Spectaclegate: should Google police bad businesses?

Paul Raven @ 29-11-2010

Nothing grabs attention and raises ire like a story of shameless bad business practices, which explains the popularity of this New York Times piece on a charmless chap by the (delightfully meme-ready) name of Vitaly Borker. To boil it down, Russo actively cultivates a negative image for his online eyeglasses sales business because all the incoming links from complaints by disgruntled customers boost his site’s search rankings.

Stories that give people a reason to have a pop at Google and its perceived monopoly are also popular, and the saga of Borker has plenty of people thumping pulpits and claiming that the Big G should be managing its search algorithms to prevent scumbags like Borker from profiting from malpractice. The thing is, if Google were to do that, they’d actually be strengthening the perceived monopoly that these people like to complain about in the first place. Jeff Jarvis lays it down:

What if Google sensed the positive or negative sentiment in links and used that to guide its placement in search, as some suggested? Makes sense in the case of bad-guy Borker and his virtual eyeglass store. But as someone pointed out on Twitter last night, if Google did let sentiment affect rank, then what would it do with the negative links regarding Barack Obama or Sarah Palin, to Islam or GM? How would you write that law, remembering that the code is the law?

What if instead Google intervened in a case such as this and, seeing all the complaints, manually downgraded the guy in search? The first problem with that is scale: how do you find and investigate all the bad guys? The bigger problem is whether we want Google to be the cop of the world. Google has been sued by companies it decreed were link-bating spammer sites, downgrading them in search, while the sites said they were legitimate directories. This is the one case in which Google holds the power of God in a market and it’s a dangerous position to be in.

[…]

In the end, Segal’s story looks like a failure of search, Google, and the internet. The internet made it possible for a bad guy to win. Well, so does Wall Street.

But I don’t think this was Google’s failure (cue fan-boy accusations). The moral of the story should be that if you search Google for the name of Borker’s company, you see plenty of loud complaints in the results. The internet doesn’t nullify the First Law of Commerce: caveat emptor. When I had my now-legendary problems with Dell, I kicked myself for not doing a search of “dell sucks” before buying my computer. That’s my responsibility as a shopper. And, as I pointed out at the time, Google would have given me the information I needed. Ditto for the lady in Segal’s story. If I think of buying from a new vendor, I’ve learned my lesson: I search Google first because fellow customers, using Google, will help protect me.

That is the lesson The Times should have given its readers: Use Google to guard against those who would use Google.

I can’t help but feel there’s a subtle mirroring of the Cablegate issues here: information itself doesn’t make us free, but it enables us to take responsibility for our own freedoms. Google’s algorithms likewise provide a powerful tool for anyone fortunate enough to have access to an internet connection; as tempting as it may be, we can’t blame them for our own failure to use it to the fullest. Caveat emptor, indeed.


Drowning in data

Paul Raven @ 01-03-2010

Maybe we’ll have flooded our culture-lungs with angry YouTube comments and pharmaceutical spamblogs before the rising sea-levels get a chance to touch our toes… [via MetaFilter]

According to one estimate, mankind created 150 exabytes (billion gigabytes) of data in 2005. This year, it will create 1,200 exabytes. Merely keeping up with this flood, and storing the bits that might be useful, is difficult enough. Analysing it, to spot patterns and extract useful information, is harder still.

Actually, I don’t see this deluge of data as a bad thing, but I’m very interested in how we’re going to store, manage and curate it.


Search is the drug

Paul Raven @ 08-09-2009

searching for fulfillmentDo you find yourself compulsively searching for things on the internet even when you don’t really need to know them? Do you get caught in the infamous Wikipedia rabbithole, popping over there to look up a musician’s name only to find yourself two hours later scrolling through a lengthy treatise on the socio-political history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire?

I know I do… and Professor Kent Berridge reckons he knows why. Apparently the parts of our brain that are wired for seeking are separate to those wired to respond pleasurably to finding; the latter provokes the production of opioids, but the urge to search is more like the perpetually unfulfilling loop of amphetamine craving.

For humans, this desire to search is not just about fulfilling our physical needs. Panksepp says that humans can get just as excited about abstract rewards as tangible ones. He says that when we get thrilled about the world of ideas, about making intellectual connections, about divining meaning, it is the seeking circuits that are firing.

The juice that fuels the seeking system is the neurotransmitter dopamine. The dopamine circuits “promote states of eagerness and directed purpose,” Panksepp writes. It’s a state humans love to be in. So good does it feel that we seek out activities, or substances, that keep this system aroused—cocaine and amphetamines, drugs of stimulation, are particularly effective at stirring it.

