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I guess you could always dust off that Britannica set ...
April 28, 2011 6:56 PM   Subscribe

"Let's pretend it's an alternate world, or maybe sometime in the future, and there is no free search. You have to pay for your Google, or Bing, or whatever. How much would you be willing to pay?"
posted by bayani (119 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
There was a time when no such thing existed. Those of us who used the web back then got by with other ways of finding stuff.

The reason we've all become dependent on search engines is because they have always been free. If they had cost money to use, fewer of us would have used them, less often, and we'd still be relying on those other means.

So my answer is, "I wouldn't be willing to pay for it."
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:00 PM on April 28, 2011 [31 favorites]


By the way, the guy's scenario (all the major search engines start charging the same thing simultaneously) wouldn't hold, for two reasons:

1. It would be prosecuted as an antitrust violation (price fixing).

2. Someone would eventually cut their price, and then you'd have a race to the bottom, i.e. to once again not charging anything.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:02 PM on April 28, 2011 [4 favorites]


Have libraries disappeared in this hypothetical future? How about things like lexisnexis?

(In other words, not much, if anything.)
posted by oddman at 7:03 PM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


Have libraries disappeared in this hypothetical future?
I could totally be making this up, but I seem to remember that before the internet era, you could call the New York Public Library reference desk with any random question, and they would find the answer for you in one of their reference tomes. Could that possibly be right?
posted by craichead at 7:07 PM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


$0, like my smartphone, my subscriptions to periodicals, and dental insurance, I just simply wouldn't have it if my company didn't pay for it.
posted by 2bucksplus at 7:07 PM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


You're already paying for it, you just don't get the bill directly.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:08 PM on April 28, 2011 [35 favorites]


I'd go the library, which would, because of the prohibitive search engine costs, kill trees bringing back the printed Reader's Guide, microfilmed newspapers and indices and the like. Free search is tautological. This is an invidious 'monetization' argument posed as a push-polling question.
Paid search firms that were out there pre-web were ridiculously expensive because people were paid for their searching, and intrinsic value in the results was expected and usually given. It might be better to ask, "What's the last Google/Bing/etc search that delivered you any intrinsic value whatsoever?"
posted by nj_subgenius at 7:08 PM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


I usually just click on the wikipedia link anyway, so I would probably just go there directly.
posted by milarepa at 7:11 PM on April 28, 2011 [6 favorites]


How much do lawyers or law schools or students pay for Lexis/Nexis or WestLaw? It seems like they are willing to pay quite a bit. I guess the answer really comes down to how many free backpacks, frisbees and stainless steel coffee mugs these search engine companies of the future are willing to provide.
posted by This_Will_Be_Good at 7:11 PM on April 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


1. I agree with Chocolate Pickle.

2. If I'm paying for Wikipedia, it better be a LOT more accurate than it is now. I should be able to use it for citations in a college research paper.
posted by digitaldraco at 7:11 PM on April 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


This is a silly question. "No free search" assumes, at the very basic level, "no advertising-supported models," because people don't want to see ads when they pay for something (e.g. HBO, Showtime, etc).

The idea of annual subscriptions to Wikipedia, though, holds a little more water. I could see that. But again, it's better on the charity-based, nonprofit model, like CSPAN.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:11 PM on April 28, 2011


Have libraries disappeared in this hypothetical future?

Well, if search engines remain free just long enough for people to decide that libraries are irrelevant, especially during a period of massive funding cuts to public institutions, probably.
posted by Ralston McTodd at 7:16 PM on April 28, 2011 [5 favorites]


Yeah, $500/year seems reasonable for search. This is the beauty of capitalism: supply drove down the price to basically a few cents (of advertising.)
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 7:17 PM on April 28, 2011


2. Someone would eventually cut their price, and then you'd have a race to the bottom, i.e. to once again not charging anything.

... have you seen cable or cellphone subscription rates lately? Because both of those phenomena are subject to the same pressure you suggest, and yet evidence suggests their prices have not been falling through the floor.

Which is actually the real problem, I think. Not cable per se, but broadband and cell phone data plans. While I sort of see where content- or service-provider sites are coming from, in setting up paywalls and charging for access and such, the thing is just getting onto the internet is so damn expensive already. Like, $40+ per month from home, or $60+ per month on a smart phone (or, for some people, both).

Frankly, I feel like once I pay so damn much for network access, I should get something for my money. Something ought to be included. I mean, if I have to pay more for each marginal NYTimes article or each search, why am I paying so much to connect in the first place? It's not that I mind paying, conceptually, but I do object to ringing up huge bills by having to pay every step of the way.

But it is an interesting question. Why are we willing to pay so much to Comcast, but nothing at all to Google? Maybe Comcast should pay the NYTimes for the privilege of getting its articles before their users. It sounds silly stated that way, but I do kind of think the money should flow in that direction, overall.
posted by rkent at 7:17 PM on April 28, 2011 [15 favorites]


I would pay a lot, certainly more than I pay for TV or other entertainment. Of course, I agree with all the above posters that this is a purely hypothetical scenario, but in some world where this was the case I would certainly pay for it.
posted by wildcrdj at 7:18 PM on April 28, 2011


How much do lawyers or law schools or students pay for Lexis/Nexis or WestLaw?

Lawyers pay through the nose. Law students pay nothing (well, other than the customary mountain of debt). The first hit is always free...
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 7:18 PM on April 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


I've never really understood the people who sit in front of slot machines for hours at a time, but this article gave me a sudden chill, picturing myself plugging quarters into Google / Wikipedia at 2 in the morning, looking for, I don't know, goose population statistics or the history of paper bags. I would howl like everyone else, but I would pay.
posted by chaff at 7:20 PM on April 28, 2011 [31 favorites]


I would wait for the workaround that made it free again. Probably 30 minutes before it went live. So nothing.
posted by Splunge at 7:22 PM on April 28, 2011 [4 favorites]


broadband and cell phone data plans.

I believe that's because players in these industries have to bid on parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, which clamps supply. Internet search doesn't have this problem, even though it has others (e.g., you need really smart people to build a search engine.)
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 7:22 PM on April 28, 2011


I've never really understood the people who sit in front of slot machines for hours at a time, but this article gave me a sudden chill, picturing myself plugging quarters into Google / Wikipedia at 2 in the morning, looking for, I don't know, goose population statistics or the history of paper bags. I would howl like everyone else, but I would pay.

you could finance this by betting on the results. "Why yes, Quebec did have more geese in the 1800s! Cough up my winnings!"
posted by the mad poster! at 7:23 PM on April 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'd go the library, which would, because of the prohibitive search engine costs, kill trees bringing back the printed Reader's Guide, microfilmed newspapers and indices and the like.

Absurdity. It would be cheaper to hang a computer off the network, put Wikipedia and some other popular and publicly-available reference works on it, and use Lucene or something to search locally, which would be sufficient for a great many needs. Paper is astonishingly expensive and inefficient by comparison. and I say that as someone who really, really likes paper.

Admittedly I am an atypical search user. I probably average 50/day.

How much do lawyers or law schools or students pay for Lexis/Nexis or WestLaw?

