Monday, April 30, 2012

Social Networks, Reliability, and Death

Image: Data Reliability by Bryan Loar.  Source Images: Volvo 262 c by and Courtesy of Andreas Nilsen, Car104 by and Courtesy of detritus

I recently came across my first postmortem LinkedIn profile.  The profile led me to ponder that, in our age of social networks, a deceased person could have hundreds of profiles scattered across the web.  Will their family leave the profiles up like roadside memorials (e-desconsos)?  Or will they remain unchanged, like space debris floating in the netverse?

In regards to data reliability, this could be a serious problem.  Today, much focus is given to data curation, the ability to manage and find meaning in large volumes of data.  When information professionals talk about reliability with respect to the Internet, they typically focus on query results.  However, greater focus needs to be placed on source reliability.

One solution could be a three-pronged approach.  Greater emphasis should be placed on teaching information literacy.  Starting in elementary school, students need to learn how to critically analyze information and its sources.  This critical analysis needs to become habitual. 

The means to analyze information within our current systems needs to be widely adopted.  Dating information is an important first step.  Press releases are notorious for not having dates. This is unacceptable.  Additionally, profiles, such as those on LinkedIn, could be enhanced with a date of last modification.  By displaying modification dates, users can quickly determine currency.

Finally, information validation applications should be built.  Applications could search across social networks using known names, facial recognition, and any other known biographical information.  From a broader perspective, an application could fact check news reports by analyzing differences.  Those differences could be highlighted and summarized.

As our information systems age, information reliability will increasingly become important.  While information management and query-results reliability are important, information reliability is equally important.  If we do not teach information literacy at an early age, adopt the means to analyze, and create applications to assist information validity, we will spiral downward into a misinformation glut where "good enough" won't even be good at all.


Other sources that may be of interest.

Dobler, R. (2010). Alternative Memorials: Death and Memory in Contemporary America. Retrieved from

Howison, J., Wiggins, A., & Krowston K. (2009).  Validity Issues in the Use of Social Network Analysis for the Study of Online Communities, Second Round Revision. Journal of the Association of Information Systems. Retrieved from

Stokes, P. (2011). Ghosts in the Machine: Do the Dead Live on in Facebook? Philosophy & Technology, Special Issue, 1-17. doi: 10.1007/s13347-011-0050-7
(Preprint Version)


Sherman Clarke said...

I've come across at least one library on LibraryThing which was left up after the collector died. Not the Legacy Libraries which are intentional listings of "great" libraries or libraries of "great" people; this was just the library of someone who had died. I think it was the children of the collector that had added the note about the death.

Unknown said...

Sherman, thanks for sharing! I wonder about the difficult decisions that families have to make . The collector's family had to decide whether to keep the library up, take it down, ignore it, and/or perform maintenance on the account--possibly at a time of grief. In my experience, just going through and contacting companies and organizations/associations was stressful.

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