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March 2, 2012 10:54 AM   Subscribe

Is SEO killing America? Clay Johnson about how media gives us what we want, not what we need, and how it's destroying democracy. If you don't have time or can't watch a 17 minute video, read this article discussing and summarizing the video.
posted by desjardins (88 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
how media gives us what we want, not what we need, and how it's destroying democracy. If you don't have time or can't watch a 17 minute video

Well hell, that kind of sums up the problem right in the FPP, doesn't it?
posted by Shepherd at 10:55 AM on March 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


If you don't have time or can't watch a 17 minute video

Hey, it's only the fate of DEMOCRACY at stake...
posted by chavenet at 10:56 AM on March 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


It is not a pretty picture. And, yes, SEO (Search Engine Optimization), the insidious practice of using keywords to game search results, is driving this race to the inane.

I would submit that FOX News would be horrible whether or not they'd heard of SEO.
#birthcertificate #obamacare #deathpanel #NWOtakeover #secretmuslim
posted by Artw at 10:58 AM on March 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


If you don't have time or can't watch a 17 minute video, why not read the text of the talk? Ah: because it hasn't been made available.
posted by kenko at 10:58 AM on March 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


how media gives us what we want

That would be great! Right now media seems to push only what they want to give us (i.e. what is cheap and easy to produce).
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 10:59 AM on March 2, 2012 [5 favorites]


The concept of SEO here is about 5 or 6 years out of date, unless you happen to be looking for free porn, in which case SEO and affiliates have ruined the web.

While it ain't perfect, Google's Panda/Farmer update effectively put content farms out of business. It's all about accurately tagging content these days, so people can find you. And the content has to be valuable.

It's all based on a cardinal rule of success - give people what they want, not what *you* think they need. If you want to preach, join a church or something.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:00 AM on March 2, 2012 [5 favorites]


why not read the text of the talk? Ah: because it hasn't been made available.

You may think you want that, but someone more intelligent than you has decided you don't need it.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:01 AM on March 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


It's all based on a cardinal rule of success - give people what they want, not what *you* think they need.

We need a new definition of "success".
posted by DU at 11:04 AM on March 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


I would submit that FOX News would be horrible whether or not they'd heard of SEO.

They'd still get their info from focus groups and other ways of gathering marketing data. SEO is just an easier, cheaper way to get the same thing.
posted by desjardins at 11:04 AM on March 2, 2012


If I search Google for pentagon papers I get exactly the results I want. Every source, including Archives.gov, is SEO-ing its little heart out. How is playing by a search engine's set of rules insidious?
posted by michaelh at 11:05 AM on March 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


Well, it has killed the art of clever headline writing.
posted by Artw at 11:05 AM on March 2, 2012 [5 favorites]


I should have included this in the post, but here's some criticism from, uh, Search Engine Land.
posted by desjardins at 11:07 AM on March 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


TOP 5 REASONS WHY LIST-STYLE LINKBAIT ARTICLES ARE DESTROYING AMERICA
posted by Artw at 11:07 AM on March 2, 2012 [23 favorites]


Um, how is any of this new? Profit-driven media companies will strive to produce content that sells well/attracts the most advertising revenue. This has been the case since long before the internet. Yellow journalism, anyone?
posted by DiscourseMarker at 11:09 AM on March 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


michaelh: If I search Google for pentagon papers I get exactly the results I want. Every source, including Archives.gov, is SEO-ing its little heart out. How is playing by a search engine's set of rules insidious?

Because it's less thrilling to write "content is getting dumbed down to appeal to the lowest common denominator." The output is changing because content providers and creators want to tap into whatever will get the most eyes.

DiscourseMarker: Um, how is any of this new? Profit-driven media companies will strive to produce content that sells well/attracts the most advertising revenue. This has been the case since long before the internet. Yellow journalism, anyone?

Exactly.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:10 AM on March 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


DuckDuckGo has a Don't Bubble Us page which is interesting.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 11:10 AM on March 2, 2012 [24 favorites]


I should have included this in the post, but here's some criticism from, uh, Search Engine Land.

The writer makes a valid point:

The attempt of to simply maximize page views by creating pages about popular topics is not caused by the availability of search data.

This is true to a certain extent, but, then again, people are always going to look for valuable content, and valuable content will generally rank higher in search results because other people are linking to it (and it has to contain the search terms people are looking for).

Creating pages about popular topics is really only a tactic if you don't care what you're actually producing, but want page views to sell advertising.

I manage content for about 15 different clients, and it's far more professionally satisfying to create content that site visitors actually find valuable, talk about and hopefully share with others, even if I am basing the content on popular search terms.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:16 AM on March 2, 2012


Just because this isn't a new problem, doesn't mean this isn't a problem.
posted by helicomatic at 11:17 AM on March 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


Better content might get moved to the top, but, because of filtering, the best content that you agree with is what you're likely to see.
posted by drezdn at 11:18 AM on March 2, 2012


TBH I think people getting what they want in pull media is questionable as a problem, whereas the ONE STORY PER NEWS CYCLE model of American push media, with everything else getting ploughed under, is a HUGE PROBLEM.
posted by Artw at 11:19 AM on March 2, 2012


Extra! Extra! News media alters content to sell to more customers! Somehow this is a story in 2012.
posted by keratacon at 11:21 AM on March 2, 2012


>It's all based on a cardinal rule of success - give people what they want, not what *you* think they need.

We need a new definition of "success".


I was thinking more in terms of sales or providing a service, but the rule still generally applies in the realm of the "helping professions" such as counselling... within reason, people are happiest when they can come to their own conclusions, make decisions, take ownership of the results of their own decisions, and learn from bad decisions.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:22 AM on March 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


He raises an interesting question - one that I think is likely to get more interesting as Google personalizes results and Google+Bing incorporate social results.

