Hannah J. Waters’s post on the duty to share

Hannah,

I started writing a response to your recent post about whether it is a duty to correct others in the domain of social media. The response grew and grew, so I decided to turn it into my own post. I hope that’s not a social media mistake similar to hijacking a thread on a mailing list. If that’s so, apologies, and in any case, thanks for such a provocative and insightful post.

I urge everyone to visit your blog at http://culturingscience.wordpress.com/ and to follow you on Twitter at @hannahjwaters.

As others have said, the person who refused to share was rude in the extreme. Instead of complaining that he didn’t want to give you his advice, he could have just given it, probably taking about the same amount of time. Or he might have posted a link or reference to a book. If he didn’t want to help, there’s nothing wrong with ignoring a request for more information.

Twitter is rife with misinformation. The idea that one ought to give a source for a quote or fact or check on whether it’s been reported correctly seems to have been forgotten completely. It’s a case of caveat lector: Twitter is a kind of massive bull session. I appreciate the presence of conscientious journalists such as Lizzie O’Leary (@Lizzieohreally), “budding Hildy Johnson.”

In fact, I think it is a duty to correct misinformation, at least some of the time. Here is the argument. Suppose someone has the goal of posting correct information on Twitter, the web, etc. There is a chance that this person will be wrong at some point, and would benefit from the help of others. So meeting the goal of posting correct information requires the help of others. But if someone refuses to help others, that person is making an exception for him or herself from the general practice of helping people. The person would benefit from accepting help and would probably accept it if offered, but refuses to act in kind, and if everyone did that, the aim of posting correct information would be defeated.

This is an excellent example of what philosophers call an “imperfect duty,” that is, a duty that requires someone to behave in a certain way some of the time, but not always, depending on how the person feels at the moment. It sounds like it might be an instance of the Golden Rule, but it isn’t. In the unlikely even that people want to hear more about this, I will be happy to share. 🙂

For instance, I take the NYC subway several times per day, most days. There is almost always someone who needs help carrying bags or a stroller up the stairs. I do help sometimes; sometimes I am just too rushed, or to tired, to really be of any help at all. Sometimes I don’t notice because I block out the chaos around me, so as to focus on making any progress at all through the station. Almost always, someone else helps the person. One time I will be that person and someone will stop to help me. So of course I am going to help someone now and again. So this is an imperfect duty because you are allowed from the point of view of duty to opt out if you don’t feel like following through. In contrast there are perfect duties such as not committing murder.

Visit http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-moral/ (section 5) for more on this.

If I find a mistake in a Wikipedia article, or an ambiguous or unclear passage that would be excellent after a little editing, I will fix it. I think this is important because, like it or not, Wikipedia is the world’s encyclopedia. Most people do not have easy access to a library or any source of information that goes in depth. When I say “most people,” I mean most people in the entire world.

I like solving puzzles and thinking about writing and prose style, and I am curious about things generally—so why not share some information with someone if I have it, or increase my skills by shaping up Wikipedia prose?

If I had to start somewhere, it would be with the Huffington Post, which publishes uninformed tripe such as “A Kabbalistic View of Evolution,” the author of which does not seem to have even gone so far as having searched online for information about evolution. If he had done so, he probably would not have made many of the common mistakes about evolution that are corrected in many places online, such as UC Berkeley’s Understanding Evolution web site. It’s astonishing how many mistakes one person can make in such a short piece. Bloody hell. Which reminds me, I have to make sure the book reviews and articles at Evolution: Education and Outreach are moving along toward publication. Maybe someone will pick up an issue now and again. PS: our content will be free, after a one-year pay wall to non-subscribers.

Your critic’s response is instructive because it’s a good reminder that the wide net cast by social media brings in all kinds of people, some who won’t like you or what you are doing, and some who you won’t. An extra measure of tolerance is required as is a skin a little thicker than most people are used to having in their daily lives.

Your comment that the the Internet is becoming “a much more collective place” struck a nerve. There is a nice community of science bloggers and twitterers. I’d like to think I am contributing to that community. But there are some dangerous and alarming ways in which the Internet and the WWW in particular are closing down. Some parts of the Internet have always been the production of a collective. Usenet newsgroups and threaded mailing lists such as the TeX on OSX list, or the BibDesk users mailing list, are examples of this. It’s rare that a question goes unanswered for more than a day on these lists. Think of the arXiv repository.

In contrast, nowadays, .com sites are most frequently used: Facebook, Twitter, Google, flikr, Dropbox. What did people do before Google? They followed links from page to page or searched the news groups archive for a thread relevant to what he or she is interested in. The web and Internet generally were not navigable, unless one was prepared to rely on others’ choices about where to go. Yahoo! was a subject guide and index, its search engine being secondary. The .com sites exist for the purpose of accumulating capital for their owners, and if there is something useful to someone that comes out of the deal, all the better. The information these sites obtain from their users is enormously valuable, is not going to be shared with anyone, and no one knows what’s done with it.

I think that Malcom Gladwell has expressed similar thoughts in a recent New Yorker piece, but I haven’t read it.

It’s a phenomenon similar to the mass-production of organic food. I love Whole Foods, but it’s a corporate endeavor; to me, it’s the experience of going to a farmer’s market and eating what’s in season locally that’s important. Whole Foods has taken something I value and is now trying its best to sell it back to me at a profit. Facebook in particular seems to be creating a simulated WWW inside the the real WWW. “Finding someone online” has come to mean “looking for the person’s facebook page.”

I find it particularly alarming that the notion that Facebook or Twitter are reliable tools for conducting political mass action including coordinating protests or even military action seems to have been accepted by almost everyone with little or no suspicion. These corporations are beholden to no one. If it served Twitter or Facebook, either of these companies could easily make systematic changes to user data, or pass it along, or allow it to be monitored by anyone that will pay or otherwise contribute to the accumulation of capital.

Not so very long ago, there was quite literally a Federal case against Microsoft for restricting the user’s freedom to choose. The possession of user information and provision of services online by corporations does not seem to have provoked a similar reaction, among the general public, or on the part of government. Perhaps the reason for this is that there is no one who stands to make money from a successful lawsuit.

Perhaps WordPress.com is an exception. I don’t think WordPress.com is mining user data, but is refining the WordPress software, which reaps rewards for users such as myself who use it free of charge, and can change how it works in any way we want.

So I suppose my conclusion is, you really should consider it a duty to correct someone, or point to a resource if you think it might help other figure out something that someone said, or retweet a good tweet; and that giving away your knowledge and expertise for free is, paradoxically, valuable—not in monetary terms, but as a way of contributing to building an autonomous online community.

If there are any mistakes or ambiguities in this post I hope someone will let me know so I can correct them.

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