Analytics and Forecasting

The two kinds of information

14 Aug 2009  

When asked to name his favorite kind of music, pioneering jazz musician Louis Armstrong is said to have replied, ”There are only two kinds of music, good and bad.  I like good music.”

You could say the same about information—there are fundamentally only two kinds, good and bad.

According to one definition (“Intelligence:  An Economic Good” by Mark Jensen), good information is defined as being timely, objective, usable, accurate, and relevant to whatever decision it is supporting.   It’s not the same as “good news”—good information can be favorable or unfavorable—but solely by virtue of its being “good”, it’s essential to decision-making.

To the extent information doesn’t adhere to most or all of the above criteria, it is “bad” information.  The problem is, it’s often hard to tell the difference between the bad and the good.

Bad information comes in several flavors.  There’s MIS-information—information that is well-intentioned, but just plain wrong.  There’s plenty of this out there.

There’s also DIS-information—information that’s intended to deceive.  Often the person doing the spreading of disinformation has something to gain from it.  Like when short sellers of a stock spread rumors that the company is on the rocks—so they can swoop in and pick up the stock on the cheap.  At Harvard Business School they used to call this “strategic misrepresentation”—which has to be one of my favorite euphemisms of all time.  We’ll hybridize that term and call it strategic disinformation.

Other times, however, disinformation can be the product of a less-defined agenda—that is, non-strategic disiniformation.  This can even take the form of a goofy prank.  Following Michael Jackson’s recent death, several other celebrities were said also to have died – Jeff Goldblum, Britney Spears, and others.  I can’t think of who would have benefited from these baseless rumors.  It was disinformation in its most innocent and harmless form.

Both kinds of information, good and bad, flow quickly and widely in today’s world.   Anyone who has access to a computer or even a smart phone in effect owns their own newspaper, radio station, and TV station.  This is great for getting “good” information out quickly.

The problem is, it works equally well for bad information.  The quality of information is medium-independent. Just because you read it on a blog, does not mean it’s true.  Just as with the “old media”, you still need to have an editorial function that includes mundane things like source-evaluation and fact-checking.

Virtually all commercial print media are fact-checked.  This is a time-consuming process of vetting information by techniques such as verifying with third-party sources.

These are often excruciatingly obsessive.  For example, today’s (August 12) corrections in the New York Times includes this item:  “An editorial on Monday about the slow pace of the Obama administration’s anti-foreclosure effort misstated the number of offers pending to modify mortgages.  As of the end of July, the number was 171,295, not 117,295.”No number 8-14-2009 6-42-31 PM (Small)

Now, who really cares?  I do—because it tells me how obsessed they are with getting things right.  (FULL DISCLOSURE:  My son Mike Powell writes for the Times, and has worked as a fact-checker for other major media.)

Who fact-checks websites, blogs, tweets, and the rest of the “consumer-generated media”?  In most cases, you’re on your own here.  In effect, these media are non-mediated by any vetting or editorial process.(“Non-mediated media”—now there’s an interesting paradox.)

That’s not to say blogs and tweets don’t print true items, they can and often do.  But there’s no formal monitoring of them to assure what they are saying is verifiable.  They are, for the most part, information products with zero quality control.  So caveat lector—reader beware.

Bear in mind Marvin Gaye’s advice in Heard It Through the Grapevine: “Believe half of what you see, some or none of what you hear.”

If you’re a producer of information—and these days, every organization should be rigorously attentive to doing this to build an audience for your brand—be aware that these non-mediated media can also work against your brand, and even corporate reputation, very quickly.  Just ask the Pepsi frog.

It’s probable that—because of the labor, expense, and time involved in converting information into good information—bad information travels farther and faster than good.  The first thing you hear is usually the least reliable.

As a consumer, when you buy a product—especially one you’re planning to put into your body, like a non-prescription medication—you might be willing to pay more for a name brand because you know you’re getting something that has been tested, and that has a process behind it that assures its quality meets your high standards.

Why not apply the same test to information?  You’re putting it into your head—which (on a good day) is part of your body.  So please, when you “feed your head”, use the same care you’d use when putting medicine, food, or anything else into your body.

Before you believe what you read—and certainly before you pass it along as “actionable” information—think about it.  Does it make sense?  What is the source?  Is that an independent  source?  Is it a consistently credible source?  What incentive, if any, does that source have to provide dis-information?

When you were very young, your mother probably warned, ”Don’t stick that in your mouth—you don’t know where it’s been.”  Mom’s advice was sound.

They say you are what you eat.  In the knowledge economy, you are what you know.  So before you stick some information into your head, make sure you know where it’s been.  Which kind of information is it, good or bad?

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