Update: Power of the Press

True or false? All publicity is good publicity.

False. The New York Times reports that Vitaly Borker, owner of the DecorMyEyes website who threatened customers to generate publicity that would push his site higher in Google search results, last week was sentenced to four years in prison and $100,000 in restitution and fines. (See prior post.) After The New York Times broke the story in November 2010 Google changed its search algorithm to ensure that “being bad is, and hopefully will always be, bad for business in Google’s search results.”

Perhaps Borker’s lawyer’s leniency argument sounded better in court than it does in the Times article:

Mr. Amorosa also contended that only a tiny fraction of Mr. Borker’s customers were threatened and that his business was otherwise a thriving enterprise. DecorMyEyes had thousands of repeat customers, he said, and millions of dollars in revenue.

“He threatened, horribly, 25 people,” Mr. Amorosa said, suggesting that was a small number, given the scale of the company.

The Invisible Hand and the Daily Me

In his 1995 book Being Digital Nicholas Negroponte came up with the term “The Daily Me” to describe news and information tailored to the recipient’s interests and biases.  In his 2002 book Republic.com Cass Sunstein explained the Daily Me as a filter:

It is some time in the future. Technology has greatly increased people’s ability to “filter” what they want to read, see, and hear. General interest newspapers and magazines are largely a thing of the past. The same is true of broadcasters. The idea of choosing “channel 4” or instead “channel 7” seems positively quaint. With the aid of a television or computer screen, and the Internet, you are able to design your own newspapers and magazines. Having dispensed with broadcasters, you can choose your own video programming, with movies, game shows, sports, shopping, and news of your choice. You mix and match.  You need not come across topics and views that you have not sought out . . . The market for news, entertainment, and information has finally been perfected. Consumers are able to see exactly what they want. When the power to filter is unlimited, people can decide, in advance and with perfect accuracy, what they will and will not encounter. They can design something very much like a communications universe of their own choosing.

In an article discussing the book Sunstein feared that “from the standpoint of democracy, filtering is a mixed blessing.”  He continued:

First, people should be exposed to materials that they would not have chosen in advance. Unanticipated encounters, involving topics and points of view that people have not sought out and perhaps find irritating, are central to democracy and even to freedom itself. Second, many or most citizens should have a range of common experiences. Without shared experiences, a heterogeneous society will have a more difficult time addressing social problems and understanding one another.

Sunstein’s provocative premise generated a fair amount of commentary.  My Google search of <“cass sunstein” “republic.com” “daily me”> produced 825 “relevant” results and the concept of the Daily Me continues to resonate, but without great vigor–only 480 relevant Google hits.

Perhaps it should resonate more.  It came immediately to mind when I read this passage from Sue Halpern, Mind Control & the Internet, The New York Review of Books, 23-Jun-11:

The [Google] search process, in other words, has become “personalized,” which is to say that instead of being universal, it is idiosyncratic and oddly peremptory. “Most of us assume that when we google a term, we all see the same results—the ones that the company’s famous Page Rank algorithm suggests are the most authoritative based on other page’s links,” Pariser observes. With personalized search, “now you get the result that Google’s algorithm suggests is best for you in particular—and someone else may see something entirely different. In other words, there is no standard Google anymore.” It’s as if we looked up the same topic in an encyclopedia and each found different entries—but of course we would not assume they were different since we’d be consulting what we thought to be a standard reference.

Among the many insidious consequences of this individualization is that by tailoring the information you receive to the algorithm’s perception of who you are . . . Google directs you to material that is most likely to reinforce your own worldview, ideology, and assumptions . . . In this way, the Internet, which isn’t the press, but often functions like the press by disseminating news and information, begins to cut us off from dissenting opinion and conflicting points of view, all the while seeming to be neutral and objective and unencumbered by the kind of bias inherent in, and embraced by, say, the The Weekly Standard or The Nation.

The insidious difference, of course, is that we construct our own Daily Me through some degree of conscious choice, while personalized searches use our choices invisibly to define responses.  Reading The Wall Street Journal editorial page spikes your blood pressure so you get news feeds from The Huffington Post.  HuffPo makes your brain hurt but Fox News makes sense.  You care nothing about politics but Lolcats get you through the day. You make an affirmative decision about what to read, what to visit, what to ignore.  While I know that SEO games search results, I assumed that if Glenn Beck and I did the same Google search at the same moment we would obtain the same results.  I’m alarmed that that”s not necessarily the case.

Cuil as Icarus

I’m not the only one who is underwhelmed by Cuil (“cool”–the name by itself is trouble), the new search engine that says it is “faster,” “bigger,” and “better” than Google.  This from today’s Globe:  “[B]y the end of the site’s first day, many bloggers and journalists seemed to have found something to dislike, whether it was a prominent site missing from a set of search results or Cuil’s propensity to match photos of one person with Web pages related to someone else.”  The article quotes a PR consultant about Cuil’s launch, who said “Cuil [should]  slap “BETA” all over the site and any other outbound communication.”  Here is more critical commentary from cNet and TechDreams.  Why pick on Cuil?  It suffers from one of the biggest sins of our age:  over-arching ambition and killer PR married to disappointing substance, like the Ryan Leaf of search engines.

Google v Cuil, Round 1

There’s news today about Cuil–pronounced “cool”–a new search engine created by former Google techies.  Based on my comparison so far I’m not ready to replace “google that” with “cuil that” in my lexicon.  I searched <david randall blog> with both Google and Cuil.  Google returned “A Foolish Consistency” as its fourth item–a surprising result, actually.  There are many David Randalls out there and I didn’t expect anything close to the top ten.  Cuil didn’t list this blog in the top ten and, when I clicked on the additional pages links, I received the message that it found no results for my search.  That just ain’t so.  I also searched for <PDF creator open source>, to add a PDF printer to this computer I’m using in Maine.  Google’s first item was the SourceForge page for PDF Creator, exactly what I’m looking for.   Cuil returned one link, to Open Source Licenses by Category, which did not include direct links to any PDF creation programs.  Two searches is not statisfically significant data pool and I’ll continue to compare the two.  Don’t set off the fireworks yet.