Earlier this week, I found an article on The Slate that made the argument that Starbucks really isn’t running indie coffeehouses out of Dodge. Instead, it explained that the Starbucks marketing machine actually helps the local shops by hyping up the perceived need for foofie-coffee through huge advertising campaigns, moving into neighborhoods that were covered by the local shops, and then essentially being more successful than customers (unaccustomed to waiting in long lines for coffee) were happy with. Hence, the local shops get the Starbucks overflow business.

I thought this was an interesting enough perspective, so I e-mailed it to, among others, my brother, who has been on the anti-coffee-corporatization bandwagon for many years now. In response, he sent me a five-paragraph thesis, complete with references and footnotes, on how the article was full of it. He cited another blogger’s response to the Slate article, and explained that Starbucks did indeed run his own favorite coffeehouse out of business many years ago, and then pointed out that Seattle’s Best Coffee (referred to in The Slate’s article) is actually now owned by Starbucks. Sneaky Starbucks.

Anyway, I bring this all up because I continually marvel at how easy it is to have a dialogue these days cluttered with all kinds of facts/fallacies, information/misinformation, and how we can all fact-check within the span of a few minutes. I often find myself talking with someone about God-knows-what and saying, “Let’s look it up!”

This happened just recently when my smarty-pants coworker and I were talking about all of the things that Bill Gates could do with his cash (i.e. single-handedly eradicate all of the basic diseases from the planet that we already have vaccines for, etc.). I, being prone to exaggeration, claimed that Bill Gates was worth somewhere around $400B. Davis challenged me and instead of arguing with him about something that I know nothing about, we looked it up. Turns out, I wasn’t even close. Bill is only worth $56B. But still – we had that info right at our fingertips so we could pass that little stumbling block and continue with the meat of the issue. I love that.

What did we do before open access to the Internet? Were we all just lying to each other all the time? I know I would not have gone to the library to look up Bill Gates’ net worth on Business Week microfiche. Maybe I would have talked to someone who keeps up with Bill Gates, or at least had a subscription to Business Week, and I would have trusted that they had a better memory for these kinds of figures than I do. If they were wrong, then I would be passing along faulty information and contributing to the whole problem. What a mess!

Another thing I like about the Internet is that I can look up transcripts of speeches or full texts of legislation that I had heard someone else’s spin on, but just didn’t seem right (yes – I did this before I thought about going to law school. What a nerd.). Even though most of this information has always been publicly available, I wouldn’t have had the first clue about where to go searching for it. Plus, it would have taken forever. Now, I can just whip something out of my computer and instantly sound like I know what I’m talking about. Fabulous!

Yet another thing – when was the last time you got an e-mail warning about perfume salesmen preying on women at gas stations, spraying them with a drug, rendering them unconscious? A while? Me too. I haven’t received one of these “Warning! This is not a joke!” e-mails in over a year. I think this is in no small part thanks to sites like snopes.com gaining in popularity. People are still gullible, but they have the ammo to check the facts before forwarding this stuff to their friends.

I know what you are going to say. Everything on the Internet is crap. It’s all shopping, phishing scams, and a bunch of bloggers with more ego than brains (ahem). Oh yeah – and Wikipedia is full of lies. Especially with Stephen Colbert mucking up the wikiality. Well, you are right, but you have to look at everything with that sceptical eye. For all the bad, there are islands of good that make all kinds of information available to people who might not otherwise have access to it. People have to opportunity to increase their knowledge and awareness of the world, and I really dig that.