LexisNexis has a product aimed at solo attorneys that's $175/month, all inclusive and adequate for most day-to-day needs. I forget what West's offering costs. School accounts are heavily subsidized, student accounts even more so, in the hope that by the time they graduate, students will have become reliant on the services. This particular field is likely to look completely different within 5 years though; there's a great deal of innovation and competition taking place in this sector at present.
posted by anigbrowl at 7:24 PM on April 28, 2011


I donate to Wikipedia. It may fashionable to laugh at it, but it has become my starting point for information, in the same way that Google is my starting point for search.

I grew up, reading about Isaac Asimov's Multivac. Damn me, but the unthinkable future has become my everyday life!
posted by SPrintF at 7:24 PM on April 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


If I'm paying for Wikipedia, it better be a LOT more accurate than it is now. I should be able to use it for citations in a college research paper.

Maybe I'm wrong here, but I get the idea you're not supposed to use tertiary sources like encyclopedias at all in research papers.
posted by wayland at 7:27 PM on April 28, 2011 [5 favorites]


Awesome - lets provide some additional revenue to the search giants. Not only can they sell your search history as a profile to advertisers, serve you targeted adds, and otherwise slowly subversively drive out your privacy, but now it seems we're starting to prepare ourselves for the thought that they will eventually charge us to continue their revenue growth.

I feel like watching Armageddon and rooting for the asteroid...
posted by Nanukthedog at 7:27 PM on April 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


There's no free search now. It's like Facebook -- the user is the product. Hasn't everybody figured this out by now?
posted by kittens for breakfast at 7:30 PM on April 28, 2011 [5 favorites]


You can still get answers from the NYPL: http://www.nypl.org/ask-nypl

We already pay for google with our attention.
posted by nutate at 7:31 PM on April 28, 2011


Hah. The author is wildly optimistic.

First, they charge for search. Then they'll add advertising back in. The excuse will be that the rate charged would be even higher if they didn't get to advertise to you. Then the rates will go up anyway.

Don't believe me? Go to a movie theater.
posted by adipocere at 7:32 PM on April 28, 2011 [18 favorites]


All I can say is that if this happened, it would be a great day for the open source movement, because they would realize that it's entirely in society's best interest to effectively "open source" all major internet business models.
posted by markkraft at 7:32 PM on April 28, 2011


I refuse to answer this question; I don't want to give them any ideas.
posted by Panjandrum at 7:32 PM on April 28, 2011 [5 favorites]


Let's pretend it's an alternate world, or maybe sometime in the future

I have red goggles and a gun that shoots birds of prey
posted by Greg Nog at 7:32 PM on April 28, 2011 [8 favorites]


Google is a massively profitable company and, in the end, their entire empire is based on their model of free search. You might as well pose the question of 'how much would you pay for air to breathe', this scenario of paid search is never going to happen. Searching is only going to get easier as technology improves and the basic principles of it are well understood so even if existing providers decided to commit economic suicide any number of new firms would immediately jump in to fill the gap. Imagine instead a world in which the internet was run by the government. You'd have to go to the post office with your search query written down on five different forms, queue for half an hour, pay $5 dollars a search and get the results posted to you three weeks on Thursday.
posted by joannemullen at 7:33 PM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


What if Google or Bing paid you to search?
posted by rh at 7:34 PM on April 28, 2011


Who wants to join my metafilter webring?
posted by cjorgensen at 7:34 PM on April 28, 2011 [12 favorites]


Couple of data points: a Bloomberg Terminal subscription costs about $1500/month. Flat-rate LexisNexis access ranges from $84/month for the lowest level of access to over $2000/month for everything (those numbers are for the minimum 3 user contract).

For those mentioning Wikipedia: if search weren't free, crowd-sourced research resources like Wikipedia either wouldn't exist or would exist in a much reduced state.
posted by jedicus at 7:34 PM on April 28, 2011


Online newspapers are a similar situation. Once it became possible to read news online without paying, all attempts to charge subscription fees for particular newspapers were utter failures.

The only exception to that I'm aware of is the Wall Street Journal, and they provide information you can't really get anywhere else.

But as to regular news, nearly every newspaper gets their news from AP or Reuters, and if even one such newspaper offers that news without charging, then no one else can charge.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:35 PM on April 28, 2011


a gun that shoots birds of prey

you mean like this? (previously)
posted by Existential Dread at 7:45 PM on April 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


If I was paying for search, I damn well better not get any link farms or other spammy results.
posted by maxwelton at 7:49 PM on April 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


"No free search" assumes, at the very basic level, "no advertising-supported models," because people don't want to see ads when they pay for something (e.g. HBO, Showtime, etc).

This is not accurate. There are lots of things people pay for that are loaded with ads — TV, magazines, etc.
posted by John Cohen at 7:53 PM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


shortwave
two-way
library
what do you want!
posted by clavdivs at 7:53 PM on April 28, 2011


There was a time when no such thing existed. Those of us who used the web back then got by with other ways of finding stuff.

This, about a million times. A pretty hefty percentage of my searches are not for information that I really *need* to know, but stuff I want to know. It's really awesome and convenient to have that information available quickly, but it is certainly not worth anything near $500 a year! Same thing for Wikipedia--I use that almost exclusively to satisfy curiosity. It would suck to not have it anymore, because that would mean that I could not read the plot summaries for TV shows in order to decide if I want to rent the DVDs, for example, but I would deal.

Certainly it would take longer to find information if I went back to the library and printed sources, but that would just mean that I would give up my random curiosity searches. A bummer, as I said, but not so much of a bummer that I would feel compelled to pay for Google.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 7:57 PM on April 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


People here already pay extra for more bandwidth or things like access to Foxtel (cable TV). I could imagine paying a $5 monthly fee for Google.

Or just going to the same sites.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 7:57 PM on April 28, 2011


Nothing. Life wasn't like this before, and it doesn't have to be in the future. It abides.
posted by carping demon at 7:59 PM on April 28, 2011


"Imagine instead a world in which the internet was run by the government."

Uh, I remember a time when that was basically true.

And frankly, with how the jackholes at ICANN run the TLD system, a government taking that over might not be the worst thing in the world.
posted by klangklangston at 8:09 PM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


Blazecock Pileon: "You're already paying for it, you just don't get the bill directly"

Indeed. I was shocked to hear the other day from a client quite how badly they are getting screwed with AdSense.
posted by wierdo at 8:20 PM on April 28, 2011


Is this where it is safe to admit that I have no concept of why the internet costs money to run? I just... I feel like I should understand this. And yet, since I can't touch it, I think, on some level, it is magic.
posted by jenlovesponies at 8:22 PM on April 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


And now that I think about it, I would pay zero dollars for search and be happy I got some of my life back.
posted by wierdo at 8:24 PM on April 28, 2011


The implausibility of the premise renders the question meaningless. Imagine a world where a situation that is basically impossible is somehow forced into being, in the process invalidating much of what we know to be true of human beings and society. What would you do then? Answer: Martin Van Buren. Who cares? What answer are you going to get out of this that isn't going to be seriously flawed from the get go?
posted by Pants McCracky at 8:27 PM on April 28, 2011


Imagine a world where a situation that is basically impossible is somehow forced into being, in the process invalidating much of what we know to be true of human beings and society.