But this guy's essential argument is a couple years old. The Panda updates make SEO much less about gaming the system and much more about making quality content sing clearly for the search engines.
posted by Vhanudux at 11:23 AM on March 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Racism isn't a new problem either, but maybe we should still talk about it?
posted by desjardins at 11:24 AM on March 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


KokuRyu: While it ain't perfect, Google's Panda/Farmer update effectively put content farms out of business.

Google Panda update survival guide has more information on what the Google Panda/Farmer did, from the view of ad-supported content providers, spelling out what factors make a site vulnerable to the Panda update.

And Panda isn't referring to the animal, but a Google search engine engineer, Navneet Panda.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:24 AM on March 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


The concept of SEO here is about 5 or 6 years out of date, unless you happen to be looking for free porn, in which case SEO and affiliates have ruined the web.

If you can't find high quality free porn on the interwebs then I submit:

- You aren't trying
- You aren't educated in interwebs, or
- You lost the internets

Right now is the golden age of free porn. Long gone are the days of waiting for that jpeg to fill in 15 pixels at a time. Torrents aren't even worth the effort for porn anymore. Pick a tube site and fap away.

If you have lost the internets and can't find quality free porn, the current winner is fapdu. If you want it live, it's myfreecams. Get off AOL and Google that shit.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 11:27 AM on March 2, 2012 [7 favorites]


If you don't understand SEO and how it's more than boner pills and content farms, maybe you shouldn't talk about SEO?
posted by beaucoupkevin at 11:29 AM on March 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


Well, without turning this thread into a boyzone, if you've ever tried to find an actual DVD or full-length movie, there are just pages and pages and pages of torrent results.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:31 AM on March 2, 2012


Racism isn't a new problem either, but maybe we should still talk about it?

Ok, but this guy is arguing that SEO is what is driving this problem, with the implied solution being "get rid of SEO." But removing SEO is not going to change anything, because the problem is not one that is medium-specific. It is an intrinsic part of American culture, so the solution, if there is one, is "make Americans care more about important things."

How do you do that? I have no idea. Oh, and who decides what is "important" anyway?
posted by DiscourseMarker at 11:33 AM on March 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


It looks like Panda may have help Santorum's google problem.
posted by Obscure Reference at 11:39 AM on March 2, 2012


You know what's killing America? Articles that claim X is killing America. It's time to stop sitting around watching things falling apart (and writing articles about it) and just fucking do something.
posted by tommasz at 11:42 AM on March 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


"It looks like Panda may have help Santorum's google problem."

That was a tweak that Google put in over the last week. Definitely a tweak, though - the fact that the blog is ranking higher than the main site is indicative.
posted by Vhanudux at 11:51 AM on March 2, 2012


If I search Google for pentagon papers I get exactly the results I want. Every source, including Archives.gov, is SEO-ing its little heart out. How is playing by a search engine's set of rules insidious?

It's sort of inevitable that people start to optimize for what is measurable, rather than what is valuable. The concept of SEO is not in and of itself responsible for plummeting discourse quality, but I think it's fair to say that a new generation of algorithmic content-tailoring, combined with the prevalence of audience-chasing tools in the hands of budget-minded execs, is changing the game quite a bit.

The problem isn't simply that when you search for a particular keyword, people are fighting for the top position. The issue is that a generation of news producers has come of age in an era where these techniques do more to shape the news than any other factor.

Clay's food metaphor is a good one, and it touches on the reason why there are no easy fixes. Everyone is acting -- individually -- in a way that makes perfect sense. I mean, I go out of my way to find and read people I disagree with on a regular basis, just like my wife goes out of her way to eat healthy foods. It's a hard sell, though, and it requires a cultural shift rather than a single-point fix.
posted by verb at 11:54 AM on March 2, 2012 [5 favorites]


Clay Johnson about how media gives us what we want,

This would be better if it were done by Cave Johnson instead.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 11:57 AM on March 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ok, but this guy is arguing that SEO is what is driving this problem, with the implied solution being "get rid of SEO." But removing SEO is not going to change anything, because the problem is not one that is medium-specific. It is an intrinsic part of American culture, so the solution, if there is one, is "make Americans care more about important things."

How do you do that? I have no idea. Oh, and who decides what is "important" anyway?


The problem is that people are inclined to like things which they already know/are comfortable with/don't find challenging. The better technology gets at encasing us in a bubble, the more we'll be cut off from anything outside of our comfort zone unless we specifically make an effort to engage.

This isn't a new problem. Neither is big media conglomerates deciding it's profitable to give people what they want, rather than what maybe they need. We've got a storied history of yellow journalism in the United States, and of glib entertainment news. People don't like scaling up some mountain of difficult news and thoughts. Some people seek it out, but everybody else is content to just go with the flow of information, wherever the next soothing thing might be.

The solution is to figure out ways to present interesting information in ways that fit into pre-existing flows, and to make it intriguing enough that people start to seek it out on their own. It's not enough to just give people information; our minds are very good at discarding information that isn't immediately relevant. What you need to do is give people some kind of emotional tie to that information.

Moreover, that emotional tie needs to inspire actions which are creative or useful, rather than destructive or futile. A sad lot of political advocates think that outrage and anger are the best ways to fuel people to action, but anger is both difficult to use productively and difficult to sustain. Trying to build to things like curiosity, interest, and wonder is more difficult, but it can lead to somebody's developing an interest in a subject which lasts a lifetime.

The struggle between ignorance/baser impulse and knowledge/civilization/morality should not end when you've figured out how you'd like to behave. It should lead to your figuring out how you might inspire others to do the same. And because technology will always enable people to do what greater pleases them, the fix is either to become a Luddite or to figure out how to work messages into the stimulating, pleasing stuff that leads people up to the more challenging things.

