Don't Believe Everything You Read Online

Last Updated Nov 10, 2009 9:37 AM EST

I've been thinking about how bad information can go global thanks to the internet. Morgan Stanley's July 2009 report, "Media & Internet: How Teenagers Consume Media", is one of the most striking examples of instant information circulation worldwide.

This was the report put together by 15-year-old intern Matthew Robson. In a flash, his insights into how his peers used the Web were on everyone's lips (or everyone's desktops) and widely used as a perfect representation of Generation Y's use of media and the Net.

That a survey of one might appear representative of a 60 million population says a lot about how adults, not teenagers, consume media.

Revisiting Robson's report does raise some issues about accuracy online. Here are my observations:

  1. Information is taken at face value, as in this review by the Guardian, with no analysis or questioning.
  2. Teens are different from adults. But does that mean that their tastes/behaviours won't change?
  3. Marketing has taught teenagers to behave as consumers, hence their feeling -- more acquired than innate -- that they are a race apart. In truth, they aren't. Teens are but adults to be, and should be treated as such, not revered as if youth is eternal.
  4. Generation Y -- a definition so broad it means nothing -- is said to be more tech savvy than the previous generation. Yet an in-depth (and confidential) survey carried out by Orange among 15 year-olds a couple of years ago showed that this is not quite true. Teens are better at some things -- such as instant messaging -- and are heavy multi-taskers, but this could be seen as a bad thing. They aren't, though, more au fait with IT than their elders and when there is trouble, they tend to call their parents to the rescue,
  5. Most real bloggers aren't teenagers, and many of them are in the 40-50+ range, as I can testify.
  6. Twitter is also used by the same people who use it mostly to publicise their content and share resources with their network. It is also a surrogate instant messaging system.
  7. Just because teenagers don't use currently Twitter, doesn't mean it should be dismissed.
  8. The style of this report has little to do with teenage counterculture and a lot to do with Morgan Stanley,
  9. This report is assuming that enterprises should fear teenagers who will join their ranks in the coming years. But
    1. By the time they do, they won't be teenagers anymore, some of them will even have children.
    2. By then, most of them will have learnt how to behave in the business world.
    3. When Robson hits the job market, business will also have evolved by dint of user pressure. People will want greater freedom in the workplace. Some even bring in their own computer to bypass corporate rules (a concept known as BYOC).
  10. Last, may I venture to ask who is Matthew Robson anyway? I wasn't really able to trace him, even on Facbook. He might have to work on his online reputation, unless this is an old-fashioned concept.
On the report more generally: what makes "information" stand out from "data" and cyber babble? Information involves investigation and resources are cross checked, double-checked. Authors' identities are usually traceable (even The Economist's contributors can be traced.

Don't blame the Internet for the fact that we can no longer tell the difference between information and noise. Blame the people who use the internet instead.

  • Yann Gourvennec

    Yann Gourvennec is head of internet and digital media at Orange Business Services. He is in charge of the international operator's websites and blogs. and has been in marketing and innovation for over 20 years.