Thus, Jersey Shore was born.
posted by Joey Michaels at 8:32 PM on April 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


How much do lawyers or law schools or students pay for Lexis/Nexis or WestLaw? It seems like they are willing to pay quite a bit.

None of them pay. Students aren't charged, and an lawyers bill their clients.

As for search, I'd pay like $5 bucks a month.
posted by Diablevert at 8:32 PM on April 28, 2011


> I seem to remember that before the internet era, you could call the New York Public Library reference desk with any random question, and they would find the answer for you in one of their reference tomes. Could that possibly be right?

About five years ago, I was playing Scrabble with some friends at a local favorite brewpub. A play was challenged, and while several of us had cellphones, they were plain ol' pre-iPhone dumb mobiles. So at the urging of the other players, I phoned the local library and asked the reference desk to check the spelling.

He did.

And, no, I can't remember whether the challenge succeeded, or even who won the game. Sorry.
posted by ardgedee at 8:33 PM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


If search wasn't free, some company would come along and make a free search, and then everyone would optimize their sites in order to get the best possible listing on that free search engine, and... we've heard this story before.

A little Internet history lesson: the very first search engines were absolute crap-- like, hysterically bad. There was a time when Yahoo didn't even have a real search engine, the little search box only looked at a partial-text-match on category names and category entries in their own database (which, looking back, was pathetically small, amirite?). Go to dmoz.org to see what Yahoo used to be like. You could fit that entire database on a $2 flash card, and run Spotlight against it and you'd be back in 1996.

Anyways, yeah, Excite? Infoseek? Infospace? Netbot? Inktomi? Horrible. Then Digital decided to show off their brand new hardware architecture, the Alpha, by creating a new kind of search engine -- Altavista. New algorithm, wound up beaten by Google, we all know the story.

So again, if Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, etc., all decide they're going to charge for search, watch some well-funded startup fire up a massive Hadoop cluster on Amazon, throw a few ads on the page, and bam, you have free search again.
posted by mark242 at 8:35 PM on April 28, 2011 [11 favorites]


there's no way that someone wouldn't come up with a free search engine to compete with a google that charged for searches

also, i have a ton of information about things that interest me in my personal library and on my hard drive; enough to keep me occupied for a good long time

i'm not paying a cent for the idle curiosity involved in random web searching, fun though it is - and those sites that offer important information i want, such as dealing with musical equipment and knowledge, i've got bookmarked - and i have even more knowledge in my collection at home

all a paid web search regime would do would be to inspire me to focus better on the things i NEED to learn about and have gathered resources for already
posted by pyramid termite at 8:37 PM on April 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


Many of the academic search databases which are rapidly being made obsolete by google scholar / books are quite pricey. I'm a bit surprised goog hasn't tried to extort money from university libraries (except of course those cooperating with the books project...) .
posted by a robot made out of meat at 8:37 PM on April 28, 2011


You can still get answers from the NYPL: http://www.nypl.org/ask-nypl

A couple of years back the search engines had no answers to a question I had. A message to the NYPL and a couple of patient weeks later, I had key answers. I guess it helped a little that the question was about a one-time-familiar if prosaic long-gone publishing dictatorship in NYC.

Anyway, the idea of paying for search is a real hoot, since anyone can crawl it. How much longer before search is integral to the net? One superior algorithm away.
posted by Twang at 8:40 PM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


I would chortle and dance and play a fife if a credible free alternative to Wexis cropped up. I would doubly chortle if the government itself pursued such a project - why should the very ability to conduct actual legal research be prohibitively priced?

None of this will happen in the near future, of course, but a man can dream.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:41 PM on April 28, 2011


None of them pay. Students aren't charged, and lawyers bill their clients.

Students—at least those that pay tuition—are charged indirectly. Law schools have subsidized plans, but they aren't free.

Lawyers pay for research costs by billing clients, but inefficient research on an hourly or transactional plan can quickly eat into an attorney or firm's profit margin (for those who don't know, there are databases on Lexis and WestLaw that cost $35 per search plus the cost of downloading copies of the results). It's entirely possible to end up losing money on a client because of search costs. Just about every firm has a horror story of a summer or first year associate who didn't realize the firm wasn't on an flat rate plan like a law school and racked up a multi-thousand dollar search bill in a day, which the firm then had to eat.
posted by jedicus at 8:41 PM on April 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


rkent: "Why are we willing to pay so much to Comcast, but nothing at all to Google?"

If Google would beat broadband to the house in a way that clusterfucks the local-area monopoly rates to death, I would pay them *more*, for now, than I currently pay my local monopoly provider.

If Google would beat handset-featuring cell monopolies to the point that there can never again be monopolistic pricing models on handsets and service, I would pay them *more*, for now, than I currently pay my local monopoly provider.

I actually think it should be the role of government to prevent the opportunity for such pricing models to develop, but I don't appear to live in a country with a functioning model for such political and economic viewpoints to participate in policy debates.
posted by mwhybark at 8:45 PM on April 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


Ad revenue not working?
posted by Sphinx at 8:46 PM on April 28, 2011


The implausibility of the premise renders the question meaningless.

If implausible premises were banned in hypothetical situations, what would people talk about while drinking?

What answer are you going to get out of this that isn't going to be seriously flawed from the get go?

You're going to get a discussion about the value of search and how we use the internet. The dollar number isn't important -- the discussion surrounding that number is.

And I think you're all either A) my mom who only half-understands that the internet is here or B) have misremembered what life was like when the dominant method of finding things on the internet was going to the yahoo page that might be about the general area of interest you were involved in and then scanning 45 web pages that may or may not have something to do with what you're looking for. Guys, back before Altavista, the web was basically curated, and it was only as useful as the curators, which is to say NOT VERY. Before Altavista, the internet was a novelty, useful for some very specific activities but mostly hard to navigate and reliant on referring someone somewhere. The learning curve was steep and the barrier to entry was high. Plop my sister in front of my old Gateway running mosaic and tell her to find the average rainfall in eastern Montana and she'd have gotten up from her chair and driven to the library.

Search on the internet is what makes it go. A good 90% of things you currently know on the internet can probably be traced back to a single search you made. No search = no internet as we currently understand it.

In other words: search is as valuable as the internet.
posted by incessant at 8:47 PM on April 28, 2011 [10 favorites]


A good 90% of things you currently know on the internet can probably be traced back to a single search you made.

but we've already DONE that - for free
posted by pyramid termite at 8:54 PM on April 28, 2011


... have you seen cable or cellphone subscription rates lately? Because both of those phenomena are subject to the same pressure you suggest, and yet evidence suggests their prices have not been falling through the floor.

I have access to dozens of search engines from any computer.

But I only have access to one cable provider and one DSL. In many places cable companies operate in regional monopolies.
posted by munchingzombie at 9:06 PM on April 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


The web is still curated but automation has made the dataset so vast that it's easy to forget. An entire industry has grown to exploit the mechanical weaknesses of search engines.