Generally, the people who know the value of truth and knowledge are good at avoiding the lowest and least valuable aspects of culture. I think we need more really smart, wise people working in fields like advertising and game design and blogvomit. People who know the higher things that they're trying to push towards, but who are willing to make things that are as low-culture as possible to reach as wide an audience as possible, and to get the people who're spending their time avoiding society's greater needs to feel some impulse to maybe think about the picture picture, rung by rung, piece by piece.

We seek peaceful oblivion because it's easier than painful improvement. The people who know of the struggle should make an effort to make the harder path more desirable.
posted by Rory Marinich at 12:04 PM on March 2, 2012 [7 favorites]


I have no tech know how, but I do not use Google for searching since it tracks my every move ..instead, I use startpage, the site that uses google but does not track.
But my question:
what is the difference between "porn" and "quality porn"? My mother, where she around, would say it is all in the groin of the beholder.
posted by Postroad at 12:07 PM on March 2, 2012


That was great. Maybe my favorite quote:
"Ignorance is created through the consumption of knowledge..."
posted by Blake at 12:12 PM on March 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


new generation of algorithmic content-tailoring, combined with the prevalence of audience-chasing tools in the hands of budget-minded execs, is changing the game quite a bit.

No one has provided any concrete examples about what sort of user behaviour is being changed by "SEO". People - and this includes people whose opinions or media consumption habits we don't necessarily approve of - have rarely, if ever had their assumptions challenged.

Go back 30 years, and you had maybe 4 televisions stations, and your daily newspaper. Go back 20 years, and you had a bunch of cable channels controlled by a few big media interests, and your daily newspaper.

These days it's actually quite easy to have one's assumptions challenged, due to the availability of an entire galaxy of media, from YouTube to blogs to the comments arguing on your local newspaper's website.

I think the challenge is that, as a recent comment called out in MetaTalk argued, it is difficult to search through all this information.

But at least it is possible to do so now. 20 years ago you were stuck with filecards and microfiche. And very few people had access to that resource.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:23 PM on March 2, 2012


Generally, the people who know the value of truth and knowledge are good at avoiding the lowest and least valuable aspects of culture. I think we need more really smart, wise people working in fields like advertising and game design and blogvomit. People who know the higher things that they're trying to push towards, but who are willing to make things that are as low-culture as possible
hmm indeed *puffs pipe, reseats monocle*
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 12:26 PM on March 2, 2012 [6 favorites]


We seek peaceful oblivion because it's easier than painful improvement.

That has not been my experience as a husband and as a parent.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:30 PM on March 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


These days it's actually quite easy to have one's assumptions challenged, due to the availability of an entire galaxy of media, from YouTube to blogs to the comments arguing on your local newspaper's website.

I think the challenge is that, as a recent comment called out in MetaTalk argued, it is difficult to search through all this information.


I think the challenge is being able to find out what statements made in that galaxy of media are true, which are lies, and which are subjective.
posted by Jon_Evil at 12:43 PM on March 2, 2012


I think the challenge is that, as a recent comment called out in MetaTalk argued, it is difficult to search through all this information.

That's... um. Sort of one of the main points of Clay's talk. In the link, at the top of this page.

The explosion of information means that people have the luxury of only consuming information-sweets: the content that affirms and confirms their pre-existing ideas. The algorithmic tools we've built (and are continuing to build) exacerbate that problem, because it is more profitable to give people what they want to hear than what would be beneficial to them in the long-term.

I'm not sure if you've actually watched the talk, since you seem to be arguing against the title of the talk rather than the more-nuanced content. If you have, I apologize -- it just seems like the objections you're raising are precisely what he is talking about. Our modern information ecosystem is data-flush in the same way that our modern food landscape is calorie-flush, and the feedback systems we've built are steering us, culturally, towards ignorance rather than understanding.

None of the dynamics are unique, historically, just as obesity is not a new problem. But the combination of factors is very similar to the shift to cheap calories that we are still trying to deal with societally.
posted by verb at 12:49 PM on March 2, 2012 [7 favorites]


The article he pulled the Target example from is actually much more interesting.
posted by Kokopuff at 12:52 PM on March 2, 2012


Well from reading the comments I'm guessing I've self selected metafilter to provide me with affirming derogatory snark about everything that exists in the universe. Is my "pizza," what validates my existing worldview, really just constant ire?

Does anybody know how to measure our relative psychological health as a group vs the general population?
posted by SomeOneElse at 1:04 PM on March 2, 2012


tl:ddemocracy
posted by Smedleyman at 1:06 PM on March 2, 2012


Quality content is still the best way to get found (unless you've got spare cash laying around).

What really bothers me is that Google is big time into letting people buy their way up the rankings. They've partnered with companies like Adzzoo to market AdSense for huge money.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 1:19 PM on March 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


That's... um. Sort of one of the main points of Clay's talk. In the link, at the top of this page.

Really? Clay was writing about the utter hopelessness of using a journal seach UI? I still don't understand how a "people these days" (code for "everyone the author considers to be the great unwashed") somehow are exposed to fewer challenging opinions.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:27 PM on March 2, 2012


Really? Clay was writing about the utter hopelessness of using a journal seach UI?

No, he did not write specifically about journal search UIs. You said that one of the primary problems is the challenge of searching through 'all this stuff,' and the challenge of finding useful and relevant information in a firehose of data is not exclusive to journal search UIs.


I still don't understand how a "people these days" (code for "everyone the author considers to be the great unwashed") somehow are exposed to fewer challenging opinions.

I would suggest perhaps actually seeing what Clay said. In the link. At the top of this page. Because he talked specifically about that. In the article this post is about. The post you are commenting on.

