Tagged: World Wide Web

Reality Check – A Recommendation

Reality check. That was a buzzword a few years back, and like any buzzword it quickly lost any real meaning and became just something printed on t-shirts and bumper stickers.

But in truth, everybody needs a reality check.

Everybody needs a standard against which to gauge one’s own perceptions. Without it, we would tend toward fiction, denial, or delusional thinking.

I remember hearing once a story (possibly apocryphal) about Pygmy people in Africa. They had spent multiple generations living day by day in a dense forest where you could not have a clear line of sight for more than a few yards. On some occasion, a Pygmy left (or was taken from) the forest, where he then saw elephants at a great distance. His companion tried to explain that these were the same elephants that lived in the forest, but the Pygmy did not believe it. They were too small. They must be something else.

But they are the same elephants. Reality check.

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I don’t remember how I came across Greg Fallis’ blog, but Greg has become one of my reality checks. He writes things that I could not write, or am not qualified to write, or simply had not thought about from quite that perspective.

Yet he does so in such a way that it clarifies an issue for me, makes it have more sense than it did.gregfallis

I admit that Greg and I share similar politics, which helps. But he doesn’t just validate my perception. Rather, like a good college professor would, he challenges and provokes, and yet seems to get it right most of the time.

I urge you to visit Greg’s blog. It can’t hurt.

And you may also find him to be a reality check.

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Nasty Comment, That Will Cost 99 Cents

Ever since I moved to the Nation’s Capital area, I’ve read the Washington Post. Recently, though, I’ve come this close to giving it up altogether.

The Post has a long reputation for quality reporting. It’s coverage of national and international issues has included breaking stories about the Watergate scandal, among others. Moreover, it is essentially my local paper, being a good source for restaurant and movie reviews. Plus, my kids enjoy the Sunday comics.

I’ve continued to read the “paper” as it has transitioned to the internet. But lately, I’ve been reading it less and less. It’s not because the reporting is worse or that using it online is a problem.

It’s because of the comments.

Art by me.

Art by me.

According to the Pew Research Center, the “vast majority” of Americans today views news in some kind of digital format. And anyone who has read journalism or quasi-news online recently knows this problem of hateful, vitriolic, anonymous comments. A recent article (from the Post, ironically) succinctly describes how journalism organizations nationwide have struggled with what to do about it. “The wide-open, anonymous comment was the source of a huge amount of complaints from every one of our papers,” the article quotes a senior newspaper editor.

According to the article, newspapers are concerned that if they turn off the comments they will lose readers and therefore lose advertising revenues. But what if there were another system.

To me, the obvious reason hateful online comments have proliferated is because they are free.

Basic economics has demonstrated over and over again how a free resource will be abused, especially if the users are anonymous. Land will be destroyed, air will be polluted, water supplies will be strained, highways overcrowded. By supplying the ability to provide unlimited and anonymous comments, newspapers are essentially subsidizing hate speech.

So I think it’s time to kill the subsidies and make commenters pay a reasonable fee. Set a flat rate for a fixed amount of text, let’s say 99 cents for 300 characters. They can pay through their subscription account or some third party system, such as PayPal.

It will accomplish two goals at once: raise revenue for the journalists and cut down on the trolls. I think it could work, and I’d love to see someone test the theory.

Some might argue that such a system stifles free speech. But that argument fails for several reasons.

First, there already exist restrictions on speech. The famous example is that you don’t have a right to falsely shout “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater. More than that, all of our existing means of communication–telephone, the internet, the mail–come with a fee of some sort. Anything outside of face-to-face conversation, you have to pay.

Furthermore, this would by no means put a stop to online comments. As has been demonstrated repeatedly by patrons in karaoke bars and the TV shows like American Idol, there is a nearly unlimited willingness of people to spend time and money to make fools of themselves in public.

Finally, as the Supreme Court recently reminded us, money does not prevent free speech. Rather, money is speech.

[Updated 5/13/2014 with reference to the Pew Research Center.]

Google Absurdum

Google is absurd. Just consider the name. It sounds like a contraction of “goose noodle.”

Seriously, though, Google has succeeded in becoming the predominant search engine for the internet, a service that 20 years ago nobody knew we needed. And in doing so, it is sowing the seeds of its own demise.

googledood

A Google Doodle.

Leaving aside my concerns about Google as a multinational corporation (a valid concern shared by others), I want to examine instead the workings of its flagship product: Google Search.

I use Google as a search engine almost daily, for both work and personal reasons. I don’t claim any knowledge of the algorithms that go into the search function. I don’t even know what an algorithm is. But with my searches, I can locate some pretty obscure stuff, teasing out the strands of the World Wide Web to find what I’m looking for. I am, as they say, a power user.

Google has been there for me, and for that I’m grateful.  But I can see some cracks in the armor.  If  things continue the way they are going, Google’s search effectiveness as I have come to know it will eventually approach zero. Here’s why.

Google’s rise to prominence came from the way it provides the result you are most likely looking for within the first ten results, what the company’s developers call PageRank. This likelihood is based on many factors. One of those factors is the frequency with which a particular web page or website is searched for, and that’s what concerns me.

Google now includes a feature where, the moment you begin typing in their query box, suggestions pop up of what you might be searching for. They call this autocomplete, and it is designed as “a reflection of the search activity of all web users and the content of web pages indexed by Google” according to the Help page on Google.

This means that the words that pop up in the box are there because that is what people are using Google to search for. Again, according to Google, “all of the predicted queries that are shown in the drop-down list have been typed previously by Google users or appear on the web.”

Presumably, this also affects the PageRank. All of this information is being churned inside Google’s processors to provide you with what they think you think you want.

But people don’t know what they want. Consider that the average internet user doesn’t know the difference between the URL address bar in a web browser, and a search engine. When these two very different features of the Web get confused, the effectiveness of searching becomes diluted.

As an experiment, I entered a single letter into the Google search box to see what the autocomplete suggested.  Here are some of the results.

  • Type n, and the first suggestion is Netflix.  The URL for Netflix is http://www.netflix.com.  Why would anyone ever need to search for Netflix?  The URL is so simple, there is no need. It’s not that difficult, people.
  • Type a, and the first suggestion is Amazon.  Just for laughs, I accepted that suggestion, and as I figured, it took me to Amazon.com, not the river in South America.  How hard is it to remember http://www.amazon.com?
  • Type f, and the first suggestion is Facebook (really?? yes!). Type g, and the first one is Google. Why would anyone google Google??

You get the idea. While research is being conducted on how to make the autocomplete more predictive of what users are searching for, there is little to explain why anyone would be using a query box to find a simple, easily-known URL in the first place.

Perhaps many view the search engine as a gateway to the Web. But this way of using the internet tells us something important. If these are the terms that people in fact are using in their searches, it means that, instead of using the Web to find knowledge, meaning, or purpose, they are using Google to find a commercial Web address they can’t be bothered to remember. That doesn’t hold much promise for our future.

It’s possible that Google knows all this already.  The company has diversified far beyond the basic search engine, with over a hundred subsidiaries including Motorola and YouTube, so that even if that engine seizes up one day, they won’t suffer.

I guess that will be the day I search for a new search engine.