I feel like the reliance upon central search authorities has taken something away from the internet experience. I'm sure I'm romanticizing but it seems the convenience of centralized search reduces the wonder and sense of exploration that connecting to a global network of your peers induced. Our reliance upon machine-generated indices has reinforced an hierarchical internet structure that serves commercial interests over the vast humanitarian potential of a global communications network.

To sum up my wild-assed tangent, I tend to believe that an internet without convenient free search engines would foster a stronger sense of community and drive more people to generate and host higher quality content.
posted by polyhedron at 9:07 PM on April 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


Those of us who used the web back then got by with other ways of finding stuff.

You didn't miss what you'd never had.

But back then was a dark age compared to now. It boggles my mind how different it was, and how much less we got done, and how much less we could do.

We got by not so much by having other means of finding out, we had to get by without knowing stuff. And the only reason the consequences weren't dire was illusionary - it was dire but we didn't have any reference point for how bad it was.

Search is a critical part of what builds and sustains the internet, and the internet is like petrol - everyone knows it's important, but it's all to easy to not realise how important.
posted by -harlequin- at 9:11 PM on April 28, 2011


Tree fiddy.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 9:15 PM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


There are a lot of up and coming search engines out there hoping they can one day beat Google's algorithm, or offer some feature that makes them better. For example, Duck Duck Go says they don't track their users, unlike Google.

Of course, it's near impossible to beat Google because in addition to having a huge team of engineers constantly refining their algorithm and years of indexed data to make their search near unbeatable, people also have very little reason to change from Google. If people can still find information they're interested in quickly with Google and don't have to change their habits/bookmarks/search engine plugin, they don't have any reason to bother trying a new search engine.

So, let's imagine Google and Bing decide to charge similar prices at the same time. People will naturally pay for one search, and use it to search for a free search engine. This will lead to smaller search engines that want to try the ad revenue model for themselves. Meanwhile, Google has killed the golden goose as people migrate to free services.

The internet is remarkably good at the whole "free market" thing.
posted by mccarty.tim at 9:32 PM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


$500 bucks a year? I'm sure there's probably a million folks worldwide who care that much that they'd figure out a way to afford it. That's half a billion bucks revenue for somebody or other. Meanwhile, the rest of us would figure out a way to hack into it for free ... and so on. Same as it ever was, with a twist.
posted by philip-random at 9:47 PM on April 28, 2011


rkent: But it is an interesting question. Why are we willing to pay so much to Comcast, but nothing at all to Google? Maybe Comcast should pay the NYTimes for the privilege of getting its articles before their users. It sounds silly stated that way, but I do kind of think the money should flow in that direction, overall.

This is already happening to some extent! Most major ISPs are paying ESPN a set amount per customer to give them access to espn3.com, whether they use it or not. If your ISP doesn't want to pay, you don't get to watch. This is a pretty slippery slope to making internet access more like cable TV. Here are the thoughts of the CEO of a smaller ISP that doesn't pay this fee out of principle.
posted by zsazsa at 9:48 PM on April 28, 2011


but we've already DONE that [made that initial search that led us other places] - for free

Great - you hang out with the internet as you understand it and can categorize it circa 2011, and I'll pay for search and in another ten years, the world will have grown up and around you and you'll be like that one story house with all the skyscrapers built up around it but you'll have a dog and a fat boy scout friend and you'll be Ed Asner so at least there's that.

I feel like the reliance upon central search authorities has taken something away from the internet experience.

Like antibiotics have taken something away from the experience of putting leeches on your skin?

I tend to believe that an internet without convenient free search engines would foster a stronger sense of community and drive more people to generate and host higher quality content.

I appreciate your dreamlike wishful thinking. We need more people like you, to fuel the elephant levitation projects and cloud cars and rainbow cookie trees.

Am I the only person here over 35 who recalls life before the internet and life during the beginning of the internet, and can compare it to life now? And again, this isn't about whether or not we could hack the search or would someone else come along and charge less -- this is about is search valuable to you? and I say search and the internet cannot be disassociated. They are the same thing.
posted by incessant at 9:54 PM on April 28, 2011 [4 favorites]


[Insert "SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY" derail-o-rant about JSTOR here]
posted by No-sword at 9:56 PM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


To deal with the lexis-nexis/westlaw derail: those are wholly separate as those data stores ensure accuracy and are human-curated, thus effectively a whole other ballgame than Google web search. And those companies charge what lawyers are willing to bear, which is really what the lawyers' clients are willing to bear.

Back on-topic: this discussion of a world without free searching (or where paid searching is much better than free searching) would be incomplete without pointing to Fravia's searchlores, a veritable almanac back in its heyday. While it's not much use nowadays, I cannot imagine the web going to paid-search without dozens of equivalent sites popping up to teach you how to make optimal use of free search.
posted by pahalial at 10:14 PM on April 28, 2011


jenlovesponies: "Is this where it is safe to admit that I have no concept of why the internet costs money to run? I just... I feel like I should understand this. And yet, since I can't touch it, I think, on some level, it is magic."

Infrastructure. The info is free, if you will give me that conceit. But the wires and the backbones cost money. Thus the people that install the wires or the fiber (optics) want a return for their investment. Usually at a usurious price. The days of ARPANET are long gone. Basically if someone can charge you for something, they will. And they will slam you with charges as long as they can get away with it. Government, at least here in the Good Old USA is about supporting those people that made enough money to make the rules. Usually by buying politicians. This is called a PAC or Political Action Committee. Also known as graft or bribes. So the internet will eventually be throttled by old white men who don't have clue one how it works. But they know that if they can "corner the market" they will make more money.

Think about your phone bill. How many charges are on there that you really understand? Or your electric bill. It's all the same thing. Tax this and charge to look at the damn bill as well.

I don't want to sound all tinfoil hatty, but really. This is just par for the course if you think about it.

If I was to make a loan to you and charge you 29.99 percent interest, and a $50 penalty on top of it, if you missed a payment no court in the land would accept that. They would call me a loan shark. They would arrest me for usury and throw me in jail. But credit card companies are allowed to do it every day.

As my grandma said:

The rich get richer and we should skin them and eat them.

Um... I might have got that wrong. More beer.
posted by Splunge at 10:24 PM on April 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


Am I the only person here over 35 who recalls life before the internet and life during the beginning of the internet, and can compare it to life now? And again, this isn't about whether or not we could hack the search or would someone else come along and charge less -- this is about is search valuable to you? and I say search and the internet cannot be disassociated. They are the same thing.

Can you define "the internet" here? It sounds like you're talking about the web which isn't the internet, exactly. Search is indeed a valuable part of the internet, but my years on IRC/Usenet never involved search engines.

I want to clarify that my main issue is with the centralized nature of search today -- a technical necessity of the late 90s. Without search engines sites like metafilter would be much more valuable and, floating elephants aside, more common. Aren't link-aggregators a valuable aspect of the web? People seem to really like the reddit/delicious concepts and a lot of people think it's worth $5 to participate in the metafilter community. Twitter doesn't need search engines to function. Facebook does just fine connecting its users without relying upon Google. It's hard for me to not see search engines as spreading communities apart instead of bringing them together.

