Blog post

The Consumerization of Truth, and Virtual Villages

By Tom Bittman | December 11, 2012 | 7 Comments


How is it possible that we have wildly divergent worldviews in a society connected by email, the Internet, Google, and Facebook? It’s because of email, the Internet, Google, and Facebook. And more importantly, the people who use these tools, and the virtual villages we build.

villagesWhen Thomas Friedman argued that the world is flat – that connectivity and speed have converted the world into a level playing field with near-zero market friction, I agreed with him in theory. But in practice, especially in society, we have a very different reality – because a level-playing field means little when the players are people, and they stay in their various corners.

The world may be potentially flat, but humanity is wildly divergent, local, locally-nurtured, and opinionated. I contend that connectivity is making things worse, more divergent, more radicalized, and not “flatter.”

Idealists saw the Internet and the connectivity it created as the great melting pot of ideas. We could have different opinions, but reach a consensus; different views of facts, but bad data would be self-correcting. The absolute opposite has occurred, because people are using the Internet. We can connect with anyone, and discuss any idea – but we don’t. People seek out like-minded people, and become more and more radicalized in their views. We are still villagers, but unlike the village of old, we get to define our own village, and we tend to build villages full of people who are just like us. Different views of facts create entire worldviews based on falsehood, or spin. Bad data propagates, mutates and spreads like wildfire. Topics like politics, religion, evolution, global warming, race relations are becoming more and more polarized.

This is the “consumerization of truth.”

It’s certainly true that the Fourth Estate (i.e., the press) has evolved into something very different in the past few decades. Mass media has become more opinionated, and it is hard to identify a news source that isn’t labeled “liberal” or “conservative” anymore. But I think that’s only a part of the problem, and perhaps just a small part.

The Internet is a wonderful replication and transmission mechanism for memes (in the form of opinions, worldviews, “facts”). I believe that the consumerization of truth is much more about meme creation and replication on the Internet, than what a major news network says. More importantly, I believe worldviews are created not just by a single meme, but by a constant barrage.

Here’s an example of a single, common meme that originally replicated in email, and more recently, in Facebook – a photograph of a newspaper article. In the article, a man named “Tyrone” in Georgia stole a laptop, and as he was leaving the store, several marines selling toys for tots stopped the thief, with one of the marines (with an Irish name) getting wounded by a knife in the process. The police reported that Tyrone was injured by falling – many broken bones, broken nose, missing teeth, etc. – implying, of course, that the marines levied their own justice.

In a recent post of this meme, 99% of those reading it (out of 400+) believed it was true and appropriate. Semper Fi. Only 1% realized that the article was a fake, based on a true story. The real bad guy was named Tracey (less “cultural”), not Tyrone. The marines didn’t beat up the guy, and in fact he was captured by both marines and store security. In other words, the meme tells a story of good-guy, white, John Wayne marines dealing with a bad black guy, and the police turning a blind eye on vigilantism.

By itself, this is only one false data point in someone’s worldview. But when you are inundated with stories and pictures with a similar theme, it has an effect – views on race relations, the military, appropriate justice – they all evolve, just a little. Before long, a person can be radicalized. Someone might even act based on that, based on their own view of what is right and “normal.”

I think this also explains how the different camps in the 2012 U.S. presidential election had such completely different views on who would win the election. Certainly, mass media had an effect, but I think the virtual village effect was even more important – when your primary conversations about projections were with like-minded people, you became more and more convinced you were right. How else do you explain Karl Rove’s utter confusion when Fox News called Ohio for Obama?

There’s a parallel here with the consumerization of IT, where consumer devices are invading the workplace. In the good old days, the IT organization had control, and could erect security boundaries around all software and hardware connected to enterprise IT. Now, users BYOD (bring your own devices), managed and unmanaged diversity are the rules, and security perimeters are shrinking. Enterprise IT has less control.

In consumerization of truth, there’s less control of information creation, replication and distribution. “The truth is out there,” but everywhere, and wildly divergent. We cannot “control” all of these truths. All we can really do is educate the consumers to be better at filtering and analyzing the flood of information coming their way. This starts with our education system. Unless we make a tremendous effort to arm our children to be smarter information consumers, email, the Internet, Google and Facebook will continue to divide and radicalize us. I fear for a world divided into polarized virtual villages, continuing to mutate their opposing worldviews.

