Sir Tim Berners-Lee is to offer reputable websites a kitemark, to help web users work out that they are trustworthy and reliable. The father of the web is to launch the scheme via his World Wide Web Foundation , which begins its work in 2009.
This is, of course, completely bonkers. Why has it come about? Because of a bunch of cults, that’s why...
"On the web the thinking of cults can spread very rapidly and suddenly a cult which was 12 people who had some deep personal issues suddenly find a formula which is very believable,” said Sir Tim.
True, but the web is a two-way medium, and for that reason it beats – hands down – any other form of media you can think of, in terms of having a conversation, as opposed to being told what to think (newspapers, TV, radio, advertising, etc).
Besides, cults have existed offline right through history, giving way to any number of despots and savage regimes, pseudo religions, and also some very important scientific movements that existed under the radar for fear of persecution. Cults are to be feared alright, such is the dumb sheep instinct among the masses.
So while Sir Tim’s concerns on the spread of ‘cults’ are well-placed, however the idea that a bunch of badges will help protect and educate web users is thoroughly misplaced.
It won’t work, largely because it will be very hard to raise enough awareness among the sheep-minded about the kitemark scheme (no awareness = no point), and also because somebody has to issue these badges in the first place. That’s a kind of censorship, or a restriction on free speech, any which way you look at it.
It is non-inclusive, because there’s no way that the scheme will be able to consider each and every website on equal terms, and at the same time. It would take a decade to properly evaluate even the top 1% of sites to calculate their true merits.
You have to wonder whether the likes of The News of The World or The Daily Mail will be considered trustworthy enough to earn these badges? There are almost half a million pages on Google for a search on both of those publishers with the word ‘libel’ appended to the search term. You can bet that Max Mosely, The McCanns, Hugh Grant, Diana Rigg, Keira Knightley and Nicole Kidman would not be the first in the queue to hand out ‘reputable’ badges to these publications.
And how are we defining trust, in this context? Does it only apply to publishers? What about retailers and travel companies, or any site that features user reviews, which shoppers trust? (We know that user reviews boost conversion rates and average order values)
Sir Tim explains:
“It's not just where I go to decide where to buy my shoes, which is the commercial incentive - it's where I go to decide who I'm going to trust to vote. It's where I go maybe to decide what sort of religion I'm going to belong to or not belong to; it's where I go to decide what is actual scientific truth - what I'm actually going to go along with and what is bunkum”.
All very well, but I fear that we’re worrying about the wrong folks here. If you’re that interested in figuring things out for yourself then you really don’t need badges to tell you who to trust. It’s the people who have a herd mentality that we should be more concerned about.
Sir Tim himself will be the first to admit that you cannot be 100% accurate all of the time. In a blog post from 2006 he chides the “generally very reputable” BBC and Guardian for putting a negative spin on his comments about blogging:
“Fortunately, we have blogs. We can publish what we actually think, even when misreported.”
At what point do these “generally” reputable sources have their badges revoked for misrepresenting remarks from the likes of Sir Tim? Who has the time or resources to police this? And will people actually notice if badges are temporarily or permanently banned? Would his own blog have been awarded a badge, to deem his own response 'trustworthy'?
The best case scenario for this scheme would be if the likes of Google sat up and took notice of these badges, and adjusted the search rankings accordingly. But that is something that will swiftly penalise smaller sites, assuming that the larger sites are awarded badges first (how else could you do it?).
Sadly, this is an honourable idea doomed to failure.