The value of search engines is immense but the internet worked just fine before their existence and would still be an incomprehensibly rich resource if search engines were a physical impossibility. I won't pay.
posted by polyhedron at 10:37 PM on April 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


Poly, the internet didn't work fine before search. (And yes, I'm referring to the web as the internet because to 100% of the general population, the web is the interface we use to interact with the internet. When was the last time you fired up fetch?) IRC and usenet and chat rooms and lycos web pages and lynx and - in order for you to get something out of the internet, you had to already know where to go and who to talk to in order to get it. And once you got there, someone must've already written about what it was you wanted. Link aggregators are valuable only insofar as they are places to find things you didn't know you might be interested in, things other people are interested in so maybe you might be interested in them as well, but they aren't valuable as repositories of information. They're message boards, open conversations, but they aren't references. Once something drops off the front page, how would you find it again? You'd search for it. (Haven't you ever searched for something or someone on Twitter? And Facebook's search is invaluable -- that's how you find people and how people find you.)

Let's pretend there are two types of dictionaries in the world: a free dictionary and a $100 dictionary. They both have exactly the same content except for one important difference. The $100 dictionary is alphabetized. The free dictionary is not. Why pay the $100 when you could get the same content for free?
posted by incessant at 11:17 PM on April 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


The value of search engines is immense but the internet worked just fine before their existence and would still be an incomprehensibly rich resource if search engines were a physical impossibility.

I completely disagree. I remember the pre-web internet quite well because I wrote a book about it, and I have little wish to go back to using rchie, Veronica and WAIS. Usenet was an easier place to have discussions because there were fewer people and community disruptions were largely limited to Septembers, but it took so long to do the simplest things. Link aggregators, web rings and so forth were a necessary evil because datasets were so fragmentary and disorganized.

We're having a similar problem today from a semantic web viewpoint; we have far greater ability to store data than we do to properly navigate or interact with it. New tools are being developed but are too inchoate for general purposes at present.
posted by anigbrowl at 11:18 PM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's hard for me to not see search engines as spreading communities apart instead of bringing them together.

I don't know, maybe I'm missing something, but I don't see spreading communities a part as a bad thing. I really don't want to go back to the days where distinct communities existed, or even go to a Facebook social model based on a system of who you know or who you're invited by. I agree that more tighter (i.e., more organic/personal) communities would probably form by throwing out search engines, but wouldn't there just be more "regionalization"? For example, the Chinese web and the English web would even be more separated than it is now? And it wouldn't only be geography or language, it could also be interests, beliefs, or personal background.
posted by FJT at 11:32 PM on April 28, 2011


Yeesh. I think people are completely missing the point of this article (or, to be fair, perhaps I am). No one's saying search providers can or will start charging for search now. The point is that there's significant utility provided for essentially zero cost, making it hard to value. Someone came up with a clever experiment to try to determine what that value is. Obviously the value will differ by person. Some folks here seem pretty adamant that search has little or no value to them. OK, fine, I'll just take that at face value. Personally I think search is easily worth the $500 a year posited in the article.

There was another similar article recently (which I can't locate) saying, essentially, that computers are "too cheap" for the value they provide. Think of the utility you get from a cheap $500 laptop. We're used to the state of things now, but I remember paying $600 for a barely functional TI-99/4 ...
posted by zanni at 11:35 PM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


same as in town.
posted by postagepaid at 11:41 PM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


The search engines calculate their rankings by analysing the links that we Internet users post on our websites, blogs, messageboards and social media sites.

How much would they be willing to pay us for that data-sorting service?

Assuming an efficient market, not much less. As the Beatles might say: In the end, the value you take, is approximately equal to the value you make.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 11:44 PM on April 28, 2011


There was a time when no such thing existed. Those of us who used the web back then got by with other ways of finding stuff.

I started using AltaVista for search in, oh, 1996. There wasn't much of a web before then.

If I'm paying for Wikipedia, it better be a LOT more accurate than it is now.

It's streets ahead of most encyclopedias, and people used to pay a hell of a lot for them.

I completely disagree. I remember the pre-web internet quite well because I wrote a book about it, and I have little wish to go back to using rchie, Veronica and WAIS.

Yeah. gopher was a nice idea, but the little islands of nothing interconnected sucks. The web became the force it is to a very large extent because AltaVista and Google made it easy for people to find on another without going to the High Priests of Usenet FAQs and similar gatekeepers.
posted by rodgerd at 11:50 PM on April 28, 2011


To be fair, one of the sentences I deleted at some point was "I have no desire to go back to archie/veronica." I don't deny the value or utility of search engines, but in a non-professional context they just aren't that fundamental to my internet experience.

Admittedly, I am too young to claim extensive early-internet experience. We got our first SLIP connection in 1990 and BBSs consumed more of my time. I always had something interesting to read or learn, however.

Search engines don't create content nor do they intentionally introduce you to new concepts. People do. I strongly believe that community resources would bridge the gap. Would metafilter exist without Google?

I don't need a search engine to enjoy the internet so I wouldn't pay. Admittedly I've ignored the broader scope of the original article (paid encyclopedias/map services/reviews) because we already have all of those things and they aren't so nebulously valued -- just ask Angie's List or Garmin etc.

FJT: The beauty of the internet is that communities can form around anything. People already form insular, ethnocentric communities. Communities form around common interests on the internet, I just think they'd be better if people had to interact a little more. Trying to get help on a lot of web forums today often means searching 4-5 different sites with Google/internal search, not finding your answer, asking for help on a forum and being berated for not searching first. Or you focus your time on a community to have it torn apart by legions of people who come via search engine and ask inane, obvious questions. Both sides of that problem would be better with tighter, more community oriented interaction. That being said, more local-oriented web communities would be a good thing too.
posted by polyhedron at 12:03 AM on April 29, 2011


On rerereading the original post, it is clear to me I'm approaching a very specific part of the idea put forth. However, the scope goes from Google/Bing to free content to, evidently, the ability of a computer to analyze data at all. I just can't wrap my head around the argument if I take it in totality.

Those extra 15 minutes in the library might be kind of fun anyway.
posted by polyhedron at 12:18 AM on April 29, 2011


By the way, the guy's scenario (all the major search engines start charging the same thing simultaneously) wouldn't hold, for two reasons:

1. It would be prosecuted as an antitrust violation (price fixing).

2. Someone would eventually cut their price, and then you'd have a race to the bottom, i.e. to once again not charging anything.
Presumably this would come into existence due to some kind of government granted monopoly, just like AT&T with the phones, or the current Cell networks which have a really high barrier to entry. They would come up with some bullshit reason. But try starting a new search engine in China. If Baidu and sina.com or whatever started charging, people would pretty much have to pay.
You're already paying for it, you just don't get the bill directly.
Adblock.
posted by delmoi at 1:02 AM on April 29, 2011


Searchers are the product that Google sells. The customer is one who wishes to be discovered.
posted by humanfont at 1:16 AM on April 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Would metafilter exist without Google?

No.

Metafilter exists because people can find interesting stuff on the web, and then share it. Before search, you didn't find interesting stuff unless you happened to be at the right place at the right time and knew the right people.

Not only would there be fewer FPPs, the FPPs would almost all be single-link-to-something-cool-that-I-stumbled-on-by-word-of-mouth, rather than rich posts about topics, deepening the subject with ancillary and background and critical links, etc.

