relevance

Is Google taking us back to high school?

I remember high school. The socialites — the "soshes" or soc's or however you would spell the nickname (I never learned) — were the in crowd. The cheerleaders, the football players, the glamorous crowd who looked down on the rest of us. Something like Heathers, only moreso and without the violence. When it came to who mattered in school, they were the arbiters. The rest of us, no matter how many friends we had, no matter how talented we were, no matter how smart we were (or should I rather say because of being smart) amounted to anything in the dominant high school culture. I hated it. I turned away from it. My friends and I would scorn the soc's in some lame attempt at payback, as if they cared. But it hurt to be disregarded so. Even though I didn't even really like them.

We outgrew it, of course. Some more quickly than others.

Now we live in an age of utopian world views and predictions of the perfect egalitarian society, all made possible by the "amazing" and "incredible" new apps, gadgets, widgets and gizmos of the week. Such declarations strike me as Pollyanna, or self serving. There are plenty of people at "the top", especially, who like to declare how egalitarian the web world all is. Perhaps it's flattering to their own egos. But is the world flat, really? Is our own culture all that flat?

In the tech world — and to some extent the political world — we see an in crowd who all link to each other, and the rest of us. And when I read Google's Matt Cutts' discussion of how Google works, it's not really new, but hearing it all at once is a bit, well, sad?

"Maybe some small site, you might only find a chance to crawl its pages once a week, but if that site is blogging like every 20 minutes, boom , you hit the submit button, and the search engines can find out about it," explained Cutts.

"Now the tension is that more spammers would use this as well, so you can't just say, 'I'm gonna index everything that everybody pushes to me.' So finding the right balance there is tricky, but the potential is really, really exciting," he said.

"You can definitely imagine the reputable blogs getting very fast updates - the ones that we think are trustworthy, and then over time, maybe ramping that up, so that more and more people have the ability to do...just like, instant indexing," he says.

And here we see another way Google may end up looking at the trust factor, with regards to ranking.

The online world is a busy world. We have a lot of crap thrown at us. We must filter out a lot of noise just to get at some information. But I wonder if ranking relevance by giving extra weight to the sites that are already popular, isn't a bit too inward facing — or inbred — to actually provide relevance to the vast majority of us, we who live outside of the interweb beltway. This stated algorithm does not provide for the possible relevance of the outside view, the venture by non-insiders, the independent voices. It's a mainstreaming algorithm that rewards groupthink.

We've known for quite some time that Google values links — quality links, links from reputable sites — in ranking a site. But let's hope that Google is doing a lot more than just that, because when I hear it summed up like this, I feel like I'm back in high school. Because as described, once again, what you need to do to build your reputation, to boost your "trust factor," is to get nods from the in crowd. You need to be in the clique.

Am I wrong?

[...and I write this keenly aware that some people may look at me as being part of the in crowd. I have to laugh at the idea, but I also know how fortunate I am compared with the lot of billions of people in this world.]

No, Google is not a monopoly

First, some context

Henry Porter, an opinionator granted a regular podium by the Guardian, has written a bit of a rant claiming that we're victims of Google, a "monopoly."

Google presents a far greater threat to the livelihood of individuals and the future of commercial institutions important to the community. One case emerged last week when a letter from Billy Bragg, Robin Gibb and other songwriters was published in the Times explaining that Google was playing very rough with those who appeared on its subsidiary, YouTube. When the Performing Rights Society demanded more money for music videos streamed from the website, Google reacted by refusing to pay the requested 0.22p per play and took down the videos of the artists concerned.

It does this with impunity because it is dominant worldwide and knows the songwriters have nowhere else to go. Google is the portal to a massive audience: you comply with its terms or feel the weight of its boot on your windpipe.

The article is full of these kinds of claims, all largely based on what seems to be either a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the Web, or a lack of understanding of the word "monopoly."

The core of Porter's ignorance, willful or not, is revealed in this statement:

Despite its diversification, Google is in the final analysis a parasite that creates nothing, merely offering little aggregation, lists and the ordering of information generated by people who have invested their capital, skill and time.

This is true only if you think that things exist on their own, and that their relationships to you, their relationships to each other, do not exist, or are not worth looking at, let alone making available for use -- let alone making relevant to our day-to-day lives.

Google provides a means of finding relevance in that sea of stuff out there on the Web. It's like a mega-index of the "book" of the Web. That relevance was largely hidden from us before search engines. To find relevance, one had to ask friends, browse libraries, analyze the Dewey Decimal System, dig up Yellow Pages, rummage through desk drawers to find that one tidbit of information you want right now.

That is hardly "nothing."

In 1787 Thomas Jefferson wrote: "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate to prefer the latter."

Thomas Jefferson was also against a strong judiciary, which in hindsight sounds pretty foolish, imho. But Jefferson aside, there's no indication that what newspapers are in function -- delivery systems for filtered information -- is not going anywhere. It's just the newspaper industry, and the infrastructure and market that enabled the paper to be printed, that is going away. News is still happening. It's just that how we're getting it is changing.

There is a brattish, clever amorality about Google that allows it to censor the pages on its Chinese service without the slightest self doubt, store vast quantities of unnecessary information about every Google search, and menace the delicate instruments of democratic scrutiny.

I don't like how US-owned search engine companies are going along with the Chinese Government's restrictions on the Internet, either, but let's be clear: It's the Chinese government that is censoring the Internet. Google is going along with it, along with much of the rest of the American economy, let's face it. This is about corporate collaboration with government constraints on what we consider "American values," and not about a Google monopoly or how Google is anything but pretty darned typical these days.

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