Chinese Whispers Online

In the playground game ‘Chinese Whispers’, one player whispers a message to the next one, who then whispers what s/he has heard to the following player. The game continues until the message reaches the final player who reveals what s/he has heard. The final version of the message usually differs from the original one, a fact that tends to be greeted with giggles.

In adulthood, too, stories are told and retold. In the process, details are omitted, facts get confused and interpretations are added. Here is a simple example.

Recently, this tweet caught my eye:

I really liked the contrast made between the decline of the technology (i.e., the typewriter) and the permanence of the standard (i.e., the order of the letters on the keyboard). I decided to check the link provided.

The link led to a blog post from that same day, which included the following text:
According to India’s Business Standard, the last company to make [typewriters] — Godrej and Boyce — has finally shut down its production plant in Mumbai.

In the 50s, it used to produce 50,000 machines a year, but after the PC rose to prominence in 2000, volumes fell.

By 2009, the firm was producing 10,000 to 12,000 machines a year.

I followed the link from the blog post to the Business Standard article mentioned. The article, from April 17th, had the title ‘Typewriters about to become a page in history’. The article stated that production of typewriters had stopped in… 2009(1). Since then, it has been selling out its stock of typewriters and, at the time of the article, there were only 500 units left. The factory where the typewriters had been produced was converted into a refrigerator manufacturing unit, back in 2009. It is a different scenario from the one suggested by the blog post. Actually, I don’t know whether the Business Standard’s facts are correct, either. I did not check any further.

Playing Chinese Whispers in the school playground, everybody is aware that the message is mutating. Knowing how far the message has travelled gives a clue as to how much it may have changed. Moreover, there is an opportunity to test the quality of the information by checking the original message with the first player. Most importantly, no one is likely to act on that information. In ‘real’ life, though, these rules and weaknesses may not be clear and the consequences may be serious. Indeed, it is now so easy to copy, forward or share data that any piece of information has the potential to go viral and to be used far beyond what was originally intended.

Lankes(2) calls this content produced outside of the editorial and peer-reviewed process ‘disintermediated’ information and notes that it lacks the traditional cues regarding quality. Arazy and Kopak further note that a consequence of the unreliable authority of sources and questionable quality of information is that information consumers need to make those quality judgements themselves. In this scenario, an important question is: How can we assess the quality of the numerous blogs, updates and other sources of web-based information?

This is a big challenge for those who need to make decisions based on disintermediated information, as well as for information producers who want to signal the quality of their content.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that information users consider a variety of aspects such as provision of author’s information or the number of times the article has been shared on social platforms. However, phenomena such as fake tweeting (see here) or automated re-posting (see picture) are likely to make determination of information quality ever more difficult.

What is your experience as an information consumer and/or an information producer? Please let us know in the comments below: What clues do you use to judge and/or communicate the quality of online information?

(1) It also stated that the height of production (when it manufactured 50,000 machines per year) was in the 1990s, not 1950s.
(2) Lankes, R.D. (2008). Trusting the internet: New approaches to credibility tools. In M.J. Metzger & A.J. Flanagin (Eds.), Digital media, youth, and credibility (pp. 101–122). Boston: MIT Press.

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