Googlewash
April 3, 2003 7:10 AM   Subscribe

42 days to a Googlewash. The Register comes out all guns firing at the blogging community's apparent "redefinition" of a term, calling it Orwellian doublespeak. Is it true that a small coterie of A-list bloggers is able to change the way we (for we: read Google users) define a phrase? Or is there really something bigger going on?
posted by cbrody (65 comments total)

 
Yay for the scary old hippies.
posted by GrahamVM at 7:12 AM on April 3, 2003


I can't comment on the article, but the "You are in a twisty maze of weblogs, all alike" headline is high quality nerd comedy.
posted by malphigian at 7:24 AM on April 3, 2003


The Register has obviously not heard of Andrew Sullivan, InstaPundit, LGF, RWN and countless other right-wing warbloggers who until now have defined the blogosphere for most of the non-nerd population.
posted by cbrody at 7:32 AM on April 3, 2003


This is good food for thought. Very good. Is there an antidote to Googlewash? GoogleBackwash?
posted by Shane at 7:32 AM on April 3, 2003


The meme has already spread to here. Maybe MeFi could act as parliament.
posted by jamespake at 7:37 AM on April 3, 2003


No, really--is there an antidote? All it would take is a concerted force of Googlers and some linking, etc...
posted by Shane at 7:38 AM on April 3, 2003


You're especially susceptible to this if you subscribe to the view that Google's PageRankā„¢ is "inherently democratic," which is how Google, Inc. describes it.

It is, of course, democratic. You just have to know who gets to vote. In this case, votes are links, and Google gets skewed towards those who do lots of linking, e.g., bloggers. That result should not be surprising; to continue the democracy metaphor, we would be surprissed if we Canadians got to vote in American elections. imilarly, we would be surprised if Google search results reflected non-web use of language. The antidote, to the extent necessary, is to get your news from multiple sources, both web and non-web.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 7:40 AM on April 3, 2003


42? Add it to the list (self link)

/HGG geek
posted by KnitWit at 7:42 AM on April 3, 2003


Sorry, I screwed up that link:
The meme has already spread to here. Maybe MeFi could act as parliament.
posted by jamespake at 7:43 AM on April 3, 2003


Oh good god. This guy's jealousy is showing in a major way, and it's ugly.

Meaning is use, fer chrissakes. If people by and large use "second superpower" to refer to that article & not the Times piece, then that, de facto, is what it "means."

And Google search results do change over time, you know - so that if the Grey Lady's man pumps up his coterie of peeps and they all link to his article, this will be reflected in future searches. I really don't see why Orlowski's panties are all in a twist.
posted by adamgreenfield at 7:43 AM on April 3, 2003


This is pretty similar to a googlebomb, and that was fixed by tweaking their algorithm slightly. This is probably a tougher fix, since we're talking about phrases showing up on overly-indexed sites. Looks like google should turn down the pagerank authority values on the weblogs it revisists daily.
posted by mathowie at 7:45 AM on April 3, 2003


the Grey Lady's man pumps up his coterie of peeps

Whoa, I just got this scary scifi vision of the future where PageRank™ is the only measure of quality and reputation in the world, and I saw armies of thousands of paid bloggers acting on behalf of the Grey Lady, doing her bidding in an attempt to control the language and global conversation. How far away from that are we? A couple years, tops?
posted by mathowie at 7:49 AM on April 3, 2003


Detractors can downplay the significance of this, but the truth is: Google is potentially a big man and pagerank is potentially a heavy stick. Gov'ts and corporations know this and will inevitably seek to influence it to their own ends.

[/paranoia or pragmatism]
posted by Shane at 7:49 AM on April 3, 2003


Thanks KnitWit. The answer to life, the universe, and everything.

matt, I'm not sure I agree about the need to modify the PageRank algorithm. After all, the web is about as pure a democracy as there is. Those who are linked to most will win out in the long run. If someone wants to look for the origin of a phrase, it's still there, even if you have to look a bit further than first page of results.
posted by cbrody at 7:53 AM on April 3, 2003


This Register article is a sterling example of the best traditions of MeFi net paranoia.