Ever find yourself sitting down at the computer just for a second to find out what other movie you saw that actress in, only to look up and realize the search has led to an hour of Googling? Thank dopamine. Our internal sense of time is believed to be controlled by the dopamine system. People with hyperactivity disorder have a shortage of dopamine in their brains, which a recent study suggests may be at the root of the problem. For them even small stretches of time seem to drag. An article by Nicholas Carr in the Atlantic last year, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” speculates that our constant Internet scrolling is remodeling our brains to make it nearly impossible for us to give sustained attention to a long piece of writing. Like the lab rats, we keep hitting “enter” to get our next fix.

[…]

That study has implications for drug addiction and other compulsive behaviors. Berridge has proposed that in some addictions the brain becomes sensitized to the wanting cycle of a particular reward. So addicts become obsessively driven to seek the reward, even as the reward itself becomes progressively less rewarding once obtained. “The dopamine system does not have satiety built into it,” Berridge explains. “And under certain conditions it can lead us to irrational wants, excessive wants we’d be better off without.” So we find ourselves letting one Google search lead to another, while often feeling the information is not vital and knowing we should stop. “As long as you sit there, the consumption renews the appetite,” he explains.

At least I now know why I was up until 2am this morning… but hey, I could have stopped any time I chose to, man. [via MetaFilter]

But perhaps framing the urge to search as a purely mechanistic behaviour isn’t entirely fair… because it has its benefits, especially for those of us whose work revolves around the uncovering of new knowledge. Here’s Lisa Gold – researcher to Neal Stephenson, among others – extolling the virtues of browsing, which she defines as being different to searching in both focus and utility:

Browsing and searching are different– browsing is about the journey, searching is about the destination. Searching is focused on finding specific information quickly and often leads to tunnel-vision, which can prevent you from recognizing useful sources that don’t match your preconceived ideas and assumptions. Browsing is about slowing down, opening your eyes, feeding your curiosity, and allowing yourself the opportunity to make discoveries.

I believe it’s important to set aside time to browse on a regular basis– not just on the web, but in the physical world as well. Spend time exploring different bookstores (both new and used), visit libraries and museums, and search out unusual places you’ve never visited. Take a different route, walk around neighborhoods you don’t live in, look for hidden treasures.

Amen to that!


Personas: vanity searches as unique digital artforms

Paul Raven @ 25-08-2009

Ever Google yourself?

C’mon, we’ve all done it a few times – just to see what’s out there that might be about us. Or what might be mistaken for being about us…

Well, a chap called Aaron Zinman at MIT’s Media Lab has made an installation called Personas which takes your name, does a vanity search on those terms, and then scans the resulting pages for keywords to make a visual representation of what the search results for your name are actually about. Here’s mine:

Persona results for Paul Graham Raven

Reminds me somewhat of chromatography experiments in chemistry class. The results aren’t incredibly accurate (I have no idea why the term ‘legal’ features so prominently in my results, for example), but what should be obvious immediately is that everyone’s chromatograph is going to look different (unless they have a particularly popular name; unlucky for the John Smiths of the world).

As pointed out by Jason Fitzpatrick of Lifehacker, Personas wouldn’t be of any use for producing a genuinely unique fingerprint per person for identity purposes. But as web technology advances (and if the Semantic Web ever coalesces out of the hot air of its strongest advocates), perhaps something like it would become a badge of honour or status.

Imagine some sort of QR barcode format for the results, jazzed up with colour and maybe some iridescent effects (because black and white is so stark, y’know?); when you met a new person, you could scan the barcode with your handheld and check it against a database that assessed its degree of uniqueness. Social standing as a function of internet footprint… the value of having a unique moniker would increase hugely, everyone dubbing themselves with a new identity as yet uncolonised by the average and uninteresting. And next would come (inevitably) the spammers, coat-tailing on the names of the rich, the successful, the famous and notorious…


Harvard drops out of Google Booksearch… because it’s not going to be free.

Paul Raven @ 06-11-2008

blue booksThe fat lady hasn’t yet sung for Google Booksearch. Just a few days after the announcement that the Big G had settled with the author and publisher associations to pay them a fair price for online access to digitised books, Harvard University is dropping out of the program:

“As we understand it, the settlement contains too many potential limitations on access to and use of the books by members of the higher-education community and by patrons of public libraries,” Harvard’s university-library director, Robert C. Darnton, wrote in a letter to the library staff.

He noted that “the settlement provides no assurance that the prices charged for access will be reasonable, especially since the subscription services will have no real competitors [and] the scope of access to the digitized books is in various ways both limited and uncertain.”

As TechDirt points out, the settlement looks good at a first glance, and has probably mollified a lot of writers and publishers, but it actually gives Google a tighter hold on the content:

Rather than making the world’s information accessible and findable, this move is an attempt to lock up the world’s information in Google’s proprietary format, so that Google can charge people for it. It sets in place a forced business model that actually diminishes the potential usefulness and value of books, and sets a bad precedent for just about everyone else.

So it would seem that by clamouring for short-term advantage, the publishers and libraries may actually have lost the long game. We’ve not heard the last of this, I’ll wager. [image by Dawn Endico]


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