The Internet Isn’t Objective



Microsoft has updated Bing so that it now pushes Klout results to the top of its many of its results pages. Ostensibly, this is a move to provide better content and to keep pace with Google’s own efforts at integrating Google+ results into Google Search. It also squares with Microsoft’s generally aggressive commitment to social search, which can be glimpsed in its relationship with Facebook and Facebook’s Graph Search functionality in particular.

Microsoft’s defense of the move produced this strange paragraph:

“Microsoft believes that content is so powerful that is almost doesn’t matter whether Klout’s “experts” actually have any real expertise. If enough Klout users vote up an answer, it will still likely be a worthwhile addition to Bing results, Ripsher said.”

If one had any doubts about the internet’s objectivity or its “openness” (to use another overused adjective), then this peculiar development should allay them.

“The internet” is often characterized as an almost untouchable, coherent, self-contained system that can provide definitive knowledge and answers. The rise and insane hype around services like Quora and Klout are the current symptoms of this characterization, although it actually began long ago with Google and Wikipedia becoming (for relatively well-off internet users, at least: a relatively small portion of humanity) the go-to resources for queries, and with social networks then becoming echo chambers and in effect new realities for their respective users. As I have mentioned before, onlookers who regard these services in these ways seem to overlook the fact that the internet is actually a manmade thing and not a law of physics or deity.

On the contrary, the sheer volume of information available thru all of these channels in turn has led to the internet becoming, for many commentators, akin to the burning bush on Mt. Sinai, able to dictate authoritative wisdom at will, although it arguably one-ups even God’s favorite flaming plant, since much of that wisdom is “crowdsourced,” too. Now, the so-called crowdsourced structure of many online services ā€“ Google’s collection and subsequent application of user data, Wikipedia’s group editing, Reddit’s upvote/downvote system ā€“ is a hopeful development not because of the veracity of its content but because it, at the very least, shows that there are human agents who drive the internet, rather than some unstoppable, robotic force of nature that we often vaguely call “the internet.”

So how is that crowdsourcing intersects so snugly with the prevalent narrative of a self-driven internet? How is that search engines (the clearest, most obvious metaphors to a wisdom-producing computer from, say, Star Trek, yet another debt that tech owes to imagination and the liberal arts) are now, in many cases, conduits for social networks and other crowdsourced news? I don’t think it’s odd at all, actually, since it confirms that the internet, as a source of knowledge or truth, is just as subjective and contingent on human inputs as anything else. I mean, let’s look at some of the major drivers of internet content:

-Google: uses proprietary algorithms and integration with proprietary social networks (most notably G+). Results system can be gamed or “bombed” to promote certain results. All of this despite its promotion of “openness.”

-Twitter: proprietary social network that suggests certain celebrities or popular users to follow, primarily because said persons are the best evangelists for Twitter itself (as a tool/service).

-Klout: dependent on mostly amateur “expertise” and opinion, as noted above by The Verge.

-Reddit: predominantly male, and dependent on user opinion/taste. Often wildly wrong on important news stories.

-Wikipedia: predominantly male, too. Arguably sexist. Many articles are protected from editing at all, or are zealously guarded, despite its “openness.”

So Microsoft is hardly putting anyone or anything newly “under the influence” of amateurs. The entire internet is built around these types of subjectivity that inevitably result from human input and tinkering.

-The ScreenGrab Team

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