How would you even know about Metafilter in the first place?! It doesn't advertise.

Without search, AskMeta users would have more questions than answers, those questions would be far more mundane and boring in nature, and the answers would be intensely less useful - both because fewer people found the site in the first place, so the user base is tiny, experts are unlikely to be present, and those who do use the site don't have access to much information themselves. Even if an expert saw the question, if there is say, a regional component to it, (s)he won't really know much that can help you.


One example - the time before search was a time when the only hobbies you could seriously pursue, the only interests you could successfully follow, were ones supported by the people in your local physical neighbourhood. You couldn't get into anything that wasn't mainstream because... who would you learn from? Who would you compare notes with? Where would you obtain supplies? How would you avoid known pitfalls? How would you know if you were doing well?
Search is how hobbiests found each other and built the dedicated communities we take for granted today. Today you can do anything. It didn't use to be like that.
posted by -harlequin- at 1:17 AM on April 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Trying to get help on a lot of web forums today often means searching 4-5 different sites with Google/internal search, not finding your answer, asking for help on a forum and being berated for not searching first.

You are berated because communities cannot handle the crushing deluge of endless repetitive questions that spam it every day, which occurs when people do not use search. The people who could answer your question are not going to be there wasting their time sifting through mountains of rubbish, if search did not enable most queries to answered by finding existing material.
Search is what makes these communities viable at all.
posted by -harlequin- at 1:25 AM on April 29, 2011


How would you even know about Metafilter in the first place?!

I think it was Plastic. Definitely NOT Google.


One example - the time before search was a time when the only hobbies you could seriously pursue, the only interests you could successfully follow, were ones supported by the people in your local physical neighbourhood.

Ridiculous. Most of my hobbies I enjoy today started through pre-altavista internet interactions. Graphic design/photoshop, MMORPGs (nee MUDs), Linux, so forth.


You are berated because communities cannot handle the crushing deluge of endless repetitive questions that spam it every day[...]

Completely missed the point. Read the rest of the paragraph.

Perhaps I have too much imagination but it seems that all of the problems you envision could be adequately resolved with stronger community-oriented interaction. Do search engines provide enormous utility? Yes. They just aren't fundamental to the way the internet works. They're fundamental to how you use the internet. That's different.
posted by polyhedron at 1:58 AM on April 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


No.

Metafilter exists because people can find interesting stuff on the web, and then share it. Before search, you didn't find interesting stuff unless you happened to be at the right place at the right time and knew the right people.
Yeah, but how much of the stuff on metafilter comes from people doing google searches? Well, I guess there are some but frankly posts that just add spurious links aren't the best anyway. Generally good links are found by people who just find them from someone else. Some other blog or whatever. I don't think any of my FPPs came from stuff I just happened to google up.

Who even found metafilter through google? What would you even google for? I mean nowadays lots of askme posts do show up in google search results but in order for that to convert into a user that person would need to decide to read more questions, then eventually sign up.
posted by delmoi at 2:01 AM on April 29, 2011


Also, metafilter started in 1999, whereas Google started in September of 1998, probably before everyone was using it.
posted by delmoi at 2:03 AM on April 29, 2011


about TFA, the methodology of the experiment is cute but flawed, in that it attempts to value "search" in the context of a world without search. If this was the way economics actually worked, transport costs in Au-gram-seconds per kilogram-kilometer would be valued the same a some poor guy dragging a box through the woods tied to a board. Last I checked, FedEx was (ever so slightly) cheaper than that.

In any case, in my experience people who muse on the "inherent value" of something and determine in such musing that something is "undervalued" are looking for a way to seek rent on it, so the whole concept laid out here makes me a little twitchy.
posted by Vetinari at 2:26 AM on April 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


Plop my sister in front of my old Gateway running mosaic and tell her to find the average rainfall in eastern Montana and she'd have gotten up from her chair and driven to the library.

I get you point, but I still cheered at this like it was a movie scene. I want to go to the library today, while it still exists, and find out the average rainfall in Eastern Montana.
posted by cashman at 4:08 AM on April 29, 2011


You know, I think the idea of paying for Google or Bing or what have you might be nice if only because it would force teens to realize that there are other ways to do research. For all that they are supposed to be media savvy and informed, it's awfully difficult to convince students today that they can't take everything they read on Wikipedia as gospel truth. Of course, I might just be bitter because I remember the olden days of out-of-date encyclopedias and riffling through card catalogues......but still, I wish there was a way to hold on to the convenience and accessibility of free web searching while encouraging deeper research.
posted by Go Banana at 5:26 AM on April 29, 2011


I would pay my librarians in hugs. Just like I used to before the Internet.
posted by Eideteker at 5:30 AM on April 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


The use of the word "search" as if it is a single, indivisible thing, is of pretty recent vintage, and points at a perceived commodification that totally obscures the many ways in which we actually look for things. It's a lot like that other businified word, "content".

Personally I don't think I would pay for a Google-type search. My web usage largely follows the 80-20 pattern and I rarely find something new through Google. Before there was Google I could make do with a few topical sources such as IRC channels, marc.info and Dejanews. Now with Facebook, Skype and Twitter, and so many more people online to ask, I think finding things has become easier, not harder.
posted by eeeeeez at 6:12 AM on April 29, 2011


I don't know about you, but I'd pay for access to InfoMole.org. There's always money in search engines.
posted by mippy at 6:20 AM on April 29, 2011


Doesn't usage depend on the cost? I think the more relevant question would be, "At what cost-per-search would prices meaningfully change your search habits?" For some, that cost might be $0.01 per search, or even per 1000 searches if they are simply unwilling to pay anything for it. For me, I don't think a penny a search would meaningfully change my search habits. A dollar a search certainly would. But even at $10 per search I would probably use it several times a year.

Of course lower usage means lower incentive to create and publish content for free, which diminishes the utility, which lowers the value and willingness to pay = death spiral.
posted by JParker at 6:53 AM on April 29, 2011


Hello, I am one of the authors of the study cited. I was responsible for designing and executing the nitty gritty details of the study, from the decision that we had to generate questions from the queries initially supplied by Google to the details of how we would rate the answers we got from the study participants.

The blog post summarizing the study is a bit incorrect in saying students were restricted to only materials in the library. For example, they were allowed to use the telephone, so they could call to find out product information or could even call other libraries. The big restriction was that they could not search the Web to find answers to their questions.

As a researcher with a background in LIS myself, I appreciate all the librarian and library love expressed by the commenters here! One interesting tidbit about the study - for the library pilot run to test out the methodology, participants were allowed unlimited access to reference librarians. Participants who consulted reference librarians for *all* of their assigned questions got done in about the same amount of time as people in the Web search condition. Of course this was not practical for the actual experiment, as even during the pilot with only a small number of participants, the reference librarians were swamped and couldn't help other library patrons. So for the actual experiment participants in the non-Web condition were limited to two questions to reference librarians.

And that's the rest of the story.
posted by research monkey at 6:55 AM on April 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


Thank you for jumping in, research monkey!

joannemullen: Imagine instead a world in which the internet was run by the government.

