Thursday, January 24, 2013

We're not the media if we depend on Google (or Amazon)

Update: 25 January 2013. This morning when I typed Catalonia into the Google Search box, and then clicked the News tab, all of the stories about the Declaration of Sovereignty were hidden behind an even smaller "+ Show more" link below the generic AP post carried by the Huffington Post. If I click on "All 88 news sources" I get this complete fail:

Google can't find Catalonia

Maybe there is a conspiracy!

I've also changed the headline of this article from "We're not the media if we don't appear on Google (or Amazon)" to "We're not the media if we depend on Google (or Amazon)". We need an alternative.

Yesterday there was a news story I was particularly interested in. But searching for it on the internets made me rethink a lot of assumptions about the idea that "we are the media". I first heard that expression used by Amanda Palmer, a singer/songwriter/artist who ran an incredibly successful crowdsourcing campaign a few months ago—raising over $1 million—to fund a new record. One of her most intoxicating claims was that she didn't need to sign with a studio, and she didn't need to follow a studio's rules and directives. With the support of individual people—me included—she could put out her record and go on tour. In short, she and "we are the media".

I've been writing books for the last 20 or so years with the same idea in mind. My HTML books helped people realize that they could publish their ideas, their writings, their photographs, their lives without having to ask for anyone's permission. At first, I published a gallery of these brand new websites, and I loved going through them and seeing democracy in action: all these people sharing their thoughts with the world, with no gatekeepers to stand in the way.

The gallery quick grew to multiple pages of lists, and the web to billions, and so I left the job of cataloging these new creations to the brand new Google. I'll get to that in a moment.

A few years ago, when I discovered EPUB, I had the same feeling of democratic excitement: here was a technology that could help people publish and otherwise share their writings. We humans yearn to share our stories with others. EPUB, an open format, facilitates such an interchange.

But yesterday, it really hit home how far we are from complete democracy of content. And that's because though we may have the technology and even free tools for creating webpages and ebooks, there are massive economic and political powers that stand between us and our readers. We cannot ignore them. Let me show you yesterday's example.

First, let me admit that the word I typed into Google was "Catalonia". But the ramifications go way beyond this particular news item. So, please bear with me as I use my favorite example to illustrate something much larger.

When I type in "Catalonia", Google says there are 83 news items. When I ask Google to show me "all 83 news sources", it gives me a list of only 16. You can try this at home.

Down at the bottom of the page, Google has a little disclaimer that says it omits some entries that are "very similar to those already displayed". And this is probably not the right time to discuss wire services and the sad fact that a single mediocre story with no byline about a small, new far away country might be reproduced verbatim, with no fact chacking, in 80 or so American newspapers. But I digress. But if you click "repeat the search with omitted results included" Google still only displays 25 items. There is no way to see all 83.

Google's "Full Coverage"

I would very much like to know which other 58 news sources are reporting on my topic. Why won't Google show me? And how does it decide which 25 items to show? And isn't it a problem that I am necessarily limited by Google's criteria?

Do I think there's a conspiracy to keep the other 58 news sources from being revealed? Probably not, but regardless, it bothers me quite a bit that there's no way to get to them. Like it or not, we are not the media, if we cannot be Googled.

And it doesn't stop there. Amazon recently decided that authors of the same genre books cannot review other authors' books. Amazon became successful because of its review system. I am not the only person who used to look at Amazon reviews in order to decide which book to find from the library. Amazon's reviews were an amazing crowdsourcing adventure, now run amok by enterprising and back-stabbing authors on the one hand, and Amazon wanting to watch the gates, on the other.

And don't even get me started on Amazon search. How much publisher money is behind Amazon's search results? I have no idea, but I'm guessing it's not insignificant. We are not the media if we don't come up on Amazon.

The Amazon review issue brings up yet another aspect of this whole story, which I touched on in an essay titled "If you know it already, don't tell". The basic gist of that article is that we believe people more when we don't think they have an axe to grind, even if, ironically, as in the case I describe, the person isn't particularly knowledgeable at all about the topic.

This is the same conundrum that Amazon's new policy throws at us, and that Porter Anderson confronted in his recent post in On the Ether. Where is the line between enough knowledge about a subject in order to give a reasoned opinion and so much knowledge about the subject that your opinion is biased? In this day and age when every one's past opinions are documented publicly, can there even be unbiased opinions? I think not. I believe that the important thing is to know what the opinion is, so we can use that information to assess the validity of the opinion. Suppressing all the opinions that Amazon has decided fall into a particular category of user solves nothing.

In these heady times in which self-publishers, and the web designers that came before them, are gleeful with democratic information sharing, we must be absolutely aware that the gatekeepers have simply moved the gates. Whereas in earlier eras we couldn't even publish without their help, now we can publish, only to find our sites and books hidden in a sea of information. Even if your book or website is in there, if Google or Amazon or whatever search product of the moment won't bring it up, it's as if it weren't there.

All is not lost. Twitter, and to some degree Facebook as well, are still amazingly democratic, allowing us to connect directly with kindred spirits all over the world. While we can't forget that social media still generates only a fraction of web traffic (on the order of 5-6%), I think its influence goes far beyond those numbers, if only in its ability to connect people and movements. But will they last? And Kickstarter (and for example, the Catalan crowdsourcing site Verkami) are great at helping us harness the power of hundreds (or thousands if you're Amanda Palmer) to offer alternatives to these gatekeepers or, when need be, attract their attention. Technology-wise, the use of accurate metadata can also help make a book or website "findable".

Ironically, it is the very birth of Google that gives me hope. Way back then, Altavista was the most popular search engine, and I remember being increasingly frustrated with its ads, its promoted links, and the seemingly deliberate obstacles that it placed between me and what I was looking for. This clean, lithe little ad-free Google came along and all of a sudden we could find things again. It felt like the whole world changed over to this little search engine that actually worked in a matter of weeks. Perhaps it's time for some new disruption.

And while we wait (or develop) the tools to maintain our democratic web, we must be careful to be aware that right now there is no unbiased opinion, and no unbiased search.

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