Finding a source from a tweet

A lot of information is available on the Web; however, sometimes it’s hard to find the sources of facts or ideas. Here is an example, about young people, networking, jobs, and the future.

On Twitter I saw a tweet, Deep Thought is Dead, Long Live Deep Thought. It included a link to an article by “Blake” on LISNews, Deep Thought is Dead, Long Live Deep Thought. That article was actually a quotation within a quotation. Above the article was a link to an article on a Scientific American blog, Deep Thought is Dead, Long Live Deep Thought, by Amr Abouelleil.

Ah! That’s the original article, I thought. Wrong. In the first sentence the author quotes an article in The Atlantic by Alan Jacobs on March 19th, 2012, Jobs of the Future: A Skeptic’s Response. The quote that appears in the LISNews article actually comes from the middle of that article, so the title of the LISNews article and the tweet mislead readers.

Actually, the opinions of both Abouelleil and Jacobs are far more sophisticated than we can guess from that quote in LISNews. Also, Jacobs quotes “comments on a recent Pew survey about American internet use.” So, the original source would appear to be comments on a survey.

In fact, the whole discussion actually depends on a February 29th report by Janna Anderson and Lee Rainie for the Pew Internet & American Life Project. The report, Millennials will benefit and suffer due to their hyperconnected lives, can be seen online and downloaded as a 36-page PDF file. The report shows a “tension pair” of two kinds of predictions for 2020. Fifty-five percent of respondents predicted hopeful futures and 42% were more pessimistic.

But wait, there’s even more! In a note on page 8 of the PDF version, the report states that respondents were a “non-random online sample of 1,021 Internet experts and other Internet users,” so the results cannot be projected to any population. Also, the authors state:

The “predictive” scenarios used in this tension pair were composed based on current popular speculation. They were created to elicit thoughtful responses to commonly found speculative futures thinking on this topic in 2011; this is not a formal forecast.

Anderson and Rainie make it clear that their report is about thoughtful speculation. Comments on the report stimulated interesting essays in two influential American magazines, and one of those essays was quoted indirectly in a LISNews article. But neither of the essays nor the brief quotation in LISNews cited a major source of data: Imagining the Internet at the Elon University School of Communications.

I try hard to help college students learn information and media literacy well enough to do scholarly research. When a student writes about something that is not her own original experience of idea, I ask, “How do you know that? Where did you get that information”

What can we learn from this exercise? Tweets and blogs may us lead to interesting facts and ideas, but without proper citations we have to backtrack until we find original sources. Scholars reveal their sources so that others can find them easily and read them, too.

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