Online Credibility and Digital Ethos

National Communication AssociationHow has the digital landscape changed the way that we view credibility? As credibility emerges as a core struggle in the online environment, researchers are discussing this issue at the annual meeting of the National Communication Association (NCA) this week in New Orleans, Louisiana.

I had the privilege of responding to a set of four papers on Ethos in the Digital Era, co-sponsored by the Argumentation and Forensics Division and the Human Communication and Technology Division at the convention. I’ve included my notes for the researchers in the descriptions below as we all seek to investigate this topic more fully in the field of digital and media literacy.

The four papers presented all address the definition of digital and media literacy posed by Renee Hobbs in a white paper funded by John S. & James L. Knight Foundation. In it, Hobbs brings together literature on digital and media literacy and identifies five key components of literacy: the abilities to (1) access, (2) analyze, (3) create, (4) reflect, and (5) take action in the digital environment.

The Effect of Online Review Message Characteristics on Helpfulness Ratings
Yuhua Liang, Briana DeAngelis, David D. Clare, and Timothy Levine, Michigan State University

In a study about online product reviews, researchers tested perceptions of the helpfulness of these reviews. The findings suggest that online product reviews that focus on either positive or negative aspects (but not both) an product reviews that contained specific examples were perceived as more helpful than their alternatives. Helpfulness is most closely tied to the descriptiveness of the review. Perhaps helpfulness ratings add to our ability to create, analyze and reflect on information online.

Sent from my iPhone: The Medium and Message as Signals of Sender Professionalism in Mobile Telephony
Caleb T. Carr, University of Oklahoma, and Chad M. Stefaniak, Oklahoma State University

I found striking personal relevance in this study as I have grappled with excusing grammatical errors in emails sent by mobile phone. I often cringe when the signature block of an email says “pls xcuse any typos. Sent from my iPhone.” This study suggests that such messages increase perceptions of sender professionalism (if, and only if, errors are present in the email). The signature block in this case becomes a vehicle for addressing errors and saving face. As we move toward ubiquitous mobile adoption, will we place different expectations on messages sent from different technologies? This study suggests we will.

An Investigation of Youth and Digital Information Credibility
Miriam J. Metzger, Andrew J. Flanagin, Rebekah A. Pure, Ethan Hartsell, and Alex Markov, University of California at Santa Barbara

This paper deals with the issue of analyzing information presented digitally. The extensive survey-based study, with over 2,700 participants, documented teen perceptions of online credibility and the strategies they use to assess it. The research suggests that as kids get older, they become more concerned about the credibility of information they find online. In addition, the strategies they employ to assess credibility (the authors point to expert identification, site design, and currency among other criteria) become more numerous as teens age. The data suggests that these teens overestimate their own abilities to identify credible sources.

This type of research is crucial to an understanding of how we develop the ability to analyze in a digital world. Further research agendas I suggest as a result of this effort might include continued attention to the overestimation identified, the development of a robust measure for assessing relative credibility of digital sites (perhaps building on Metzger and Flanagin’s excellent work in this area), and an assessment of sources to which teens attribute their learning in this area.

Credibility in a Social Media Environment
Rebekah A. Pure, Amber Westscott-Baker, Miriam J. Metzger, and Andrew J. Flanagin, University of California at Santa Barbara

In this theoretical argument, researchers explore the cylical nature of the digital media literacy model. They explore the relationship between credibility and user-generated comments. If a peer-review were to occur through social media, for example, who would know the difference between “expert” feedback and “uncredentialed” feedback. The issues of authority, expertise, and ego interplay with the type of information found online – whether it is based on personal experience or theoretical knowledge. I appreciate the theoretical nature of the argument contained in this paper and hope that it leads these researchers or others to develop tangible assessments of this difference between user-generated content as primary vs. secondary sources as vehicles of credibility.

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