Look, the 'A list' bloggers were able to grab this phrase and re-define it because it was a lame idea to begin with. A bunch of protesters were a 'second superpower'? No one was using the phrase in its original meaning (and therefore, Google wasn't indexing it) because it was a blindingly dumb idea.

The bloggers were just exercising salvage rights on an abandoned phrase that floated engineless, aimlessly drifting in a Sargasso Sea of language.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 7:55 AM on April 3, 2003


Whoa, I just got this scary scifi vision of the future where PageRankā„¢ is the only measure of quality and reputation in the world

You mean...there's something else? There go *my* last three years...
posted by adamgreenfield at 7:55 AM on April 3, 2003


Slithy_Tove, I'm gonna pick a bone with that. This is soooo not a lame idea. It's millennial, as in "potentially one of the most influential ideas of the next 1,000 years."

OK, so it's embryonic. But come on, now. Why do you think Joi's emergent democracy paper, the SS piece, my own minimal compact paper - why do you think these have all seen the light of day at roughly the same time? What do you think explains their deep and broad-seated appeal?

There is clearly something real aborning here, even just as pieces, as yet unassembled, of a far larger puzzle.

What I simply can't figure out is the more-than-kee-jerk hostility of certain commentators to these ideas and their adherents. (Not that I'm including you in this, necessarily.) The negative response isn't lukewarm, it's blistering, and it's ad hominem, which is something I simply don't understand.

From where I sit, if you think these ideas are potentially useful but remain impractical or flighty, then it's your responsibility to help stress-test them, help make them functional. And if you're simply hostile to democracy - plainly stated, to the idea that ordinary people can govern their own affairs - then you should say that.

I mean, you'd be in good company; Plato springs to mind. And then we'd have a place to begin arguing from. But simply dismissing these ideas as "lame"? Uh-uh, ain't gonna wash.
posted by adamgreenfield at 8:04 AM on April 3, 2003


Your sister thread is better.
posted by sudama at 8:06 AM on April 3, 2003


Great article. It seems most of the responders in this thread are more clueless than I originally considered. Blog on!
posted by four panels at 8:12 AM on April 3, 2003


I note that the Register article is already number 1 at blogdex.

42 minutes?
posted by cbrody at 8:12 AM on April 3, 2003


I don't get it -- what did this use of the phrase "wash" out? "Second superpower" didn't really mean anything in particular, did it? What's been lost here?

Google is a web search engine. If I go and search on Google for "second superpower," Google will tell me what websites are talking about that thing. Sounds like it's working, to me.
posted by mattpfeff at 8:15 AM on April 3, 2003


Oops, sorry, blogdex.

A bit too quick on the trigger there (shame Mozilla doesn't support the link quick-tag.)
posted by cbrody at 8:17 AM on April 3, 2003


It sounds like sombebody is peeved because an attempt at hackish PR got sidetracked by a legit use of a simple phrase.

Here's my phrase for the the DoKoMo/SMS/IM-enabled protesters:

E-democracy is smart-mob rule

BTW, now we have to create an alternative meaning for "Googlewash" and alter *its* PageRank associations.
posted by Ayn Marx at 8:18 AM on April 3, 2003


Looks like google should turn down the pagerank authority values on the weblogs it revisists daily.

A good point, in that Google would do better to renice the search algorithm, so that it does not become Daypop.
posted by four panels at 8:19 AM on April 3, 2003


To all intents and purposes, the original meaning has been erased. Obliterated, in just seven weeks.