But, let’s have some hope here. Maybe, just maybe, this is a generational problem. Maybe the generations born into this connected world will be smarter about navigating it. Maybe. But we can certainly help that along, can’t we?

Leave a Comment


  • Elizabeth Cullinan says:

    You have nailed it. I find the stark differences in pre- and post election narratives stunning, not to mention wildly conflicting bluster from opposing sides over virtually every important issue of our time. However, I encourage you to take heart, Mr. Bittman…I know for a fact that there are schools centered around searching for and processing information, critical thinking, and civil discourse. Socrates’ wisdom still has a home in the midst of our connectivity dysfunction you describe so eloquently. Indeed, education is the best way forward.

  • Lisa Williams says:

    Well said. We need to teach our children critical thinking skills – if we adults still remember how.

  • Tom Bittman says:

    Exactly, Lisa. Easy access to information is a wonderful thing, but it changes us. There is less of a requirement to “work it out”, to fully understand something, when the answer comes to you quickly. Our brain is wired on connections, cross-connections, etc. Nicholas Carr’s piece ( is thought-provoking here. We have been on this journey for millennia – from writing, to books, to typewriters, to computers, to the Internet. It’s changed us. Maybe I’m over-reacting, but I feel there is something to the idea of “pancake people” mentioned in the article. Not only am I worried that we may be losing critical thinking skills, but I worry about the impact on human creativity – which is really about making those cross-disciplinary connections to create new ideas. If Google makes those cross-disciplinary connections for us, do we get creatively lazy? In the end, these are new tools and new techniques, and we need to be educationally proactive about leveraging them to better us, and NOT make us critically and creatively lazy and “stupid.”

  • Tom Bittman says:

    Elizabeth, the schools you’re talking about are wonderful – but they’re the exception. Are we headed toward an intellectual and creative have and have-not society? I think you’d agree with Ken Robinson that most of our public schools still essentially function in a mid-1800s, “let’s create effective industrial workers” model. The old model was to get the “right” answers. The Internet gives us a tool to get to “answers” faster. First, we need to teach our kids that the answers we get on the Internet aren’t always right, so critical thinking is needed to filter and analyze that stuff. But second, we need to help our kids use the Internet as a creativity and creation tool – rather than delegate all creativity to the Internet. This is where I think getting our students to engage on the Internet is useful. Don’t just “use” it, but contribute and collaborate with it. Create content, and new ideas. I think we focus too much on “safe surfing” rather than creating content that could potentially reach millions around the world. The Internet should make students feel intellectually and creatively powerful! Ramble over.

  • Taylor Dunn says:

    Tom, I really liked what you said in your comment to Elizabeth. The disconnect between my experience in secondary school to my experience in university was massive; I felt that giant move from “effective worker” to critical thinker almost instantly. Likewise, I have been disturbed by the notion that had I not attended university or taken specific classes, I would have been without those thinking tools. As you put, would that imply that we are indeed heading toward an intellectual and creative have and have-not society? I often say, “the truth can be so expensive” (referring to my education), but one might as easily say, “learning how to discern the truth is so expensive.”

  • Elizabeth Cullinan says:

    Actually, I love your ramble. I admire Ken Robinson as well, and was pleased you cited him. Your call to contribute and collaborate with the Internet is certainly forward-thinking, and I believe it’s where we should be headed in education. I also think we are in danger of haves and have-nots, educationally-speaking…but I am tired of hearing old excuses of why innovative teaching can’t happen with “this group” or “that population” …good teaching is good teaching. I hope you keep working on and writing about this. (Maybe there should be a TED talk in your future.)

  • Shalz says:

    Earlier, in the absence of connectivity and flat world, critical thinking belonged to the few who were adept at it or cultivated it with lots of effort. Now with internet, connectivity, automation and information at fingertips, the younger generation may seem to have it easier and have become lazy from one point of view. However, if you think about the base – in the age of internet, today, they start at an elevated base than those before this era. It doesn’t mean they get lazy, it only means now they have more humans and machine intelligence that has access to that base level of intelligence. Now its all the more critical for them to up their critical skills and up the ante and reach a higher level when it comes to critical thinking and creativity if they have to make a difference. I believe the need to make that difference will goad them to learn/cultivate skills beyond what we know of today.