The following text is copyright 1997 by Network World, permission is hearby given for reproduction, as long as attribution is given and this notice is included.

Who areyou anyway?

Once upon a time you could tell something about text by the company it kept. If the text was in a respected newspaper or a referred technical journal, it was seen as responsible and authoritative. The reputation of the paper produced an assumption of review and control. On the other hand, if the text was on a flyer handed to you on the street you might not give it quite the same assumption of respect.

But what do you do with text on the Internet? How can you tell if it is even worth taking the time to read the text? It might not be if it is from any one of a number of people that frequently post to some of the Internet mailing lists. It is not just that they may be unpleasant to read, many are, but that what they say may have no basis in fact. Basically, how do you know if information you receive is factual? This is not just an Internet problem but the low cost of entry to Internet-based publishing makes the problem easier to find here than elsewhere.

I'm not as worried about the "a being in a UFO gave me and Elvis a pedicure" type of thing one sees next to supermarket checkouts. There are generally easy to dismiss by people with a modicum of awareness of any real world. I'm more worried about text that purports to be about technical topics.

This is not just a problem of identification. It can be a real problem to be sure that the text you are reading actually came from the person that it purports to come from but I'm more worried about the credentials of the individual. What gives this person the knowledge to speak on the topic? I can assume that an article in a referred medical journal will have been submitted for some sort of peer review to people who have a recognized background in the topic. That is not an assumption I can make if I see an article posted on the 'Net.

Looking back on the technical discussions on some of the IETF-related mailing lists it is very easy to find all too many cases of people, some with the best of intentions but hampered by a severe clue shortage, pronouncing judgment on the correctness of one or another technical proposal or offering their own solution to some great problem. Figuring out which proposals or which comments come from people who have the knowledge and background to actually know what they are talking about can be quite time consuming.

The Internet makes publication easy. Someone with 10 years in the field can publish proposals along side someone else with 10 days. Differentiating between them takes time, wastes resources, and can derail worthwhile proposals. Establishing the credentials of the authors of materials on the Internet is going to become an ever more serious problem, whether the text is about archaeology, astronomy or Internet technology.

disclaimer: Harvard is about the ultimate in a peer review environment, ask any junior professor, but the above are my ponderings.