I think that's nonsense. The meaning has only been erased for people who only get their news from searching Google. And why would you be googling that phrase if you hadn't heard it somewhere else first? The person who wrote this article needs to get some perspective.
posted by anapestic at 8:21 AM on April 3, 2003


wait til those picky bastards see what we did with cromulent.
posted by quonsar at 8:24 AM on April 3, 2003


Someone should talk to the MeFi cabal about getting together with the online journaling cabal and the Usenet cabal and taking on this blogger cabal before it's too late.
posted by vraxoin at 8:32 AM on April 3, 2003


I'm really amazed that Google is becoming oddly conflated with the dictionary in some way. The assumption with Google is certainly that you look up words and then then go read those sites that come up and make your own conclusions about what they mean. Stupid sound bites can be "repurposed" any particular way, Google just helps the repurposing gain momentum. A meme is different from a noun. The day I start speaking in catchphrases I learned from Google, please pry the keyboard away from my clutching fingers. Anyone want to try to repurpose "asshat"?
posted by jessamyn at 8:34 AM on April 3, 2003


adamgreenfield, I think it's lame because I can't see that the global protests changed anything.

The action of the US and Britain was the same. In Europe, France/Germany/Belgium were already against the war. What effect did the protests have? 'Second superpower'? The protestors weren't even a micropower. They had less influence than Monaco or Luxembourg.

No offense intended to anyone here who participated in them. I, too, have participated in public protests, once upon a time. Everyone, at least in the US, has the right "peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." That doesn't mean that any particular protest does any good. IMO, the global anti-war protests did very little to alter the course of history.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 8:34 AM on April 3, 2003


Slithy_Tove: beware of rewriting history while it is being made.
posted by cbrody at 8:41 AM on April 3, 2003


I think it's lame because I can't see that the global protests changed anything.

It sounds like sombebody is peeved because an attempt at hackish PR got sidetracked by a legit use of a simple phrase.


Etc...

I don't think the particulars involved in this article are so significant as is the overall picture, that is:

1) Google is so popular it is becoming a form of media in itself (dependant upon searched links, of course, but still a form of media).

2) This new "media" (the popular results that show up in searchs) can be potentially manipulated by a relatively small group of users.

Whether the article's subject was truly a case of manipulation (or whether or not it was even worthy of us caring if it was manipulation) is not the point, to me. The point is the larger potential picture, and where it will go from here.
posted by Shane at 8:46 AM on April 3, 2003


cbrody: nonetheless, all of us have the right (and, if we are voters, the obligation) to at least try to interpret history as it is being made. All I'm sayin' is what I'm seein'.

Shane: I basically agree. But the Register writer's spin is that what has happened is some sort of linguistic or noetic piracy, which I think is a silly spin to have.

BTW, I wonder of Google even matters? If you did a LexisNexis search on 'second superpower', would a bunch of blogs come up? Or the original NYT article and references to it? Net and print are still different. Does print care about net? We've got hundreds of years of experience with print media, but I don't think the political meaning of the blogosphere, if any, is known yet. (Although god knows, everyone loves to speculate.)
posted by Slithy_Tove at 8:54 AM on April 3, 2003


The navel contemplates it's navel.
posted by HTuttle at 8:55 AM on April 3, 2003


Point of order: If what he's saying is actually happening, in the way he describes it as happening, then it's not an example of net democracy in action. It would be more like an example of net meritocracy in action. Or net oligarchy, if you are sexy and cynical like me.
posted by Hildago at 8:57 AM on April 3, 2003


Or net oligarchy

Here's where all this falls apart. You can't have an oligarchy or a star chamber or any of that other stuff unless you have control. Influence isn't the same thing as control. The temporary ability to influence search results on a search engine hardly constitutes an overthrow of the powers that be.
posted by vraxoin at 9:06 AM on April 3, 2003


HTuttle: That's one big navel.
Hidalgo: Meritocracy is a fine form of government IMO. It's a shame that the US does not believe in it. It's another word whose meaning has undergone radical change from its author's intention, which was undoubtedly negative.
posted by cbrody at 9:08 AM on April 3, 2003


I would assume the original NYTimes definition of this silly phrase would still be in the Google listing, just not within the first 30 entries.

