The Internet is Broken and Full of Lies
Once upon a time, in the days of internet yore, there were services like Gopher, IRC, and Usenet which connected people to both content and to each other, either via directories or via assorted subject groups. These services were fine for a small hamlet, but as the internet grew, they became increasingly unwieldly and so the earliest search engines were developed. These first engines allowed, in effect, a find command to be run directly against multiple websites, but the strongest engines also created communities (Yahoo Groups comes to mind) because the internet was never so much about the information, and always about the social connection.
Google’s great innovation was the idea that popular is popular. People link to the websites they like the most and therefore the most linked-to websites are the most popular and thusly they should appear more highly in a search that pertains to their content. Suddenly, there was a mechanism that didn’t just find incidental appearances of your search term, but also provided a mechanism of relevance. Not only did that improve the identification of content, but it converged people upon popular material, connected them, and connected them more fully than they ever had been before.
Popular, notedly, is not the same as authoritative.
Happily though for Google, Truth, it seems, is really just a matter of reputation. If most people like the things most people like (and they tautologically do), you’ll get a happy customer and if most people become happy customers your service will itself become authoritative. Fast forward a few years: 92.71% market share, $1 trillion market capitalization.
So cool. Google took over the world. The thing of it is, just as Google figured out the internet, people started to figure out Google. Why does every other company have some goofy name like Hulu, Zillow, Flickr? – in part because there’s no prior competing search traffic to compete with. It’s the equivalent of homesteading on an unclaimed prairie, except the prairie is also working diligently to make itself more attractive to some nebulous prioritization in an algorithmic phone book.
This is seen most clearly with social media.
One would be hard-pressed to find a corporate blog that isn’t connected to a Facebook, a Twitter, an Instagram, and a Pinterest. They do this to spread their marketing message, self-evidently, and that’s the same reason every company larger than a single un-juiced lemon has a legion of content creators, influencers, and web/SEO managers all crafting messages, finding audiences, fiddling with their keywords, etc, but what’s the actual point?
In short, Google isn’t merely searching content. Content is modifying itself to be more amenable to Google, and this, I assert, points to the central challenge of the internet as a whole.
In a sentence, the adaptation of content (especially corporate content) to search changes the fundamental meaning of the measure. True, the first search results may not have been authoritative, but they did capture the most popular. Search results have never been especially rigorous, but they were at least accurate in so far as identifying the pieces of content most linked to by people interested in a given topic. Now, however, in an internet increasingly filled with AI content generators, web strategists, and bots (to say nothing of bad actors), links to a piece of content no longer mean much of anything at all. They’re simply finding the content that has been best adapted to be found, usually by the entities with enough money to make sure that it is.
Google knows this, of course, and their algorithm has been modified a million times in order to discern ever more nuanced definitions of relevant, but Google can’t undo its own market share. Any change they make might temporarily disrupt things, but every company, every piece of web software, every social medium platform immediately begins to adapt itself to best present their content to Google, to conform themselves to the algorithm, and to reassert themselves as noise.
And the thing is, I’m saying Google, but I actually mean quite a bit more than that. It’s a fundamental issue with any monopoly grade service. Facebook can change its algorithm and all the world’s content will conform to that algorithm too. Ditto Twitter. Ditto Flickr. Ditto Dweebo, RombleCom, QuignaFitzroy or any other random gibberish that might become popular. In short, any service that allows broad, unmediated usage will be gamed to the point of noise, or worse, degrade to a level just useful enough to not be discarded (i.e., the Facebook equilibrium).
From here, I usually go down some rabbit hole about how this is just the corrosive influence of corporatist society – the gallery-ification of bohemia yadda yadda yadda – but what I'm trying to get at today is that Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc – not to point too fine a point on it – kinda suck. And it’s not just me saying that. (Just to pick a handful: Source 1 Yes, I see the irony…) (Source 2) (Source 3) (Source 4)
So, what does this mean for libraries?
In practice probably nothing, because this is an oft disorganized and technologically callow industry (sorry?), but as Google’s searches (and others) become ever better at finding the content generated by the persons who pay the most for it to be found, a window perhaps opens for library professionals to digitally engage people in a systemic, platform-based, cynically modern way (i.e., not simply via a hodgepodge of “toolkits”, webinars, and handy-wavy platitudes).
Of course, this has all been said before (“Librarians, the original search engines”) but Thursday night computer classes and yet another abstruse online database, a solution do not make. If the Google, social media, and the internet itself all arose because of the internet’s capacity to build connections, then a new platform, social in nature but also guided by principle, has, perhaps, a role. One might envision something like Reddit but with sourcing and transparent moderation, Twitter but with community standards, or even Facebook but with some semblance of privacy and an algorithm that doesn’t actively despise biological life.
The underlying similarity between these ideas being, 1 – they are fundamentally and primarily social. 2 – the ideas and technology behind them already exist so they don’t require over much research and development to build upon. 3 – the originators are all fantastic tools used by millions, abused by billions, and lacking much in the way of democracy or ethics.
We occasionally trot out that libraries are a cornerstone of democracy. Cool. Where then is the authoritative digital communication space for libraries? The library website? – at best a bunch of links as drafty as an old web directory. Library social media accounts? – undeniably useful but self-reverential and ultimately locked into the same algorithmic dead-end. Perhaps, instead, we look to a myriad of other online services? – No, they’re all corporately owned, and so rarely social in the slightest.
So that, to my mind, leads to the question.
What would a library-driven Google look like? What would Twitter be like if maintained by a non-profit of digital ethicists? How would Facebook work if it was informed even slightly by children’s librarians and adult programmers?
All of those are a half step above icebreaker questions, but there are estimated to be over 350,000 library workers across the United States, library visits outpaced movie theater usage, libraries are still the most trusted organization in town. With that as a foundation, one might hope people would flock to a service backed by a trusted institution, similar to one they already use, and dedicated to social connection, but otherwise managed to minimize noise, bad actors, and corporate optimization.
Or maybe not.
I haven’t been able to find any clear answers on the internet.
Robert Drake is the Assistant Director for Technology Operations at the Nassau Library System. He recently had a profound emotional moment with a Rueben sandwich. The views and positions here expressed are his alone, and do not necessarily reflect those of NLS, Robert Drake himself, or probably anyone...