Context and social media

One of the RSS feeds I subscribe to recently threw up a post that provided a link to a YouTube video of an Analyst Relations (AR) professional talking about their job and why they like it. There was no explanation, just a link straight to the clip. Presented in this way, it looked a bit silly, and my first reaction was to ask why on earth the person concerned had published it.

Then it occurred to me that the video was probably made as part of some internal “who’s who” thing or perhaps in a personal capacity to give friends a little insight into what the person did for a living. Whatever the reason, once the clip had lost its original context, it was difficult to know how to take it.

Now in this particular instance, there is probably no harm done, but it got me thinking about people using YouTube and other content hosting sites as essentially a convenient way of storing and retrieving media for embedding in another site. While it’s great to be able to do this, there is a risk that the content may be interpreted and perceived differently when accessed directly or, indeed, via someone else’s site where the content or a link to it is embedded in an entirely different context.

It’s similar to the problem we face as researchers. We have to be very careful when we report the results of our primary research studies to include commentary relating to constraints or restrictions, which, if ignored, could lead to a statistic being taken out of context and spun to mean something that is not supported by the study as a whole. As an aside, this is why we retain copyright of all of our output, even though we make much of it available free of charge and allow anyone to copy it and pass it on. If we placed it into the public domain in an unrestricted manner, it could easily be taken apart and elements presented out of context in the kind of misleading manner we have been discussing.

Zooming out a little, this general issue of maintaining or understanding context highlights the need from an individual perspective to make sure we think before putting something out there that could be picked up in isolation or re-used by someone else for a purpose other than that which was originally intended. Wherever possible, we therefore need to make sure that media objects either contain important context within them or have an explicit reference back to the original source – e.g. your website address.

When we are more in information consumption mode, there is then a need to pay attention to the provenance of content, particularly when looking at a site, page or post that has been assembled by pulling together material from different sources. Personally, I try to track down the original source as much as possible when I look at a quotation, statistic, or even a picture or video, before relying on something I have discovered on the Web. It is so easy to be misled if you are not careful.

Perhaps this all sounds very obvious, but as someone who, like other analysts, has a job that involves gathering, comparing and making sense of intelligence and viewpoints from many different sources, it never ceases to amaze me how often information is misrepresented, either deliberately or unintentionally, by taking it out of context.

With its emphasis on user generated content (UGC) coupled with the absence of editorial processes and other safeguards by design, social media just increases the risk of being caught out. Forethought and vigilance are therefore the watchwords when producing and consuming information in this brave new free-for-all Web 2.0 world.

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