If this was truly Orwellian, then the NYT references would have disappeared without a trace. As it is, any researcher, who is even slightly competent, will look beyond just the first page of links and would then be able to build a history of this pointless phrase.

Of course, the real problem is that Google is within the control of for-profit corporation who may not always be trustworthy.

It would easily be in their grasp to completely change the phrase to refer to a race of radioactive vampiric super chickens when their real purpose is to obsfucate the truth and serve their new corporate overlords: the race of radioactive vampiric super squirrels.
posted by pandaharma at 9:08 AM on April 3, 2003


2) This new "media" (the popular results that show up in searchs) can be potentially manipulated by a relatively small group of users.

And this is different from other media how?

Regardless, "second superpower" once had a completely different meaning from either of the definitions Orlowski's talking about: USSR.
posted by me3dia at 9:09 AM on April 3, 2003


It would be more like an example of net meritocracy in action.

More like a "buzzocracy", I think - meritocracy implies some intrinsic value of the subject being discussed. The "Googlewash" effect is merely because that's what people are currently talking about. It's as much a feedback loop as a political or social force.
posted by RylandDotNet at 9:12 AM on April 3, 2003


This new "media" ... can be potentially manipulated by a relatively small group of users.

And this is different from other media how?


It's not. It's just an emerging field, ripe for exploitation and commercialization.
posted by Shane at 9:17 AM on April 3, 2003


The author is bitching about perversion of language for a phrase that was already twisting the meaning of superpower. World opinion is not a superpower by any traditional definition of superpower. He has a few citations for it's new meaning, but the term could not be sqaid to have entered popular usage. His more serious point that Google can be manipulated for nefarious purposes is only a problem for the small percentage of people that use Google and relatively new phrases like "Second Superpower" that don't already appear in search engines. Google may have to modify it's search engine for blogs due to the incestuous nature of linking in the blogosphere.
posted by monkeyman at 9:26 AM on April 3, 2003


You are in a twisty maze of weblogs, all alike"

I always thought this phrase was the coinage of my pal the Riddler.

This new "media" (the popular results that show up in searchs) can be potentially manipulated by a relatively small group of users.

Surely this isn't the result of collusion by bloggers. Who knew that Google would be so blog-friendly, even before acquiring Pyra? It surprises the hell out of me. And believe me, it ain't all it's cracked up to be. You try being a top search result for "hairy" for a while and see how YOU like it! It certainly gives you a new take on human sexual behavior ....

Meanwhile, try a search on "Second Superpower" -blog -weblog -archive -comment -discussion -discuss -caterina, or second superpower (-inurl:blog AND -inurl:weblogs AND -inurl:weblog AND -inurl:blogs AND -inurl:blogspot). You can filter out what you don't want to see, you know. Google isn't like that scene in Clockwork Orange where Alex is strapped to a chair with his eyelids peeled open. Maybe someone while come up with a Google API app to remove the amateur commentary for you, but it won't be as much fun!
posted by hairyeyeball at 9:27 AM on April 3, 2003


Sorry to be all cromulent about it, but that's the way I feel.
posted by hairyeyeball at 9:30 AM on April 3, 2003


RylandDotNet: Point taken. But there are some solid concepts being discussed here. Ref. Adam Greenfield, Joi Ito, Cory Doctorow, Dave Winer et al. It's buzzy, sure, and you may disagree with the various views being expressed by the "bloggerati", but the "second superpower" concept has the potential to have some real impact.

Let's get that minifesto written.

Time may prove me wrong: I reserve judgement for now.
posted by cbrody at 9:34 AM on April 3, 2003


"A meme is different from a noun."

I would argue that "noun" is a sub-class of "meme." Google-as-dictionary might (eventually) be better than a traditional dictionary, as it would be more in tune with actual usage. The problem with this idea is of course, that what is googled is not a representative sample of language usage. However, It could easily be argued that, in its domain, the google "definition" would be more accurate than the dictionary one.
posted by callmejay at 9:36 AM on April 3, 2003


I would argue that "noun" is a sub-class of "meme."

