Archives for posts with tag: Internet

Steven Levy’s “In The Plex” covers the evolution of Google from a dissertation idea at Stanford to a company that has influenced this country in an unprecedented way.  Levy explains the technology of search and the foundation of Google, PageRank, whereby a series of algorithms aggregates the data of the users and uses it to rank websites.  He also explains the flip side of the Google coin, the business model, which is based on advertising buying and selling with prices determined by auction.  He delves into Google’s famously unique culture of “engineers rule,” free food and company massages and notes the interesting culture shift that occurred when the company went public and the personnel went from middle class to decidedly not.  Levy describes how Google flourished by slowly seeping into hundreds of small markets; they have so many projects going that their failures are largely negligible from a business point of view.  He then turns to the privacy issues and the disaster in China and how the company was forced to look at the social implications of its technology, particularly in restrictive countries.  Of course, in the end, they decided to withdraw from the biggest emerging market in the world, an innovative solution although questionably sustainable.  Levy writes about Google’s current battles; its exponential success has triggered distrust among the public, the government and, of course, its tech rivals.

Levy’s examination of Google is impressively thorough and he generally does a good job of explaining the technical aspects of its product in a way that feels relevant, interesting and digestible for those of us without a computer science background.  But, his writing doesn’t appear objective; Levy seems like a huge Google fan and someone in awe of their technology, success and omnipresence.  That point of view leads him to harp on the amazing technology and unique management style and culture and gloss over problems within the company.  He hardly ever criticizes Page and Brin; though he acknowledges they aren’t perfect, he gives them a free pass because he’s deemed them technology and business wunderkinds.   (That’s not to say they aren’t but the lack of criticism for them throughout the book is suspicious).  Furthermore, he only touches on the seismic implications of a company who has infiltrated the lives of 218.5 million Americans.  He constantly reiterates Google’s various mantras:  What’s good for the public, the internet, the users…is good for Google but fails to really question whether or not that’s true.

Levy quotes one of the Google execs as imagining a world in which Google can predict the exact information you’re searching for before you finish typing your own thought.  So search results will come up for you to choose before you even have time to think about whether that’s what you’re looking for.  And even if it’s not, you’re thinking about it now.  Google would literally be finishing your thoughts.  The idea of a complex algorithm determining the actual thoughts of millions of people is pretty disturbing not to mention the implications if it could somehow be weighted or rigged, even in a small way.  For example, say ten people separately go to Google and start their search with the word “chicken.” One person is looking for chicken recipes, one is looking for information about chicken farms, another is looking for the book chicken little, etc.  Still, they each start by typing the word chicken and Google instantly shows results before they finish their search term.  Now, all of these people are seeing the same search results, the most popular ones for chicken.  Perhaps, nine of these people don’t pay attention and simply finish narrowing their search.  But one gets distracted and, pushing aside his or her original thought, clicks on one of the initial search results.  Suppose this happens over and over again as the thought processes of the searcher and the Google algorithm become harder to distinguish.  That could slowly squeeze out alternative points of view, in effect, the opposite of the long tail but for thought.

In the 2008 article Is Google Making Us Stupid? in The Atlantic, Nicholas Carr cites sociologist Daniel Bell who says there are certain “intellectual technologies” that cause humans to inevitably take on some of their qualities.   Carr also talks about the human brain and how malleable it is.  The Internet has certainly changed the way we think but is that a good thing? If we are all taking on qualities of the same technology, couldn’t that mean a decline in the diversification of thought?

The same thing is happening with Facebook.  Facebook wants to help you determine your likes, dislikes and activities by showing you what your friends are doing.  But, assuming your Facebook friends are people pretty similar to you isn’t following their lead going to discourage alternative ideas and perspectives? Essentially, it’s like being a Tea Party member and only tuning in to Fox News – you’ll never get the full story.  In that sense, what’s good for Google and Facebook may not be so good for the public after all.


Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody is essentially a list, with explanations and illustrative anecdotes, of the ways the Internet has changed the way we communicate with one another and thus upended the notion of a traditional organization.  The book encompasses the idea that groups of individuals, formerly latent, are now able to come together and harness power in a way that wasn’t possible before.  He illustrates how collective action no longer means literally marching in protest – in fact; the idea of a protest is in some cases obsolete now that groups of people can come together, circumvent the old institutions and get things done themselves.  He also discusses how the media has morphed into something that has yet to be defined because everyone can be a media outlet and there is no longer a ‘filter, then publish’ standard.  He cites the Power Law of participation to show how websites like Wikipedia and Meetup aggregate people and the knowledge they have as individuals and then, somewhat counter-intuitively, self-edit into a quality product.  Shirky uses the Birthday Puzzle and the Six Degrees rule to illustrate the Small World network, wherein small groups are densely connected and large groups are sparsely connected.  Essentially, we are all connected in closer ways than we might think – the Internet has just made it easier for us to discover and utilize the connections we may not otherwise have realized were there.   Overall, the book emphasizes how the Internet has awakened the power of the individual in ways that at best change and at worst threaten major institutions in existence today.

Here Comes Everybody covers a lot of ground in a relatively succinct way but there is no order to it.  He accurately identifies large shifts in social organizing, professional organizing, industry, etc. but he doesn’t tie them together well except when he reiterates themes he’s mentioned previously.  True, it’s hard to create a timeline of when each of these shifts first occurred but, for example, using the anecdotes as a way to set up a chronology would have made it easier to understand the arc of the evolution.  However, the anecdotes themselves are the best part of the book; Shirky is good at illustrating larger themes with interesting, relevant stories.  He also does a great job of at least mentioning every major effect social media has had in changing the landscape of communication.  I can’t think of anything he completely missed, which is impressive for a few hundred pages.

Shirky’s analysis of the new media (Chapter 3 – Everyone Is A Media Outlet) ties in well with Jeff Jarvis’ post on BuzzMachine last week But is it journalism? (Damnit) where he asks What Is Journalism? And, more importantly, Does It Even Matter? Jarvis and Shirky both point out that anyone can now publish information.  So, either everyone is a journalist or no one is and the profession is quickly becoming obsolete.  Which is true? What is journalism? Jarvis doesn’t know and neither do I.  But it seems like the industry needs to remake itself entirely if it wants to stay relevant.  As is obvious by their waning viewer/readership, the old guard of networks, newsweeklies and the like is doing a poor job of that.  That’s probably why, even as a former network TV journalist myself, I check Twitter for the latest earthquake updates and Wikipedia to read up on a presidential candidate.

Shirky spends some time on a concept he calls “the promise, the tool and the bargain,” something that can be applied to pre-Internet circumstances.  Now, though, the tool is the Internet and it has drastically changed the plausibility of the promise and thus the conditions of the bargain.  Shirky says that the promise has to convince an individual that a service will be useful, satisfying and effective not only to him/her but also to his/her peers.  So, social media is in part contingent upon the bandwagon effect.  In Noah J. Goldstein, Steve J. Martin and Robert B. Cialdini’s Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, the authors conduct a study at a hotel where half of the patrons have cards in their rooms encouraging them to recycle their towels to help protect the environment.  The other half have cards in their rooms encouraging them to recycle their towels for the environment and citing the fact that most people who had previously stayed in the room had opted to recycle.  Those whose cards had the latter message were more likely to recycle their towels.  This illustrates the bandwagon effect.  People are inclined to think and behave as others do.  So if the promise, in Shirky’s words, can convince an individual that others will like a service, he or she will be more likely to sign up thereby causing others to sign up for the same reason.  The Internet means that growth potential for the bandwagon effect is now exponential (see: Facebook) and, according to Metcalfe’s Law, more valuable (see: Facebook when it goes public).