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May 18, 2003

Point Counterpoint

(Heavily updated and concluded)

Doc rebuts the "Googlewash" meme with a little homework, pointing out that Andrew Orlowski's original sample case has a problem in that the New York Times maintains its own archival memory hole:

"The bottom line: In the age of the Web, the practice of charging for access to digital archives is a collossal anachronism. It's time for The New York Times and the other papers to step forward, join the real world and correct the problem. Expose the archives. Give them permanent URLs. Let in the bots. Let their writers, and their reputations, accept the credit they are constantly given and truly deserve."

That's a fine call to make (and substantially more generous toward the NYT/print media in general than the "burn it all down" school of blogger). A re-read of Orlowski's piece, though, inidcates that he was saying a little more than "the NYT is inadequately linked." He maintained that the original use of the phrase "second superpower" was propagating through the Web (and Google's index) until it was picked up and repurposed by a blogger, who, Orlowski maintained, was arguing a neutered, so-apolitical-it's-political-again variant. In other words, the idea had become bigger than the original presentation then it was pushed out by the repurposed meme (I don't want to call this an instance of "blog noise" because it's different from this page turning up in Google searches for Tolkien's Beowulf manuscript.)

No conclusion because I'm in and out too much today, but iIt looks like Doc's post is getting a lot of approving links from here and there, which I'll recap later Technorati has rounded up (I guess . . . I don't have much opinion on it, even if other people seem to think it works).

Dave Winer also has something along the same lines, which manages to blithely walk past the point of the whole thing even after walking up and acknowledging it:

"Somehow, in a perfect world, Orlowski reasoned, Google would remember not only that the Times had used the term first, but that somehow the Times is more important than weblogs."

Orlowski doesn't talk about privileging, as Winer mistakenly (or simply falsely) asserts, the New York Times over blogs. He talks about blogs pushing out an idea in favor of another with the same label, and he says that's bad for reasons of his own we can decide on for ourselves. (Tuttle SVC says it's ok that the thing happened the way it did, in fact.)

There are numerous unfairly simplistic interpretations of Orlowski's argument cirulating on the Web, including accusations of conspiracy theorizing and the like. Some of his language troubles me, because it implies deliberate acts instead of the natural tide and shift of the Web vis a vis how Google reports it to us. The "big point," though, is that even Winer says, referring to A-list bloggers such as himself:

"Google gives us considerable power, because of our longevity and regularity and incoming and outgoing pointers. Popular weblogs can confer a lot of page-rank, and that's a good thing, imho."

It can't get much plainer than that, and it's pretty apparently true if my own referrer logs are any indication. This strikes back at what I was saying about taking a media literacy approach to weblogs: understanding how and why they present the content they do helps us evaluate what they're telling us and how we should treat what they point at. Knowing that they have "considerable power" should put us on notice that there's a potential for a monocultural (incestuous, implies Danny Ayers) trend in what we see coming across the Google results. No, not all bloggers are alike, but Andrew's original piece did a useful job of tracing the social ties that bind some prominent bloggers, and lends credence to the idea that there are somewhat like-minded nexuses of "Google power."

Armed with a more informed understanding of how blogs/bloggers tick and why they produce the media they do, and how they have a healthy chunk of Google's attention, we'll become able to contextualize them (and Google's usefulness) in our overall information diet. This isn't, to my mind, about de-privileging blogs (I wouldn't be working with PAIJ if I wanted that) . . . it's about understanding them and the effect they have on their media surroundings, then incorporating them into the much broader mission of seeking the truth, which is something grander and harder to nail down than all the words and facts to which Google can direct us.

Posted by mph at May 18, 2003 08:43 AM


Your description (social ties binding) is a lot more accurate than my talk of incest, but lacks the negative associations I think are due.

Their boundary may be impossible to draw, but I do think it is worth talking in terms of an A-list.

There are many potential problems with the power of the A-list - their viewpoint is primarily wealthy US, for a start; what bugs me personally is the way dismissal or promotion of an idea by one of the top bloggers usually gets amplified by the others - positive feedback for points of view that begin pretty spuriously.

The way second-hand, often uninformed opinions from bloggers push true authorities down the rankings is a problem that needs to be solved - I'm certain Orlowskian removal of blogs from the Google rankings wouldn't work.

What should probably concern PAIJ is their power to set and maintain agendas. This is very like the way in which (in the UK at least) newspapers currently operate, with the result that Posh and Becks (who? quite!) get a quantity of column inches comparable to the Iraq war.

Posted by: Danny at May 19, 2003 02:00 AM