I think that's like saying that "car" is a subclass of "kiwi." It may be time to step back from the Internet.
posted by anapestic at 9:44 AM on April 3, 2003


If the idea takes hold, watch for pro-war blogs to be declared as "not real blogs" in the same way that Colin Powell is considered by the NAACP to be "not really black".

Common love of a technology does not imply that political assimilation will occur. There will be pro-war and anti-war blogs; the idea that all blogs are anti-war, and that they speak with one voice, is a little counter to reality.
posted by clevershark at 9:51 AM on April 3, 2003


First of all, Orlowski's known for his bitching. He's british, and a lot of this is pure humor. He is making a point, though, that the web culture can and does redefine things on its own that

Now, the big cookie: The idea of the "second superpower".

I think it's true that world public opinion is becoming a power that governments have to deal with and may eventually be subverted by, just as journalists (aka "the fourth estate") began to have a powerful effect on the policies and leaderships of european governments during the post-French-revolution period.
I don't think it's necessarily the protests that are doing it; instead, we have a global democratic forum for the first tme in known history. Even in countries like Iraq, countries with overbearing and very un-democratic leaders, people like Salam can still participate in this forum.

Many people agrees that Shrub & Co.'s biggest mistakes so far have stemmed from their total ignorance of the public outcry at home and abroad. Orlowski is correct in that Moore's article does not explore historical precedents and possible future effects of a "Second Superpower" -- heck, I've read science fiction books that have a clearer view on the idea and it's benefits, drawbacks, and milestones.

I think that bloggers jump on any particular meme far too quickly, and without much thought. I also beleive that this is why the United States is a representative democracy, and not a true democracy -- normal citizens don't necessarily look in all directions before they say or link anything.

This begs the question: Do bloggers have a duty to watch what they link to and research it because they're contributing votes to the "Google Government" of the 'net?
posted by SpecialK at 9:56 AM on April 3, 2003


Meaning is use, fer chrissakes.

the google "definition" would be more accurate than the dictionary one.

What we're seeing is Google emerging as a non-static Dictionary of Ultra-Modern [like this week] Usage. One that changes frequently, all the time in fact. In our dream worlds, us reference dweebs would be able to not only look up what a word means [in a general sense], but what it has meant [OED, other etymological dictionaries, the last printed dictionary I can get my hands on, etc] and even what it means colloquially. We are just able now to redefine colloquial to mean this week as opposed to last week. Its scary and exhilarating at some level, but I'm sure this speedification of definitions, even just slangy ones, is not for everyone. I see the manipulation of these results to be a blip, once the link scrolls off the front page, things return to normal [verisign anyone?].
posted by jessamyn at 10:09 AM on April 3, 2003


I'm not sure whether I should find this funny or just laugh.

SpecialK: I'll have to poll my constituents before I can form an answer to that.
posted by walrus at 10:09 AM on April 3, 2003


Morgan Kelsey writes:
how many people searched for "second superpower" in february on the
entire overture network? 0.
if they can alter the meaning of "peanut butter", and get into the top 10, i'll be impressed.
Shall we take up the challenge? It's a valid enough test ....

The problem is that the same bloggers are unlikely to get as interested in redefining "peanut butter". Or are they?
posted by cbrody at 10:48 AM on April 3, 2003


but the "second superpower" concept has the potential to have some real impact.

Well, that may be, but I thought (could be wrong) that the point pre-supposed by the FPP and the linked article was that a few A-list bloggers (henceforth to be known as the Blogosphere Cabal) could, in effect, control your reality in the sense that they would control what you see in Google by Googlebombing ("Googlewashing") a given search phrase, with the implication that this was deliberate action by the Cabal members and not just a consequence of how the PageRank algorithm works. So in that sense, the "second superpower" meme is just an instance of the general principle, and what the definition of "second superpower" may actually be is not important.

