gathered by an RSS news aggregator much of this context is lost. True, other posts collected in the same RSS feed (most often from the same site) can provide congruity but it’s not uncommon for RSS feeds from weblogs for example to contain incongruent posts. A post on the state of world politics in between posts on a favourite pop song or what someone had to eat the night before would not be out of place on many weblogs. Now add to this RSS feed snippets or extracts from other weblogs, again a common practice on many weblogs, and very quickly you have a mix of decontextualized data where the original source isn’t always apparent.

An interesting example of RSS decontextualization is doing the rounds in some aggregators this week. On Wednesday 25th Feb Mark Schalofski of the HACT website posted a spoof article ‘revealing’ that the Orkut online community web service was in fact a data gathering exercise for a masters thesis. Orkut’s registered users had been duped into unwittingly providing the site’s creators with valuable data on the social habits of netizens. This is of course false although a disclaimer at the foot of the original HACT article proclaims “except in that it rings true in a scary way”. Who knows, Schalofski may have accidentally exposed the secret truth behind the Orkut phenomena but for now that’s not the point. The real point behind this is that already I’ve seen items in my RSS reader that have picked up on the HACT piece by reading other web sites, and by a kind of Internet Chinese whispers the HACT piece has transformed into truth. Without the context of the original piece, the meaning has changed or at least people’s interpretation of it has. It’ll be interesting to see how far this HACT meme about Orkut travels. In fact as an experiment in the transfer of information through social networks it’d be interesting to deliberately start spreading false information. Only the naive would refuse to believe that this doesn’t happen all the time anyway. Indeed, why do you believe what you read?

Any Internet publishing technology is susceptible to misinterpretation due to decontextualization but as weblogs and RSS news aggregators become ever more popular these kinds of contextual mistakes are likely to increase. The veracity of certain weblogs will doubtless increase due to authoritative reporting until they transform into well-used sources of information. Just like the situation we have now with more traditional print media. The rest of use will be participant in an unedited free for all where anything written or read must be taken on trust, precisely the situation we have now.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.