Institution Building in an Era of Declining Trust
One of the defining characteristics of the 21st century is Americans' continuing loss of trust in the major institutions that form the backbone of modern society. From the news media and Congress to public health experts, police, and more, Americans simply do not have confidence that the institutions through which power is exercised can be trusted.
The internet appears to be a contributing factor in this collapse of trust, particularly in the context of the information that people consume. The nature of the internet, with its nearly non-existent barriers to entry, means that anyone with an internet connection can publish or write anything they want to on their personal website or on any number of social media platforms, and in many cases this can be done anonymously. In addition, the dominant business model for online publishers does not incentivize the production of truthful, well-researched, nuanced and fact-checked content. On the contrary, publishers are incentivized to create as much content as they can as cheaply as possible, with truth or accuracy being a secondary, or sometimes non-existent, consideration. And the content that performs the best—i.e., that generates clicks, page views, and ultimately, advertising revenue—is often the content that generates the most outrage, anger and fear.
Put simply, internet users are inundated with sensational, inaccurate, low-quality information produced by publishers looking only at the bottom line. And this constant barrage of drivel contributes to the sense that many people increasingly have that the truth does not exist as an external reality, independent of our feelings about it; or perhaps, if it does exist, it's impossible to discern and not worth the effort to try. But if this is true—if fewer and fewer people believe in the truth as an independent, external reality worth pursuing—the possibility of reasoned discourse, and the future of democracy, will be seriously imperiled.
As a counterweight to this dangerous trend, Bonmots aims to play a small role in building a new kind of internet—one where civically engaged entrepreneurs invest in building trustworthy online institutions that provide accurate, truthful and relevant information. In the case of Bonmots, that goal, at least initially, is humble and circumscribed: a user-friendly database of authenticated quotations. We believe that having a well-curated collection of interesting and thought-provoking quotes, each of which is accurately sourced using a standardized format (MLA 9), will provide significant value to students, journalists, academics, researchers and others.
But what does it mean to be trustworthy? This is something we are still thinking about. It cannot mean perfect accuracy, although I wish it could. Perfection, while laudable as a goal, and useful as a sort of "north star", is not practically achievable for a website with tens of thousands of quotes, and cannot be the standard by which success or failure is judged. In its place then, tentatively, I propose that for Bonmots to be deserving of its users' trust will requires two things: (1) a high level of accuracy and (2) transparency.
I think (1) is fairly self-explanatory: the vast majority of quotes at bonmots.com need to be correctly transcribed, properly tagged, and accurately sourced. In addition, for quotes originally in another language, the English version of the quote needs to be accurately translated. The spreadsheet on which bonmots.com is based has been developed over a period of three+ years, was worked on by about ten different people, and includes some variation in citation styles. We still think our quote transcriptions are significantly more accurate than those found at competitor websites, and we think our citations to original sources are superior in their current form even to those provided in reference works like Bartlett's Familiar Quotations and the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, let alone quote websites like brainyquote.com, which often provide no citations whatsoever. However, as we have done spot checks on our quotes we have found in some cases minor transcription errors and typos, so we are currently in the process of diligently reviewing all 10,000+ quotes to confirm that our quote transcriptions are correct, clean up typos, review and update tags, and harmonize and update all citations to match the formatting parameters set forth in the 9th edition of the MLA style manual. We expect this work to continue for another several months.
Transparency is harder to define, and what transparency will look like for Bonmots will come into focus over time, but I think a good initial example is the paragraph directly above. In that paragraph I briefly described the process we have undertaken to authenticate our quotes, the fact that we have found some minor errors and inaccuracies in our content, and the process we have undertaken to fix those problems. Once that process has been completed, I will create a new blog post summarizing the outcome of the audit.
In addition, we are preparing a blog post explicating the authentication process that we apply to each and every quote in our database. We think this will be helpful to users who are curious about the nature of our process.
Finally, I want to make clear here that although Bonmots is a for-profit venture, the principles of accuracy, excellence, attention to detail and a focus on the user experience will guide all of our decisions, and considerations of short-term profit will always be subordinated to these principles.