The issue is not that people have no access to challenging opinions. Rather, it's that given a ridiculous wealth of information to choose from and a finite amount of time to consume it, the majority of humans choose to consume information that reinforces and validates their existing beliefs. This is not a new idea, but we are now automating the mechanisms by which the filtering happens -- to the point that even with a wealth of information theoretically available, many people must deliberately seek out ideas and perspectives that are different than their own.

Not many people do that of their own volition, and not many successful businesses have plans that revolve around 'Telling people what they don't want to hear.'
posted by verb at 1:40 PM on March 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


If you don't have time or can't watch a 17 minute video

Well hell, that kind of sums up the problem right in the FPP, doesn't it?


I think what's really destroying America, or at least the web, is the idea that videos are a good way to present verbal information. I could read a transcript of this 17 minute video in 1/10th the time, and retain far more of it. The Venn diagram of "interesting talkers" and "interesting communicators of ideas" doesn't really overlap much at all.

Put another way, you could say that "digital publishing conferences" and their ilk are destroying America.

Search in general sucks balls, it's true. But it sucks balls less than it did before search was invented. There is good content on the web. There is also an ocean of great content that's not on the web. I read a lot of books.
posted by Fnarf at 2:00 PM on March 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


If I search Google for pentagon papers I get exactly the results I want. Every source, including Archives.gov, is SEO-ing its little heart out. How is playing by a search engine's set of rules insidious?
Getting the search results you want means that google's algorithm is working. It doesn't mean that the sites that show up are "SEOing". For example, google's webmaster guidelines say
Consider using punctuation in your URLs. The URL http://www.example.com/green-dress.html is much more useful to us than http://www.example.com/greendress.html. We recommend that you use hyphens (-) instead of underscores (_) in your URLs.
And indeed, the most linkbaity sites definitely use hyphens in their URLs. gizmodo, huffington post, businessinsider.com (Btw, did you know rush Limbaugh called someone a Slut? Totally the most important news in the universe apparently. Seriously huffpo and business insider links were just the first two headline links on the main page of the respective sites)

What's the #1 search result for Search Engine Optimization? I'll give you a hint: They never use hyphens to represent spaces in URLs. It's always underscores.

Anyway, the point is, the point of google search is not to give you the most well optimized SEO'd page. It's to get you the right pages. The fact that it's getting you the right pages means it's working, not that someone did SEO to get their results up.
If you can't find high quality free porn on the interwebs then I submit:
Define "high quality"
You know what's killing America? Articles that claim X is killing America. It's time to stop sitting around watching things falling apart (and writing articles about it) and just fucking do something.
For anyone who's not a high level exec at google, there's nothing anyone can do about SEO other then abstain, and try to get other people to do likewise.

That said, I'm pretty sure hyperpartisan, lobbyist funded political bullshit is killing America (or American discourse). Which also can't really do anything about, other then complain.
posted by delmoi at 2:14 PM on March 2, 2012


I think what's really destroying America, or at least the web, is the idea that videos are a good way to present verbal information. I could read a transcript of this 17 minute video in 1/10th the time, and retain far more of it. The Venn diagram of "interesting talkers" and "interesting communicators of ideas" doesn't really overlap much at all.
Videos are also terrible for SEO. :P
posted by delmoi at 2:15 PM on March 2, 2012


Rather, it's that given a ridiculous wealth of information to choose from and a finite amount of time to consume it, the majority of humans choose to consume information that reinforces and validates their existing beliefs.

Clay uses the food metaphor in the first few minutes of the video to good effect. Despite an abundance of choices, most people in the developed world tend to eat things that are not very good for them. Why? Because, as he says in the video, pizza tastes better than broccoli. So too, it's easier for people to get their information from the first few search results or what's fed to them on TV. So that's what most people do. The media conglomerates, like the food conglomerates, are pushing this low-quality diet because it's easiest to profit from it. Thus, like we as a nation have engaged in overconsumption of (unhealthy, low quality) food, we're also engaging in consumption of unhealthy, low quality information. I think it's a very apt metaphor.

And huffing about "Well, I know how to search for the Pentagon Papers" completely misses the point. If you did not know what the Pentagon Papers were, how would you know to search for them? How do you know what the Pentagon Papers are? Magic? They had to be filtered through some media.

My grandmother watches a steady diet of Fox News and the Weather Channel. She is floored when I deliver a researched rebuttal to her ridiculous claims about Obama or whatever because she literally never steps outside the Fox bubble and she has never heard anything different.

No one has provided any concrete examples about what sort of user behaviour is being changed by "SEO".

Yes, he did, right in the video. Multiple concrete examples.
posted by desjardins at 2:17 PM on March 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


I think what's really destroying America, or at least the web, is the idea that videos are a good way to present verbal information. I could read a transcript of this 17 minute video in 1/10th the time, and retain far more of it. The Venn diagram of "interesting talkers" and "interesting communicators of ideas" doesn't really overlap much at all.

Put another way, you could say that "digital publishing conferences" and their ilk are destroying America.

Search in general sucks balls, it's true. But it sucks balls less than it did before search was invented. There is good content on the web. There is also an ocean of great content that's not on the web. I read a lot of books.


Possibly, but in the past a lot of that content simply vanished and was not retained at all. Or you only heard about it because people took notes. That's part of tis information explosion thing -- we aren't simply taking stuff that previously existed in a wonderful state of plaintext and locking it up. We're producing orders of magnitude more, and capturing more ephemeral content, and presenting it in more different ways, and...


Search in general sucks balls, it's true. But it sucks balls less than it did before search was invented. There is good content on the web. There is also an ocean of great content that's not on the web. I read a lot of books.

