I like to ask questions as a way to learn. “Why do you do it that way,” “how do you know,” or “where did you get the data,” is a quest for information, not a judgment.
The Internet provides an unparalleled platform to “ask why” from a multitude of sources and receive a mind-boggling number of “answers.” Sifting through the “answers” can be time-consuming and tedious. In my view, it is worth the effort, and a skill that can always be enhanced.
My online paper and plastic bag research netted some intriguing and contradicting results. Below are some of the types of sites I visited, as well as examples of content I ran across. They illustrate that drilling down into details can be both enlightening and frustrating.
The Devil is in the Details
Who are You?
Read the “about” or “who we are” page, site terms and conditions, and footer information to find out who owns or sponsors a website and the purpose or mission of the website.
What’s in a Name?
Website names can be deceiving. For instance, a website with a “green” name might be owned by a decidedly “un-green” company or organization.
URL suffixes can be confusing. For example, the .org URL suffix is historically associated with non-profit organizations. A non-profit might be owned by a giant conglomerate which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s just good to know.
History or Current Events?
Check the date of information. Older material is fine for background and historical purposes. For facts and figures, current material is probably more relevant.
Internet Websites and Content Examples
Non-Profit and Non-Governmental Organizations
Non-profit and non-governmental organization websites provide information about an organization’s products or services; or topics within their area of interest, specialty, etc. Check out who their sponsors are and where they get their money.
Sierra Club “Paper or Plastic? BYOB” The Sierra Club is an example of a non-governmental environmental organization. One wouldn’t expect articles on their website to be pro plastic or paper bag and they aren’t.
Company websites can be useful for finding information about a specific product or service, like a particular brand of 100% recycled plastic bags.
Social media sources include blogs, micro blogs, social networks, video sharing and bookmarking sites, to name a few. Repeating content someone else posted without linking back or mentioning the source is a social media faux pas which occurs not infrequently.
Industry Trade Associations
Industry trade associations can be good sources for facts and figures, such as how many plastic bags were sold in a given year. A positive “spin” will be put on even seemingly negative information.
PlasticBagRecycling.org This website contains useful information about plastic recycling. Interestingly, it is owned by the American Chemistry Council, a plastic trade industry organization. Hmm…the issue being addressed is in part created by the products sold by plastic industry companies. The good news is that they are taking action to mitigate the issue if not actually solving it.
PaperRecycles.org Same as above except this website is owned by the Paper Industry Association Council which is in turn owned by the American Forest and Paper Association.
Government agency websites provide a wealth of information and aggregated facts and figures. They generally do not take “sides.” For instance, you will not find a statement on the U.S. EPA website that says paper is better than plastic or vice versa. You will find information on how much paper and plastic is recycled or ends up in landfills every year.
News and Media Sites
News and media sites are “supposed” to present information in a balanced and unbiased manner and I’m not saying they don’t. News and media websites will usually list sources. They are not immune from using outdated information.
The Washington Post “Paper or Plastic?” posted 10/30/2007. At first glance this looked like a cool infographic, and it is. A check of the sources listed showed some were from 1988 and 1990, that seems outdated for a 2007 news piece.
MSNBC.com “Battle of the Bags: Paper vs. Plastic” is a multimedia interactive piece posted 03/11/2008. It is interesting and informative. However, 2012 viewers may not realize it is over 4 years old or that some of the sources are from 1999. (Update: as of September 2017, this video is no longer available.)
Internet Content Quality
We all bring our own life experiences, likes and dislikes, beliefs, pet peeves, etc to the Web. Data can be wielded as a tool or a weapon. It can be used to support one or more completely different viewpoints.
Content quality, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Therein lies the challenge for content creators, users, and viewers alike—we must each judge the quality of content for ourselves.