Does Google Discourage Diversity?

During the Mass TLC Social Media Summit 2010, David Weinberger pointed out how marketers love the "echo chamber" in which they get to hear lots of positive feedback from people who already love them. The problem with this, he says, is that the echo chamber may satisfy our bosses and clients, thereby making us look good, but it does little to help advance true thinking. He believes we should be encouraging more diverse thought.

David Weinberger as seen on Wikipedia

He's right, of course. Later in the morning Mike Troiano gave a shout-out to the concept of diversity of thought in his listening talk by noting that "listening is the means by which we corrupt our vision with the external reality." That is, we (entrepreneurs) may think we know everything, but when we start listening to the people around us, we realize that we know less and need to think more.

On the surface, Weinberger is right. Diversity of thought and ideas leads often leads to stronger discussions. That is, when it doesn't end with a bunch of guys yelling "You suck!" "No, YOU suck!" Or worse, with one US Senator beating another with a cane.

Generally speaking, informed discourse is the way to go, it's why we have Freedom of the Press. If we had state-run news agencies that providing everything we needed to know, we wouldn't be able to check on our government. Worse, the government would be getting and relaying information only from those with the money to lobby, and no one would be there to shout "this isn't right!" (I'm looking at you BP who told the government experts that cutting the big oil pipe would result in a 20 percent increase in oil, something that the media parroted. Only, today NPR reported that it could, in fact, be much worse.)

In any case, when it comes to diverse thought we have a small problem. Well, a big problem, actually. It's called Google.

Marketers bow before Google as the god of online marketing. Putting out a press release? Run it through a few SEO tools to make sure your keywords line up just right. Reporter writing stories find themselves rewarded based on the number of views their stories achieve, something that plays directly into Google's hands. But rising in the Google rankings means playing to the echo chamber.

Here's how it works. Let's assume that a bunch of people linked to Dave Weinberger's site calling him the smartest guy on the Internet. Eventually you'll be able to search Google for the "smartest guy on the Internet" and find Dave. Pretty cool. But if there is diversity, some may call him the smartest guy, but others may say he's the biggest moron they know. Now Google is a bit confused. Maybe both searches get to him, but more likely another guy becomes the smartest guy on the Internet and Dave loses out.

So if marketers need to get Google to look their way they need the echo chamber. They need those links that portray their company (or their client's company) in a positive light, containing the right links, etc.

Granted, this is a bit of a simplification, but you get the point.

Which raises a pretty important question. While Google opens us up to a wealth of information that has never been available, does it also push us to be less diverse in our thought?

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3 comments to Does Google Discourage Diversity?

  • Great point, Chuck. Google’s reliance on social cues to relevance and importance almost inevitably lead to a focus on the prominent, pushing the quirky and other-cultural onto page whatever of their results. Add to this the attempts to game the system, and the results are even less likely to include that which stretches our minds (although Google obviously works against such gaming). Google News provides a good illustration of this: The list of 5,000 (or whatever) sources on a particular topic generally start with highly mainstream, American or Western European sources. Google could fix that with a turn of a software knob.

    But the problem at Google search is harder, since Google is doing its job (narrowly conceived) if it gives us the results we expect. Social algorithms are just about inevitably going to give us what The Mainstream thinks is important. It’d be great if search engines also gave us unusual, unexpected, minorstream results, flagging them as items we might find interesting.

  • Hi David,

    Thanks for the comment! Running the risk of getting into the echo chamber here, but you’re correct on Google doing it’s job. The thing is, Google MUST direct us to mainstream content and it MUST help us find what we want to find, otherwise we wouldn’t use it. There is something wonderful about serendipitous discovery, but it’s not usually why people type a specific search into Google.

    If you want that, go to a small, independent bookstore (provided you can find one).

  • david Weinberger

    Yes, Google must direct us to what we want, but mainstream content isn’t always what we want. In any case, Google could do something like put in a sidebar that directs us to more serendipitous results as an invitation to explore off the beaten track.