Imagine instead a world in which the internet was run by Dagny Taggart. All the searches would be about railroads and railroad track.

a robot made out of meat: Many of the academic search databases which are rapidly being made obsolete by google scholar / books are quite pricey.

The databases that you mention wouldn't be pricey if Google Scholar were really making them rapidly obsolete, would they? What do you think 95% of the links in Google Scholar point to? Do you think that most of the information in Google Books that is not embargoed by copyright is remotely useful except for historical research? Most of the rest of it is walled off with "snippet" searches that lead you into digital brick walls.

-harlequin-: But back then was a dark age compared to now. It boggles my mind how different it was, and how much less we got done, and how much less we could do.

It is? Jonas Salk came up with a cure for polio without Bing, right? And he died before the internet was even out of its infancy. Nikola Tesla -- did he need to use Yahoo! to create his world-shattering inventions? What are you talking about, "dark age"? Most of the realm of human knowledge that's contained in searches is from that dark age to which you refer. It's not like all that knowledge taken together suddenly sprung fully formed out of Athena's forehead in 1998 waiting for Larry Page and Sergey Brin to harvest it. Plus, it's arguable that the more that we think we can do with the internet at our disposal, the less we actually, measurably, get done.

incessant: Am I the only person here over 35 who recalls life before the internet and life during the beginning of the internet, and can compare it to life now?

No.
posted by blucevalo at 7:26 AM on April 29, 2011


polyhedron: The beauty of the internet is that communities can form around anything. People already form insular, ethnocentric communities.

Without search both would have stronger effects. Communities would form around anything, but without a central clearinghouse like search, these communities would be even more heavily affected by the real world, existing social networks, or even other websites. And yes, they probably would be better able to handle newbies because there would be LESS of them wandering to the front entrance in the first place. As for whether the existing members of a hypothetical forum wouldn't tell newbies to "read the manual" (since there's no google), I don't think they'll stop saying that.

Go Banana: You know, I think the idea of paying for Google or Bing or what have you might be nice if only because it would force teens to realize that there are other ways to do research.

Just take away their smartphones. Some people are clueless when I mention I'll look up an address in my Thomas Bros. Guide. It used to be ubiquitous road atlas that was indispensable in the SoCal region. Between the guide and the phone book, I can probably find 95% of everything a smartphone can.

eeeeeez: Now with Facebook, Skype and Twitter, and so many more people online to ask, I think finding things has become easier, not harder.

I don't know, it must be the kinds of questions I ask, because I don't even really have an FB or Twitter account and can't imagine I could find use for them. What happens when you have to ask a question that's kind of embarrassing? Like where to get STI testing, or where the best porn is? Wouldn't this also limit the information from a search to who you know?
posted by FJT at 7:27 AM on April 29, 2011


Well, if they're charging to search content, and I'm providing content, presumably I should also be able to charge them for access to index my content. If they refuse, pretty soon their indexes will be out of sync, and they'll lose customers. 4. Profit.
posted by Blackanvil at 8:00 AM on April 29, 2011


I say search and the internet ... are the same thing.

Not yet they're not. You still have to type in a URL ... not 'Russian chicken roasting recipes'.

Search is a makeshift way of responding to natural language until such time as the net can comprehend what you're looking for as well as a human could, and like that human would say 'what do you mean' if you've been lazy. Ask a librarian river run dance cozy? and they'll just laugh at you. An intelligent net would do that too ... not do what google does (try it).

One way non-search might work: Pick the right set of 100 subject areas, and then curate excellent authoritative sites - each with trees and branches and sub-branches - covering the vast majority of queries. The net will intelligently direct your query to the appropriate authority which will either 1. a. accept your query and present you a list of options or b. query you further to resolve ambiguity or 2. laugh and punt it back to the net to goad you with.

What we've got now is stopgap and ad-hoc and unnatural and primitive. What we've got now is radio in 1905.
posted by Twang at 8:06 AM on April 29, 2011


Ya got any search? Why don't you let me get a couple results for 15 cents. Alright alright, I'm feeling lucky for a dime.
posted by fusinski at 8:16 AM on April 29, 2011


Search is a makeshift way of responding to natural language until such time as the net can comprehend what you're looking for as well as a human could

No, that's totally wrong. Search is many different kinds of things. What you describe is only one of them and it is often inferior to other strategies.

Ask a librarian river run dance cozy? and they'll just laugh at you. An intelligent net would do that too ... not do what google does (try it).

Completely wrong. I frequently search for "random keyword soup" and get great results.

What we have now is primitive perhaps, but primitive in the sense that a dinosaur is primitive - i.e. fucking great.

The evolution is not just that the machines come closer to us. The evolution is also (and more so I would argue) that we get closer to the machines.

You should read Hans Reiser's "whitepaper" on naming systems and the problems of structure-directed search.
posted by eeeeeez at 8:16 AM on April 29, 2011


I don't know, it must be the kinds of questions I ask, because I don't even really have an FB or Twitter account and can't imagine I could find use for them. What happens when you have to ask a question that's kind of embarrassing? Like where to get STI testing, or where the best porn is?

Well, good question. But on the other hand, we all have different kinds of friends and there are countless forums where anonymity or semi-anonymity is respected.

Wouldn't this also limit the information from a search to who you know?

Sure, but you know them (or, frequent a forum / channel / whatever) because the information they gave you was useful in the past.
posted by eeeeeez at 8:20 AM on April 29, 2011


Twang: Not yet they're not. You still have to type in a URL ... not 'Russian chicken roasting recipes'.

Actually, Firefox, Chrome, and IE can all perform search in the address bar. The first two fall over to Google when you type in a non-URL, while IE goes to Bing.
posted by FJT at 8:33 AM on April 29, 2011


BITCHES
DON'T KNOW
BOUT MY
A RIVER RUNS
THROUGH IT
DANCE COZY


for sale on etsy, son
just search, it's the only one on the whole internet
posted by Eideteker at 9:14 AM on April 29, 2011


> I seem to remember that before the internet era, you could call the New York Public Library reference desk with any random question, and they would find the answer for you in one of their reference tomes. Could that possibly be right?

Just such a New York Public librarian is featured in Richard Powers' awesome novel The Gold Bug Variations.
posted by gubenuj at 10:16 AM on April 29, 2011


Most libraries offer telephone reference service, limited only by the line of in-person patrons waiting to be served and the "Dammit, lady, I'm not paid to help you do your crossword every single day" factor.

You can not only phone a NYPL librarian for reference help, you can text, chat, or email too. (Top secret info: ...the librarian might well be using Google.)
posted by Jeanne at 10:53 AM on April 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


Completely missed the point. Read the rest of the paragraph.

Perhaps I have too much imagination but it seems that all of the problems you envision could be adequately resolved with stronger community-oriented interaction. Do search engines provide enormous utility? Yes. They just aren't fundamental to the way the internet works. They're fundamental to how you use the internet. That's different.


I really think you're not seeing it. Though I am assuming a world without internet search, not a world without alta-vista-like major search engines, perhaps that's part of the difference. (It's a big difference).