Totally. The challenge though, again, is that there is just as large of an ocean that IS available on the web. I watched the beginning of this ignorance problem start to ramp up in the early 90s when the web was only just barely a twinkle. Inside of conservative political circles, the 'alternative news world' was already hitting its stride in the form of newsletters, books, radio shows, and so on. I and many other people I knew could consume -- without even realizing it -- a steady diet of information that did nothing but reinforce our beliefs. The internet has dramatically lowered the barrier for publishing information to an audience, and has made it possible for even smaller groups of like-minded people to generate enough information to saturate the average reader's information consumption.

It wasn't that any of us said, "Oh... I'm only going to read things from this circle of trust." Rather, it's that the circle of trust ramped up and grew to the point that it was, internally, producing more stuff than any person or group of people could read single-handedly. On any given topic, once you made it inside the bubble, there was already discussion and coverage of what you were talking about within arm's reach, metaphorically speaking. Why go farther, unless you've decided on principle that you will consciously work to break out of your circle of easily accessible information and opinions?

on preview, what desjardins said.
posted by verb at 2:24 PM on March 2, 2012


Define "high quality"

For internet porn? High resolution and frame rate. High quality audio that is synced appropriately. Plenty of bandwidth to prevent skipping. Relatively low number of ads and ads that don't get in the way of viewing. Full screen options. Decent actors that either enjoy or can fake enjoying the act. Reasonably attractive actors. Complete scenes, no 2-5 minute cut up bullshit. Large variance of films and actors to fit most fetishes.

That about covers it.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 2:24 PM on March 2, 2012


One concrete example of search results driving user behavior that Clay didn't mention is Google personalizing your results based on who you're following on G+. I mean, I searched for cats the other day and got pictures of the pets of people in my G+ circles. It's probably obvious to most people here, who are experienced with the interwebs, but my mom will click on the very first link in Google no matter if it's really relevant or not.
posted by desjardins at 2:37 PM on March 2, 2012


And Panda isn't referring to the animal, but a Google search engine engineer, Navneet Panda.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:24 PM on March 2


Actually, I was misquoted in the video where the author of the blog post you linked to learned the name of the Google engineer behind the Panda upgrade.

There is a Naveet Panda at Google, and there are at least 4 other people with the last name "Panda" there as well. Naveet probably wasn't the Panda that the "Big Panda" update was about.

Chances are more likely that Biswanath Panda from Google was the inspiration behind Panda, based upon his research that would enable a decision tree process to scale over a very large data set using MapReduce.

The paper (rather than a "patent" that Rand refers to in the video in the post when he misquoted me) was:

PLANET: Massively Parallel Learning of Tree Ensembles with MapReduce (pdf)

The researchers behind the paper had run a very similar process on sponsored search advertisements where they were able to predict how many people would click upon ads based upon a set of features identified through a machine learning process that used a seed set of high quality advertisements to uncover those features.

The Google Panda update follows a similar process by identifying features from a seed set of high quality websites that would predict higher amounts of clicks upon sites that contain similar features, longer times spent on those pages, and more exploration of other pages on those sites.

And as for the video, it actually has little to do with SEO, and much more to do with how news reporters mistakenly attempt to do SEO, and often doing a very poor job of it while trying.
posted by bragadocchio at 2:42 PM on March 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


The model I thought of when watching this talk was that of television. The large amount of programs created to appeal to the lowest common denominator; the reality shows and wacky wipe-out shows that are on every friggin minute of prime time. The old network news shows like Dateline, 48 Hours and 20/20, now cover the latest sensationalist murder of the week. All of it based on consumer focus groups and monitoring through the ratings system.

Then you have PBS, the exception that provides something different. They don't have the pressure to appeal to the largest base, rather they can provide information of real value. Here you can have a full hour of news or a show like Frontline that can cover issues in depth.

To narrow the analogy further, I absolutely loathe American Idol and its ilk. To me, the final winner sounds just like all the previous winners. It eliminates the offbeat and eclectic artists for consensus driven fare. The result, in my opinion, is not good for music or our culture in general.
posted by jabo at 2:55 PM on March 2, 2012


My grandmother watches a steady diet of Fox News and the Weather Channel. She is floored when I deliver a researched rebuttal to her ridiculous claims about Obama or whatever because she literally never steps outside the Fox bubble and she has never heard anything different.

So what would motivate your grandmother to step out of her Fox bubble? That's the question that needs answering here. If Fox news and its ilk were suddenly to disappear oh please oh please, would she suddenly start watching Rachel Maddow? Or just not watch at all?
posted by DiscourseMarker at 3:01 PM on March 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


I don't know that her opinions were any more sane well-balanced when I was younger, but I do remember her reading newspapers and magazines, watching 60 Minutes and 20/20 back when the latter was not entirely sensational-murder-of-the-week fare. Now she figures that Fox News has everything she needs, so why bother to go elsewhere?
posted by desjardins at 3:10 PM on March 2, 2012


Related SLYT...
posted by jnnla at 3:52 PM on March 2, 2012


If you really want to freak out, consider what can happen when the presentation of news is automatically "tweaked" for your values. Same core facts wrapped in language that supports your existing values. It'll be spun positive or negative: whatever is most likely to influence your purchasing decisions.

Or political decisions.
posted by five fresh fish at 4:06 PM on March 2, 2012


Every time I see an article like this, it turns out that what the author really is saying is, "Nobody is listening to my point of view! I'm right and everyone who disagrees with me is being misled!"
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:17 PM on March 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


Every time I see an article like this, it turns out that what the author really is saying is, "Nobody is listening to my point of view! I'm right and everyone who disagrees with me is being misled!"

