Last Updated: Friday, 25 January 2008, 14:02 GMT
Searching for the truth online
David Reid
By David Reid
Reporter, BBC Click

The world wide web is a modern miracle - a source of boundless information; a publishing place for budding authors, musicians, movie makers and opiners.

Users post videos on YouTube
The quality of user generated content is casting a shadow online

The problem is that when any old Joe can contribute to the global information bank, how can we trust what we find?

It was one of the topics under discussion at the recent Internet Governance Forum in Rio.

Some people are saying that the web has been dreadfully oversold, and that user generated content, rather than being interesting and insightful comment about the times we live in, is instead an unbroken stream of unmediated and opinionated chatter.

Wisdom of the many

The publishing and broadcasting revolution that has seen the rise of sites such as Flickr and YouTube is seeing a new blog created every second and the people previously known as the audience now produce the content.

Culture, broadly, is the victim because there's more and more of this user-generated dross out there and professional, high-quality culture, whether it's film, television, music or journalism, is in crisis.
Author Andrew Keen

Silicon Valley resident Andrew Keen has written a book, The Cult of the Amateur, asking if we are being sold a line here, all for someone else to pocket the profits.

"There are people making a fortune out of the web 2.0 revolution, whether they're from Google, YouTube or Wikipedia," he says. "They've convinced all of us to become authors and they're making a fortune out of us.

"We're giving our content away for free, most of it has no value, and much of it is unreliable and embarrassing for us.

Jimmy Wales

"Meanwhile culture, broadly, is the victim because there's more and more of this user-generated dross out there and professional, high-quality culture, whether it's film, television, music or journalism, is in crisis."

As a charity, Wikipedia does not make money but relies on free labour for its very existence.

Criticised for its lack of authority and vulnerability to vandalism, bias and inaccuracy, the site is also seen as pushing a myth that there is a democracy of talent and that the wisdom of the crowd is equal to that of a hard-working expert.

Andrew Keen calls it the "great seduction". In response, he has been accused of under-estimating how the internet has freed people from the passive acceptance of someone else's information.

Democracy of access

"The internet, for the first time ever, has democratised access to information," says Mark Kelly from the Council of Europe.

"But more than that, social network sites are allowing freedom of assembly and association between people in ways that would have been inconceivable even a few years ago.

Protesters march in Burma
Web users e-mailed their photos of the recent protests in Burma

"I greatly welcome the diversity of communication that there is on the internet and I don't think quality has suffered."

During last year's demonstrations and government clampdowns in Burma, the internet helped those on the ground get pictures out.

Yes the production values were low but it was journalistically invaluable, especially when government censorship stymied standard reporting.

But can such compelling pictures and reports - the first draft of history, as they say - be trusted?

They may not, for instance, be subject to the same sort of journalistic rigour associated with delivering largely reliable information. This is an issue for the mainstream media that is often itching to use the stuff.

Fact checking

"A lot of people e-mail their pictures, video and e-mail reports of things they've seen [to the BBC]," explains Richard Sambrook, the director of BBC Global News.

"But we don't broadcast any of it until we've gone back to them, talked to them, and checked out the veracity of what they've sent in.

"I think for professional news organisations like the BBC, and others, that kind of fact checking is at its core. You don't get that on social networking sites, blogs and so on. That's really one of the key distinctions that I think Andrew Keen is making."

The internet is disrupting the business models that once supported news, culture and knowledge.

We download for free; let the public report; leave knowledge creation in the hands of the crowd. But is this numbing our tastes and lowering our standards for truth?

In short, is the cost of having more for free that when it comes to quality we are satisfied with less?

"We're undermining culture to such an extent that it's harder and harder to sell the thing," says Mr Keen.

"We're giving it away for free, which means that no-one's buying anything, which you see, for example, in the record business - the collapse of a whole industry, the recorded music business.

"It's not an ideal business, I acknowledge that; it was run by some very short-sighted and sometimes self-interested people. But nonetheless I prefer a world where there are lots of CDs rather than none at all."

The means of production and dissemination are shifting, and the cacophony of internet voices means we all feel lost in the woods.

Perhaps then there is still a role for established and trusted media brands to help people find a way through the muddle and get a clear picture on the other side?

Call to regulate the net rejected
29 Aug 07 |  Technology
The evolution of the web
01 Jun 07 |  Click

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

banner watch listen bbc sport Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific