Why the Spat Over Murdoch, Bing and Google Doesn’t Matter
I tried to resist the thought, but I couldn’t talk myself out of it: None of this furor over Bing and Google and Rupert Murdoch will matter very much, or for very long.
An astonishing number of pixels have been spilled over social media, with the usual digital mix of interesting insights and wild claims of revolution. But even amid the hype, what’s definitely true is that social media is remaking how we live our lives online. And in some vital ways, social media is back-to-the-future Web stuff, fulfilling the long-deferred promise of Web publishing and search.
The idea that the Web makes everybody a publisher has been around for more than a decade, but for a long time the possibilities weren’t sufficiently supported by the technology platforms for Web publishing to be a truly democratic phenomenon. Sure, you could be an online diarist or cataloger or critic in 1995, but practically speaking you needed coding chops that were beyond most people. Blogging changed that, simplifying the process of creating and maintaining Web pages so that a much larger group of people could become publishers. But even then, setting up a blog was a technological bridge too far for most people — practically speaking, being a Web publisher was still a relatively techie endeavor. MySpace and Facebook and other social-media platforms were what finally married the technology with its possibilities. Setting up a social-media account is dead easy, as is answering the question “What’s on your mind?” with a bit of typing and clicking SHARE. Finally, the idea that we can all be publishers doesn’t sound like an invocation of rhetoric, but a description of reality.
With social media, we’re not just publishers — we’re sharers. And this is back to the future, too. Google’s search algorithms were created to replicate something that literally dates back to the Stone Age: our finely-honed sense of trust and social relationships. All things considered, even socially inept people are born with really good algorithms for figuring out social rank, influence and trustworthiness. Google did a remarkably clever job copying those — and they’ve earned billions upon billions from that foundation — but Google was needed because in the early days of the Web people’s natural social structures didn’t scale. There was too little participation for the Web to be truly representative, and truly participating — by creating information, assessing it and sharing it — was too technically difficult. Most of our meaningful social interactions took place in settings that were simpler — email, then IM and text-messaging. But that was primarily a one-to-one world that stood apart from the Web, which was a vast sea of information crying out for order. Few people had the technical chops to tackle that ordering (recall Yahoo supposedly stands for Yet Another Hierarchial Officious Oracle), the task was too big for people to handle the job anyway, and the results addressed the world in its vast entirety, not the fairly local world with which we naturally engage. Seen from this perspective, a lot of the problems and shortcomings of the Web feel like variations on this scaling problem: For years Google was a great tool for discovering weather patterns in Mongolia but a terrible way to find decent take-out within a couple of miles.
That’s now changing. The Web is not, of course, truly representative yet — too much of the world is still left out because of economic inequity, illiteracy, the repression of women and other ills. But within vast swathes of societies such as ours, we’re beginning to at least be able to make the claim that it is, and to glimpse a Web that’s accessible from everywhere, not just desks. (Which taken together will really just be the starting gun for what the Web will become — it’s still so early!)
And with participation in social media increasingly becoming the norm, we are reclaiming some of the old ways we naturally sort ourselves out into peer groups and social hierarchies. The nature of these peer groups is changing, of course — we seek out like-minded folks world-wide and build communities of interest instead of geography, we maintain weak ties instead of severing connections, and we leverage friend-of-a-friend situations in ways that were once reserved for people with a natural gift for social connections. But the trend is to return to something much closer to the social ties for which we are hard-wired.
This is why search is changing. With the ability to create strong peer groups online, and to create and share within those groups, we increasingly can use our own innate algorithms for trust and influence instead of turning to Google’s replicas of them. And we are discovering — or, really, rediscovering — that we have an unconscious knack for assembling peer groups that are as good or better at delivering a reliable “feed” of news about not only the subjects we’re most interested in, but the subjects that cross peer-group lines. Peer groups chop the Web down to size, and make the old human ways of finding and exchanging information scaleable again. If we have them, we have much less need for industrial search.
My A-Ha moment with Twitter was realizing that without even meaning to, by following people on Twitter I’d created a feed of information that was an excellent substitute not just for the sites I habitually visit about various subjects, but also for the aggregated home page I maintain for general news. I now routinely get my news from Twitter or Facebook, and reflexively turn to Twitter when news breaks. The combined efforts of all those people I follow add up to something that’s faster than news Web sites, covers more territory and is as reliable if not more so than RSS feeds and mechanized aggregation. The college kid who told a focus group that “if news is that important, it will find me” wasn’t being breezy or lazy — he was describing what social media has increasingly made reality.
That same effect is being seen other places, as people replace algorithms. “Do what you do best and link to the rest” is a strategy based around people, not search — it would work perfectly well without Google or Bing. Curation is about people, not search. Done right, aggregation is about people, not search. Email This and Digg and Share on Facebook are about people, not search.
This isn’t an unalloyed good — whether they’re centered on common interests or geography, our peer groups encourage us to create echo chambers of common creed and aligned opinion. We are correct to see this as a drawback, and to wonder which thin slice of news will find us — and if it will be news at all. But our dislike of the idea isn’t enough to prevent it from happening. We will vote — consciously or not, for good or for ill — for social search over mechanized search. It’s already starting to happen. And that means Rupert Murdoch and Dean Singleton and the AP and Microsoft and Google and everybody else are staking out positions in the last war. Theirs is a sideshow and a distraction. Whether we realize it or not, we’re already moving on.
The news will find me, because my peers will find it. It doesn’t matter whether the news gets indexed by Google or Bing or something else. My peers will find it, either through one of those search engines or more likely without visiting either. Murdoch may squeeze some millions out of Microsoft and wound Google and spark a million arguments about the civic value of how to index information, but none of that is going to make any difference to me. The news will find me.
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