Just curious, are you suggesting that information overload and the feedback loop of human responses to it isn't a problem? Or are you just snark-posing?
posted by verb at 4:39 PM on March 2, 2012


big media conglomerates deciding it's profitable to give people what they want

You mean like Bertlesmann, the German media conglomerate? They own Vintage Books, which published 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, which is available on the internet, if you count the Kindle, but not in the normal way people mean. CBS owns Simon & Schuster, who published Hugh Thomas's The Slave Trade, which ISN'T available electronically, but is amazing. That's just two examples I pulled off my bedside table. Maybe people are expecting too much from "news"?

The golden age of television news was never such. Robert Murrow and all that: piffle. Most newspapers were overrated as well. There's as much good news analysis going on right this minute, for what it's worth, as at any time in history. Sure, a lot of people watch garbage like Fox News. A lot of people have always watched garbage. There was never a time when the majority of people on the street were fantastically informed and sagely reasonable.

It eliminates the offbeat and eclectic artists

Say what? It eliminates them from American Idol, but that's hardly the whole world. I was just listening to some offbeat and eclectic artists just a little while ago: jazz on Blue Note, baby. Horace Silver. I can listen to virtually the entire history of recorded music on all sorts of internet services now. Here, I just punched up a radio station broadcasting from the Dominican Republic on my PHONE. If there's anything wrong with the world of music today, it's certainly not eclecticism. It's a mistake, I think, to assume that TV shows have the kind of importance you're giving them; the ratings of "American Idol" would have meant instant cancellation just a couple of decades ago.


posted by Fnarf at 4:49 PM on March 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Just curious, are you suggesting that information overload and the feedback loop of human responses to it isn't a problem?

I don't think it's the kind of problem that the people who bitch about it think it is.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:00 PM on March 2, 2012


20/20

You mean the same fluff with Barbara Walters and the absolutely execrable Diane Sawyer? I don't miss that at all. I remember twenty years or so ago when Sawyer did a tut-tutting report on "sexualized teens" in which she revealed to her gasping audience that because of the omnipresence of sexual messages in our wicked world TEENAGED BOYS WERE THINKING ABOUT SEX. One of the scenes involved them giving a bunch of 16-year-olds a copy of the Sports Illustrated "swimsuit issue", and then filming them while they OGLED BOOBIES. You can imagine my horror. No self-respecting 16-year-old boy was ever interested in boobies in the old days, I can tell you!

I would argue that one of the reasons behind the breakdown in authority of major pop media is due to the absolute inanity of said media, which is not a new phenomenon at all. Bullshit is bullshit. It's much easier to find un-bullshit than it ever was in the past.
posted by Fnarf at 5:02 PM on March 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


Well hell, that kind of sums up the problem right in the FPP, doesn't it?

Hey, it's only the fate of DEMOCRACY at stake...

Text is accessible to more people than video. I literally cannot watch that video right now, and it would be a stretch if I tried it on my desktop at home. I thought part of modern democracy was that poor and rural people got to participate. Not to mention the deaf (if there's no CC), and the blind (if there are any essential visuals that could have been described in a transcript).
posted by purplecrackers at 5:08 PM on March 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't think it's the kind of problem that the people who bitch about it think it is.


Fair enough. I suppose that in my view, the phenomenon Clay discusses seems to be at the very least a component of the stunted public response to most every other major problem I see happening in our culture. It's more of a meta-problem that hampers our society's ability to effectively identify and respond to other problems.

I could be misreading Clay -- and I'm not inherently a fan of his, I've disagreed with him enough to start flame wars with him on his blog -- but what he's talking about doesn't seem to be simply a complaint about people not agreeing with him. Clay has been heavily active in open government initiatives and the big data/open data communities, where it is often taken as an article of faith that access to large quantities of information will result in the average person making better decisions.

Clay's talk discusses how that is not necessarily the case, and how at a certain point it can actually result in just the opposite. What kinds of problems do you think are legitimate ones? Not snarking, I'm just curious.
posted by verb at 5:10 PM on March 2, 2012


Say what? It eliminates them from American Idol, but that's hardly the whole world.

Well I agree with you wholeheartedly that it isn't the whole world; that's my point. But it would seem to be the whole world for those who watch US broadcast tv. So much so, that you now have it on 4 to 5 times a week along with 2 other shows that are putting out the same drek week after week. That should demonstrate its importance to the powers that program it and the 18 to 34 demographic that eats it up.

I'm resigned to the herd mentality that goes into our entertainment industry and accept that you can find better elsewhere if you look for it. But damn it, these are OUR public airwaves. As the consensus dictates more and more of our programming, our real choices dwindle. It crushes those who create under a wheel of conformity.

I watched a program on PBS that documented ex-gang members that were working in South Chicago to stop the violence that pervaded their neighborhoods. It was positively riveting and I never would have thought to see it if I hadn't happened on it.

Wouldn't it be nice if that was the norm? Isn't it nice to have the option to see something that isn't real life back stabbing survival or schlock singing contests or whatever the meme of the week is?

20/20

Yeah, that was probably a bad example. But at least it pretended to be a news show instead of a salacious hour long examination of a spousal murder. Imagine if you could get John Stossel to host the latest incarnation… I think you would have the perfect storm of crap.
posted by jabo at 6:27 PM on March 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Anyway, the point is, the point of google search is not to give you the most well optimized SEO'd page. It's to get you the right pages. The fact that it's getting you the right pages means it's working, not that someone did SEO to get their results up.

I see what you are saying, delmoi, but as Matt Cutts has admitted, there are sites that are ranking lower (in the search engine) than Google (employees) think they should be because they aren't designing their sites well (part of SEO.) They rank where they rank because of Google, but the variables Google considers are being made as ideal as possible by the sites that are ranking well -- and I think at least some of them wouldn't be as high otherwise.
posted by michaelh at 7:00 PM on March 2, 2012


If you really want to freak out, consider what can happen when the presentation of news is automatically "tweaked" for your values. Same core facts wrapped in language that supports your existing values. It'll be spun positive or negative: whatever is most likely to influence your purchasing decisions.

