moldering M.A. thesis roundup

everything is miscellaneous cover

Dave Weinberger‘s awesome presentation about his new book Everything is Miscellaneous at last night’s equally awesome NY Tech Meetup (from which Sean has some choice quotes) reminded me that a blog post-load of new information related to my M.A. thesis topic (search and authority) has popped up since I posted it last month.

Cory Doctorow reviewed Everything is Miscellaneous (the first I’d heard of it) just a few days before I turned in my final draft (no time to read and revise of course), but based on Dave’s hilarious presentation, his book would’ve been a gold mine for me. Namely, he discussed how metadata and hyperlinks create an infrastructure of implicit meaning generated by the users of digital information at large—an infrastructure that doesn’t usually quite correspond to the top-down hierarchies created by more traditional authorities to organize print information.

This, of course, is exactly what my thesis is about (or maybe what it should’ve been about), because search engines leverage that infrastructure to create the measures of authoritativeness that inform their rankings.

delicious mold image from flickr user akeg

In other moldering-thesis news:

1. Google announced a forthcoming ‘universal’ search model that would integrate results from its ancillary search engines (book search, local search) into the results from its main “web search” box. I haven’t read about this in terribly great detail, but it sounds like they’re basically adding more editorialization to the results page along the lines of what Yahoo!‘s been doing for awhile.

2. The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication published a special issue half of which concerns “The Social, Political, Economic, and Cultural Dimensions of Search Engines[via infothought]. A few choice quotes below…

~From the introductory article to the search-themed collection by Eszter Hargittai~

On the homogeneity of available search functionality:

Recent trends suggest that the search engine market is shrinking, with fewer large players guiding users’ online behavior than ever before. This suggests that decisions made by just a few players in this landscape can have considerable repercussions for what material is realistically within the reach of users. Accordingly, a critical look at what factors determine inclusion and exclusion criteria in search results and how users approach them is increasingly important in order to gain a better understanding of how users’ access to content is being mediated by a handful of commercial services.

On users’ understanding of search functionality:

While a user may have experiences with a particular service such as Yahoo! or Ask, he or she may not know that the search services on these sites are called “search engines.” This lack of understanding may seem implausible to some, but data from the General Social Survey (2000, 2002) suggest that users are not always clear about the concept of search engines, sometimes confusing them with Web browsers.

On search engines as “brokers of information”:

Given their popularity, search engines are important brokers of information, and knowing more about how they represent content and how they are used is vital to understanding patterns of information access in a digital age.

~From “In Google We Trust” by Bing Pan et al.~

On the results of a study designed to suss out whether users’ tendency to click on the highest-ranking results was due to the rank alone or also the perceived relevance of the abstract on the search results page by artificially moving the highest-ranking pages in a Google search lower on the results page:

When the participants selected a link to follow from Google’s result pages, their decisions were strongly biased towards links higher in position even if the abstracts themselves were less relevant. [...] This demonstrated trust in Google has implications for the search engine’s tremendous potential influence on culture, society, and user traffic on the Web.

I’m still insanely behind in bloglines reading—partially burnt out post-thesis, partially busy with life-type things—so for all I know there’s tons more updates. Maybe the moldering thesis can become a recurring kenspeckle feature!

  • Asim

    On users’ understanding of search functionality, I couldn’t disagree more. Maybe that’s referring to AOL users from 2002, but even then I think if you spent at least an hour on the internet in a day, you knew the difference between a search engine vs a browser. The argument can be conflated only if you consider the build-in searchbar in Firefox or the Google/Yahoo/etc. toolbar. Anyway, if you ask a 14-year-old what do you use to search, they’re going to say Google, not Yahoo or Ask. Hehe.

    What I want to know if how many people use embedded search in a particular site (such as the one to the left) to search the internet vs just the site itself. If I am browsing a site which has embedded search, I’m still more likely to go to the Firefox searchbar than use the embedded search.

  • lauren

    Yeah, I have to agree that statements seems exaggerated and outdated.

    But the (very overstated) point there is a general lack of understanding of the technology that brings us information. We snobby web folks have to remember sometimes that interest drives understanding, not just intelligence. People who don’t have a particular interest in digital culture won’t have any more understanding of search engines than we have of car engines.

    And I think you *could* argue (though I don’t necessarily with the argument I’m about to propose) that from the light internet user’s perspective the distinction between a browser and a search engine could be almost purely semantic: They open an application that shows them a search box (usually the out of box browser default page has some search element), they type, they click, they find.

    Personally, I just can’t bring myself to believe a terribly large number of users perceive things that way, but the devil’s advocate could argue it.