As I talk with leaders in the education and librarian communities, I am, particularly bothered by reports of students who just paste information from Wikipedia or Google into their term papers and call it a day. No matter what search brand you are using, these reports mean that a generation of youngsters are growing up accepting that just the first few examples of information they see on their screens are sufficient, and a generation of teachers are spending time struggling to convince them they need good Internet research skills.
This sense of complacency about the Internet can start young. I was talking with my boss Stefan about his 5-year old daughter and her use of the of the Web. To her, everything is simply a (in his house, Bing) search away and so she is reliant on these magic machines to give her the answer. He was worried that this level of unquestioning trust would harm her long term, that she would simply think of the search box as the definitive authority on a topic.
It got me thinking about what Bing can do to support "Internet literacy" and critical thinking skills education. We'd like to think that our product does a good job of not deciding for you, but rather presenting the best information we can, organized and marked as clearly as possible, in a way that allows you to get tasks done. *You* make the decision.
We recognize great search technology alone isn't the complete solution. If Bing does its job, people move on from our search engine pages into the Web site content that we don't control, and the final reckoning about whether they trust this information still lies before them. So we need to change the way students think about using these resources as well as arm them with cyber-tools that will help them become smarter searchers, better informed citizens, and overall happier as they use the Internet to conduct their lives.
It's perhaps a little easier for us to question the status quo because when people use Bing, often they are already in the position of comparing us to another search engine. Some may have come directly to us from another search engine after failing to find what they want, or they may have decided to try us out after reading a news story, seeing an ad, reading a blog, etc. These seekers may be interested in other ways to test the information coming back at them from search results, but they are already open-minded enough to go to more than one search engine to get that extra bit of relevance and credibility verified. Part of the task ahead is to show the dangers and encourage the skepticism that Stanford professor Howard Rheingold called "Crap Detection 101."
One great example of the need for critical thinking skills is the recent twitter meme about American Airlines flying medical personnel to Haiti, coupled with a phone number which turned out to be the Haiti Consulate in NYC. Neatly chronicled and debunked by University of Washington professor Kathy Gill, she showed how applied skepticism coupled with searches and cybertools could lead researchers to the truth and allow them to find the actual place where American Airlines wanted folks to direct their giving. Twitter is a social medium where misinformation can flow quickly, or good information can be garbled by the retweeting process and the limits of the 140 character format.
These sifting skills are what we would like to help teach and foster in the schools and libraries.
To that end, we've sponsored a number of projects in 2010 that will help promote Internet literacy, help decipher what search results really mean, and remind people that healthy skepticism, mental engagement, and critical thinking about all information people find on the Web (yes, even this essay!) is a healthy part of our society, democracy, and scientific advance. We are starting a general call for collaboration in creating more materials around this important subject and we hope to involve as many people as possible in these efforts. You'll see more about this in the months to come on the Bing blog.
Bing, and decide. Don't let anybody on the Internet decide for you.