Tuesday Jan 22, 2008

Memetics in Action

Two months ago a cousins forwarded an email asking me to sign an e-petition requesting Google to edit search results. The heart of the matter was that googling for the single word "jew" returned, as the first sorted result, a link to a site full of outright anti-Semitism. Conspiracy theory, moral outrage and commentary followed, and I was struck by the number of people calling for censorship. Having Google edit results to remove things that you find offensive (and I'm delineating offensive and illegal content) is tantamount to asking for third-party censorship. And that precisely infringes on the First Amendment rights that protect a variety of free speech, whether or not you like the subject of that speech. I'm not a big fan of having others tell me what's allowable, provided it's not illegal.

There are two issues at stake: the network mathematics that drive search results and the network behaviors that modulate the content being searched. The first is outside of a network user's control; Google ranks pages based on longevity, number of links to them, quality and ranking of those linking pages, and a number of other factors, none of which are content dependent. The same algorithm that ranks an anti-Jewish site high on the list of "jew" results also puts my own blog in the same search sentence as Sports Illustrated, Czech supermodels and former NHL stars. A tip of the yarmulke to Google for providing a cogent explanation of how search results get sorted. This shows up as a sponsored link (something not covered in their explanation) indicating that Google is picking up on the Jewish single and doing, without censorship, what the Snopes-illuminated petition asked. Bottom line: You can't petition statistics or clickstream analysis, but if you're upset enough you can add your own voice to the mix.

How? It comes down to memetics, again.

Ignore that which bothers you. Very much a "sticks and stones" approach, but it's the alternative to asking a third party to filter information for you. Who's to say that the filtering won't remove content that you want in the future, or that the filtering parties have the same religious, political, social, musical, and sports-oriented views that you do? If you really want to see spirited diatribe, check out your local newspaper's youth sports forum.

Be specific when you query. My wife discovered that the brand name of a barbecue sauce that we like also happens to be name of a porn site. They don't teach such things on Madison Avenue. Googling for the brand name alone is not safe for work (or home); adding "marinade" or "sauce" to the query takes you to the appropriate import store. Non-specific queries increase the probability that you prove Rule 34 exists outside of comics. Add enough description to drive meaningful and useful results; searching for single words out of context derails your train of thought. You can't seriously be overly dramatic about clicking through to the dramatic chipmunk.

Generate your own content. This doesn't mean "flame," because flailing at and eviscerating content that bothers you either further escalates the page ranking of the content in question, or it devolves into an existence proof of Godwin's Law. According to the statistics provided by Google, single-word searches for "jew" (before the "petition Google meme") accounted for about one in ten million searches; that puts the dramatic chipmunk (over five million YouTube views) seven orders of magnitude ahead in terms of audience reach. Memetics doesn't always make sense, it only makes repeatable, micro-scale audiences. Conversely, new memes are generated by micro-scale creators with the tools of internet-scale distribution.

In the two months since I first started thinking about the issue, the "google jew" issue seems to have resolved itself: the offending link has sunk to about fourth on the list, and there's enough commentary and context around it that allow readers to form their own opinions of this type of free speech. Paraphrasing John Gilmore speaking 15 years ago, the internet has always routed around censorship. The better solution, with proof by example, is amplification of new content to create balancing memes and a balanced resulting sort (interpret as you like).


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