Monday, October 30, 2006

How Google can nudge the keywords of political debate

There's a great piece "Own your own words" in the Oct. 30 Sunday New York Times Book Review Magazine written by Steven Johnson... on how Google is shifting the landscape of how word meanings are controlled in the political and social landscape. (The same Google I'm swearing at as I write this post, because its is making changes that that have blocked my ability to do posts for the last two days). Commenting and abstracting from Johnson:

Think of the battles that have erupted around terms like “liberal,” “torture,” “pro-life” or “intelligent design.” Now we are more likely to type these key words into Google and instantly get an entire field guide to their present usage: in op-ed columns, advertising blurbs, blog posts, MySpace pages, diaries, scholarly publications, wherever. Does “liberal,” for instance, evoke a big-government, tax-and-spend worldview that never met a bureaucrat it didn’t like? Or is it a tradition of egalitarian open-mindedness? Is “intelligent design” a legitimate scientific discipline, or a Trojan horse for anti-science religious values?

It is precisely this kind of real-world usage that Google lets you see in a single click, which creates a fascinating opportunity for anyone with a vested interest in shaping the popular meaning of words. Johnson suggests a simply strategy for increasing the prominence of your views. Because Google considers links to be a kind of vote endorsing the content of a given page, if you created a specific page, for example, called “affirmative action” — where your various articles and thoughts were collected — and encouraged others to link to that page, you could very quickly “own” affirmative action in Google. Johnson tries this approach with a proper name, by making the title of one of his blog posts the name of the British cultural critic "Raymond Williams." He deliberately titled the page “Raymond Williams” to persuade Google to rank the page highly for people searching using the key words “Raymond Williams.” After it went online, a few other bloggers linked to the page. Within two weeks, if you searched Google using the key word “Raymond Williams,” his little riff showed up as the No. 6 result, behind a Wikipedia entry, a museum bio and a few scholarly papers.

What’s powerful about this strategy is not the sheer number of readers, but the kind of readers he is attracting. By writing a little blog post and seeding it in such a way that it attracts Google searches, he attracts thousands of people who by definition are interested in the question of what Raymond Williams means. By positioning his work so that it will align itself with Google’s vast “database of intentions” — to borrow the memorable phrase coined by the technology writer John Battelle — He gets his meaning in front of the very people who are actively seeking it out.

This strategy happens to be old news to the bottom-feeders of the digital world: the spam artists who have long hacked the Google database to ensure that their sites rank highly when people search for “sex” and “blackjack” and “cheap Canadian meds.” But just because the spammers got there first doesn’t mean that Google-centric positioning cheapens the work of intellectuals. Johnson suggests that it’s inevitable that intellectuals who are interested in speaking to a wider audience will orient their work around Google’s rising influence. That doesn’t mean scholarly publications are irrelevant in this new world: the physicists don’t stop talking to one another simply because most people have a watered down version ofrelativity in their heads. It just means that for the mainstream understanding of complex issues, Google (and Wikipedia, whose entries often rank near the top of Google searches) are quickly becoming central authorities. So the question is whether intellectuals are going to mope about this shift — or whether they’ll see it as an opportunity to shape popular opinion.And if they make that shift, they’ll take their cues from the spammers and charlatans, the drug pushers and the pornographers. They’ll realize that it’s not just the marketplace of ideas they should be worried about. It’s also the database.

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