LAST Friday, many people on Twitter excitedly clicked on a link that led to the announcement of Google’s new product – Gmail Motion.

The product was reported to use Google’s “patented spatial tracking technology” and a webcam on one’s computer to detect movements, which will then be translated into characters and commands on screen. Imagine writing e-mail messages purely through body movements!

Well, Friday was April 1, and the product doesn’t really exist.

Anyone who clicked on the “Try Gmail Motion” from the site was greeted with an “April Fools!” message.

If you are active on social media, you would have woken up on Friday to many tweets, Facebook updates and even e-mail warnings about how it was April Fool’s Day, and that you should be cautious about what you read online.

On April 1, 2008, twitterer Prentiss Riddle (@pzriddle) from Texas, the United States, tweeted:

“What I like about April Fool’s Day; one day a year we’re asking whether news stories are true. It should be all 365.”

I found out about that tweet while reading the book Mediactive by American columnist and academic Dan Gillmor.

Gilmor wrote, “We can no longer afford to be passive consumers.”

He also asked, “Why don’t we ask ourselves, every day, whether the news reports we’re reading, listening to and watching are trustworthy?”

I met Gilmor last week at a talk and workshop in Singapore where he spoke about how important it is for media audiences to become active users, “both as consumers and participants”.

He shared several principles that media audiences – people like you and me – should abide by.

One of them is to “be sceptical”.

Detractors of social media have long noted that it provides a platform for, and even encourages, the sharing of false and inaccurate information whether intentionally (disinformation) or not (misinformation).

However, the speed in which information can be shared, the opening up of media spaces and its ability to facilitate engagement outweigh the negative aspects of social networking.

Social media’s accessibility could be used to counter any wrong information as quickly and efficiently as it would be to spread the misinformation and disinformation.

In the context of the April Fool’s joke, Google almost immediately informed users that they were being fooled. Still, for those who shared the link without even clicking on it, tweeples were quick to say, “It’s a prank lah”. Going one step further, University of Southern California Institute of Creative Technology sought to “dispel” the joke by turning it into reality; they actually made it happen (video here:

But what of information that is shared on the days when people are not looking out for pranks?

Take, for example, when “RIP Jackie Chan” became a trending topic on Twitter. People were quick to dispel the rumours, including sharing links proving that the rumour was an old one.

Chan also made public appearances, and even responded to the rumours. He was quoted in the media as saying: “I am not dead, though I am so busy that I may get worked to death.”

Naturally, an appearance is enough for him to dispel the rumour of his death. Many celebrities, victims of similar malicious rumours, have also used social media tools such as their personal Twitter accounts to let everyone know that they are well and alive.

Gilmor, however, does not think that this is enough.

In his book, he wrote, “We can never take it for granted that what we read, see or hear from media sources of any kind is trustworthy… The only rational approach them, is scepticism.”

But he also said that we should “not be equally sceptical of absolutely everything.”

What he is suggesting is that media users create a “scale of credibility”, by putting value on the source of the information one is receiving (and perhaps, ready to share).

Gilmor’s other principles for weighing what you read on the Internet also include exercising judgment, opening up your mind, asking questions and learning media techniques. These are great principles to adopt. In an age where the media consumer is not longer just a participant in one-way information (media to individual), his or her role in ensuring the accuracy of information that is put out there is very important.

Gilmor’s principles are not just good for filtering information. The same principles have other values as well, such as in facilitating new conversations and mobilising engagement.

We are no longer just consumers of media, but also participants. It’s time we took ownership of the information and conversations out there, and be pro-active in our engagement.

In Gilmor’s words, “to become mediactive in your own life.”

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