January 16th, 2009

Pssst . . . The Internet is Just Paper

When people talk about the internet, they tend to talk about how how much better it is than the print world. It’s fast, multi-media, and intricately connected. The screen is far beyond what paper could ever be.

BUT . . .

All this talk about the fabulous features of the internet can blur one important way that the internet is just like paper. The internet is simply the delivery service, not the content.

In the print world you’ll see a wide variety of content, and most of us are very good at identifying and evaluating that content. For example, most of us immediately know that all of the following can appear on paper:

  • grocery lists
  • how-to instructions
  • maps
  • family photos
  • news articles
  • legal cases
  • scholarly research papers
  • conference proceedings

Plus, we can identify each paper item quickly and will which ones are most appropriate for academic research papers.

Yet, when many of us see those different items on a screen (and if you think for a moment, you’ll realize that all of the above can be found through an internet connection) our ability to identify and evaluate items breaks down.

For example, if an acquaintance hands you a paper flier originally printed by an unknown source that’s been passed through dozens of different hands, you’d probably really question the authenticity of the statements in it.

But somehow, email forwards don’t get that same level of scrutiny.

Similarly, a person can post a webpage using the same amount of time and energy it takes to write a manifesto and tape it to the side of a bus shelter.

Now, you’d probably stop and think before citing a bus shelter screed in your assignment, but on the internet, everything looks kind of the same. The clues that tell you something should or should not be used are less apparent.

But that doesn’t mean that all things on the internet are equal. Because almost everything on the internet is just a version of what exists in the physical world (printed matter, film, etc.), the first thing you should do with anything you find online is try to compare it to a real-world item you know about.

Is this a home video?

Is this an advertisement trying to sell me something?

Is this a research paper from a reputable academic journal?

Is this a pamphlet from a health organization?

Is this the rantings of a lunatic?

Is this a government research report?

Not only will knowing this help you determine what you should believe or use in a research paper, identifying the nature of the content will also help you create the correct APA citation.

APA citations are based on the content, and electronic versions of the content require an extra bit of information in the citation, not an entirely different citation.

For more help evaluating items from the internet, see our library guide Evaluating Sources or our Evaluating Your Sources tutorial.

- Erin

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