Google is the mountain and we are staring at the peak
I’ve been thinking a lot about this essay by Tom Slee. He writes about how the very tools that help us navigate the web are the very things that drive everyone towards the same locations. He uses a useful topological analogy, stating that the recommender systems, like Digg and Netflix and Amazon, allow everyone to see the most popular material out there: “customers can see further,” he argues “but they are all looking at the same hilltop.”
“Online merchants such as Amazon, iTunes and Netflix may stock more items than your local book, CD, or video store, but they are no friend to “niche culture”. Internet sharing mechanisms such as YouTube and Google PageRank, which distill the clicks of millions of people into recommendations, may also be promoting an online monoculture. Even word of mouth recommendations such as blogging links may exert a homogenizing pressure and lead to an online culture that is less democratic and less equitable, than offline culture.”
The trouble he argues is that in staring at the peak we often miss material that is nearer to us.
But for me this paradox extends beyond recommender systems, reaching right into the heart of the internet itself. For what is a list of Google search results other than a mountain of indexed content with the first page or results representing the peak? The point being that although Google does try to weave a degree of immediacy into its search results, most people just bother to look at the summit of the search, ignoring the other material located further down the slope.
Of course nobody want to return to the days before Google made the mountain scalable in the first place. But we should be aware that the more successful it becomes the more monocultural the internet is likely to become. There may be more content out there, but increasingly most of us are seeing the same things which creates the opposite of diversity.
This monoculture of content then re-inforces itself as the material that finds its way to the top of Googles list and on to the likes of Digg and Facebook and Delicious et al, like successful football teams, the longer they stay at the top of the league, the more powerful and rich they become.
There are of course different ways to scale the mountain. Google’s advanced search option, for instance, allows you to filter your searches so that you can search for content uploaded only today, or only this week or only this month. Searching this way at least makes it easier to find content that is less established, but potentially more interesting.
I love its software and much of my life is in some way governed by it. But it has become so successful, so powerful, that its difficult to see over it. Maybe that’s why they set up office in hills northwest of San Francisco. In a little place called Mountain View.