So a few days ago I wrote about my irritation at stumbling upon registration screens at the New York Times and how I wasn’t going to bother reading things they wrote any more. Well, that turned out to be untrue – I clicked on a link and there was an article at the other end of it (rather than a registration screen) and so I read the little bugger ’til pure sweet knowledge dripped down my chin – as if I’d been chowing down on some kind of ultra-ripe infopeach. It was an exhilarating experience and one that I’ve missed. I miss you New York Times.
Anyway, the article was about Google, ego-searching and the past. The article featured Anil Dash wearing a Goatse T-shirt and was called, “Loosing Google’s Lock on the Past”. You will notice that I’m not linking to the story in question. It turns out that while I’m prepared to read something that I know will shortly go behind a registration screen, I’ll be damned if I’m going to force other people to go through the whole palaver. So I’ll just summarise instead – the article is about people who don’t feel that they are well represented by the results that Google provides when people do a search for their name. These people feel exposed – even horrified by this external body’s objectified misrepresentation of their complexities, triumphs and flaws. They want these impressions fixed, they want their web representation to more adequately fit their understanding of themselves.
When I read the piece, I came to the conclusion that fundamentally it was a story about people who have been linked-to inappropriately and were suffering as a result. It seemed like a story of people who needed the only kind of help that only a weblogger could provide – honest and impartial reference, with the right keywords and a wodge of pagerank behind them. And I considered myself ready rise to this challenge and help them (or hinder them) by effectively referencing sites that – after a little research – I thought seemed fair or representative. I felt that this would be doing my tiny duty as a “Gardener of the Internet”.
But the more I explored the subject, the more I started to wonder whether it was actually possible? I started to realise that there were some common threads between the people and their stories that explained their situations. Maybe the problems didn’t lie at Google’s door at all…
The article starts with its author complaining about the photo that comes up when you do a search for her name on Google (Google Image Results). There’s a simple solution to this kind of problem – find another photo on another page where she’s mentioned and link to it. But after looking across a number of search engines for about half an hour, I couldn’t find any other pictures of her at all. Step one to having good photos appear on Google Images? Have good photos of yourself on the internet. Conclusion: I failed to make Stephanie Rosenbloom’s life better, but is the blame at Google’s door? No.
Next, Wendy Barrie-Wilson’s positive review from Variety is apparently buried in lots of more negative reviews. My first reaction – if there are lots of negative reviews then maybe they’re deserved. But on further investigation, it rapidly becomes clear why her positive review can’t be seen – it’s because Variety – much like the New York Times – requires you to register before you can bloody read anything. Of course this cripples a site like Google – if it’s harder to read an article, then less people will link to it. And if Google can’t see the article at all, then it’s going to be way harder for it to determine what it’s about! Surely this is obvious?
So what can I do? Well I can do my best – so here’s a link to the Variety review of The Glass Menagerie featuring Wendy Barrie-Wilson even though it won’t do any bloody good. And to try and redress the balance a bit, here’s the transcript of the Variety interview from Wendy Barrie-Wilson’s own site. Conclusion: Wendy may blame Google for her review not showing up, as may the New York Times, but the real perpetrator is registration-required websites – sites like the New York Times itself. I’ve done what I can, but it’s not a lot.
Next up, Gentry L Akens II – who wants to be known for his work as a production designer and art director for the Nickelodeon television shows “Gullah Gullah Island” and “Taina” and for “The Mickey Mouse Club”. Ironically, the first result for a search on his name is another article by Stephanie Rosenbloom called Bummed about your Google image from Seattlepi.com. After that is his rather sparse IMDB record. There is not, it must be admitted a lot of stuff here about his work with Nickelodeon.
Te more I’ve investigated this one, the more I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two major issues here. Firstly, the number of potential variants of his name will cause problems for any search engine. Are people who meet Mr Akens going to remember to type in the middle initial and the ordinal at the end, or are they just going to type in Gentry Akens? But secondly, and more importantly, there seems to be a significant difficulty in finding any pages about his work with Nickelodeon on the internet at all – after all, a search engine can only show you a page that exists. (It’s worth mentioning that MSN’s search engine came back with rather more satisfying results for Gentry Akens, however.)
Nonetheless, this has been the most successful of all my attempts to weave in a little extra meaning into the great search fabric of the internet, because I am able to link to a piece on Gentry Akens’ work on Daddy-O which mentions his work at Nickelodeon and some coverage of an FMPTA Space Coast Meeting where Gentry Akens was brought in as a guest speaker. Hopefully, these pieces will now be given incrementally more focus on Google. Conclusion: A paucity of material about Gentry’s work was probably more of the problem than Google’s algorithms, and this can be simply solved by putting up some material – but it’s worth mentioning that other search engines seemed to have less difficulty in this particular case. I got to help a little bit, which was nice…
So all in all, after making efforts to help three people who have taken aim at their self-representation on Google, all I can really say is that the fault doesn’t lie with Google at all. Instead the search engines are simply reporting the paucity of information on the internet about these people. Stephanie Bloom is absolutely correct in saying that a way to fix these problems is to self-represent or to put more out in public – to add to the internet rather than to try and take from it. It’s an accretative body, where a picture emerges out of an infinity of parts – each component can only ever have a fragmentary perspective. It’s the addition of new information that balances out the Badly-designed websites. It’s the addition of new imagery that alleviates the horror of one disappointing representation. We have to give up the idea that our representations online can be so totally massaged and controlled, because – ironically – the best way to be represented fairly online is to give up on the assumption that your self-representation is the best one.
But there’s another and more fundamental change that we have to face as well. This is not a change in the way we self-represent, but instead a change in the way we judge others. We have to get past this moment in time where the user of a search engine is comfortable to base their impressions of another person on the most slight and fragmentary piece of evidence. We must get used to the idea that the people around us are more varied and extraordinary than we’d currently believe. The flip-side of getting a multi-faceted picture of a person is that we’re going to be exposed to much more of the roundness of an individual’s life. We need to be able to evaluate information, contextualise it – to learn to be questioning and patient. The information that comes to our fingertips when we type in someone’s name is not ever going to be complete. It’s never going to be perfect. Even with webloggers trying to make things better: there are not enough gardeners for everyone.