Search for Significance

Opinion: User-generated content has limits that cause concern.

The mainstream media are fighting back against the encroachment of the Web. I dont mean the Web as medium, but the Web as social network of sound and fury that signifies less than it seems.

The mainstream medias most devastating weapon is ridicule, but their barbs wouldnt hit home if they werent making valid points.

Cartoonist Bill Amend, for example, pinpricked (if not punctured) the balloon of Web 2.0 with a September series of his "FoxTrot" strips. Over the course of several days, overachieving schoolchild Jason Fox took on the challenge of winning a competition to design a new Web page for his class. "Im using every tool in the box," he tells his sister at one point: "HTML… XHTML… CSS… XML… SOAP… AJAX… Flash… PERL… JavaScript… You name it."

"Whats the page going to look like?" his sister asks. "Ill figure that out when Im done," Jason replies. (Memo to enterprise site builders: If this shoe fits, please wear it and walk to a better school of design.)

Despite a 25-password validation routine and 26,349 lines of back-end code, Jasons page remains resolutely content-free. "Its blank," his sister observes. "Well, duh," he replies. "This is the era of Web 2.0. Users get to generate their own content. Lets say you want to know what the latest news is. All you have to do is type it out in this box that says News and then you can read it." Yes, Amend is taking the phenomenon of the blog to an extreme, but not without foundation.

When Jasons entry loses out to a classmates competing design, one with "a bunch of puppies and hamsters and some menus with useful information," hes genuinely indignant. "Mine had RSS, CMS, W3C compliance, and fully embraced the ethos of Web 2.0 and the Long Tail!" he protests. "Puppies and hamsters arent even buzzwords!" No, but that "useful information" on the winning page was presumably what pushed it over the top. Unfortunately, mass-media success is determined by, um, the masses rather than by content-oriented schoolteachers.

In my own local newspaper, The Daily Breeze, of Torrance, Calif., columnist John Bogert struck a similar chord with his Oct. 12 comments on the implications of Googles YouTube acquisition. "Im from what is now called the traditional media," Bogert tartly observed, "where stories are edited and questioned by professional editors … to create a million-dollar product that is then dropped on doorsteps every morning for a quarter."

Or given away free, because the Breeze has a fee-free Web site. But, like both my wife and me, my sons still read "the paper"—on paper—over breakfast if they have time or over a snack as soon as they get home from school. And we talk about the news over dinner. I hope that ads and subscriptions at the Breeze will continue to pay for its answers to questions that our community might not think to ask.

Maintaining the quality of mass media is not a parochial issue. A Museum of Media History video, "EPIC 2015," opens its prospective narrative with, "In the year 2015, people have access to a breadth and depth of information unimaginable in an earlier age. However, the Press—as you know it—has ceased to exist…"

The video describes an imagined 2008 merger of Google and a combination that transforms the mediascape with "a custom content package for each user ... at its best, a summary of the world deeper, broader and more nuanced than anything ever available before; at its worst, and for too many, a collection of trivia, much of it untrue, all of it narrow, shallow and sensational."

If the mechanisms of trusted, objective reporting are allowed to wither in the face of social networks and the putative wisdom of crowds, were building one giant positive-feedback loop that intensifies popular misconceptions. As John Bogerts column concluded, "We deserve something far better than were asking for."

Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at

WWWeb Resources

A look back

The Museum of Media History looks back from 2015

Sticker shock

Peter Coffee questions YouTubes price tag


FoxTrot takes on Web 2.0

Peter Coffee can be reached at

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