But the thing is, most of us get our news online from more than one aggregator, such as Yahoo News or Google News. Instead (even us dumb proles who like to watch American Idol), we're reading blogs or watching the Daily Show or reading Mallard Filmore.

"Content creators" (like TPM or Daily Beast) crank out this stuff because they are passionate, so I can't see presentation being "tweaked" because of my values.

For people who don't consume media this way, well, they were probably watching 20/20 or PBS news anyway; television news is already a highly refined and homogenized product that contains absolutely no useful information except for the weather report or traffic information.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:29 PM on March 2, 2012


What if the big players saw it as a civic responsibility to expose you to counterpoints? They wouldn't need to be presented as the same "stuff" as the rest of your stream. Sure, feed me my politically liberal stream, but over to the side, sort of like the ads, show me stuff of the same quality from the right, from other media outlets, from other countries. (C-SPAN is the only place I run into where I hear extremely intelligent and honest debate from the right.)

Hey you, working at Google, Amazon, Facebook, etc. We're losing the center because you're doing your jobs really really well, giving us what we know and want. But the same kinds of thinking, adaptations of the same data and algorithms, could be extraordinarily beneficial to democracy and society. You have a role here. Please take on some of the responsibility. I'm not saying the solution should necessarily look like the picture I painted of a google page with "maybe see"s, but ask yourself what will make society work better---what will counteract the negative effects of the incredible and empowering advances we have made and are making. Cross-pollinate. Help nurture the center back to life. Please!
posted by spbmp at 8:04 PM on March 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, looking at the Yahoo headlines when going to check my email pretty much confirms what the article says. Along with a few interesting but atrociously badly written news articles is all kinds of mindless nonsense. What makes it worse than mere algorithmization is that I believe there is a let them eat cake aspect to this - go along little sheeples, don't think too hard, just entertain your easiest fantasies. I can't quite agree with the conclusion though, that we are heading to a dark age because of SEO, but if the many attempts at ramming through secretive and horrendously restrictive "copywrite and protection" laws succeed, then that would be the case indeed.
posted by blue shadows at 8:11 PM on March 2, 2012


I leave my Sunday NYT unread, in the foyer of a 12 room apartment building in Berkeley. In the free stuff spot, by the front door. Nobody takes it, ever, until I pick it out of the box around 5pm.
posted by sensi63 at 8:28 PM on March 2, 2012


If you really want to freak out, consider what can happen when the presentation of news is automatically "tweaked" for your values. Same core facts wrapped in language that supports your existing values. It'll be spun positive or negative: whatever is most likely to influence your purchasing decisions.

The video provides a very specific and real example of this. (I believe the Fox headline was "Obama attacks white women.")
posted by desjardins at 8:29 PM on March 2, 2012


What if the big players saw it as a civic responsibility to expose you to counterpoints? They wouldn't need

This is exactly what PBS and NPR are for. They're not beholden to shareholders like Google et al.
posted by desjardins at 8:32 PM on March 2, 2012


The video provides a very specific and real example of this. (I believe the Fox headline was "Obama attacks white women.")

Yeah, but is Fox a news source? Is it really changing the way people think, or just reinforcing what they already thought anyway. For some reason there is this idea that (North) American media outlets should be fair and balanced, but if you go to Europe news outlets are most definitely partisan.

If people in this thread think that it's their noble duty to enlighten the savages who consume Fox News or whatever, consider the fact that news is simply entertainment. If you really want to be informed you need to be proactive about searching out different points of view.

I don't need or want someone to challenge my assumptions because they think they are somehow smarter than me.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:39 PM on March 2, 2012


I don't need or want someone to challenge my assumptions because they think they are somehow smarter than me.
there is something iffy about this to me, but i can't quite place it
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 8:47 PM on March 2, 2012


Yeah, but is Fox a news source? Is it really changing the way people think, or just reinforcing what they already thought anyway.

If people in this thread think that it's their noble duty to enlighten the savages who consume Fox News or whatever, consider the fact that news is simply entertainment. If you really want to be informed you need to be proactive about searching out different points of view.


Again, these points are amply covered in the video. If you don't want to watch it, fine, just say that.
posted by desjardins at 10:39 PM on March 2, 2012


Excellent analogy at the core of his talk. (And, to echo what some others have said, it's amazing how many comments here would be unnecessary if the commenters had actually listened to the whole talk.)

The only other comment I'll make is to address the "what can you get from a video talk that you can't from a synopsis or transcript that takes a fraction of the time to read" issue. While it's true, as has been said of broadcast news, that the whole sum of the words spoken in a typical mainstream news broadcast would fit on a single page, in a talk like this there are also the vocal nuances, the visual gestures, the charts displayed at strategic moments, etc., which are elements which add value and depth of meaning and make the presentation qualitatively superior (usually, if the presenter is at all intelligent) to the vapidity of the hairspray teleprompter recitations of the "news". (A TED Talk or the like, for all of the criticisms levelled at the genre for its potential middlebrow filtering of complex subjects, definitely isn't Ron Burgundy.)

Neil DeGrasse Tyson likes to emphasize that the written word leaves out a lot of what makes human communication potentially so deep and multilayered, especially aspects which convey the emotive content. (Hence the lame remedial attempts that are emoticons & acronyms, one-size-fits-all emotive signifiers.) If you want to engage more fully, sometimes the written word ain't enough.
posted by Philofacts at 12:49 AM on March 3, 2012


the holy grail of figuring out what a consumer wants, then making sure that’s all s/he gets

'Destroying America' (wow, is this the Age of Hyperbole ... in which everything is now a 'crisis', isn't it, Chicken Little?)