Yeah, but how much of the stuff on metafilter comes from people doing google searches? Well, I guess there are some but frankly posts that just add spurious links aren't the best anyway. Generally good links are found by people who just find them from someone else. Some other blog or whatever.

But how did THOSE people find it? And how did the people who those people found it from, find it? And how many fewer people are going to be using the internet when it's more time consuming and more limited? And how many fewer people would bother with blogs etc. when few people can find them? Each of a billion vessels constricts, and while you point out that few close completely, they all effect each other and preclude the necessary critical mass.

All roads inescapably pass through a search at some point, whether you did a search or not.
posted by -harlequin- at 11:29 AM on April 29, 2011


I just want to point out that there are many, many questions that can be answered only by printed books found in libraries (and elsewhere, of course). Try answering "Who was the son of Ameur Khouaja in the Tunisian version of the Hilali epic?" using Google. Answer is on page 67 of Susan Slyomovics, The Merchant of Art (University of California Press, 1987; no Google Books preview, sucker).
posted by languagehat at 11:30 AM on April 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Languagehat - I agree, but the beauty and power of the internet is that likelyhood that a question cannot be answered online is directly proportional to how unlikely it would be for anyone to want to know it. Your example is a perfect example.
The window still continues to shrink as the internet continues to grow. The internet is pretty shallow, but extremely, extremely optimised to contain the stuff you're more likely to need, which makes it disproportionately effective.
posted by -harlequin- at 11:49 AM on April 29, 2011


Of course, you just removed one of your suite of examples there, languagehat.

But it's certainly depressing when one hears people suggest that if it can't be found on the Internet it doesn't count.
posted by rodgerd at 12:12 PM on April 29, 2011


What are you talking about, "dark age"? Most of the realm of human knowledge that's contained in searches is from that dark age to which you refer.

We demonstrably produced less per person per year. You're trying to compare the output of hundreds of years against just a few. And even then the balance isn't as clear as you assume. We have sequences the genome of several animals. A modern car has more lines of writing in it than a pre-internet library - and I'm still alive instead of dead today because of it.

Online dating lets me choose from tens of thousands, instead of seven. Seven is darkness. Thousands is glorious glorious light.
Dating someone also no-longer means that the only things I know about them are the things they told me. That was darkness.
I wanted to build robots, but there was no way for me to acquire the parts. That was darkness.
The electronic circuit designs in books in libraries were mostly dead and broken or otherwise useless, and there was no-where else to turn. That was darkness.

Meeting your friends - and they don't show up and you don't know why or where they are and can't find out - was darkness. Do you just go home? Hang around a bit longer in the cold in case they're just late? Today, you know as it is happening if something went awry.
AHA! You say - but we could build radio phones without the internet! Sure, but this is what I mean by a dark age - we were perpetually in the dark, all the time.

We were also less productive, but it's really more the quality of life that I was referring to. Shit is soooo much better today, I can do so much more, I'm aware of so much more, it's staggering. It's light after darkness.
posted by -harlequin- at 12:30 PM on April 29, 2011


If search was only paid, then everyone and their dog would start a search engine. It would become the new "get rich quick" internet marketing meme, and the web would grind to a halt as more and more bandwidth was consumed by inefficient spiders.
posted by blue_beetle at 12:30 PM on April 29, 2011


I've never really understood the people who sit in front of slot machines for hours at a time, but this article gave me a sudden chill, picturing myself plugging quarters into Google / Wikipedia at 2 in the morning, looking for, I don't know, goose population statistics or the history of paper bags. I would howl like everyone else, but I would pay.

you could finance this by betting on the results. "Why yes, Quebec did have more geese in the 1800s! Cough up my winnings!"


Holy shit you just weaponized the internet.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 12:35 PM on April 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


We demonstrably produced less per person per year.

"Less" what? Less blogs? Les partisan rhetoric and vapid fumes? Less breathless analysis of Charlie Sheen's latest bowel movements and less microscopic renderings of what Kate Middleton wore at her wedding?

Online dating lets me choose from tens of thousands, instead of seven. Seven is darkness. Thousands is glorious glorious light.

I'm not convinced that being able to choose from among 10,000 strangers is any less darkness than being able to choose from among seven. In the days before the internet, I would have been forced to get to know those seven. Now the 10,000 could just discard me (assuming that I were still on the market) with one click of the mouse without my ever meeting them. How is that glorious light?

Dating someone also no-longer means that the only things I know about them are the things they told me.

How do you know?

Meeting your friends - and they don't show up and you don't know why or where they are and can't find out - was darkness. Do you just go home?

Yes, or do something else. Why is that teeth-gnashing darkness?

Sure, but this is what I mean by a dark age - we were perpetually in the dark, all the time.

No, we weren't.

Shit is soooo much better today, I can do so much more, I'm aware of so much more, it's staggering. It's light after darkness.

We'll have to disagree on that, I guess.
posted by blucevalo at 12:38 PM on April 29, 2011


There are efforts to do searching in a distributed fashion; having the web users provide search engine service to each other. Here's one: YaCy. Right now, the results are *terrible*. I don't think that any effort is made to sort the results.

Still, it could be done. And I think this is exactly the sort of thing that should be done, to bust up those internet monopolies.
posted by Galaxor Nebulon at 2:07 PM on April 29, 2011


> Languagehat - I agree, but the beauty and power of the internet is that likelyhood that a question cannot be answered online is directly proportional to how unlikely it would be for anyone to want to know it. Your example is a perfect example.

But you're essentially making an argument for least-common-denominator knowledge! If the average person doesn't want to know it, fuck it. I know that's not what you mean, but think about it. If that example was so far out of the realm of what you can imagine people being interested in (and no, rodgerd, I didn't give the answer), let's take the memoirs of Abdurakhman Avtorkhanov, the unique story of a Soviet general from Chechnya who saw his people deported and broke with the system; I have a beat-up copy of the 1983 Posev edition, discarded by a library because not enough people checked it out (and that trend pisses me off no end), and again, there's no Google Books preview. Surely you can imagine people wanting to know his story, even if not in vast numbers? I don't believe in knowledge by democracy; some of the most interesting things I know I've gotten in strange places that most people would never care to look. The idea that so many people seem to have that if it's not on the internet, it's not worth knowing is infuriating to me.
posted by languagehat at 4:46 PM on April 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Who needs search? You can find anything at zombo.com.
posted by mr.marx at 5:02 PM on April 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Just take away their smartphones. Some people are clueless when I mention I'll look up an address in my Thomas Bros. Guide. It used to be ubiquitous road atlas that was indispensable in the SoCal region. Between the guide and the phone book, I can probably find 95% of everything a smartphone ca

So here's the thing. Ten years ago, I could find a payphone pretty much any time I needed one. I remember working at retail stores and people would come up and ask to borrow the telephone. It was no big deal. Now? Now payphones have been systematically decommissioned in most places where you used to be able to rely on them. If I walk up to the help desk at my local university and ask to borrow the phone, they will tell me to go borrow somebody's cell phone.

Smartphones (and so forth) are becoming/have become a new part of the basic infrastructure. If we take away their smartphones it still wouldn't be the same as the good ole days.
posted by aniola at 10:42 PM on April 30, 2011


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