(FWIW, if I'm understanding correctly what "second superpower" is supposed to mean, I think the notion that public opinion is a second superpower is bogus; IMHO if it were really that powerful, we wouldn't be having a war right now.)
posted by RylandDotNet at 10:50 AM on April 3, 2003


Ah, the librarian in jessamyn comes out. I completely agree with this . . .
I'm really amazed that Google is becoming oddly conflated with the dictionary in some way.
posted by dhacker at 10:52 AM on April 3, 2003


Ryland - The polls conducted by major media outlets still say that opinion is split, but the anti-war people are WAY louder than the pro-war people, so your statement about us "not having a war right now" is potentially invalid based on multiple-media-outlet statistical data.
posted by SpecialK at 10:52 AM on April 3, 2003


If you did a LexisNexis search on 'second superpower', would a bunch of blogs come up? Or the original NYT article and references to it?

In case anyone cares, I just punched in "second superpower" into Lexis's ALLNWS database, limited to the last 90 days. 13 entries came up, 8 of which referred to world opinion as the second superpower. 5 were talking about the USSR, China, or sports teams. Interestingly, only one cited the New York Times article. The rest simply mentioned the idea without attribution. And the New York Times article itself didn't come up. (not sure why, but don't care enough to figure it out). Perhaps not suprisingly, no references to Moore or his ideas.

As far as the comments about usage = meaning, I'm not so sure that this is a good approach to language. If the English language is to stay vital and diverse, it seems to me that we have to acknowledge the possibility of large-scale misuse of words. For example, people commonly use the world "ironic" to mean "coincidental." Or "affect" to mean "bring about" (instead of effect). See this list for more. In fact, the central challenge of putting together a dictionary, as I understand it, is separating legitimate new word meanings from widespread misuses. I personally think that the presumption should always be in favor of misuse unless the new definition either lends something new to the langauge or is just so completely entrenched that fighting it would be totally futile.
posted by boltman at 11:46 AM on April 3, 2003


"Obliterated, in just seven weeks." ...
"And this Googlewash took just 42 days."

Wait. Are we redefining "week," too?
posted by nickmark at 12:53 PM on April 3, 2003


Andrew Orlowski, author of the article, has responded to an email I sent him:
That's a fascinating discussion - too bad I don't have a login.

Google as a source of authority; opinion-makers as sources of
authority...

[snip]

what do you think?

more to follow
Let's hope Matt gives him a login so he can participate.
posted by cbrody at 1:56 PM on April 3, 2003


That [snip] should have been what shane said.
posted by cbrody at 2:00 PM on April 3, 2003


Second superpower and as impotent as a Nevada Boxing Commissioner.
posted by Joeforking at 2:14 PM on April 3, 2003


pagerank = whuffie
posted by NortonDC at 3:32 PM on April 3, 2003


*That* is one term I absolutely refuse to use. No offense to Cory, but it's so embarrassing I can't even wrap my lips around its phonemes.
posted by adamgreenfield at 4:35 PM on April 3, 2003


Can't we come up with a better term? What about:
  • googleness
  • internetworth
  • googleosity
  • netweal
  • w0rth
  • netcred
netcred? I like it so much I've registered it.

Sounds a lot better than wh*ffie. How could he come up with such a travesty?
posted by cbrody at 5:20 PM on April 3, 2003


MetaFilter: The navel contemplates it's navel
posted by Eirixon at 1:50 AM on April 4, 2003


42 days? That's a freakin' eternity in internet time. Might as well be talking about something that happened in the 1800s. It's like the mayfly: "Must mate now, I'll be dead in six hours!"

This is likely more shameless link yanking to drive up Register hits. It wouldn't be the first time someone did this and judging by the response here, it works beautifully.

Remember kids, it's really about driving up ad banner serves!
posted by mark13 at 3:15 PM on April 4, 2003


42 days?
In just under 42 hours, the #1 Google pick for the word "Googlewash" is right here. (Kinda like looking in the barbershop mirrors...)

Of course, that could change by the time you read this, you Archive Scraper you...
posted by wendell at 12:44 AM on April 5, 2003


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