September 18th, 2008

The Web’s Getting a Little (mis)Dated

When the web first became a household word in the 1990s, dates weren’t all that important. The web was so new that everything on it must be new, too.

Early in the 2000s dates weren’t all that important, either. Old sites looked, well, old fashioned. It was easy to pick out a website that had been around for a while – it had poor graphics, mostly text, and usually garish colors. New sites, even ones by web novices, looked polished.

Now that everyone’s been producing professional-looking websites for a few years, it’s hard to tell what’s recent from what’s ancient. And many sites have failed to properly date their material.

That may not seem like a big deal, but it can cause real problems when timely information is everything. Just recently United Airlines stock spiraled downwards after Google picked up an old newspaper story and slapped a recent date to it. You can hear the play by play from a public radio report as Google found an old story, changed the date, and everyone else took Google’s word for it.

Many have blamed the original newspaper story for not having a date on it, but it appears Google is redating articles even when they have a date! This isn’t necessarily malicious, but it does show just how easy it is for things to get messed up in an automated world.

So, what can the average web user do to stop being taken in?

  1. Stay informed about current events and the world. If you know that United Airlines filed for bankruptcy a few years ago, you might question its happening again so soon. General knowledge helps you identify things that seem fishy.
  2. Be a little skeptical about everything you see online. The internet is full of jokesters, scammers, automated processes and orphaned content. Any of these can result in misleading information.
  3. Research, fact check, and confirm. We’ve posted about helpful sites like Snopes before, but not all misleading internet information rises to the level of an urban legend. Many are just banal mistakes (or lies) that can make you look stupid, but rarely touch more than a few dozen people.

So, what would you do if you saw the following on the internet? Believe it, or check it out? And would you know where to go to find the answer?

  • A hundred years ago, only 20% of Americans were literate.
  • The United States has never been invaded by another country.
  • There’s current evidence of enough oil in Alaska to power all U.S. homes and cars for 100 years.

So, there’s the challenge. What does your “gut” tell you, and how do you confirm it?

- Erin

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