Back in the mid 1990s, British jewellery retailing chief Gerald Ratner made a light-hearted speech over lunch in which, jokingly, he referred to some of his own products as “crap”. The remark was neither off-the-cuff nor original – he had said it publicly several times before. But this time, there was a reporter present, and it made front page news. Overnight, customers abandoned the stores, the share price plummeted; Ratner’s business and career were in tatters.
In June, Jimmy Wales, the founder of the online open source encyclopaedia, Wikipedia, had something of a ‘Ratner moment’. In an interview, Wales told the US education magazine The Chronicle that students looking for reliable answers to questions should not use the Wikipedia. “For God’s sake,” he said, “you’re in college; don’t cite the Wikipedia”.
Just like Ratner before him, Wales must be somewhat bemused by the reaction. He has openly discussed issues about accuracy before, but this time the quote has been recirculated throughout the media, and is being repeated by college tutors and parents and on the conference circuit. Over at Encyclopaedia Britannica, which has jousted with Wikipedia over accuracy and relevance, they must be dancing on their desks.
The Wikipedia episode will no doubt die down over time. But Wales’ comments and the subsequent fuss touch on some critical issues of trust and accuracy that are raised by the new ‘Web 2.0’ technology.
And these issues will become more important as more businesses, and especially the media, embrace the democratic, fire-and-forget culture of Web 2.0.
Let us first recap how this works. Under the old and accepted model, the media and many other businesses employ specialists who distribute their information or knowledge from a central point, which is carefully controlled and regulated. The BBC, for example, employs editors, correspondents and, of course, fact checkers; in another example, an IT supplier employs specialists who answer queries about products and services, possibly from a call centre.
Web 2.0 is democratic and open: the information can be supplied by anyone. This might mean news pictures are supplied by people who actually saw what happened; that first hand experiences or eye witness account are written about on blogs. It might mean that technical queries are answered by anyone who thinks they might know the answer.
In some cases, it works extraordinarily well. IT people will see an obvious and fairly accurate analogy with open source software, which, while far from perfect, has helped solve many problems and is helping to hold down the cost of software.
But what if the information is wrong? What if there is just too much of it too be useful? What if it been maliciously distributed? Or what if the opposite is the case – it is accurate, but it conflicts with an approved company line? There are now an estimated 22 million blogs out there, and many are written by employees who bypass the corporate communications office.
These problems are not just hypothetical. Dell is grappling with what to do about a blog site, Dellhell, which focuses on service and quality problems. Microsoft has bloggers who have revealed problems in its software development process; and Fortune magazine recently reported on the case of Sara Radicati, an analyst who was ferociously attacked by what she calls a “bunch of sickos”, bloggers who abused her after she criticised IBM’s Lotus Notes.
In the traditional media, and in traditional contract law, these issues have been fairly well thought through. A title like Information Age has processes to check facts, trained editors to monitor quality and who know libel law, and of course, it has professional indemnity insurance. In financial services, all advice given is carefully controlled – but how might a financial services provider, for example, defend itself if it has provided the platform for a customer to give wrong or damaging advice to another customer?
And if bloggers have been paid to damage a rival, how is this to countered? A recent report by Sentinel, Onalytica and Immediate Future found that successful bloggers can have a large and disproportionate influence on corporate reputation.
In a recent newsletter, this writer was described as being a “blog sceptic”. This is only true to an extent: Web 2.0 is a powerful, energising method of sharing information and content, but it is so new that the controls and processes that are needed to make it work reliably and fairly have not yet been put in place. Beware blogs, wikis and Web 2.0 – we are entering dangerous, unregulated territory.