Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

What’s the cost of credibility?

Abraham Lincoln


Last week I read a pretty hilarious Atlantic article titled “Abraham Lincoln Did Not Invent Facebook: How a Guy and His Blog Fooled the Whole Wide Internet.” If you haven’t heard about the hoax, I’ll summarize: habitual prankster Nate St. Pierre wrote a blog post revealing that Abraham Lincoln had created a proto-Facebook back in the 19th century. After some canny social media engineering, the story went viral. Readers were going nuts over this revelation, never mind that it wasn’t a bit true.

In the Atlantic article, St. Pierre explained that he purposefully made the story easy to debunk, but it was such a great story that most people didn’t even try to fact check it before sharing it with their friends. Even though it was just a post on someone’s personal blog, not something with the might of an established newspaper or magazine behind it.

As we go deeper and deeper into the “culture of free,” we get used to getting everything for free, and we whine when the New York Times decides to instate a paywall (living proof that we really won’t buy the cow if we can get the milk for free… guess I owe Grandma an apology). But since we’ve been talking a lot about ebook pricing lately, it was really interesting to see that reputation, credibility, and money are slowly becoming less entangled.

January 1934 cover of Esquire Magazine


We have long equated price with quality, and in most cases this was justified. We pay more to get a better product or better service, and we associate high-cost goods with a certain image. Case in point: according to one of my old textbooks, in its early days Esquire charged more per issue so that readers would feel that buying the magazine conferred upon them higher status.

Things are a little bit different now. We still might judge people based on the perceived value of their belongings, but as far as quality of information goes, we trust free websites for our news just as much (okay, maybe almost as much) as we trusted the Wall Street Journal or New York Times. 

Clearly, a complicating factor in The Age of Social Media is a site or article’s viral appeal. The more people link to it, and the more it appears on other websites, the more we trust a source—making re-linking like the currency of the information age.

When it comes to books, how much does price matter in the value we place on the information they contain? I’m personally the kind of snob that thinks a 99-cent ebook couldn’t possibly compare in terms of literary value to a $29.99 hardcover. But then there are authors like Paulo Coelho, who  seem to think that cost has nothing to do with value. For this author, the price his books fetched was nothing compared to the numbers of people who purchased the book at a dramatically reduced price. And nobody was going, “Oh, that old rag?” simply because the books no longer cost $9.99.

I’m not saying that the cost of information has nothing to do with its quality; I still trust the New York Times far more than most other sources because it has the weight of its reputation behind it…but that’s also how they get away with charging, too.

When we get used to paying one flat rate for an ebook, does the author’s reputability and expertise matter anymore? Does the publisher’s reputation matter? Or are we soon to pick our new favorite experts based on who offers their work the cheapest? For me personally, when it comes to written content, cost and credibility are still pretty well entangled. But can it last in a culture obsessed with free?


This entry was posted on May 13, 2012 by in Culture, Opinion and tagged , , , , .

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