So, anyway, following this unmeritricious line of argument ... what's 'Destroying America' is not SEO but the lack of Do Not Track. No tracking, no SEO. Bang, two birds with one stone.

But on a more Meta level, on inspecting what looks like a deep curiousity about The Other, it transparently resolves into a symptom of our deep, culturally-reinforced fear of The Self. And an ongoing exercise in mass projection. Can't fix that with more finger-pointing.

"Point a finger and three fingers point back" is the meditation we lack.
posted by Twang at 1:12 AM on March 3, 2012


for us info-junkies this thread rawks!

The vid is well worth the view, it crystallized a lot of vague thoughts I'd been having lately concerning encouragement of confirmation bias by SEO, leading me to wonder sometimes what the antonym of "affirmation" is, and realizing that's what I'm actually seeking when exploring an issue on the net. The opposite of "affirmation". Like a debate. Typing the word "sucks" and "rules" alternatively into the box after the search term is one crude strategy.

I've also tried getting a couple of Fbook accts, one which "likes" all the political crap I usually abhor. Pretty predictable content results, but sometimes a gem or two will sparkle.

One recent tactic I've employed is to get an e-reader and a ginormous number of ebooks and begin reading "at a lower level on the information foodchain" anticipating his suggestion in the vid. Definitely a positive change.
posted by telstar at 2:20 AM on March 3, 2012


So many people commenting in this thread evidently haven't watched the video, and sound very silly in their objections to things Johnson has already addressed. The same thing happened in the Amazon reviews of his book - one woman proudly declared that she stopped reading it after he gave an example about how Fox added spin to a factual event in order to pander to their viewer's predjudices. If she'd kept reading (and it came maybe 10 or 20 pages in), she would have seen that he gave examples from all the major American 'news' networks. But no, she'd already decided that he had nothing she wanted to hear about.

I've followed Johnson's advice about getting closer to the information sources and it's made a huge difference to my media consumption. It no longer leaves me angry all the time at the stupidities of cheap 'journalism' and I've found the sites where data and reports are available. I don't feel the need to read so many opinion articles when I can look at the source for myself, so it frees up my time as well.

A lot of you who are snarking at this video would probably really like his book. It's different from what you're assuming it to be.
posted by harriet vane at 3:04 AM on March 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


and I've found the sites where data and reports are available

Sounds like an interesting FPP ... do share!
posted by absentian at 11:27 AM on March 3, 2012


Hey you, working at Google, Amazon, Facebook, etc. We're losing the center because you're doing your jobs really really well, giving us what we know and want.
That's a shockingly patrician attitude. You're saying that there is some "Centrist" ideology and that we should engineer the media to present to everyone a "centrist" viewpoint so that we don't "lose the center", which I assume means having less people be 'centrists'?

It seems to view "the center" as somehow being correct, while other ideologies are "wrong" or at least viewing the "center" as being "good" while the others are "bad". But why is that? Why make that assumption to begin with? And why should people with that viewpoint have the authority to try to engineer society so that more people agree with them? It's weird.

This whole thing about "losing the center". Well, so? The reality is if you actually look at people's political viewpoints on a 'left-right' axis, there is actually a bi-modal distribution. There have never been many people in the "center", it's just that back when there were only 3 TV channels, and that's how everyone got their news, the variety of content was limited, and they were legally required to show 'both sides' since airspace was a limited public resource. The result was an anomalous period where there was this idea of independent/non-biased journalism. Prior to the 20th century, most newspapers in the US were totally partisan. It wasn't "normal" it was the result of technological restrictions and the fact that all three networks were controlled by rich elites in society.
posted by delmoi at 3:58 PM on March 3, 2012


There have never been many people in the "center", it's just that back when there were only 3 TV channels, and that's how everyone got their news, the variety of content was limited, and they were legally required to show 'both sides' since airspace was a limited public resource.

Well, this is a nice theory, but doesn't match reality. While there is no magical unicorn-filled past era of harmony we can look back on, it can be safely said that the polarization of discourse has gotten much worse. Actual research on voting pattern breakdowns, both in the general electorate and in congress, supports that reading.

In any case, I agree with you that idealizing the hypothetical center is a nonstarter. I just think that it's short-sighted to suggest that partisan polarization in voting and public discourse hasn't been increasing dramatically.
posted by verb at 4:47 PM on March 3, 2012


absentian, that's a great idea. I will! It'll be all Aussie stuff, but I think could be a jumping off point for some interesting conversations.
posted by harriet vane at 11:27 PM on March 3, 2012


But it would seem to be the whole world for those who watch US broadcast tv. So much so, that you now have it on 4 to 5 times a week along with 2 other shows that are putting out the same drek week after week. That should demonstrate its importance to the powers that program it and the 18 to 34 demographic that eats it up.

But no one watches broadcast TV. Oh, a few, but compared to the old days? Network TV has, rounding down, essentially no viewers. They're all watching something else. "American Idol", one of the most popular network programs, gets less than a 15% percent share; Ed Sullivan used to get 80%. And Ed Sullivan didn't have to compete against the infinity of YouTube, either.

Actually, on any given night the most popular TV show might not even be in English; Univision is pretty big these days. But still 90% or more of the audience is watching one of the tiny channels on the far end of the cable changer.

I can assure you that the availability of, for want of a better word, alternative music has never been higher than today. It's almost infinitely higher than it was in the 70s, 80s or 90s. I can't begin to tell you how many genuinely obscure pop songs I've recently discovered previously-unknown videos for on YouTube. They weren't showing them on network TV, that's for sure, and they still aren't, but today it's a few clicks to find them, which was never true.
posted by Fnarf at 5:21 PM on March 5, 2012


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